Cuenca, where Ecuador’s ancestral roots & colonial culture collide
How to pronounce Cuenca: KWEN-cah
What a gorgeous city! We really recommend a quick break in Cuenca if you have time, and if you have even more time, you can go further south to Loja where you’ll find eco-efforts and yoga retreats. This guide will help you figure out where to stay, where to eat and things to do in Cuenca, Ecuador.
Anyone from Cuenca will tell you it’s the most beautiful city in Ecuador; only those from Quito would challenge it. Spend your first half a day just meandering through the stunning colonial streets; the city feels very safe and it’s noticeably wealthier than the majority of Ecuador.
Things to do in Cuenca
The Free Walking Tour (meeting at 10am at Plaza Calderón) is a really interesting thing to do in Cuenca, albeit overcrowded. They could really do with a second shift or another English-speaking guide on this one, as walking the tiny alleyways of an artisanal village or crowding around one market stall is pretty awkward when there are 30 of you, each with a large, intrusive camera. Either way, the tour was worth it, and we stopped off at some pretty cool places that we probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise. If you take the tour on Tuesdays and Fridays, the guide will be able to point out the spiritual cleansing ‘La Limpia’ that elders do to sick children on these days in the market to rid them of their illness (which includes hitting them with leaves and spitting on them at the end).
If you want to learn more about Ecuador’s ancestral roots, the Museo Pumapungo is a must. It’s free, and goes through the history of the earliest humans in Ecuador to each of the different tribes and their customs today, including an exhibition on the rites & rituals of the tribe famous for their head-shrinking (plus there are a few real heads to look at!). You can also see the original ruins of an ancient civilisation’s palace, which the museum is built next to. Around half of the museum has been translated into English; if you don’t speak Spanish you can still enjoy the models and artefacts (plus, free).
Should hiking be your choice of poison, one of the best things to do in Cuenca for you is to check out the El Cajas National Park, which has miles and miles of rolling green hills. You can get any bus for Guayaquil and ask them to stop when you pass through the park. From what we heard from hikers in our hostel, it doesn’t offer the most challenging nor breath-taking of hikes, but the landscape looked gorgeous from the comfort of our bus (that’s the kind of hiking we can get behind). Head over to Living Out Lau’s in-depth guide to hiking in Cajas National Park for more info.
If you’d like a bit of green and nature without the hassle, then head towards Parque de la Madre and have a relax on the grass verge of the river, which is surprisingly beautiful compared to the typical brown-watered rivers we’ve seen running through most South American cities.
Where to eat and drink in Cuenca
The main street of bars is on Calle Larga or the streets immediately off it. Here, you’ll find a range of small to mid-sized bars, which offer everything from family-friendly outdoor patios, craft beer pubs and microbreweries to neon lights and karaoke. Monday Blues is a cool place for a beer or two, absolutely littered with trinkets from the owners’ many travels. The best atmosphere in the area (mid-week at least) is probably to be found at Cigale, which is a hostel that hosts live music and is a favourite amongst locals.
For eats, there are a huge number of little restaurants that offer Menu del Dias for £2-3. Worth trying if you haven’t already is a Seco de Carne (seco translates as ‘dry’ but actually means stew). We hope you like lentils and beans; they’ll turn up on practically every Ecuadorian plate. For Ecuadorian food from a chain, try out Copellias (pictured) or Cositas; both offer traditional food of great quality and fairly low prices ($3-8) and have multiple outlets in Cuenca. The top floor of Mercado 10 de Agosto offers a range of very typical dishes, one to definitely try is the pulled pork (expect to see a full pig stretched out on the stall) and Papas Locas (using a potato dish as an excuse to eat everything else in your house).
If you’ve already had enough of Ecuadorian cuisine but don’t want to stray too far from the path, Rinconcita Colombiana is a great little Colombian restaurant, but it only seems to be open for lunch. As always, your best deal is to throw away la carta and instead opt for the set Menu del Dia, which includes a drink, starter and small dessert for $2.50. And for any Brits who’ve had enough of the whole continent’s cuisine who just want to feel a bit at home again, head to Jai Ho, a top-rated Indian restaurant in Cuenca.
As a decidedly middle-class city, Cuenca has an abundance of hip coffee shops and health bars. Pick up a revitalising shot of ginger and all sorts of other cleansing good-stuff to clear your system of the filth of Máncora or Montañita at El Tokte. Next to it is a small shop where everything sold is made of coconut. Andy’s idea of heaven!
Where to stay in Cuenca
We stayed at Pepe’s House, which is a hotel/B&B that decided to make use of its attic space and create some dorms. The weirdest thing about this place is that if you book alone, you get a full double bed all to yourself, and couples get a discounted rate for sharing one bed. This was honestly one of the best all-nighters we’ve had (after backpacking for so long, ‘all-nighter’ has come to refer to a really good sleep rather than a really cool party). The hotel itself is a renovated colonial house and it is stunningly beautiful, not to mention peaceful.
The only downside is the breakfast, which although good quality, as a dorm-dweller you’re only entitled to a tiny roll plus one egg or a small bowl of cereal or a cheese toastie, whilst private-roomers get access the a whole table of food. You feel a little like a second-class citizen when staff loudly remind you of this every single morning. You have the option to buy yourself into full breakfast for $2, but relatively speaking that’s the price of a 2-course lunch with drink next door. While the area was lovely around us, there seemed to be more going on the other side of Plaza Calderón, so if you find any good accommodation there, it could be a winner.
Recommended stay to enjoy Cuenca: 2-3 days
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