This beautiful colonial city of Ecuador should be on every traveler’s bucket list. Its laid-back atmosphere, European elegance, and fine architecture make Cuenca stand out. Interestingly, in recognition of its importance as a cultural hub for the country, Cuenca brings the nickname “Athens of Ecuador”! I was told that old people in Cuenca were/are able to speak Greek thanks to their studies (ancient Greek).
I. What’s There To Do/See in Cuenca?
Even if Cuenca is the third-largest city in Ecuador, the historic center is pretty compact and easily walkable. You can comfortably explore the whole place in just one day, but two days will be even more enjoyable. Some interesting sites/activities to visit/engage with, as follows:
- Stroll around Cuenca’s cobbled streets. The historic center of Cuenca is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Enjoy a pleasant walk along the Tomebamba River, which goes through the heart of the city! It worth mentioning that Cuenca’s full name is Santa Ana de los Cuatro Ríos de Cuenca. Which translates into “the City of the 4 rivers”. So apart from Tomebamba, there are another 3 rivers surrounding it!
- Visit the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and its adjacent courtyard!
- Stroll around Plaza Calderon, Plaza San Sebastian, and Plaza de San Francisco
- Visit the local markets. You can choose between fruit, flower, artisan, and food markets. The most popular ones are: Mercado 10 de Agosto, Mercado 9 de Octubre, and Plaza de San Francisco.
- Visit a Panama Hat factory. It might sound peculiar, but the Panama Hat has its true origins in Ecuador! During the construction of the Panama Canal, there was an increasing need for high-quality hats. Ecuador was, by far, the producer of the best quality straw hats. However, the fact that those hats were used by Panama workers resulted in their international recognition as “Panama Hats”. I suggest going to the Homero Ortega Factory/Museum. You will get a 30’ tour by a staff member who will explain in detail the tradition and hat-making process. Entrance and tour are free of charge.
- Head to Mirador de Turi for the best panoramic views over Cuenca. By foot, it’s a 1-hour walk, including the ascending of the 500 steps up the hill!
II. Day Trips From Cuenca
There are 2 popular day trips you can organize from Cuenca:
- The Ingapirca Ruins, being the largest and best-preserved Inca archeological site in the country
- The El Cajas National Park
I could only afford one day trip, so I opted for El Cajas National Park. This visit is a must for anyone that wants to get up-close views of the Ecuadorian flora and fauna. What you should expect?
- Over 270 lakes and lagoons scattered around the park
- A wide variety of endemic animals
- A tundra vegetation that is unique for any South American country
The landscape is simply unreal.
There are various trails you can follow, with “Route 1” being an easy and very scenic one. Unless you are an experienced hiker, you should target for this trail. It takes about 2-2.5 hours to complete, and is covering a distance of 4.5 km. The ranger on site can advise you on all available trails. Even if the routes are well sign-posted, I found myself lost at some points. Thus, I highly recommend having handy on your mobile the Maps.me App, as well as the Parque Nacional Cajas App. They both work offline and can accurately show you where you are compared with the trail you want to follow.
Keep in mind that there is a daily limit of 92 visitors per day. For that, upon arrival at the Visitors Center you absolutely need to register yourself. Other than this, visiting the park is totally free of charge!
How To Get to El Cajas
You can get to El Cajas with a group tour (for 50$), using a taxi (for 20$ each way), or by bus. There are regular buses departing from the Terrestre Bus Terminal in Cuenca heading to El Cajas. At the time of my visit, the earliest buses were departing at 7:00, 8:00, and 9:15. You can pay for your ticket directly on the bus. Just head to the Gate 4 (Turno 4) and ask for the bus to El Cajas. For going through the gate, you will need to buy a “platform ticket” for 15 cents. You can buy such a ticket from the machine that is right in front of the gate. Keep in mind, however, that the machine does not give any change, so try to have small coins with you.
Once on the bus, tell the driver where you are heading (Laguna Toreadora Visitor Center). In this way, he will drop you off at the right place. From this point, the Visitors Center is less than 5’ away.
Time-wise, you will need 30-40’ to get to El Cajas from Cuenca. I paid 2$ for the bus ride to El Cajas and 2.5$ for the return ride. For getting back to Cuenca, you simply get to the main street and flag down any passing bus.
III. How Can I Get To Cuenca?
Cuenca is well connected by bus with nearly all cities of Ecuador. Quito, Guayaquil, Latacunga, Banos, etc. I have used a night bus departing from Quito (Quitumbe Terminal) and the ticket price was 14$.
I always use night buses when traveling long distances so as to save the day. But especially in Ecuador, I am not sure if I would ever repeat the experience. The reason being the terrible entertainment program offered onboard. There was a loop of films displayed on the screen at top volume nearly the whole night long. Even worse, the selected films included a lot of shooting and shouting. All in all, it was impossible to sleep even for a single minute.
Aside from this, I also came to realize that in Ecuador traveling on buses at night is somewhat risky. On our ride, 3 strange people boarded the bus and created much fuzz going up and down the aisle. 10 minutes after our departure, they told the driver they wanted to get off. The driver rushed back to us asking if we had all our belongings. Those guys were obviously thieves that were targeting unattended bags. They might have failed this time, but who knows what would have happened if they had stayed on the bus for the entire ride… Having said that, you should NEVER EVER store your bags in the overhead compartment of a bus, especially when traveling on a night bus in Ecuador.