Editor’s note: This is the first of an eight-part series by writer / photographer Brian Buckner about hiking in the Cuenca area. The series covers urban hiking, rural hiking, hiking in the Cajas Mountains, people you meet along the trail, transportation options, what to wear, what to carry, and concludes with the author’s answer to the question: Why hike?
By Brian Buckner
When Edie and I were living in the U.S., we spent much of our time enjoying outdoor activities, especially hiking, photography and exploring. So, when we began the process of selecting a new country to live in, one of our main objectives was discovering the type of outdoor opportunities that were available.
Once we had decided on Ecuador as our new home, we read all we could about the many outdoor activities the country offers. We took all the articles with a grain of salt as wise travelers should.
The following multi-part article is about what we have discovered in hiking opportunities, and how to best embrace them, primarily in the Cuenca area. It is not intended as a comprehensive, end-all article on hiking — there’s way too much to do here to cover in one writing. I’ll address the basics of getting started by telling you where to go, ways to get there and suggestions for dress. Always remember: tell someone where you are going, who you’re with and when and where you plan to return.
Being physically prepared for your experiences along with having the right gear and using good judgment will ensure a safe and enjoyable outing for everyone.
Let’s start with opportunities in Cuenca. If you live in town, as many do, you can begin right outside your door. It’s still hiking even if you have concrete or asphalt underfoot. Cuenca is a beautiful city, filled with many great attractions and green spaces for public use. And, the historic architecture is a special treat for almost everyone. Poking around side streets is another avenue of exploration that reveals hidden surprises to those on foot.
Use caution when you walk, particularly where you place your feet. Sidewalks or curbs are often in disrepair in some parts of Cuenca, with many holes and uneven surfaces. All tile should be considered slippery when wet regardless of your footwear. Also, be cautious of dog poop; it is everywhere as there are many stray dogs in the streets of Ecuador. Keeping your eyes on the ground will save you from a spill and a shoe cleaning.
Although the law says differently, as a practical matter pedestrians do not have the right of way on city streets; vehicles do. Don’t be surprised if you have a green crossing signal and drivers cut you off with a right turn — it’s more than likely this is opposite of what you may be used to. When crossing streets, observe the local people around you. Follow their cues if they seem sensible, but rely on your own judgement first. Many cross with no safety signal, running into crossing traffic.
Catolica to Turi
A good hike for inside the city is from University Catolica, on the north side of town off Av. Las Americas, all the way across El Centro and climbing the stairs up to the town of Turi. It’s a good way to acquaint yourself with the city and take in some spectacular views. You can take a number of routes but a more or less direct route will give you an hour-and-a-half hike of about six kilometers with an overall elevation gain of 400 feet.
Cuenca was built in a basin created by the juncture of several valleys, sculpted by glaciers during the last ice age. (Cuenca, by the way, means “basin” in Spansih.) The center of town is the lowest point in the city with elevations beginning to build as you walk north, south and west. If you’re taking a north to south route, you will need to climb several hundred steps in Turi to reach the church and overlook at the top. If you decide to walk the road to Turi, there are no sidewalks. It is dangerous.
If you would like something a little less strenuous, catch a bus or taxi to Parque Paraíso or just take off walking to get there. It is located in the southeast part of town and is Cuenca’s largest park, always filled with people engaged in a variety of outdoor activities. There are very good walking/hiking trails in the park and, at the park’s east end, the trails pass the confluence of the Tomebamba and Yanuncay Rivers. It’s a pretty spot to stop for a break. There’s a little lake there with some resident ducks. You’ll find park vendors, offering a variety of snacks, along the way. The park’s trails are as generally flat. Enjoy!
There are also Urban Tourism Routes designed by the city tourism office worth checking out. A stop by the iTur tourist office adjacent to Parque Calderon in El Centro will give you access to all sorts of information. They have detailed brochures on two of the routes that I have traveled as well as others which look interesting. If you are new to town and need a little elevation acclimation before moving on to the more challenging hikes, the tourist routes might be perfect for you.
You can start off walking to reach the first stop on the route but you might need a bus or taxi before you finish. The two routes I’ve checked out are the French Route and the Gristmills and Bread Routes. The first takes you along streets where the influence of France can be seen in the city’s architecture. The second will get you acquainted with different historic locations where grain was — and still is — processed and then baked into different types of bread. Yummy!