Acclaimed to be one of the world’s great historic cities, Cuenca in the southern tropical highlands of Ecuador is indeed charming. Beautiful colonial-style buildings occupy the streets, alongside magnificent churches and street markets where indigenous people in traditional dress sell their wares. While certain local customs can be baffling, the charms of Cuenca lies in her people and closely-held beliefs that has transcended generations in this well-developed city recognised even by the UNESCO!
From sipping the mysterious Soda A to discovering love potions and soaking in luxurious thermal pools, here’s sharing some top things to do in Cuenca, Ecuador, a destination that caused this author to extend her stay day after day during her limited Ecuadorian vacation:
1. Cuenca Free Walking Tour: Soda A and popular love potions
Kickstart your visit with the Cuenca Free Walking Tour and get acquainted with this beautiful historic city through the eyes of Cuencanos. Mishelle and Bethlehem - bubbly law students and best friends - guided us around the city’s nooks and crannies, sharing the most popular and hidden sights that even a discerning traveller would otherwise have missed.
You would never know or believe that spiritual rituals are conducted on selected days in the local markets (mercados) that also sell fresh produce, delicious cooked food … … and potions for everything and anything that you can think of! PS: Love potions are most popular, according to our giggling young guides.
While exploring the city on foot, you may be recommended to try the hangover remedy - Soda A - in an ageless pharmacy as well as a well-loved local drink made of various flowers at the world-renowned Flower Market. There’s just a bit of everything in this amazing Cuenca Free Walking Tour. Try it and show your appreciation with some gratuities to give back to the local community.
Cuenca Free Walking Tour
Contact: +593 99 848 5390
Website: Cuenca Free Walking Tour
2. Panama Hat Museum: Learn the truth behind Panama hats
While museums are aplenty in Cuenca, there are a few that must not be missed! In case you did not know, the world famous Panama hats did not originate in Panama! They are actually from Ecuador and at the Panama Hat Museum (Museo del Sombrero de Paja Toquilla), you can learn the origin, history and process of handcrafting this useful straw headwear; an accessory much needed to protect one from the vicious Andean sun rays. Entry and guided tour are complimentary while hats are for sale.
Should you buy a hat here in the Panama Hat Museum?
Hat prices are steeper than usual, but if you need justification, know that quality and services are top-notch. Also, you will get a handy hat bag that allows easy carrying as well as a complimentary drink at the mirador cafe (level 2) that boasts a great view of the city.
Panama Hat Museum (Museo del Sombrero de Paja Toquilla)
Address: Calle Larga 10-41, Cuenca, Azuay, Ecuador
Website: Panama Hat Museum
3. Indulge in local food and flavours
From candy street vendors to hipster cafes, market stalls, traditional restaurants and international eateries, it’s a food paradise in Cuenca! There is something to cater to all budgets. For a nice local dining experience, visit Tiesto’s Cafe and Restaurant for an immersive experience - the food is so delicious and exquisitely presented that it is worth splurging! Don’t miss the desserts. Enjoy the humour of your witty waiter at the same time. For those who wants local flavour with a twist, check out Restaurante El Maiz that presents Ecuadorian fusion food in a quaint environment.
For true foodies and the budget-conscious, Mercado 10 De Agosto - a local marketplace - serves some of the best local dishes at affordable prices. At level two of this market, you will find a section of stalls selling cooked food and drinks. Enjoy ceviche (fresh seafood in citrus juices and spices), soup of assorted flavours or hornado (roasted pork with corn). For the freshest fruits, head on to Feria Libre - the largest local market in Cuenca.
Tiesto's Cafe and Restaurant
Address: Juan Jaramillo 4-89 y Mariano Cueva, Juan Jaramillo 4-89, Cuenca, Ecuador
Website: Tiesto’s Cafe and Restaurant
Restaurante El Maiz
Address: Calle Larga 1-279 y Calle de los Molinos | Sector Banco central, Cuenca, Ecuador
Website: Restaurante El Maiz
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4. Piedra del Agua in Baños: Enjoy thermal pools and spa pampering
A mere 20-minute drive from Cuenca city center, the small town of Baños (meaning bath in Spanish) is sometimes confused with its more popular counterpart, Baños de Agua Santa in Tungurahua but this is precisely where its appeal lies. There are a few thermal pools establishments in this unassuming town, but Piedra del Agua stands out by word-of-mouth.
At Piedra del Agua in Cuenca, there is a main entrance along Calle Paseo de la Guadalupana. If you’re coming by taxi, you’ll be dropped off in the parking lot just across from the reception, so you don’t have to worry about getting lost. Once you arrive, enjoy the sight of a well-maintained spa environment, not unlike that of a Japanese onsen.
If time and money permit, you should definitely go for the full package that includes soaking in mud baths, thermal pools, a massage session and dessert with champagne! On selected weekdays, there’s a one-for-one promotion so do call for more details. It’s also worth noting that this establishment has been nominated as one of the finalists for “Best Spa of the Year - North and South America” in the World Spa & Wellness Awards 2022, making it a first-class spa you don’t want to miss.
Piedra del Agua
Address: Calle Paseo de la Guadalupana and Calle Manantial
Website: Piedra del Agua
5. Shopping for local artisan products
Popular for their ceramics and hats amongst other artisan craftwork, there is a wide variety of shopping in Cuenca, ranging from shopping malls, street shops and local markets. For the lazy shoppers like this author, the one-stop Centro Municipal Artesanal (also known as Casa de la Mujer meaning ‘house of the women’) in the city center is a two-storey building that offers Ecuadorian crafts. Besides the usual hats, pieces of jewellery and clothing, there are plenty of trinkets and cultural souvenirs.
Centro Municipal Artesanal
Address: Calle General Torres 7-33 and Presidente Córdova, Cuenca, Ecuador
Website: Centro Municipal Artesanal
Cuenca, Ecuador: Why everyone loves this city?
Located in the heart of the Andean mountains, Cuenca is the capital city of Azuay Province and most European city in Ecuador, which enjoys a yearlong spring-like climate. Embodying true qualities of a Spanish old town, Cuenca reflects its age and revival through well-maintained buildings and captivating street art. Colours fill the streets, radiating beyond infrastructure, from people in traditional dress and their iconic hat. A lively atmosphere prevails even on empty streets after dark. It is not difficult to understand why everyone is flocking to retire in the well-developed but affordable Cuenca. Visit, and you shall understand too.
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