After Tena it was time to head back into the the Andes to the colonial town of Cuenca. The locals claim it has the charm of Quito but cleaner with less traffic and better weather and honestly I’m inclined to agree with them. To get there from Tena was a bit of an affair as there are no direct busses to Cuenca from Tena, you have to connect somewhere. As we wanted to spend the night at the layover spot we choose to return to Baños over Ambato as it sounded like the more attractive option and we knew a good place to stay right next to the bus station and you can get direct busses from either town. The ticket from Tena was $5 pp this time and then it was another $8 for the direct bus from Baños. There were several busses from Baños to Cuenca so it would be possible to do it in one day but you’re looking at anywhere from 9 to 12 hours on busses (usually without a bathroom, those Vietnamese busses seem so charming now…). Both bus rides offer stunning scenery but the on from Baños to Cuenca was particularly so. That way if you’re not into cheesy Mexican or Bollywood productions you have something to look at (I myself find them entertaining to make fun of).
It’s very possible to find a decent private room for just over $20 but Victoria decided this was the time to splurge. We ended up at the Siena Hotel for exactly $40 including taxes. For that we got what I would class it as a four star hotel right in the heart of the old town. A taxi from the bus station costs anywhere from $1.50 to $2 and traffic can be heavy at times.
The best thing to do in Cuenca is really to just wander around the old town. There are beautiful historic buildings everywhere and the central square is stunning. The Riverwalk is also very nice and borders the old town and if you stay on the old town side you don’t have to breath any exhaust(not much anyways…).
There are also a number of museums to visit, we choose the Museo del Banco Central which is exactly what it sounds like The Central Bank of Ecuador Museum. There was of course an exhibit on the history of Ecuadorian money from prehistoric times up till they moved to the dollar. In addition to this they also display modern art and archeological findings. Out back was the best part though, there are the huge ruins of an old Incan City along with beautiful gardens and a menagerie. My personal favorite though as a general cheap skate was that it was all entirely free. After coming from South East Asia where they charge you for pretty much every attraction it’s been great that here in Ecuador most sights are either free or very cheap.
An interesting fact that most people won’t be aware of is that the “Panama hat” was actually an Ecuadorian invention with Cuenca as the heart of the production. The “Panama hat” got it’s name because FDR was seen wearing one while viewing the Panama canal and they became fashionable after that. Now if this was Asia they would have been selling them on every corner but that wasn’t the case, they were only sold in fancy stores meant for tourists as far as I could tell. We ended up both getting hats for around $50 and they were even able to roll them up and put them in a box for easy transit. $50 is a fortune here but they are high quality and hand made, although I’m sure with further research they could be found cheaper.
One last thing anyone should do while in Cuenca is to check out the Mercado Municipal for lunch. There are all kinds of delicious food and drinks severed here extremely cheaply. We had to try some of the whole roasted pig of course and it was just as delicious as it sounds. A portion big enough for two can be had for $3 to $4. We also tried a bowl of chicken noodle soup for the extravagant cost of $0.75. To finish it all off we had a mora(blackberry) shake for a $1. It was a solid 30 Oz and I’m sure would have cost $7 in the States.
Victoria and I both agreed that Cuenca was one of the few towns we’ve visited that would could see spending an extended amount of time in. The architecture is beautiful, the old town is great for wandering around, the food was good, the weather fair, and most important of all…the hotel and mobile internet we’re both great. Plus you could drink the tap water here, a first for me outside the country. After a visiting the two big Andean towns of Quito and Cuenca our next stop was going to be the small town of Vilcabamba with a population of only 4800 but a popular spot with both expats and tourists for it’s stunning mountain scenary.