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Cuenca

Cuenca is probably Ecuador’s most authentic colonial city, with beautiful spanish architecture, ornate churches and cobblestone streets.

The city centre dates back to the 16th century and of course it’s another World Heritage Site.

We stayed at the wonderful Casa Montalvo. Our delightful host Sonia, collected us from the airport with her Papa on the night of our arrival.

The Casa has only been open for business a few months, but will no doubt become a popular place to stay. Sonia’s hospitality reminds me of our experience in Cape Town with Phil at Parker Cottage.

Nothing was too much trouble, with our poor Spanish and her English (better than our Spanish), Sonia provided us with lots of advice on where to go and what to see.

She also made dinner reservations for us, arranged taxis and when we asked where we could buy some wine, she drove us to the supermarket – that’s service!

We had a fairly relaxing time wandering around Cuenca, the Italian restaurant Sonia recommended around the corner was so good we ate there twice and she also booked us into a superb steakhouse called Anubis.

The town square is lined with street stalls selling a kaleidoscope of colourful sweets and biscuits as part of the festival of Corpus Christi.

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Cuenca has long been a weaving centre for the sombrero de paja toquilla or better (though incorrectly) known as the Panama Hat.

There are a number of famous hat makers in the town you can visit where they will show you how the world-famous hat is made.

The fibre comes from the Toquilla palm and the density of the weave determines the category of the hat; from standard to superfine.

A superfine hat will hold water and should be able to roll up and be pulled through a man’s ring, so they say. A hat can cost anything from US$10 to US$500.

About an hours bus ride from Cuenca are the towns of Gualaceo and Chordeleg. They are known for handicrafts, pottery, gold and silver.

Our first stop is the fresh produce markets at Gualaceo which was a colourful and lively scene, with most of the women dressed in traditional clothing.

Chordeleg is a hub for gold and silver; be warned – you need to be careful and know how to spot the good quality from poor, and genuine from not so genuine.

The Trans Andean Railway, built-in the early 1900’s was once a lifeline linking the coastal city of Quayaquil with Quito and the highlands.

Today there are only a few sections of the line still operating, the most famous part being Nariz del Diable , the devils nose. An engineering feat in its time, a series of switchbacks allow the train to zig-zag 765 meters of sheer cliff.

It’s totally a tourist attraction with the 2 hour return journey commencing in the town of Alausi. The train traverses down the cliff to Sibambe where you are stranded for an hour.

The local dance troupe greets the train, then returns to the card game it’s in the middle of; a women offers photos on her horse, standing with the old railway station in the background and the café serves its captive market bad coffee and unappetising snacks.

Whilst the train journey is a bit of a let-down, the bus journey from Cuenca had been spectacular, winding up above the clouds through lush green mountains to Alausi. The town itself is charming, a bit more authentic with many people in traditional dress going about normal day-to-day life.