Becoming Cuenca

A Quick Tour of Cuenca

Jul 15, 2022

The French author and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, André Gide, said, “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.”

Sometimes one needs a bit of encouragement to leave one’s shore for another country. It may be why you are reading my blog… to learn more about Cuenca, Ecuador… to move there.

Seriously… I am here to help. As Charles Dickens said, “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.”

This journalist of four decades will try to give you a quick whirlwind tour of Cuenca in this post. My goal is to show you this great city from a different perspective (How many photos and drone shots of the New Cathedral can one look at?) and to explain a little about it.

As you have read in my previous posts, I am trying to show you the heartbeat of the city. It is more than how affordable it is for fresh fruits and vegetables at the mercados to rent being “so cheap.” Everyone has done those superfluous things, just scratching the surface in blogs and videos.

As you continue to read my posts, you will have a truer sense of life in Cuenca. In other words, it will be presented through the eyes of a permanent resident, and ‘not’ from a tourist or someone visiting for a short period of time.

The short-story writer and children’s author Anita Desai said, “Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.” The photo above was taken from the balcony of some friends of ours. It has ‘not’ been digitally enhanced. This is a typical view one gets living in this city. If you are wondering, the mountain on the right is Lomo Shihuín (3,761 meters / 12,339 feet above sea level).

The mountain is certainly a part of my life as I lovingly call it, “My Mountain.” It is for positive reasons as every time I exit the front door of our departamento complex, there is Lomo Shihuín greeting me.

The entire mountain may be visible, or it could be partially obscured by clouds. I tell my friends that Lomo Shihuín is my barometer as it can be a lot more accurate than my weather app.

If Lomo Shihuín is shrouded in clouds, I better have my umbrella with me! Those clouds will soon be over me. If it is clear, I can skip and jump all the way to my destination. Okay… I exaggerated. I walk to my destination with great joy.

Let’s start our quick tour with the “Historic Centre of Santa Ana de los Ríos de Cuenca.” UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) said, “The Historic Centre of Santa Ana de los Rios de Cuenca is a remarkable example of a planned inland Spanish town (entroterra) that bears witness to the interest given to the principles of Renaissance urban planning in the Americas. Founded in 1577 according to the guidelines issued thirty years earlier by the King of Spain, Charles V, it has preserved over four centuries its original orthogonal plan.”

UNESCO is a specialized agency of the United Nations aimed at “promoting world peace and security through international cooperation in education, arts, sciences and culture.” In 1999, the original part of Cuenca was designated a World Heritage Site. This designation by UNESCO is for having cultural, historical, scientific, or other form of significance.

It is a huge deal to have this designation. Being a UNESCO World Heritage Site shows that Cuenca’s unique cultural history needs to be protected and preserved for generations to come.

El Centro is the vibrant historic center of Cuenca offering quality restaurants, several museums, cathedrals, and churches as well as numerous places to shop in a rather compact area of just 553 acres / 224 hectares. That is less than one square mile.

In the midst of the Renaissance era, Cuenca was planned and laid out. Cuenca was constructed according to the orthogonal plan (intersecting or lying at right angles) decreed by Charles V of Spain. In other words, Cuenca was laid out according to a strict grid.

Viceroy Andrés Hurtado de Mendoza followed his king’s orders with checkered blocks organized around the main garden. That “main garden” today is the very popular Parque Calderón (Calderón Park). Buildings were organized around a series of inner courtyards. They were central patios, traspatios (a second yard of the houses of the neighborhood), orchards, and even corrals for self-sufficiency.


Obviously, Cuenca looked different as it grew up around the original part of the city. One obvious difference were the streets with its telephone poles and electrical lines. The City of Cuenca buried every single telephone and electrical line once UNESCO recognized El Centro for its historical significance.

In the historic black-and-white photo above, you get a long perspective of Calle Simón Bolívar. You will notice how built up this original street is. The predominant style of architecture is French. This is because in the 19th century, an elite group of architects, policymakers, and wealthy citizens were enamored by the French culture. The economic boom in Cuenca introduced international avant-garde styles in urban residential architecture.

Like almost every single expat and tourist, you will fall in love with the architecture. Seriously! I know several expats, who are not fans of architecture, but have fallen in love with the stunning and colorful buildings in El Centro. This fan of architecture is like a kid in a candy store every time he is in El Centro. There is always a new photo to get.

Besides the architecture, the streets are a favorite of tourists and expats. Cobblestone streets are throughout El Centro. Dating back to the 3rd century, cobblestone streets have been used worldwide, mainly in Europe, but also in Latin America, including Ecuador.

As you can see in my photo, the cobblestone streets are painstakingly maintained. The stones are replaced and arranged by hand. It is truly slow manual labor. To keep the historic integrity of El Centro, Cuenca is constantly repairing and improving its cobblestone streets.

And the city is adding more cobblestone streets. What was once a dirt road, the portion of Ave. 12 de Abril, in front of the University of Cuenca is now cobblestone. Earlier this year, the city spent several months renovating this short portion of cobblestones. It is well worth it as it looks great, and it reduces the speed of vehicles in front of the university with its 12,000 students.

Just south of El Centro is the Tomebamba River. Anyone who visits Cuenca will end up at this river as it is the southern border of the historic district. It provides a natural separation between El Centro and the newer part of the city to the south.

Starting in the Cajas mountains to the west, the Tomebamba rushes 28 miles / 45 km. towards the Amazon River. It is one of four rivers that flow through Cuenca. In order of size, the others are the Yanuncay, Machángara, and Tarqui.

What intrigues so many expats and blows them away is the water level of the river and how much goes downstream after several days of rain in the mountains. ETAPA (Empresa de Telecomunicaciones, Agua Potable, Alcantarillado) is a public utilities company owned and operated by the city. One of their responsibilities is monitoring the four rivers.

Living just 400 feet / 125 meters from and between two rivers, I monitor ETAPA when it has rained a lot in the mountains. Because of La Niña (an oceanic and atmospheric phenomenon that is the colder counterpart of El Niño), we have had an unusually high amount of rain. All that water came out of the mountains and into the Tomebamba. Using the statistics provided by ETAPA, I figured out that every second the amount of water going down the Tomebamba was equivalent to an average size swimming pool in the United States.

The Tarqui, which flows by our departamento (condo) is usually a quiet and small river. It is only four miles / six kilometers long. As you can see in the photo above, it is a quaint river that flows through our neighborhood.

Last year, rain kept pouring into its watershed. For some reason, the rain did not affect the other three rivers. So much rain came down that the amount of water going down it completely shattered the old record. A mind-blowing four swimming pools per second was going down the Tarqui. Despite that insane amount of water, flooding was minimal. And nothing in our neighborhood flooded.

If you look on a map, you will see that Cuenca is only 80 miles / 130 km. from the Pacific Ocean as the Andes Condor flies. Despite being so close to that ocean, the four rivers’ water all end up in the Atlantic Ocean, which is about 1,600 miles / 2,600 km. from Cuenca. The four rivers merge in various parts of Cuenca before heading to the Amazon River. And we all know where the mighty Amazon River empties into.

Despite being no dams, The Tomebamba river basin is the main water source for Cuenca’s drinking water system. Water is of such a high quality that Americans, Canadians, and Europeans can drink it straight out of the tap. It does ‘not’ have to be boiled before drinking. Frankly, it is some of the best tasting water I have ever had, and that includes the great drinking water in western Washington state.

What is very interesting about Cuenca is the vibe. The city has a population of about 660,000 people. If you Google the city’s population, figures are all over the place. Some of the numbers are horribly low. Gleaning what I can from official websites and governmental social media accounts, I extrapolated the figure of 660,000 people. It is probably very close to the actual number. We won’t have an official number for at least a year as the 2020 census taking was delayed by the Covid pandemic.

Back to the vibe, the ambiance, the feeling one gets by living here. Cuenca’s population is comparable to Portland, Oregon, and Detroit. It would be the tenth largest city in Canada with its population. Cuenca is larger than Manchester and Sheffield, England.

Despite its size, Cuenca does not feel like a large city. My wife, Joanna, grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina. It was a small city. When she left, Wilmington had grown to about 75,000 people. She ended up moving to a Tar Heel town of 14,000 people as she does not like being around thousands of people on the streets.

When we started looking at places to retire, we checked out several places in North Carolina, including Asheville (92,300), Boone (19,400), Spruce Pine-Bakersville (3,000), and West Jefferson (1,800). In 2017, we chose the smallest of the four as Joanna felt most comfortable there.

Because of the extremely high cost of healthcare in the United States, we sold our retirement home in West Jefferson two years later. That is when Joanna caught me totally off guard when she exclaimed, “Let’s move to Cuenca!”

What made Joanna choose a city that is 365 times larger than West Jefferson were its neighborhoods (barrios). Because there is no zoning in Cuenca, each barrio is rather self-sufficient. Our barrio is rather small compared to others, but within a five minutes’ walk of our home are three tiendas (Mom and Pop stores), a deli-restaurant, several restaurants, including an upscale one. There is a pharmacy, a home appliances repair company, two car repair facilities, a very popular health spa, a neighborhood park, two rivers, and a botanical garden. On Saturdays, there is a very small place (permanent shack) that sells fresh crabs.

All of this is intertwined. On the street over from us, there is a school and across from it is a tienda. There are some houses as you walk from the tienda before you get to an auto repair shop. Turn the corner and there is a neighborhood restaurant selling almuerzos (prix fixe lunches) between some homes. The upscale restaurant nearby is part of someone’s home.

Unlike the United States, there is not a gas station on every corner. And the few gas stations there in the city are nothing like a Wawa, Sheetz, or Buc-ee’s. It is where one goes to fuel up their vehicle.

Every barrio feels like its own town. Expats love this feeling of this neighborhood self-sufficiency. And they think it is great that so much is within a short walk of their homes. This is why my wife feels comfortable in a large city that definitely does not feel like one.

This is a very quick tour of Cuenca.

And I have only skimmed the surface.

One or two or even three posts will not give you a complete picture (though the cobblestone Paseo 3 de Noviembre in the photo above helps). Each of my future posts will focus on a different aspect of this historic mountain city. My goal is for the next post to address something everyone is concerned about: your pocketbook.

In the meantime, don’t rely completely on what they say (and that includes me).

Go see.

See Cuenca for yourself.

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.