Becoming Cuenca

Un Día en la Vida (A Day in the Life)

Jul 25, 2022

Hometown is not only a city or a location, but also a place which gives you roots. A hometown is where one’s story begins.

And thrives.

The English singer-songwriter Adele said, “In my hometown memories are fresh.” Cuenca creates them all of the time for expats. Social media is full of superlatives by people who left their country for a life at three degrees south.

The reason for that is “Un Día en la Vida.” Every day in Cuenca creates positive memories. And many times, optimism is for one’s barrio, one’s neighborhood.

Mayor Pedro Palacios U. recognizes that quality. The leader of Cuenca tweeted on July 18th, “Positive people change the world for the better, thanks to their attitude and effort; while negative people keep it the way it is, they do nothing and just complain. We Cuencanos belong to the first group. Happy week for everybody! Let’s always keep that positive attitude.”

The 19th century British textile designer, poet, artist, novelist William Morris said, “The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life.”

That was my goal the other day as I walked through our neighborhood, La Isla. It is located on the south side of the city, with no thoroughfare as our neighborhood rivers merge on the east side of it. La Isla is full of life that many do not see because they go right on by.

But you can!

On my neighborhood walk, Paseo Río Miguir was a vibrant street. I encountered a crew washing an interprovincial bus. The color of the bus indicates what it is used for. Unlike the United States, interprovincial buses are owned by individuals, not corporations (such as Greyhound Lines, Inc.).

Ecuadorians take pride in their vehicles. Obviously, that includes buses. And when you make it to Cuenca, you will see that most buses have some sort of religious artwork and / or message.

In red letters, the message on the back of the bus says, “Thank you, my God, for so much love. A dream come true.”

This uplifting message makes sense as it is estimated that three out of four Ecuadorians are practicing Catholics. I have seen figures that show that 90 percent of the country identifies itself as Catholic.

Catholicism became influential in Ecuador after the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. Construction of the first Catholic church in Ecuador, La Iglesia de la Virgen María Natividad de La Balbanera, began in 1534 in Riobamba (240 km / 150 miles north of Cuenca). Creation of Catholic schools helped educate the population and also impart religious instruction. They are still a big part of society and the educational system.

If I had to make a guess, about 15 percent of the vehicles on the streets are motorcycles. There was one was parked in front of one of our neighborhood tiendas. It did ‘not’ surprise me when it was a woman returning to her motorcycle.

The high percentage is due to the high price of cars in Ecuador. The demographics of who owns a motorcycle or a scooter are over the place. It is the young, older people, men, and women. You will see two adults on many motorcycles. Other motorcycles will be a parent and a child. And don’t be surprised to see perro hitching a ride on one.

With so many motorcycles on the streets, there are times that Cuenca, Ecuador looks more like Cuenca, Spain, or any other big city in Europe. One reason is those motorcycles zig zagging through stopped traffic to get to the head of the line at a red traffic light. Or they will drive between two lanes of stopped vehicles. How many times have you seen that done in Paris?

All those motorcycles prove the Ecuadorian market for them has been one of the best worldwide. Between 2012 and 2019, the motorcycle market in Ecuador increased in size by 23 times to become the 32nd largest market in the world for motorcycles.

Like the rest of Cuenca, our neighborhood is a blend of all economic classes. It “adds life” (Remember that slogan?) by having the rich living with the middle class alongside the poor. That includes a poor family living in this traditional adobe home (its load-bearing elements are made of unbaked earth). There are no segregated neighborhoods in our hometown.

When I was writing my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life,” I talked to several Cuencanos about this. They all told me Cuenca is the only city of the biggest three to ‘not’ have segregated neighborhoods. Many stated Cuenca has a large middle class while Guayaquil and Quito don’t. Everyone told me they are very happy to be living in diverse neighborhoods.

Despite Americans having lived in segregated neighborhoods (economically speaking), they are delighted to be living among people of all social classes in Cuenca. We all feel it makes our neighborhoods “richer” and a lot more interesting.

It seems that every other person in Cuenca has a bicycle. Seriously! In many ways, Cuenca is a European city. Many people bike, and lots of people get to their destinations on foot. It is one of the reasons Joanna and I love this city.

Because of the Covid pandemic and because the city is trying to be greener, more bike lanes are being added. Cuenca surveyed its citizens during the beginning of the pandemic about their commuting habits and post-pandemic desires. Bike lanes were on many people’s responses.

The director of Mobility of the Municipality of Cuenca said at the time that when the health emergency was declared by the Ecuadorian government and vehicular traffic was restricted, bicycle use quadrupled. That huge increase in the number of bikes made it necessary for Cuenca to think about providing alternative modes of transportation.

In late-2020, Cuenca began work in response to that survey and the huge increase in the number of bicycles. A major street leading from El Centro to the south side of the city (Bajada de Todos los Santos) had a bike lane installed. That immediately became popular.

A year later, construction of the largest bicycle lane network in Cuenca was completed. The city obtained a loan from the Inter-American Development Bank for $8 million to construct 13.5 km / 8 miles of bike paths. A good portion went for two major streets that followed the Yanuncay River. It is all part of “promoting active mobility in the city.” The city’s goal has resulted in Cuenca having about 125 km. / 77 miles of bike lanes.

There is something uplifting about walking. Especially in Cuenca. The walk does not have to be through the riches of architecture and history in El Centro. And it does not have to be at one of the miradors that give you a great perspective of this great city.

For me, a simple walk in my neighborhood is inspirational and enlivening. “Simple” may be the keyword as it is reflected in a single leaf turning a vibrant color in our neighborhood park. Parque La Isla is our original neighborhood park. We now have two with the lovely El Jardín Botánico de Cuenca opening just over a year ago. I wish I could give the leaves some scale as they are rather large and beautiful.

There is an old and weathered shelter at Parque La Isla for people in case one of those Cuenca out-of-the-blue rains appears. On the exterior side, facing Paseo Río Cuenca, is what appears to be unfinished wall art. I have no idea why it is incomplete, but the monochromatic look works perfectly for the weather-beaten wood.

When you make it to Cuenca, you will be blown away by the amount of wall art in the city. Cuenca embraces the arts, especially public art. Any walking tour of the city will have you going by artwork adorning walls and buildings. A good portion honors the rich history and culture of the region. Hummingbirds (Colibrí or Picaflor) are an exceedingly popular subject matter for wall art. There are no limitations to the size of the artwork as there is a five-story building at Av. 12 de Abril and Av. Fray Vicente Solano with a gorgeous mural that takes up most of the northern face of the building.

Living between two of our city’s four rivers is like an exclamation point to the walks Joanna and I take. There is always something to shoot along the Yanuncay River.


The plant in the photo above is flowering four weeks into winter. Blame the mild winters in Cuenca for that. And I use the term, winter, rather loosely as it can be difficult to know when it is winter in Cuenca.

According to what I can glean online, the lowest average high temperature in Cuenca is in mid-August. The online source says it only gets up to 54°F / 12°C. As for the low temperature, it gets down to 44°F / 7°C. Getting down to freezing is a rarity for Cuenca. And snowfall is even more rare with only two recorded incidents of the white stuff coming down.

Adding to the plants blooming year-round in our neighborhood is that the shortest day in Cuenca is 11:57:16 (I’m a journalist. I have to be precise). To put that into perspective, the shortest day in Portland, Maine is five hours and 17 minutes.

Because we are just three degrees south of the equator, our longest day is 12:17:36. You read that correctly! There is only a 20-minute difference between the shortest and longest day of the year (Meanwhile in Portland, Maine, they have daylight for 15 hours and 41 minutes).

I find beauty in things that are no longer living. That includes the photo above, which was shot between Paseo Río Cuenca and the Yanuncay River. In one way, the remnants of the tree make it dead. But in another way, the tree trunk is still living with lichen and moss. The flowers all around it state that life is beautiful in our neighborhood.

Every time Joanna and I walk along our neighborhood rivers, we find something new to enjoy, be it flowers that just started blooming, boulders now exposed due to lower water levels, or wildlife in the trees.

The 19th century Danish theologian, philosopher, poet, social critic, and religious author Søren Kierkegaard said, “Above all, do not lose your desire to walk: every day I walk myself into a state of wellbeing and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.”

There have been days I have taken in the neighborhood from the rooftop of my departamento before the sun has even risen above the nearby hills. Lights are still twinkling as the sky starts warming up. Seeing our neighborhood as it transitions from night to day or from daytime to nighttime is always a sight to behold. You get the best of both worlds at those times. And of course, it leads to lovely photos of our hometown.

After watching the sun rise over our neighborhood, I usually grab a bite to eat, as well as drinking some excellent Ecuadorian coffee, before embarking on foot through our neighborhood. The 20th century American food writer Clementine Paddleford would agree with my plan. She said, “We all have hometown appetites.”

Mine is voracious.

And La Isla easily fills it up with every walk of mine.

A lot more information on life in Cuenca can be found in my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life.” Some say it is the most thorough book out there concerning moving to and living in this beautiful city.

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Salud, mi amigos.

Una Nueva Vida – A New Life

- by Stephen Vargha

There are over 80 professional-quality photos shot by me to give you a clear ‘picture’ about life in this historic mountain city.