The wild card: Cuenca

I didn’t even know Cuenca existed until Mark said he’d overheard someone say they were heading there next and it was supposed to be nice. And we weren’t even sure if we were going to go there – Ecuador is small but full of things to see. We could stay on the west coast and check out “Poor Man’s Galapagos”, Isla del Plata (boobies!), or head inland to Baños, which is the Spanish word for toilets (or, alright, baths) and the buzz-town among the very-hippie types.

And we hadn’t even decided where to go on the day that we managed to successfully check out of Loki – having won the pub quiz the night before, we felt that after a full week there our work was finally done. We were ambling down the only street in Máncora when we spotted a bus company selling direct transfers to Cuenca. Decision made, then and there.

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I need a dollar, dollar

Ecuador’s currency is the US dollar. In 2000, the sucre (which does not mean “sugar” or “sweet” in Spanish, contrary to conventional wisdom) was replaced by the US dollar (which does translate to “painful exchange rate” in South African). Costs are adjusted, so you’re not paying US rates for South American goods and services. But still, the prospect of spending dollars was pretty bewildering.

The adoption of the dollar was met with widespread protests and the forced resignation of then-president Jamil Mahuad, and was meant to stabilise an economy that had seen a contraction of 7.5% in 1999 and experienced 60% inflation, and to replace a currency that had lost two-thirds of its value in that same year.

Avenida 3 de Noviembre follows the Rio Tomebamba through Cuenca to a park, which was our first taste of Ecuador's spectacular public spaces

Avenida 3 de Noviembre follows the Rio Tomebamba through Cuenca to a park, which was our first taste of Ecuador’s spectacular public spaces

Apart from some small locally-minted coins, these are bona fide, crispy dead presidents.

Adopting the US dollar as sole legal tender minimises the cost of trade between the US and Ecuador, so stimulating transactions between the two countries. Apparently this move also invokes greater confidence among international investors, according to a TLDR;/in-depth entry on Wikipedia.

An additional perk is that, when formally adopting the US dollar, a government can’t issue money in order to provide deficit financing. This eliminates a whole lot of risk, not only for the people of the country but also for the dollar itself.

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The entry on WikiPedia goes on to say a whole lot of things that went over my head, but hopefully that clears things up a tad for those who were confused (Mark and I).

Dollar is what I need

The two methods I recommended for finding budget accommodation are as follows:

Option A: “List According to Price” on

  1. Find contact details for first (cheapest) result.
  2.  Go there without prior booking a get a bed.
  3. Rarely fail.

Option B: “Going in Blind”

  1. Arrive in town
  2. Go to hostel district as defined by Lonely Planet or WikiTravel
  3. Knock on doors until you can no longer carry your backpack or until you find a surprisingly great rate – whichever comes first

Both these methods have worked well for me. In Ushuaia, Nikki and I found the second-best rate in town through Option B, right on the main street with great staff who had excellent advice and who ended up treating us to quite a party on one of the nights.

I also employed Option B almost exclusively in southwestern Bolivia, with mixed results: The cheapest places were often non-touristy hostels – private but very affordable rooms with no kitchen and zero atmosphere. In Sucre and Potosi the backpacker haunts were more than double the price of a more basic, less comfortable dusty double beds found elsewhere on the same block. For me, the savings more than compensated for the lack of rowdy travellers.

I’ve booked accommodation just once, for those very first few nights in Sao Paulo. I really would discourage you from pre-booking a bed in a hostel through a third-party website. Firstly, you may end up paying a higher rate and secondly, at the very least you will have to pay a non-refundable deposit which means major losses if, as you should, you keep changing your mind.

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Option C – “Word of Mouth” – only applied to the Loki hostels in La Paz, Cusco and Máncora.

Option A was very effective in Sao Paulo, San Ignacio, Buenos Aires, Iquique, and the wild card of the journey so far, Cuenca.

Hey hey

Our private room (fancy!) at Hostal Yakumama wasn’t ready when we got there at 9 or 10am, after a nine-hour journey that featured a particularly gruelling border crossing. Uncharacteristically, Mark and I went for a walk instead of sitting down at the bar, even though we were suffering from extreme, wired exhaustion associated with overnight bus travel.

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We fell in love with Cuenca about five minutes into our walk and started seriously discussing emigrating there about 25 minutes later. It’s just that beautiful. Lured by a lookout point that revealed a vast city framed by green, rolling mountains we found and followed Avenida 3 de Noviembre and the river that skirts it, for a block, and then another, and then another.

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To our left, old colonial buildings had been converted into schools, galleries, restaurants, theatres. On the manicured lawns of the riverbanks, clothing was laid out to dry without a visible chaperone. On our right, the city slid into more commercial-looking neighbourhoods: it’s particularly great when you can see this side of a city without actually having to go there.

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We passed Inca ruins on a hill and bridges decorated in kind. We continued downstream, all the way to a big riverside park with gorgeous walkways. Many hours had passed by the time we returned from our inner-city, riverside amble.

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And many days had passed before we could tear ourselves away from this surprise place with potable water and a new, unfussy culture. What stands out about Cuenca is that I felt more like a visitor than a tourist. Unobtrusive and not intruded upon.

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A number of wonderful things happened in Cuenca.

I became sick but not pathetic and managed to hike through spooky high-altitude Cajas National Park despite the disease and without dying.

We discovered papas rellenas. In its most decadent incarnation, this is a boiled egg wrapped in mashed potato with three meats and then the whole thing is deep fried. A revelation that we persistently and deliberately sought out in the months to come. Affectionately known as “balls”. Dirt cheap. On good days, as big as my fist.

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We drank craft beer at a great little bar while admiring a wall covered in posters of the worst movies ever made (including Showgirls and Basic Instinct). Not sure if deliberate.

Caught awesome live music, for free, at an Alliance Francais gig at the Teatro Municipal. The theatre was packed into the aisles but nevertheless the Ecuadorians found a way to squeeze us in. We also caught some really terrible “jazz”, very overpriced, at an Italian restaurant in Luis Cordero. Normally I wouldn’t complain about this kind of thing, but when you set aside a large amount of money for live music and an actual restaurant meal with a waitress and everything, disappointment can be much more acute.

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We photographed all the beautiful churches (there are many) including the famous “new” cathedral with its bright blue domes and viewed great art at the excellent Museo de Arte Moderno. Our eyes strained to take in the well preserved old architecture and the fresh street art which work together to make Cuenca endlessly appealing.

See some street and other Cuenca art here.

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Have I convinced you to go to Cuenca? Have I convinced you to go soon? According to a quick Google search, Cuenca is fast becoming one of the emigration hotspots for US Americans. The city is hardly a well kept secret, yet I wouldn’t have wanted to be introduced to Ecuador in any other way.

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4 thoughts on “The wild card: Cuenca

  1. Pingback: Seen in Cuenca | cape/caracas

  2. Pingback: El Cajas National Park | cape/caracas

  3. Pingback: Variations on a Quilotoa Loop | cape/caracas

  4. Pingback: Partial Recall, and Las Lajas, Ipiales, Colombia, Lucky Country #7 | cape/caracas

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