Cuenca’s charm is nearly guaranteed to make you fall in love with the city. Cuenca, which signifies valley, is nestled into the base of the Andes mountains. It is located in the south central Sierra region of Ecuador, and truly does have so much to offer whether you are visiting for a couple of days or building a life here. Living here has me convinced: All you need is Ecuador. You are just a few hours from the Amazon, a few hours from the coast, and you can get your city and mountain fix. Here is a short list of why I couldn’t resist a life in Cuenca:
1) The markets will overwhelm you with fresh, affordable goodness.
3 avocados for a $1? Count me in. 20 bananas for $1? I can deal with that. There are two main markets in town – 10 de agosto y 9 de octubre. Each market is broken off into broad sections – fruit, vegetables, grains, meat, herbs, etc. Leave some time to explore and while you’re there try some traditional bocaditos (snack foods) – tortilla de choclo is my favorite. A warm corn pancake is a light yet comforting food!
2) Freshness Part Two: street carts, juices, and almuerzos.
Fresh fruits and produce make a healthy lifestyle totally realistic in Cuenca. I’m a sucker for the coconut carts – get a fresh pour of coconut water straight from the coconut (50 cents for the smaller glass, $1 for the large). Take your pick of freshly cut fruit snacks – watermelon, mango, cherries, grapes… Fresh pressed juices cost 50 cents to $1 and can be made with or without sugar upon request. Looking to fill up for a low cost? Check out one of the numerous almuerzos, a set lunch menu that ranges from just $2-3. Almuerzos traditionally come with a fresh juice, soup, and a meal that includes your choice of meat, rice, and veggies.
3) Dancing is a way of life.
Dance away your hump day blues at La Mesa, a salsoteca that rocks the town on Wednesday nights. Don’t let this hole in the wall fool you – locals turn the tiny joint into Dirty Dancing: Cuenca Nights after 11pm. Looking for some funky throwbacks (Spice Girls, anyone?) + Latin fusion? Check out Zoociedad along the Tomebamba River.
4) Free Zumba in the park Monday – Friday.
The Ecuadorian government is promoting healthy lifestyles by offering free Zumba classes, also known as Bailoterapia (dance therapy) in parks around el Centro. This is an amazing way to see the community come together and get shakin’ at the same time! Early risers can check out Parque de la Madre at 6:30am and both Parque San Blas and Parque San Sebastian at 8pm Monday through Friday.
Zumba isn’t your thing? Check out Parque de la Madre for numerous exercise groups, running track, and exercise equipment to get your body movin’.
5) Free bike rentals along the Tomebamba River on Sunday mornings.
The city has arranged free bike rentals along the river every Sunday morning from 8am – 12 noon. The route is a few miles long, but you are free to take the bikes throughout Centro. Sundays are a great day to ride in the city because there are minimal cars and the majority of the businesses are closed. Too chuchaqui (hungover) to catch a ride Sunday morning? Don’t fret, bike rentals are very affordable any day of the week.
P.S. On your ride don’t miss out on a pit stop for authentic Belgian waffles, located just off the river route at Pumpapungo. Whether with ice cream, fresh fruit, or both, these $3 waffles never disappoint.
6) Mojitos, Cervezas, y Canelazos are delicious and affordable drinks!
While other drink options (ahem, whiskey) may be quite pricey in Ecuador, there are other options that are guaranteed to please. Mojitos are fresh, healthy, and much cheaper than in the states (find them 2 for $5 at happy hour). Mix it up by adding a fruit, such as mora (blackberry) or maracuya (passion fruit). The Ecuadorian beer Club will run you just a buck. Canelazos are the Ecuadorians version of a hot toddy or whiskey cider. They prepare canelazos on the stovetop using yummy spices, naranjilla (in the orange family), and Zhumir (the local liquor).
7) The views from the swing at Turi will take your breath away.
Take the bus, a taxi, or a long walk up to Mirador de Turi, the top point of the city that provides gorgeous views of Cuenca. Pack a picnic and have a sit! The views of the city and the mountains are lovely, and if you’re lucky you may even see a sunset! Head up the stairs past the church on the left and you’ll find the swing (el cumplio) situated in a little park. Entry costs $1 and a ride on the swing $2. You won’t regret it! Bonus: the small restaurant here offers great views and a great hot canelazo on a chilly day!
8) You’re in a gluten free delight zone.
Despite the super fresh and cheap bread options at the pandelerias (cheese rolls for 25 cents. Yes. Yum.), gluten free eaters are also in heaven in Cuenca. The majority of traditional foods are gluten free. Rice, corns, and beans really define the diet in Cuenca. Grab yourself a tamale, an humita (sweeter version of tamale made with just corn and cheese), or one of the many options made with plantains. A personal favorite is the empanada verde – made just with savory plantains and cheese. Try it with morocho (a warm cinnamon creamy beverage) for the full experience. Unfortunately traditional empanadas are not gluten free, but if you can find a Colombian one you’re in luck because they are always made with corn flour.
9) Day trips can get you out of the city and feeling refreshed.
Cuenca is tucked into a valley and has an energy that leaves you relaxed, but if you’re looking to venture out there are options. Cajas National Park is just under an hour away (accessible by bus, personal car, or with a tour guide) and offers stunning views of green terrain and over 300 lakes. Don’t be fooled – you may be in Ecuador but Cajas is cold due to the geography and altitude, and you must dress properly and always be prepared for rain. Stick to one of the trails or hire a guide for the day. Looking for something a little less active? Head to one of the spas at Banos, just ten minutes out of the city, and treat yourself to hot springs, volcanic mud baths, and more. Piedras de Agua is a personal favorite (check it out Mondays and Wednesdays for a 2×1 deal).
10) You can walk nearly everywhere you would need to go.
The architecture and cathedrals (nearly one per block) are beautiful sites to see in themselves. Head to Catedral Nueva in Parque Calderon and get a view from the top by climbing the spiral staircase. Spend a day wandering the main museum, Banco Central, and its outdoor component, Pumapungo. Here you will find recently recovered Incan ruins, a beautiful park, and a variety of animals, including wild birds, peacocks, and alpacas.