the colonial city of cuenca, ecuador

Saturday, July 30: We took an early morning flight from Quito to Cuenca on LATAM Airlines, arriving around 10:00. Unfortunately, we hadn’t planned very well, because we couldn’t check into our Airbnb apartment until noon, so we had to sit around waiting at Cuenca’s tiny airport until 11:30, at which time we took a taxi to the Airbnb. The occupants, a family from Washington state, were a bit late checking out so we were standing in the hallway when they finally came out at 12:30. The host had told us we could drop our bags in the apartment while the cleaning people did their thing, so we did that and headed out for a quick lunch at Chill & Grill Express before embarking on a walking tour of the city with Gustavo Jiménez Morales, a wonderful tour guide recommended by our Airbnb host.

Our apartment was modern and well-appointed. It was right across the Río Tomebamba from the Old Town.

After lunch, Gustavo took us to his apartment, situated in a building next door to ours. We met his daughter Camilla and her boyfriend Martín. Camilla graduated recently with a degree in architecture. I loved the colorful and cool decor in Gustavo’s apartment. Gustavo was once a veterinarian specializing in large animals; he had become a tour guide because he loves helping and meeting people and introducing them to his beloved city.

Gustavo led us on a walking tour of Cuenca’s Old Town (Centro de Cuenca). We crossed the bridge over Río Tomebamba from our temporary home in the New Town and strolled along the river, gurgling peacefully through a shaded park. We climbed an endless number of steps to the historic town where we admired the classic balconied buildings lining the street.

We walked along a high street from which we could view the New Town of Cuenca below. Gustavo pointed out relief carvings through the town. The first was of a woman who lost her young son and calls for him at night because she hears him crying. The headless monk relief symbolized how the “man of God” frequented whorehouses with a hood over his head so no one would recognize him. We saw the Art Extremo Museum and Cafe, a grim reaper-themed gallery, bar and nightclub. A statue in a small square represented a greased pole that children climb to get trinkets during Corpus Christi. We dropped into the shop of a man who cleans and repairs people’s Panama hats. We strolled through a park with beautiful green and yellow palms. Cuenca is a town filled with artistic flourishes.

We wandered through the Hotel Alcazar with its gorgeous courtyard and gardens and then took a leisurely stroll through the flower market. Finally we reached the New Cathedral, which dominates Parque Calderón, the city’s largest plaza. Construction of the cathedral began in 1885. Its giant domes of sky-blue Czech tiles are visible from all over the town. The bell towers are a bit short because of a design error which made the intended height of the belfries impossible for the building to support.

We topped off our first half day in Cuenca by eating a light dinner at El Mercado. I enjoyed Langostinos Asados (grilled prawns). Mike had Berenjenas a la Mediterranea: roasted eggplants, baked tomato sauce, feta cheese, basil and sourdough bread. We shared the ubiquitous locro de papas (potato soup with cheese and avocado). And drinks of course.

Steps: 14,816; miles 6.24


Sunday, July 31: We went on a tour of three market towns with Gustavo. I wrote about it here: market towns near cuenca: the panama hat trail & the “ruta de las guitarras”.


Monday, August 1: Today was our first day in Cuenca on our own. Gustavo had gone to the beach with his family, so we wouldn’t see him again.

Cuenca’s historic center dates from the 16th century and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is famous for its skyline of massive rotundas and soaring steeples, cobblestone streets, and geranium-filled balconies as well as its barranco (cliff) along Calle Larga. Many craft traditions are centered here, especially ceramics, metalwork and the famous Panama Hat.

Three cultures have made a mark on the city. When the Spanish arrived in the 1540s, they encountered the ruins of a great but short-lived Incan city called Tomebamba (Valley of the Sun). The Spanish proceeded to tear it apart, using the Incan stones in their own structures. Before the Incas, the indigenous Cañari people had lived in the region for possibly 3,000 years.

We first came upon the Church of San Francisco which towers over Plaza de San Francisco; it features the “cuenca” sign in the midst of a rather shabby street market; it is bordered by old arcaded buildings with wooden balconies. We ventured into the Casa de la Mujer, which houses over 100 craft stalls selling handmade musical instruments, embroidered clothing, baskets, jewelry, ceramics, ironwork, wooden utensils, guinea pig roasters and gaudy religious paraphernalia.

Next to the flower market we’d seen Saturday, we found the stark white Church of El Carmen de la Asunción, founded in 1682. Inside its Santuario Mariano we found an over-the-top, rather showy interior. Gustavo had told us that Cuenca has 52 churches, one for every week of the year. The city is rich with colonial-era buildings.

We stumbled into Dos Chorreras Chocolateria with a cool vintage red car inside stacked high with chocolates and a colorful disco ball hanging overhead. A long bark canoe was filled with burlap bags of chocolate beans. We enjoyed churros and chocolate there.

We intended to climb the towers of the New Cathedral, but they were closed for lunch. Instead we went shopping nearby at Mercantile Tosi. For once Mike bought more than I did; he found four shirts.

By the time we finished, the towers were open, so we climbed over 150 steps to the terrace for views over Cuenca.

After walking all over, we relaxed back at the apartment in the afternoon, sitting in the hot tub and drinking Mike’s famous traveling concoction of whiskey and ginger ale.

In the evening, we went to the charming Consuelo; it is housed inside the stunning La Casa del Parque.  The beautiful Renaissance-style building was conceived in 1880 for one of the richest and most influential women in Cuencan society at the end of the 19th century: Hortensia Mata. Her family’s wealth was acquired through various activities such as the export of quinine, cocoa husks, and toquilla straw hats.

A later owner of the house, Mrs. Gladys Eljuri, decided to add touristic value to the house by converting it to an upscale gourmet center. It boasts everything culinary from cheese shops to fancy restaurants to a Dunkin’ Donuts.


La Casa del Parque, the building housing the food court, including Consuelo

We enjoyed an unusual meal of Maduro Asado con Queso (lima beans with cheese), Caldo de pollo (chicken soup), and mote sucio (“dirty mote” –  the “dirty” comes form pork crackling and mote is a hominy-like grain).  We couldn’t translate the menu, even using Google, and couldn’t communicate with the waiter about food items. We figured we’d just go with whatever we got.

We sat on a velvet couch with bunches of roses overhead, Spanish music playing and a painting of a woman nursing her baby with milk dribbling down her dress. It was such a cool atmospheric place and the food was offbeat but delicious.

A couple sitting nearby said they’d just opened a fondue restaurant in Quito and were visiting Cuenca. All of us marveled over the strange concoction the waiter brought to top off our meal: Espumilla, a kind of Ecuadorian dessert of merengue and ice cream cones with various toppings such as flaked coconut, blackberry marmalade and “grajeas” (sprinkles?). We had seen this dessert offered by street vendors all over Cuenca.

Steps: 12,158; Miles 5.15


Tuesday, August 2: We started our day by going to the Museo del Sombrero de Paja Toquilla.  It is a small museum where you can see the various processes used in making the famous hats.  We loved the outdoor terrace looking over the Tomebamba, the new town, and beyond to the Mirador del Turi.

Our next stop was Mercado 10 de Agosto, a colorful buzzing place with lots of activity. In abundance were colorful murals and every kind of fruit, vegetable and meat imaginable. We enjoyed wandering through and eating lunch in the upstairs food court.

Later in the afternoon, we stopped by the market again to peek under the escalators at the Limpias, sturdy women who clean out bad energy from souls. These women speak mostly Quechua, the ancient language family of the Incan Empire.

We watched this healing ritual for a bit then we sat in plastic chairs to partake. The Limpias whipped our faces, arms, necks and bellies with bundles of herbal plants. The scent was calming but the vigorous whipping was invigorating. The limpias made shushing sounds to scare away the bad energy. The “diagnosis” of what is wrong with your soul comes in the form of an egg that is cracked open into a cup. After breaking the egg, she showed it to us, but I wasn’t sure what it signified or what to look for. They then rubbed an intact egg all around our arms and bellies.

Next came a cleansing with alcohol. They sprayed it all over our bodies and into our palms and instructed us to put our hands over our noses to inhale the strong odor. Then they rubbed charcoal or ash on our foreheads as some kind of blessing or to keep bad spirits away.

It was a wild experience, but I have no idea if it succeeded in driving bad energy away. You can see the Limpias in action in the video at the end of this post.


the Limpias in action at Mercado 10 de Agosto

We stopped at a cooperative where I looked at Ikat shawls and scarves, but I only bought a pair of earrings and a colorful little bowl.

Gustavo had recommended we go the Museo Municipal de Arte Moderno, housed in a former home for the insane. Sadly much of the building was undergoing renovation today; we wandered through the rooms that were open and admired the beautiful paintings by children from ages 8-12.

After our wanderings, we went to the airport to pick up our rental car, which we would keep for the next 12 days, a white Toyota Yaris.  We drove directly to the nearby Homero Ortega Hat Museum, recommended by Gustavo, to see the Panama hats being made.  We had both read about the process in The Panama Hat Trail by Tom Miller so there were no surprises. The museum was nicer than the one we’d been to earlier and of course I had to buy a vintage style grayish-blue hat. Mike forbid me to buy any more since I don’t wear hats often, but I rarely listen to his admonitions.

After the hat museum, we drove to Mirador del Turi to see views of Cuenca.  On the way, we almost got broadsided by a huge truck barreling into a traffic circle. It stopped inches away without a sound, no squealing tires or anything. It was surreal, as if time stopped. I almost felt like we were killed and then continued on after a momentary lapse into a parallel universe. It was incredibly bizarre.

We saw the stark white church of Turi but the viewpoint was messy because of construction.

We stayed in for dinner and cooked up some of the potatoes, tomatoes, eggs and spinach we’d picked up at the market.

Steps: 9,056; Miles 3.84.


Wednesday, August 3: Today we drove to Park Nacional Cajas, where we hiked around Laguna Toreadora.  I wrote about it here: a day trip to parque nacional cajas.


Thursday, August 4: On our last day in Cuenca, we walked along the Río Tomebamba in sputtering rain, finding some cool murals depicting Panama hats. It was a long walk to Cuenca’s most important museum, the Pumapungo Museum.

We walked outdoors through the archeological park, where we saw extensive ruins of buildings believed to be part of the old Incan city of Tomebamba. Spanish conquistadors absconded with much of the stone to build Cuenca, so there wasn’t much left. The Incan city was constructed at the end of the 15th century. The site represents the history of the Cañari or the Inca.

Inside the museum, we found colorfully animated dioramas displaying traditional costumes of Ecuador’s diverse indigenous cultures, including Afro-Ecuadorians and their reconstructed houses from Esmeraldas province, the cowboy-like montubios (coastal farmers) of the western lowlands, several rainforest groups and all major highland groups including Cañaris and Cholas. Sadly all the information inside the museum was in Spanish only.

At the end we encountered five eerie tzantzas (shrunken heads) from the Shuar culture of the southern Oriente. The tzantzas are severed and specially prepared human heads used for trophy, ritual, or trade purposes. The meaning of Shuar is “man” or “human being,” but they are often known as “Jibaro” (savage). The community rejects this term as pejorative. They live in the southern part of the Ecuadorian and the northern part of the Peruvian Amazon region at 2,000m above sea level. There, dense vegetation and numerous waterfalls slowed penetration by outsiders for a long time.

After leaving the museum, we stopped at Taita Café for an espresso and chocolate croissant.


We walked quite a long distance to see Church of San Blas on the east end of the historical center. It occupies what was once known as the “low neighborhood.” It is one of the city’s largest and the only one built in the form of a Latin Cross.

As a culinary finale, we headed to Guajibamba on Luís Cordero, known for its cuy (guinea pig). The courtyard restaurant with a relaxed atmosphere serves traditional Ecuadorian food, but our focus was the cuy, which Mike mostly ate. I ordered the Locro de Papas. The skin of the cuy was the best part, but overall it was much like eating quail or something like it, with little meat on the bones.

We strolled back to Parque Calderón and took an elevator to the terrace of Negroni, where we enjoyed cappuccino, a chocolate mousse torte and wonderful views of the three blue domes of the New Cathedral. In order to use the bathroom, we had to step through a window.

Finally, after a cloudy and rainy day, the sun came out and the weather was beautiful.

On the other side of Parque Calderón, we found the whitewashed ‘old cathedral,’ El Sagrario.  Construction began in 1557, the year Cuenca was founded. In 1739 French explorer, geographer and mathematician Charles Marie de La Condamine’s expedition used its towers as a triangulation point to measure the shape of the earth. It is now deconsecrated and serves as a religious museum and a recital hall.


We wandered again through the flower market and to Calle Larga back to the Museo del Sombrero de Paja Toquilla where I bought a brown and tan striated hat, the third of my Panama hats. 🙂

Back at the Mercado 10 de Agosto, we bought more fruit from the same vendor from our first visit. We bought some bread from a bakery then walked back in the sunshine along the Río Tomebamba where we admired, for our last time, the barranco, where the city’s 18th- and 19th-century ‘hanging houses’ seem to float above the river.

Back at the apartment, we did laundry, drank wine, fixed sandwiches and relaxed.

Miles: 16,946; Miles: 7.17.

Here is a video of our time in Cuenca.

We would leave Cuenca the next day for Ingapirca.