Cuenca is a beautiful city based in Southern Ecuador in the Azuay province. Whilst it is the third largest city in Ecuador it feels quaint, with its cobbled streets, colonial buildings, breathtaking churches and position on the Tomebama river. Whilst most people visit for only a day or two, I urge you to stay longer and explore the surrounding areas such as El Cajas National Park, an area of outstanding natural beauty that will take you through magical cloud forests and turquoise lagunas.
*Continuing your journey south? Why not check out our travel guide on Vilcabamba, the spiritual centre of Ecuador! Heading north? Why not visit the unique Secret Garden hostel in Cotopaxi and kick start your digital detox! A must do on your Ecuador itinerary!
Cuenca has a fantastic network of buses connecting it to other towns and cities in Ecuador. The bus station is called Terminal Terrestre and it is about 1.5km from the centre of the city, across from the airport (see below), located on Avenida Espana. There are frequent buses to Guayquil linking the town to coastal areas. The bus journey is around 4-5 hours depending if you go through the El Cajas National park (this adds on some time but it is stunning) and costs as little as $6 (€5). There are several buses running daily to the capital, Quito, taking around 9 hours in total ($10-$12 / €8-10 at most). If you aren’t keen on long journeys there are plenty of beautiful spots to check out along the way. The bus station is in easy walking distance from the centre of the city. The best companies are:
To get to the main square Parque Calderon, it takes about 15-20 minutes walking from the bus station, or jump in a taxi for $2 €1.70). Taxis do not have meters in Cuenca, so make sure you negotiate a price before you get in.
If you are continuing south and heading to Vilcabamba with connections via Loja, the journey takes 5-7 hours as costs $6-$8 USD (€5-7). If you are heading to Peru, there are international and sleeper buses which depart at 9.30pm and 10pm with Super Semeria and Azuay. Other companies do travel across the border, but require a change which can be dangerous at night, so I would suggest travelling with someone. Buses running to the Peruvian border or on to Chiclayo in Peru, cost between $18-$25 (€16-22).
Cuenca's airport is called, Aeropuerto Mariscal Lamar Airport, which is 2km from the centre of the city and based opposite Terminal Terrestre bus station. You can catch a bus from Avenida Padre Aguirre by the flower market to take you there. There are daily flights from Quito and Guayquil which cost as little as $45 (€39; if you are lucky) but they can cost up to $160 (€138). You can fly with LAN, TAME or Aerogal airlines, but make sure if you have checked baggage you do it online, otherwise you will have to pay significantly more at the airport.
Everything is accessible on foot, and with its compact centre and fairytale cobbled streets, it is the best way to explore this city.
If you did want to jump in a taxi, as I’ve said before, make sure you negotiate a price before you get in as the taxis in Cuenca do not have meters.
There are also buses running from the bus terminal/airport to town for those on a tight budget that cost $0.25 (€0.22). Ensure you have the right change as you will need to buy your bus ticket from the machines at the station. If you are going to the bus station or airport, head to the flower market on Avenida Padre Aguirre to catch it.
Free walking tour:
One of my biggest recommendations when you step foot in a new city or town and this is no exception. You will be taken all around Cuenca’s historical centre and see beautiful sights such as Catedral Nueva (The New Cathedral – come back to climb the spiral staircase; cost $1 / €0.90) as well as the Catedral Viejar, both based around Cuenca’s beating heart and main square, Parque Calderon.
Parque de los Flores:
Love flowers? Head to Parque de los Flores, situated next to the New Cathedral.
- FUN FACT: Flowers, particularly long stem red roses, are one of Ecuador’s biggest exports. Due to the countries position close to the equator and with Cuenca’s high altitude sitting at 2550m (8,366ft) above sea level, flowers grow particularly well here, in fact, the city is well known as the orchid capital of the world.
You can’t go to Cuenca and miss out on visiting the Museo del Banco Central and Pumapungo. This museum that will allow you to delve deep in to the Ecuadorian history and explore a collection of shrunken heads! Cost: Free
Bike through the city at night:
Head to Malliki Hostel on a Thursday evening and rent a bike to check out the city at night. The tour leaves from Parque de la Madre at 8pm and last for 2 hours.
Mirador de Turi:
Head up to the Mirador de Turi, a viewpoint that offers beautiful views over the city of Cuenca. Located in the south of the city, you can walk here or catch a taxi. Use maps.me or ask for a map at your hostel. I would suggest getting a taxi and going with someone else if you are going at night. The views are equally amazing at night and during the day. Cost: Free
After the Mirador de Turi, head down to the Tomebamba river, which flows right through the middle of Cuenca, separating the ‘old town’ with its beautiful colonial buildings from the more modern residential neighbourhoods. Alongside the river are beautiful green spaces and nice walkways away from the hussle and bussle of the city centre. This is a really lovely way to spend the afternoon. Grab a coffee to go from a nearby café and have yourself a relaxing afternoon.
Escape the city: El Cajas National Park
El Cajas National Park is a UNESCO-protected site that offers a beautiful hiking experience. You can head here with an organised tour from your hostel or as an independent activity. If you would like to go by yourself, head to Terminal Terrestre and catch a Cooperativa Transporte Occidental (they are green, cost for return ticket: $1.50 / €1, journey time is 1 hour each way).
Best option in the morning is taking the 8.30am bus. Make sure you tell the bus driver to let you out at La Toreadora. You will need to register here (make sure you bring your ID with you) and pay the entrance fee of $4 (€3) if you plan to stay overnight; if you are just there for the day, it’s free. You can also pick up a map at the office and grab some snacks from a nearby shop.
Go Travel and Talk Top Tip Make sure to pack sunscreen, lots of water, a hat, layered clothing and waterproofs! Whilst it is hot when the sun is shining, prepare for rain and a chill in the air! There are no set times for the buses to return to Cuenca, but there are several running each day. If you don’t want to wait, you can hitch a ride (this is very common) or you can take a taxi. This will cost you around $20 (€17).
Mallki Hostel: A super chilled hostel close to the river and within walking distance of all the museums, bars and city centre. Popular with backpackers, this hostel has a lovely garden, BBQ, onsite balcony bar, nice dorms, exceptional social areas to hang out with fellow travelers and breakfast is included. The staff are super friendly and very knowledgeable when it comes to activities to do in Cuenca. Comes highly recommended. Cost: $6-9 (€5-8) per night for mixed bed dorms.
I stayed at El Cafecito for one night (because Malliki was full) and I must admit, it wasn’t for me. Spread over different floors, there wasn’t much of a communal vibe here and the beds are rock hard. But it does have an amazing café on the roof with incredible views over the main square and Cuenca and 24 hour reception which helped when I arrived at 1am. Cost: $10 (€9) for a bed in a 6 bed mixed dormitory.
- If you are brave enough, try some espumilla – egg whites whipped up with fruit juice and served with a cone! Or there is plenty of cuy (guinea pig) sold in Cuenca.
- For a truly authentic experience, head to the Mercado 10 de Agosto (10 de Agosto). Prepare for a sensory overload with delicious fresh fruit and veg and far too much Chancho hornado (roast pig) for a veggie like me! There are lots of almuerzos (set menus that are super cheap) on offer too, for as little as $2.50 (€2). Head upstairs for the cafeteria and meals.
- As there is a huge expat community in Cuenca, it is not short of western influences, and there are many vegetarian and vegan cafes as well as plenty of options on the menus. Download the happycow app to get the most up to date information.
- Le Petit Jardin a delicious and affordable European and vegetarian friendly restaurant with a gorgeous outside space. Go in the evenings to see it in all its glory when it is lit up. Check them out on Tripadvisor.