Cuenca has so much to offer in its centro historico, but if you are a resident or a traveler with some extra days, you should consider venturing out of town! Whether you’re looking to hike or visit artisan towns, check out these recommendations below! I have personally travelled to all of these spots (mostly by motorcycle), so feel free to ask any questions!
CAJAS NATIONAL PARK
BEST FOR HIKING, VIEWS, AND FRESH TROUT
Cajas is an absolute must day-trip if you’re visiting Cuenca. Located about an hour of the city, Cajas is a magical land full of lakes, marshes, mountains, and crazy geological formations. Go to Cajas if you’re looking for a hike (intense or easy) and some fresh air! You can spend a couple of hours and grab lunch (try the fresh trout, trucha), have a full day hike, or do a multi-day hiking/camping trip. Check out this article on how to do Cajas so you are prepared for what you’re getting yourself into!!
BEST FOR HIKING & WATERFALLS
Giron is a small town about an hour outside of Cuenca that is known for its waterfalls. The weather is a bit warmer (que rico) and the elevation is lower than Cuenca. The waterfalls are called “El Chorro.” The first waterfall is accessible just across from the parking lot where you will pay a small fee to enter. To arrive to the waterfall takes just a 5 minute walk. There is also the option to go to the second waterfall, referred to as “el segundo,” which is a rigorous hike. Be sure to tell the staff at the restaurant that you are hiking there for your first time and they will ensure you are on the right path and inform you of the two circumstances when there is a fork in the road. The hike will take a few hours. Pack a picnic or eat in the restaurant at El Chorro, or the main restaurant in town has some great eats as well!
While you’re there you might as well check out the Casa de los Tratados, a place that represents a great moment in Ecuadorian history. A significant peace treaty was signed here in 1829 ending the war between Ecuador and Peru.
How to get there: by bus take the bus from Terminal Terrestre to Giron. It will drop you off on the main street of the town, and from there you will grab a camioneta (the truck version of a taxi) up to “el chorro” (the name of the waterfall) for $5. You can also hike from town, but it is a few kilometers up a steep windy road.
GUALACEO, CHORDELEG, AND SIGSIG
BEST FOR ARTISAN PRODUCTS
These three artisan towns are a popular day trip from Cuenca. If you’re interested in seeing a typical Ecuadorian town and do a little shopping, this one is for you!
Gualaceo is known for their leather products and their mercado. This is where people from Cuenca go to buy their shoes – affordable and great quality! Every street you pass will have a shoe shop. While in Gualaceo, be sure to go eat at the mercado and have the classic hornado (roasted pig) along with mote (local corn) and yapingachos (mashed potato pancake). If it is your first time eating the pork take it easy as there is a lot of grease and potentially bacteria your body has not warmed up to yet.
Chordeleg is known for their filigree silver jewelry. These handmade pieces are gorgeous and very affordable. The price points range whether you’re looking for a simple earring or more elaborate bracelet, necklace or dangling earring. While in Chordeleg stop for a homemade ice cream in the main square – yum!
Sigsig is a very small town and probably the least popular of the three towns given that is the farthest from Cuenca. It is known for its hat making and has a women’s cooperative that weaves hats which is known for its high quality and fair treatment to its workers. Wander down to the women’s cooperative to buy a hat and see the town’s attempt at a Guinness Book of World Records for largest weaved hat!
How to get there: If you’re going to do more than one town, start by taking a bus to the farthest and making your way back. Take a bus from Cuenca’s Terminal Terrestre to SigSig, and then a local bus to Chordeleg, and another local bus to Gualaceo. Then take the bus from Gualaceo to Cuenca.
BEST FOR PARAGLIDING
Paute is a small town about 45 minutes outside of Cuenca. It is quaint and warm and worth the visit. The main activity for tourists is paragliding – you can catch a tour from Cuenca with one of the many travel agencies in town, or private message me for a guide’s contact information. If you’re in town, you must go to Restaurante Corvel – the food is delicious and you can enjoy an afternoon dining in the garden out back. Keep an eye on Paute – they are developing a micro-tourism industry and developing great fair trade products to support local artisans and farmers.
BEST FOR HORSEBACK RIDING
Tarqui is a small town about 45 minutes outside of Cuenca. While there is not much to do in Tarqui as a tourist, it is one of the most beautiful drives. You will see some of the greenest landscapes of your life and see a little bit of Ecuador’s rural life. You can do horseback riding tours in Tarqui which I highly recommend (send me a message for a independent guide’s contact info).
BEST FOR SEAFOOD & RELAXED VIBES
Yunguilla is a gorgeous valley about an hour outside of Cuenca. It is so peaceful and the weather tends to be warmer and sunnier than Cuenca! Lots of Cuencanos have vacation homes in Yunguilla that they frequent on the weekends. As a tourist there is not too much to do rather than get some yummy seafood at Bambu and go for pretty walks or a horseback ride. You could, however, visit the Live the Life Lodge to have some yummy eats and have a peaceful weekend getaway!
BEST FOR RUINS & HISTORY
Ingapirca are the famous ruins of Ecuador located about 2 hours from Cuenca in the province of Canar. While the ruins are not huge to explore, they are worth a visit for sure. Ingapirca was dominated by the Canari indigenous population until it was invaded by the Incans. The two groups battled initially, and eventually coexisted peacefully in the space. In the ruins you can see how the Incans worshiped the sun and the Canari worshiped the moon. So cool. There is also a little hike loop you can do while you’re here and see a Canari face in the mountain! If you’re looking to stay the night I highly recommend Posada Ingapirca. It is on the pricier end, but absolutely beautiful and so peaceful.
BEST FOR CHURCHES
Biblian is a cute small town located about an hour outside of Cuenca. It is on the way to Ingapirca, so if you’re driving or planning a tour, you may as well stop here as well! There is not too much to see except the town’s church (featured above) which is actually quite magnificent. It is located on the top of a hill (like many churches in Ecuador) and the inside is partially normal walls and partially exposed land. So cool! Definitely worth the visit.
BEST FOR HOT SPRINGS & RELAXING
Banos de Cuenca (not the adventure town of the north Banos de Ambato) is just about 15 minutes out of town and is known for its spas and hot pools. All of the spas use volcanic water so it is extra healing for the skin! You’ll see lots of folks and families go to the pools as a normal part of life. One of the best spas is Piedra de Agua – you can go just for the pools (which is one of the more expensive entries), or you can stay and do a full circuit. The basic circuit includes a sauna, two types of mud baths, and various pools and steam boxes! So much fun. You can also add massages, facials and skin treatments to your package. Be sure to check their specials for 2×1 deals!
BEST FOR HIKING & WATERFALLS
Naranjal is a town about 2.5 hours from Cuenca on the way to the coast. While you’re there definitely get some fresh marsicos (seafood) and enjoy the hot weather! The main attraction here is the Siete Cascadas de Naranjal (Seven Waterfalls of Naranjal). Just past the town a couple of kilometers there is a beautiful hike where you pass all of these gorgeous waterfalls. There is a park ranger at the entrance who will explain the hike, do your registration, and collect a small fee. The hike takes a few hours and you can hang out at the last (and largest) waterfall to relax or enjoy a picnic. Bring good shoes and a bathing suit – the hike is more rigorous and requires you to climb a bit!
Have I missed any of your favorite day trips? Have any fun day trip stories or travel fails? Let me know in the comments! 🙂
To check out other great articles from Kelly click here.
Feature Photo Credit: Kelly Mitchell