Cuenca: Rich, arty, smarty

Days: 263-266

Total distance travelled: 49,976.1 kilometres (31,041.06 miles)

The southern city of Cuenca had long been part of our Ecuadorian schedule, we just wrongly assumed we’d reach that part of the country much sooner than we did.

Known as a gem of a city, this UNESCO World Heritage listed city has started to become a bit of an expat haven (read retirement destination for Americans and Canadians), with many people headed to what we’d assumed was a pretty picturesque place.

We’d begun the long journey there (roughly a day and a half it took) back in the mountain town of Salinas de Guaranda around 1pm, finally pulling into the Cuenca bus station around 5:30am the following morning.

Thankfully this was not all travel time.

We’d had to wait about 5 or 6 hours at the Ambato bus station (where incredibly they have 8 shops in their food court all selling the same thing), irrelevant now, but certainly a large portion of it was indeed in transit.

Aware of our likely early arrival time, we’d booked hostel beds in advance, so after waiting an hour or so for the skies to lighten (catching a few minutes of average sleep in the bus terminal), we began the several kilometre walk to our accommodation with a Belgian traveller in tow (we’d met him the previous night and he was seeking somewhere to stay as well).

With grey skies above, we made our way through the fairly empty streets, poorly guided by a Google map that I’d taken a photo of with our camera.

Still it got us there and although we were well before check-in, it meant we could leave our bags and investigate our options for breakfast.

The domes of the Catedral de la Immaculada Concepcion, in a colour to match the skies above...

The domes of the Catedral de la Immaculada Concepcion, in a colour that matches the skies above…

First impressions of the city were pretty good. It was in possession of a ridiculous amount of stunning colonial buildings as well as grand churches.

Our impression of the breakfast options however, not so good.

We wandered for some time seeking options, but as already mentioned, the town was at this hour very sleepy. The problem for us being, it was ridiculously slow to wake up!

This was after all a Wednesday morning, so it was great surprise to not find many doors ajar (other than a few churches) before 9 and in some cases 10 o’clock!

We eventually found a small panaderia where we were able to procure a couple of sweet pastries and horribly burnt coffees, before returning to our explorations.

I may have mentioned the churches a couple of times already, but had I not, it would surely be remiss of me.

You see this city is seriously saturated with them, and this is despite the relatively small size of the centro historico, even too many for us (and you know how much we love to gawk at a church)!

The centrepiece is likely the Catedral de la Immaculada Concepcion on the city’s main plaza, possibly the grandest (in terms of size) monument to Christianity we’d seen since the Catedral Metropolitana in Mexico City.

Size aside, it was actually a pretty disappointing interior, a shadow of the now simply named Old Cathedral which sits across the other side of the plaza, the former master around these parts which now serves as a museum.

With so many to choose from, it was inevitable that we’d unearth some gems, of which we certainly found a few.

Our favourite, well just in case you missed (or have forgotten) our monthly wraps, it was the Iglesia de Santo Domingo.

A couple of gems after a lean month!

A couple of gems after a lean month! The Sanctuario Mariano (left) & Iglesia de Santo Domingo (right)

Having had our fill of Christian monuments, it was time to investigate a different sort of history by early afternoon.

This began with a visit to the free Ruinas de Todos Santos and the accompanying museum.

Technically, it could possibly sneak in as the first Incan site of our trip, however given that the original buildings were destroyed and built upon by the Spanish (using the original stone), I’m going to pretend that it just doesn’t count.

It was a small, compact place that we devoted about 15 minutes to, but that was easily enough.

Our next destination however, certainly qualified and although we got distracted and actually visited the Pumapungo museum beforehand (which wasn’t a bad museum), the Pumapungo Archaeological park with it’s city ruins, the former heart of the city-state of Tomebamba, was indeed the star attraction.

Our 1st Incan ruins - The ancient city of Tomebamba

Our first Incan ruins – The ancient city of Pumapungo

Trademark terraces on the hillside

Trademark terraces on the hillside

Not overly gifted with structural relics, the foundations of many buildings remain, as well as the trademark Incan terraces and an incredible irrigation canal.

It was a pretty cool place to simply wander around, especially when combined with the museum.

The perfect teaser for our visit to Ingapirca, another Incan site the following day.

Just as we thought we were finished however, we stumbled upon a circular (or was it octagonal) building that was in fact a series of large bird cages.

As much as we’d prefer to see these amazing creatures in the wild, it was still a nice surprise to see some that had thus far eluded us.

Our favourites would probably have been the Toucans…

One can or Toucan? Surprisingly varied in their colouring

One can or Toucan? Surprisingly varied in their colouring

The following day saw us head out to Ingapirca on a local bus… but you can read about that separately.

We arrived back in Cuenca to a surprisingly sunny afternoon (in truth it was raining when we made it back, but by the time we’d finished lunch…), so what did we do?

Head straight indoors!

Well, we had a purpose, and that was to check out the interior of the aforementioned church, come museum, the Old Cathedral.

The simply titled, Old Cathedral

The simply titled, Old Cathedral

The interior was pretty amazing and it quickly got itself onto the shortlist for our church of the month (although it ultimately didn’t get over the line).

As much as it pains us to contribute to religious coffers, there are some times you just have to suck it up or otherwise miss out on some amazing sights!

The beautiful area around our hostel

The beautiful area around our hostel

The city of Cuenca wasn’t half bad at night either, and although Sarah was feeling a little under the weather (unwell for anybody not familiar with the expression), she’d been soldiering on with the aid of sweet hot lemon drinks, she managed to keep on keeping on throughout.

She even put her feelings aside in the name of research and fronted up to a local brewery to help me sample some of their wares.

After all, I can’t drink them all alone… can I?

Equally beautiful by night

Equally beautiful by night

She backed it up yet again the following morning, as we made another side excursion out to the Parque Nacional Cajas, another place worthy enough that it will receive its own post.

The weather out there was pretty cold and a little damp, so our last afternoon before yet another overnight bus was spent pretty tamely.

Our previous night had seen us get little sleep, as we’d decided to change to a slightly cheaper hostel, as we’d plans of dining out for our final Cuencan meal.

Turns out this place was a bit of a party hostel, so it was finally around 3am that the decibel levels were kind enough to allow me to drift off at all!

In the afternoon we investigated the local market where a delicious lunch of roasted pig was consumed, but unluckily for us the Panama Hat museum was closed, meaning we could only get a few pics of the shop and some production areas (it’s always been a favourite bit of trivia of mine, that Panama Hats are in fact produced in Ecuador).

Panamania in Ecuador!

Panamania in Ecuador!

We’d purchased our tickets for the bus in advance, so thankfully all that left was for us to later that night take a walk, not on the wild side, but rather to the bus terminal.

There awaited a bus that would carry us out of Ecuador and on to Peru!



* Our journey from Salinas to Guaranda cost us $1.00 US per person (for about a 40 minute trip in the back of a truck).

* The service from Guaranda to Ambato was $2.00 US per person, however it dropped us a long way from the bus terminal…

* Thankfully we had plenty of time, so no taxi was necessary. Instead a city bus to Ambato’s Terminal Terrestre cost us the small sum of$0.25 US each.

* The Ambato to Cuenca overnight service cost us $8.00 US per person with Santa. The only problem was actually finding the Santa office, which is actually not withing the terminal building (they had one, but closed it). Instead, it is across the road on the street, Estados Unidos.

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2 Responses to Cuenca: Rich, arty, smarty

  1. You two are living one of my dream lives! 🙂

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