Cuenca’s best coffee shops and a short history of coffee growing in Ecuador

Dec 31, 2019 | 16 comments

By Robert Bradley

It was not the first time I heard the story.

He said, “I was whooping it up with the boys at the Inca Lounge the other night and felt great! But, the next morning I felt as if my head was raked through a combine, and only the chaff was left. Ya’ think I got food poisoning or something?”

“No,” I responded. “I think all you need is a cup or two of really good coffee … but hold the whiskey.”

Coffee in Ecuador
Coffee was introduced in Ecuador in 1860 when commercial plantations were established in coastal Manabí Province in the Jipijapa Zone. While a few larger plantations still exist, recent coffee production has turned to smaller, family-run farms producing specialty beans. And, as roasters around the world search for sustainably sourced, small coffee farms, the prodocucers are increasingly turning their attention toward Ecuador.

Ecuador’s champion barista, Diego Mejía, runs Sinfonia, just south of Parque de la Madre.

This is particularly true in Loja Province, long recognized by coffee connoisseurs as growing the best coffee in the nation, particularly in the small community of El Airo, not far from the Yacuri National Park. Cultivated at elevations ranging from 5,000 to 6,200 feet, the region specializes in locally hybridized strains of Arabica coffee beans known for their smooth finish and cardamom-scented flavor.

An up-and-coming area for great coffee, in Loja Province, but only a few hundreds meters from Azuay Province, is the community of La Papaya, a Spanish land grant that dates to the mid-1600s. What’s left of the original plantation has won several international awards in recent years but, unfortunately, none of the crop is available locally: it’s all exported to Asia and North America.

Coffee on the tree.

Also known for growing fine Arabica coffee, are several valleys north of Quito as well as the Yunguilla Valley, southwest of Cuenca.

Ecuador also produces good quality Robusta coffee at lower elevations, with the best crops grown in Manabí Province and the Amazon region. In recent years, farmers in the Galapagos have been harvesting excellent Robusta beans, which have proven particularly popular with the islands’ tourists.

Cuenca’s reputation for being a “coffee town” is well deserved but fairly recent, given the area’s long predilection for tea drinking.  There are a plethora of cafes serving finely crafted coffee in a variety of styles throughout the city. Over the last year, I have made it my ambition to ferret out a few of the best established, and soon to be established coffee houses around town, and here are my recommendations. I am sure readers will have other favorites and I cordially invite you to include them in the comments section below.

Cafe Cinema
Teatro Casa De La Cultura, Interior, second floor, Calle Luis Cordero 7-24; Tel. 098 324 9399; Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. – 9 p.m. Closed on Sunday

This storied cafe has been a popular venue for artists and actors for more than 20 years. The décor, as one might imagine for a former movie theater, is a panorama of film memorabilia, but it is the coffee people come for. It is a perfect place to sip a cup and gab about your brush with Kevin Bacon at the Public Market in Seattle, Washington back in the day.

Cafe Alicia
Sucre at Luis Cordero, next to the Old Cathedral; Tel. 098 786 8565; Monday through Friday 8:30 a.m. – 9 p.m.; Saturday 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.  and 3:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.; Sunday  9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Cafe de Alicia is clean, airy and has about the best mochaccino in town. This is also a comfortable place to work remotely on your laptop, people watch and chat with friends. The desserts are truly delicious and sandwiches cost less than $3 but it is the finely crafted cup of coffee that sets this place apart. Please note that Alicia’s is scheduled to move a block to the east on Sucre sometime in January with the current location to being taken over by a Hansel & Gretel.

Cafe Nucallacta
Location #1: Hermano Miguel 5-62, between Honorato Vasquez and Juan Jaramillo; Location #2: Plaza Otorongo, near the escalinata; Tel. 098 619 0490; Monday – Saturday 9 a.m. – 7 p.m.;Sunday 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.

Nucallacta started out as a coffee exporter.

Nucallacta began as green coffee exporters of some of the most desirable specialty roasted coffee to the U.S., Australia, and Japan. They leveraged their knowledge of coffee to provide some of the best-roasted coffee from Ecuador at two locations in Cuenca and have plans to add new venues throughout Ecuador and abroad.

Sinfonia Cafe
Federico Malo 1-265 and Florencia Astudillo at El Ejido Suites, local 1, between Parque de la Madre and the football stadium; Tel. 099 891 9222; Monday 4:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.; Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m. – 7:30 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. – 1:30 p.m and 4 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.  Closed on Sunday

Sinfonia owner, Diego Mejía, is a walking encylopdia when it comes to coffee and his presentation is second to none in Cuenca, which figures since he has been crowned Ecuador’s champion barista two times running. Every step of the process at Sinfonia, from bean selection, to roasting, to the final pour is carefully considered to produce the finest coffee available. Watching Diego prepare your cup is to watch an artist at work.

Cafe Austria
Corner Hermano Miguel 8-81 and Simon Bolivar; Tel. 284 0899; Open every day from 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

The friendly staff at Cafe Austria.

Now in its second El Centro location, Cafe Austria’s has been around for almost 20 years serving gringos and locals alike. It’s sister, Wunderbar, has been in business for almost 40 years and was the first tourist and expat hangout in Cuenca. Owned by German expat Frank Illing, both are great places to play chess, drink excellent coffee, and reminisce about home … especially if you came here from Vienna. And, just like Vienna, another coffee town, these two fine houses offer the finest in comfort and care.

I could go on, of course. There are Tierra Diabla on San Sebastian Plaza, and Tienda Cafe on the Plazoleta de Cruz Vado, both in my neck of the woods, are places I have come to rely on for great coffee, engaging staff, and good company. And, I know better than to overlook Barranco, overlooking the Rio Tomebamba behind the Panama Hat museum on Calle Larga. Goza is where newcomers to town go for coffee or to enjoy watching the other newcomers in town. And, be sure to drop in and say, “Hello”, to Giovanni at the Cafe del Museo (his coffee is pretty good too).

I look forward to expanding my list of the best coffee shops of Cuenca. Please send in your  suggestions.

Robert Bradley

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