Top Things to Do in Cuenca

Cuenca Cathedral, Ecuador | Discover Your South America Blog

Top Things to Do in Cuenca

Cuenca is a beautiful highland town in Ecuador that is so enchanting, it has become one of the top expat destinations in South America. Who could blame them for wanting to relocate here? With its lavish cathedrals, colonial architecture, inviting eateries and bucolic surrounds, Cuenca really is a jewel of a town. Oh, and it also happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site too. Keep reading to find out some of the top things to do in Cuenca, Ecuador.

Cuenca Cathedral, Ecuador | Discover Your South America Blog
Cuenca Cathedral, Ecuador (Pixabay)

Plaza de Calderón

The Plaza de Calderón is at the heart of Cuenca’s old town and is a gorgeous corner of the city to begin any guided or self-guided tour. The square is graced with leafy trees, shaded pathways and pergolas, surrounded by some of Cuenca’s most resplendent architecture – including the ‘New Cathedral’. Stop by the Plaza de Calderón to grab an ice cream, take a seat and people-watch.

Plaza de Calderon, Cuencar | Discover Your South America Blog
Neil and Kathy Carey, ‘Central Square in Cuenca’ (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Old and New Cathedrals

On one side of the Plaza de Calderón is the ‘New Cathedral’ – or La Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción. This stunning masterpiece is characterised by huge domes adorned with glittering blue Czech tiles, a vast gothic edifice dating back to 1885. The reason it is nicknamed the ‘New Cathedral’ is because there is another in the city of Cuenca. The ‘Old Cathedral’ is the name given to El Sagrario, a church built in 1557– the same year that Cuenca was founded by the Spanish. Although it is now a museum, visitors can still admire the old organ and white exterior, while learning about the importance of El Sagrario in Ecuadorian history.

La Sagraria Cathedral, Ecuador | Discover Your South America Blog
La Sagraria Cathedral, Ecuador (Pixabay)

Museo del Banco Central ‘Pumapungo’

There are several fantastic museums in Cuenca, but the Museo del Banco Central (or ‘Pumapungo’) is simply unmissable. As well as a collection of temporary exhibition spaces, you can discover both modern art and archaeological exhibits; including a national ethnography room. It’s a fantastic way to learn more about the various civilisations of Ecuador, complete with dioramas, house reconstructions, costumes and more. Plus, head outside and you can explore the ancient Incan city of Tomebamba, a bird rescue centre, and the ethnobotanic park, comprising 230 species of Andean trees and plants.

Pumapungo, Ecuador | Discover Your South America Blog
Natalia Cartolini, ‘Museo Arqueológico de Pumapungo’ (CC BY-SA 2.0)

El Cajas National Park

Venture just beyond Cuenca and you’ll find El Cajas National Park, a sweeping expanse of lakes, mountains, forests and rolling plains that can be reached within an hour’s drive from the city. There are fantastic outdoor activities to try here, such as hiking, horseback riding and wildlife watching. Spot birds such as Andean Condors and Highland Hummingbirds, mammals like Pumas, Llamas and Coatis, as well as a plethora of plant species, including orchids and polylepis trees. All in all, Las Cajas is a charming nature reserve that makes for an excellent day trip from Cuenca.

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Panama hat workshops

Contrary to what you might assume from its name, Panama hats originate from Ecuador and Cuenca in particular is a top producer of the distinctive garment. One of the top things to do in Cuenca is dip into a Panama hat shop, such as Homero Otrega and Sons, on a factory tour to find out more about the product history and how they are made. Naturally, buying a hat is all part of the fun and makes for a rather special souvenir!

Panama hat, Ecuador | Discover Your South America Blog
Panama hat, Ecuador (Pixabay)

Artisan cafés and local restaurants

As well as museums, architecture and landscapes, one of the best things to do in Cuenca is indulge in the delicious cuisine here. Sip Ecuadorian coffee at artisan cafés and breathe in that aromatic smell, enjoying a spot of people watching as you relish a perfectly made brew. Then, be sure to savour local dishes like fritada (fried pork); cuy (roasted guinea pig); and seco de chivo (braised goat stew). Bon appetit!

Cuenca cuisine, Ecuador | Discover Your South America Blog
Rodrigo Prieto, ‘Cuenca’ (CC BY 2.0)

Ready to start exploring Cuenca and Ecuador? You can tailor your itinerary using our free online trip builder. After selecting a template itinerary, you can then handpick the hotels and activities you want, adjust the durations depending on how long you want to stay in each place, and have fun in the process! Surtrek is always at hand to help out. Call us on 1 866 978 7398 (Canada and USA) or 080 8189 0438 (UK) to talk to an expert, and Discover Your South America with Surtrek!

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