Avenida del Estadio and Florencia Astudillo, Cuenca, Ecuador
In a sea of creaky, antique-filled hotels in renovated historic buildings, this striking glass and steel tower is the only game in town for travelers looking for a modern place to lay their heads.
When I checked in, the bright white lobby of the Zahir 360 Hotel it was full of beauty queens. All 22 contestants for the upcoming Miss Ecuador competition (and their handlers) were calling the hotel home during a series of official pageant events in Cuenca. As the contestants click-clacked around in stilettos, adjusted sashes and chatted on cell phones it struck me as fitting that those vying for the top honor in the country's ultimate ode to appearances should be staying at the only contemporary hotel in Cuenca and one of the most aesthetically modern in all of Ecuador.
When the Zahir 360 Hotel opened in 2014 it was the first new hotel built in Cuenca in 20 years and it made no bones about breaking with the longstanding trend in the city of turning Colonial buildings into hotels. You will not find any revered but muted remnants of wall frescoes. There are no mysteriously sloping floors, no random creaks and groans that are the language of the city's grand dame hotels.
The hotel's owners, Cuenca natives, bought the land 10 years ago with the goal of making an impression. Many locals were skeptical when the project began but the hotel, named after a word that the owner tells me means "once you see it you can't forget it" in Arabic, forged ahead.
First, the house on the plot of land was razed, then the Ecuadorian architect began putting up a steel and glass tower that appears to twist. There is no other building like it in Cuenca and few in this style in all of Ecuador. Eco elements at the building include bamboo floors, LED lighting, and solar panels that heat water to 77 degrees before gas heaters raise it to 115 degrees.
Inside, there are 45 rooms. The bulk of them are roomy and light-filled thanks to an entire wall of windows (more on that later). There's a small desk and plush beds with satiny sheets. Where the design of the hotel really shines, however, is in the four 360 Suites (rooms 603, 503, 403 and 303). These are much larger (430 square feet) and include a sitting area in a wide corner of the construction. Surrounded on two sides by floor to ceiling glass these corner rooms have a floating, cantilevered feel and a panoramic degree view of the cityscape below. Not for those with vertigo.
Room 609 is what the hotel considers their Presidential Suite, though VIP Room might be more like it. Latin celebrities including Colombian Reggaeton singer Maluma and Grammy winner Juan Fernando Velasco have stayed in this two-room suite with its sleek, curved tub by the king sized bed. You can see the neighboring stadium from the windows of this suite and celebrities performing there like to use it as a private, plush green room.
The décor of the hotel is sometimes too minimalist for its own good though. For example, there were no hooks in my bathroom and no other place to hang towels so the hand towel ended up in the sink and even lightly used bath towels ended up on the floor. Also, all that glass and a complete lack of fans or air conditioning means that rooms can get very hot in the strong high-altitude sun. Just two small panels of glass opened in my room and I was frequently too warm.
The buffet breakfast is included, but unfortunately it was a disappointment. There were very limited choices and what was presented was tepid and tired looking, including soggy eggs and mediocre fruit. There were often no plates and no coffee. A relentless soundtrack of Muzak did nothing to help.
It's important to note that unlike every other hotel of note in the city, the Zahir 360 Hotel is not located in the city's historic center where the churches, restaurants, and museums are located. However, it's just a five minute walk along clean, well-lit, and busy streets to reach the center and I was comfortable making the walk day and night. Inexpensive taxis are always available as well. It's ironic that one of the big advantages of being located in a glass hotel outside the city center is that from many of the rooms you have great views of the Colonial architecture, antique tile roofs and historic bell towers that central Cuenca is famous for.
Web Address: www.hotelzahir360.com
Total Number of Rooms: 45
Rates: $98 - $175 including buffet breakfast and taxes
Review by Karen Catchpole and photos by Eric Mohl.