Ecuador is widely known for the beautiful beaches that dot the coastline and less for its interior cities. The interior cities, however, rival the charm and laid back atmosphere of the beach towns with Cuenca being a particular highlight. Cuenca is located in the south close to the Peruvian border, three and a half hours inland from Guayaquil, Ecuador’s second largest city. Deciding to give our slightly burnt bodies a break from the beach life, we turned our attention inland for a bit. Here are our highlights from Cuenca.
Hike the Parque Nacional Cajas (El Cajas National Park)
Eddie and I love a good hike. Whether it is a simple day trek or a grueling multi-day mountain hike, we both (Eddie more than me) find enjoyment hiking in different parts of the world. Having missed the Copaxi and Quilotoa Loop hikes in central Ecuador due to heavy rain, we spotted a national park just 33 km west of Cuenca. We decided to try our luck on finding a good hiking trail before heading into the city later that afternoon.
Parque Nacional Cajas is located in the highlands of Ecuador. Known for trails traversing through evergreen cloud forests, passing lakes and lagoons and reaching altitudes of 4400m (13,000ft), it is truly a place not to be missed. The morning we arrived was briskly cold, there was a light mist and the wind was blowing pretty steadily. As the day progressed though the clouds drifted away making room for the sun which quickly warmed things up. According to the national park website, this is standard practice in the Cajas, so it is important to come prepared for a wide array of weather even in just a short hike like ours.
As we were only going to be in El Cajas National Park for the morning, we opted for the Laguna Toreadora hike. Getting lost along the way, our two hour hike quickly turned into a three hour hike as the trails are not marked as well as they could be. Plus, the scenery was amazing so we were forced to stop for some obligatory photo opportunities.
The striking landscapes are characterized by, windswept peaks, rocky outcrops. Valleys over grown with twisted trees, form almost impenetrable labyrinth’s to squeeze through. Deep blue lakes and lagoons play host to water reeds, shrubs and high altitude water foul.
Even short hikes can be grueling at this altitude so pack plenty of water, and food, take plenty of breaks and allow yourself extra time to complete even shorter circuits.
Explore the City
After hiking, we turned our focus to exploring the city. Our version of exploring in most cities is wandering around, checking out the local coffee shop, hitting up a few bars and grabbing dinner, preferably somewhere serving local food. Occasionally we will visit the local museum or go to other overtly tourists places but generally only if this is what the area is renowned for. We like to get an authentic and local experience (or as much as we can as two gringos with pretty average Spanish).
Cuenca was the perfect city to explore on foot soaking up the culture and atmosphere as we wandered the different central neighborhoods. It has a very different feel to other Ecuadorian cities. The city feels busy, but calm, collected and a little more reserved then other large towns and cities in Ecuador. It is a larger city that has retained the charm of a smaller town. The narrow, Spanish colonial streets are lined with more cathedrals, churches and colonial homes than seem necessary but are surely beautiful. Some of the highlights in the center of town include
- Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (New cathedral)
- Iglesias Sagrario (Old cathedral)
- Homer’s Ortega P. & Hijos (Panama Hat Factory)
Take some time to explore the stunningly beautiful colonial architecture, the famous Panama Hat Factory and soak in the atmosphere of this unique town.
Living on the road, there is nothing better than the simple pleasure of finding a great little coffee shop to catch up on work, send a few emails and enjoy the air conditioning (living in a van is not for the faint of heart). Having dropped off our laundry at Lavanderia Los Angeles we stumbled upon Cafe Lujano. A local coffee shop serving up tasty local coffee and excellent pastries. Plus it is out of the center of town, so it doesn’t come with the gringo prices.
Grab Some Food
Ecuador is not as known for its culinary delicacies as some of it’s neighboring countries. Having spent the better part of a month in Ecuador, we both were still looking for the Ecuadorian dish to brag on. Well we finally found it just one day before we left. On our way to the national park, we ended up spending the night just outside a roadside restaurant due to heavy rains. Here we were told about a regional specialty called Mote Sucio.
A heaping plate of corn, chicharron (fried pork), eggs, with onion gralic and spices, Mote Sucio reminds me a bit of an Ecuadorian style gnocchi. Rich and full of fat, it will curb your hungry after a heavy night of drinking or put you into a food coma if only just for a little bit.
Check out La Tasha De Los Hermanos En Ruta for mote sucio in the city. All of the restaurants near the “hip” area of town cater to tourists and the more elite Ecuadorian. This little restaurant is more authentic and is significantly cheaper than nearby restaurants.
READ MORE: Ecuador’s Under-Loved Food Scene
Cuenca’s Bar Scene
No trip to the city is complete without hitting at least one of the local bars. Our first stop on our tour of Cuenca’s bars was La Compania. A local craft brewery serving up their own beers as well as other local brews. We found the beer to be average and the staff rude. Suffice to say, we stayed for only one beer before making our way to another local haunt.
Our next stop was La Cigale. Don’t be deterred by the fact that this place is a hostel bar. And do not think of a traditional bar. The atmosphere is more akin to a restaurant with only tables available for seating and no true bar. But both locals and tourists sat around the tables throughout capitalizing on the beer and cocktail specials. This spot caters more to the budget friendly traveler offering a solid happy hour running between 16:00 and 20:00 each day.
Our final stop was Stencil Bar and Cafe. If you are in to dive bars then you have come to the right place. There is nothing fancy or inspiring about this bar and to be honest it is a little bit dirty. But what they lack in charm, they make up for in cheap cocktails and friendly staff. It reminded me of my college years at El Centro or Georgia Bar in Athens, GA. Grab a beer, chat with the locals and enjoy the true authentic Cuenca experience without being surrounded by (other) tourists and without being charged “gringo” prices.
The Nuts and Bolts
Where to Stay
If you are overlanding then the best place to stay is down by the rive (aka in a van down by the river). Only one kilometer from the center of town, you can park in a small parking lot near the gate. There is a watchman who watches the park next door 24/7 making it a safe place to stay. Make sure you speak with the guard and give a small tip for watching your vehicle during your stay. It felt extremely safe especially for a city camp.
Hotels and Hostels
While not directly in the center of town, the best budget option in town is Mallki Hostel just south of the river. Located only about a 10-15 min walk to town, it provides a homey and welcoming haven in Cuenca. Plus the breakfast pancakes with fresh fruit is short to make for an enjoyable morning after a night out in Cuenca.
Looking for a little more comfort than a van down by the river or dorm accomodation? Try out on of the hundreds of options in the historic district which have found their home in the historic buildings that make up this UNESCO world heritage listed area.
- WIFI: WiFi is available at most establishments.
- Mobile: Claro has 4G service throughout Cuenca.
- Laundry services are available at Lavanderia Los Angeles at a reasonable price of $0.40 per pound. The service only takes a few hours, so we received our laundry back the same day.