Becoming Cuenca

Cuenca Christmas

Dec 25, 2022

“I love Christmas, not just because of the presents but because of all the decorations and lights and the warmth of the season.” ~Ashley Tisdale

There is something special about the lights at this time of year… especially in Cuenca, Ecuador. This city totally embraces the holiday spirit with its lights and decorations.

It is truly something special.

That is why this post contains more than the usual number of photos so you can get a good feel of why so many expats love being in Cuenca at Christmastime.

In the past, almost all of the public Christmas lights and decorations have been in historic El Centro. It seems that this year, Cuenca has decided to spread the wealth around. And it looks like the city has gone a different direction with simplicity.

A good example is the treat Joanna and I had on our walk at dusk a week ago. On our 30 minutes journey from our southside home to El Centro on foot, we got to enjoy every tree along the way adorned in white Christmas lights.

Cuenca had just added 1.6 kilometers / one mile of white lights and large three-dimensional stars in the middle of Av. Fray Vicente Solano. This major north-south tree-lined boulevard was made even more beautiful with the holiday lights and decorations.

The Christmas lights on Solano remind me a lot of Champs-Élysées at this time of year. That makes sense as my research shows that Cuenca ‘may’ have planned Solano to be like Champs-Élysées.

It was the first night of this festive look on Solano. As we approached the redondel (roundabout) at Remigio Crespo Toral, a city worker was tweaking the last Christmas star.

Our 30 minutes’ walk felt like 30 seconds as it was such a joyous and enlightening experience in our wonderful hometown.

One of the things Joanna and I love about Cuenca is that the city embraces the arts. We came from a country that has basically gotten rid of the arts in the K-12 curriculum. North Carolina’s second largest city was just down the road from us. It rejected a piece of free public art by noted Spanish artist Jaume Plensa. Near our hometown, a city basically has rules in place to make everything beige. That includes Talbots iconic red awnings.

Cuenca embraces artwork outside of the box. That is why you will see over a hundred baskets hanging above Calle Padre Aguirre, right next to Plaza de las Flores and Iglesia del Carmen de la Asunción.

It is my best guess that they were put up for the holiday season. And Joanna and I feel that is a great idea, a unique way to celebrate Christmas.

To me, it is perfect to have something so simple hanging in historic El Centro. Native artisans’ baskets are a living legacy of the culture and traditions of Latin America. Baskets in this part of the world go back nearly 15,000 years ago in Huaca Prieta in Peru (about 835 km. / 520 miles south of us).

In the photo above, I tried to show off the unembellished, non-electric Christmas display from a few angles. The blue domes of La Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción de Cuenca (New Cathedral) perfectly complemented the baskets. The golden glow of the church made for a warm, joyful holiday setting.

As I stated earlier, for some reason, Cuenca does not have the usual number of Christmas lights in and around El Centro this year. There are no lit jumping fish over El Río Tomebamba nor ground critters along Paseo 3 de Noviembre.

But! A 40-foot / 12-meters high artificial Christmas tree was on the sidewalk along Mariscal Sucre. It is not the tallest in the city. At 41-meters / 135 feet, Cuenca’s Christmas tree at Parque Miraflores is the tallest in Ecuador. It was extended by four meters / 13 feet this year to remain at the “top.” Because Quito and Guayaquil did not want to “fall short” of Cuenca, they had erected tall Christmas trees, too.

The towering Christmas tree has been at Parque Miraflores for the last two years. Prior to that, this tree with 22,000 lights had been in El Centro at Plaza de San Francisco (where the huge red Cuenca sign is located). Apparently, the city wanted a large enough park to handle the numerous families out to enjoy the lights and festivities.

When Joanna, our good friend, Carla, and I arrived on foot at Parque Abdón Calderón last week, the heart of El Centro was adorned with just white lights. This color represents the purity and harmony that come from holiness. Others say white lights are closely connected to healing, especially with some divine or spiritual intervention.

Joanna and Carla found a bench under a beautiful tree in the city square that was decorated with white Christmas lights to take it all in. Families were enjoying the Christmas spirit. Some were getting photos in front of lit holiday structures.

Street vendors were taking advantage of the large crowds, hawking holiday trinkets, including a man with lit balloons on the sidewalk along Calle Luis Cordero.

Of course, in Spanish… A large lit sign on the sidewalk along Benigno Malo was wishing everyone a Merry Christmas.

Calle Santa Ana (the pedestrian walkway between the New Cathedral and the old seminary) had white Christmas lights hanging from above. It was a joyous sight that the three of us totally enjoyed as well as many others taking it all in the heart of Cuenca.

It is my understanding that there are about 300,000 lights throughout the city to celebrate Christmas. When I took the photo above in 2020, El Río Tomebamba was really flowing due to the hard rain we had just before our walking holiday journey.

Maybe that is why the fish were jumping out of the river! This is one of the Christmas features that everyone loves in Cuenca. It is one of the reasons I wanted to be in Cuenca at Christmastime. I had been wanting to see these fish for a decade.

On our Christmas 2020 journey, we walked over the beautifully lit Puente Peatonal Universidad El Vado. Of course, we stopped in the middle of that bridge for several minutes to take in all of the fish jumping out of El Río Tomebamba. From that vantage point, you could really see the river rushing through our city towards the Amazon.

The walk is perfect to get up to the river’s edge to capture the fish jumping out of the rushing river. It was an absolutely pleasing and alluring setting to enjoy the spirit of Christmas.

Calle Simón Bolívar is one of our favorite streets in El Centro. Though it was almost 10:00 at night, there were still people doing the same thing as us. Vehicular traffic was a lot less thus I was able to stand in the middle of what is usually a very busy El Centro street to show off the beautiful historic buildings as well as the cobblestone street. The simple Christmas lights that the city put up were a beautiful touch to this historic street.

Literally winding our way back down to El Río Tomebamba, we all stopped at Bajada del Padrón. The pedestrian walkway was covered with beautiful blue stars that shone over the stone path. This pedestrians-only street is one of our favorites in the city. It is very European-like, not only for its looks, but that vehicles are greatly restricted on it.

Just a few meters further down Puente del Centenario, I had to shoot more stars. The entire street that winds its way down from El Centro and the steps were lined with blue stars. Sprinkle some animals throughout the area, and it became a great way to end our walking tour in December 2020.

Católica Nuestra Señora de La Merced de Turi (Church of Turi) is always brightly lit for the holidays. Turi is a town and parish on the hill right above our departamento. The parish covers an area of 26 square kilometers / 10 square miles and has a population of less than 7,000 people.

Vincent Van Gogh said, “I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.”

This quote from the Dutch painter of “The Starry Night” is very apropos for the lights of Turi. The hilltop town decorates the streets and pedestrian ways with festive lights. That includes an angel that was on our walk to the restaurants situated on a hill overlooking the town. From that vantage point, Joanna and I could take in a good portion of our beloved hometown.

There are numerous places to eat and drink with a lovely view of Cuenca. Having the Christmas lights all long Mirador de Turi just adds to the atmosphere. With so many lights, the color of Cuenca’s sky appear to be a beautiful purple due to the decorations.

Que pases muy lindo esta Navidad junto a tu familia y amigos.

Have a wonderful time this Christmas with your family and friends.

My Cuenca best to all at this holiday season.

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.