Cuenca felt like home. This vibrant city had numerous things to see and do while keeping its small-town feel intact. The architecture was brilliant and cobble stone lined streets reminded me of Alexandria. The food here was great, museums were plentiful and best of all we found excellent beer!
Apparently Cuenca is a haven for expats, a fact we did not know until we arrived and saw retired Americans everywhere and a magazine targeted towards them. With good reason they chose and excellent city in which to settle. Prices are much cheaper than the States, most everything is organized and clean and there are numerous activities to do just a stone’s throw away from the city.
El Cajas National Park is one of these places to visit and is only about 1 hour away from Cuenca. Manu and I actually visited this park when we were staying with his cousin in Guayaquil but I’ll include it here since technically it is closer to Cuenca. The scenery in this National Park is breathtaking and one can enjoy challenging hikes varying from 4 to 8 hours. From here you can visit the nearby restaurant Dos Chorreras for some delicious food, great ambiance and a relaxing horse ride.
From Cuenca you could also take a 2-hour bus ride to visit the Ingapirca Ruins, a well-preserved Inca/Cañari settlement that is the largest and most complete in Ecuador. The entrance fee is $8 per person and includes a tour guide who takes you around the complex. The site is really marvelous and the visit is definitely worth the 4 hour round trip.
Cuenca is full of culture and you could find museums throughout the city. The Prohibited Museum, Museum of Modern Art, Museo del Banco Central and the Medicine Museum are all a must see and a great way to spend the day (or two). My favorite was the Medicine Museum, a somewhat creepy exhibit showcasing medical equipment and oddities. To make it even more eerie it is set in an old hospital and it was all very peculiar until we ran into the museums caretaker Cecilia who was sweet as can be. The $2 entrance fee per person was well spent.
Museo del Banco Central was closed the day we visited but we were able to visit the archeological site, Pumapungo, as well as the garden and Aviary on site. The fabulous weather in Cuenca allowed for a scenic leisurely stroll throughout the property. For a quick bite we stopped at Waffles de Belgica and had a delicious and authentic waffle. Best of all the friendly Belgium owner regaled us with his travel stories and provided some inspiration for the day.
We found great food throughout Cuenca in places owned by locals and expats alike. For authentic Ecuadorian food we visited El Maiz for dinner. Make sure to try the mouth-watering locro de papa and have a great chat with the owner. For lunch one day we decided to splurge a bit and try the amazing food at El Mercado. The food was a bit pricey for our backpacker budget but was delectable and we had a great view of the picturesque Tomebamba River.
For breakfast our friends Romina and Charlie invited us to try Windhorse Cafe. This cozy eatery is owned by an expat who fell in love with Cuenca and never looked back. After his wife finished her yoga session upstairs she came down to make me some mean banana nut pancakes. What a life! Don’t miss the berry pie; it’s to die for! Finally, a place I cannot forget to mention, for amazing craft beer we visited Jodoco Belgium Brew. I can’t vouch for the food because the water was out in Cuenca when we visited and they were not serving any. However, the beer— that was top-notch!
Cuenca was by far one of my favorite cities in Ecuador and one of the last we visited before heading for Peru. We had such a great time here that a second visit is definitely warranted. Who knows? Maybe we’ll find ourselves living here one day.