A Backpacker’s Guide to Cuenca: The Prettiest City in Ecuador
Cuenca is a city that feels equal parts Ecuadorian and European. With beautiful architecture, delicious food, and its status as Ecuador’s safest city, it’s no wonder expats flock here. Plus, one of the country’s most scenic national parks is only one hour away. Cuenca may be the best place in Ecuador to chat with local people beyond a tour guide.
The people are outgoing and accustomed to foreigners partly because of the thousands of Americans living here. Cuenca is not a place with many must-do activities and the beauty of the city is more so the attraction. It’s the perfect place to unwind at the end of your travels in Ecuador and enjoy one final night out.
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How to Get There
There are regular flights from Quito or you can travel by bus. Cuenca is quite a ways south of other popular destinations, so expect to spend 6-8 hours on a bus to arrive here.
Bookaway is a great resource that allows you to compare the prices of both buses and flights, and secure your seat in advance!
What to Do
Cajas National Park – A picturesque national park with a landscape completely different than the rest of Ecuador’s highlands. The park closes at 4:30 PM because it’s very easy to get lost when the visibility decreases. It’s a 1-hour bus ride from the terminal and be sure to download the Parque Nacional Cajas app for trail maps.
Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción – A 20th-century cathedral with blue domes that stand out above the city. For $2, you can climb the stairs to the terrace for views of Cuenca. The courtyard between the church and Angelus by Tutto Fredo is a great spot for pictures.
Mirador de Turi – Grab a drink at one of the nearby bars and enjoy the views of Cuenca illuminated at night.
Museo Pumapungo – The museum itself isn’t very interesting, but there are impressive Inca ruins on site. Plus, alpacas roam around the ruins and there is even an exotic bird collection. The entrance is free and it’s open from Tuesday to Saturday.
Plaza de las Flores – A flower market located in a small plaza where you can buy agua de pitimas from the cloistered monastery. Agua de pitimas is a healing drink with a secret ingredient that doesn’t taste great, but it has relaxing effects.
Iglesia Santa Domingo – The artwork inside this church is spectacular and the entrance is free.
Where to Eat
Fabiano’s Pizzeria – This is some of the best Italian food you’ll find in South America and the prices are very affordable given the quality and the setting.
Godika Chocolatier – I stumbled across this low-key chocolate shop and went back many times. The abuela behind the counter is the sweetest and her delicious chocolate treats are all less than $1.
Cafe de Nucatella – The perfect place for a pre-hike breakfast and coffee.
Mercado 10 de Agosto – The second floor is full of food stalls and the best meal to order here is the hornado.
Angelus by Tutto Fredo – A very popular Ice cream shop located alongside Parque Calderon.
Maracuchos – Quality Venezuelan food at a cheap price.
How to Spend a Night Out
Zoociedad – This small discoteca is where you want to end the night. It’s hidden from the eye of most tourists, but you’ll find a young crowd and cheap pints. Bonus points for being one of the few discotecas playing Latin music that isn’t reggaeton.
Calle Larga – This is the street with Cuenca’s most popular bars. Prices are a bit higher here but keep your eyes open for bars selling $1 canelazo.
Bistro Yaku – If you’re looking for a more relaxed night, Bistro Yaku has cheap cocktails.
Where to Stay
Mallki Hostel – The hostel itself is a work in progress, but it’s easily one of the best I’ve ever stayed in. Dorm beds are cheap and it only houses 15 guests, so by the end of your stay, it may feel like a family. Plus, the owner is incredibly friendly and knowledgeable about Cajas National Park.
AlterNative Hostels – A modern and clean hostel with a rooftop. It has a more relaxed vibe and it’s a 20-minute walk from the historic center.
Where to Next
Riobamba (6 hours by bus) – Hike up to the base camp of the tallest mountain in Ecuador without a guide.
Baños (8 hours) – A scenic town with Incredible landscapes, a biking adventure, waterfalls, and short hikes.
Quilotoa Loop (9 hours) – An awesome 3-day hike through the highlands that ends at the Laguna de Quilotoa.
Quito (10 hours) – Ecuador’s charming capital has stunning churches and the largest historic center in South America.
Galápagos Islands (3-hour flight) – You can visit the premier destination for seeing marine life by land for far cheaper than the price of a cruise.