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I Heart My City: Bryan’s Cuenca (for National Geographic)

Posted in: Expats in Ecuador, Living in Ecuador, Our Perspective, Where to Live

This is a guest post that I wrote for National Geographic Intelligent Traveler Blog for the series: I Heart My City. We were invited by Gio Palatucci to highlight our city on National Geographics Intelligent Traveler Blog. The format is a mad-libs style fill-in-the-blanks. The bold text is what they gave us, and the regular text is our (my) response. I wrote most of it, with Dena’s help on the best parts…

Check out the post on National Geographic Intelligent Traveler Blog

I Heart My City: Bryan’s Cuenca

Cuenca is My City

The first place I take a visitor from out of town is Parque Calderon. It is beautiful and a great way to see the city. And there are awesome cafes and bakeries on every street.

Parque Calderon Cuenca Ecuador

When I crave amazing pizza I always go to Tutto Freddo. They aren’t a pizza shop – in fact, they are famous for their ice cream, but they also make the best personal size pizzas around. Less than $5 for an 8″ made-to-order pizza and bottle of coke.

To escape the beautiful colonial architecture I head to Mall del Rio – Cuenca’s largest commercial development – complete with the latest multiplex theater, bowling alley and huge food court (yes, even with Burger King). Its a palace of steel, glass and concrete.

If I want to waste three full days I go to the Transit Authority to register my car for the year. When I purchased my first car, it took more than a week of running around to municipal, provincial, federal government offices, the Red Cross, notaries and a driving school collecting original documents, paying taxes and making triplicate photocopies of everything. I treasure my vehicle registration – I even had it laminated like everyone else here.

For complete quiet, I can hide away in Paradise Park. Well not complete quiet, but just about as good as it gets in a city. It is super relaxing – little kids and families playing and a small river runs through it.

Paradise Park

If you come to my city, get your picture taken with the flower vendors at the flower market off of Parque Calderon. The setting is beautiful and they are quite willing to pose for a photo (especially if you purchase some flowers). One lady even agreed to be filmed when we were shooting the House Hunters International episode.

If you have to order one thing off the menu from Creta it has to be the filet mignon. Good beef is hard to find here – and its the best that we’ve had yet.


La Victoria is my one-stop shop for great electronics (think Cuenca’s version of Best Buy – much smaller but still the best selection around).

Locals know to skip gringo pricing and check out the real prices instead. Its long been said that there are two economies here. Sometimes due to skin color, and frequently dependent on your ability to communicate in Spanish, the gringo price can appear. After a while you will learn that taxis never cost $10 and seldom $5. And that 5 apples don’t cost $3.00 like back home (maybe $1).

When I’m feeling cash-strapped I go on the bus ($0.25), buy some Yuca Bread ($0.15 ea), sit on a bench in Parque Calderon and people watch. Our whole family can do this for less than $4.00.

For a huge splurge I go to an all-you(I)-can-eat-breakfast-buffet for $12. It comes with everything and its all hot and fresh. It can’t be beat – just one block off the main center.

Photo ops in my city include the old town architecture, flower market and Parque Calderon (yes, again) and the best vantage points are from the restaurant above Fruitalados and from Turi – a look-off south of the city.

If my city were a celebrity it’d be Johnny Depp – sophisticated yet quirky and a little eccentric.

The most random thing about my city is the weather. No one knows if or when it will rain or be extremely hot. You can start the day in an insulated jacket and scarf, be down to a t-shirt by noon and have a rain storm in the afternoon.

My city has the most soccer obsessed men. Of course, the word obsessed is a little strong, but how else can you describe men who work 12 hours a day and find the time/energy to play soccer for an hour at lunch? And on Sunday. And after work. Yeah, soccer is pretty important here.

My city has the most friendly women. Friendly in a social way. They make conversation at grocery stores, restaurants and on the street. We seldom go into the downtown without chatting with a local Cuencana.

In my city, an active day outdoors involves running errands in the city (everyone walks everywhere). On a day off, almost everyone heads to a park. There are some great hiking places just outside of the city – the city is surrounded by mountains.

My city’s best museum is Museo Banco Central (Central Bank Museum). It has everything from a complete history of the country and its indigenous people, to restored Incan ruins and an amazing aviary. Count on spending 3 hours or more exploring and learning about the area.

Banco Central - Hillside and Goldfish Pond

My favorite jogging/walking route is Avenida 12 de Abril. It has wide sidewalks that run along side the Tomebamba River. When it hits Solano Avenue, there’s a stone staircase that leads into the old town.

The mall food court is the spot for late-night eats. Because everything else shuts down by 7pm. The mall is open late – until 9pm.

To find out what’s going on at night and on the weekends read the local paper or check the the tourist bureau – they have a full listing of everything going on. There are lots of free events and concerts.

You can tell a lot about my city from a drive from the airport to the center. You’ll pass modern apartment buildings, luxury car dealers, adobe houses and colonial architecture.

You can tell if someone is from my city if they sing while they speak. Cuencanos are known throughout the country for “singing” as they speak. It is thought to be one of the most beautiful forms of Spanish.

In the spring, summer, fall and winter you should try to remember what season it is – because nothing changes here. Sometimes it rains a little more. Sometimes the sun is out more. The exception is November, when you can see the trees on Avenida Solano bloom into an amazing purple, our daughter loves it.

A hidden gem in my city is the hot baths in Baños (not the big one near Ambato – Cuenca has its own hot springs). You can swim in natural hot springs under the stars and then dine in a fine restaurant at Hosteria Duran. Just a 20 minute taxi ride from downtown.

For a great breakfast joint try one of the breakfast buffets at the expensive hotels. For $8 to $12 you can stuff yourself (not that I would know) on a huge variety of breads, cakes, fruit, eggs and breakfast meats – oh, and cereals, fresh juice and coffee. All with amazing service and luxurious surroundings – and for the price of fast food back home.

Just outside my city, you can visit Chordeleg. It is just a 45 minute drive and is famous for silver jewelry. There isn’t a woman in the world (or husband, right?) that wouldn’t love to spend a couple of hours looking at the handmade silver jewelry. It is very inexpensive.

View of Cuenca Ecuador from Turi Look-Off

The best way to see my city is on foot. Cuenca is a walking city. There is no other way to take in the architecture – or find all the great bakeries.

If I didn’t live in a city, I’d live on the beach. It was a dream of mine before we moved to Ecuador, but we decided as a family that the Andes mountains fit us better. And guess what? We were right!

The best book about my city is one I have yet to find. All we have so far are travel guides – and they don’t represent Cuenca well at all. Somehow a list of restaurants and hotels isn’t very compelling for such a beautiful and diverse city. I’ve seen some Spanish ones downtown that I’ve got to check out.

When I think about my city, the song that comes to mind is Beautiful Day by U2.

If you have kids, you won’t want to miss the $1.50 DVD stores and all the ice cream shops. Gourmet ice cream for $2.00 or less – its a kids heaven.

Roasting cuy (guinea pig) and pigs on every street corner could only happen in my city. A little shocking to see at first, they have become a familiar part of life here. No, I haven’t eaten the street food yet. Maybe next year…

My city should be featured on your cover or website because it is a fabulous jewel that deserves more attention than it gets. If someone is planning a first time trip to South America they should start in Cuenca and get their Latin legs. Its like South America for beginners.

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Meet the Author

Bryan Haines is co-editor of GringosAbroad - Ecuador's largest blog for expats and travelers. He is a travel blogger and content marketer. He is also co-founder of ClickLikeThis (GoPro tutorial blog) and Storyteller Media (content marketing for travel brands). Work with GringosAbroad.

21 comments… add one
  • Nerina Padovan Apr 11, 2015, 12:20 pm

    Hi Bryan and Dena,

    I am already subscribed. I am a retired high school teacher, who can get by with the Spanish language, just rusty. I like to get away for the winter months as southwestern Ontario can get cold for 3-4 months. I have travelled to Florida, Mexico, Cuba and California for winter getaways; however, now that my son is an adult, destinations that are further away and more adventurous, rich in culture, and a broader learning experience, are more appealing to me.

    I am single and usually travel alone. Can’t wait for others to make up their minds about where, how and when to travel. Presently I am looking at Manta as my winter destination, but would appreciate any of your suggestions, tips and information regarding the best destination in Ecuador that has both the ocean/water and some hiking. I do not do heights well, extreme heights that is. I drove from the Coachella Valley in CA to the coast, and I almost had a heart attack lol. I appreciate any input you might have.

    Kind regards,

  • Jack Bales Jan 18, 2015, 4:18 pm

    I’m already a subscriber to your excellent reports. Now, a single question although perhaps in two parts; I can devote between $500 and $600 per month to a long-term rental, let’s say at least one year. Does that get me anything suitably equipped and located and, part two, who do I contact that does this sort of work?

  • Michael & David May 13, 2013, 8:20 am

    OK Bryan we made it here 04/27/2013 we are in Cuenca. What an adventure to get here !! We sold everything we owned back in Georgia, packed our clothes,our dogs,and some photos. For some odd reason i dont think ill ever miss the USA.

  • sharyn grace Dec 28, 2012, 8:21 am

    Hello. Loved reading your blog. My husband and I live at 8000 feet in the Colorado Rockies. We have lived here 20 years and we are ready to have a new adventure. Planning to book a flight to Equador in 2013. What month is best to be able to look around and see if it’s where we would like to live?? We are 56, and thinking that someday we would like to fully retire. Not going to happen in the states, we think. Thanks for any info you can give us!!

    • Bryan Haines Dec 29, 2012, 7:23 am

      The weather doesn’t change much here – not like you are used to in Colorado. If you visit away from holiday season (Dec/Jan and July/Aug) you can avoid higher rates and much of the crowds. Aside from that, any time of year is good.

  • Nick Walz May 1, 2012, 10:20 pm

    never realized how scenic Ecuador is ..absolutely stunning

  • Mitri Janho Apr 13, 2012, 5:14 am

    Hi Bryan,

    We will arrive to Quito on the 27th for about 10 days then to Cuenca before we decide where to settle. We are coming with an open mind and are very excited about the whole thing.

    Although we are leaning towards Cuenca, we are wandering if we will find enough activities for an active retirement… like social clubs (expats and locals), gym, things to do once settled etc… Our initial stay of a couple of weeks before we decide may not allows to know all there is in that area. Could you enlighten us please? We will not hold you responsible for a bad decision, only give you credit for the good one! 🙂 Your blogs have been so informative (and humorous). We trust your judgement. Thanks. Mitri (leaving Montreal soon)

    • Bryan Haines Apr 15, 2012, 9:05 am

      Hi Mitri, in terms of services and entertainment options, you’ll find more in Quito. We really love Quito and feel we could be very happy there. Cuenca has gyms, coffee shops and lots of expat activities. Many expats quickly shy away from “expat nights” and the regulars are usually ones with some financial interest. But to get your bearings they aren’t a bad idea.

      When you visit both cities, but sure to take the time to see the whole city. Maybe you can hire a taxi or van for the day to take you around. As all cities do, both Quito and Cuenca have many distinct areas. We really liked the area in Quito near Parque Carolina y Parque Ejido. It is beautiful, clean and has wide open sidewalks. Lots of street activity (cafes, restaurants, vendors) and the parks have great outside activities. In Cuenca, we like the areas just outside of the downtown but still inside the city. It is quieter and cleaner outside of the downtown part.

      Hope this help! All the best on your plans,


  • Sarah Feb 5, 2012, 6:38 pm

    Hey! you haven’t tried the street food yet? It’s the best! try a bit of chancho, roasted pork, with a side of potatoes, fried, natch! and a sprinkle of toasted corn…washed down with a Pilsener. You will love it! or else, try the pancakes made from fresh eggs, creamed corn (choclo) and fresh milk, delish when right off the griddle. You can’t get sick from freshly cooked food, made right in front of you; you might be in more danger from homemade ice cream. You don’t know where they are keeping that pot of milk
    before it goes into the freezer.

    • Bryan Haines Feb 6, 2012, 7:39 am

      Hi Sarah – guess I should clarify. I haven’t eaten the roast pig and cuy on the street. The meat scares me a little. I’ve seen the vendors throw raw pork into the vat of boiling fat and then serve out of the same pot to a customer. And the cooked shishkabobs placed on top of the raw ones. But we have eaten other street food – encebollada is amazing. Its soup made with fish, yuca, onion and rich broth. You can add oil, lemon juice and hot sauce and is served with plantain chips – its a family favorite.

  • Lee Kupfer Feb 5, 2012, 12:05 am

    I love to fish and would like a little info as to where I could live and be on a great fishing lake w/beautiful mountain views and still close to the beach. Is that possible?

    • Bryan Haines Feb 6, 2012, 7:41 am

      Hi Lee, I guess it depends on how close you want to be to the beach. Cuenca is just 3 hours from the coast. There is a small area called San Fernando on the road to Machala that has lots of lakes. Would probably take just over two hours to get to the beach from there.

  • Dave Feb 4, 2012, 10:30 pm

    Great snapshot of life in Cuenca. My plans are delayed yet again, but I hope to visit the city very soon, certainly within the next two months.

    Everything I have read or head about Cuenca has been positive.

  • Graham Feb 4, 2012, 3:48 pm

    Hello Bryan. Plans are shaping up of taking a trip to Cuenca to check out the place. Believe a less expensive place to hang the hat may be needed in the future. Cuenca may fit the bill. So – in the sprite of self interest, don’t push the place too much – keep it as is – for as long as possible. Good piece for National Geographic. The photo of the city is special – gives a good sense of the overall size of the central area of town. Exceptional photos as these are always a good find.

    • Bryan Haines Feb 4, 2012, 4:26 pm

      Hey Graham – thanks for the feedback. We almost never do guest posts. But when National Geographic asks, well … they are different. We primarily write on our site, about our experiences. The interest in Ecuador, and Cuenca in specific, has been overwhelming. With 10,000 unique readers every month, the site has grown faster than we anticipated.

      All the best on your plans!


  • Grace Barnett Feb 4, 2012, 12:14 pm

    Specifically where are some of the best breakfast buffets that you mention in this article. Thank you.

    • Bryan Haines Feb 4, 2012, 12:16 pm

      Hi Grace – the $8 one is Hotel Oro Verde on Av. Laso. The $12 is off the center in a hotel and I can’t remember the name of it. I’ll get it next week and post it here.

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