Late last year I finally made it to a city I’ve had on my list for a while: Cuenca, Ecuador. This #3 city in the country by population is best known as a retirement hotspot for gringos, but that’s just the narrative that the media latches onto most. The foreign retirees are only a tiny fraction of the population in Cuenca, so it’s an Ecuadoran city through and through.
It’s a much larger city than I expected—close to a half million if you count some of the suburbs. So while it’s attractive on its own, after a couple days it makes sense to head out into the gorgeous countryside to smaller towns and Andean valleys. The drives are beautiful in this region and after you get into the rural areas, there’s not much traffic to contend with.
You definitely feel far from home too, with chaotic markets serving up pork from whole hogs, the heads facing toward you as you walk by, and splayed guinea pigs on a stick roasting over smoking hot coals. The roly-poly women in hats and braids look much as they probably did 500 years ago.
Many of Ecuador’s handicrafts come from this area, whether jewelry, shawls, pottery, or guitars. In the regions around Cuenca you can visit the workshops of the artisans and see them quickly and deftly creating their crafts with a practiced hand. If an idyllic setting by a farm with horses is more appealing to you than city noise, there are a couple well-run hacienda hotels we’ve linked to in the story.
The stunning Las Cajas National Park is less than an hour from the city, looking more like Patagonia than Ecuador’s usual panorama of conical volcanoes. Here in the Andes Mountains, rivers and lakes run under steep dramatic peaks.
Cuenca itself has plenty to charm visitors though and it feels like a city on the rise. Sure, the foreigners have injected a little money, but the bigger factor is that this is a magnet for returning Ecuadorans—those who have worked abroad and earned some money, but are ready to return to the homeland to stake their claim. Construction cranes are rising all over, road improvements are a common sight, and there’s one major improvement everyone is excited about. French-made electric streetcars will replace the smog-belching buses that careen down the narrow streets originally built for horse and carriage.
See our full article, A Tour of Cuenca and the Artisan Villages in Southern Ecuador.