Exploring the hidden gems of the Austro region in Ecuador can be a rewarding experience for travelers seeking unique and off-the-beaten-path destinations.
With a variety of options in Azuay, Cañar, Loja, and Morona Santiago, visitors can immerse themselves in nature, delve into diverse cultures, indulge in adventure tourism, and savor tantalizing cuisine.
Here are five little-explored routes in the southern part of the country that have recently gained popularity as tourist attractions, offering a range of services such as lodging, dining, and recreational activities.
Oña: Land of Waterfalls and Attractions
Located 100 kilometers from Cuenca, Oña is a small canton in Azuay with a population of just 3,500 inhabitants.
This hidden gem boasts incredible natural attractions and a burgeoning tourism potential.
The cantonal center, characterized by traditional adobe houses with tile roofs, is a testament to Ecuador’s cultural heritage.
Surrounded by rivers and waterfalls, Oña captivates nature lovers with its scenic beauty. The Marcos Pérez de Castilla commune, a protected area within Oña, features 29 lagoons teeming with diverse bird, mammal, and plant species.
Notable waterfalls can be found in the El Rodeo community, which is accessible by vehicle and offers parking and camping facilities.
Hiking enthusiasts can explore the Estoraques de Jalincapa, stunning natural sculptures formed by erosion.
Additionally, visitors can visit families in the Susudel parish who practice traditional weaving with vertical looms.
Accommodation options in Oña range from glamping sites to colonial haciendas, and the La Caprina farm provides an experiential opportunity to learn about goat farming and cheese production.
Déleg: Ecotourism and Archaeology
Déleg, located between Azuay and Cañar, is a charming canton renowned for its cultural, archaeological, and tourist offerings. Just 30 kilometers north of Cuenca, Déleg serves as a weekend getaway for those seeking an immersive experience.
The well-preserved cantonal center features colorful adobe houses nestled amidst hills and lagoons. Visitors can explore handicrafts made by local artisans at the tourist information point.
The Guabizhún lagoon, which is 210 meters long and 100 meters wide, situated five kilometers from the cantonal center in the Solano parish, offers a serene setting for relaxation. In 2022, an ecotourism center was inaugurated at the lagoon, complete with a restaurant, bar, resting spaces, and boat rentals for scenic rides.
Another highlight of Déleg is the Pachamama archaeological ruins, a sacred plateau situated at an altitude of 2,800 meters above sea level, significant to the Cañari culture.
Visitors can challenge themselves with a climb to the plateau, beginning with a 10-kilometer journey from Déleg to the Borma community.
Accessible by car followed by a walk along a natural path, the site features climbing routes suitable for all ages and skill levels.
Located in the province of Loja, Saraguro is a cultural and scenic treasure situated 210 kilometers from Cuenca.
Considered one of Ecuador’s “magical towns,” Saraguro boasts a rich indigenous heritage and offers a multitude of attractions within its six communities.
The Ñamarín community, a mere 2.5 kilometers from the cantonal center, invites visitors to explore ancestral sites, including the Inca baths. These baths, believed to have been a temporary residence for Atahualpa (the last Inca Emperor before his capture and execution during the Spanish conquest), are nestled amidst caves and trails, culminating in a waterfall where visitors can bathe.
Artisan workshops in Ñamarín showcase the makana technique, an intangible cultural heritage of Ecuador, involving the weaving of sheep’s wool.
Adventure enthusiasts can enjoy the El Vuelo del Gavilán recreational center, which features thrilling attractions such as an extreme swing.
Saraguro offers a delightful fusion of cultural immersion and natural beauty.
Macas: An Experience in the Jungle
Situated just a short distance from Macas—the capital of Morona Santiago— lies an opportunity to immerse oneself in the Shuar culture. This Amazonian canton, approximately 120 kilometers from Cuenca, offers access to Shuar community centers open to tourists.
The community of Buena Esperanza, located around 20 kilometers northeast of Macas along the Troncal Amazónica, provides an ideal setting for jungle exploration, birdwatching, hiking, camping, and experiencing the Shuar way of life.
Etsa, a place built by families from the community, offers typical Shuar cabins in the heart of the jungle, allowing visitors to connect with nature and engage with Shuar residents who act as tour guides, sharing their ancestral knowledge and customs.
A special tour focuses on Amazonian plants such as ayahuasca, cinnamon, and guayusa, providing insights into the rich flora of the region.
Enjoy Nature Without Leaving Cuenca
Within the Yanuncay biocorridor near Cuenca lies an opportunity to enjoy nature without venturing far from the city.
Starting from the Soldados community, near the Cajas National Park at kilometer 37 of the San Joaquín – Chaucha road, this natural and tourist route unveils an array of attractions.
Sport fishing and hidden hot springs, previously unknown to many locals and travelers, can be found in this region.
Native tourist guides offer walking or horseback tours, leading visitors through the polylepis forest, locally known as the “paper forest,” to the source of the Yanuncay River, a significant water source for Cuenca.
Camping and picnics can be organized, and the Buganey ranch offers glamping options amidst the natural beauty of the Soldados community.
The biocorridor also hosts artisan workshops specializing in basketry and other crafts using vegetable fibers. Additionally, the Yanuncay eco-museum in the La Inmaculada community showcases wooden handicrafts.
Restaurants along the biocorridor offer affordable local cuisine, including trout caught in the area.
These are just a few of the Austro region’s array of hidden destinations that offer an escape from the ordinary.
From the waterfalls and cultural heritage of Oña to the ecotourism and archaeology of Déleg, the magic of Saraguro, the Amazonian experience in Macas, and the natural wonders within Cuenca’s vicinity, these off-the-beaten-path routes provide ample opportunities for exploration, adventure, and cultural immersion.