Bryan + Dena’s Cuenca (Ecuador)

Bryan and Dena Haines sold their ad agency, their home and everything they owned that wouldn’t fit in a few bags of luggage and moved their young family to Cuenca, Ecuador (not to be confused with its namesake in Spain). Check out the Haines’ insider’s guide to this undersung highlands gem before you plan your next trip — and continue to follow their adventures on their personal blog, Gringos Abroad. If you’ve been to Cuenca already or live there, please share your own thoughts about the city in the comments section below.

Cuenca is My City

The first place I take a visitor from out of town is Parque Calderon. It is beautiful — and a great way to see the city. There are awesome cafes and bakeries on every street.

When I crave amazing pizza I always go to Tutto Freddo. It isn’t a pizza shop — in fact, they’re famous for their ice cream, but they also make the best (and cheapest) personal-sized pizzas around. It’s less than $5 for an 8″ made-to-order pizza and bottle of coke.

To escape the beautiful colonial architecture I head to Mall del Rio, Cuenca’s largest commercial area — a palace of steel, glass and concrete complete with a multiplex theater, bowling alley, and huge food court (they even have a Burger King).

For complete quiet, I can hide away in Paradise Park. Well not complete quiet, but just about as good as it gets in a city. It is super relaxing — with little kids and families playing and a small river running through it.

If you come to my city, get your picture taken with the flower vendors at the flower market off of Parque Calderon. The setting is beautiful and they are quite willing to pose for a photo (especially if you purchase some flowers). One lady even agreed to be filmed when we were shooting the House Hunters International episode.

If you have to order one thing off the menu from Creta it has to be the filet mignon. Good beef is hard to find here — and it’s the best I’ve had yet.

La Victoria is my one-stop shop for great electronics (Cuenca’s version of Best Buy — much smaller but still the best selection around).

Locals know to skip gringo pricing and check out the real prices instead. It has long been said that there are two economies here. The “gringo price” is often offered in response to skin color and frequently depends on your (in)ability to communicate in Spanish. After a while you will learn that taxis never cost $10 and seldom $5. And that 5 apples don’t cost $3 like back home (maybe $1).

When I’m feeling cash-strapped I go on the bus ($0.25), buy some Yuca Bread ($0.15 ea), sit on a bench in Parque Calderon and people watch. My whole family can do this for less than $4.00.

Photo ops in my city include the old town architecture, flower market and Parque Calderon (yes, again). The best vantage points are from the restaurant above Fruitalados and from Turi, a look-off south of the city.

If my city were a celebrity it’d be Johnny Depp — sophisticated yet quirky and a little eccentric.

The most random thing about my city is the weather. No one knows if or when it will rain or be extremely hot. You can start the day in an insulated jacket and scarf, be down to a t-shirt by noon and have a rain storm in the afternoon.

My city has the most soccer-obsessed men. Of course, the word obsessed is a little strong, but how else can you describe men who work 12 hours a day and find the time and energy to play soccer for an hour at lunch? And on Sunday. And after work. Yeah, soccer is pretty important here.

My city has the most friendly women. Friendly in a social way. They make conversation at grocery stores, restaurants and on the street. We seldom go into the downtown without chatting with a local Cuencana.

In my city, an active day outdoors involves running errands in the city (everyone walks everywhere). On a day off, almost everyone heads to a park. The city is surrounded by mountains, so there are some great hiking places around.

My city’s best museum is Museo Banco Central (Central Bank Museum). It has everything from a complete history of the country and its indigenous people, to restored Inca ruins and an amazing aviary. Count on spending 3 hours or more exploring and learning.

My favorite jogging/walking route is Avenida 12 de Abril. It has wide sidewalks that run along side the Tomebamba River. When it hits Solano Avenue, there’s a stone staircase that leads into the old town.

The mall food court is the spot for late-night eats. Because everything else shuts down by 7:00 p.m. The mall is open late — until 9:00 p.m.

To find out what’s going on at night and on the weekends read the local paper or check the the tourist bureau — they have a full listing of everything going on. There are lots of free events and concerts.

You can tell a lot about my city from a drive from the airport to the center. You’ll pass modern apartment buildings, luxury car dealers, adobe houses and colonial architecture.

You can tell if someone is from my city if they sing while they speak. Cuencanos are known throughout the country for “singing” as they speak. It is thought to be one of the most beautiful forms of Spanish.

In the spring, summer, fall and winter you should try to remember what season it is, because nothing changes here. Sometimes it rains a little more. Sometimes the sun is out more. The exception is November, when you can see the trees on Avenida Solano bloom into an amazing purple. Our daughter loves it.

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A hidden gem in my city is the hot baths in Baños (not the big one near Ambato; Cuenca has its own hot springs). You can swim in natural hot springs under the stars and then dine in a fine restaurant at Hosteria Duran. Just a 20 minute taxi ride from downtown.

For a great breakfast joint try one of the breakfast buffets at the expensive hotels. For $8 to $12 you can stuff yourself (not that I would know) on a huge variety of breads, cakes, fruit, eggs and breakfast meats — oh, and cereals, fresh juice and coffee. All with amazing service and luxurious surroundings — and for the price of fast food back home.

Just outside my city, you can visit Chordeleg. It is just a 45 minute drive and is famous for silver jewelry. There isn’t a woman in the world (or husband, right?) that wouldn’t love to spend a couple of hours looking at the handmade silver jewelry. And another plus? It’s very inexpensive.

If I didn’t live in a city, I’d live on the beach. It was a dream of mine before we moved to Ecuador, but we decided as a family that the Andes mountains fit us better. And guess what? We were right!

The best book about my city is one I have yet to find. All we have so far are travel guides, and they don’t represent Cuenca well at all. Somehow a list of restaurants and hotels isn’t very compelling for such a beautiful and diverse city. I’ve seen some Spanish ones downtown that I’ve got to check out.

When I think about my city, the song that comes to mind is “Beautiful Day” by U2.

If you have kids, you won’t want to miss the $1.50 DVD stores and all the ice cream shops. Gourmet ice cream for $2.00 or less. It’s a kids heaven.

Roasting cuy (guinea pig) and pigs on every street corner could only happen in my city. A little shocking to see at first, they are a familiar part of life here. No, I haven’t eaten the street food yet. Maybe next year…

My city should be featured on your cover or website because it is a fabulous jewel that deserves more attention than it gets. If someone is planning a first time trip to South America they should start in Cuenca and get their Latin legs. It’s like South America for beginners.

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