Ecuador is widely known for the beautiful beaches that dot the coastline and less for its interior cities. The interior cities, however, rival the charm and laid back atmosphere of the beach towns with Cuenca being a particular highlight.
Cuenca is located in the south close to the Peruvian border, three and a half hours inland from Guayaquil, Ecuador’s second largest city. It’s colonial charm and cobbled stone streets is the main draw card for visiting.
There are plenty of great things to do in Cuenca for the day, but if we had to narrow it down to spend one day in Cuenca Ecaudor, here are our top recommendations!
Top Things to Do in Cuenca Ecuador in One Day
8:00 am: Hike the Parque Nacional Cajas (El Cajas National Park)
An easy day trip from Cuenca (33km west) and hands down one of the top things to do in Cuenca Ecaudor is the Parque Nacional Cajas or El Caja National Park. This national park is located in the highlands of Ecuador. The national park is known for its extensive hiking trails which traverse through evergreen cloud forests, passing lakes and lagoons and reaching altitudes of 4400m (13,000ft).
The striking landscapes are characterized by, windswept peaks, rocky outcrops. Valleys over grown with twisted trees, form almost impenetrable labyrinth’s to squeeze through. Deep blue lakes and lagoons play host to water reeds, shrubs and high altitude water foul.
Spend your morning hiking one of the trails such as the Laguna Toreadora hike. Make sure to take a photo of the map in the visitor center as the trails are not clearly marked. We managed to get lost along the way and turned our two hour hike into a three hour hike.
It is also important to pack appropriately when visiting El Cajas National Park. According to the national park website, the weather in El Cajas is tempermental. The morning we visited, it was briskly cold with a light mist and the wind was blowing steadily.
And as a reminder, even short hikes can be grueling at this altitude so pack plenty of water and food, take plenty of breaks and allow yourself extra time to complete even shorter circuits.
Wander the Streets of the Historic Old Town
After hiking, turn your attention to exploring the charming old town of Cuenca Ecuador. Cuenca is the perfect city to explore on foot as the historic district is compact. The city itself has a European feel to it as opposed to many of the other cities in Ecuador that we visited.
Even though Cuenca is the third-largest city in Ecuador, the city has managed to retain the charm of a small town. Narrow streets are lined with cathedrals, chruches and colonial homes which make you feel as though you are perhaps wandering the streets of Cuenca, Spain than Cuenca, Ecuador.
While meandering through the old town in Cuenca, make sure you visit these highlights:
- Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (New cathedral)
- Iglesias Sagrario (Old cathedral)
- Homer’s Ortega P. & Hijos (Panama Hat Factory)
Take some time to explore the stunningly beautiful colonial architecture, the famous Panama Hat Factory and soak in the atmosphere of this unique town.
Sip the Local Flavors with an Afternoon Coffee
One of the top things to do in Cuenca Ecuador in one day is to pretend to be
Living on the road, there is nothing better than the simple pleasure of finding a great little coffee shop to catch up on work, send a few emails and enjoy the air conditioning (living in a van is not for the faint of heart). Having dropped off our laundry at Lavanderia Los Angeles we stumbled upon Cafe Lujano. A local coffee shop serving up tasty local coffee and excellent pastries. Plus it is out of the center of town, so it doesn’t come with the gringo prices.
Dine on Local Ecuadorian Food
Ecuador is not as known for its culinary delicacies as some of it’s neighboring countries. Having spent the better part of a month in Ecuador, we both were still looking for the Ecuadorian dish to brag on. Well we finally found it just one day before we left. On our way to the national park, we ended up spending the night just outside a roadside restaurant due to heavy rains. Here we were told about a regional specialty called Mote Sucio.
A heaping plate of corn, chicharron (fried pork), eggs, with onion gralic and spices, Mote Sucio reminds me a bit of an Ecuadorian style gnocchi. Rich and full of fat, it will curb your hungry after a heavy night of drinking or put you into a food coma if only just for a little bit.
Check out La Tasha De Los Hermanos En Ruta for mote sucio in the city. All of the restaurants near the “hip” area of town cater to tourists and the more elite Ecuadorian. This little restaurant is more authentic and is significantly cheaper than nearby restaurants.
READ MORE: Ecuador’s Under-Loved Food Scene
Enjoy Cuenca’s Nightlife
End your one day in Cuenca Ecuador with a bar hop through the old town. Our first stop on our tour of Cuenca’s bars was La Compania. A local craft brewery serving up their own beers as well as other local brews. We found the beer to be average and the staff rude. Suffice to say, we stayed for only one beer before making our way to another local haunt.
Our next stop was La Cigale. Don’t be deterred by the fact that this place is a hostel bar. And do not think of a traditional bar. The atmosphere is more akin to a restaurant with only tables available for seating and no true bar. But both locals and tourists sat around the tables throughout capitalizing on the beer and cocktail specials. This spot caters more to the budget friendly traveler offering a solid happy hour running between 16:00 and 20:00 each day.
Our final stop was Stencil Bar and Cafe. If you are in to dive bars then you have come to the right place. There is nothing fancy or inspiring about this bar and to be honest it is a little bit dirty. But what they lack in charm, they make up for in cheap cocktails and friendly staff. It reminded me of my college years at El Centro or Georgia Bar in Athens, GA. Grab a beer, chat with the locals and enjoy the true authentic Cuenca experience without being surrounded by (other) tourists and without being charged “gringo” prices.
Where to Stay for One Day in Cuenca Ecuador
Van Life Ecuador
If you are overlanding then the best place to stay is down by the rive (aka in a van down by the river). Only one kilometer from the center of town, you can park in a small parking lot near the gate. There is a watchman who watches the park next door 24/7 making it a safe place to stay. Make sure you speak with the guard and give a small tip for watching your vehicle during your stay. It felt extremely safe especially for a city camp.
Hotels and Hostels
While not directly in the center of town, the best budget option in town is Mallki Hostel just south of the river. Located only about a 10-15 min walk to town, it provides a homey and welcoming haven in Cuenca. Plus the breakfast pancakes with fresh fruit is short to make for an enjoyable morning after a night out in Cuenca.
Looking for a little more comfort than a van down by the river or dorm accomodation? Try out on of the hundreds of options in the historic district which have found their home in the historic buildings that make up this UNESCO world heritage listed area.