– Traveled Summer 2014 –
Cuenca is the third largest city of Ecuador. Given its architecture, UNESCO has designated Cuenca as a World Heritage Site. If you are planning a trip allocate at least 5 days to visit the city and its surroundings. Allow one or two more days for travel since Cuenca doesn’t have an international airport and a local flight is required – at times, flights will be cancelled.
From Quito, the best option is to take a 45 minute flight; a car trip will take about 8 hours or more along a windy road. From Guayaquil there are two options, take a plane (limited availability with two flights a day) or a local bus (30+ people at $5 per person) or a buseta (10 people at $10 or $80 for the buseta for only you and your family) with offices located near the airport. The trip is about 3 1/2 and hours and on a clear day the view is impressive. You are climbing from sea level to an elevation of 8,400 ft.
Once in Cuenca there are a lot of things to do in the city and surrounding cities. The best way to take its architecture is to walk; most of its colonial art and architecture is located in a 20 block radius so you can do all this in one day. During this walk you can visit churches and museums. The weather can be unpredictable. Many times, the day will start with nice and clear sky, then clouds will move in and a rain will ensue; then the clouds will dissipate for another beautiful clear afternoon.
The people in Cuenca are very lay back, many shops (with exception of Malls, supermarkets and banks) open around 10 and close around 12:00 or 1:00 for lunch. They don’t open again until 3:00 p.m. and close a round 6:00. In addition, service at many restaurants is slow; don’t be afraid to call their attention.
One way to take a quick view of the city is to take the double decker bus at the central park aright across from the old cathedral. The bus drives by most of the main sites in Cuenca; a great way to see the highlights and plan accordingly the rest of your stay.
A few tips: Ecuador uses the American Dollar as its currency so there is no need to worry about currency exchange. In addition, you need a passport to travel to Ecuador, although you don’t need a visa if you plan to stay a few weeks. Water in the city is supposed to be good, but it is better to be safe, and drink bottle water which can be found at many hotels, restaurants and grocery stores.
Transportation and Accommodations
From the LA area there are no direct flights, so a stopover is required. US airlines such a Delta or American flight to Quito or Guayaquil (Most of the times it is the same plane which stops at both cities). International airlines such as Avianca or Copa are a better option since the cost and flight times are usually less that the US airlines. Also, the service in the international airlines tends to be better.
For internal flights, from Quito three airlines flight to Cuenca, Tame, AeroGal and LAN. From Guayaquil only Tame offers services to Cuenca. Flight times vary depending on the week day or weekend. During national holidays flights can be cancelled.
The major car rentals can be found in Cuenca, but it can be very expensive. Local taxis can be found all around the city and its fares fluctuated between $3 and $5.
Gas Station Locations
Gas stations are located in many areas of the city and outside the city. There is a new government regulation that requires all gas stations to offer public restroom. The good news is that if you venture outside the city, they are available. The bad news is that they tend not to be the cleanest and may not have supplies; so always carry toilet paper, seat covers, soap and hand sanitizer.
Cuenca has many places to stay, from your five star hotels – Hotel el Dorado located in the center of the city; Hotel Oro Verde – Located 10 minutes from downtown, to original homes that have been converted into small 10-20 hotels rooms such as Hotel Santa Lucia and Hotel Victoria. This could be a good place to stay to really be immersed in the local architecture.
Where to go
Old and New Cathedral
There are two main churches in Cuenca which are located in the center of Cuenca – Central Park – and are across from each other. The old cathedral was built in 1567 and now has become a museum. The constructions of the new cathedral started in 1882 and took over a 100 years to complete its construction; although it has not been completed since the front of the church is missing two domes – one at each tower – similar to the domes found in the center of the church. Construction was halted since the tower structure was not able to support the domes. The main temple was designed after the San Peter Basilica in the Vatican and its altar is covered by gold paper – a must see.
Cajas National Park
The Cajas National park is located at the west site of the city and it contains about 235 lakes of various sizes. Many are not accessible by car and a guide is recommended. Since it is located at over 10,000 ft., it is a cold and windy place, don’t let the sun fool you. Make sure that you bring warm clothing. If you plan to hike, make sure you have water proof shoes and hire a guide if possible – there are no marked trails anywhere. Weather can change in an instant from a nice clear day to a foggy day.
The market is located one block south west of the central park. This is a very colorful place to visit. It used to be the main place where people bought flower so it use to have lots of beautiful flowers and many options. Now it has become a more touristic place and the selection is not as great and the prices are not as good. It is worth stopping by though; take in the smell and colors.
Nariz del Diablo – Devil’s Nose
This train ride starts in the city of Alausí; about 3 1/2 hours north of Cuenca. What makes this train ride impressive is the fact that it descends about 1,900 feet from Alausí to Sibambe and then it returns to Alausí. The train ride is about 2 1/2 hour round trip. In Sibambe you get off the train and have the opportunity to purchase local merchandise. There is also a small restaurant (sandwiches and drinks mainly) and a museum that gives an overall description of the train ride. In the past, people were able to ride on top of the train cars (as a matter of fact, this was the only way to take this ride) but this practice was banned after a few accidents were people lost their lives.
The train cars have been upgraded to modern and comfortable carts – similar to Amtrak – and each car has a local guide who describes points of interest trough the trip. The car windows open giving the opportunity to place your camera outside the car for great pictures. Either side of the car is good since you will have the opportunity to take the view either on the way down or the way up.
The marker is located two blocks south west of the central park. This is the place to buy local clothing – sweaters, pants, ponchos, hand bags, purses, etc. – and it is a heaven for those of you who like to haggle. Any local will tell you not to pay the initial price that they are asking. Although the price may appear reasonable, don’t pay full price. Once they give you a price, offer to pay half of what they are asking; after some back and forth, you will meet somewhere in the middle; a win-win for both parties.
Galerias El Tucán
This store is located two blocks south east of the central park (Borrero 7-35 y Presidente Cordova). You can find some of the same merchandise as the Otavalo Market, but the quality is better. In addition you can find a lot more artifacts made out of clay, marble, wood and iron. This place has a great selection if you want to do a one stop shop. This is a must stop for me when I visit Cuenca. Every time they have something new and unique.