Cuenca is a great city to not only visit, live and enjoy but it is also a great base camp to the surrounding areas.
The most famous day trip from Cuenca has to be Cajas National Park and for good reason too. Athough it typically rains in the afternoon so go early; dress for cooler temperatures and rain, rain, rain.
For a short hike I don’t think a guide is needed. Many buses go to Cajas and it is a short distance away from Cuenca (1/2 hour?). But for an extended hike you should get a guide. People still get lost in this grand park even though the trails have been much improved over the years. If you have it, bring your CENSO for an entrance fee discount. (In fact, bring your CENSO everywhere for discounts usually half the gringo price.)
Ingapirca is another popular destination located near the city of Cañar (which has a nice Sunday market). I’ve heard tour companies say there is not an English speaking guide at the ruins but this is not necessarily true. It is very easy to catch the Ingapirca bus from bus terminal in Cuenca and find a guide at the ruins. In fact we got a great guide.
The general rule is for every hour on the bus you pay $1 so expect to pay about $2.50 one way to Ingapirca. I think this archaeological site is well worth the visit but I’m a former archaeologist.
*Also before you can exit Cuenca’s bus terminal to get to the darn buses you have to have 10 cents to pay the revolving door to let you out.
The thermal baths at Baños are very clean and enjoyable. And so close you could rent bikes and bike to it. Hilly. Be prepared to shower before you enter the baths and pay for a shower cap ($1).
The infamous Chordeleg, Sigsig, Gualaceo route is touted as a great all-day excursion from Cuenca. Although I have heard mixed reviews about the Chordeleg, Sigsig, Gualaceo route. Chordeleg is best known for its silver but even the most fanatic shopper will get bored of the endless row of shops. Although I enjoyed Gualaceo’s Sunday market and river walk.
I think a wonderful place to visit is Paute. A stunning bus ride, less than an hour away to a tiny agricultural town. I really enjoyed the views and the friendliness of the people. As an Asian American I have had to get used to the stares and the curious glances but in Paute I received nothing but warm greetings and smiles. Roast chicken along the way too, nice change from the beloved pigs.
Bíblian is another sleepy town that has a 200 year old English-looking church worth walking to. Beautiful views of the city at the top. I’ve also heard good things about Jima for hiking and Giron for waterfalls.
For more ideas I would highly recommend my friend Brian’s blog Cal’s Travels.