Top Things to Do and See in Cuenca, Ecuador

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is one stunning attraction you cant miss in Cuenca
The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is one stunning attraction you can't miss in Cuenca | © Peter Adams Photography / Alamy Stock Photo
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With its sparkling rivers, majestic blue-domed cathedral backed by the rugged Andes and its year-round, spring-like weather, Cuenca often outshines Quito as the favorite city for travelers in Ecuador. Like the capital, southern Cuenca has been anointed by UNESCO for its magnetically beautiful, colonial and indigenous architecture – especially in the historic center. But it has points of great interest as well as good looks. Here are the top things to see and do in Cuenca, Ecuador.

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Iglesia del Sagrario

The Iglesia del Sagrario means Church of the Shrine in English – but it’s commonly known as the Old Cathedral. Built in 1557 – the year Cuenca was founded – it is one of the most historic buildings in the country. The spire served as a reference point for French scientists in the 18th century, during a mission to determine the greatest of Earth’s circumferences: around the Equator or the Poles. Deconsecrated in 1981, it’s now a museum of religious curiosities, including priests’ garments and lightweight Jesus sculptures, made to be paraded on high in processions. See also the pulpit handrail, styled after human ribs to represent the Passion of Christ.

Admire the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception

Cuenca’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception dominates the cityscape with its three glorious sky-blue domes. A fine mish-mash of architectural styles, the landmark took nearly a century to build and was only finished in 1975. It’s open to visitors every day of the week and climbing the tower is essential for the city views – but bear in mind that there are still live masses here every day.

See amazing exhibits at the Museum of CIDAP

This internationally famous museum is tiny, but home to a collection of more than 8,000 pieces of popular artisanal art from 28 different countries. Free to enter and known as the Inter-American Center of Popular Arts and Crafts (CIDAP), it is one of the standout pieces of architecture in the old center, housed in a palatial historic home. Explore the intricate handiwork of Latin American cultures, from Chile to Colombia, Mexico and Argentina. You’ll be amazed at the vibrancy of the weavings and costumes on display – as will your Instagram followers.

Picnic along the Tomebamba River

The beautiful bridges of Cuenca’s historic center cross the Rio Tomebamba, a rushing waterway that comes tumbling in from the high Andes and eventually winds its way all the way down to the mighty Amazon. There are several parks that lend themselves to long, leisurely picnics right on its banks within the city limits – especially Parque Paraiso. But our top tip is to hire a bicycle and follow the river out of town for a bit. Here, you’ll find serene nature as a backdrop to the gurgling of the river – spread the blanket on the ground and crack open a refreshing beer.

Homero Ortega P & Hijos

You might assume that Panama hats were made in Panama. In Cuenca, however, you’ll learn the truth: Ecuador is the place of their birth, and continued production, by craftsmen in Cuenca – as well as the city of Montecristi. Locate the firm Homero Ortega P & Hijos – Homero Otrega and Sons, also known as the Panama Hat Factory – and you’ll discover a museum, called Magia del Sombrero, or Magic of the Hat. You can take a tour to find out more about this celebrated headgear, made mainly by indigenous Cuenca people, and its cultural importance. And yes – you can buy yourself one before leaving.

Mirador de Turi

You’ve appreciated Cuenca’s beauty up close. Now, for the bigger picture, there’s a great spot for a bird’s-eye view: on the southern edge of the city is the Overlook of Turi, which you can head up to by taxi or bus. If your lungs have the stamina, though, there’s a staircase from the bottom of the hill – 400 steps later, you’ll be able to catch your breath at the top as the city spreads out, map-like, far below. Don’t forget to grab some souvenirs, to prove you’ve made the journey up here.

Sample the food and atmosphere at El Che Restaurant

Feeling hungry? Have you tried cuy (guinea pig) yet? Or perhaps you’d rather stay on the straight and narrow with chicken or roast pork. Either way, El Che restaurant is the place to fill your face. This local Cuenca dining institution takes its name from the famous Guevara, hence the memorabilia plastered about the interiors, along with other memorabilia saluting the Cuban Revolution. The result is a uniquely bohemian atmosphere to match the generous plates and the friendly service. Guinea pig is a delicious delicacy in Cuenca – we bet you’ll be back for more.

Tour Cajas National Park

Andean condors cruise high above lush cloud forests and the hundreds of alpine lakes in Cajas National Park, a pristine slice of raw, mountainous beauty that lies just beyond Cuenca. It’s a nature lover’s paradise, and the best way to get the most out of it is on a full-day tour that picks you up from your hotel in the morning and deposits you back again at the end of the day. If you’re the more intrepid type you should enquire around town about opportunities for overnight treks and stays. However long you visit, prepare to be impressed.

Take a traditional cleansing therapy (limpia) at the Mercado 10 de Agosto

The Mercado 10 de Agosto is one of the most famous markets in Ecuador, and for good reason – it has piles of mouth-wateringly fresh tropical fruits and other produce brought in from the countryside daily. But don’t pass up the opportunity to indulge in a traditional limpia (spiritual healing session) while you’re here – it claims to remove negative energies and send you off fully charged with luck, ready for further adventures. Best of all, you get a relaxing massage with aromatic lotions, petals and incantations by spiritual helpers.

Buy amazing blooms at the Flower Market

A historic plaza overflowing with lucid colors and enchanting aromas, Cuenca’s Flower Market is regularly rated among the prettiest in the world. Check out the different roses, peruse the local tropical flower selection and splurge on a bouquet to make your travel buddy’s day. If you’re relocating to Cuenca permanently, come to the flower market for potted plants and trees among masses of diverse and heavenly greenery.
Kristen Tideman contributed additional reporting to this article.

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