My Introduction to Cuenca, Ecuador

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Shortly after my life went tits-up in Peru, I reached out to a long-time online friend and travel blogging colleague who had recently acquired residency in Ecuador. She was living in Cuenca Ecuador, and given that Ecuador was on my list of places to explore, I emailed her for some intel.

She responded with an enthusiastic offer to house-sit for her and take care of her cat, since she was planning to explore Eastern Europe for almost two months in September.

And so….here I am, living in Cuenca, Ecuador!

Here is some information and my first impression of this (spoiler alert: very cool) place!

This post was originally written in 2016, and has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.

I recently arrived to Cuenca, Ecuador, where I'm house-sitting for a couple of months. Here's some basic information & first impressions of this cool city! #Cuenca #Ecuador #EcuadorTravel #SouthAmerica #FullTimeTravel #TravelPlanning #BudgetTravel #TravelTips #TravelLifestyleGuides #ExpatLife #HouseSitting #DigitalNomads #LocationIndependence
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Cuenca, Ecuador: Basic Information

As soon as I arrived in Cuenca, I saw many similarities to Cusco, Peru – from the architecture, to the altitude, and general way of life. With a population of about 500,000 it’s a bit larger than Cusco, but here in the centre of the historical district where I’m staying, it actually feels smaller. This could be due partly to the ease of navigation, with streets organized in a lovely grid pattern and without too many hills to climb (much unlike Cusco).

The historical centre (known affectionately as El Centro) is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, due to the prolific historical buildings (of the Spanish colonial era), and so being here, and living here, feels kind of….special.

Geography and Climate in Ecuador

the river in Cuenca

There are four main rivers (the confluence of which led to Cuenca’s name), all of which ultimately flow into the Amazon. The most significant river, four blocks from my place, is the Tomebamba, which marks the south end of the historical centre. It’s very walkable, with lots of green space to enjoy – something I’m very grateful for.

Due to the altitude of 2,500 metres (8,200 feet) above sea level, the temperatures are relatively steady throughout the year. Known for its “eternal spring” climate, Cuenca’s daily highs can get up to about 20 degrees Celsius, but the daily mean is closer to 15 degrees, with nightly lows around (or below) 10 degrees.

Speaking of green space, Cuenca is interspersed with parks. By the river there is a lovely little park, adorned with wooden sculptures and even a “playground” for adults with various forms of exercise equipment.

And given the altitude, the strength of the sun is not to be underestimated. I suffered more than a few sunburns in Peru because of this, and thus, I was intrigued by this “sun meter” to warn people of its strength on any given day.

A sun meter in Cuenca's park


Where I Live

El Centro, in Cuenca, Ecuador

I’m staying in El Centro, which, although a bit noisy with traffic and weekend discos, makes for a convenient walk to everything I need.

leaning out my window in Cuenca Ecuador

I’m taking care of a sweet little cat, who loves cuddling and spends most of her time on my lap while I work. And whenever I need to stretch my legs, I’m a short walk from Parque Calderon, with its famed cathedrals, lots of restaurants, and a beautifully manicured park.

Parque Calderon, Cuenca, Ecuador


Where to Stay in Cuenca

If you don’t have accommodation lined up in the form of a house-sitting gig, and you’re not planning on staying long enough to walk around in search of an apartment, then check out what Booking.com has to offer below! Personally, I have stayed (many times) at Del Parque Hotel and Suites which is oh so perfectly located overlooking the main square. The rooms are gigantic, well-appointed, and charming. 

Booking.com


Street Markets in Cuenca

Flower vendors are abundant throughout Cuenca, especially at the main market near Parque Calderon, which National Geographic named the #1 outdoor flower market in the world. For such a title, I would have expected it to be larger than it is, but the abundance of orchids, roses, and exotic flowers makes up for its size.

Cuenca flower market
flower vendor at the market

I’m also close to the main fresh market (mercado), a three storey building with fresh meat and fish in the basement, prolific fruits and vegetables on the main floor, and prepared food on the upper level. Much like Peru, mercados like these are full of stalls run by various mamitas and overflowing with whatever is in season at the moment – which is a lot. My morning smoothies (which I prepare at home) are filled with any combination of papaya, mango, guava, strawberries, blackberries, soursop, avocado, citrus, and more. I purchased more than a week’s worth of exotic fruit and vegetables for just under $10.

sorry for the fuzz...but you get the picture - a whole roast pig!

Upstairs at the market, you’ll find pigs. A lot of them. If you like pork, don’t be turned off by these beauties on blatant display, because a $3 plate of hornado will fill you up with pork, corn (called mote), delicious fried potato cakes (called Llapingacho – an Ecuadorian staple in the highlands), and some veggies.

plate of hornado


Cost of Living in Cuenca, Ecuador

Although Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar, it’s generally (thankfully) not synonymous with U.S. prices (as seems to be the case in Panama). You can get a local lunch for $2-4, and a fresh juice concoction at the market for 50 cents. After currency conversion, I found the prices to be generally in line with Peru (though at times more expensive).

From what research I’ve done so far, a 1-bedroom apartment in El Centro will cost about $350/month (prices vary with location, size, and amenities), and a bit less outside of El Centro. This lower cost of living, along with a relatively easy immigration process and decent healthcare, has made Ecuador (and Cuenca in particular) a hot destination for expat retirees.

(See also: The Irony of Expat Life; Pros and Cons)

Things to do in Cuenca

On the main square, you’ll find a few double-decker tour buses offering tours. I highly recommend taking one of these tours to orient yourself to the city! It’s a great way to cover a lot of territory, learn about the history and people, and access some great vantage points for pictures. Here are some other ideas:

Getting to Cuenca

At the time of writing this, Cuenca’s airport was closed for renovations (it’s open again), so I was relegated to taking the bus from Guayaquil – Ecuador’s largest city, near the coast. I was initially not looking forward to the 4-hour ($8) bus ride, but was pleasantly surprised with the scenery, which changed frequently as we climbed from sea level to Cuenca’s relatively high altitude. We went through humid planes, cloud forests, and eventually high Andean vistas that reminded me very much of Peru.

scenery near Guayaquil, Ecuador
Starting off in the humid planes near Guayaquil
high Andean plateaus and valleys near Cuenca
…And eventually reaching the high Andean plateaus and valleys

But you needn’t go through the hassle of the bus ride from Guayaquil (which isn’t a particularly exciting place to visit anyway); you can fly directly into Cuenca, and the airport is a stone’s throw from the hustle and bustle of life in Cuenca Ecuador.

My Two Months in Cuenca

I don’t have a tick-list of things to do while I’m here, other than to experience the daily pace of life, visit with some friends (both old and new, local and expat), continue to improve my Spanish language skills, and learn about the ways and means of life in this beautiful part of the world.

I also have an ever-growing list of online and business tasks to accomplish, and quite frankly, I’m still getting back up on my feet after my life upheaval in Peru earlier this year. So for me, this house-sitting gig in Cuenca is the perfect chance for a continued personal retreat, introspection, and a bit (okay, more than a bit) of work for good measure.

Given my location independent lifestyle, I am very blessed to set up shop wherever in the world I choose. To have this opportunity to live in Ecuador for a few months is something I’m grateful for every day.

You May Also Like…

My Experience After Two Months: Cuenca Ecuador: A City of Confusing Contrast

How To Travel On A Budget: 14 Creative Tips That No One Talks About

The Creative Guide to Free or Cheap Accommodation

Cuenca Ecuador is a gorgeous UNESCO world heritage site and very livable city. Here's what you need to know. #Cuenca #Ecuador #expatlife #SouthAmerica #travellifestyle #traveltips #costofliving #TheProfessionalHobo
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17 thoughts on “My Introduction to Cuenca, Ecuador”

  1. So glad you have the time and wherewithal to evaluate and come to terms with that “tits-up” experience – especially while housesitting. Canadian retirees and housesitters ourselves (since 2009) we’re grateful for all this incredible lifestyle brings. Wishing you all the best and looking forward to more posts and pics from Cuenca. Cheers!

    Reply
    • Hey Dianne,
      Thanks for the support! Looks like you’re having a fabulous time house-sitting. Are you still in Ontario? Where to before Miami in December? (BTW – I just might be around Miami myself myself come December….)

      Reply
      • Hi Nora, we have a small home in northern Ontario that works well with our current lifestyle and being retirees that permanent residence makes life easy – which is why we always recommend folks travel BEFORE they reach the big 65 – it’s SO much easier and has fewer restrictions based on health, old age, etc, blah, blah, blah! Our plans for December are a little uncertain at the moment. We may not be in Miami until February (this housesit does not have animals) which makes it more flexible. We’re certainly looking forward to your take on living in Cuenca. We’re definitely interested in experiencing it ourselves.

        Reply
    • Hey Tim,
      It’s funny – I’d heard that Ecuador was affordable, but was skeptical with the U.S. dollar being the prevailing currency. But overall it is quite affordable – although in general, still a bit more than Peru.

      Reply
  2. Hey, a friend sent me this as I just arrived, boyfriend and dog in tow just a couple days ago. Everything you said is exactly what ive experienced so far. And we’re staying not too far from you.

    Wondering. Have any favorite bars or restaurants so far that you can recommend?

    Reply
    • Hey Desiree – Welcome to Cuenca! (Like I have any ambassadorial rights to say “welcome”, but I’ll do so anyway)! 😉
      I’m discovering a few places here and there….no bars as yet – I’m not much of a drinker. But some nice restaurants on the river, cafes in town, and a great Mexican place but I can’t for the life of me remember where it is! Let’s talk…

      Reply
  3. Thanks for the report on apartment costs. I’ve been toying with gutting out the residency program down there, considering the recent investment in the healthcare infrastructure, and wasn’t sure what to believe in terms of cost of living.

    Looking forward to more posts and thanks for sharing! (Also, glad to read that you are in a better place).

    Reply
    • Hey Ellen,
      The cost of living here in Cuenca (and I would suspect to a similar degree throughout Ecuador) is a bit mixed. Rent seems cheap (if you scout out the deals), and shopping at markets and eating the “menu of the day” for lunch at restaurants is cheap.
      But then you can go to a coffee shop, and spend $3 on a latte. And it isn’t even just “gringo” places either! I had coffee at a restaurant filled with nothing but Ecuadorians, and the prices across the board were about the same as you would pay in the States.
      So, like many places I guess, beware of what you spend and where, and you can live inexpensively here.
      Good luck with the potential move!

      Reply
  4. Hi Nora, (Julie from the Grenada chapter)
    Always follow your travels with interest and I suspect that Ecuador is a good fit. I loved it. Your take on destinations is usually spot on. Curious about what you think of the ex pat lifestyle there ?? I wish you well and I know that you will find your ‘just right’ spot when it calls your name.

    Reply
    • Hey Julie,
      Yes, Ecuador overall feels pretty good as a place to hang out (I’m making no commitments larger than that at this time!).

      Apparently in Cuenca, expats represent just 1% of the population, so the place isn’t overrun by expats by any stretch. There seems to be some dissension towards a type of expat in Cuenca (and possibly Ecuador as a whole); the kind who makes no attempt to integrate or appreciate the local culture/language and instead is only living here to take advantage of a lower cost of living. I haven’t seen too many of these people, as they apparently mostly live in a slightly sequestered community called “Gringolandia”. But I’ve chatted with a few expats around where I’m staying who don’t have many nice things to say about that breed of expat.
      But, in a country that is relatively close to the States, with open arms and an easy emigration process for retirees, I guess it’s to be expected.

      Reply
  5. Hi Nora,

    I’m in Cuenca now, too. I’m north or El Centro but generally walk down to one of the parks or the Tomebamba every day. I’m here till the end of October, and if it doesn’t feel like an invasion of privacy, would really like to meet you (for coffee or a walk, perhaps?) before I leave. I love your blog and follow your posts carefully. I’m gently edging my way into a slow travel lifestyle and Cuenca has been a great early step for me.

    Reply
  6. Hi Nora. I’m heading down to Cuenca in mid-March. I was even entertaining the idea of a residency visa, but should wait and “kick the tires” first as it sounds like there are lots of places to hang ones hat. I’m 63, and retired, but still have plenty of miles left on this chassis. I too planned on looking in El Centro area and looking about from there. Any suggestions as to a “slightly out of town” area that still has parks and lots of walking areas ?

    Reply
    • Hi Brinley,
      I think visiting first and seeing how the place feels before applying for residency is a good idea. However it’s always good to know what the residency requirements are so that if you need to bring special paperwork from home, you can come armed and ready.
      I’m not familiar enough with Cuenca’s surrounding areas to know what will suit you best, but I will say that south of the river (still in Cuenca but outside of El Centro), there are lots of parks and walking areas that could fit the bill for you.
      I would suggest getting in touch with my friend Dyanne of TravelnLass, who I house-sat for, and who is retired with a residency visa there. I suspect she’ll be a treasure trove of information for you! http://www.travelnlass.com/

      Reply

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