The city of Cuenca, located in the highlands towards the south of Ecuador, has a distinctly European feel. It is in fact regarded as the most European city in the whole of Ecuador, largely due to its grand Spanish colonial architecture. It is also a city that is steeped in history, with the historical city centre having been declared a UNESCO world heritage site.
Not only are there the grand old buildings to marvel at, but around town (and often in the most unexpected places, like in the corner of a road junction) you will find evidence of the country’s Inca ancestors – Cuenca was once known as the second Cusco, an Inca regional capital, and Inca ruins here have been well preserved.
Naturally, because of all the fascinating history and culture to learn about in Cuenca, one of the first things we decided to do when we arrived was a free walking tour. We try to do walking tours whenever we get to a new city as they are a great way to get a feel for a place and learn about its history, all for a very small cost – you’re expected to tip your guide, but other than that the tour is totally free. Up until this point we also had nothing but great experiences on these walking tours, so we assumed Cuenca wouldn’t be any different.
After doing a quick search, the second entry to appear on Google was a Facebook page for Free Walking Tour Cuenca, which was full of 5 star reviews and photographs of visitors apparently having a great time. We were sold, and I contacted the owner to book ourselves spots on the tour the following morning. The guide responded quickly and told us to meet him by the old cathedral in the main square, and he would be wearing his “uniform” of a white t-shirt and blue cap.
What followed the next morning was possibly the most awkward two hours of our entire lives.
We dutifully turned up at the cathedral five minutes before our scheduled meeting time, and we were immediately surprised that there were no other people waiting – every other walking tour we’ve done has had at least twenty people per group. When fifteen minutes went by and there was still no sign of our guide, the seeds of doubt really started to take root, and we came very close to just walking away – and how we all wished later that we had! In the end Dan and Michelle took a stroll around the square to see if they could spot our guide, just in case we were waiting in the wrong place, while I stayed by the cathedral.
A couple of minutes after they left, I saw what looked like a young teenager approaching me from the other side of the street. He was wearing a white shirt and blue cap, but he had nothing else with him (again, most other tours have some kind of actual uniform with their logo on, clip boards with lists of people who have registered, microphones and speakers, etc.) so I assumed that he couldn’t possibly be our guide. But he came right up to me and, without looking me in the eye, asked tentatively if I was waiting for the walking tour. I confirmed and told him about Dan and Michelle going to look for him, kind of expecting that he might apologise for his lateness, but instead he just mumbled something and stood next to me silently waiting for them to return.
Dan and Michelle got back soon after, and from there we began the tour – if you can call it a tour. Our guide led us in silence from one sight to another, only breaking the quiet to give us such helpful tidbits of information as “this is a church, it’s closed today though”, and “this is an art gallery, you can have a look round if you want”. I am not exaggerating when I say we got literally no more information than that. The worst part was that we couldn’t just walk away – if it had been a larger group we could have just quietly ducked out of the tour, but as it was just us we had to endure the entire excruciating two hours.
The tour ended when our guide dropped us off by some of the largest Inca ruins in town (“here are some ruins, there’s a plaque with some information you can read”) and we grudgingly handed over tips and said our awkward farewells. Quite honestly, if you’re in Cuenca we recommend doing a quick search online and visiting its main attractions by yourself – you will get more information about the city this way than with Free Walking Tour Cuenca!
Despite this disappointing start, we found many things to enjoy during our stay in Cuenca – especially in terms of eating and drinking! Near our hostel on the corner of Benigno Malo and Calle Larga we found a number of Indian restaurants, so of course – having been deprived of Indian food for quite a while now – we had to give one of them a try. Our waiter at the restaurant we chose had just come over to Cuenca from India and didn’t speak any Spanish yet, so he was thrilled when we went in and he could speak to us in English!
We also visited a great little bar called Inca Lounge and Bistro that has great views over the river and the city, as well as cheap happy hour deals – so unsurprisingly, it was full of tourists and expats! We only had drinks and didn’t end up eating there, but we definitely had food envy of all the meals that we saw.
Another great thing to do when visiting Cuenca is to take a trip out to Cajas National Park. It’s fairly easy to get a bus out there from the city, and the park is raved about due to its natural beauty and array of different walking trails. When we arrived there one chilly morning – the altitude makes the park pretty cold (at its highest it’s 4,450m), so it’s definitely wise to layer up – we were greeted at the registry office, where we had to sign in with our passport details (presumably in case we disappeared?) and one of the park officials showed us a map with all the different trails. As it was a cloudy, rainy day he suggested we take one of the easier trails, and we were happy to follow his advice.
Cajas is really a stunning national park, and we were struck by how much it looked and felt like we were hiking through the Scottish highlands – it was cold, misty and mysterious looking, scattered with craggy hills and otherworldly plants and forests. Despite picking one of the supposedly easier trails it turned out to be quite a challenging hike, though this was mainly because the damp weather had turned most of the path into a mud slick. Dan and Michelle still thoroughly enjoyed the experience – my terrible balance even on solid footing meant that I spent the majority of the hike sliding down hills on my bum, so I enjoyed it a little less, but thankfully had nothing worse than muddy trousers to complain of at the end!
After Cajas we had one night to pack up our stuff (all of which, in my case, was now coated by a layer of mud) before saying goodbye to Ecuador (sob) and moving on to the next country on our trip: Peru.