Insider Travel Tips for Cuenca: 5 Local Secrets

Insider Travel Tips for Cuenca: 5 Local Secrets

Every time I go somewhere, there are always a few things I learn by the end of the trip that I wished I had known the whole time. The things you can’t find out simply by scouring Tripadvisor or reading Lonely Planet guides cover-to-cover. During my recent trip to Cuenca, Ecuador I was lucky enough to stay with an amazing local host family that I found on Airbnb. They were super helpful with giving us the inside scoop on Cuenca – where to go, where not to go, and how to get around. Since we were only in town for four days, their advice was invaluable!

Cuenca, Ecuador Travel Tips

So what did I learn that’s worth passing on to future Cuenca visitors? Here are six insider travel tips to help you make the most out of your trip to this beautiful Ecuadorian city.

You can have a three course lunch for $1.50 to $3.50. It’s not a typo, and you’re (probably) not going to get food poisoning. When your stomach starts to tell you it’s lunchtime, just look for the nearest sign advertising “almuerzo” with a price next to it, and take a seat. The fixed almuerzo usually consists of a soup, a rice and meat dish, and a small dessert. My advice is to pick a place that’s busy with locals. They know what they’re doing, so if they’re eating at a restaurant, chances are it’s clean and high quality.

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Taxis are overcharging you. That $5 taxi ride that you think is a steal? It’s probably only supposed to cost $3. It may not seem like much to overpay, but locals in Cuenca are upset about the fact that gringos are willing to pay more because it’s driving up the prices overall. There is a similar struggle going on with apartments – some ex-pats think it’s no big deal to pay an extra $100 in rent, but born-and-raised Cuencanos can’t afford that. Your best bet is to negotiate the price of a taxi before you get in, and insist on a fair price without being obnoxious. If you feel like you’ve received exceptional service, you can always give an extra tip to say thank you.

Everything is closed on Sunday. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a local restaurant or bar open on Sunday night in Cuenca. In fact, bars aren’t even allowed to serve alcohol on Sundays unless it’s with a meal. Sundays in Cuenca are meant for church and family get togethers. If you’re looking for food on a Sunday night, your best bet is a hotel restaurant. One great choice is the El Dorado Hotel. While the decor is very business-like, the food is actually pretty good and the staff is amazingly accommodating and friendly. You will be paying more than you would at an Ecuadorian restaurant, but it’s still quite affordable by US standards.

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Empty streets, closed up shops.

Sunday is market day in nearby small towns. While Cuenca might be a dead zone on Sundays, nearby smaller towns are buzzing with visitors on market day. There’s a fruit market, a meat market (slightly disturbing – if you have any vegetarian tendencies you probably want to skip this one), and best of all, a tiny town that’s known for beautiful & cheap handmade silver jewelry. You can take a bus from Cuenca’s Terminal Terrestre to one of these towns for just $0.25 to $1.25. I’ll be sharing the details of my Sunday shopping adventures in another post, since I took enough photos to fill a coffee table book!

Thermal baths make for the perfect relaxing evening. After long days of strolling the cobblestone streets of Cuenca, hiking in El Cajas National Park, and horseback riding, you’re going to be feeling pretty sore. That means it’s time to head to Baños! No, I’m not referring to Baños, the adventure capital of Ecuador, but the other Baños, a suburb of Cuenca. Located about a $3 taxi ride from downtown you’ll find a couple spas offering thermal pools that are very popular with local residents. For just $10, you can spend all day or night hanging out in the hot and cold pools at Piedra de Agua, the facility we visited. You can also have dinner and drinks poolside or in their restaurant if you feel so inclined. The menu is pricey for Cuenca, but it’s convenient and there aren’t a ton of other restaurants in the immediate vicinity.

Piedra de Agua Thermal Pools – Cuenca, Ecuador

Photo: c/o Piedra de Agua

Skip the helados and opt for a cherimoya to satisfy your sweet tooth. While wandering around and falling in love with the city, I saw indigenous women from the mountains selling exotic-looking spiky green fruits on every corner (often with a baby hanging off their back in a sling). I was curious, but didn’t have a clue how to go about eating this ubiquitous fruit.

While having breakfast with my Airbnb host one morning, I asked her about the fruit and how it was eaten. She immediately lit up, exclaiming that the cherimoya is her favorite fruit and I had to try it. She ran into the kitchen and cut one up for me so I could taste it, and I have to say… it was the best fruit I’ve ever had! It literally tasted like candy, and it’s known as the “ice cream of fruit.” If you’re eating cherimoya on the street, you can cut the fruit in half and scoop out the center, avoiding the seeds. Because you’re not consuming the skin, the cherimoya from a street vendor is safe to eat.

Cherimoya Fruit

I’m getting hungry just thinking about it! I’ve heard that you can sometimes find these at Whole Foods or other specialty stores in the US. Anyone who knows the whereabouts of a cherimoya in NYC, you better leave a comment!

Practical-Stuff

  • I went to Cuenca for Memorial Day weekend, extending the trip to four days by taking Friday off from work.
  • The flight is about 6.5 hours long, nonstop.
  • We flew overnight on Thursday from JFK to Guayaquil on LAN. On the return trip we departed Monday at 2 p.m.
  • Because I had enough points thanks to the Chase Sapphire Preferred sign up bonus, my flight was free (yay!).
  • Upon arrival at GYE, we had arranged ground transportation via Ecuador Tierra Viva to Cuenca.
  • A private driver cost $280 round trip, or $140 each (ouch!) but it was worth it to have more time in Ecuador vs. waiting for buses.
  • We stayed in an Airbnb, which was $25 or about $12.50 each per night.

 

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5 Comments
  • Eva says:

    Especially the thermal baths look like something I don’t wanna miss out!

  • […] was happy I took the time to visit Chordeleg instead of wandering around, hunting for something open on a Sunday in Cuenca. The trip was super affordable and painless, and the bus ride took us through beautiful mountain […]

  • Alicia says:

    Love your blog! I hope more people will see Cuenca for the gem it is!
    To give you a December 2014 update:
    Taxis are required to use meters. The price of fares has dropped to about $2 a ride.

    Almuerzos (lunches) are still $1.50. My local favorite will deliver to my house for an extra 25 cents.

    Faster than the bus, but MUCH cheaper way to get to Cuenca from Guayaquil ($12 one-way) is the passenger vans. The van station is located RIGHT NEXT DOOR to the airport (across the street from the Holiday Inn- which you can see looking out the terminal windows). The vans leave every 30 minutes until 9 pm at night. After 9pm, take a taxi to Terminal Terrestre in Guayaquil and the buses leave every hour ($8) to Cuenca. I’m sorry that you got charged sooooo much.

    Local hotels/hostels (no difference between the two in Ecuador- they use it as an interchangeable word) cost $15 dollars a night (per person). A single traveler taking a room pays $15, where as my family of 4 would pay $60 (for the same room)! Sometimes I let my 14 year-old get his own room next door because it doesn’t cost me any more or less!!!

    • annarice23 says:

      Thanks for the updates Alicia! I had heard about the $12 vans but unfortunately they were shut down by police a week before we were to arrive. Since we only had 3 days in Cuenca and our flight was free we didn’t mind spending the money for transfer. Great to know they are back up and running and that taxis now have a meter required!

  • […] for the weekend? That would be me. Over Memorial Day weekend, I visited the colonial city of Cuenca in the mountains and never wanted to leave. I stayed in the most amazing Airbnb accommodations with […]

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