An ideal climate, a vast array of delicious cuisine, indigenous culture, dozens of magnificent churches, clean cobblestone streets, good infrastructure and lots of green parkland. I could go on and on. It explains why Cuenca has become an expat haven. Having spent almost 6 months in South America, I’ve seen been in a lot of cities, and this one takes the cake.
It’s a good place to recharge
Honestly, I’m not the adrenaline junkie or the athletic type. For many South America is all about adventure travel and pushing the limits. While there are plenty of culture, ancient ruins and hypnotic landscapes to keep my interest, some days I just want to curl up in a cafe with a good book. Cuenca is the perfect place to take some R & R from the chaos that’s often associated with venturing into this continent. As soon as I’m ready to brave the outside world again, every street is like a work of art. There’s also some very cool street art around.
In Peru we were either freezing our butts off in the Andes or sweating profusely in the low-lands, with little in the way of heating/air conditioning. Ecuador is also quite steamy at sea-level. Cuenca’s altitude of 2500m combined with its equatorial location makes it a steady 10 – 22 degrees Celsius year round. It often rained in the afternoon, but in brief downpours with the sun shining most of the time. It does get a little chilly at night but nothing an extra layer won’t fix.
Ecuadorian, Italian, Thai, Colombian, Indian: if you’ve got a food craving, it’s likely you’ll satisfy it in Cuenca. We were finally able to indulge in some authentic Indian food. Namaste and The Indian Restaurant were both staffed entirely by Indian expats. Their prices were great too with lunch menu’s for $2.50 – $3.00. Note that lots of restaurants are closed on Sunday evenings, but we found Don Colon Restaurant on Plaza Major was open. It was a little more expensive, but the quesadillas and guacamole were delicious. Cuenca also has some amazing bakeries and we found these tempting treats on almost every street.
Beautiful churches and architecture
Cuenca is one of those places to just wander, without thought for time or plan. Despite being Ecuador’s third largest city it has a small-town feel and its magic is simply in turning another corner and being memorised over and over. Most of Cuenca’s many churches are within walking distance and while you may think you’ve seen enough churches (especially if you’ve been in South America for awhile), all of them are spectacularly unique. The New Cathedral (Catedral de la Immaculada) is the enormous blue domed church famously seen in many pictures of Cuenca.
One of my (and Josiah’s) favourite things to do is browse second hand bookshops. Probably due to the large number of expats, there are plenty of English language titles.Carolina Bookstore is the main one, but there are a number of others around town. Carolina also hosts Spanish classes. I read on average 1-2 books a week, and so a kindle is far more practical for a long trip (although I always take 1 or 2 paperbacks for book exchanges). Unfortunately my trusty four-year-old e-reader has been dropped one too many times. So we couldn’t have arrived at a better moment!
Indigenous heritage and Ruins
Cuenca is a culturally significant city, especially with regard to its population of indigenous people whom you’ll find here still following ancient traditions and wearing traditional dress. Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes, is a good place to learn more about the Inca and pre-Inca civilisations and see some impressive artefacts.
There are also the Pumapungo ruins in Cuenca, not anywhere near the scale of those in Cusco, Peru – but still worth a visit. To reach them take the number 7 bus from the riverfront heading east.
Mirador de Turi
This lookout point provides a beautiful view out to the city. You can take a taxi ($3) or a bus (0.25c) although in our experience it’s faster and more enjoyable to walk. We caught bus number 7 but evidently took it in the wrong direction and ended up at terminal terrestre. We jumped back on going the other way (catch it going west along Av 12 de Abril, on the south riverbank) but it took around half and hour on a severely crowded bus and we still had to hike up the stairs to the top. At the top there is a church, several restaurants, handicrafts markets and an adventure park.
How to get to Cuenca
It took us around 4 hours by bus to reach Cuenca from Guayaquil, (around $5).The journey itself was stunning taking a winding route through the mountains. There are local buses (0.25, on the south side of the terminal) or taxis ($2) into the city centre from the bus station, or you can walk.