Don’t Miss Out on Extraordinary Cuenca, Ecuador
The largest cities in Ecuador are Quito and Guayaquil, but please don’t stop there. If you do, you’ll miss the provincial, authentic experience of life in the Andes Mountains with its distinctive language, customs, cuisine and dress. As a former resident, I highly recommend making a visit to Cuenca, Ecuador. The city is uniquely charming with its cobblestone streets and centuries-old cathedrals. The official name of the city is Santa Ana de los cuatro rios de Cuenca, referring to the four rivers running through this portion of the southern highlands.
Getting to Cuenca
Flights arrive from the States into both Quito and Guayaquil, then a national airline TAME provides short, inexpensive flights to Cuenca. At the Cuenca airport, taxis are plentiful, affordable, and safe. The minimum fare is $1.40, and a lot of ground can be covered for less than $4.00.
My expat friend Sarah who still lives in Cuenca recommends Hotel Alejandrina, Santa Lucia or Mansion Alcazar because of their locations near the center of the city. Hotel Zahir 360 and Hotel Valgus are both new with helpful websites. They are near the soccer stadium, a very short taxi ride to downtown. Hotel Oro Verde has a 5-star rating, but it is even further out. Even though you will technically be in a “Third World Country,” the rooms at any of these hotels will be as comfortable as most in the States.
Sarah gives good reviews for these restaurants: El Fogo (overlooking the city), San Sebas (great sandwiches on sourdough bread), Tiestos (high-end typical Ecuadorian food), Popacuchu (American-owned with great pastries), Muccha (Ecuadorian-owned with an extensive menu), and La Parrillada (specializing in grilled meats). I would like to add La Fornace Pizzeria. The name means “furnace,” and the pizza is cooked in a large brick oven with light, thin crust. There are several locations throughout the city. Some have ice cream shops attached. Another favorite is Raymipampa located right next door to Catedral de la Immaculada, referred to by the locals as the New Cathedral. It’s the one with the immense blue domes, iconic symbols of Cuenca.
Highlights inside the city
- Parque Calderon: This park is located in the heart of the city and is best for people-watching, sitting, and taking photographs.
- The Flower Market: Considered by many to be the most beautiful flower market in the world, it is located only about a half block from Parque Calderon and across the street from the New Cathedral.
- Casa de la Mujer (house of the woman): A collection of shops that would be perfect for finding great souvenirs.
- Mirador de Turi (lookout at Turi): The best vantage point for seeing the whole city at once.
- The ceramic studio, workshop and store of Eduardo Vega, Cuenca’s most famous artist: It is located only a short walk from the Turi lookout, so you can see two great places with one taxi ride. You will feel like you are visiting an art gallery and shopping for home décor simultaneously. Save room in your carry-on bag for one of Vega’s gorgeous pieces.
- Mall del Rio: If you just MUST visit a place that resembles North America, take a taxi to this mall. It houses a movie theater, a bowling alley, 140 stores, and a huge food court.
- The Christmas Eve parade: It is an amazing procession lasting almost 6 hours. People come from all over southern Ecuador to see and participate in this cultural event.
Day trips from Cuenca
Hotels are happy to help you hire an English-speaking tour guide with a car or a van, so try to see some of the surrounding areas.
- Ingapira: Site of the largest Incan ruins in Ecuador.
- Chordeleg: All 4 sides of the town center are lined with jewelry stores. They are particularly famous for silver filigrana pieces.
- El Cajas National Park: The park has over 200 lakes, llamas grazing, and a trout restaurant called Dos Chorreras (“two waterfalls”).
My advice? Drink lots of bottled water and avoid raw veggies. Practice a few Spanish phrases and allow the locals to help you with the rest. Come and savor this uncommon city.