Ecuador’s colonial city of Cuenca bustles with a blend of metropolitan flare and Andean tradition. Often overshadowed by larger Quito to the north, Cuenca’s Unesco World Heritage zone is a hotbed of history & culture, filled with architecture that rivals much of Europe.
Nestled high in the Andes, tight cobblestone streets serve as a foreground to the picturesque 360 degree views. Lush hilltops and fertile valleys, are still alive with the agricultural heritage that laid the foundation for the city itself.
Once an Incan metropolis, history runs deep here. The very keystones of this ancient civilization dismantled by Conquistadors to create a new world under the crown, many of the hand carved stones, remain at the base of the city’s oldest and most significant monuments. Throughout busy streets, residents retain their root with traditional dress apparent.
With a thriving culinary scene, restaurant options range from traditional to intercontinental with gastro-centric options like Cafe Eucalyptus, offering a wide variety of international cuisine from around the globe. During business hours, street vendors push wheel barrows full of oranges while women in traditional garb roast plantains in door frames.
For a true taste of the city, visit a Cuencan sweet shop and purchase a sampling of local favorites. A bag of goodies, costing around $2, a will delight your taste buds with homemade marshmallows dipped in chocolate, candied fruit and an array of light, airy cookies. The ladies behind the counter are more than willing to point out the most traditional of these sweets as long as their nightly ‘telenovelas’ are not in the middle of steamy plot twists.
Shopping along the calles Tarqul & La Condamine is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. Get started on your search for the perfect Panama Hat at Casa del Sombrero. The workshop of Alberto Pulla, one of Ecuador’s most renowned hatters is filled with options in all sizes. His dedication to the craft left him mute as a result of the chemicals this art form once required, silencing his voice but not his passion. Still weaving some of the finest hats the country produces, his creations have donned the heads of presidents, celebrities and thousands of tourists.
An enthusiastic apprentice welcomes you with a smile before taking you up the 3 flights of stairs to the Panama Hat collection. In this unforgettable space, try on all quality of hats including finos, super finos and dobles. Ranging from $30 and above, the shape, bands and minute details are all finish on site & specifically to your requests.
On the southeastern corner of Tarqui, enjoy strolling through Antiquidades y Curiosidades, a shop full of unique pieces from around the globe. Next door, mixed media artist/painter Julio Machado is an incredible host in his gallery overlooking the Tomebamba River. Outgoing and enthusiastic, he will happily tell you stories behind his creations, the most unique of which is a series of lips painted on toilet paper. Each piece is eloquently framed to disguise the ‘canvas’ in its enticing texture.
Further down the block you’ll encounter the art gallery/Nightclub Prohibo Centro Cultural. With it’s dark dedication to gothically themed modern art, knock on the door to gain entrance into this strange corner of Cuencan sub-culture.
Satisfied, take a break and enjoy a cup of coffee from Un Buen Cafe. This brightly colored, open air coffee shop was opened by two North Americans, Robert & Amber Oliver. Wanting to work within the Ecuadorian community to create a work study program focused on socioeconomic stability, they’ve partnered with local schools, utilizing students on a regular basis. The view to the Southwest is stunning, providing a great location for people watching & reflection as you sip a perfectly brewed cafe.
Return through the Plaza de San Sebastián & the Church of Carmen de la Asuncion to enjoy the kaleidoscope of colors at the afternoon flower market. Alive with people, taking a break from work & enjoying the afternoon sun, the scene is magical.
The eclectic mix of indigenous crafts and new world necessities at the Plaza de San Francisco market in one not to be missed. Vendors sell alpaca blankets & scarves from colorful booths alongside others filled with necessities like rubber boots & batteries.
In Cuenca, artisan’s abound like the father-son due of Marco & David Machado. Fashioning beautiful hummingbirds and other crafts from recycled copper, their humble shop Ahuacuna, draws you in with colorful creations. Warm & welcoming, the two are happy to take time with you, explaining their medium and even gift wrapping your purchases.
Hotel Santa Lucia makes a wonderful base for your time in Cuenca. Centrally located in the Centro Historico one black from the Parque Calderon, guests can easily walk to many of the city’s attractions & restaurants. Built in the mid 1800’s, this historic building has been beautifully maintained and decorated to reflect the style of the Republican Era. Relax in your high ceiling suite while you enjoy a bottle of wine watching the rest of the world go by through opened french doors on your small veranda.
A beautiful picture into Ecuador’s historical past, a trip to this stunning city shouldn’t be missed. Take time to explore her side streets, reflect on the culture, unwind in restaurants, simply talk with the people, and you will undoubtedly leave richer for the experience.