Becoming Cuenca

Be Brave. Explore. Enjoy.

Jan 5, 2023

“Never be a prisoner of your past. Become the architect of your future. You will never be the same.” ~Robin Sharma, The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari: A Fable About Fulfilling Your Dreams and Reaching Your Destiny

Another way to say it is that you’re allowed to leave a city that has dimmed your light instead of making you shine brighter; you’re allowed to pack all your bags and start over somewhere else.

And you’re allowed to redefine the meaning of your life.

That is why I created this blog and post on my Facebook page every day to show that you can leave what you are not happy with. Joanna and I left the United States to find happiness, joy, and the fulfillment of life in Cuenca, Ecuador.

For us, the genesis of us moving was our jobs that were getting worse with time. The catalyst to look outside of the United States for us was the insane and unaffordable price of healthcare (67 percent higher than any other country in the world), the astronomical number of guns around us as every American owns an average of 1.2 guns (Every day, 321 people are shot in the United States), and the American Dream of home ownership quickly disappearing (In 2021, U.S. housing prices rose a stunning 18.6 percent, the strongest year-long growth in history). Your reasons may be different or may have a combination of ours.

We began our search in 2019. The whole world was in play as we considered cities on four continents. Initially we considered and looked at George Town, Malaysia, Bordeaux, France, Porto, Portugal, Medellín, Colombia, Panama City, Panama, and Cuenca.

Though George Town is renowned for gastronomical experiences, it was quickly eliminated for its heat and humidity (It is five degrees north of the equator and at sea level). Even though being named “Europe’s Leading City Break Destination,” Porto was taken off of the list due to the high number of expats in Portugal (The Los Angeles Times did an article this year that the Portuguese are tired of foreigners).

For the same reason as George Town, Panama City was deleted from the list (Nine degrees north of the equator and sits at the Pacific Ocean). Bordeaux has been called a miniature version of Paris. We felled in love with the city when we visited it for our honeymoon. It is cheaper than Paris, but its housing prices were out of our range (The median price for houses on the market is €680,000).

It came down to Medellín and Cuenca… both Latin American cities. The history of Medellín (drug wars and kidnappings) did not bother us. What tilted the scales to Cuenca was that Medellín was way too big for us, especially for Joanna who grew up in a city of 50,000 people (The current metro area population of Medellín is 4,068,000).

The superlatives for this 465-year-old city seem to be endless. The other day, a local restaurant owner originally from Valencia, Spain said to me, “Cuenca is the cleanest, most secure and safe city. There’s lots of culture, architecture… a lot like Europe.”

Indeed.

It is truly a great place to enjoy life. That includes sitting on an El Centro rooftop being warmed by a fire. The night I took the photo above, a very fine mist hung in the air (Think of Seattle’s weather). But that did not bother any of us who took in the ambiance of this historic city with its lit churches. To quote a South Korean company, “Life’s Good.”

Cuenca is also a beautiful and interesting city. Who wouldn’t want to go on foot in this very walkable city? The greenways along the Tomebamba and the Yanuncay make for a most pleasant experience. You may walk miles as you do not want the time at the river to end.

If you do not walk along the rivers, there is a lot to discover on the streets of Cuenca. Though many expats will exclaim how dangerous the sidewalks are, they aren’t if you watch your step.

Every street in Cuenca has a sidewalk, making it a lot safer than walking in the United States. What is a challenge is the unevenness of the sidewalks, things protruding from it at times, and the steep drop offs at some intersections.

Paying attention is the key, especially in a country where you are responsible for your actions. Unlike the U.S., there is no suing someone because of an unmarked hole in the sidewalk.

Joanna and I have a rule about walking on sidewalks. When you see something that interests you (which happens all of the time), you need to stop. Do not take another step. Enjoy the moment. You won’t be in a hurry so why not stay in place and take it all in? Once you are satisfied, you can proceed again. This rule has prevented me from falling in my three years in the city (I hope I have not jinxed myself!).

If you are a loyal reader of my blog, you have read how much I walk in Cuenca. This past week, my Fitbit said I walked 93,598 steps. That was down from the week before when I walked 101,125 steps for an average of 14,446 per day. That may seem high, but I know an American woman who easily does that every day (She posts her steps on Facebook on a daily basis).

My walks give me a cross section of life in Cuenca. The other day is a good example. Lunchtime (approximately 12-noon to 2 p.m.) is when it seems, the whole city is trying to get home for a couple of hours with family. That includes school children.

This is definitely not the time to wanting to get across town in a taxi. Av. Fray Vicente Solano is an excellent example why not to be in a car with everyone ‘not’ rushing home for lunch.

On your walk, you will never know what you’ll come across. That includes Ceres (Ricardo Muñoz Dávila y Remigio Crespo). With six stores in Quito, Ceres expanded nationally into Cuenca a year ago. The people of Cuenca have the opportunity to live the experience of choosing between more than 100 brands of national and imported cereals and try nutritious and innovative breakfasts.

If you are not in the mood for cereal, I recommend checking out Kolo Restaurant and Bakery (located in the mezzanine of Hotel Viega, Luis Cordero 5-65 y Juan Jaramillo). Frank Gonzalez has made his restaurant into an expats favorite for breakfasts. Many of our friends say this is their Go-To place for their first meal of the day. I should add that is ours, too.

That says something as Sunrise Café (Calle Larga 9-40 y Benigno Malo) had been the place for breakfast for expats. This restaurant is always being mentioned on Facebook when prospective expats ask where to go to meet others from their country. It is where Joanna and I went prior to Frank opening up his own restaurant.

Continuing our walking journey, turn the corner onto the busy east-west thoroughfare, Ave. Remigio Crespo Toral and you may find stunning surprises among all of the businesses. That is the true color of the roses. I do not computer enhance my images as I want to show the real world, not a digitized one.

Take a closer look at the photo. You will see cacti about to burst into bloom. This is really not an unusual sight in Cuenca. For whatever reasons, Cuenca is a great place to have almost any plant in your garden. It is why Joanna and I have seen banana trees (Yes; I know that they are technically not trees) growing right next to a cactus.

Always wanting to explore my hometown on foot and scouting out new places for me, I ventured onto Calle del Batan. The street parallels Remigio Crespo Toral and is less traveled.

It appeared I was the only Gringo walking on this very interesting and vibrant street. Because I ventured off the busy thoroughfare, I was able to enjoy a store window display at Fuego Intenso Lámparas Vintage (Calle del Batan 8-25 y la Española) that included what appeared to be a Jedi holding a lightsaber.

Instead of going to a Lowes Home Improvement or a Home Depot, one shops for their lights at these small stores. Cuenca is a lot more like Europe than the United States and Canada when it comes to shopping. Everything in Cuenca is a lot more specialized. There are very few huge, big box stores here that carry everything from A to Z.

Of course, a walk without a photo of a tram built by the French company Alstom SA is impossible. The Tranvía going down Gran Colombia is wrapped with an ad for the country’s largest co-op (credit union).

The tram line is 10.7 km / 6.6 miles long. It starts on the southwest side of the city at Río Tarqui and goes north to Gran Colombia, where it makes an eastward track to El Centro. In the historic part of the city, the Tranvía goes down different streets. The last stop is on the northeast side of the city at Parque Industrial. There are 27 stations to catch this modern city train.

For Joanna and me, the Tranvía is not convenient. At the moment, the Tranvía only has a crescent moon route. It does not serve the east side nor the south side of the city. Hopefully some day it will be a full circle. Many more would ride it, including tourists who could take in a good portion of the city for a very affordable price.

Lovers of old vehicles will be in heaven in Cuenca! Check out the Datsun 1200 on Ave. 27 de Febrero. Datsun never sold the tiny morsel in ‘Merica a half-century ago because it wasn’t ‘Merica enough. By the way, car aficionado Jay Leno thinks this Datsun pickup is “damn near flawless.”

For those who are too young to remember, in the fall of 1981, Datsun announced its brand name would be changed to Nissan, in pursuit of a global marketing strategy. In 2012, the company resurrected the Datsun brand, but only for some basic entry-level models sold in developing markets such as India, Indonesia, Nepal, Russia, and South Africa.

Finding a Datsun on the streets of Cuenca is not difficult at all. I cannot count the times a Datsun B-210 (sold from 1973 to 1978) has driven by me. Another car that is seen quite a bit is the original Mini Cooper. It was made by the British Motor Corporation and its successors from 1961 to 1971. Then there are the countless number of VW Bugs going down the streets of Cuenca. I do miss driving my 1963 VW Beetle with its sunroof…

Making a full circle and wrapping up my dozen miles on foot through Cuenca is Parque Lineal Yanuncay. Though tired by this point, my neighborhood river was a welcoming and encouraging sight. It was very low at that time due to the lack of rain, exposing hundreds of boulders one would normally not see.

I have mentioned it before, but it is definitely good to repeat myself. Parque Lineal Yanuncay was voted the best walk outside of El Centro. It was an unofficial online poll, but this park and river were a clear number-one. Venture outside of El Centro and you will find lots to see and enjoy.

This is just a snapshot of one of my journeys on foot. I hope you enjoyed my walk at three degrees south. May you have the opportunity to experience the riches of Cuenca. I hope it has enticed you to see and experience what life is like outside of your country.

And…

“You’re allowed to leave any story you don’t find yourself in. You’re allowed to leave any story you don’t love yourself in.” ~Rana Naim

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.