1. Adj.: Describing a person born between 1 Jan. 1946 and 31 Dec. 1964
2. Adj.: Description of a person, place or thing possessing Baby Boomer je ne sais quoi
3. See also, Boomer, Esq.: A Baby Boomer who is also a licensed attorney (See, e.g., About).

Plan Your Visit to Cuenca, Ecuador, A UNESCO World Heritage Site

by Suzanne Fluhr on March 11, 2018 · 27 comments

Cuenca, Ecuador street scene

Before planning your visit to Cuenca, Ecuador (a UNESCO World Heritage site), be warned that quite a few people who set out to “visit” Cuenca end up moving there.

Cuenca, Ecuador from the Turi overlook, MIrador de Turi

The city of Cuenca viewed from the Turi overlook (Mirador de Cuenca). The city’s iconic landmark, the domes of the New Cathedral in the historic city center, are visible in the center of the photo. From this vantage point, it’s possible to see that Cuenca is built in an Andean valley bowl.

Dinner with Dyanne Kruger in Cuenca, Ecuador

Dinner with boomer travel blogger, Dyanne Kruger, in Cuenca, Ecuador.

When we travel, I enjoy meeting up with other boomer travel bloggers. A few years ago, we had dinner with Dyanne Kruger of Traveln Lass in Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand. Since becoming an empty nester, Dyanne has been a happy rolling stone. Most recently, we shared a meal with her in Cuenca, Ecuador where she has lived for three years — much to her surprise.

Dyanne moved to Cuenca, Ecuador in 2014, never expecting to remain for long. She’s still there along with many other expats who have “discovered” that the people, the climate, cost of living, and decent health care make it an attractive place to live on a first world retirement income. According to US News and World Report, by 2015 she was one of 12,000 expats making Cuenca their home, the majority from the United States.

Getting to Cuenca

With an urban population of approximately 400,000 (2015), Cuenca is Ecuador’s third largest city. It is approximately 300 miles (473 kms) south of Quito, Ecuador’s capital city. From Quito, it is an 8 to 10 hour bus ride through the Andes to Cuenca or an easy 40 minute plane ride. (Well, it’s easy if TAME Airlines doesn’t cancel your flight.)

Flying into Cuenca, Ecuador on TAME Airlines

After an unexpected extra 8 hours in the Quito, Ecuador Airport, this was a welcome (and pretty) sight as we descended into Cuenca.

Like Quito, Cuenca is in the majestic Andes Mountains. At an altitude of approximately 8,400 feet, Cuenca is almost 1,000 feet lower in altitude than Quito. We live on a coastal plain in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I tolerated the altitude in Cuenca when I was walking on level ground, but any kind of incline or stairs had me huffing and puffing.

Where We Stayed in Cuenca, Hotel Casa Ordoñez

At the advice of another travel blogger friend, Mike Hinshaw, the Nomadic Texan, we booked a room at the Hotel Casa Ordoñez. Mike told me he stayed there twice as he and his wife are also considering a move to Cuenca. (There’s a definite pattern here).

I knew Casa Ordoñez was a small, family run operation, so I was a little concerned when our arrival time was pushed to 9:00 p.m. thanks to our cancelled flight. I notified the owner, Alberto Ordoñez, by email from the Quito Airport and he promptly responded that he would be there to welcome us whenever we arrived.

Hotel Casa Ordonez, Cuenca, Ecuador

The interior courtyard of the Hotel Casa Ordoñez in Cuenca, Ecuador.

Casa Ordoñez is a short taxi ride from the small Cuenca Airport, costing us all of $1.80. The house has been in Alberto’s family since 1906. Alberto received an award from the local historical commission for a restoration that is true to the Spanish colonial style, one of three architectural styles present in Cuenca’s historical center.

Forty-seven dollars per night provided us with a large, clean, comfortable room with an ensuite bathroom, a flat screen TV with English language stations, good wifi, and a cooked two course breakfast each morning in the covered courtyard. The style is old world. A common living room/library is located on the second floor.

hotel room, hotel casa ordonez, cuenca, ecuador

Our first floor hotel room in Hotel Casa Ordoñez, a restored colonial Spanish house.

Alberto is a font of information about Cuenca and helped us plan our three day visit there. Although he indulged my desire to practice speaking Spanish, in fact, his English is perfectly fluent as he lived for many years in the United States, including a stint in the U.S. Navy.

A Plan for Your Visit to Cuenca, Ecuador

Start your day at Parque Calderón, the attractive central plaza in historic Cuenca. As is the case in many South American cities, this is where the Spanish city started in 1557 when the Spanish conquered the Inca settlement of Tomebamba. The Inca had taken control of the area only in the 1470’s after many years of fighting the indigenous Cañari people who are thought to have settled in the area in about 500 A.D.

Plaza Calderon Cuenca, Ecuador

A corner of Plaza Calderon, the main square of historic Cuenca, Ecuador.

Take a “Free” Walking Tour of the Cuenca Historic City Center

I think it is safe to say that “free” walking tours are now a “thing” in many world cities. The premise is that you show up at a specified place and time, are taken on a group walking tour of several hours, and then you pay what you want to at the end.

We opted to do the free walking tour of Cuenca on our last day there. Obviously, it would make more sense to start your stay with such a tour. The tour met across the street from the tourist office in Parque Calderón, the main square of old Cuenca.

By the 10:00 a.m. start time, a group of about 25 people had gathered. There were two guides, one for Spanish speakers and one for English speakers. Unfortunately, about 20 people in the group needed the tour in English. At Mr. Excitement’s whining urging, I started out the tour with him and the English speakers, but soon switched to the small group with the Spanish speaking guide.

Cuenca, Ecuador street scene

A street scene in the historic colonial center of Cuenca, Ecuador with the blue and white domes of the New Cathedral in the background.

Cuenca woman in traditional dress

It is not unusual to see people in traditional Quechua attire in Cuenca. The “Panama” hat is worn by both men and women.

The tour lasted about 2 and a half hours. Although both groups ended their walks at a Panama hat factory and store, Hormero Ortega, it turns out we went on almost completely different tours. We each thought our tours were worthwhile—not the best “free” tour we’ve ever been on, but a decent introduction to the historic old city.

The reviews of the free walking tour of Cuenca on TripAdvisor range from excellent to horrendous. I think it very much matters who your guide is. OTOH, since you pay what you want to at the end and can bail at any time, it’s probably worth giving it a try.

Factoid: “Real” Panama hats are not from Panama. They’re from Ecuador and are worn by both men and women.

Parque Calderón, Museum of the Old Cathedral (La Catedral Vieja) and the “New” Cathedral

The main plaza of Cuenca’s historic center, Parque Calderón, was within easy walking distance of Hotel Casa Ordoñez. The plaza has benches for a rest and one evening, we happened across a lively performance by a singer at the bandstand. (Mr. and Mrs. Excitement may have indulged in a little Latin dance in the darkness, but they’re pretty sure there’s no photographic evidence.)

There are two cathedrals on the square, but the original, started in the 16th century, is now a museum and concert hall. The museum is not extensively curated, but contains some interesting decorative colonial Spanish ecclesiastical art.

Side chapel in the Old Cathedral Museum, Cuenca, Ecuador, Museum of the Old Cathedral

A side chapel in the deconsecrated Old Cathedral in the historic center of Cuenca, Ecuador.

The “new” cathedral (the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception) is considerably larger than the “old” cathedral and dominates the square. Indeed, it is a recognized symbol of Cuenca. The cathedral has three towers with striking blue and white domes.

interior new cathedral in cuenca ecuador

The main altar in the massive “new” cathedral in Cuenca, Ecuador.

As impressive as they are, the domed towers were supposed to be even taller. A mistake by the architect meant they had to be lower than intended in order to be supported by the cathedral’s foundation. I hate it when that happens. The interior displays pink Carrara marble and stained glass windows. The cathedral feels massive and was designed to hold 9,000 people.

Museo Pumapungo, an Ethnographic Museum

We spent most of our first day walking down the unimaginatively appropriately named Calle Larga (Long Street) from Parque Calderón to the Museo Pumapungo, owned and sponsored by the Bank of Ecuador in collaboration with the Ecuadoran Ministry of Culture. Along the way, we passed several other museums.

The first floor of the museum had an exhibit of modern Ecuadoran painting. Most of the second floor of the museum is devoted to reconstructed houses, diaoramas and written material about the groups of indigenous people living in various parts of Ecuador. Note: Shrunken head alert.

Diorama in the Museo Pumapango, Cuenca, Ecuador

One of many dioramas in the ethnographic Pumapango Museum on Calle Larga in Cuenca, Ecuador. (The museum’s exterior is an incongruous bunker-like poured concrete structure in a brutalist architectural style.)

I found the museum worthwhile, but almost all the written explanations are in Spanish only.

The part of the museum we enjoyed most are the Inca ruins behind the museum although they are not extensive. Tomebamba was thought to have been largely disassembled by the Inca before the Spanish arrived. The Spanish used many remaining stones for their own construction purposes.

The ruins are atop a hill from which there is a good view of Cuenca’s “new” city and surrounding mountains.

Cuenca, Ecuador, New Town

A view from the Inca terraces behind the Pumapango Museum. Cuenca’s “new town” is across the Tomebamba River, one of Cuenca’s four rivers. There is a walking path along the river.

From the ruins, we walked down a path along Inca terraces leading to the Tomebamba River. Mr. Excitement was entranced by the llamas (or were they alpacas?) grazing on the terraces. Apparently, the feeling was mutual.

Steve and alpaca, Cuenca, Ecuador

Proof that you can be married to someone for almost 36 years and not know they have an affinity for alpacas (or is it a llama?).  Alpacas graze on the old Inca terraces behind the Pumapanga Ethnographic Museum.

We walked back into the historic center of Cuenca along the Tomebamba River, the most important of four rivers that gave Cuenca its original Spanish name, Santa Ana de los Cuatro Ríos de Cuenca (Saint Ann of the Four Rivers of Cuenca). From the river it is a lung busting walk up several flights of stairs to get back to Calle Larga.

Lunch on Parque Calderón at El Cantaro Restaurant

We walked back to the Center of Cuenca along the river, ending up at El Cantaro, a restaurant serving “typical Cuenca” fare on Parque Calderón, the main central square.

plato tipico cuenca, ecuador

Mr. Excitment’s “plato tipico”, featuring a rather tasteless pork cutlet, mote pillo (hominy and eggs), murcilla (blood sausage), and a fried yucca patty.

We violated the usual rule against eating at restaurants located in tourist areas with menus in multiple languages. Having said that, the restaurant was mostly full of Ecuadorans and the food was similar to what I remembered from living in Bogota, Colombia 40+ years ago: a small salad, a piece of grilled meat (Mr. Excitement had pork and I had chicken which were indistinguishable in flavor and texture), white rice, yucca and potatoes. Mr. E’s platter also had a piece of murcilla (Andean blood sausage) and mote pillo (large kernals of hominy (corn) with egg). A restaurant like this is a chance to try comida tipica (typical food) if you don’t feel comfortable venturing into one of the neighborhood covered markets.

Our Other Food Experiences in Cuenca:

For the rest of our dining out meals in Cuenca, we relied on recommendations from our expat friend, Dyanne. Having been less than wowed by typical Ecuadoran cuisine, we turned to restaurants serving “foreign” food.

Pho Vietnamita, Casa del Fideos

We enjoyed both a lunch and dinner at Pho Vietnamita, Casa de Fideos (House of Noodles). Instead of consulting Alberto, we used a map to plan our own walking route to this hole in the wall restaurant. Our  route took us through a dark, poorer neighborhood. However, we walked back to our hotel using a different better advised route. (Note: When in a new place, anywhere in the world, it’s best to ask a local about where and how to get to places.)

Vietnamita, Casa del Fideos, Cuenca, Ecuador

What to eat in Cuenca, Ecuador. Why, Vietnamese pho, of course.

Attesting to the fact that Cuenca has been “discovered” by the world, as we enjoyed our Vietnamese pho, we chatted with the restaurant’s owner and chef, a Filipino by way of Canada; the waiter from Venezuela; two other Americans from California; and a tour guide from England. (Tip: Order a medium size bowl of pho. Medium was too big to finish. Large must be humongous.) I craved soup in Cuenca. The dry air at altitude is very dehydrating.

Fabianos Pizzeria

We walked to Fabianos from our hotel through Parque Calderón to meet Dyanne for dinner. While it is certainly possible to have pizza at Fabianos, it is a full menu Italian restaurant. At Dyanne’s recommendation, I ordered and enjoyed chicken piccata (a thin boneless chicken breast sauteed with lemon and capers over pasta). The restaurant is clearly a favorite of English-speaking ex-pats. Dyanne knew several other diners.


Although it is possible to have a worthwhile visit to Cuenca with one very full day for sightseeeing, it is worth spending extra time to be able to do day trips outside Cuenca city and to absorb the city vibe.

Have you been to Cuenca, Ecuador? Do you have other suggestions or advice to share?

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Ed Holmes March 11, 2018 at 3:00 pm

Looks like a great place to visit, but I don’t think I’d want to live there.


Jeff & Crystal Bryant March 12, 2018 at 7:58 am

What a delightful article on Cuenca, Equador. The pictures show how fascinating the city is, and what a bonus to see the llama. Thanks for sharing.


Donna Janke March 12, 2018 at 12:32 pm

Cuenca looks like a very interesting place to visit. Casa Ordoñez looks delightful. I suspect the altitude would take some getting used to. Used to the flatness of the prairies and lower altitudes, I’d be huffing and puffing on inclines too.


Mike Hinshaw March 12, 2018 at 1:12 pm

Thank you kindly young lady for mentioning my blog and reference for the Casa Ordoñez with Alberto and family. They run such a friendly operation it’s impossible not to like them. Alberto has gone out of his way to help this Baby Boomer I can’t count all of the times. He is genuine and runs a wonderful boutique hotel. We can’t wait to visit again. Thanks.


Carol Colborn March 12, 2018 at 1:20 pm

Casa Ordonez certainly looks and sounds like the place to stay when in Cuenca. And the alpacas (llamas) roaming around would be a great enticement. I wonder why people choose to live there if typical food isn’t that good? But I should wait for your other posts!


Suzanne Fluhr March 12, 2018 at 11:15 pm

There are plenty of food options beyond “typical” food, to wit, the Vietnamese and Italian restaurants we enjoyed.


Nan March 12, 2018 at 2:44 pm

I would love to have seen a picture of the exterior of Hotel Casa Ordoñez! That “new” cathedral is gorgeous – I love pink Carrara marble, but even more so stained glass windows. And dioramas? Yes, please (smile). I love your travel stories because they include so much detail – whhre to go, to sleep, and where (and not to) and what to eat! I feel like I just went on a trip!!


Suzanne Fluhr March 12, 2018 at 2:56 pm

Thanks, Nan. Casa Ordonez was kind of non-descript from the street which is how colonial Spanish architecture is—an unassuming outside, opening onto an inner sanctum. In Mexico and Spain, there are usually beautiful courtyards with flowers. I’m glad I’m contributing to armchair tourism, but I hope you and Alpha Hubby opt for a real trip sometime.


Carole Terwilliger Meyers March 12, 2018 at 9:11 pm

Having never been to Cuenca, I enjoyed this brief visit via your blog post. I’d love to see the Ethnographic Museum one day.


Kemkem March 13, 2018 at 6:57 am

I have yet to visit Cuenca. For some reason, it has somehow evaded it. Judging from the pictures and the fact that people end up moving there, I think l would like it very much. The new cathedral does indeed shine like a new penny and the Casa Ordonez sounds like a place l would enjoy staying at.


Doreen Pendgracs March 13, 2018 at 9:34 am

Great post, Suzanne. There is another ex-pat blogger who lives in Cuenca by the name of Carolyn Hamilton. I thought I had ‘met’ her via the Boomer TB group, but am not sure. We’ve not yet met in person. Love the pic of Mr. E and the llama.


Karen Warren March 13, 2018 at 3:21 pm

Interesting that so many people are considering relocating to Cuenca. It certainly looks fascinating, and a place to live well without stretching the budget.


Lyn aka The Travelling Lindfields March 13, 2018 at 11:18 pm

David and i have been thinking about planning a trip to Quito for some time now. After reading this I may add Cuenca to the itinerary. Thanks.


Suzanne Fluhr March 15, 2018 at 1:08 am

It’s a short flight from Quito, assuming you don’t have an 8 hour airport wait when TAME Airlines cancels your flight.


Rachel Heller March 16, 2018 at 11:46 am

I had heard of people retiring in Mexico and Costa Rica, but not Ecuador. I may at some point have to take a tour of potential retirement sites. I love the photo of the older church; it looks quirky!


Suzanne Fluhr March 16, 2018 at 1:13 pm

Sounds like a good theme for a tour. I’m ready to become a winter expat somewhere.


Linda March 17, 2018 at 7:29 pm

After reading your post and seeing the beautiful photos now I really want to visit.


Rebecca Forstadt Olkowski March 18, 2018 at 4:53 pm

I haven’t been to South America yet but would love to visit. Becoming an expat there is an interesting idea but I think I would feel isolated from the rest of the world. It sounds charming, though. I hope I get a chance to visit someday.


alison abbott March 18, 2018 at 10:05 pm

What a wonderful overview of Cuenca Suzanne. I’ve never been to Ecuador, but now you’ve made me curious. It looks like a charming city. Although I’m not anxious to experience high altitude again, everything else about this Unesco World Heritage site speaks to me. And I think you’re right-Mr. Excitement is connecting with that alpaca!


Kristin Henning March 20, 2018 at 2:55 am

In nearly a year in Ecuador, we never visited Cuenca. Practically UnAmerican of us. I had no idea the numbers had swelled to 12,000 expats in Cuenca.


Patti March 21, 2018 at 2:01 pm

I followed your trip via Facebook and enjoyed all of the photos, especially those of Mr./Dr. Excitement – the llama whisperer. South America is not on our travel radar, in part because of the altitude, but also because we feel we have barely scratched the European surface. One day though, we may make it south. Our son and DIL hiked Patagonia in January of 2017 and they loved the experience.

Had no idea there were so many expats in Cuenca. Interesting that so many are flocking south.


Suzanne Fluhr March 24, 2018 at 2:47 am

Maybe we can hike in Patagonia together. It’s on my bucket list.


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