Top 5 things to do in Cuenca
I spent a month in the city of Cuenca in the highlands of Ecuador. Its centre is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site due to an abundance of beautiful colonial buildings. However, even looking away from the city at the surrounding imposing mountains may leave you awe-struck. Here are my top recommendations for a day or two in Cuenca.
This is the centre of Cuenca, the beating heart of the city. Plaza Calderón is a beautiful square dotted with trees and benches perfect for watching the world go by. Shoe-shining kids will nag for work, ice-cream sellers serve passers-by and elderly men gather to chat. Traditionally dressed women in Panama hats, colourful skirts, long plaited hair and carrying their child or groceries on their back will stride by every few minutes. The square is bordered by the small white Old Cathedral on one side and the large New Cathedral on the other.
A short walk from the centre of Cuenca the Pumapungo museum serves as a fantastic overview of Ecuadorian culture, showcasing the traditional lifestyles and dress of different indigenous groups within the country. For me the most fascinating, yet gruesome, display was the collection of tsantas, shrunken human heads. The Shuar tribe would take the head of defeated enemies, cut the skin away from the skull and tan it like a hide. Inserting hot rocks and sand would cause the skin to shrink and dry out while keeping the features intact. The deceased’s hair is kept attached, while their mouth is sewn shut. The museum also houses the ruins of Tomebamba, the original city that Cuenca is built on, where you can also get up close to a few of the resident llamas.
Mirador de Turi
If you want a great view of the city then the Mirador de Turi is the place to go. A tiring walk up lots of steps or just jump on the open top bus tour from the central square Plaza Calderón. For $5 you get a narrated tour of the city plus a taste of canelazo, a traditional hot drink made of sugar cane alcohol and cinnamon.
Take a stroll along one of the rivers that forms part of the city’s official name, Santa Ana de los cuatro ríos de Cuenca. The Tomebamba divides the city into new and old, but numerous bridges and pathways on both sides make this a pleasant place to walk or sit on the grass banks for a picnic.
Cuenca is well-known as being one of the best places to try the local delicacy of guinea pig, known as cuy. You’ll see the little fellas skinned and impaled on sticks as they are spit-roasted over coals. I found the meat to be quite greasy, yet pretty tasty with lovely crispy skin. If you can get past the fact that you’re eating a beloved childhood pet then teamed with mote (corn) and potatoes it will make a filling meal for two.