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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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