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A nomad’s guide to Cuenca: Where to stay, what to see, where to eat, where to hang out

By Elijah Charbonneau

So, I thought that now while I take a day off from work and travel here in Bali, it would be a perfect time to catch up on sharing some tips and experiences gained on my recent travels in South America, including this — my Cuenca, Ecuador digital nomad guide.

Cuenca from the Baranco

First, I’d like to say that it was really wonderful to finally get to South America. It was my first time on the continent and it was a dream come true to make the trip, even though I didn’t really get to see all that much and only went to two countries (Ecuador and Peru.) I decided to skip Quito and just fly into Guayaquil because I mainly wanted to get to Cuenca and Vilcabamba.

To get there, I used 10k of my United miles (plus a $36 fee) to fly from Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca to Guayaquil with layovers in Mexico City and Bogota. This was a pretty awesome deal and use of my miles, in my opinion! I had a long layover of around 10 or 12 hours in CDMX but it wasn’t that bad. I had a free pass to the United Club lounge so mainly sat up there and sipped and munched on free wine and sandwiches (I had just hung out in Mex City recently so didn’t have a strong desire to go explore the city again so soon.)

Getting to Cuenca from Guayaquil

After landing in Guayaquil (Ecuador’s largest city), I made my way over to the bus station. The airport and bus terminal entrances are only half a mile (or less) apart but it was a little bit confusing getting over there. I could’ve jumped in a cab but decided to walk it.

Guayquil bus station and airport

The station, Terminal Terrestre de Guayaquil, is a large, multi-story shopping mall and bus station combined. It would’ve been pretty confusing to find my way around if I hadn’t asked someone for help and then followed some locals up to the 3rd(?) floor bus dock. If you happen to be reading this and are needing to get to Cuenca from here, go inside the station to the rear and turn right. This was where the Cuenca bus ticket booths were. I think there are a couple different companies making the trip for the same price ($8.25) and the buses seemed to be more or less the same in terms of appearance/quality. Once you get your ticket, look for the bus dock number/letters in tiny print then find your way to that dock number. I would ask for help locating it because it is a little confusing.

Once on the bus, I settled in, took in the scenery, and politely declined the different onboard salesmen’s pitches–buses in Ecuador frequently have people who have something to sell. They will walk the bus putting a sample of their wares in everyone’s hands to hold on to while they make their sales pitch to the bus passengers. These sales spiels would last 5-15 mins and then the person would get off. The route to Cuenca leaves the flat, humid coastal area before climbing up some very huge mountains.

Llamas grazing in the Cajas Mountains

I was surprised when we kept climbing and climbing, well above the clouds. It was really pretty. Farther along, we entered and passed through the Cajas National Forest, which is a spectacular mountain park area that looks like the Scottish Highlands (never been there but seen pictures.) This place captured my imagination and I hoped to come back and hike there before I left Ecuador (which I did do on my last day!!) This was my first time seeing llamas in the Andes Mountains; btw! I was very excited.

Cuenca city guide

Cuenca is a charming colonial city that sits in a valley surrounded by small and medium-sized mountains and a few rivers run through it. It kind of reminded me of a cross between San Cristobal, Chiapas and Oaxaca City (having just been in Mexico for six months.) The traffic in the center is fairly noisy and a cause of pollution, but walking along the river or heading to one of the parks or squares provides a nice peaceful escape from all that.

Cuenca’s historic district out my hotel window

I stayed in the centro, two blocks from the main square and cathedral. My hostel, Hotel Check-Inn, was a pretty good value I thought. I paid $8 a night for a private room with 2 HUGE windows looking onto an old, decrepit but beautiful building. They have a free simple breakfast and a great rooftop patio to chill out on. The location, although close to the traffic, was nice because it was within walking distance to everything in the center of town and the river.

I spent my days doing a mix of exploring the city and working from cafes. My low-budget/cheap food & coffee shop recommendations are listed here.

Cheap Cuenca restaurants I loved

Peru Mucho Gusto — This simple but awesome little restaurant was my #1 lunch spot in Cuenca. I came here probably 12 times in my month-long stay. Cuenca is great for “almuerzos”, which is the term for the cheap set lunch. This one is $2.50usd and is simple but very good. For the price, you get a nice soup, juice, meat, rice, beans, and a salad. Honestly, I loved the salad so much here — it was part of the reason I came back so many times. You can tell quality from the little details sometimes. I never came for dinner because the regular menu was much more expensive. Oh, the aji chili sauce is great here, too.

Canaima — Canaima is a Venezuelan restaurant that serves a nice almuerzo for $2.50 as well. You get soup and a main dish plus a little ice cream chocolate bite for dessert. I came here several times and liked it each time. They have free wifi, as well.

The Colombian-owned Molidendo Cafe

Moliendo Cafe — Moliendo is the Colombian restaurant on the same block as these other two places listed above. It is a very popular place and they do a cheap $2.50 almuerzo as well as affordable dinners (although you get less for your money during dinner so go for lunch!) The food is solid and the owner very friendly. It’s definitely worth a visit.

T-Rex Burgers — I had walked past this place about five times and grew more intrigued each time I passed. They cook their burgers on the grill right next to the sidewalk so you can’t help but see and smell them sizzling as you walk by. I finally came in to eat and try a mojito (I think three, actually), which are awesome, and a burger. The burgers and drinks were great and I immediately liked the owners Cesar and Julian (Cesar is the founder but Julian was taking over this location as new boss.) I ended up coming here quite a few times and enjoyed eating and hanging out with these guys. Awesome food and good vibes! (The burgers are HUGE, btw.)

Great Cuenca coffee shops to work online from

Cafe de Nucallacta — This became my go-to spot for an after lunch coffee and quiet space to get some work done. The coffee and wifi are both really strong, which is what you look for in a great coffee shop, especially when traveling and working online! I never ate here aside from a cookie or piece of carrot cake but the food looked pretty good as well. The vibe is chill and there is good natural light.

San Sebas Cafe is a great place for a cup of coffee.

San Sebas Cafe — My other go-to place for coffee and work was here at San Sebas. The location is next to a peaceful little park/square which is nice enough to sit in as well. The wifi was great each time and they give free refills on coffee. I never ate a proper meal here as the prices were a little above my frugal budget, but the bread here was incredible. Two huge slices of unusually awesome multigrain bread with honey, butter, and jam (for $1 I think). I normally wouldn’t mention bread as I don’t care that much about it but it was outstanding!

Cuenca was hit or miss with other cafes I tried in terms of wifi. Places like Cafe Austria simply did not work for me as I couldn’t get anything done with snail-speed or intermittent internet. Oh, Cafe Wunderbar was a nice spot during the day for a coffee or tea as well. Their internet worked well inside but not in the outside seating area. Most other items on the menu were more expensive so I just came for coffees. Friendly staff here, though.

Cuenca Bars to check out

I didn’t go to many bars while in town but I am a fan of good beer and Cuenca had a number of local brew houses, much to my surprise.

Jodoco Belgian Brew — Wow! The locally brewed Belgian beer made and served by this place was awesome! I’m a big fan of Belgian beers and this double and triple (and quadruple?) were honestly some of the best I’ve ever tried. The food was out of my price range but the beer was worth the splurge ($4usd per beer.)

Golden Prague Pub – I liked this huge brewpub for their tasty Czech style draught beers. Every day they were half priced from 3pm-7pm, which was a great deal. The wifi was very weak and the music often horrible IMO–think very sentimental love songs made for slow dancing while crying. The beer was good though so it was still worth it!

Cuenca parks, museums, and other things of interest

I loved walking by the river next to old centro Cuenca. If you walk along the north side, you are more away from traffic and it’s really peaceful. I took this walk pretty far to both the east and west and would recommend either. If you walk east, you will come to a fairly large park called Parque el Paraiso. I came here once and it was really nice and quiet with the trees and nature offering a reprieve from relatively busy Cuenca.

The Inca ruins and garden next to Pumapungo Museum

For museums, I only did the free Museo Pumapungo and the adjacent Inca ruins. The museum is worth a quick stroll through the 2 1/2 floors, if for nothing else than to see the Amazonian shrunken heads on display! If I understood the exhibit correctly, the tiny heads were made from real sloths but that back in the day they were also made from human heads/faces. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong:)

The Inca ruins and park were pretty cool for being in the city center. I liked walking around the garden area and seeing a llama chillin’ out in the shade.

I didn’t do a ton of other things in Cuenca! There is at least one big mall plus a zoo, movie theater, church up on a hill, etc. but I just didn’t make it to any of those places. Cuenca is an expat haven so there are many more things to see, do, buy, eat.

Cuenca final thoughts

I think I have mixed feelings for Cuenca. I like it because it’s a pretty and nice little city with many, many restaurants, cafes, and bars, however, the traffic and car pollution (in the centro at least) kind of take away some of the appeal for me. Having said that, a simple solution would probably be to just simply not stay in the centro! (why didn’t I think of that..?) If I were to return, I would post up in a quieter neighborhood on the south side of town perhaps and explore more of the restaurants and things to do in that area.

All in all, I did like Cuenca and would recommend it for any traveler or location independent nomad type needing to work online. The city was pretty, affordable, and a good base for me to get some work done before heading out to Vilcabamba and Peru. If you are in Cuenca and looking to find out about events or other local info, check out Cuenca Highlife, a website focused on the expat community.

Please feel free to recommend other places I may have missed for next time!
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Elijah Charbonneau is a location-independent online marketer and writer. In the spring of 2017, he gave up his life back home in New Orleans, USA, to travel the world as a digital nomad. He loves the freedom that technology allows — to see and experience the world while earning an income online. Follow Elijah’s travels on his blog at https://www.elijahetc.com

Credit: Elija etc., www.elijahetc.com/blog

3 thoughts on “A nomad’s guide to Cuenca: Where to stay, what to see, where to eat, where to hang out

  1. Elijah Next time you are in Cuenca try out Tiesto’s it is rated as the 13th best Restaurant in South America. Juan Carlos the owner and Chef will not disappoint you. If you are in Cuenca a must place to eat,

    1. If Tiesto’s is the 13th best Restaurant in South America then South American are deprived from decent food. Sorry!

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