If you haven’t heard of Cuenca, you obviously have not been reading US international retirements magazines, because the city is a hotspot for older US expats and retirees. It is the 3rd most important city in the country, behind Quito and Guayaquil, is home to some 350,000 residents, and is the capital of the Azuay province.
So, chances are, you might stumble across Cuenca on a quest through Ecuador. And, if you are a young internet entrepreneur, or even a vagabonding traveler, I wanted to set the record straight on this little city because a lot of the current guides to it on the internet are not all that good.
The best place to stay if you enjoy nightlife is near Calle Larga, because it puts everything within easy walking distance.
La Casa Cuencana has private rooms with comfy beds available as low as $8 per night. Their hostel is also quiet and a little removed from the bustle of the street so it’s a good place to sleep.
La Cigale is a happening hostel. If you want to meet other backpackers or people from other countries, stay here and/or eat here. There is a restaurant on the first floor that has good food at affordable prices. And, they have happy hour every day from 6 to 8 pm. Check it out.
Hostal Mocondo is also a good choice if you prefer a bed & breakfast feel as opposed to a hostel feel. It is a little more expensive per night, but has a central garden complete with flowers and hummingbirds. It is also located a little further away from Calle Larga, so you will have to walk a little more to get to the nightlife.
So, pick your type: Quieter = Casa Cuencana. Backpackers / Social = La Cigale. B & B = Hostal Mocondo.
You will have to put some boots on the ground to find housing in the southern part of the city as there are not a lot of user-friendly listings for short-term rentals in Cuenca. Also keep in mind you will have to take taxis and buses a lot more often if you live outside the city center.
Places To Eat
If you picked La Casa Cuencana, you can cook your own breakfast in the nice, well-kept kitchen (what I recommend). Cook your eggs, beans, and spinach (a la 4-Hour Body style).
For lunch, just walk along the streets and you can find almuerzo for between $1.50 and $2.50. These will often consist of your classic soup, rice, salad, potatoes, a bit of meat, and juice.
The best value for lunch (with best atmosphere) is Moliendo Cafe. Almuerzo will cost you $2.50. They also have a great bandeja paisa for $6.50. Although, three doors up the road you can find a slightly more grungy bandeja paisa for $3.50. They’re both located on Honorato Vásquez, one block away from Calle Larga, between Presidente Borrero and Hermano Miguel.
For dinner, you have the expensive and the inexpensive options. For inexpensive, return to Moliendo Cafe for a merienda (night meal) or visit Monday Blue on the corner Calle Larga and Luis Cordero for a cheap Mexican meal.
Stay away from the Burrito Mehicana place on Calle Larga because the food is overpriced, and the service is terrible.
There’s also a medium-price option in Raymipampa, right next to the cathedral in Parque Calderon. There is more of an expat crowd there, for sure, but their menu is a little bigger. It feels a little closer to an American restaurant.
Wunderbar Cafe is located on the stairs next to Hermano Miguel & Calle Larga. It has a small menu, but has Wi-Fi and is generally uncrowded during the day. Come here to get work done on the internet and enjoy peace and quiet.
*** Finally, regardless of how much money you normally spend, you should definitely eat once at Tiestos. This by far was the best culinary experience of my time in Cuenca. It will cost around $20-$25 per person, but it is not to be missed. ***
Particular Foods To Try In Cuenca
- Cuy (guinea pig) at Guajibamba Cuyes on Luis Cordero & Gaspar Sangurima. Cuenca is known for having the best cuy in the country, so you might as well try it. Try not to tell your little sister who is taking care of her guinea pig back home. Costs about $15-$20 per person.
- Canelazo – This is a hot colored alcoholic drink, filled with Zhumir (the local Aguardiente), cinnamon, lemon, sugar, and water. It goes down pretty easy, and I personally thought it went really well with the cuy.
- Colada Morada – This drink is only available one day per year to commemorate the day of the dead (plus or minus a few days to finish the left-overs). It is essentially hot strawberry puree / juice filled with pineapple, and filled my stomach with a holiday drink that rivals Christmas apple cider. So, if you are in town around November 1, try Colada Morada…. Absolutely delectable!
You might have to do some hunting for a gym. It was actually tough to find one that was inexpensive, clean, and centrally located, though running along the river is always a good option.
The gym I worked out at was called Art Gym, and it has pretty good equipment. It is about 1/2 block up from Calle Larga on the right hand side on Alfonso Jerves 4-27. Nothing too fancy… and minimal cardio equipment, but had a decent set of weights and machines.
All right. On this topic, I can tell you that that the average Cuenca nightlife guide is absolutely terrible.
An example is what people have posted about Cafe Eucalyptus. Like this guide, this guide, and this guide all recommend Cafe Eucalyptus for Wednesday night ladies night. And they appear high in the search results for “Cuenca nightlife.”
But the truth is that Cafe Eucalyptus is not for having a good time at night if you are under 40 years old. It’s mostly a cafe, with a fireplace and dancefloor, but it’s inhabited by older folks. Note: it does have wifi, so you could spend the afternoon working on your laptop there if you want.
Also, a really over-rated place was La Mesa. La Mesa is a hole in the wall, a smoke-filled cavern of a bar located on some dark street, wayyy out of the way, and filled with travelers and backpackers. It also plays slow-as-molasses salsa on a dance floor that is about 10′ x 10′. If that sounds appetizing to you, go for it. But for me, it was disappointing.
Now on to the younger, hipper venues…
It’s located on Calle Larga near Luis Cordero, and yes, it’s spelled C-H-I-P-L-O-T-E. They have happy hour from 5 to 10 every day, with a great atmosphere for travelers and Ecuadorians alike. Go there for 2-for-1 Mojitos before walking (ahem, stumbling) to your principal venue.
Thursday night: Dos Dos
Thursday night at Dos Dos (see facebook page) is the real ladies night of Cuenca. You have to walk along the river past the university in order to get there (~15 minutes), but it is worth it. Good selection of music, mostly reggaeton. Beware of getting jipped when you go to pay though.
Friday night: Nite or Gabbia
Nite (see facebook page) is a club on the top floor of Milenium centro commercial. They are normally open only 1 or 2 nights per week to maintain exclusivity, though during the Independence Day celebrations they were open all week.
I had two very different experiences at Nite. In the first experience, I felt like I had crashed a high school dance. Nearly all of the patrons looked like they were maximum 18 years old, and many looked much younger. As a result, I didn’t stay long that night. In the second experience, however, there was an appreciable older crowd, much more full of 20-somethings. This experience occurred during the Independence Day celebrations, and was a really good night.
So, my advice would be to take a look at the line outside the club before you go in… If you see the youngins you might want to skip out.
Gabbia, (see website) on the other hand, was a solid choice both times I went. It has a nice large dance floor, and a 2nd level for over flow. They have a weird jail / behind-bars theme throughout the club which is interesting. The cost of entry is low… free (‘touristas no cover’) or $5 (to go to the 2nd level), but the cost of drinks is high, generally $5+.
Saturday night: Velvet
Velvet (see twitter stream) is located right in front of Milenium plaza in an old white building. It is a large place with wide dance floors for mingling, and a lot of dry ice pumped in to obtain the mysterious feel. The music is good for dancing… mostly reggaeton and popular club music from the US.
Salsa Options: Zoe or Cafe Verde, Pinton y Maduro
I personally can’t dance salsa at any hour of the day, I have to be in the mood. If you like salsa, check out Zoe on the corner of Borrero & Sucre, which has a Saturday salsa night. Or check out Cafe Verde Pinton y Maduro for salsa on Thursdays (but with merengue, bachata, and reggaeton as well). The few times I checked them out there weren’t that many people, so bring your dancing partner.
- November 2nd and 3rd are the celebrations for independence day in Cuenca and in other cities in Ecuador. This means that a massive number of people descend upon the city and there are a lot of outdoor activities going on. It also means the pretty girls from Guayaquil come into town. So, if you are going to be there around those dates (+ or – 5 days), plan ahead.
- Over all, I didn’t find the internet very fast in Cuenca. I was told that there is only 1 company that services the entire city, so there aren’t a lot of options. I couldn’t watch videos instantaneously, and Skype video calls were often interrupted. Sometimes your best option is to go to Wunderbar Cafe to get work done.
- Take a day to check out Cajas National Park, just outside of Cuenca. It is a great hiking trail with valleys, lagoons, and excellent photo ops. A day trip can be found for around $40-$50 total, which includes transportation and lunch.
I hope you might stumble across this post if you are visiting Cuenca. Good resources on life in the city can be hard to find, but here are some quality resources I’ve found:
- Dave’s Cuenca city guide
- Bryan and Dena’s website on Cuenca
- GoGo-Gringo for expat connections in Cuenca
- Julie and Jeff’s Captivating Cuenca
In summary, I would say I was glad to visit Cuenca. The city has a certain charm to it, and on the whole was a lot safer than Quito or Guayaquil.
Over all, though, I would not set up shop there again as an internet entrepreneur. This may be because I was being affected by something particular…