Instead of sending my characters off to exciting places, I decided to have an adventure for myself. COVID be damned, I went out to see the world. First stop: Ecuador. This is part 3 in a series of 4 posts recapping that trip along with any helpful tips I can offer to others planning an adventure.
(I’m not affiliated with any of the linked businesses below – just linking for your convenience and mine when I return to Ecuador.)
Cuenca (August 31 – September 4, 2021)
The short flights with LATAM from Quito to Cuenca and back again were flawless. Very impressed with LATAM’s efficiency at every step of the process. A taxi from the airport to downtown Cuenca should cost less than $3 – and taxis should use their meter. It’s about a 10- or 15-minute drive depending on traffic.
When we lengthened our time in Cuenca, we decided to stay in two different hotels, one by the river and one near the main square. Even though they were only a few minutes apart, each location had a different feel; riverside was a little bit more laid back, and near the square more bustling. I’m glad we got to experience both.
We stayed our first 2 nights at Selina Cuenca on the river. Selina was very nice, clean & comfortable. Friendly, helpful front desk staff. We had “the Micro” room, which was small but well organized, so we didn’t feel cramped, and a large shared bathroom. The property has a ton of public spaces, and we especially enjoyed the huge breakfast room with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the river and the terrace by the library that also overlooks the river.
Our next 3 nights were at Hotel Boutique Santa Lucia, which was an upgrade seamlessly arranged for us by our original booking at Casa San Rafael when they could no longer accommodate us (for reasons unspecified). Santa Lucia was very posh compared to what we’re used to and added an unexpected touch of luxury to our trip. The restaurant at the center of the hotel can be noisy at night, but by midnight all is dead quiet. Located only one block from Plaza Abdon Calderon. A delicious free breakfast was included in a pretty restaurant at the front of the hotel, which had French country ambiance and served authentic Ecuadorian cuisine.
NEARBY NATIONAL PARKS
While staying in Cuenca, we did two half-day hikes at nearby national parks. Both were arranged ahead of time through Cuenca Bestours. Great communication all the way along, and our guides were wonderful. Each tour included pick up and drop off at our hotel.
The first hike was at Cajas National Park, which is stunning. In booking, Cuenca Bestours stayed flexible for us – they opened it as a group tour, but when nobody else signed up, they let us do it as a private tour. I was feeling sad about missing Quilotoa, but our hike in Cajas made up for it. Our guide, Andres, tailored the hike to us once he saw we meant business with our new hiking boots, and it was a lot of fun. We never crossed paths with a single other hiker and didn’t even spot any others until near the end of our hike.
We’re hiking newbs and are accustomed to the flatlands of Illinois, so an all-day hike at high altitude would’ve been too intense for us, but the half-day was perfect. Other than the steep ascent at the end, during which I took many breaks, we were able to easily keep up and enjoyed the otherworldly landscapes and twisted tree (polylepis/paper tree) forest in the paramo. The scenic drive from and back to Cuenca was about 45 minutes each way. Andres shared interesting facts about Ecuador and its biospheres along the way.
After enjoying two city days in between hikes, we next ventured into Sangay National Park, starting at Laguna Culebrillas. From there our guide, Luis, led us along a portion of the Inca trail that once connected Quito with Cusco, including a stop at the ruins of an Incan way station. We never saw a single other hiker along the way—just a couple of caballeros going in the opposite direction. It was a fairly easy hike, not too much going up, but it’s soggy and there was a lot of puddle & stream jumping toward the end, so we were glad to have waterproof boots because our shiny new hikers were COVERED in mud by the end of the hike. I also recommend wearing quick-drying wool socks because I sometimes slammed a foot into water that flooded my entire boot.
This biosphere was also a paramo, but it felt different from Cajas. Cajas is, like, this crazy terrain that completely changes every time you turn a corner, whereas the scenery along this portion of the Inka Trail is more uniform with incredible views of mountainscapes and clouds. We hiked for 3 ½ hours with gorgeous views, and then a driver brought us to the town of Ingapirka where we relaxed in a local restaurant and enjoyed a hot lunch and warm Ecuadorian moonshine (which I suspect was a perk of being with Luis, a homegrown Ingapirkan).
Next came a brief guided tour of the Ingapirka ruins. It was interesting to see the blending of Cañari and Incan traditions in the structure, and Luis provided great background to what we were looking at. Most of the structural details have been rebuilt to what the originals would’ve looked like, but we were told the round tower of tight-fitting Incan blocks stones is original. Those Incas really knew how to build ’em. This was a nice end to our day, but I’m glad it was paired with the awesome hike, or I might not’ve felt the drive out was worth it—though it is a very scenic drive, so maybe it would’ve been. Plus, after returning home, I read that there’s a trail behind the ruins to an excellent viewpoint that I’d love to check out on a future visit.
The drive from and back to Cuenca was an hour and a half each way. Luis pointed out interesting sites along the way and told their stories. He was also happy to stop along the road when we wanted to take a picture. Once you get to the town of Ingapirka, it’s a very bumpy vertical drive of almost an hour to the starting point of the hike.
IN THE CITY
Cuenca is a beautiful city and easily walkable to many great places.
Through Guru Walk, we found Paul and spent a fun couple of hours with him getting to know Cuenca better. He’s a funny guy and showed us many spots we wouldn’t have discovered on our own, including the Broken Bridge, and two different places for excellent viewing of the Cathedral’s gorgeous blue domes. This was a free pay-what-you-want tour, and it included a chocolate tour & tasting and a demonstration at a Panama hat factory.
Pumapungo Archaeological Park
At the time of our visit, the museum was closed but the archaeological park was open (it was funny that even on the ground in Cuenca there was confusion about whether or not the museum was open. Every person we talked to gave a different answer). What a treasure to have so conveniently located in the city. We followed the river southeast until we got to the Broken Bridge, then we took stairs up to Calle Larga and continued from there to Pumapungo. Entrance is free. Follow the path through the ruins, reading placards in both Spanish and English along the way. The deeper in you get, the cooler the site is. You’ll even find llamas grazing on the mound (tied in place) and at the end is an aviary with neato Ecuadorian birds. The parrots were extra feisty!
Catedral de la Immaculada Concepción
When we were in Cuenca, the church was closed—not sure if it was because of COVID or for another reason—but we were able to climb the tower. We entered the tower at a door on the north side of the building, just at the beginning of the alleyway. $2. It’s a super cool spiraling walk up with the reward of awesome close-up views of the domes and a birds-eye of the city. I again want to reiterate that travelling now comes with the HUGE benefit of being in popular touristy places without crowds of people. There were less than 20 other people up on the rooftop with us, so we were able to take in views unimpeded. Back at the bottom again, we were able to peek through a window into the church itself. Beautiful.
Eating on the Cheap
The almuerzos are SO good and SO inexpensive! Under $3 everywhere we looked. I really don’t think you can go wrong no matter where you eat in Cuenca. Our strategy was simply to stop at whatever place looked good. We ate almuerzos at La Sabrosura Cuencana on Calle Larga (divine Seco de Pollo) and Rincon del Café on Presidente Borrero (amazing shrimp!).
One day we grabbed the best empanada I’ve ever had for only a buck at Como en Casa Comida Venezolana on Benigno Malo near the river. Later in the day, we topped it off with a delicious large jugo and a corn pancake thing at Mercado 9 de Octubre for under $2.
Eating on the Not-So-Cheap
Sometimes, you just gotta treat yo’self. And even then, when in Ecuador, it’s not really much of a splurge. After an active first full day in Cuenca, we simply strolled down the steps beside our hotel to dine on the sidewalk in front of Pizzo Tr3s for craft pizzas, wine and a peaceful river view (a whopping $8 each for dinner).
While we dined, we spotted the Central Perk just up the river, so when the coffee shop behind the Panama Hat factory was closed the next day, we beelined it there. The Friends callbacks were superfun with excellent photo ops for fans. We took a seat on the 2nd floor patio overlooking the river and indulged in specialty coffee drinks and hot cocoa for under $4 each.
Our biggest spurge was for dinner on our final night in Cuenca. We were beat after our Inca Trail adventure and only had the ambition to journey as far as the restaurant in our hotel. We wanted to dine in the small, less pricey restaurant at the front of the hotel where we’d had breakfast, but it was closed. They very kindly offered to serve from that menu in the fancier restaurant at the center of Hotel Santa Lucia, and we took them up on it, finally trying the shrimp ceviche our Quitian tour guide Angel had said was a must. All in all, a divine experience. $20 each for our full meal and wine.
Highest Altitude Belgian Brewery
For a little European flare, take a walk northwest on Mariscal Sucre and turn onto San Sebastian to the Jodoco Belgian Brew. We only had beer, but they do serve food. My Quadrupel beer was sublime, and the atmosphere was perfect for kicking back for a bit. They serve real Belgian beer brewed in Ecuador.
Flower and Artisan Markets
After two failed attempts to find agua de pitimas at the flower market, Plaza de Las Flores, we asked someone, and they told us we were standing right next to it. D’oh! So, I’ll tell you exactly how to find it. DON’T enter through the doorway at the southeast corner of the market. You don’t need to enter the building. Stand to the east of the flower stalls and look for a window in the wall. There will probably be people waiting at the window. Bingo, you’ve found it. Ask for a copa de agua de pitimas, and for 50 cents, you’ll be treated to a pink, floral-tasting water made by cloistered nuns.
We looked around at the colorful markets in Plaza de San Francisco (one of the places to catch a nice view of the domes. Also, the Instagrammable CUENCA sculpture is here) and at Mercado de Artesanias de Rotary, but where we actually made purchases was the Centro Municipal de Artesanias (jewelry, arts & crafts) and a shop off of Calle Larga that I don’t remember the name of—it was across the street from La Sabrosura Cuencana restaurant—with lots of shirts, pants, sweaters and little souvie items. This shop had better prices than the outdoor markets and we preferred the selection.
DESTINATIONS BY TAXI
Amaru Bioparque Cuenca Zoologico
$6 entrance. We count our adventure around Amaru Bioparque as another half day hike because that’s essentially what it was. For three hours, we followed a dirt path up and down and around the cliffside to see a wonderland of animals in natural habitats. You don’t necessarily need to wear hiking boots (I did) but definitely wear a sturdy pair of walking shoes.
I’m a bit of a zoo connoisseur and have been to many, including the big show in San Diego (but not the safari park yet), and I would honestly put AMARU at the tippy top of my favorites list. It was such a fun experience. I’ve never been so close to so many animals or had so many direct interactions with them. Yet the enclosures are large and natural, so they seem at home, even if lions don’t come from the Andes.
The bioparque is a 20ish minute drive from city center. The taxi meter came to about $4 but the driver added on a dollar at the end because of the steep drive up the dirt road. When you finish your walk through the zoo, ask the person in the ticket cabin to call you a driver – that drive was a bit more $6 and well worth it for the convenience.
Piedre de Agua Fuente Termal & Spa
My parents gave us a little “fun money” before we departed the US, and what’s more fun than soaking in a thermal pool followed by a half-body massage in a lava cave? Piedre de Agua is located in a small town called Baños at the edge of Cuenca. (See? We made it to Baños after all, just not the de Agua Santa one).
When we first arrived, we felt a little intimidated by all the people in the pool and were surprised to see a bunch of children splashing around. But we let the warm waters do their work and soon felt very relaxed. Upon using the bathroom, we noticed a sign for the current 2 for 1 drink special, and with the help of two gentlemen in the pool, finally got the waiter to acknowledge us so we could order drinks (we suspect he wanted to avoid dealing with a language barrier from us gringas, so I’m glad my daughter could put that worry to ease).
Alone in the cave with my excellent masseuse, I couldn’t rely on mija’s language skills and very awkwardly figured out I needed to take off the top of my bathing suit. Then I awkwardly realized I needed to make a choice between 3 treatments rather than simply saying “Sí” to all three. When in doubt, I always go with lavender, so that’s what I did and was soon put back into my relaxed state. Going forward, I’ll try to work in a soothing spa treatment into the middle of any trip. No regerts.
Peidre de Agua is a $5 taxi ride from the city center, and as they indicated on their website, the first taxi we asked knew exactly where it was. They will call you a taxi back to town from the front desk if you ask. We made pool & massage reservations ahead of time by contacting the spa via WhatsApp.
Next and final stop: Mindo
Or backtrack to Ecuador Overview or Quito.
Our Cuenca Itinerary:
Half Day Cajas Hike
Late Almuerzo • Shopping
Walking Tour of City
Ice Cream with awesome view of domes • Pizza & Wine at sidewalk table by river • Hotel rooftop terrace
Pumapungo Archaological Park
Emapanadas • Central Perk
Parque Calderon • Climb Cathedral Tower
Trek to artisan market (Rotary) • Jugo & Corn Pancakes at Mercado 9 de Octubre
Piedre de Agua Termal y Spa
Late dinner in courtyard by cathedral
Almuerzo • Shopping • Flower Market – Agua de Pitimas
Trek to Jodoco Belgian Brewery
Hot chocolate and humitas at café
Inca Trail Hike
Almuerzo in Ingapirka
Ceviche in fancy hotel restaurant