Cuenca & Alausí

Meeting Stephanie in Cuenca
View over Cuenca from the Cathedral
View over Cuenca from the Cathedral

We landed back in Guayaquil from the Galapagos and headed straight for the nearby bus station. We were heading to the small colonial city of Cuenca, back on the edge of the Andes. We had a 4 hour bus ride ahead of us so wanted to get going as soon as possible. The bus station was a huge confusing building, part bus station and part busy shopping mall. After staggering around in circles with our giant bags we found an information desk and were directed to the right bus ticket booth. I asked when the next bus left and was told 5pm, this was in about 3 minutes time but they still sold us the tickets and called the bus conductor to wait for us, what service! So after more running through the station/mall we were on a bus only about 45 minutes after landing!
We had comfy seats and the journey didn’t feel too long, we arrived at about 9.30pm and got a taxi to our hostel. We’ve been booking one place ahead at the moment, especially when arriving late at night it’s nice to know you have a room waiting for you. The hostel, La Cigale (French for Cicada, and it seemed to attract mostly French tourists!), was above a restaurant/bar and so once checked in we just had to walk downstairs for a nice evening meal and beers. We messaged Stephanie, a friend from the travelling classroom who was doing her final week of Spanish lessons in Cuenca, and arranged to meet the next day.

The next morning we got up leisurely, had a nice breakfast (the benefits of a hostel in a restaurant!) and headed out to explore the city. We went to the main Plaza, with a large brick built cathedral. We timed it right for a guided tour of the very modern looking crypt and unfinished bell towers (shorter than planned and without bells as the tower design couldn’t support more weight in real life). We chatted to the guide and got some tips on what to see in Cuenca.

Meeting Stephanie in Cuenca
Meeting Stephanie in Cuenca

After that we still had some time before meeting Stephanie, and it had started to rain so we went into another church across the plaza. Cuenca apparently has 52 churches (and that’s just the Catholic churches) so it wasn’t hard to find another so nearby. This was the old cathedral, now used as a sort of museum for religious art. After getting our fill of old wooden statues and painted shrines, it was time to meet Stephanie. It was really nice to catch up and we spent the afternoon wandering around the centre and alongside the river running through the city. It’s a nice relaxed city, small and quite pretty with the river and colonial style houses. We stopped for a coffee and cake overlooking the river. The town seems to be very popular with expats so we were able to find a bit more variety of food there, plus a lot of cafes and patisseries!

There was another big Ecuador football match on so we stopped back at our hostel to watch it, whilst also sharing some photos with Stephanie and making the most of happy hour. After the game (where Ecuador won again), we headed out for some pizza at a place recommended by Stephanie’s host family. We had a good evening and then said goodbye to Stephanie as she was heading back to Switzerland the next week.
The next day, Wednesday, we went to the main museum in Cuenca, called Pumapungo or also known as the Central Bank Museum. This slightly confusing naming is because there is a traditional museum in the old central bank building, then next to it are ruins of an old Inca city.

Street art in Cuenca
Street art in Cuenca

The museum had an interesting exhibition on the different indigenous cultures of Ecuador, a few we recognised from travelling around the country. There was a slightly creepy exhibition on the Shuar culture, who made shrunken heads. Now this practice is banned with human heads, but they still make shrunken sloth heads instead.
The wasn’t much in the way of ruins outside, some imagination required to see a city! But the park around the ruins was nice and we spent a while wandering around.
That evening we went for a curry, it was nice and had some heat to the spice for a change. They also had much better wifi than the hostel so we were able to book up some things for the next few days!

We left Cuenca on the Thursday morning. We were catching a bus to another Incan site, one of the largest and most complete in Ecuador, called Ingapirca. Most people do this as a day trip, two hours on the bus there then two more back to Cuenca. However, the next stop on our list was about two hours beyond Ingapirca, so it seemed mad to go back to Cuenca. The only problem with this was there was no set bus route, but we’d worked out it was possible in theory and it turned out pretty smoothly in practice too.
We got to Ingapirca at around 11.30 and went to unload our giant bags from the bus storage. But we could only see my bag. We asked the conductor who gave a response of: maybe it’s been stolen. This wasn’t particularly helpful. Chris went round to the other side of the bus and got the conductor to open it up, luckily the bag was there! There is a small connection between the two sides of the bus and somehow the bag had rolled over on the winding roads. The conductor then seemed to be a bit embarrassed and tried to make up for being so dismissive by telling us how to get a bus to our next destination.

We’d read mixed reviews about Ingapirca so were pleasantly surprised with how good it was. There was a nice modern ticket office where we could leave our bags and the entry price included a guided tour on English. The site had been a Cañari worship site prior to the Incas conquering, so you could see older foundations with Inca stones on top. We finished with a quick detour to see a rock that looks like a face, actually more impressive than it sounds!

We got back to the reception and picked up our bags, then managed to get our original bus (with the same conductor) down to the nearest major town. We were dropped on the side by the main road, I popped into a shop to check where we could catch a bus from and they confirmed we just had to flag one down and that we were on the main Pan-American highway. So we walked to a bench and sat watching the road for a while. I was a bit peckish so popped back to a nearby bread shop to pick up lunch. I kept looking back in case the bus arrived before I got to the shop. Once in the shop I was as quick as possible but must have just missed Chris flagging down a bus. I left the shop and immediately saw the bus waiting and Chris yelling for me to hurry up! All our bags were loaded and he was telling the driver to wait for me so I legged it down the road and we hurried into the bus. The bus was a very plush one, so we got to relax in style for two hours, watching a dubbed version of Fast & Furious 10 (or whatever version the latest one is). The town we wanted was off the main road, so we used Chris’s Maps.Me app to help us find where we needed to request a stop. We had to run down the bus whilst it was moving to get the conductor to see us and ask the driver to stop. Luckily a couple of women also wanted to get off there and they helped us find the best path into town.

Alex poses with the Alausi sign
Alex poses with the Alausi sign

We’d arrived into the small town of Alausí. There isn’t much to do there, it’s a small pretty town with one main attraction: Nariz Del Diablo (Devil’s Nose) train ride. We had booked into one of the only hotels in town, La Quinta Hostería, which was pretty pricey but had a very clean modern bathroom, comfy bed and balcony so we were happy. We chilled out at the hostel for a while and then went into town to find a restaurant. The town was so quiet, hardly any restaurants and the ones that were open looked very much local food for local people type places! We doubted there would be much in the way of veggie food available. We’d read on TripAdvisor (so useful!) about a pizza place, so we walked away from the main street and onto some quiet backstreets. It was all very empty and a little foggy from the mountain mist but it felt pretty safe. We saw a sign lit up in the gloom and found the pizza place, with a huge tasty pizza and cheap beer we were happy. We headed back through the quiet streets to our comfy room.

The next day was Friday. We had a peaceful breakfast in a lovely room with views over the valley. We packed up and left our bags at the hotel whilst we went on the train ride.
Again, we’d heard mixed reviews of the train trip. It was pretty expensive for an Ecuadorian tourist attraction, and we’d read that if you were on the wrong side of the carriage you got a terrible view. However, I really enjoyed it, the stations and train were very well maintained and both sides of the carriage got good views (the windows were large and you could easily lean across to see more). The railway line is known as one of the most dangerous in the world due to the high number of people who died building it. It’s an impressive couple of switchbacks down a steep mountain side.

Chris took the following video of the ride back up to Alausí:

We left straight after the train ride for another series of buses to the town of Baños in the Andes. I’ll leave that for another post though!

Author: Alex Greenwood

Traveller, muddy gardener, sustainability consultant

2 thoughts on “Cuenca & Alausí”

  1. Very impressed with video, it doesn’t look like any train I’ve been on (and as you can imagine I have now been on a few!), the music and scenery make it most atmospheric. I like the street art too.xx

  2. Nice post, sounds like lots of contrasts between coast and mountain. Love the video! Merry Christmas to you both, have a great time, wherever you are!!! hx

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