There’s a reason Cuenca, Ecuador is chock-full of American ex-pats: it was easily my favorite city I’ve visited in South America. I fell in love with the city at first sight and ended up spending two weeks there. If you’re on a tighter schedule than I was, though, here are my favorite things to do in Cuenca, packed into a single-day itinerary!
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Start with breakfast at Café de Ñucallacta (good luck pronouncing that correctly!). It’s widely agreed-upon as the best coffee in Cuenca–they roast their own!–and they have a wide selection of breakfast items. The staff is bilingual, and the cafe has an outdoor terrace in the back, as well as free WiFi and power outlets for charging your phone or laptop.
From Café de Ñucallacta, walk down the street and turn left on Calle Larga, the main drag through the historical center of town. A ten-minute walk down this quaint cobblestone street will lead you directly to the (free!) Museo Pumapunga (also referred to on some maps as Museo del Banco Central, as the Central Bank of Ecuador funds the musuem’s operations). Start with the inside exhibits, where you will learn about the unique history of the different regions of Ecuador, including how colonialism and slavery impacted today’s populations. You can even see real shrunken heads!
Behind the museum is the real treasure: Incan ruins, preserved right within the city limits. The Incans grew crops in a special circle based around their concept of sun worship.
There are great views of the city from here, and you may also see the llamas!
Lunch at Windhorse Cafe
If, like I was, you are completely craving some healthy Western-style cuisine, check out Windhorse Cafe on Calle Larga, which is run by American expats from Wisconsin. They have some amazing healthy options (I had a delicious lentil veggie burger & salad) and homemade ginger ale! Lucy, one of the owners, specializes in pies if you’re craving a sweet treat. Upstairs is a meditation room, and there are meditation classes occasionally throughout the week in case you’re interested in a quick mental retreat!
Trade in Your Books at Carolina Bookstore
Right around the corner from Windhorse Cafe is Carolina Bookstore, which specializes in English language books – thank the expat community! I found the prices a bit high, but they accept trade-ins, so if you’re not a Kindle aficionado like me, trade in the stuff you’ve read and get something new to read!
Walk to Parque Calderon & New Cathedral
Parque Calderon is the central plaza in Cuenca and an easy walk from Calle Larga. The plaza is beautiful (but so are all the plazas in Cuenca, in my opinion!). The New Cathedral, as it’s most commonly referred, is actually called Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. The blue domes are the trademark skyline image of the city, and the inside of the cathedral is beautiful. Take a guided tour, which will bring you up the towers in the front, for $3. Around the side of the cathedral you can visit the city’s famous flower market.
Take the Bus to the Mirador del Turi Overlook
As your day winds down, catch a city bus for 25 cents up the hill to the Mirador del Turi overlook. I don’t recommend the double-decker tour buses that are heavily promoted in Parque Calderon – I took one and at $8 it was just a bus ride to Turi and back! The city bus is much easier and more cost effective.
Once you arrive at the Mirador, you can watch the sun set. There’s a restaurant at the top that serves my favorite Ecuadorian drink, a canelazo – a hot cocktail made with sugar cane alcohol, naranjilla juice, and water boiled with cinnamon.
Have you been to Cuenca? What do you recommend? Let me know in the comments!
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