While most people look at the gorgeous Galapagos as their travel destination, I want to show you why you should visit Ecuador!
And yes, those legendary isles off the coast of my adopted country (Ecuador) are surely on most everyone’s travel bucket list (and I can show you how to do them on the c.h.e.a.p. “Cheap Galapagos? Yup, Youbetcha!”). But…
I must say, your visit to Ecuador really isn’t complete until you’ve headed up here to my beloved hood: the enchanting mountain-top town of Cuenca. Yep, “mountain-top” indeed, waaay up here at 8,000+ feet – where the Equatorial sun is (mostly) always shining, and the climate is near perfect springtime year-round. And that doesn’t even begin to address the not insignificant beauty of this cobbled-street colonial town surrounded by no less than four gurgling rivers crisscrossed by stone bridges straight out of a fairy- tale.
I live in “El Centro” the very heart of Cuenca (and coincidentally a UNESCO World Heritage Site – I mean, who gets to do THAT?) – a most walkable city with plenty of unique things to do for families, backpackers and seniors alike.
For starters, there’s the iconic blue domes of the New Cathedral (built in 1885, yes “new” compared to Cuenca’s “Old Cathedral” which is more than three centuries older still) that is the centerpiece of this 500 year old colonial town.
Take a guided tour (just $3) and step down into the crypt beneath the cathedral, as well as up the winding stone staircase to within arm’s reach of those vivid azure domes – and a bird’s-eye view of Parque Calderon (which boasts free public wifi!) and the scattered red-tiled roofs below. And speaking of the nearby “Old Cathedral” – quite often you can enjoy truly professional concerts there (the acoustics are astounding) for free!
But a few steps away from Parque Calderon, you’ll most certainly want to wander amid Cuenca’s premier outdoor flower market (voted number ONE in the ENTIRE WORLD by no less than National Geographic!) There you can have some fun negotiating with the indigenous lasses (dressed in twirly blue or red velveteen skirts edged with embroidery and traditional black fedora hats) for a big bouquet of fresh roses (which Ecuador is famous for) for just $6 a dozen.
Then hop on one of the $5 double-decker tour buses that depart Parque Calderon every hour to wind through the cobbled streets and up to the “Mirador deTuri” for an expansive view of the entire city sprawled across this lush, Andean valley (especially magnificent at sunset).
The Pumapungo museum is likewise a must – not only hosting impressive exhibits along with periodic free concerts, but the museum grounds are a sprawling Inca archaeological site – complete with ancient beveled stone terraces, botanical gardens, a small aviary, and a smattering of llamas! Start your tour from above, at the entrance to the museum, then wander down through the ancient Inca ruins, and finish off near the ever-gurgling Rio Tomebamba at the tiny outdoor stand serving freshly made Belgian waffles smothered in strawberries and whipped cream.
No visit to Cuenca would be complete without a stop in one of the several “Panama” hat shops where you can drool over (and most economically purchase) every imaginable style and color combo, as well as see how the hats are made. Ah but did you know that these iconic straw hats originated – not in Panama, but right here in Ecuador? They should have been dubbed “Ecuador hats” of course, but instead they derived their name from the Isthmus of Panama – that wee international gateway where the hats were shipped to destinations in Asia, the rest of the Americas and Europe. Clearly a huge branding stumble for Ecuador.
Just wandering through the cobbled lanes of Cuenca is a never-ending treat. Colorful street art abounds, and if you’re lucky – most any week, you’ll most likely bump into a festive parade and/or full-blown festival during your visit. For my dear Ecuadorian neighbors seem to use most any excuse to make merry in the streets, toss rose petals, and dance gaily in colorful traditional Andean costumes.
And for eats? Oh my! Cuenca is chock full of all manner of restaurants offering sumptuous fine dining, as well as tiny nooks on every corner serving “almuerzo” (fixed dish lunch) for little more than $3.
Better still, in my mind – is Cuenca’s eclectic mix of street-food. For two full years now, I’ve eaten near daily from the many street-side grills and carts selling skewered chicken, as well as plump sausages and vegetables slathered in a most divine herbal mayonnaise concoction, along with whole coconuts (the vendor will swiftly slice the top off and add a straw, for .50), wheelbarrows brimming with jumbo-sized strawberries, tiny stands selling flaky pillows of sugared empanadas (.25 each) and street-carts offering cups of yellow mango curls.
The more adventuresome will want to try the infamous “cuy” of course (roasted guinea pig, a delicacy enjoyed by locals throughout the Andean mountains). But my personal favorite is “hornado” – the traditional Ecuadorian dish of succulent pulled pork (yep, pulled straight off the ENTIRE roasted pig sitting there on the counter!), ever accompanied by a crispy sliver of pork skin, a couple of “llapingachos” (dollops of mashed potatoes fried in pork drippings), plus the ubiquitous side of “mote” (a kind of hominy) and a small salad of sliced red onion and tomatoes.
Oh, and did I mention the bakeries on every corner – where a buck will get you a luscious slice of “Tres Leches” cake so moist it’s swimming on your plate. Indeed, Cuenca is not the place to come if you’re on a diet!
Day trip options from Cuenca are many including horseback riding at Tarqui along with a couple of requisite zip-lines of course. Else spend a decadent day at the Piedra de Agua Spa (think: natural thermal pools, mud baths, and a massage in a candle-lit natural cave) in nearby Baños.
Further afield (but still within an hour or so drive – public buses run regularly) you can hike one of the many trails in Cajas National Park or head to Ingapirca to explore the Inca Sun Temple at Ecuador’s premier Inca archaeological site.
Alternately, you can day-trip to the neighboring hamlets of Chordeleg (a pre-Incan town known for its delicate gold and silver jewelry), Gualaceo (notable for all manner of handmade shoes and other leather goods)) or Saraguro (an indigenous community famous for it’s unique black and white spotted “Cow Hats” and handmade beaded necklaces.
Ecuador offers an easy-peasy 60-90 day (depending on your nationality) tourist visa upon arrival to most foreigners, and economical (generally around $60) connecting flights to Cuenca from Guayaquil and Quito. Alternately, Cuenca is easily reached by (windy, up, up, up) car or comfy a/c bus ($8 departing hourly) from Guayaquil. And once up here in my beloved new “home”, you’ll find plenty of accommodations to suit all budgets – from simple $10/nt. hostals, to colonial hotels with 12 ft. marble ceilings and rooms the size of a tennis court for less than $100, as well as ultra modern 5 star hotels if that’s your cuppa tea.
Bonus Secret Tip:
If you’re looking for a truly unique cultural experience in Cuenca – head to “Rotary Market” (near the 9 de Octubre Mercado not far from Parque Calderon) for an aromatic “Shamanic cleansing ritual”. There, the indigenous lasses gather several days each week to offer short (15 min.) sessions for just $2. You’ll plop down on a tiny stool, while an indigenous lass pats you with aromatic herbs from head to toe, then rubs a whole chicken egg along your extremities – all the while chanting soft “shhh-shhh-shhh” sounds. Next, a smudge of charcoal on your forehead, and the grand finale? With your permission, she’ll grab a swig of alcohol and spit – yes SPIT it – over your head to… I dunno, chase away evil spirits? But in any case, I must say, the aromatherapy alone is quite refreshing, and you’ll surely not soon forget this authentic local experience.
Dyanne Kruger Bio: 40+ countries and counting. An intrepid lass “of a certain age”, Dyanne has lived in 5 countries and bounced ’round the globe – ever solo – for more than 30 years. After selling everything and buying a one-way ticket from Seattle to Vietnam 5 years ago, she’s now resettled on yet another new continent in Cuenca, Ecuador. Her personal mantra has long been “This surely ain’t a dress rehearsal!” and she has no plans to slow down any time soon. Read her ongoing tales of dodderin’ derring-do on her blog: TravelnLass.com