Cuenca, Ecuador is the country’s “second city” and is as rich as any city apart from the capital in terms of colonial history. Historians state that the human history of the city dates back until about 500AD at which point Cuenca was a Canari indigenous settlement. The city late became an important Inca settlement during their short, but extensive rule of Western South America. The center is now home to one of the largest, and most impressive cathedrals in all of South America, and the cobble stone streets of the historical district are charming and quaint. Such character has lent to the marking of the city as a UNSECO heritage site in 1999. Despite its great history it is funny that many visitors note the abundance of shoe stores and not the historical buildings as what sets Cuenca apart from the rest of the country.
There really are two Cuenas, one is richly preserved in colonial history and on the other side of the river a modern city wealthier than anywhere else in Ecuador. The tourism appeal of Cuenca has yet to reach the heights of its potential, but it has quickly become a popular stopping off point for backpackers crossing the country as well as expats looking to settle down somewhere cheap yet comfortable. Cuenca has much more to offer than meets the eye, and is well worth a couple days of exploration.
Time Needed: 2-4 days
Budget: 25-40$ a day
Times I’ve been to Cuenca: 6
Internet is fairly abundant in Cuenca, and very cheap (about 1$ an hour). However, expect the internet to be slow at most places and the computers to be well past their prime. There are a couple good internet places just up Calle Gran Colombia just off of the main plaza. Almost all internet cafe’s also have phone booths for international calls. Note that on the Sunday’s and holidays.
Taxis and Transport
There are both legitimate and “covert” taxis in town. It is best to stick to the ones from the legitimate companies. Have your hotel call for one to make sure it is legitimate. If you are arriving at the bus terminal you’ll find a line of taxis waiting for you. A taxi from the bus terminal to downtown costs about 2$ up to 3$. There is also public transportation available though out the city for a very low fare.
Cuenca is a fairly safe city and there are no real issues walking around even at night as long as you are in a group or as a couple. Do not walk along the river on the old city side of the river after dark as a number of robberies have been recorded in this area.
As is the case in most of South America one has to be careful with the food in Cuenca. Before eating at a restaurant make sure the food is prepared with clean water, and not tap water. If you want to take extra care avoid “non peel-able” fruits and vegetables like lettuce which may have been washed with contaminated water. If you find yourself ill the hospital in town, just across the river near the university is very good and more than accommodating to foreigners (don’t forget to bring your travel insurance info).
Things to Do in Cuenca
- Panama Hat Factory: Barrancos Panama Hat Factory, which sits on Calle Large, is almost more of a display of hats than a factory. However, they still do produce them, and if you ask they offer free tours in English and in Spanish. The Panama hats, actually an Ecuadorian hat made specifically for those who worked on the Panama Canal, are were first created in Manta, Ecuador, however this might be the best place to buy them. The cost of hats range from 10$ all the way to a couple hundred dollars.
- Parque Calderon: The main plaza in Cuenca is called Parque Calderon and it is here that is home to the new cathedral, one of the largest in South America, as well as the much older, and much smaller, historical cathedral. Both are worth a look around.
- Flower Market:
- Museo de Banco Central: One of the surprisingly impressive places in Cuenca is the Central Bank’s Museum. There is a great display of the natural history of Ecuador here, including some exhibits of the famous shrunken heads.
- Riverwalk: If you are looking for a morning stroll head down to the river walk which is adjacent to Calle Larga.
- Parque National Cajas: Outside of Cuenca (about 2 hrs away) sits an impressive natural national park. It is possible to visit the park on your own but I recommend to take a day trip with a guided tour. One recommended agency is Expediciones Apullacta which runs day hikes for about 50US$ (www.apullacta.com)
Where to Eat in Cuenca
Cuenca has a surprisingly good variety of both international and local cuisine. You wont go hungry in this city, unless of course it’s a Sunday and most of the restaurants take the night off.
- El Che Pibe: This is one of my favourite spots to eat in Ecuador. Try the steak pizza (steak covered in cheese, oregano and bacon) or the Parrilla. On Remigio Crespo Across from Pizza Hut. (Meals between 10-15US$)
- New York Pizza: If you’ve got a craving for pizza this is the place to be. The pizzas are MASSIVE so you’ll only need a small or medium, unless of course you’re up for a challenge. On Gran Colombia and Padre Aguirre. (Small pizzas 5$ Large up to 10$)
- Hostal Posada del Angel: The Hostal Posada del Angel has an impressive Italian restaurant attached with great service and a nice wine list. On Calle Bolivar and Estevez de Toral. (Meals between 8-15US$).
- Raynipampa: If you’re looking for traditional Ecuadorian food you’ll find it at this restaurant right beside the cathedral in Parque Calderon. (Meals between 6-14US$)
- Cafe Austria: This is the place to go for lunch, coffee or a quick snack. On Benigno Malo and Juan Jaramillo. (Lunch between 5-10$)
Where to Drink in Cuenca
The nightlife in Cuenca starts up on Thursdays although it is beyond tame the rest of the week. Most people head down to the many bars along Calle Larga.
- Wunderbar: This is definitely a bit of a gringo hangout, but regardless it has a nice atmosphere and good prices.
- Pop Art: This is one of the most popular night clubs in town and is especially busy on Fridays.
Where to Stay in Cuenca
As far as I know there are not yet a wealth of places with dorms yet in Cuenca. As such, you’ll be treated to a much cozier environment.
- Posada del Angel: This is one of my favourite hostels in Ecuador. The hostel is run by Italian Ecuadorians who may be among the friendlies you’ll meet anywhere. A single room runs about 35US$, although it you’re in a small group you can get a great rate by booking a triple room for about 18US$ a person.
- La Casa Naranja: La Casa Naranja was once the popular spot in town to stay but it has let itself go a little bit. In comparison to Posada del Angel it pales. However, the availability of a clean single room in the center of town for only about 18$, makes it slightly more attractive.
- Villa Nova Inn: Also in the center this is another good option for those with a little bit more to spend. Single rooms cost about 25$ and a double about 50$.
Getting out of Town
All buses out of town leave from the main bus terminal and there are connections to all over the country. Quito is about a 10 hour bus ride while Guayaquil is about 5-6 hours from Cuenca. If you’re heading to Banos (9hrs) you’ll want to connect in either Rio Bamba or Ambato.
Getting to Peru
If you are heading to the border of Peru catch a bus to Huaquillas (5hrs). Ask the driver to let you off at the visa office just outside of town. Here you will get your exit stamp from Ecuador before proceeding onto Peru. Catch a taxi (2US$) from here to “the bridge” which forms the official border. From there walk across the bridge and catch a new taxi (2US$) to the Peruvian immigration office. Some people walk from the border to the Peruvian office but this is unsafe as the police force at the border is very thin and crime is rampant. Be safe at this border, it is one of the worst in South America.
From the Peruvian immigration office you can catch “collectivo” vans which will take you to Tumbes where you can connect to onward buses to destinations such as Mancora.
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