After so much adventuring through the Amazon and the Galápagos, Cuenca was a perfect place to relax. Nestled in the Andes, not far from Guyaquil, lies the beautiful and tranquil city of Cuenca. Popular with expats, the city offers many familiar foods, coffee shops, and even a couple of breweries. We stayed in an Airb&b near Plaza Abdon Calderon in the city center and seeing what was happening at the Plaza, smelling flowers at the flower market, and wandering around the beautiful city. Will was especially fond of Parque de la Madre, a super fun park with a huge playground. Will couldn’t get enough of the zipline. That’s right! There was actually a kid-friendly zipline. It was amazing! Cuenca offers many activities around the city, and these were our favorites:
The Andes are full of ruins. Many of them belong to the Inca. In Cuenca, there are a couple of places where you can see ruins in the city, and this site is the most impressive. If you’re staying near the center of town, it’s a beautiful walk mostly along a river and past the playgrounds of Parque de la Madre.
Plan to spend some time here. The museum itself offers 3 floors of exhibitions before going outside to see the ruins. When we were there, there was a really interesting exhibition of art about social justice, one of my favorite topics. It was especially interesting to see an Ecuadorian perspective. On the bottom floor, there is a very thorough permanent exhibition about Ecuadorian money. If you don’t know, Ecuador actually uses the US dollar. It was weird to use money with photos of US presidents on the money. They do have some Ecuadorian inspired coins that include people from their own national identity, but mostly it’s just what we’re used to seeing in the states. I was curious to see why they had come to that decision, and the museum helped to clarify some of my questions. Did you know that at one point, every bank in Ecuador printed its own money? I don’t think it went very well. On another floor, there are some more permanent exhibits that teach about cultural history through replications of everyday life. There are many displays of mannequins in traditional dress exhibiting different aspects of Ecuadorian culture. In my opinion, this museum is a must-see if you go to Cuenca.
After some time in the museum, it was time explore Incan history in a space they had actually occupied. One of my favorite things about visiting ruins is to pretend I’m in a time machine and imagine what life must have been like so long ago. I enjoy thinking about the ways it was similar. For example, the way mothers must have cared for their children in much the same way I care for my own child. I also enjoy considering the differences, such as what it might have been like to never use a toilet or wifi. The juxtaposition of the ruins between busy city streets makes this contrast even more vivid. There are arrows to lead you through the terraces and gardens toward a small pond. Truly, a wonderful way to spend some time. At the end of the path, there is an area where you can see local birds in cages and there were some llamas wandering around. Unfortunately, this area wasn’t really open on the day we were there. I was sad to find a closed waffle restaurant as we were leaving which it too bad. A Belgian waffle might have been a strange yet delicious way to end our time learning about the history of Ecuador.
Our trip to El Cajas National Park has been one of our favorite nature hikes on our trip so far. We took a bus to the park, a couple of hours from Cuenca, and were immediately awestruck at the natural beauty of the place. Our hike around the Laguna Toreadora was at a much higher altitude and a much wetter atmosphere, so we were glad we brought some extra clothes.
After signing in at the lodge, we started our trek. The trail was very clearly marked, and the lodge is visible for most of the hike, giving us some extra peace of mind. Although there were other hikers around, we didn’t really see anyone else during our time on the trail. The fog lifted and settled in a gentle rhythm as we explored the landscape. We felt totally alone, just us and this magical place. We got a little bit of light rain along the way, not too bad, and the trek was really quite easy. And after a couple of hours in dreamland, we were back at the lodge drinking warm drinks and gazing out the windows.
Visiting hot springs is something I will never get tired of. Just outside of Cuenca, there are many places to spend some time sitting in warm water. We chose a place that had been recommended by a couple of people, although I’m sure there were cheaper options. Piedra de Agua felt like a luxurious escape. You could spend a whole day getting pampered with luxuries like massages and mud baths or you could simply take some time in the warm pools. There is an “adults only” area where you can order drinks from the water as well as a more family friendly area that offers a mildly warm swimming pool alongside a much warmer sitting pool. They recommend altering the hot pool with an icy pool located right next to it to help with circulation, but I didn’t see any reason to torture myself. I just wanted to relax in the warm water. Unfortunately, drinks weren’t allowed in the water in the family area so when Jesse and I took advantage of their 2 for 1 drink special, we had to get out of the water. It starts getting more exciting in the evening as people start showing up to sit under the stars, but we tend to head home when the sun goes down.
The mountains near Cuenca offer many opportunities to see natural wonders. Another popular destination is the El Chorro waterfall. We took about an hour long bus ride and grabbed a quick taxi up the mountain to the entrance of the path that leads to the waterfall. When we got there, to our surprise, we found many people taking horse rides. Will convinced us to let someone lead him around on a spotted horse for a while before going to see the waterfall up close. We paid a small fee to take the path, and in only a few minutes, we could see the towering waterfall. It was gorgeous! The trail was pretty crowded and lots of people were taking photos. A little further up the mountain, we found a path less traveled to appreciate the waterfall a little more privately. Then, it was back down the path for some lunch at the restaurant. Trout is always a popular (and fresh!) option in this area, and Jesse was excited to get some so close to the river.
Will, like most kids, is a big fan of different types of transportation, and a double-decker bus trip around the city is an engaging way to learn about a new place. The tour guide gave use some fun facts, in English and Spanish. Unlike many double-decker bus tours, this one isn’t exactly a “hop on, hop off” sort of situation. Cuenca isn’t a very big city so it works out just fine. You do get off once though, at the Mirador de Turi. We walked up some steps to a little gift shop where they gave us a small free Canelazo (one of my favorite drink discoveries), and we had a chance to take in the beautiful view of Cuenca. Although we went during the day, we heard that the night view is pretty impressive as well. The bus tour only takes about an hour, and we felt like it was totally worth it.