Cuenca Highlights | What to see and do in and around the city

Cuenca or to give it its full name Santa Ana de los Cuatro Rios de Cuenca is located in the highlands of Ecuador and sits at 2560mtrs above sea level.  It’s centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is visited by many tourists.   It’s not just the pretty colonial streets and opulent churches that attract visitors, Cuenca sits in the most beautiful landscape surrounded by mountains and pretty little villages.  Visiting Cuenca doesn’t mean you have to stay in the city as its so easy to get out and explore the surrounding areas.   Below we’ll help you with a few of those sites that we were lucky enough to visit. 

Cuenca Cathedral
Cuenca Cathedral

How did we get to Cuenca?

After spending time in Riobamba, to visit and hike on the Chimborazo volcano, we headed to Cuenca by bus.  There are only a few buses a day to Cuenca and we chose the 11.30 departure which would take anywhere between three and five hours depending on traffic and the condition of the roads.  The cost of the bus was approximately $9 and the company we used was the Cooperativa de Transportes Patria.  The journey was great and we arrived at the main bus station in Cuenca in good time.  As our hotel was a good 20 min walk we decided to take a taxi which cost approximately $4.  

Where did we stay in Cuenca?

There are numerous options for accomodation in Cuenca from backpacking hostels to high end hotels and everything in between.  We chose a fairly central hotel which had all the amenities we needed.  The hotel was La Orquidea and from a location point of view it was ideal.  Just one block away from the Cuenca Cathedral.  A perfect location if you want to stay in the historical centre.  This area is surrounded by restaurants and cafes and all the main sites of the city. 

Cuenca Cathedral
Cuenca Cathedral

What did we do in Cuenca?

Visit the many wonderful churches

Cuenca has the most amazing religious buildings and it seems like every corner or street you look down has an impressive domed building.  The biggest and most outstanding is the New Cathedral,  Catedral  de la Inmaculado Concepcion, which dominates the centre of the city with its wonderful blue and white domes.   There is an old cathedral but its not nearly as impressive.  Other churches that you don’t want to miss are Santuario Mariano del Carmen de la Asunción which has the flower market right outside. Iglesia Católica San Francisco is just a beautiful simple church and definitely worth a stroll by.  

Take the bus to the Archeological site of Ingapirca

Ingapirca, a small village in the mountains, is home to one of the largest known Inca ruins in Ecuador.  You can easily get to the town by heading to the main bus station in Cuenca and taking a bus to Canar or El Tambo and then its only a short bus ride from either of those towns to Ingaprica.  Friday, Saturday and Sunday you can get to Ingapirca direct from Cuenca.  Once you arrive at Ingaprica its a fairly short walk out of the town to the left to access the entrance to the Archeological site.  The entrance fee was around $6 and this included a guide who would take you round the site.  The main highlight of the site is the oval shaped structure which is the Temple of the Sun.  There are also other interesting features on the tour and once the tour ends there is the option to take another short walk where you can see the Inca Man feature in the rock.  It really was a great day out and if you find yourself a bit peckish then we would recommend the restaurant near to the entrance as they do a great lunch for only a few dollars.

Archeological site Ingapirca
Archeological site Ingapirca
Take a stroll along the river

Cuenca has a lovely river that runs right next to the centre of town.  The Tomebamba River provides a natural separation between Cuenca’s historic district and the modern part of the city.  There are many bars and restaurants close to the river as well as some historical sites such as the Puento Rio Roto (the broken bridge).  This bridge doesn’t actually cross the river but you can get some great pictures of the river from any of the other bridges on your walk. To start your river walk take the road down from Park Calderon to the river.  A good finishing point is the Pumapungo Museum which is an excellent site to visit and we’ve provided some more information below. 

Visit the Pumapungo Museum 

This museum is in 2 parts.  There is the interior where you can see artefacts relating to the history of Ecuador from its people to its currency and has some really interesting exhibits.  Don’t miss the exhibits on the second floor showing the different indigenous people from the different regions of Ecuador including information on the now forbidden practice of shrinking heads.   Outside you can find the archeological site of an former Inca military post as well as some interesting gardens and a bird sanctuary.  There are also some Llamas wandering about which is great for a photo opportunity.   The best part about the museum is that its free and an excellent place to spend an afternoon in Cuenca. 

Pumapungo Museum
Pumapungo Museum
Take the  bus to Parque National La Cajas

Just outside Cuenca, about a 45 min bus ride away, is the La Cajas national park.   This is a great place for hiking and getting out of the city and into the outdoors and nature.  To get to the national park you have to go to the main bus station in Cuenca and get a ticket from one of the sellers advertising La Cajas on route to Guayaquil.  The bus will stop at the park entrance then its a short walk down to the Information kiosk where you can register with the park ranger.   You’ll be provided with a map showing lots of different hiking routes and we chose route one which was a circular route that started at Lake Toreadora and ended back at the same place.  It all depends on how much time you have which route you choose but the park ranger can advise.  At the information centre there are toilets and a small restaurant where you can buy snacks.  When you’ve finished your hiking you just pop back up to the main road and wait at the shelter across from where you got dropped off and any passing bus will get you back to Cuenca.   The bus will cost approx $2 each way per person.

Parque National La Cajas
Parque National La Cajas

Our view 

Cuenca is very much a tourist town.  The restaurants, bars and shops cater to the influx of visitors from other countries and it was hard to find the real Ecuador here.  Nevertheless we enjoyed our time in Cuenca and there were other activities we could have done such as the wildlife park and a hike to some waterfalls but there just wasn’t time to do everything.   

Booking resources for your stay in Cuenca

Flights

You can compare cheap flights on the Expedia platform or here on the Aviasales website.  Both will give you a good idea of how much its going to cost you to get to your chosen destination.

Accommodation

We have always tended to use Booking.com having said that if your on a tight budget another good site to try as a comparison is Hostelworld, If your looking to compare different sites you can do that on Hotellook, we tend to look on here first to make sure we are getting the best deal.

Tours & Tickets

You can book your visits as you go at the entrance to your chosen attraction or site.  Or you could use the following links to book in advance or just to find out what your choices are in the area. GetYourGuide and Tiqets are our go to choices you could try Viator to see how they compare.

For a full list check out our resources page. Don’t forget always shop around to find the best deal for you. What works for us should be good for you but it’s always reassuring to check.

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