My Trip to Cuenca, Ecuador
Temperate weather. Clean streets. Friendly people. Low cost of living. For these reasons alone, Cuenca has become a destination for retirees and expats. If you’re considering a visit to Ecuador, I recommend spending several days in Cuenca. There’s so much beauty and culture in this South American city. Here are a few highlights from my trip to Cuenca, Ecuador.
Cuenca’s Architecture and Streetscape
French and Spanish influences within Cuenca’s city center add to the charm. As I wandered around town, I felt like I was in a small European city instead of South America.
Cuenca features its own green space, called Calderon Park. This city park is more like a town center or square, but landscaped beautifully. It’s a lovely meeting place or spot to relax and take pictures, which I did a lot of while there.
The Bike Tour at El Barranco
Though bike riding isn’t exactly one of my strengths, I did learn as a child, and I’ve ridden off and on throughout my adult life. I will mention that I’d never used a mountain bike before this trip, and I’d never ridden in such high altitudes. My survival skills kicked in as I pedaled the 12K route along the “Rio Tomebamba,” a gorgeous river running through the city, which promises plenty of spots for photo ops along the way.
El Barranco District creates the southern border of the historic section, separating the old area of Cuenca from the new. My lungs sure got a workout, but the breathtaking views more than made up for my struggle. Once I figured out how a mountain bike operates (gearing up or down as needed), I was in business, albeit 8,000-plus feet above sea level.
Admittedly, I was a bit breathy by the final leg of the trip, and if I had to do it over again, I’d shorten my ride. But a bike tour is a fantastic way to take in this part of town and get a workout simultaneously. And afterward, I didn’t feel the least bit guilty when indulging in my multi-course lunch. More on Cuenca dining next.
Cuenca’s Food Scene
I couldn’t imagine how delicious Cuenca would be. This city is becoming known for its burgeoning food scene. There’s no shortage of locro de papa (potato soup) anywhere. In fact, I think our group ate this traditional dish daily, and we found ourselves craving more as soon as we were back on US soil.
Let me be clear––Cuenca eats extend far beyond a bowl of soup. Take El Jardín in Hotel Victoria, for example. Our group tasted too many courses to count. (Six, if my memory serves me correctly, but I might’ve missed one or two.) The plates coming out of El Jardín’s kitchen rivaled dishes in a top-tier New York City restaurant.
We also had a memorable meal at the gorgeous Casa Alonso Restaurant in the Mansion Alcazar Hotel, a stunning space to boot. With an elaborate interior ideal for fine dining, Casa Alonso delivered a beautiful dinner from beginning to end.
One of my favorite dining experiences in Ecuador was at Tiesto’s, a lively cafe in the heart of the city. The chef introduced me to his wife, who, in minutes, paints each dessert plate using fresh fruit and sweets. Unbelievable to watch! And eat. I found the service at each of these restaurants to be unbelievably personal. In fact, Ecuadorians welcome their guests like family. I’ve never felt so at home with perfect strangers –– perfect being the ideal word to describe the warmth and friendliness of the people of Ecuador.
The Artisans of Cuenca
We can’t ignore an Ecuadorian’s affinity for straw hats. Of all the crafts I encountered on this trip, the iconic straw hat, known worldwide as the Panama Hat, has a strong presence and is essential to Cuenca’s culture. Even though we can purchase Barranco hats here in the US, I am kicking myself now for not buying this one I’m pictured in. The issue was getting it back home in good condition. I would’ve had to wear it for a 7-hour plane ride.
As I meandered through an outdoor marketplace in downtown Cuenca, I noticed a table of leather goods that looked familiar. I had just purchased a colorful suede bag when I was in Quito a day or two earlier, and these wallets and purses resembled the one I had bought. It turns out, the artist who crafted my bag is from Cuenca, and his pieces happen to be sold in the shop I visited in Quito. I was thrilled to meet the artist, Juan Racines of Urbano by Tribu. Makers of leather goods and clothing, he and his wife are two of the many artists based in Cuenca.
The Ivan Encalada Black Ceramic Workshop was another highlight for me. That was the first time I watched ceramics being crafted in person. These pros make it look easy and as if little to no skill is required, which is not the case! The ceramic craftsmen work for years to hone their skills, creating beautiful pottery that’s also reasonably priced.
Cuenca’s Mountainous Landscape
Located in the sierra of the Andes, the views in Cuenca remain spectacular from every nook and cranny. Mirador de Turi (Turi’s Point) is a must stop as this overlook offers a brilliant panoramic perspective of the city and the Andean valley.
Located less than 20 miles west of Cuenca lies Cajas National Park. It was considerably colder than Cuenca. I’d say about 20 degrees cooler. On my return to Guayaquil Airport, the drive was a little nerve-racking on winding roads high above the park’s valleys, but the amazing views made up for my nervous stomach. We made a stop along the way to snap pictures.
You might be wondering at this point –– after I’ve mentioned the altitude –– if I had any issues adjusting. For the most part, I did not experience altitude sickness. I did have some shortness of breath when walking uphill and at the end of the bike ride, as well as a mild headache or two, but overall I managed to keep sickness at bay. I will say, that it’s best to drink a lot of water before traveling to a high altitude, and keep your alcoholic beverages to a minimum. I did, however, drink wine on the plane (Thank you, LAN Airlines!) and wine with most of my meals without issue.
What is my one major regret about my trip to Cuenca, Ecuador? That I didn’t have more time. What a difference another day or two would’ve made in this fantastic city.