Traveling to Cuenca Ecuador - What to See and Do

At Home on the Road in Cuenca, Ecuador

This entry is part 17 of 18 in the series Ecuador

By the time I arrived in Cuenca I was stressed out and beaten down. Though rewarding, traveling through Ecuador had not been easy. I’d been seasick during my spectacular cruise with Ecoventura in the Galapagos Islands; sweaty and smelly in the Amazon jungle at Cuyabeno Lodge; and sardined into a bus full of Ecuadorians, where a mother and her young son crammed into a single seat next to me for the entire three-hour ride to Chugchilan. I had a severe bout of altitude sickness while attempting to hike parts of the Quilotoa Loop and been targeted by thugs in Quito who’d unsuccessfully tried to steal my backpack. I needed a rest.

Fortunately, I had a plan for making Cuenca seem more like home. Shortly after arriving in Mexico in 2010 I received a comment on my blog from Nancy and Paul Dardarian, American expats who had moved to Mazatlan some years earlier and subsequently launched the popular expat travel blog Countdown to Mexico. We met for a leisurely lunch at an oceanfront palapa and I got the benefit of all their knowledge about Mazatlan. When Nancy and Paul wrote about our meeting, several of their followers became followers of my blog as well. Among them was Ken Smith, an American expat living in Lake Chapala, Mexico. Ken had been “lurking” around my bog for a while but when he learned I was Cuenca bound he contacted me and suggested I get in touch with a friend of his, Regina Potenza, yet another American expat who lived for more than 20 years in Lake Chapala but had moved to Cuenca a couple years earlier. It is indeed a small world.

Meeting up with expats for Sunday Football at the Inca Cafe

Meeting up with expats for Sunday Football at the Inca Cafe

Regina and I exchanged emails and she suggested I stay at the Hotel Milan, which turned out to be a wonderful family-owned hotel in the middle of downtown, affordably priced at only $17 per night for a private room with private bath. But this was just the beginning. I’d barely arrived when Regina phoned with an invitation to meet up with other expats at the regular Tuesday evening get-together at DiBacco Italian Restaurant, which is half-owned by another American expat, John Buskey (excellent food, by the way).

Over the next week, Regina and others among the expat community welcomed me into their fold to such a degree that it felt like instant family. I joined them for Sunday football at the Inca Lounge, tagged along on a furniture shopping expedition, and attended their writer’s group reading one evening. They made sure I knew which attractions were worth the price of admission and which should be skipped; which areas of the city were safe to walk alone at night and which should be avoided; and what nearby artisan towns were worth a visit. Perhaps the best tip of all came from Regina herself, when she told me not to miss the free museum inside the Banco Central, which has an astonishing and thorough display about the various cultures of Ecuador, and the adjacent Pumapungo ruins.

Can’t view the above slide show about Cuenca, Ecuador? Click here.

I was having such a good time that I didn’t want to leave. My initial three days in Cuenca stretched to five and then to seven, but by the end of the week I really needed to get back on the road; I had wandered around Ecuador for nearly two months and was due back in the States to visit my family over the Christmas holiday, leaving barely a month to travel though Peru. But my new friends were having none of that. Barbie DiPalma and John Vitale made me an offer I just couldn’t refuse: they invited me enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings in their home with a few of the other expats I had already met. And if I stayed, Regina added, I could walk in the First Annual Cuenca Turkey Trot, a two-mile race along the Tomebamba River to benefit Fundacion El Arenal, an after-school program for at-risk kids who work long hours beside their parents at the largest produce and meat market in town.

Signup at the First Annual Cuenca Turkey Trot, Thanksgiving Day, 2011

Signup at the First Annual Cuenca Turkey Trot, Thanksgiving Day, 2011

Stretching before the Turkey Trot

Stretching before the Turkey Trot

Fundacion El Arenal, an after-school program for at-risk kids, is the beneficiary of the Turkey Trot proceeds

Fundacion El Arenal, an after-school program for at-risk kids, is the beneficiary of the Turkey Trot proceeds

And we're off! After a two-mile walk/trot, we reward ourselves with pastries at a local cafe

And we’re off! After a two-mile walk/trot, we reward ourselves with pastries at a local cafe

Luckily, as a perpetual traveler I have no concrete schedule. Each time I added a few more days to my stay the owners of Hotel Milan smiled and nodded knowingly; it seems many visitors get “sticky feet” in Cuenca. What’s another two days, anyway? So, early Thanksgiving morning I put on my jogging duds, walked down to the starting point for the Turkey Trot, and paid my $3 entry fee. I hot-footed it to half-way point and “kissed the bridge” before reversing direction to our ending point, the Kookaburra Cafe, where we stuffed our faces with coffee and delish pastries. A couple hours later I was schmoozing with the expats and stuffing my face from the mouth-watering Thanksgiving spread laid out by John & Barbie.

I did finally depart the following morning. For many, Cuenca is the ideal place to retire overseas. Food is incredibly cheap and fresh organic fruit and vegetables are abundant; gas is only $1.50 per gallon; the city is quite safe and clean; there are sufficient cultural activities available; and the Ecuadorian government and people are welcoming to expats, thus it is fairly easy to gain permanent residency. But Cuenca is not quite the paradise I seek; at an elevation of 8,400 feet, the evening temperatures are just too chilly and I know the clouds that roll in every afternoon would eventually begin to depress me. I learned long ago that paradise on earth doesn’t exist, but Cuenca is close…very close.

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11 Comments on “At Home on the Road in Cuenca, Ecuador

  1. Thanks for great insights into Cuenca. My son and I plan to travel there in July and determine if I can possibly retire somewhere in Ecuador in the near future. We have traveled extensively in Peru, where my other son’s fiancés is from, but a student of mine from Ecuador has convinced me it the better country. You mentioned Banos and Quilatoa as safe and less altitude sickness prone area, as I definitely was sick a few timed in Peru. Any suggestions for flights, etc. would be appreciated. The Milan Hotel looks very nice and reasonably priced.

    • Hi Annie: I did like the Milan Hotel, but I’m not a travel agent, so I can’t help you with flight suggestions. Sorry. I did particularly like Banos, but Quilatoa is also high altitude, so that might be problematic for you. I got deathly ill there from the altitude.

  2. This is a great piece, thanks for you honest insight. I fit the MO perfectly & an article on the ABC news site talked about Cuenca. My problem at least for a bit would be the altitude, I have a problem w 7000 ft. My big question for all is how safe is the rest of Ecuador? I don’t want to be trapped in one town, I’d want to explore. And my biggest concern is how is the influx of retirees impacting the local population? Other than that I’m ready to pack my bags and go! PS: I’m loving Kim who said she and her husband do non stop travel!

    • Hi Ann: Well, in general, the larger cities in Ecuador (Guayaquil and Quito) are not the safest. ut there are plenty of destinations around the country that are safe. Banos, the coastal beach towns, the small villages like Quilatoa up in the mountains, in the Amazon jungle, etc. I can’t really say how the population of expats is impacting the locals, though the group I hung around with during my time there were running events that raised money to help poor local produce sellers send their kids to school.

  3. I am intrigued by Cuenca even though never been there. What would you recommend the best time to visit should be? Where should we land ? And where should we stay? What about renting a car?
    I would greatly appreciate your expert input.

    • Hi Irene: Cuenca is at a high elevation, so is chilly all year round, so I’d go during our winter, as it is their summer. You can flu to Quito or Guayaquil, though you’ll probably find better deals to Guayaquil. Try LAN Airlines; sign up for their newsletter so you’ll see the promotions. As for where you should stay, that all depends on your budget and preferences with regard to accommodations. You might want to start with TripAdvisor. I really don’t think a car is necessary. You can get everywhere by day tours or public transportation (buses).

  4. This is a little late for you for Ecuador but maybe this suggestion will help later on—-

    Whenever I travel in Latin America by bus, I always by 2 seats for myself and then I am
    assured of not being crowded in and it is a heck of a lot more comfortable.  Price of the
    local buses in these countries are pretty inexpensive.  Kathy

    • Kathy, in my opinion this would defeat the entire purpose of traveling. I love being on the local buses, uncomfortable though it may be at times, if it lets me connect with locals and learn about their culture.

  5. It’s great when you get so wrapped up in a place that you can throw your travel plans off a bit just to experience more of it. Great post!

  6. I’ve been loving your posts on Ecuador.  It’s our first stop when my husband and I leave to travel indefinitely.  You are making my itchy feet even itchier!

    • Hi Kim! Thanks so much for taking the time to write. It is always a big boost to me when I hear people actually read what I write. I have one more post on Ecuador and then will be writing about Peru (I’m sure you’ll be going there too!)

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