A long weekend is a travel-addicted young professional’s best friend. So while most of my fellow New Yorkers spent this past Memorial Day soaking up the sun in the Hamptons or celebrating the unofficial start to summer on the Jersey Shore, I set off on a slightly more adventurous whirlwind trip to Cuenca, Ecuador.
Why would I fly almost 7 hours and then travel 3 hours by car to stay in a destination for just three days? Because it’s on my travel to-do list, and I’m never going to get to all of them if I don’t just GO.
By taking Friday (which, as NYC residents know, is a fake half day during the summer anyways) off from work, I was able to squeeze in three full days in Cuenca. We flew overnight from JFK to Guayaquil on Thursday night, and then arranged private transportation directly to our Airbnb in Cuenca.
It turned out that Cuenca was the perfect relaxing weekend escape from NYC, and three days was a great amount of time to visit. After five minutes in the mountainous city I was in love, easily understanding why so many Americans choose to retire there. So why is Cuenca so captivating?
Are you one of those people who can’t live without changing seasons? Well, I am not. I wish it was fall all year round, and early October is my favorite time. I love being able to wear fall clothing (sweaters, boots, and leather jackets – yes, please!) without freezing. Nothing beats walking around the city on a beautiful fall day… am I right?
In Cuenca, temperatures range from 50 to 75 F and never leave my sweet spot. Sure, it rains quite a bit, but I’ll take a few showers over NYC’s polar vortexes and crushing summer heat any day.
Cuenca is literally postcard perfect. There are not too many “must-see” tourist attractions in this city, because the city itself is the attraction. I was very content to spend my entire day wandering the streets of Cuenca and snapping photos of pretty buildings and parks.
How much did I spend going to Cuenca, Ecuador for just a weekend getaway? The truth is, not much. I actually paid for my flight with the sign up bonus from my Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card, so basically I saved money by leaving pricey New York for a few days. Our gorgeous Airbnb rental ran us only $25 per night, taxis to and from the city center were always less than $5, and meals ranged from $1.50 to $6. We were literally amazed at how cheap everything was for such a major city, and trust me: we weren’t penny pinching. We were living large with three course meals, taxis everywhere and plenty of shopping. For example, all this meat was just $20 – less than the cost of one piece of steak at a nice place at home.
I’m not going to hate on tourists because, let’s face it, I am one. (Although guys: when you’re walking through midtown Manhattan, please, pick up the pace). But I do love going somewhere that’s not overly developed for tourists, especially in Latin America because I am always trying to work on my Spanish. There’s nothing more frustrating than spending five minutes crafting the perfect sentence in a foreign language and getting an automatic response in English. I learned more Spanish during three days in Cuenca than I did in a year of school – I swear.
Although there were few tourists when we were in Cuenca, there are a lot of Americans that live there. Most of them are retired elderly couples drawn to Cuenca’s affordable and laid back lifestyle. I was constantly told by Ecuadorians that “Gringos are everywhere now,” and that we were “the youngest gringos in town.” One taxi driver told us that he even sees them at the supermarket (the supermarket!! Can you imagine?).
Before going to Ecuador, I read plenty of travel blogs that made the country out to be quite a scary and crime-ridden place. Express kidnappings in Quito, tourist shootings in Guayaquil and robberies of overnight buses don’t sounds like a vacation to me. But the hidden gem of Ecuador seemed to be Cuenca, nestled high in the mountains away from all the drama. When I first arrived I was extra cautious, but by the end of our trip I had no qualms about walking around with my camera and / or phone in my hand. Literally no one bothered me, and I didn’t see any unsavory characters or feel uncomfortable for one second. Locals seemed to echo the sentiment, explaining that while pickpockets do sometimes target those who aren’t paying attention, violent crime in Cuenca is rare. The only serious warning we were given was to keep valuables out of sight while out and about on Calle Larga (a street of popular bars, clubs, etc.) after dark.
Positioned near the famous El Cajas National Park, Cuenca is a great place to visit if you love the city but crave a bit of adventure. I’m the first to admit that I’m not an outdoorsy girl – I hate bugs and the thought of going somewhere without fully functioning plumbing makes me shiver – but I do love to get active and explore nature when it’s this beautiful. Cuenca was perfectly located for me, with both the bustling city streets and secluded natural areas only minutes away from our house by car.
Ready to plan your trip to Cuenca? Stay tuned for more of my favorite things to do in this beautiful city, plus easy and fun day trips you can squeeze in.
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