Ecuador is far more than the glistening, lively waters of the Galapagos Islands and cobblestone streets of Quito. The nation is teaming with a vast array of natural and historical sites that will pique the interest of any traveler. In the south of the country, tucked away high in the Andes Mountains, lies the stunning colonial city of Cuenca, Ecuador. Located approximately 290 miles from the capital city of Quito, this colonial city is one of our bucket list places for any travel to Ecuador. We have set out to find you the best day trips from Cuenca to explore the gorgeous area while you make this your base.
Beyond the city’s narrow stone streets lies the natural beauty of the Andes; protected national parks, ancient ruins, artisan pueblos, and so much more. From Cuenca, a traveler can take a variety of day trips to experience the best of Ecuador’s interior. Enjoy these incredible places while staying amongst some of the best-preserved colonial sites in the Americas in Cuenca.
Continue below to learn about the 9 best day trips from Cuenca, Ecuador.
Day Trip to Cajas National Park
If you can only do one day trip from Cuenca, it should be a visit Cajas National Park. Parque Nacional Cajas lies due west of Cuenca, Ecuador, a mere 30km away from the town’s city center. The park includes 2854 sq km of stunning mountainous grasslands unlike anything seen anywhere else. Within the park’s boundaries, travelers will find hilly paramo (high treeless plateau) atop high Andes mountains, dense Polylepis tree forests, hundreds of icy mountain lakes, and unique flora and fauna. The 2854 sq km of Cajas National Park is actually the most biodiverse section of paramo in the entire Andes range.
How to get to Parque Nacional Cajas (Cajas National Park)
The drive from Cuenca, Ecuador to Parque Nacional Cajas takes approximately one hour. This makes the park the perfect distance for a day trip from Cuenca. Several professional tour operators run half-day and full-day tours of the park departing from Cuenca. Alternatively, the park can also be explored without a guide.
Visitors to the park should ensure that they acclimate to the high altitude. The park sits at an elevation of 13,550 feet.
Cost to get in to Cajas National Park
Free. As of the writing of this post there is no cost to get into Parque Nacional Cajas but there is a fee for overnight camping.
Things to note when traveling to Parque Nacional Cajas
Visitors to Cajas National Park need to register upon arrival. Bring a legal form of ID for the registration. Keep in mind that the altitude is very high and beware of altitude sickness. Make sure you acclimate at least a few days before attempting to hike in the park. Make frequent stops, drink lots of water and make sure to breathe deeply. Bars of chocolate are said to help so bring some to snack on. If you start feeling light-headed rest and descend to a lower altitude.
Day trip to Devil’s Nose Train
One of the most famous day trips from Cuenca is the Devil’s Nose Train. Once considered one of the most daring feats of engineering in human history, the Devil’s Nose Train traces mountain switchbacks as the Andes descend to the Ecuadoran coast. Construction of the Devil’s Nose train began in 1872 but wasn’t completed until 1905. Nearly 2000 workers died during the construction due to the hazardous mountain landscape and various illnesses. The railroad’s construction initially seemed impossible, but American engineers worked alongside Ecuadorians to help tackle the difficult project.
The result is a track that drops 1000 meters in a mere 12 km along a zig-zagged path carved into the mountainous landscape. The train descends the winding tracks by moving forwards and backward down the zig-zagging tracks until it reaches the bottom.
How to book tickets for the Devil’s Nose Train
It’s recommended to book tickets for the train in advance, especially if you want a window seat for the scenic journey. You can book directly with the train organization or through most local tour agencies.
Cost of Devil’s Nose Train
As of the writing of this post, the cost of a ticket for the Devil’s Nose Train is $40 and a senior pass is $35.
How to get to the Devil’s Nose Train
The Devil’s Nose train leaves from Alausi, which is about 3.5 hours from Cuenca by car or bus. If you book with an agency, they may offer transportation packages to and from the train. If not, you can also travel via public transportation by bus.
Day Trips from Cuenca to Ingapirca Ruins
For history buffs, one of the best day trips from Cuenca would be to see the Ingapirca ruins. Ingapirca means “Inca wall” in Kichwa. The Ingapirca Ruins are Ecuador’s most significant pre-Colombian archeological site and are a must-visit for history buffs. Ingapirca is located in the Cañar province of Ecuador. These ruins are held together like many other pre-Colombian Inca sites, with perfectly measured and cut stones pieced together without adhesive. The ruins are quite impressive, with The Temple of the Sun being the most significant of the area.
Aside from the ruins themselves that are interesting, the area that the ruins themselves are located in is stunning. Perched on top of rolling mountain landscape, walking around the ruins gives you panoramic views of the surrounding area and villages.
How to get to the Ingapirca Ruins
Located 80km (or 50 miles) from Cuenca, the Ingapirca Ruins are about one and a half hours by car from Cuenca, Ecuado. Travel and guided towards can be arranged through many local tour operators. There are also buses that travel to Ingapirca from Cuenca.
How much does it cost to visit the Ingapirca Ruins
The cost to visit the Ingapirca ruins $6 for non-residents as of the writing of this post.
Day trip to Gualaceo
A mere 45 minutes of descent from Cuenca will bring you to Gualaceo, a charming town within the Azuay province whose fertile, river-fed landscape has earned it the nickname “El Jardin del Azuay” (The Garden of Azuay). In Gualaceo, travelers will find a warmer climate than Cuenca, delightful colonial architecture, open-air markets with fresh produce and local handicrafts, and flowing rivers that bisect the city as they flow from the Andes to the coast.
How to get to Gualaceo
Several tour operators lead group and private tours of Gualaceo. You can also reach Gualaceo by bus.
Day trip to Chordeleg Village
Also located in the Azuay province is the quaint town of Chordeleg, which is known for its silver jewelry. Similar to the above and below destination, these day trips from Cuenca are perfect for those who like shopping for unique crafts.
Chordeleg and many other towns and cities in the Azuay province still subscribe to the Spanish Guild System that requires towns to have a manufacturing specialty. In colonial times, the citizens of Chordeleg were metalworkers. Today many of them are artisan jewelers and silversmiths. Travelers frequent Chordeleg to shop the handicraft markets and tour the town square.
How to get to Chordeleg from Cuenca
Driving to Chordeleg from Cuenca takes approximately 50 minutes. You can also take a bus from Cuenca to Chordeleg in just an hour, or take a guided tour.
Day trip to Sigsig
Another of the Azuay province’s many treasures is Sigsig, located 90 minutes east of Cuenca, Ecuador in a fertile valley surrounded by towering mountains. Like Gualaceo and Chordeleg, Sigsig is known for its handicrafts, specifically their handmade toquilla hats.
You likely know the hat by a different name, the Panama hat. Did you know that Panama hats aren’t actually made in Panama? That’s right! Ecuador is really the birthplace and producer of these hats. In addition to the town’s craft markets, visitors will delight in the natural wonders of Sigsig’s mountainous surroundings like Chobshi Cave and the Zhingate lakeside beach.
Day trips from Cuenca to Sigsig are easily accessed by bus and is also included in many guided tours of the area’s craft towns.
Day trip to El Chorro de Giron (Giron Waterfall)
Just under an hour from Cuenca flows a spectacular tiered cascade known as El Choro de Giron. Located near the tiny town of Giron, El Chorro de Giron boasts two spectacular waterfalls that can be accessed for only $2 and a short hike through the enchanting cloud forest. For adventurous travelers, there’s a longer and more arduous trail that leads to the top of the falls.
How to get to El Chorro de Giron or Giron Waterfalls
To enjoy the falls, visitors can take a guided day trip, make the 1 hour drive to Giron themselves, or take a bus to the town and a taxi to the falls.
Day trips from Cuenca to Busa Lake
Trips to Busa Lake are often included in tours of El Chorro de Giron. Laguna Busa (Busa Lake) is a stunning mountain lake surrounded by rocky peaks. Relax and take in the lakeside views of the dramatic surrounding topography, or trek the perimeter trail for a more active adventure.
How to get to Busa Lake, Ecuador.
Getting to Busa lake takes approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes by car. You can also take a tour to Busa lake which is usually combined with El Chorro de Giron through a tour company.
Day trip to visit a Cocoa Farm
Chocolate lovers will rejoice and jump at the opportunity to visit a local cocoa farm to watch chocolate being harvested and produced. Cocoa farms are the perfect day trips from Cuenca for those with a sweet tooth. Visitors can see how cocoa beans are harvested, ground, and transformed into the beloved chocolate we consume. Guests will also learn about the fragility of the cocoa plants and the threats a changing climate brings to the industry.
Explore Colonial Cuenca
Ecuador is truly a traveler’s paradise with seemingly endless places to tour, trek, and explore. While visiting the above areas is highly recommended, if you are short on time make sure you take the time to explore the beautiful colonial city of Cuenca.
Cuenca is considered to be one of the cheapest destinations in South America. The sheer volume of historic sites and natural wonders can leave travelers overwhelmed, and it’s easy to overlook what is right under your nose.
Heading to Guayaquil or Quito on your Ecuador itinerary? Check out the best day trips from Guayaquil and the best weekend trips from Quito. For a one of a kind culinary experience while in Ecuador, definitely don’t miss this bucket list restaurant in Mindo.