Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2017 – Top Travel Adventures

Rodeo riding in Chile, a death road in Bolivia, hiking and trekking in Peru, on horseback through the Atacama, remote art in Argentina, and much, much more! Welcome to part 1 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2017 series, our guide to the Top Travel Adventures of the year. Part 2 covers the Best Hotels of 2017, part 3 covers the Best Food and Beverages of the year, and part 4 tells you all about our Top Travel Gear of the year.

Now, in no particular order, we present:

The Top Travel Adventures of 2017

Hike Totoro Canyon Bolivia

The hike into Vergel Canyon in Totoro National Park in Bolivia must be one of the easiest canyon hikes in the world.

Best easy canyon hike: Hiking to the bottom of a canyon is cool and, by definition, usually pretty hard work with long, steep descents and ascents. However, in Bolivia’s Totoro National Park you can get to a dramatic waterfall in the bottom of the dramatic Vergel Canyon on a well-made trail that’s not too long and not too steep. It took us about 30 minutes to tackle the approximately 850 steps from the rim walking at a casual pace and stopping to admire a pair of red-fronted macaws.


Hike Colca Canyon Condors Peru

Don’t forget to look up from the trail every now and then in Peru’s Colca Canyon for the chance to see Andean condors.

Best hard canyon hike: The Colca Canyon in Peru is massive so it follows that getting into and out of the canyon is going to require some serious hiking. Our three-day, two night Colca Canyon hike started with a relentless five-hour, 5,000 foot (1,540 meters) descent from the town of Cabanaconde on the rim down to Llahuar on the canyon floor. Hiking around in the canyon required more up and down, and getting out of the Colca Canyon from Sangalle back up to Cabanaconde required a climb of more than 5,000 feet pretty much straight up. Was it worth it? Check out our story about hiking in the Colca Canyon for Intrepid Travel.


Chilean rodeao media luna

Karen getting the hang of Chile’s demanding rodeo event.

Best rodeo: Rodeo in Chile is different. First of all, the ring is a media luna (half moon) not a full circle. Second of all, there’s really only one event which involves riding a Chilean stallion that’s galloping sideways while pushing a running cow into the wooden walls of the media luna with the horse’s chest. This is all done while wearing snazzy traditional gear including dinner-plate-sized spurs. While visiting some of the men who run the rodeo near San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, Karen was given a crash course in this riding technique by Don Ramon Bascur, then she was set loose in the media luna.


Salar de Uyuni Isla Incahuasi Bolivia

Isla Huacachina in the Uyuni Salt Flat in Bolivia.

Best salty adventure: The Uyuni Salt Flat in Bolivia is the largest salt flat in the world and its enormous expanse is mostly flat and white as far as the eye can see. However, there are some natural interruptions in the landscape. Cruzzani Tours at Hotel Luna Salada (which is made almost entirely out of salt blocks from the salt flat) took us to Isla Icanhuasi. After visiting a local salt harvester to see his low-tech process from salt flat to shopping bag, we drove onto the salt flat itself and Ivan, our driver, helped us take some wacky Uyuni photos with props and everything. Then it was on to Isla Incahuasi where our guide, Emmy, explained that the island is a coral rise that’s covered in cactus. A short walk to the top of the island delivered 360-degree views of the salt flat before returning to the vehicle so Ivan could drive us to another area of the salt flat where we had snacks and wine as the sunset.


Driving north yungas death road Bolivia

Heading down the Death Road in Bolivia.

Best death road: A short stretch of narrow, winding dirt road in Bolivia was dubbed The Death Road after hundreds lost their lives on it. Here’s what happened when we drove Bolivia’s Death Road.


San Pedro de Atacama horseback riding Valle del Muerte

On horseback across the Atacama.

Best horseback riding: The explora group of hotels in Chile and Peru pioneered the concept of luxury all-inclusive base camps and they did that by paying close attention to every detail, right down to breeding and training their own horses. At explora Atacama the stable is home to about 20 big, fit horses bred and trained to thrive in the high altitude desert conditions. Karen rode a lot while at explora Atacama and it was all amazing. If you’re an experienced rider, don’t miss the Cornises ride which includes a dramatic section straight down a massive sand dune.


Parque Puri Beter in San Pedro de Atacama

Hiking with horses in the Atacama.

Best non-horseback riding: Karen has been around horses since she was six years old, but during our visit to Parque Puri Beter in San Pedro de Atacama, part of the Tata Mallku Foundation, we got the chance to interact with horses in a brand new way by walking with them through the surrounding desert without halters or leads of any kind. The horses were let out as a herd and we followed on foot, going wherever they went at whatever pace they went. Before long we felt like we were just part of the herd in a way that was unique and powerful.


Floating Islands Lake Titicaca

Visiting some of the famous floating islands on Lake Titikaka in Peru.

Best floating island adventure: The owners of the Libertador hotel group in Peru also own a tour company called Venturia and a tour desk is located at most Libertador hotel lobbies. Venturia is the only tour company offering guided trips on Lake Titikaka in outrigger canoes. We took their Uros Tour in an outrigger to visit one of the famous floating islands on Lake Titikaka. Our guide, Yair, was born in Lima where he got deep into regattas with outrigger canoes (which are called Polynesian canoes in Peru). Yair brought outriggers, which are very stable and easy to paddle, to Lake Titikaka. Most tourists visit the lake’s islands, which are made by lashing together floating chunks of natural reed beds, in motor boats. However, we quietly paddled the outrigger through peaceful channels on the lake to reach Uros Island where we visited one family’s man-made island home. 


Train Lima to Huancayo Peru Ferrocarrill Central Andina

Riding the highest railway in the Americas in Peru.

Best adventure on rails: You don’t get on the tourist train which runs between Lima and Huancayo for the service, food, or amenities. The train, operated by Ferrocarrill Central Andina, is dirty (even in a tourist class car), staff members are surly, and the food is airplane grade. But the scenery and the numbers are spectacular. This train travels 214 miles (346 km) through the Andes past waterfalls, grazing llamas, and, honestly, a few pretty scary looking mines. The route goes from sea level in Lima to an elevation of 15,843 feet (4,829 meters) which makes this train the highest railway in the Americas. Along the way, the train navigates a wide array of engineering marvels including 6 zigzags, 69 tunnels (one spirals like a pig’s tail and one is nearly 3,400 feet / 1,000 meters long) and 58 bridges. The one-way journey takes about 14 hours, which, honestly is a long time to be on a train. 


Turell Museum Colome Winery Argentina

It’s an adventure just getting to the only James Turrell museum outside the US.

Best art adventure: The only museum devoted to artist James Turrell outside the US is located on the grounds of  Bodega Colome in Argentina, one of the most remote and most high-altitude vineyards and wineries in the world. From the nearest city, it takes at least a day of driving through scenic valleys to reach Colome and the James Turrrell Museum there which was created after Colome owner, US winemaker Donald Hess, met Turrell and fell in love with his work. Turrell designed the space which contains installations which are all about natural and artificial light and how it changes perceptions. It sounds simple, but it’s complex stuff that definitely plays with your head. Free guided tours are given (in English) at 3 pm and 5 pm for a maximum of eight people (reservations are a must, closed Mondays). We toured the small museum for more than two hours and it was one of the best museum experiences we’ve ever had and an adventure to boot.


Santa Cruz trek Rinrijirka mountain & Tawliquicha lake

Another day, another view on the Santa Cruz trek in the Cordillera Blanca in Peru.

Best multi-day hike: The Santa Cruz Trek in the Cordillera Blanca in Peru is one of the most famous multi-day hikes in the country. In 32 miles (51 km) the route delivers high passes (one is more than 15,000 feet / 4,500 meters), mountain lakes, snowy peaks, and challenging trails. Get the day-by-day highlights and trail tips in our post about what you need to know about the Santa Cruz trek.


Ballooning over the Atacama.

Best soft adventure: Don’t let anyone tell you that soft adventures don’t count. Case in point: a hot air balloon ride over the Atacama Desert. The same folks behind Balloons over Bagan in Myanmar recently began offering hot air balloon rides out of San Pedro de Atacama. The premium Balloons over Atacama trips include pre-flight coffee, tea, and fresh (and legit) croissants from the French baker in town plus champagne afterward. We love hot air balloons because of the alternate perspective they offer and because traveling (mostly) in silence at the whim of the wind is so peaceful. As we write this, flights have been suspended while a court ruling gets resolved. We hope they’re up and running again soon.


Cerro Toco Volcano San Pedro de Atacama Chile

At 18,386 feet on top of Cerro Toco in Chile.

Best high peak day hike: When was the last time you were able to hike up to 18,386 feet (5,604 meters) in just one day? You can do it in the Atacama Desert on a peak called Cerro Toco, a stratovolcano not far from San Pedro de Atacama. We did this hike with Arturo, a guide from Hotel Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa, who was born in the region. After driving about an hour from the hotel we’d reached around 16,000 feet (4,876 meters). From there we hit the trail for about an hour, ascending about a mile (2 km) to the top. It was steep and snowy in places, but not difficult overall, though the air was pretty thin. At the top, we got spectacular views of Bolivia and the perfect cone of Licancabur Volcano. We’ve been this high in the Himalayas, but only after days or even weeks of walking. Only in the Atacama can you have breakfast at your hotel, bag an 18,000+ foot peak, and be back at the hotel in time for lunch.


Quebrada de las Flechas Cafayate Argentina

Easy road trip bliss in Northern Argentina.

Best softcore epic drive: The roughly 300 mile (480 km) loop that connects Salta to Cafayate to Molinos to Cachi and back to Salta is partly paved and there are towns along the way and you really don’t need a hardcore vehicle, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an epic drive.The scenery is amazing including Southwest style desert, rock and mesa landscapes, swirling rock formations, forests of cactus and much more. This route also travels through Los Cardones National Park where you can see wild guanacos (a cruder ancestor of llamas) and condors.


Drive Isluga National Park Chile

Driving the back roads between Colchane and Putre involves gorgeous scenery and washboarded roads.

Best midcore epic drive: The back road route that connects Colchane to Putre in Northern Chile travels through four parks and protected areas, past inviting hot springs, grazing vincuñas, flocks of flamingos, and much more natural beauty that makes the sometimes challenging roads (and occasional military checkpoint) worth it.


Drive Puno Argentina

We didn’t see many other vehicles while driving through the Puna de Argentina, but there were plenty of llamas.

Best hardcore epic drive in Argentina: The Puna region of Northern Argentina is not easy. It’s remote. It’s high altitude. It’s a huge desert.The rough track roads are so bad speed is sometimes reduced to 10 mph or even less. Sometimes you’re driving on a salt flat (where we got a flat tire). But this is also the place to see thousands of migrating flamingos, wind-whipped sandstone formations, and eerie wide open spaces that sometimes make you feel like you’re on another planet. If you don’t feel like doing the driving, organize your Puna de Argentina adventure through Socompa Adventure Travel which specializes in the area and also runs the best lodging in the area.


Drive Puno ADrive Bolivia Uyuni SW circuit Sol de manana geyserrgentina

At a geyser field on the southwest circuit out of Uyuni, Bolivia.

Best hardcore epic drive in Bolivia: The tracks and back roads that make up the so-called southwest circuit out of Uyuni, Bolivia are quite possibly the most challenging roads we’ve driven. Sandy, full of never-ending extreme washboarding, rock-hard frozen sections, and all at high altitude where temperatures plummet each night. The payoff is a series of lakes, flamingos, and a field of venting hot springs. Just don’t expect to have the place to yourself. Despite the challenges, this route is popular with tour groups and they fly along the roads in beat-up Toyota 4Runners, creating more and more washboarding.


Here’s more about travel in Argentina

Here’s more about travel in Bolivia

Here’s more about travel in Chile

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Hiking On Sacred (and soggy) Ground – Cajas National Park, Ecuador

In Cajas National Park, high altitude grasslands spool out like waves of velvet around creeks and ponds as llamas wander through a landscape that was considered sacred ground by the Cañari people. After hiking in Cajas National Park you may feel the same way.

Cajas National Park - Cuenca, Ecuador

A moody moment in Cajas National park in Ecuador.

Hiking in Cajas National Park

Cajas National Park (free admission), just 20 miles (30 km) from Cuenca, was founded in 1996 and exists at altitudes between 10,100 feet (3,100 meters) and 14,600 feet (4,450 meters). The park covers 7,000 acres (2,800 hectares) which are dotted with hundreds of lakes of varying sizes and is part of a larger UNESCO Biosphere Reserve which was declared in 2013.

Hiking Cajas National Park Ecuador

That blonde grass is one of the few plants that can survive in the windy, cold, high-altitude conditions in Cajas National Park.

There are a variety of trails within Cajas National Park ranging from quick walks to multi-day hikes. If you’re going anywhere off the beaten path take a guide. It is notoriously easy to get lost in Cajas National Park. Detailed maps, GPS coordinates and trail descriptions are available here.

Hiking Cajas National Park Ecuador

In Cajas National Park, water is king.

We hiked the popular (and clearly marked) Torreadas Trail which heads out from the park’s visitor center, which has bathrooms and a basic cafeteria, and around Lake Torreadas. The trail meanders past brooks, smaller bodies of water, over wooden bridges and through clusters of gnarled and stunted polylepis trees. Allow at least 1.5 hours an wears layers. The weather changed a lot during our hike. The climate is driest between August and January, but it can be cold and wet at any time.

Puya bromeliad - Cajas National Park Ecuador

A hardy puya bromeliad in Cajas National Park.

Sleeping in Cajas National Park

Most people visit the park on a day trip from Cuenca, but if you want to have a longer stay you can camp in some areas (be prepared for cold and wet) and there are a few basic shared refugios (like cabins) in the park too.

Dos Chorreras Hosteria - Cajas National Park Ecuador

Dos Chorreras Hosteria near Cajas National Park.

If you don’t want to rough it, consider Dos Chorreras Hosteria. Everything is oversized at this place which channels a Montana lodge by way of the Andes and is located just a few miles from the park entrance. The restaurant seats up to 200. The shop in the enormous lobby sells everything from rubber boots to artisanal cheese, lending a Latin Cracker Barrel look and feel.

Dos Chorreras Hosteria - Cajas National Park Cuenca, Ecuador

The dramatic setting of Dos Chorreras Hosteria.

The rooms are larger than life too. We are in room #13 which has a huge fireplace (there are 14 fireplaces in the hotel) and a jetted tub for two. There are also duplex rooms, family rooms, and a stand alone cabin in which former Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa once slept.

Dos Chorreras Hosteria - Cajas NP, Cuenca, Ecuador

Dos Chorreras Hosteria offers a wide range of rooms, including one cabin where former President Rafael Correa once slept.

Horse back riding on the 9,800 acre (4,000 hectare) property is offered and you can take a guided tour of Pueblito Guavidula, a reconstruction of a small village that was built above the hosteria in the 1800s along what as the only road through the area. A home, a shop. and the gold mine have been restored and can be toured with a guide. It’s like touring a ghost town in the United States, but much, much older.

Pueblito Guavidula - Dos Chorreras Hosteria - Cajas NP

Part of Pueblito Guavidula, a restored ancient village above Dos Chorreras Hosteria.

There are also many trout ponds on the property and we’re told that a member of the Carrasco family, that’s owned the property since the ’80s, was the first in the area to farm trout on a commercial scale — something that’s common now.

Even if you’re not staying at Dos Chorreras it’s a good place to stop for a hot beverage and a few of their famous cheese-filled fried empanadas.


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On the Handicraft Trail – Cuenca, Ecuador

Spend a day traveling around the handicraft trail near Cuenca, Ecuador and you’ll see the area’s rich weaving, hat making, and jewelry making traditions which are being kept alive by artisans doing their traditional work in lovely small towns east of the city. Just don’t do it on a Sunday.

Ikat style weaving Casa de Makana - Cuenca, Ecuador

Traditional weaving being done at Casa de Makana near Cuenca.

On the handicraft trail

On the side of the road which runs through the town of Bulcay you’ll see a big sign for Casa de la Makana. Here, Jose Jimenez and his wife Ana Ulloa, who was once pictured weaving on an Ecuador tourism poster, make textiles using a technique which is shockingly similar to Bali’s ikat weavings. Jose says his grandmother taught it to him and the ikat tradition does has a history in Latin America. Up to 4,000 knots are made by hand per day to create intricate designs before the dying process begins using all natural colorants including lichen, indigo, Cochineal beetles, and more.

Natural dyes Makana weaving Bulcay, Ecuador

Before weaving, fibers are dyed naturally using bark, seeds, leaves, and more at Casa de Makana near Cuenca.

Macana weaving - Cuenca, Ecuador

Though you may associate it with Indonesia, ikat style weaving has a history in Latin America too.

Ex President of Ecuador Rafael Correa has worn their creations as has the Queen of Spain and actor Salma Hayek wore one of their makanas (that’s a Quechua word for shawl) portraying Mexican artist Frida Kahlo in the movie Frida. 

Weaving Casa de Makana - Bulcay Cuenca Ecuador

Putting the finishing touches on a textile at Casa de Makana.

As we took the excellent free tour (Spanish only) through the makana making process, Jose told us that many families in the area used to weave like this. Now he and his family are among the last. Before leaving we bought a makana (sometimes spelled macana) for Karen’s mom in the small upstairs gift shop.

Ikat makana weaving - Bucay Cuenca Ecuador

Finished items for sale in the small shop at Casa de Makana.

In the town of Sig Sig (yes, that’s a real name) it’s all about hand-woven hats called toquillas, aka Panama hats (which were never made in Panama). In 2012 Ecuador’s traditional toquillas were named a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and we were excited to see the weavers in the large hat making co-op in Sig Sig. Unfortunately, we were in town on Sunday when the co-op is closed. Learn from our mistake.

Sig Sig Ecuador

A street vendor in Sig Sig, Ecuador.

Gualaceo, about 20 miles (30 km) from Cuenca, is a charming river side town known for jewelry and pottery, but we found the new market building to be sterile and uninteresting so we headed to Chordeleg where we found dozens of shops selling the area’s famous sterling silver filigree jewelry. It’s not our thing, but you have to admire the intricate work.

Ecuagenera orchids - Gualaceo, Ecuador

Ecuadorean orchids in Gualaceo.

Orchids aren’t exactly a handicraft, but they’re gorgeous nonetheless. Stop into the road side orchidarium on the way to Gualaceo to see hundreds of different shapes, sizes, and varieties of orchids produced by Ecuagenera in the Amazon, Guayaquil, and in Gualaceo. Most are exported around the world but you can buy from this shop as well.

Orchids - Gualaceo, Ecuador

Ecuadorean orchids in Gualaceo.

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City Travel Guide – Cuenca, Ecuador

Cuenca, Ecuador is an expat mecca which means you’re going to hear more English (and French and German) and see more North American and European faces here than anywhere else in Ecuador except maybe the Galapagos Islands. But Cuenca is also full of history, culture, hotels, and good food (you can thank the expats for that last one), as you’ll see in this travel guide to Santa Ana de los Cuatro Ríos de Cuenca.

Plaza de las Flores - Cuenca, Ecuador

Plaza de las Flores in Cuenca, Ecuador.

Cuenca was first inhabited by nomadic cave men and more securely established in 500 AD. The place has been important to the Cañari people, the Incas, Spanish conquistadors, and now people from all over the world including the proud Cholas Cuencanas who swish around the city in their layered skirts, bright colors, and braids.

Architecture in the Historic Center of Cuenca, Ecuador

Architecture in the historic center of Cuenca, Ecuador.

Situated at 8,200 feet (2,500 meters), the Tomebamba River runs through the city whose historic center has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1999 on the merits of the colonial architecture there. When you’re done exploring the city, Cuenca makes a good base for visits to the Ingapirca archaeological site and Cajas National Park.

Historic Center - Cuenca, Ecuador

A typical street scene in Cuenca, Ecuador.

 What to do in Cuenca

Churches ofCuenca, Ecuador

Just a few of the 52 churches in Cuenca, Ecuador.

There are 52 churches in Cuenca, so you could spend your whole visit just peeking into them. Instead, focus on the best of the churches and save some time for the architecture, art, and culture in Cuenca too.

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception or the New Cathedral - Cuenca, Ecuador

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, aka the New Cathedral.

We took the guided tour (US$3, in English) of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, commonly referred to as the New Cathedral, which includes the crypt and a hike up to the terrace on top for views of the city.

Inside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception - Cuenca, Ecuador

Inside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

The Museo de Arte Moderno (better known as MMAM) is located in a peaceful renovated house which was originally built in the 17th century. It’s any small rooms and outdoor courtyards now provide the right setting for a changing selection of modern art (free, donation requested).

 Museo de Arte Moderno (MMAM) - Cuenca, Ecuador

A playful sculpture at the Museo de Arte Moderno (MMAM).

Cuenca shows its Incan roots at the Pumapungo archaeological site (free) which preserves some of what remains of the city of Pumapungo (“the door of the puma”) which the Incas established after narrowly defeating the Cañari people. Researchers believe Pumapungo was second only to the Incan capital of Cusco. Located in the historic center of the city on a hillock over the Tomebamba River, this site is primarily a collection of stone walls and foundations and a re-constructed building.

Pumapungo archaeological site, Cuenca, Ecuador

The Pumapungo archaeological site is an Incan construction that’s right in the middle of modern Cuenca.

The nearby Pumapungo Museum (free) is the city’s biggest museum and it delivers a colorful, comprehensive deep dive into the different cultures and ethnic groups in Ecuador including clothing, customs, money, pottery, textiles, and more. The museum also has some shrunken heads from the Shuar people. Most display explanations are in Spanish.

Pumapungo Museum - Cuenca, Ecuador

A display in the Pumapungo Museum.

So-called Panama hats actually come from Ecuador (they got their misleading name with US President Theodore Roosevelt was given one to shield him from the sun while touring the Panama Canal). Hat making is a revered art in the country and Cuenca is home to a number of master hat makers. The most famous is Homero Ortega. We also found good quality hats (at cheaper prices) at La Paja Toquilla.

Architecture Historic Center - Cuenca, Ecuador

More architecture in the historic center of Cuenca.

Many walking tours of the city are offered as well and some of them are free (but tip if you can). This can be a good way to quickly get a taste of the architecture and history of Cuenca.

On a hillside on the outskirts of the city is the Amaru Bioparque Cuenca Zoologico  ($4) where some animal enclosures at the self-funded zoo appear to be made from chicken wire and ingenuity. This worked well to craft a kind of monkey habi-trail that allowed the monkeys to roam further without getting out, but it did seem like the puma could probably escape if she really wanted to.

Spectacled Bear - Amaru Bioparque Cuenca Zoologico

Andean bears at the Amaru zoo in Cuenca.

We also saw Andean bears (the zoo was also home to the first Andean bear cubs born in captivity in Ecuador), lions, condors, and a wide range of reptiles in an exhibit completed in association with the young and passionate herpetologists and tour guides at Tropical Herping.

To tour the zoo you have to walk along a 1.5 mile (2 km) dirt trail that is steep and uneven in places, so wear walking shoes and clothes. Allow at least an hour and a half.

Street Art, Cuenca, Ecuador

Street art in Cuenca.

Restaurants in Cuenca

Another great thing to do in Cuenca is eat. Thanks, in part, to the large expat community the city has a lot of restaurants catering to a many different tastes.

Fabianos pizza, Cuenca, Ecuador

Dinner at Fabiana’s pizza.

Fabiano’s Pizza serves legit pizza (see above) at great prices to a crowd that’s heavy on the expats (the place had a festive nursing home vibe). The most expensive 12 slice pizza was around US$17.00 and a generous glass of wine was US$3.50. Cash only. English is spoken (did we mention the expats?).

Arepas Moliendo Café, Cuenca, Ecuador

Amped up arepas at Moliendo Cafe.

Arepas are a humble thing, unless you get them at Moliendo Café where this simple cornmeal patty is topped with heaping portions of home cooked Colombian favorites including beans, hogao (a rich sauce of chopped and simmered vegetables), chorizo, chicharron (fried cubes of meaty pork skin), and much more. Portions (around US$3.50 per order) are huge. The Colombian owners also import Postobon soda and Aguila and Poker beer from Colombia.

El Mercado restaurant, Cuenca, Ecuador

Part of the most impressive meal we had in Cuenca, at El Mercado restaurant.

One of the best meals we had in Cuenca was at El Mercado, overlooking the river where polished international cuisine (rack of lamb, grilled octopus, risotto) is served along with creative cocktails (don’t miss their version of a Moscow Mule made with fresh ginger, agave syrup, aguardiente and soda water) and an extensive (for Ecuador) wine list. The excellent bread is homemade, the tableware is chic, and the service is good. The owners also have their own organic farm outside the city and we hope they never take the luscious grilled salad off the menu.

Thirsty? The Far Out brewery makes German style craft beer which you can get at their brew pub in the historic center of Cuenca. 

Ristorante Trastavere, Cuenca, Ecuador

Chef Massimo is from Rome and his Ristorante Trastavere is super Italian.

Ristorante Trastavere, on the corner near the intersection of Honorata Vazquez and Presidente Borrara Streets, is the creation of Rome-born chef Massimo. He opened the place in 2015 and continues to make homemade pasta, gnocchi, bread, and sauces. He makes his own mozzarella, smokes his own fish, and cures his own meats too. The food, served on red and white checked tablecloths in a small dining room above his even smaller open kitchen, is extraordinary. He now has a pizza joint across the street so Fabiano’s has some competition.

La Chalupa, Cuenca, Ecuador

Just one of the inventive cocktails at La Chalupa.

La Chalupa Mediterranean restaurant was opened in 2015 by a young Basque chef. It’s a festive place, equally good for a meal or one of the cocktails created by bartender  Bernardo Arias. Order his Cajas Spirit cocktail which, he says, was inspired by nearby Cajas National Park. It’s made with rum or tequila that he infuses with herbs harvested from the park. Then tonic water, lime juice, and Angostura bitters are added (around US$5). It’s bracing and refreshing, just like a hike in its namesake park.

Cuenca is full of coffee shops and cafes. We had great brews at Goza Espresso Bar and at Café de Nucallacta where they only serve Ecuadorean coffee that they’ve roasted themselves.

Tiesto's, Cuenca, Ecuador

Chef Juan Carlos Solano in a rare quiet moment at Tiesto’s.

Sure you can order off the menu of Ecuadorean classics at Tiesto’s, but it’s much more fun to let Juan Carlos Solano, the self-taught chef and owner, tell you what you should eat. The well-trained waiters will make sure you understand the wide variety of house made condiments which are meant to be eaten in a specific order and in specific combinations. Solano is all about playing with flavors and whether he’s cooking prawns or pork he’s got a vision of the final dish and how it should be enjoyed. Buckle up and go along for the ride.

For a snack or light lunch head to the corner of Juan Jaramillo and Estrella Streets. Here you’ll find a cluster of small places selling sanduches de pernil (roasted pork leg sandwiches) for about US$2. Pick a place (they’re all good) and enjoy.

Rio Tomebamba, Cuenca, Ecuador

Part of what defines Cuenca is the Rio Tomebamba which runs through it.

Hotels in Cuenca

Hotel Los Balcones is a long-standing favorite in Cuenca because it’s right in the center, moderately priced for a mid-range hotel in this city, and is a comfortable combination of history (the building was constructed as a private home in the 18th century) and modern amenities. Service is excellent, many rooms have small balconies (as the name would imply) and the sunny upstairs breakfast room is a great place to start your day.

Hotel Los Balcones , Cuenca, Ecuador

Our room at Hotel Los Balcones in Cuenca.

Hotel Santa Lucia, a bit musty and dusty around the edges, is located in the historic center in a building that was built in 1859. The place is full of antiques and history. Read our full review of Hotel Santa Lucia for Luxury Latin America.

Hotel Santa Lucia - Cuenca, Ecuador

A room at Hotel Santa Lucia in Cuenca.

Hotel Victoria is owned by the Duran family, pioneers in tourism in Cuenca (they also own Posada Ingapirca near the Ingapirca archaeological site). The riverfront hotel is iconic in the city as is its El Jardin restaurant which is modern incarnation of a restaurant created in the 1970s.

Hotel Victoria - Cuenca, Ecuador

Our room at Hotel Victoria in Cuenca.

Hotel Victoria is not a fancy place in the traditional sense of luxury, but it is flawlessly dignified. Rooms vary greatly and some (like ours) are small, but we had a great river view and lots of ambiance. A great full breakfast with made-to-order eggs is served daily in the El Jardin dining room with river views.

Hotel Zahir 360 is a real anomaly in Cuenca. In a city where almost every hotel exists in a historic building full of antiques, the Zahir is sleek and modern. It’s also not in the historic center but on the other side of the river. Read our full review of Hotel Zahir 360 for Luxury Latin America.

Zahir 360 hotel - Cuenca, Ecuador

The Zahir 360 breaks from the hotel crowd in Cuenca with a very modern design.

We walked past the Siena Hotel on our last day in Cuenca. We did not stay at this central hotel, but we did quickly tour some rooms and it was stylish and comfortable and nailed a boutique hotel vibe better than any other hotel we saw in the city.

Here’s more about travel in Ecuador


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