Anyone that’s travelling to Cuenca from the coast is bound to breathe a sigh of relief. As you trundle through small hamlets and endless banana plantations, that sticky humidity suddenly becomes fresh and cool as you gain altitude in misty, jungle covered highlands dotted with gushing waterfalls.
Talk about a perfect entrance to Ecuador’s third largest city.
Cuenca may be provincial, but it bustles like any other. It’s UNESCO listed centre drips in colonial masterpieces, leafy squares and 52 gorgeous churches and cathedrals. That’s one church for every week of the year, which was actually the plan! It’s an easy city to walk, too, despite the constant buses speeding past and filling the narrow streets with clouds of black smoke.
Cuenca’s heart would have to be Parque Calderón, and if you want to get a feel of the city’s culture, I’d say sit by one of the immaculate gardens and take in what goes on around you.
Elderly men sit and play chess, cholas Cuencanas (ladies dressed in colourful traditional wool dresses called polleras) wander about selling bits and pieces as businessmen rush past on their way to work. Then there are the teens laughing, hanging out and tapping of phones as nearby food carts cook up delectables from char-grills. There’s always something going on in the park, any time of the day.
Dominating the park is The New Cathedral, a beautiful structure that took close to 100 years to complete, although I never would have guessed it was only consecrated in 1967. Many still consider it unfinished, as the original plans have two tall steeples at the front of the cathedral; structures that weren’t built due to the foundations not being able to take the extra weight.
Cuenca may not be the most remarkable city we’ve visited in South America, but it does have its charms. The cobbled streets are filled with magnificent buildings, many of them containing hotels, shops and small businesses worth checking out.
There are tiny panaderías everywhere selling fascinating sweet and savoury edibles. You could easily spend all day sampling things like empanadas, roscas (below), colourful cookies and creamy desserts, jellies, chocolates and fudges. Or if good old bread is more your thing, there are plenty of traditional wood-fired bakeries around town.
Something that’s unmissable in Cuenca, and many parts of Ecuador, is espumilla. It doesn’t take long before you spot a lady either carrying a tray of it on her head or sitting in the street scooping it into cones.
So what is espumilla? It’s basically meringue that’s whipped for ages with sugar and fruit. You can have it plain, but often it’s topped with sprinkles, jellies and fruity syrup – just in case it isn’t sweet enough for you.
Cuenca’s cafe scene is pretty strong, but one thing I love is the abundance of micro-roasters that specialise in beans from particular local fincas, or estates. There are no fancy brewing methods or espresso machines, just drip coffee and somewhere to sit and enjoy it.
El Cafetal de Laja, which translates to The Coffee Plantation of Flagstone, is a tiny roaster offering strong black filter coffee or freshly roasted beans if you want to take some home.
You can grab a seat in the beautiful front room or enjoy the stunning inner courtyard just beyond it, filled with hanging ferns and shady fig tree. There are a few edibles such as humitas, tamales and bolónes (green plantain balls studded with chicken).
El Cafetal de Laja, Mariscal Sucre 10-56
For a coffee shop that’s a bit more contemporary, head to the terrace behind Todos Santos Church to nab one of the few seats available.
Puro Cafe is owned by a very friendly Belgian lady, a complete pro when it comes to barista work. There’s free wifi, some decent cold drink options and the view to the mountains makes it all the more special.
Puro Cafe, Calle Larga & Bajada de Todos Santos
Another one that’s popular with gringos and expats is Ñucallacta, a small roaster that puts on Mexican-style dishes, a breakfast burrito and huevos rancheros, plus frappes, juices and smoothies.
If coffee is the only thing on the agenda, you can enjoy it in the light-filled courtyard at the back or simply have your roasted beans bagged to take away.
Cafe de Ñucallacta, Hermano Miguel 5-62
Many come for the great value Colombian almuerzo, the patacón or the coffee, others for their fill on what they also do really well – arepas.
Instead of being split open and filled, something we’re very used to seeing in one of Venezuela’s national street foods, the arepas at Moliendo Cafe are lovingly finished with over 20 varieties of toppings.
We sampled the delicious chorizo & guacamole (3.5) and chicharron & plantain (3.5), only wishing we had spare stomach real estate to try a couple more. Yup, they’re that good.
Moliendo Cafe, Honorato Vásquez 6-24
Mote sucio (4)
Getting stuck into traditional Cuencan fare is made easy thanks to places like Cositas, which has a few locations around town. The food here is well priced and very generous, and considering it was only locals eating there on both our visits, they must be doing something right in terms of authenticity.
Almuerzo (set lunch) is a great deal if you’re strapped for cash, but the regular menu still won’t set you back terribly.
The service has a slight fast food vibe to it, as you’re required to pay after you’ve chosen from the picture menu up on the wall. You take a seat downstairs amongst a wall of Miss World photographs, or upstairs amongst bric-a-brac and many, many ties. Someone sure has a sense of humour in their decorating.
The food itself is big on meat and big on grains, and if you leave any high expectations at the door, you’ll definitely walk out full and satisfied.
Cositas, Benigno Malo 6-55
Happy hour was what drew us to this stylish corner restaurant and bar – a couple of very decent mojitos – but we quietly had eyes for something else.
A dish called disco.
Due to being out of our budget, we could only peer at a neighbouring table as they tucked into their own disco for two – a cast iron skillet filled with slow cooked meats and vegetables that’s typical in regional Argentina.
La Esquina, Calle Larga 5-90
It may be a popular espresso bar, but thanks to serving booze and playing sports on the flatscreen, Goza is the perfect place to sit and people watch or get stuck into a game whilst sipping on your favourite drink.
The food is decidedly western and the clientele predominantly gringo, so if you’re after a hamburger and fries with your beer, this is the place for you. We kinda love the location, too.
Goza Espresso Bar, Presidente Borrero 4-11 & Calle Larga
They may not get the same numbers as Goza across the plaza, but Zaragoza got our attention because their happy hour mojitos and hefty glasses of vino tinto suited us perfectly.
This small bar has an unmissable rock and roll theme with pics of bands on the walls, some kind of rock music playing, and even a drum that poses as a light pendant hanging above the bar.
Zaragoza, Presidente Borrero 4-48
Cauliflower manchurian (4)
The 3-block section of Calle Larga between Padre Aguirre and Presidente Borrero becomes nightlife central after hours, with bars opening their doors and many party-goers hitting the streets for some fun.
If rowdy bars and clubs are a thing of the past, as they are with us, there is a decent choice of restaurants, plus some fast food that may be of interest.
Indian was on the cards after our few rounds of happy hour at Zaragoza, so we got our fill at Namaste, which shares the same building as a hostel. There’s a very extensive Indian menu with all the usual suspects – we can vouch for the lamb nihari and chicken xacuti – and if you’re after a little Chinese, they have some of that too.
Namaste, Calle Larga 8-81
The street food scene was pumping on our final night in Cuenca, thanks to some kind of festival, so we took the opportunity and joined the throngs in some char-grilled action.
Smoked billowed from dozens of grill stands, most of them cooking up the same kind of thing – skewers of chicken, meat, sausages and potatoes. Perfectly charred, juicy and made even better with a squirt of spicy sauce. Not bad for a couple of bucks!
How we got to Cuenca from Mancóra, Peru.
Our bus ticket was booked through an agency that deals with CIFA bus, but the pick-u was actually with a colectivo van from the main road near the CIFA bus depot. It was all a little confusing due to language barriers, but we trusted the colectivo guy, flashed our bus tickets, put our luggage on top of the van and jumped in.
The colectivo dropped us at the CIFA depot in Tumbes, as explained by the driver, and we waited there for the actual CIFA bus to get us to the border. Crossing into Ecuador was pretty straight forward and efficient. The CIFA bus waited as we were all processed, then it was as simple as getting back on the bus and being dropped at the depot in Aquas Verdes.
It got a little confusing at this depot (language barriers again), but we basically had a connection bus to Cuenca at 2pm from the Pullman International terminal, five minutes walk from CIFA terminal.
In total, getting from Mancóra to the Cuenca bus terminal took 11 hours and cost $80 per person.