Things to do in Cuenca on a free day span the spectrum of activities that the city has to offer including seeing the churches and plazas built by the Spanish, finding out more about the history of the city by visiting Incan ruins, and relaxing at some of Ecuador’s third-largest city’s restaurants after a day of discovery. Keep reading for a guide of the best things to do in Cuenca Ecuador.
HISTORY AND CULTURE
Cuenca is renowned as Ecuador’s cultural city, popular with artists and poets alike, and also for it’s fine UNESCO recognized colonial architecture. So many of Cuenca’s highlights involve the rich history and present-day culture of the area.
The city was first developed by the Inca as a trading center and then rebuilt in grand style by the Spanish. Today there are great examples of both cultures that you can explore.
• The Historic Center
Spanish king Charles V. drew up the plans for Cuenca in the 16th century and it has been an example of a colonial city ever since. The city still maintains the original design and is considered one of Ecuador’s best places to see Spanish architecture in the country along with Quito.
Exploring the historic center is, therefore, a must, impressive sites including the New Cathedral with its towering blue domes, the many plazas (such as San Sebastian) and markets (like the colorful flower market), and people-watching in Parque Abdon Calderon to give you a sense of the history of the city.
Pumapungo was the religious center of the Incan city of Tomebamba. Today it’s a park, performance center and the location of the town’s best museum with exhibits from cultures that date back to even before the Inca and Spanish in the area. There are regular performances by the Cuenca symphony here as well as by international musicians. The grounds have Incan ruins where you can see ritual baths and an aqueduct system that is still used today for the expansive gardens of the complex.
• Panama Hats
Believe it or not, the city of Cuenca is the world’s major exporter of Panama Hats, so we highly recommend learning more about this elegant attire while you are here. Homero Ortega or the Barrancos Panama Hat Museum are the best spots to visit in Cuenca, for informative exhibits about hat weavers and finishers, and to shop the best value Panama Hats you will find anywhere in the world; just don’t forget to ask how Panama stole the fame from Ecuador.
• Tomebamba River
No trip to Cuenca would be complete without a relaxing stroll along the picturesque Tomebamba River that flows through the city. The river divides the old town from the more modern area of the city, with green banks & crystal clear water making for a pleasant walk, several bridges available to cross from side to side along the way, and some wonderful photo opportunities of Barranco’s historic buildings that tower over the riverfront.
• El Carmen de la Asunción Monastery
If you are looking for quirky that the average tourist does not do then try the El Carmen de la Asunción Monastery, the entrance is behind the flower market. Here cloister nuns still live in the middle of the city, but without any direct contact to the outside world. They sell homemade products such as honey, sweets & cookies, jams and more, which help them to make a living. The fun part is that you can only buy via a kind of rotating confession booth, where you ring for service, place your money on one side, while the nuns rotate the booth to deliver your delicious product.
• Turi Lookout
For the best panoramic views across Cuenca City, you need to head up to the Turi Hill Lookout, which is just a short taxi ride from the old town area.
It is well worth combining a visit to the Edwardo Vega ceramics workshop which is also close to the top of Turi hill. Cuenca is famous for ceramic pottery, and Mr. Vega is a very recognized local artist, so watching him work is quite a privilege, and the shop is perfect for souvenir or gift shopping.
CUENCA NATURE ACTIVITIES
To experience a different side of Cuenca, there are also some nice options to keep nature lovers and families happy and busy.
• Amaru Biopark
Amaru is a great option for families or kids, with nature trails, conservation exhibits, and many Ecuadorian bird and animal species to enjoy. The highlights for many are the Andean bear and condor, as well as Amazon monkey species. Allow half a day for the return journey and zoo visit.
• Piedra de agua hot springs & spa
Just a short way out of the city you can find the perfect spot for some quality downtime. At Piedra de Agua bathe away your aches and pains in the natural hot pools (open until 11 pm), or splurge on one of the surprisingly affordable spa packages.
The restaurants of Cuenca have sprung to life in the last ten years as it has become a hub for a burgeoning community of expats and includes an international mix of French, eateries that combine Ecuadorian and Spanish food, and expat owned cafes serving comfort food from home.
• San Sebas Cafe
San Sebas Café is an expat favorite for its hearty breakfasts including biscuits and gravy and its sandwiches, burgers and Mexican fare. It also hosts regular events including a night where people recreate famous works of art which is at the top of the list for a fun thing to do in Cuenca for many.
• Le Petit Jardin
Le Petit Jardin brings another aspect of the city’s history to light as a French restaurant that serves a revolving menu of delicious fare based on what’s available at the market. Cuenca has a strong French influence, seen around town at the plazas and parks.
• Anima Cocina de Autor
Anima Cocina de Autor is another hit with locals and travelers alike that is on the cutting edge of fusion food in the city and country. Seasonal ingredients produce innovative dishes that show off the talent and creativity of the kitchen.
Ever popular with locals (Cuencanos), Tiestos offers tasty Latin fusion cuisine, with an original menu based on traditional food with a twist, and friendly chef who likes to get to know the diners in person. The desserts are a true work of art, but advance reservations are usually required in order to get a seat.
Cuenca is famous for serving arguably the finest roast guinea pig (cuy) in the country, and no restaurant does it better than Guajibamba. The waiters take especially good care of tourists and are usually keen to show firsthand how guinea pig is prepared. Perhaps not for the faint-hearted, but a very traditional experience none the less.
Bars in Cuenca have also grown in the city as today there are microbrews that serve pints far beyond the commercial bottle and have menus that serve international fare with flair.
• Jodoco Belgian Brew
Jodoco Belgian Brew brings both Belgium brews and food to Cuenca. Five house beers include Triple and a Quadruppel stout, while menu items like a traditional beef stew and mashed potatoes with sausage and veggies deglazed in beer that are crowd-pleasers as are the selection of shared tablas with beef, sausage, mussels, and cheeses.
• Zarza Gastropub
Serving Ecuadorian craft beer including a Centinela Stout with chocolate, a Blonde, a Wheat with agave nectar, and an IPA- Zarza Gastropub shows off some of the interesting flavor’s that use the country’s ingredients to make their products shine. The menu has a great selection of upscale pub grub along with homemade smoked meats and a Tex-Mex section.
OTHER THINGS TO DO IN AND AROUND CUENCA
With a bit more time on your hands, we highly recommend getting out of the city to explore further. Varied day trips include Inca Ruins, a stunning national park, and quaint villages for handicraft shopping.
•El Cajas National Park
El Cajas National Park is a short drive from the city, check out our separate blog for more information on visiting this beautiful lake district of Ecuador.
Ingapirca Incan ruins are also doable as a day trip from Cuenca. Ingapirca is the largest and most preserved Inca archeological site in the country, and also shares historic and cultural links with the local Cañari Indians.
The villages of Gualaceo, Chordeleg & Sigsig are famed for the production of local handicrafts, in particular, gold & silver jewelry, woven goods, woodwork, pottery and more.
Happy Gringo Travel offers a 3 day Cuenca tour, ideal to get to know the highlights of the city. We also arrange custom made trips to Cuenca or other destinations in Ecuador. For more information contact a member of our team.