Tucked away in the Andes lies a bustling city abundant in culture, history, and beauty. Its name? Cuenca. After spending two weeks in this city, it quickly became apparent many things make it unique. We spent our time meandering cobblestone streets, admiring colonial buildings, and basking in the natural beauty of our surroundings. Although it is a relatively small city with a population of 330,000, it is growing and has much to offer travelers.
Must-See Sites in Cuenca
Cathedral of The Immaculate Conception
I was hesitant at first to enter Cuenca’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Although open to the public, I often feel odd visiting religious sites as a tourist. Despite this, the sounds of a service welcomed me as I entered, and I found myself humming along to the song sung by the congregation.
Quietly standing in the back, I disturbed no one. I silently made my way over to the left entrance of the Cathedral and found a ticket booth where for $2, you can climb to the top of the Cathedral. Visitors are rewarded with an unforgettable view of the city and the surrounding mountains.
As you ascend the steps up the spiral staircase to the roof, the sounds of the church choir permeate the walls. As I walked, I caught frequent glimpses of the church’s apse and could peer out at the striking colors of the stain glass windows. To my right, visions of the sunny Parque Calderon greeted me. The walk up the staircase is relatively steep and takes between 5–10 minutes depending on your speed.
Sunlight and the sight of the city welcome you as you approach the top step. It does not take long for the cathedral’s sky blue domes to catch your attention. The sun’s light reflects off of the glistening tiles. Mountains surround you. It is incredible to think that even at 8,000 feet above sea level, these landforms still tower above you.
It was here that I met a man who was very adamant about taking a picture of me so that I could adequately remember the place. Although I usually do not take many photos of myself, I am grateful for his insistence. My advice, if you are taking the time to walk up the numerous stairs to visit this place, you may as well take a photo with the breathtaking view.
Flower Market of Cuenca
As I exited the cathedral, the overwhelming scent of flowers greeted me. I followed my nose to find numerous stalls selling countless flower arrangements. Bright yellow sunflowers, red blossoming roses, and striking white gladiolas displayed in a variety of bouquets and arrangements. It is a gorgeous sight, and one may be surprised to learn that this Plaza de Flores (flower market )is open seven days a week. Even if you don’t purchase any flowers, it is worthwhile to stroll between the stalls and compliment the locals for their beautiful efforts.
Cajas National Park
Located close to the city of Cuenca is Cajas National Park. It is well worth a visit and very easy to take a half-day, full-day, or several days to camp and explore this beautiful site. If you are interested in visiting Cajas National Park, be sure to click here to check out my full blog to get all of the details!
El Museo de Pumapungo of Cuenca
During the day when Brandon was working, Cuenca offered many areas to explore. As a female traveler, I felt very safe walking the streets alone. One sight which I enjoyed immensely was the Museo de Pumpapungo of Cuenca. Opened Tuesday-Friday 9–5 pm, Saturday and Sunday 10–5 pm and closed on Mondays, this museum is free to patrons. It was very refreshing to see that many of the national parks and museums in Cuenca Ecuador are free or cost very little to enter, making it accessible to people from all walks of life.
The inside of the museum has information regarding the city of Cuenca and displays artifacts discovered years ago. Much of the information is solely in Spanish, so if you do not speak the language, I suggest bringing an offline translator or plan to enjoy the artifacts visually.
For me, the highlight of the museum is the outside portion where guests can wander through gardens and ancient Inca ruins. Walking the path may take about an hour, but park benches are available for patrons to sit and enjoy the weather and views. It is an impressive sight to see the ancient ruins nestled among modern city buildings. As you walk, you will also encounter a small pond full of bright orange fish that glow from the depths of the water. Walk even further, and the sounds of birds housed in a rescue center greet you. Not only are you able to view historically significant ruins at El Museo de Pumapungo but also experience the beautiful wildlife that Ecuador has to offer.
El Mirador de Cuenca
Brandon and I took a half-day to make the journey to Cuenca’s Mirador. Folks have several options; if you are feeling spirited and have lots of energy, I suggest walking. It is a wonderful way to get to know the city, and who knows, in the process, you may come across other exciting sights along the way! For one, the city has numerous brightly painted murals scattered along streets corners. If you are adjusting to the altitude, you can also opt to take a taxi to the mirador as it can be quite a long and strenuous walk. Official taxis in Cuenca are bright yellow, and fees are determined by a meter. During our time in Cuenca, we found the taxis to be very affordable.
From Cuenca’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, it will take you 45 minutes to an hour to walk to the mirador of Cuenca. Click here for a map to the mirador from the Cathedral! The views are worth the trip. As you catch your breath at the top, you can take in the sites of the city and marvel at this city tucked between mountains. Hungry? Thirsty? Craving an ice cream cone? There are several restaurants and food stalls that can be visited if you need refreshments before marching back to the city.
La Piedra de Agua
After lots of travel and walking around the city of Cuenca, it was nice to visit the spa Piedra de Agua to relax and recharge. The spa Piedra de Agua is a quick 25-minute drive outside of the city of Cuenca to a small town called Baños. If you are traveling without a vehicle, it is easy to catch a taxi for less $10.
Traveling on a budget? Have no fear! Brandon and I enjoyed the spa circuit 2X1 which cost us $35. Not a bad deal considering it lasts for two hours and includes a Turkish bath, two mud pools, a steam room, underground contrast pools, and a steam box! You can lose track of time as you are led peacefully through each section of the spa by a guide. Order a drink and relax until prompted to pass through the next phase of the circuit. Plan to spend around two hours enjoying the circuit and one completed, you are invited to stay by the pool, enjoy a cocktail (also two for one on certain days!), in addition to the restaurant. You can check out the Piedra de Agua website to get the latest weekly promotions.
Cuenca is Full of Parks!
One of the things that I loved about the city of Cuenca was the amount of green space. Whether it was along the river or one of the numerous parks, I was always able to find a quiet spot to enjoy nature.
Located right outside of the Cathedral of The Immaculate Conception is Parque Calderon. The park benches are full of people enjoying ice cream, chatting with friends, or taking a moment to pause and rest. This park is the perfect place to rest as you explore the cathedral and nearby markets.
A short walk from Parque Calderon is the river Tomebamba. You can follow the river to el Museo de Pumapungo or take it in the opposite direction to the university of Cuenca. It is a lovely spot to sit and eat lunch, read, or rest. Many couples can enjoy the sound of the river, the green grass, and each other’s company at this beautiful site.
If you are traveling with children, you may want to visit Parque de la Madre as it has a playground. This park is located just across the river, Tomebamaba. Students from surrounding schools frequent this park during lunchtime to enjoy the jungle gym. There’s also outdoor work out equipment that is free to the public.
Food in Cuenca Ecuador
Los Almuerzos Looking for cheap, delicious and filling food? Wandering the streets of Cuenca, you will find countless restaurants. You may notice that some of these restaurants advertise a specific menu during lunchtime. This menu is referred to as an almuerzo, which translates to lunch. Almuerzos generally cost between $2-$4 and include juice, soup, a main dish, and occasionally a small dessert! Brandon and I were impressed with the quantity, quality, and cost of the meals. Better yet, it is effortless to order for non-Spanish speakers. All you have to do is say you would like the almuerzo!
The Cafe’s and Bakeries of Cuenca There is no shortage of bakeries and cafes in Cuenca. Prices will range depending on the scale of the establishment, but you can easily feed your sweet tooth during your stay!
Markets of Cuenca Ecuador If you prefer to cook while staying in Cuenca, you will encounter small convenience stores in addition to public markets with numerous vendors. Even if you aren’t planning on buying anything, it is worth it to walkthrough these public markets. Towers of fresh fruits and vegetables and stacks of seafood and meats are proudly displayed. The storekeepers do not sell in small quantities so do not be surprised when you leave with hands full of produce. Another thing to note is that the shopkeepers do not tolerate customers rifling through their produce. Simply let them know what you would like, how much you want and let them pick the items. Most things cost between 0.50cents to $1. Not bad for a trip to the supermarket!
Weather in Cuenca Ecuador
The weather in Cuenca is very comfortable. With a very temperate climate, most days are a mix of sun and clouds and temperature hovering between seventy and eighty-five degrees Fahrenheit. Although the weather is comfortable, the high altitude and proximity to the Equator make sunscreen a must and long sleeves and pants recommendable. Many locals also carry around umbrellas to protect them from the sun.
Cuenca is a perfect mix of old and new, city, and nature. Brandon and I quickly fell in love with this city. The friendly people, affordable prices, and beautiful sites made it a comfortable place to settle for two weeks. It is no wonder so many Ex-Pats are choosing this city as their new home!