If you remember, I once wrote a post about how I want to retire in Cuenca, so I arrived with really high hopes for the place. However, when I arrived I did not experience love at first sight. For me, Cuenca was not like that sexy man you see on the street and immediately want to have your way with; instead, it was more like an old friend.
After leaving the Galapagos and managing to catch an early flight thanks to my quick thinking and Spanish skills, I learned that another lady from my cruise was heading to Cuenca by herself too! We were even on the same flight!! So once we arrived in Guayaquil, Andrea and I set off to the bus terminal on foot (it is only about a 10-minute walk from the airport).
The bus terminal in Guayaquil is HUGE by the way. We had to ask several people inside for directions places. Thankfully both of us were comfortable getting directions in Spanish. We were also very lucky to get on the next bus leaving only a half hour after we arrived.
Thanks to this combination of circumstances we were able to arrive in Cuenca during daylight hours. As the cab driver pulled up into Old Town we looked around to see… everything pretty much closed for business.
Sunday is NOT the day to go to Cuenca folks!
We were able to find a delicious Indian place open for dinner (which was very exciting for me because I’m pretty sure that there isn’t a single Indian restaurant in Venezuela). After dinner, we had a brief walk around to see if anything was open, but alas, by 8 PM only a very few touristy restaurants and a couple bars were open in Old Town. We went to sleep in our very spacious 6-bed dorm at Hostal Yakumama.
Cuenca is known for its churches, so after our complimentary breakfast & coffee, we headed to the central plaza to see the New Church. We got there just in time to do a tour of the catacombs and rooftop for the normal price of admission $2. This was definitely a highlight of Cuenca for me!
We wandered around Cuenca randomly going in and out of various churches if they were open. I really liked this one that had stars on the ceiling!
After lunch, we went to Mirador Turi. It is supposed to have lovely views of the surrounding mountains and the whole of Cuenca, but we were there while it was overcast. It wasn’t too exciting. There are a few shops with touristy things, but save your shopping for Otavalo. We had a juice while waiting for the skies to clear up, but we didn’t have any luck.
Both of us wanted to save our Galapagos images on a disk, thumb drive, or somehow upload them to the internet. We both tried all three at an internet café around the corner from our hostel (suggested by the hostel staff), but after an hour of trying to upload even one photo from my SD card I gave up.
I never did find fast internet in Cuenca, this is the only major drawback of this city for me.
Finally, we again had to search all over town for a restaurant that was open at 8 PM. Mondays are also not good days to be a tourist in Cuenca! Eventually, we ended up at a delicious Italian pizza place just down the street from our hostel.
We did a day trip to Cajas National Park which will be a post of its own next week.
I just want to take a moment to recommend traveling by public bus in Ecuador. It took us an hour and 40 minutes to get to Cajas from Cuenca and it only cost $2 because we took the public bus!
Immediately after Cajas, we went to Pumapungo museum and ruins in Cuenca (again by public bus). I chose to go here instead of Ingapirca ruins (after Machu Picchu last year I feel pretty set on Incan ruins for a while). Pumapungo looked small on the map that we got from the Cuenca tourism office, but it is anything but!
Pumapungo is great for a nice walk and includes a few caged birds, a pond with ducks, and medicinal gardens as well as the ruins. The small ethnic museum provides a nice overview of Ecuadorian ethnic groups and history. In the basement are some old coins and displays explaining the history of the Ecuadorian money. I felt like the only let down of the experience was this money exhibit, because I didn’t glean as much information as I would have liked about how Ecuador became dollarized (this is of great interest to me because I feel like Venezuela might be heading in that direction). Pumapungo was free so no complaints from me!
From Pumapungo, we walked along the river back to Old Town. It was this experience that made me really love Cuenca. It is so walkable and gorgeous!
We switched hostels because Hostal Yakumama forgot to inform us that they would be closing down for the NYE festivities when I booked several months in advance. They helped us find rooms at La Cigale which has cheap ensuite rooms and a cool bar/restaurant but didn’t have hot water even after the staff swore that it was turned on.
We woke up at 5 AM to go to nearby Banos to enjoy thermal baths. This will be a post of its own next week too!
Later in the day, we took another trip to a pair of nearby mountain towns called Gualaceo and Chordeleg. I’m already nearing 1000 words so I will make this a post of its own too!
Despite being extremely tired we searched for a salsa club called La Mesa. A girl on my cruise in the Galapagos had been working in Cuenca for the past year and swore that it was the best place to find people who actually danced salsa in Cuenca. Apparently it was closed for the NYE holiday too. 😦
Instead of salsa dancing all night I ended up going to sleep early so I could wake up for a 3AM bus ride to Guayaquil and then Montanita.
Hostal Yakumama was a gorgeous old colonial house refurbished into a hostel. It is very unique with a skate ramp/half pipe thing in the inner courtyard, a tv room, hot showers, and a cool bar/restaurant (the only food they serve is breakfast in the morning).
La Cigale has a great vibe, decent food and drinks, and okay dorms.
Cheapest- Public Market– Grab some fruits and veggies to bring to eat on a bench in the plaza.
Budget- Don Colon– Situated right across from the New Church you would think that this would be an overpriced tourist trap, however, it was filled with locals as well as some tourists. The big draw: $4 set menus with soup, juice, salad, rice, a choice of main (I had creamy garlic shrimp), and chocolate cake.
Budget- Bapu India– It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but the food inside was plentiful and tasty. They didn’t have the mango lassi I was craving, but they had fresh seasonal fruit juice instead. I had naan, rice, butter chicken, and juice for $7 including tip. One of the few places open on Sundays.
Mid Range- La Vina Pizzaria– has a nice thin crust pizza at an affordable price. People also rave about their fresh spinach and ricotta ravioli. I spent about $12 for a personal pizza, bread, and glass of wine. One of the few places open after 7PM on a Monday.
High End- El Jardin– We just happened on this restaurant, as it isn’t advertised well on the street. It is in the basement of a historic boutique hotel. We had the set menu here as well. However, I had an amazing seafood salad, steak and steamed veggies, and a dessert sampler plate. For two, three-course set menus, plus a small bottle of wine, it was $29 per person including tip. It was a great deal, had a fantastic view of Mirador Turi, and had impeccable service provided by white-gloved wait staff.
I really loved Cuenca and I can’t wait to return there when it isn’t a holiday!