The scenic several-hour drive from Guayaquil to Cuenca allows visitors to acclimate headache-free to Cuenca’s 8,200-foot altitude (akin to Aspen and Vail, in the Colorado Rockies). On the way, Cajas National Park offers photo ops and restrooms.
Established by Ecuador’s Spanish overlords in 1557, Cuenca resembles a vintage Iberian city. A soaring cathedral looms over an inviting central square. Shops, hotels, and a roses-and-cookies market beckon on pretty, porticoed side streets.
Cuenca’s hotels are small and old-fashioned. The loveliest are built Spanish-style around interior courtyards complete with burbling stone fountains. Lovebirds will want to nest in the alluring Hotel Santa Lucia (check rates now) or the equally seductive Mansion Alcazar (check rates now).
Cuencan restaurants are flavorful. Villa Rosa has a nostalgic wood-beamed look and an Italian-accented menu. El Maiz is helmed by Eulalia Blandin, author of a definitive cookbook on corn-centric Cuencan cuisine. Likapaay features a view overlooking the city, delicious local trout, and Quichua Indian dancers.
Shoppers head to Homero Ortega, the premier maker of so-called Panama hats, in fact Ecuadoran; and to the studio of ceramicist Eduardo Vega, whose appealing dinnerware and figurines are sold at Guayaquil airport for twice the price.
Day trips from Cuenca include the mysterious stone village of Ingapirca, built by Inca conquerors of the indigenous Cañaris. Ingapirca shops sell high-quality alpaca woolens, and an Indian market enlivens the village on Fridays. Posada Ingapirca, an inn, tempts with pretty rooms and pleasant meals for guests or drop-ins.
Other Cuenca-based activities likely to appeal to honeymoon duos and other couples cover bird-watching, mountain-biking, horseback tours, thermal springs, a food market in nearby Gualaceo, and more.
While in Cuenca, direct your queries to the American college kids scurrying around. Frugal, fascinating Cuenca has become a destination for Spanish majors on their junior year abroad. And more than a few of their parents have purchased retirement homes here.