The colonial city of Cuenca in the Ecuadorian Sierra is a little slice of paradise perched high up in the forest-green mountains with epic scenery, stunning architecture, the UNESCO-protected El Centro (downtown), and fabulous food and drink spots. Just wandering through this tranquil Andean city, with its charming European feel and warm, lively Latin American vibe, is the best way to immerse yourself in the rich Sierra culture and discover its many hidden gems. Enjoy our insider guide to the experiences, culinary hotspots, and hotels in this special little part of the world.
The Best Things to Do in Cuenca
Immerse yourself in the History and Culture of El Centro
Waking up in this much-adored Ecuadorian city begins with being greeted by the refreshing mists that come off Cuenca’s surrounding peaks. Grab a coffee, and go for a stroll through the quaint downtown to explore the fruit and flower markets, bustling squares like Parque Calderón, and family-owned almuerzo (lunch) restaurants. Come evening the brisk temperatures invite you to cozy up in alpaca wools and settle in for a warm canelazo or hearty typical dish, which is best enjoyed at spots like El Mercado or outdoor vendors on Don Bosco street.
Explore el Cajas National Park
No trip to Cuenca is complete without exploring Cajas National Park, where you can absorb the beauty and views of the majestic Andean mountains. In this vast, untouched space, llamas roam free and the mountains look even bigger and more beautiful than on postcards or the Netflix series “The Magical Andes” which inspired our wanderlust for visiting this natural wonder. Insider tip: You may be on the equator, but it’s going to be chilly so layer up.
Marvel at the city views from Turi
Set on a high point in the south of the city, Turi is a stunning lookout spot with a beautiful old church and restaurants that offer full views of Cuenca below. If you’re lucky, you may even see fireworks and hear lively music as you spot iconic landmarks like the blue domes of the new cathedral, the stretches of river, the start of el Cajas, and el centro. Active travelers will appreciate the stair climb (be warned: at altitude, this isn’t for the faint of heart) but those who don’t want to brave the never-ending staircase can simply direct taxi drivers to el mirador de Turi. Adventurous travelers can also enjoy the thrill of soaring on a swing that flies high about Cuenca. Turi is definitely the place to try canelazo, a traditional warm cinnamon-spiced drink that’s common in the highlands of Ecuador. Insider tip: Sucré Salé is where it’s at. The cabin restaurant has one of the prettiest vantage points of the city with friendly staff and mouth-watering local eats.
Visit the Hot Springs
In this nature-filled part of Ecuador, eucalyptus trees line the clear mountain rivers that snake their way throughout the city and thermal hot springs are dotted throughout the area. In the mountains on the outskirts of the city, in the region of Baños de Cuenca, you’ll find Piedra de Agua Spa, which is home to naturally-heated thermal pools, some outdoors and some in underground caves. Be sure to book a pampering experience: the spa has eucalyptus steam rooms, traditional massages, and volcanic mud masks. Stay until sundown to enjoy a drink in one of the pools or a poolside dinner created with ingredients fresh from the garden.
The Best Places to Eat and Drink in Cuenca
Sunsets in Cuenca look like gorgeous pastel-colored cotton candy clouds that peep above the valley. The best way to enjoy sundown is to settle in for dinner and a glass of wine at Negroni, a rooftop patio bar and restaurant in the city’s main square called Parque Calderón. Despite being relatively new, Negroni quickly made a name for itself as one of the city’s most popular spots. And it’s easy to see why with its 360-degree views of the UNESCO-designated old town and Cuenca’s most iconic building: the cathedral with its three blue domes that light up at night.
Ecuador is known as the country of four worlds (Amazon, Andes, Coast, and Galapagos), so naturally, the food is as unique and diverse as the local landscape. Globetrotters visiting Cuenca wanting to experience the best of authentic Ecuadorian cooking, all made with fresh locally grown ingredients should head to Dos Sucres. Here the chefs at Dos Sucres work closely with local farmers to serve up the best of those signature Ecuadorian flavors, the kind of food enjoyed in abuela’s (grandma’s) kitchen but with a modern twist. The result is delicately plated works of art like lamb on a bed of corn with fresh vegetables that have garnered restaurant recognition by The World’s 50 Best Discovery. It’s also definitely worth sticking around for desserts like apple tarte accompanied with a strong coffee and tropical fruit cocktails.
Lacraft Beer Garden
The best way to get a feel for a place is to go where the locals do. Lacraft Beer Garden is, as its name suggests, is a craft beer patio that’s always hopping on Friday and Saturday nights. Between its repurposed shipping container construction, romantic fairy light adornment, and its extensive selection of locally sourced brews you’ll soon see why it’s the top choice for locals, expats, and visitors. Insider tip: getting a table can be hard, so head over in the late afternoon, which also happens to coincide with happy hour. Winning.
Tucked inside Cuenca’s most Instagrammable cobblestone alley, Calle Santa Ana is Distrito Tapas. Set inside Parque Calderón, it’s the perfect pitstop post exploring the beautiful part. A Pinterest-pretty patio, grab a seat, and order their signature pulpo a la parrilla (grilled octopus) paired with a delicious cocktail like Cuenca tornasol or the mojito nube (cloud mojito). Or, if you want to explore the full cocktail menu, order the five drinks combo. Salud.
Where to stay in Cuenca
Tucked away in Cuenca, el centro (aka downtown), Mansión Alcazar is a boutique hotel and architectural wonder that offers one of the most luxurious stays in the city. Built way back in 1900, a stay here will make you feel like Andean royalty as you drift off in cloud-like beds and marvel at the views of the blooming courtyard below. The hotel also has a restaurant that invites you to sample the finest Ecuadorian culinary delights. Think gourmet meals of shrimp ceviche or salmon almondine with creamy risotto and scones topped with homemade jams on immaculately-set tables. For dessert, they’ll recommend their tarte tatin to top it all off. The on-site spa is also a standout with its divine Turkish bath, Ecuadorian cacao products and ancestral Incan medicinal plant treatments.
TRYP by Wyndham Cuenca Zahir
Located in a trendy neighborhood near Estadio Alejandro Serrano Aguilar (the city’s sporting and entertainment stadium) TRYP by Wyndham Cuenca is cool and modern and surrounded by hip bars, cafes, restaurants and the locally-favored gourmet food shop Luvimar (definitely worth a visit). The hotel is also perfectly positioned close to the gorgeous Yanuncay River, a perfect place for a stroll to enjoy the picturesque scenery. Expect swanky rooms, a yummy traditional breakfast to start the day off right and an incredible rooftop restaurant with killer views. Speaking of, it would be a mistake to miss out on dinner or drinks inside one of the domes of Zielo City View (also nearby) to witness the scene of Cuenca lit up at night while sipping delicious South American vinos.
Casa Hibiscus Hotel
Location, location. While not exactly luxurious, this renovated historic home with exposed-beam interiors and rooms overlooking an airy well-manicured garden with a babbling fountain offers an authentic Cuenca experience. Located in Calle Larga, a stone’s throw from the banks of the Tomebamba River, it will also give you to cute cafes, restaurants and museums.