Enchanted by Cuenca, Ecuador

Handmade alpaca blankets, gloves, and socks and other souvenirs can be found in several markets around town

Located in the Andes Mountains, the city of Cuenca, Ecuador, holds an old-world charm where the confluence of the Spanish Inquisition and native traditions transformed this high-altitude pueblo into the pulse of the country. Its narrow cobblestone streets are lined with panaderias, lavaderias, and heladerias (bakeries, laundromats, and ice cream parlors), where everyone from indigenous women to well-dressed businessmen gather. Spiritual cleanses are performed in the marketplaces and guinea pigs are considered a delicacy. This is a city where wild dogs rule, drivers are ruthless, and good beer is cheap.

It is hard to believe Cuenca is the third largest city in Ecuador; compared to the more populous capital Quito and coastal hub Guayaquil, Cuenca is pin-sized. With roughly 350,000 residents and a compact city center, this enchanting Ecuadorian city makes the list of must-see places in this accessible country roughly the size of Wyoming. A few days here is enough to get a feel for what it is all about and see all of the major sites.

During my travels in South America I not only spent the most time in Cuenca, but this city was also my first stop and a perfect introduction to the continent. A place of few bells and whistles but plenty of culture, Cuenca (pronounced kweng-kah) offers more than a dozen bustling markets, a moderate climate, a variety of restaurants (including vegetarian options and one vegan café), and top-notch travel agencies to help you navigate it all.

See the Sights

Booking outings with a travel agency is a great way to see the city, meet local guides, and interact with other travelers. Many of the agencies in Cuenca have similar prices for their excursions and often share freelancing guides, meaning no matter who you book with you will mostly likely have the same outing. I booked both my horseback riding trek and hike in Cajas National Park through Terra Diversa. Both day trips were top-notch, safe, and memorable. If you enjoy horseback riding, this is the place to do it! Ride through the green hills just outside the city, pass by haciendas and small villages, and gallop down dirt roads. Lunch is even included. Make sure to bring a jacket; sitting at just under 10,000 feet, the park can get quite chilly.

El Cajas National Park is a must see for outdoor enthusiasts, bird watchers, and animal lovers

Learn the Language

Cuenca is one of the best places in South America to learn Spanish. Private classes are a steal (starting around $9 per hour), and the Spanish spoken in the city is very clear and easy to understand. There are several institutions around town that offer a variety of group and private lessons along with cooking and tango classes and weekly excursions. My school of choice was Amauta, a centrally located establishment housed in a historical, Spanish style building with young, mostly female teachers. The school can also arrange for home-stays during your time of study. (After a month of living with a family and taking private lessons, I learned more Spanish than in my two years of high school classes!)

Visit Galapagos

An ideal place to shop around for a last minute Galapagos cruise, Cuenca has a handful of tourist agencies (agencies de viaje) to help you plan the ultimate wildlife vacation (same goes for both Quito and Guayaquil). If you plan on stopping by the city prior to heading to the islands, shop around for the best prices. All the operators work with different cruise lines in Galapagos and have competitive and outstanding last-minute deals that can easily save you thousands on your cruise or make otherwise wallet-draining options much more affordable. Prices range from $1,200 to upwards of $6,000 for a week cruising around the islands so make sure to do your research before you dole out your savings. Nervous about dropping major dough on the experience? Don’t be. This is an adventure you will never forget. It is 110 percent worth it.

Try the Cuisine

The line between pet and food might not be so clear when you venture into Ecuador. These loving people love their food, especially guinea pigs. These cuddly creatures look like giant versions of the ones we grew up with as pets, and many tourists find themselves digging into one of these cuys at some point during their visit. If chowing down on a whole, roasted guinea pig (feet, head, and teeth included) doesn’t make you drool, there are several veg-friendly restaurants in and around Cuenca that serve hearty and authentic lunches and dinners. The best, and admittedly the most Western, is Nectar Vegan Café, the sole vegan establishment in town. Nectar Café is open for lunch from noon until 3 p.m. and serves various meal options, though the quickest and most economical route is to stick to the almuerzo, a set menu that changes daily. My vegan lunch started with seasoned popcorn and salsa with lentil soup followed by vegetable stir-fry stew, a salad with creamy herb dressing, and fresh berry juice. And for dessert, I had a sliced apple with a light caramel sauce. Delish!

Cobblestone streets and Spanish-style architecture give an old-world charm to Cuenca’s historic center

After several days in Cuenca, you will be well introduced into the culture of South America and have an even better grasp of what life is like in the Andes. Where to next? Try visiting the bustling capital city of Quito, head to the land of waterfalls in Baños, or take a short plane ride to the paradisiacal Galapagos Islands.