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On Our Trip To Cuenca

Posted 11-21-2012

On our trip to Cuenca we had perfect weather – sunshine most of the time and low 70’s. So many people warned us it would be cold.

Traveling on a Manta Express van from Manta to Guayaquil, then an  Atenas Tours van to Cuenca gave us a good look at the countryside;  the curvy, switchback climb into the Andes required lots of swallowing to relieve eardrum pressure. The mountains were pretty barren, at least at the higher elevations, and really steep.  We saw wild llamas grazing and numerous alpine lakes. On arrival in Cuenca we took a taxi to San Andre’s Hotel in old town – very nice, not luxurious but the staff was helpful and friendly.





Cuenca old town has churches around every corner. The Cathedral Immaculate Conception is beautiful, if not very old - 1885. Its three blue domes can be seen from all over the city – working as an orientation tool as only some of the streets are on a grid. They boast it’s the largest cathedral in South America.  Spanish colonial architecture dominates. We found: excellent restaurants, lots of  art galleries, friendly people, excellent tourist resources, many gringos, countless  little shops with handcrafts for gifts – shawls, clothing, jewelry, trinkets, wall decorations, dishes, but also lots of empty or closed shops (the street level of most buildings are commercial). The next week was a major holiday so we wondered if people were taking the weekend off to rest/prepare for the revelry. One of our first purchases was flower arrangements for our rooms, gallantly carried by the guys while we girls shopped. On the weekend backpackers arrived in the central square with dreadlocks and unpacked their very creative handicrafts on the sidewalk.

Even though we generally selected restaurants randomly, the food was excellent and varied. From morning fresh fruit juice – mora, pineapple, orange, mango, papaya and more – to evening ice cream cones, eating was a treat. Best meal – trout at Hotel Santa Lucia. Best food item – kale/strawberry/banana smoothie!
Best ice cream – La Fornia Gelateria across the street from the Eucalyptus café. Best atmosphere? I have to say it’s the Hotel Santa Lucia. Best restaurant was the Eucalyptus, although Raymipampa on Park Calderon might vie for the title. It’s hard to choose from many very good ones. Service – always good.                    
Of course we walked a lot, requiring strict attention because of the uneven cobblestone streets and sidewalks. We walked to the Broken Bridge, monument to the power of the rivers gushing out of the mountains. A lovely park and paved walk
follow the river, where you can see indigenous people washing clothes, including their distinctive colorful skirts, in the river and laying them out to dry on the bushes and grass.  More art galleries and shops, including the Panama hat museum/factory are in this area.
The largest museum, the Museo del Banco Central contained a great art collection, historical section, and out back the Pumapongo Inca  ‘ruins’, gardens, llamas, and a live bird exhibit, with toucans, parrots, etc. you can walk around and take as much time as you like.
We enjoyed meeting the owner of a little antique shop, who chatted our ears off. Entering from the street you find a sign requesting you ring the bell three times, only there are two different bells. We rang both, rousing her and her housekeeper /caretaker/companion from their comfort upstairs. Her collection included an array of Incan sculptures, several Singer treadle sewing machines, irons – decorative, plain, and steam - dolls, toys, a 1920’s Montgomery Wards catalog, plus an extensive hodgepodge of aging items collected by her family back to her great-grandfather, housed in this old house. She reluctantly allowed me to take her picture, but her indigenous companion begged off.

The city tour bus helped with an overall impression of the main part of town. Often the guide called out to duck for overhanging power lines or trees.  The Mirador de Turi located on one of the surrounding mountaintops gave a panoramic view. On the same hilltop Eduardo Vega, a world renowned potter, has his studio and shop so we spent some time and money there.

In the newer part of town, near the Oro Verde, many expats have settled. We had lunch and a little shopping there, experiencing a different ambiance from the old town.  Van trips back went well, other than my altitude sickness. Traffic mixed with road construction in Guayaquil was at best unpleasant, and made the trip longer than we planned, so we had no time for lunch, but getting back out of town went better. We were ready for home sweet home.

Don’t miss a chance to go to Cuenca. It’s a beautiful, friendly town with lots to do. Try not to go near a holiday, although the roads aren’t as busy then, unless you’re traveling with the local travelers. Then it’s a zoo.

by Sharon Statema
Manta, Ecuador

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