Plan the best road trip from Quito to Cuenca.
As a child, I used to spend most summers, holidays, and sometimes Christmases in Cuenca. I really enjoyed doing this road trip from Quito to Cuenca together with my family.
The fact is that my dad grew up in Cuenca and most of his family lives in this colonial city in the Southern part of the highlands of Ecuador. This has allowed me to know the 432 km of road from Quito to Cuenca, including attractions, restaurants, and accommodation options rather well.
Written in Collaboration with Marco Carpio.
Photography: Kjell Anders Pettersen, Cristina Pettersen Carpio
How long does it take?
The distance between these two cities is 432km, which takes approximately 8 hours by car or 12 hours by bus.
If you are driving from Quito, take the Pan-American Highway (E35) south through Latacunga, past Ambato, and Riobamba, all the way to Cuenca.
And remember to enjoy some of the highlights along the way! Here are some ideas for what to see, do and eat along the way that will help you enjoy a memorable trip from Quito to Cuenca.
About the trip
Depart from Quito:
The city has two bus terminals, one located North (Carcelen ) and one South (Quitumbe) from there several bus companies offer comfortable transportation to different destinations in the country.
The road trip begins in the capital city, Quito, with an altitude of 2800 m.s.n.m. and along a paved highway. During the journey, you will cross several autochthonous groups of the highlands, each with its own traditions and clothing.
Attractions and activities along the way:
Admire the Avenue of the volcanoes:
Located in the Ecuadorian Highlands (Sierra), stretching 325 km, you find the Avenue of the volcanoes composed of impressive peaks that run from the north to the south of Ecuador. It was the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt who named them.
In fact, eight of the highest summits in the country are found here, and they include Chimborazo, Antisana, Cayambe, Tungurahua, and Cotopaxi.
The main highway connecting the city of Quito with Cuenca traverses the inter-Andean alley of Ecuador with its stunning views, through the valleys located along two mountain ranges formed from volcanic eruptions.
Some of these are snow-capped volcanoes higher than 5.000 m.s.n.m. and most of them have snow permanently. You will drive past the two parallel mountain ranges that split the dry west from the Amazon basin to the east. Creating peaks and valleys, the latter named after the volcanoes where they are located: Pichincha, Cotopaxi, Tungurahua, and Chimborazo. Cañar named after the main river and Azuay for the mountain range.
Interact with indigenous communities
There is yet another highlight to this trip. All along the way, you will be able to admire and hopefully also meet and learn about some of the different indigenous groups located in the Andes cordillera.
Once you arrive in the province of Tungurahua on your way to Guaranda, you will find several indigenous cultures: the Chibuleos, the Salasacas, in Chimborazothe Panzaleos, in Cañar the Cañaris, and further south in Loja the Saraguros, each one of them with own clothing and traditions.
Once you arrive in Ambato, you can opt to visit the Salasaca indigenous group.
#Travel like a local and enjoy an authentic experience in #Ecuador! When you visit Hostal Runa Huasi you get to learn about the Salasaca’s tradition and millenary culture. You will meet and interact with Alonso Pilla and his family, at their lovely hostal located 25 minutes from the town of Ambato. Activities you can experience there include: learning about the uses & properties of plants ? in ancient medicine, making your natural shampoo, going on tours of the area. Plan your visit to lean about the Salasaca Community: www.hostalrunahuasi.com Learn more about Ecuador, visit: www.visitecuadorandsouthamerica.com #southamerica #visitsouthamerica #letsgosomewhere #nature #natgeotravelpic #natgeo #wonderful_places #welltraveled #VisitSAmerica #seetheworld #travel #experience #livelovetravel #wanderlust #instatraveling #instapassport #follow #l4l #hostalrunahuasi #ambato #salasaca #highlands #communitytourism
At the same time, you will see small indigenous villages, where time seems to stand still, spellbinding landscapes, and much more.
Watch this video for some of the highlights along the way.
Stops along the way
1.- Quito – First World Heritage Site
Start by spending a day at the historic center of Quito, admiring the colonial churches, sculptures, and paintings. Quito is the capital city of Ecuador, with approx. 3 million inhabitants.
The city is located in a valley formed from the many layers of ashes that resulted in over 60 m of sediment from the volcanoes surrounding the city.
Where to eat?
The casual ambiance that Café Mosaico offers, allows its visitors to enjoy breathtaking vistas of colonial Quito. I love this place!
Accommodation while in Quito: Here are some of my suggestions.
Café de la Vaca, Machachi
One of the first stops I recommend during your road trip! Stop for a traditional breakfast or a juicy milanesa at Café de la Vaca in Machachi.
2.- Cotopaxi National park
Enjoy the contrasts that the scenery along the highlands region unfurls. The avenue of the volcanoes is a highlight for anyone that visits Ecuador and one of my favorite sights is Cotopaxi Volcano. Learn more and plan here your Visit to the Cotopaxi National Park.
Chugchucaras de la Rosita, Latacunga
If you are a meat-eater, then you should stop in Latacunga, in order to taste the traditional chugchucaras at the famous restaurant Chugchucaras de la Rosita.
4.- Ambato –
The city of Ambato is located in the highlands of Ecuador and is most known as the place where writer Juan Leon Mera lived. You can visit the villa-style house: Quinta Juan Leon Mera. Ambato is well-known for its bread (pan de Ambato) and leather products at Quisapincha.
Fruit ice cream, Salcedo
Stop along the way in Salcedo to taste helados de Salcedo, the best fruit ice cream in town.
Where to stay
A wonderful, comfortable place to stay on your way to Cuenca or Quito and to enjoy day trips to Banos is Casa Quinta Clementina.
This lovely town is known for its natural hot springs and offers a great variety of outdoor activities.
Love waterfalls, hikes, horseback riding? Here are some other things to do in Baños.
6.- Riobamba, Chimborazo –
The trip can be a bit long and you might want to consider dividing it in two. Spending the night in Riobamba, the capital city of Chimborazo province would be my recommendation.
Riobamba is a cozy Andean city, with lively local markets, architectural gems, and lovely plazas. From here you can organize day trips to Chimborazo and other mountains. Here are some suggestions for activities and accommodation.
Enjoy a warm cup of Canelazo, Chimborazo
A great place to enjoy traditional food and drinks while enjoying the view of imposing Chimborazo mountain, before you arrive in Chimborazo is Hostería la Andaluza.
7.- Town of Guano
When you visit this small village you can enjoy the city’s museum, the church of la Asunción, and meeting Baltazar Ushca, the last “Iceman” of the Chimborazo. Some other highlights include their lovely handmade carpet and rug weaving industry.
8.- Devil’s nose in Alausi
Nowadays this train ride is purely an activity for tourists who come here to enjoy this exhilarating ride, along the most spectacular track of the railway, at “Nariz del Diablo” (Devil’s Nose). More details, here.
This is one of my favorite places near Cuenca. Ingapirca is the biggest archeological site and vestige from the many ancient civilizations that lived in the country. I have an article with more information to help you plan your visit to Ingapirca.
We have arrived at our destination, a lovely city to visit and a perfect point of departure to enjoy other day trips. This charming city nestled in the Andes Cordillera has over 300.000 inhabitants and is one of the largest ones in the country. The city has 4 rivers that come from the national park Cajas located 3.500 m.a.s.l. and can be colder than Quito, so expect an average of 15C, which gets warmer when the sun shines.
By night the city is vibrant and offers a wealth of activities along the area known as el Barranco by river Tomebamba. These range from Restaurants to bars with live music.
Read more about the highlights of Cuenca.
11.- Cajas National Park
El Cajas, as we call it is located 30 km from Cuenca, and some of its lakes can be reached in less than an hour. (drive and hike) after driving through a nice road. Activities that you can enjoy here include trout fishing, horseback riding, and birdwatching.
12.- San Bartolomé, Gualaceo and Chordeleg craft towns
A visit to Cuenca should include a visit to the craft towns of San Bartolomé, Gualaceo, and Chordeleg. In order to arrive in Gualaceo you need to drive 30 minutes through a paved road with 2 lanes while you admiring two rivers: Cuenca and Paute.
Gualaceo is a small quaint town with a wide range of hotel and restaurant options for its visitors. You can enjoy the warm weather in Gualaceo, with an average of 20C.
Some traditional dishes include hornado (pig), mote pelado, habas with tostado, and the one we have chosen as our favorite, tortillas made with corn.
Breathtaking landscapes are to be enjoyed while you drive through this town located by the Santa Barbara river with its tranquil waters, fields with several colorful crops, and high mountains.
Some of the crops you find along the way include corn, potato, beans, fruit such as capulies, peaches, avocado, oranges, lemons, and guayaba. This is an area for sugar cane production prime ingredient for aguardiente.
Aguardiente is mixed with fruits, naranjilla, cinnamon, sangurachi, and blackberry.
Activities in Gualaceo
Gualaceo is a es una ciudad artesanal con especialidad en los zapatos y artículos de cuero, como carteras y sacos de buen diseño y también las Macanas, chales de colores y texturas propias de la región elaboradas en telares manuales, para lucir con sombreros de paja toquilla también elaborados por los campesinos de la región.
Follow the paved road, and arrive in the town of Chordeleg, the intricate technique of filigree jewelry making in Chordeleg, nearly rendered us speechless.
Other industries include clothing, leather furniture, and wood.
La vía de acceso es de 5 km de tercera categoría, asfaltada y pintada.
There are lots of great reasons to get from Quito to Cuenca by car. You will be able to admire spectacular landscapes along the avenue of the volcanoes, colorful valleys, picturesque villages with talented artisans, meet and learn about indigenous people, eat ice cream, buy local products, and much more.
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If you want more in-depth information and also a guide that you can bring along during your trip, I recommend the travel guide Lonely Planet Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands.
This is a great source of information and tips, maps, and all you need if you plan on visiting Ecuador. I personally like the option of having a hard copy version where I can take notes and have them at hand.
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