05 Mar What to See and Do in Cuenca, Ecuador (Plus Walking Tour Map)
We were attracted to Cuenca because of its UNESCO World Heritage designation and its reputation for being one of the most livable cities in Latin America. Active, safe, affordable, with mild weather, and full of culture, we fell in love with this small city pretty much immediately. And we were extremely pleased with our choice to make Cuenca our home base for six weeks.
After lots of research, speaking with native Cuencans as well as resident expats, we put together a list of what to see and do in Cuenca. The list includes our favorite restaurants, sight-seeing spots, and a self-guided walking route that covers most of the top attractions.
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Self-Guided Walking Route of Cuenca
Click above to visit the interactive map
If you have one day to see Cuenca, this map essentially shows what we would suggest you do. You can easily break this up into two or more days and add some of the attractions that aren’t on the route to your liking. Below are a few more details on each of the numbered points from the map.
1. Parque Abdon Calderon
Parque Abdon Calderon with the old white cathedral across the way
This square is considered the heart of Cuenca’s historical town center. Named after one of Ecuador’s youngest heroes in their battle for independence, it includes a memorial, gardens, gazebo, and plenty of park benches to sit and people watch.
One one side of the square, you’ll find an older white cathedral from Spanish colonial times. It is said that many of the stones within the church’s foundation were taken from the Cañari/Incan ruins nearby – before people realized they were destroying ancient history. The church is now a small museum, which costs a couple dollars to enter. They also host concerts, including free symphony concerts by the University.
Free symphony in the old cathedral
View from the top of the new cathedral
On the opposite side of the square is Cuenca’s new cathedral. This was completed in 1975 – or almost completed. You’ll notice under the statue of Mary at the top, there is a crack going down the face of the church. When placing the statue, they realized that the church would not hold the weight of the two towers they had planned, so they left the stumps of the tower and called it a day. Entry into this cathedral is free and services are held there on a daily basis. To climb a tower to the top or descend into the crypt below, you would pay a dollar or two at the office.
2. Mercado 9 de Octubre
Cuenca has three large indoor markets that are open daily, two of which are within the historic town center. Mercado 9 de Octubre is three stories with fish and meat on the bottom, fresh produce and a few snack vendors on the ground floor, and then cookshops and smoothie vendors on top. Bargaining isn’t really necessary as prices are pretty standard – you’ll get three avocados for $1 from every stall you ask. The difference is with the size and quality you get for that dollar.
We’ll talk more in depth about what and where to eat in a future post, but we did a majority of our shopping at these produce markets. Jedd also found his favorite meal here – a $1 bowl of chicken or pork, starches, and broth. We also enjoyed the 50 cent batidos (smoothies).
A note about safety: I should mention here that the only time a local Cuencan actually named an area that we should avoid for safety, it was here and the concern is only at night. As pickpocketing is a crime of opportunity, it’s always wise to carry as few valuables as possible and keep them close and concealed on your body until you need them.
3. Mercado de Artesania de Rotary
If you exit 9 de Octubre and cross the large plaza, you can pass through a short alley to arrive at the small plaza, Rotary (alternatively, you can go around the corner, just a block East on Gaspar Sangurima). This is a craft market with primarily practical items for locals – woven baskets, carved wooden utensils, iron work, etc. You’ll find a few textiles and gift items there as well.
4. Aboriginal Culture Museum
Thanks to the Language & Culture program we did our first week in Cuenca, we were introduced to this small but prolific collection of ancient artifacts, located at 5-24 Calle Larga. Apparently the collection started as a hobby and grew to over 5,000 items. The Aboriginal Culture Museum is open weekdays 9:00 – 7:00; Saturdays: 10:00 – 5:00.
Just across the street and a block East down Calle Larga is the church De Todos Santos. We were told that this had primarily an indigenous congregation, at least when it started. Next to the church is a nice viewpoint that overlooks Puente Roto (broken bridge), which was partially washed away when the river flooded many years ago.
Visiting the indigenous exhibits with Michelle’s Spanish teacher
Although a bit out of the way, Pumapungo should be high on your list. Inside the National Bank building you’ll find the most extensive historical/cultural museum in Cuenca. Entry is free – just sign in and leave your bags at the desk. Make sure you explore the different floors, which include exhibits on art, money, culture and clothing of the indigenous tribes, and even shrunken heads. Although you may not want to spend a ton of time there (most of the signage is only in Spanish, by the way), the museum is definitely worth a walk through. It’s open week days 8:00 – 5:30, Saturday 9:00 – 1:00, closed Sunday.
But that’s not all. Between the museum and the orchestra building, you can pass to the back side of Pumapungo to visit the hillside Cañari ruins. This was apparently a sacred site for this powerful tribe. Although no full structures have been preserved, you can see the outline of their buildings and terraced agriculture, an underground cave, and water system. As you continue down the hill, you’ll find a large display garden of the many local crops and native plants.
Continue to the southwest corner of Pumapungo “park” and there is a nice bird sanctuary, an outdoor Belgian waffle stand, and you might even spot some llamas! It’s a really nice place to explore by foot. This lower entrance of Pumapungo connects to the riverfront walking trail and should be open 10:00 – 4:00 Thursday through Sunday and holidays (dates and times tend to vary with this lower gate).
6. Museo de Sombreros
This hat museum, factory, and shop is all about the famous Panama hats, which have always been made in Ecuador but were discovered on a global scale during the construction of the Panama canal. As you walk in, there are displays depicting the various stages of hat production, including many of the tools which were used in the past.
This is also a working shop where you can see people pressing hats into shape with large machines and expertly sewing bands on the inside and outside. Select a finished hat from the displays or customize your own.
There are certainly numerous places to purchase Panama hats around Cuenca and the rest of Ecuador – we even made the trip out to the women’s hat cooperative in the little town of Sig Sig. But we’ve concluded that this is the best place to see the hat-making process in person and to find the widest variety of hats. Most of the hats start at $25 – the finer the weave, the longer it takes to make (several weeks by hand), producing a higher quality and more expensive product.
Another fun thing about this museum is you can go up the stairs in the back to a nice overlook along the river. There’s also a little coffee shop back there.
7. Mercado 10 de Agosto
This is the other big market in the heart of town, which happened to be closer to where we were living. On the first floor is mostly fruit and vegetables, plus some grain and hardware in the inner stalls. Upstairs is more vegetables, grains, cheese, and lots of cookshops. One of the specialties in Cuenca is hornado – roast pig – which can also be found upstairs from several vendors.
8. Centro Municipal Artesanal
This indoor artisan market can be found on General Torres Street at the edge of Plaza San Francisco, which also has a number of vendors outside. There are two stories of shops with a wide variety of art and gift items, from ceramics to wood carvings, paintings to textiles, hats and trinkets. Many of the artists are running their own shops and working on their craft throughout the day. Since the set up is a little more upscale than the traditional markets, prices may be a little higher than you’d find elsewhere.
9. Flower Market
Parque de las Flores sits in a small square on the way back to Parque Abdon Calderon, flanked by both the cathedral and another smaller church. Recognized on a global scale, the flower market is a beautiful place and you can pick up a dozen roses for just a couple dollars.
Other Attractions in Cuenca
We made this interactive map of our top recommendations for Cuenca so you can click around to find what you’d like to do. Below are a few more details of some of the points we didn’t cover in the walking tour.
Walking is arguably the best way to see Cuenca, especially the historic centro. But you can also hop on a bus for just 25 cents per ride – each bus destination is listed on a plaque in their front window. Although Cuenca may not have as many exciting tourist attractions as other places, we loved it because the streets themselves exude charm – from colonial architecture to beautiful murals on every corner.
These doors are a great example of the colors and architecture in Cuenca
Mirador de Turi
Click here for the full #JumpingJedd gallery
Across the south of Cuenca, at the end of Avenida Solano, you can see a white church up on the hill. This is Turi and it’s a great place to get a view of the city and surrounding mountains. You can get there on the tourist bus, city bus, taxi, or – if you need the exercise – walking.
Amaru Zoo Biopark
One of Cuenca’s biggest surprises is the “zoo.” Focused on native, rescued animals (but they also have lions), this is like no zoo you’ve ever seen before. A single dirt path climbs the giant hill just outside of town as you wind around roomy, natural exhibits full of active animals.
On weekends, we highly recommend arriving around 10:30 to see the feeding of the Andean bears at 11am (at the start of your hike) and the lions at 1pm (toward the end of the route). The park staff give an educational talk (in Spanish) and it is truly fascinating to learn about how they keep the animals healthy and active.
Since the zoo is just on the outskirts of town (a hike up a dirt road from Hospital del Rio), we recommend catching a taxi, which is about $5 from the center of town.
Free Sunday Morning Bike Rentals
8am Sunday morning is the best time to rent a bicycle in Cuenca because the municipality gives them out for free. Just bring your photo ID (they took our U.S. and Canadian drivers licenses), wait in line to sign up, and soon a big truck of 70 bikes will pull up. They issued us nice mountain bikes and helmets and told us to come back by noon.
Cuenca has several rivers running through town which are lined by parks and pedestrian/bike paths, so you can go for miles only crossing traffic a few times. If you stick to one trail, the most scenic is probably the North side of Rio Tomebamba. (Every once in a while the trail will end under a bridge, so we just got off the bikes and walked them until the trail picked up again.)
This is the bike route we took. Click the image for the full interactive version.
South of the river, Rio Tomebamba, is the newer side of Cuenca. The buildings are less charming but there is still plenty of shops, restaurants, and parks. We enjoyed walking through the Universidad de Cuenca (where the above artwork can be found on campus); seeing the historic Benigno Malo high school; and checking out Parque de la Madre. If you’re really short on time, definitely stick to the historic center of town, but if you have more time to explore, then these would be some nice stops for a walk.
Please check back as we add more posts on day trips around Cuenca and more details on what and where to eat.
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