Here is a tour I put together for visiting friends and family after living in Cuenca for 3 months. I think it’s THE BEST, but okay I’m a little biased. This doesn’t make a huge effort to economize either.
Go to the nearest indigenous market (the biggest is Feria Libre, but there are also good ones on Mariscal Lamar, and 10 de octubre) and get a fresh-blended juice ($1!!!). My favorite mix is coconut-alfalfa-papaya. If you have access to hot water at your hotel, find the herb section and buy fresh herbs for tea (fresh jamaica, chamomile (ask for “manzanilla”) or horchata (this is actually not the milk-based horchata but a red herb). Check out the produce section, you will be amazed by the variety of fruit you’ve never seen in gargantuan quantities!
Walk along the river (if you went to 10 de octubre market) or else taxi to the Pumapungo museum (aka Museo Banco Central). Check out their collection of shrunken human heads, and see the installations of how the indigenous tribes of various regions lived.
Go to Parque Calderon and eat lunch at the famous Raymipampa restaurant (traditional though nice Ecuadorean food). Peek inside the old cathedral and the new cathedral (side-by-side). The old cathedral has the famous blue domes. Walk 2 blocks to Mercado de los Flores where the indigenous women sell cheap bouquets of fresh flowers. Photo op! Walk another block to Plaza San Francisco, and go INSIDE the building to shop for handmade crafts. (the vendors outside sell generic machine-produced stuff, the real artisans are inside in shops). You can find Panama hats, leather goods, jewelry, sculptures, baskets, or handcarved boxes. Eat dinner at La Esquina, a famous Argentine restaurant on Calle Larga, serving rural argentine food on giant discs. Get the beef in wine sauce with mushrooms, you’ll thank me later! A good friend who is very well-traveled internationally told me “This is the best meal I’ve ever had.” Depending on the day of the week, you might find live music at either Inca Bar (rock, open mic night Wednesdays), La Parola (pop/rock Thurs-Sat) or Nektar cafe (jazz Thurs & Fri).
Day 2: Wake up early, go to Piedra de Agua and spend all day soaking in the various hot pools. There is a japanese landscaped pool, a main pool, steam rooms, steam box baths (you sit in a box filled with really really hot steam with your head sticking out) and 2 types of mud baths (red and blue). There is a nice terrace for reading or sunbathing, so bring a book. The restaurant serves good food and they are open until 10pm, so spend the day! Word for the wise: Mondays from 9-5 and Wednesdays from 5-10pm are 2 for 1. The entrance fee is normally $30, although if you don’t want to do the mud baths or steam boxes it is cheaper.
Day 3: Check out the Casa de Sombreros on Calle Larga, where you can see how Ecuador’s most famous tourist item is made (Panama hats are actually a misnomer, as they are produced in Ecuador). Walk upstairs from the shop to get a great view of the river, then dress up as an indigenous woman in their hilarious photo booth for a good laugh!
Eat lunch at Habibi (Arab food on calle larga with awesome schwarma plates). Then make sure to go to the chocolate factory near Feria Libre on a Monday-Wednesday. They process raw cacao beans (of the highest quality criollo variety), toasting, grinding, and making into chocolate liquor and you can observe, smell the best chocolate of your life, and buy all of the above for $3/lb! At night, splurge at Tiesto’s, Cuenca’s most exclusive traditional Ecuadorean restaurant which serves among other things, langostinos! For live music, see suggestions for day 1 in town. If you are into clubbing, “S by Velvet in Millenium plaza is nice, as is Club Black (a disco in the shape of an airplane on Remigio Crespo).
Day 4: Escape to the countryside of Cajas National Park (a short 30 minutes away, maybe $13 by taxi). Go horseback riding at Hosteria Dos Chorreras in the morning, do sport fishing and eat the trout you caught for lunch, then take a taxi up to the main entrance of Cajas and hike around the edge of the lagoon (It’s about a 1.5 hr hike, but feels harder because of the altitude). Stay at the Hosteria Dos Chorreras, it’s absolutely beautiful there.
|Pineapples at Feria Libre|
|Pollo al Huerto at La Esquina|
|Hosteria dos Chorreras|
|Horseback riding at Hosteria Dos Chorreras|
|Raw Criollo Cacao beans|
|The lagoon at Parque Nacional Cajas|