Surviving Cuenca: A Brief Guide

by Janika Berridge

Rules in Cuenca are more like guidelines, as one student warned. Keep this in mind and you won’t gasp at the sight of six people in the backseat of a car, naively believe that the bus will stop taking passengers, or scuff in anger at the speeding driver who proceeded with that turn although you were clearly crossing the street.

Cuenca  Mountains.
Wear layers of clothing while hiking in the mountains. Photo by Janika Berridge

At this moment, you are invited to get off your law-abiding high horse and realize that in Cuenca, there is such a thing as the clown car, sitting in the make-shift seat at the back of the bus driver, clearly more suitable for a backpack rather than two students, is only strange to you, the foreigner, and pedestrians DO NOT have the right of way. The latter is an unwritten, but valuable, rule by which to abide if you fancy surviving [the streets of] Cuenca. 

Cuenca is the capital of Azuay, a province located in the southern sierra region of Ecuador. Home to four rivers, one of which, el Rio Tomebamba, separates the old Cuenca from the new, this lovely city offers many activities to travelers. Before you pack your bags for a mountainous adventure, however, here are a few things you should know.  

Layers, layers, layers. Ecuador, equator, warm, shorts. Right? Not quite. The weather in Cuenca in the month of July is anywhere from chilly to comfortable. Ironically, Cuenca’s colder season falls during its summer months. Qué extraño. Unless Cuenca is part of a longer trip around Ecuador or South America, leave the flip-flops at home. A pair of comfortable, everyday shoes will do. Mountains, which you will visit at one point or another, surround the town of Cuenca, so hiking boots are also a must. Hint, hint. Sierra = higher altitude = cold. Be sure to also pack chompas, or sweaters, as the temperature drops in the evenings. Sleeping between two wool blankets every night is not being overly dramatic, but being comfortably warm in a home without heaters. The omnipresence of alpaca scarves, blankets, and sweaters in the markets is not just a trend, it is a necessity. Don’t be too surprised at the sight of locals enveloped in wool sweaters and jackets on a 60-degree day. At any given point, nimbus clouds may overtake the sunny, blue Cuencan skies, sprinkling the city with an afternoon shower, or a morning llovizna, or drizzle. It may be wise, then, along with layers and hiking shoes, to pack a rain jacket or an umbrella, or both! 

Change, and lots of it! So now that you’re all dressed for the part, it’s time to go out. A little cash goes a long way in Cuenca. And for visitors from the United States, there is no need to change those bills into another currency, since Ecuador uses the dollar. However, it is almost necessary that you change your bills into coins, or monedas. Gold dollar coins are all the rage in Ecuador. Due to the fairly low price of goods, paying for something under $5 with anything greater than a $5 bill will, more often than not, result in a sigh or an angered look from the vendor. With local bus rides at $0.25 and yummy bakery bread at $0.13 a piece, it is understandable why many places do not carry sufficient change. Simply take a few bills to any bank and ask for cambio. That should save you from the inevitable glares and disappointment when it’s time to pay for your $4 meal with a $20 bill.

Hungry? A decent meal in Cuenca can cost anywhere from $3-6. It all depends on the place and the crowd, but you can eat well on a tight budget. A delicious breakfast at La Cigale, a restaurant-hostel in town, costs a whopping $3. For that price, you can get two eggs prepared to your liking, a buttery croissant, the choice of coffee or tea, and a refreshing glass of the juice-of-the-day. And, listen to this: a pack of Ritz crackers and bottle of water at a local store cost $0.40, each. Forty cents! 

Thirsty? For a good time, that is. Alcohol, like food, also costs very little in Cuenca. With beer at $1 and mixed drinks at $4, you’d better spend the extra cash on a self-control coach, or salsa classes. Stencil Café-bar, a hip restaurant with great ambiance and a young crowd, always has deals on drinks. Vodka tonic for $1.50, two-for-one margaritas, and three mojitos for $5? At those prices, you’d think the drinks were weak, but you’d be sadly, or happily, mistaken. Drinks in Cuenca can be strong, so relax, take your time, and tune in to the combination of classic rock and mainstream American songs playing through the speakers as you enjoy delicious Mexican tacos with a side of guacamole, for less than $4. But, don’t just spend all your time at one place. Cuenca offers a variety of equally hip and economical café-bars – try a few on for size!

His tolerance is not her tolerance is not yours. In Cuenca, you will find a lot of street vendors selling delicious treats like gelato ice-cream and freshly cut fruit. But, just because the locals are snacking down on pineapple slices, does not mean that you can follow suit without possible consequences. They have eaten the same foods for all their lives, unlike you, who are yet not accustomed to the new diet. So, before shouting “When in Rome!” and biting into that tempting street-side humita, set aside your fearless mentality for a moment before you spend your time in “Rome” in the presence of another type of bowl.

Time to get physical! But wait, not so fast. Cuenca sits approximately 2,500 meters above sea level, over 7,000 feet. Engaging in physical activity could be more tiring than usual at such a high altitude. Again, the locals have been running laps and climbing stairs at this altitude for longer than you have. So, take your time, until your body acclimates to the new demands. Then, take those adjusted lungs to the beautiful landscapes of Cajas National Park.

Because Cuenca. Simply put, just keep an open mind. At no point should you, dear traveler, expect the customs and events of Cuenca to replicate those of your own home country, or hometown. Do not resist the culture, but let it take you on an enjoyable journey. If this means being prepared for all seasons in one day, then, so be it! What’s that alien piece of meat with eyes on that plate? Cuy, or guinea pig, is a delicatessen in Cuenca, and quite tasteful, too! Forget about taximeters. Those do not exist here. A taxi ride around this small town should cost no more than $3. When in doubt, just ask the locals to be sure – about anything, really. And remember, because Cuenca. Pilates by the Tomebamba River on a Thursday night? Because Cuenca. Adorable puppies in glass cases for the price of a mixed drink? Because Cuenca. Late night community runs by athletically clad locals? Because Cuenca. Adopt this phrase and you will dismiss the differences as quickly as you embrace the culture of this beautiful town. 

¿Cómo se dice…? English is not common amongst the locals in Cuenca, so knowing some Spanish can help you better navigate your way around the area and even make new friends! So, learn a few key words and phrases. Besides, a properly dressed foreigner with change, strong lungs, and native lingo is quite chévere, or cool, by any standards.