Cuenca is more than just a great place for retiring expats. This UNESCO World Heritage Site makes a perfect base for exploring the central Andes of Ecuador. Small towns with a rich cultural tradition of handicrafts, spa resorts, pre-Columbian ancient ruins and one of the most stunning national parks in the country all lie a couple of hours from the city center.
While the Inca invaded these lands only a few decades before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, they left intriguing remains like the golden-green walls of the Temple of the Sun at Ingapirca. This archaeology park protects both Incan and Cañari ruins, providing interpretive signs in Spanish along the trails.
Chordeleg is home to many artisans. Some work with paja toquilla, the straw used to weave the iconic Panama Hats; others with looms to make macanas, a type of shawl similar to an ikat; and a few work with silver, crafting the delicate filigree jewelry famous in the Azuay Province.
As in Chordeleg, many artisans of Gualaceo work with different types of material to weave gorgeous shawls. Gualaceo is also famous for serving traditional Andean dishes, like hornado, the roast pork often served at festivals throughout the Andes.
Learn more about the history of the Panama Hat and understand its Ecuadorian origins with a visit to Sigsig. In 2012, UNESCO declared the methods of making these straw hats an intangible cultural heritage that deserves protection. A day trip to Sigsig is often combined with Chordeleg and Gualaceo.
Cajas National Park
High Andean pocket lakes, boggy fields of wildflowers, hillsides covered with golden grasses and granite-gray mountain peaks all make Cajas one of the most photographic national parks in all of Ecuador.
The small town of Cojitambo is nestled in a valley below a set of Incan ruins. Both locations are worth visiting, the town for its quaintness and photo-worthy plaza, the ruins for their uniqueness. The Inca made some progress in the conquest of Ecuador but left few sites as intact as Cojitambo.
Not to be confused with Baños de Agua Santa located further to the north, this Baños is also a spa town. Enjoy the hot mineral water baths after hiking local nature trails or exploring the small town and the unconventional blue and white church with its rounded twin towers.
The capital of the Cañar Province, Azogues is home to archaeology museums, historic churches and artisan workshops. Several protected forests provide outdoor adventure nearby. This small city is a great way to explore the Ecuadorian Andes while escaping the majority of tour groups headed to better-known locations.