“Enthusiasm for my neighborhood makes up about 80 percent of my personality.” ~Adrienne So
I came across an article written by Adrienne So, a senior associate reviews editor for the monthly technology magazine, WIRED, with the quote above. Adrienne could easily be speaking for my wife and me concerning Cuenca, Ecuador.
As far as we are concerned, Cuenca is our neighborhood, though there are officially 15 urban parishes. An expat created an online map of Cuenca that shows 80 neighborhoods for those parishes:
- 24 de Mayo
- Airport & Bus Terminal
- Camino Viejo a Baños
- CDLA de los Cantones
- Ciudadela Calderon
- Ciudadela Kennedy
- Ciudadela Tomebamba
- Colegio Benigno Malo
- Colinas del Paraiso
- Control Sur
- De los Cerezos
- Del Tejar
- El Arenal
- El Cebollar
- El Centro
- El Valle
- El Vecino
- El Vergel
- Hermano Miguel
- Heroes de Verdeloma
- Hospital Regional
- Jardines de San Joaquin
- La Isla
- Line 18
- Monay Shopping
- Oro Verde / Gringolandia
- Panamericana Norte
- Parque de la Madre
- Parque del Dragon
- Parque Industrial
- Parque la Paz
- Primero de Mayo
- Puertas del Sol
- Quinta Chica
- Rio Amarillo
- Rio Sol
- Santa Ana
- San Joaquin
- Sector 10 de Agosto
- Sector 27 de Febrero
- Sector Bellavista
- Sector Don Bosco
- Sector Cañaribamba
- Sector Cementario
- Sector Colegio Borja
- Sector Coliseo
- Sector CREA
- Sector El Ejido
- Sector Empresa Electrica
- Sector Estadio
- Sector Indurama
- Sector Las Pencas
- Sector Los Totems
- Sector Monte Sinai
- Sector Narancay
- Sector Ordoñez Lasso
- Sector Racar Plaza
- Sector Remigio Crespo
- Tres Puentes
- Universidad de Azuay
- Universidad de Cuenca
- Urbanización de los Ingenieros
- Urbanización La Prensa
- Urbanización Valle de los Rios
- Urbanización Villanueva
- Zona Rosa
There is no need to memorize all of these neighborhoods! Heck… This geography / map lover cannot even name a third of those neighborhoods off the top of his head. Being familiar with the layout of the city is the most important thing to know.
Most people start with historic El Centro as it is the heart of the city. There is a lot to see here as a tourist and as a resident of the city.
It is laid out in a grid pattern. According to the lifestyle magazine and guide for anyone thinking about living abroad, International Living, this part of the city appeals to about one-fourth of expats for where to live. Patrimonial buildings are the biggest draw. Many of these buildings are 100 years old with some hitting the sesquicentennial mark.
El Centro has a little bit of everything to offer within walking distance. Basically, everything is tienda or tienda-size. What I mean by “tienda-size” is that some of the Ecuadorian corporate stores have a storefront in El Centro that is small compared to its other places at the shopping centers or stand-alone on major streets outside the historic area.
Being so compact and popular, El Centro has the most vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Many expats love this environment with its live entertainment, abundant restaurants, street music, shops of all sorts, and a large mercado (market). Add the many gorgeous historic buildings on every block, and these expats are in heaven.
Just below Turi, La Isla and Sector Don Bosco are located in south Cuenca, between the Yanuncay River and Tarqui River. It is pretty much the furthest popular area from El Centro, though it is only a 30-minute walk from most parts of these neighborhoods.
For many expats, a 30-minute walk is an easy and pleasant thing to do. The northern portion is bordered by Parque Lineal Yanuncay. It is a riverside park and greenway that follows the Yanuncay River. Most expats say this is the best walk in Cuenca that is outside of El Centro. It is that beautiful.
Near the Yanuncay River, new multi-story apartment and condo buildings are being erected. La Isla used to be the extremely poor and neglected part of the city, but it has been gentrified with new houses and condos. It is now a quiet neighborhood with a botanical garden being its crown jewel.
The botanical garden just won top honors in the 2022 Bienal Arquitectura de Quito. The annual event has the objective of recognizing excellent architectural and urban projects. This relatively new garden has two pedestrian bridges going over the rivers, making it easy to walk to many parts of the city.
The city’s largest shopping center, Mall Del Rio, is on the southern side of this neighborhood. It is an extremely popular place as it is anchored by Coral, what I describe as an Ecuadorian Super Walmart. Many expats agree with my description. All of the big banks in the city have a branch here, making it a very convenient place to take care of personal business.
El Vergel is bordered on the west by Av. Fray Vicente Solano. This is a beautiful tree-lined boulevard that runs south from the Tomebamba River to the Yanuncay River. At the turn of the twentieth century, the avenue was cut through agricultural lands. With the French influence of the time, it was intended to make a great avenue similar to the iconic Avenue des Champs-Elysée in Paris.
It is a popular place to live for expats as there are plenty of upscale restaurants, pubs, microbreweries, gourmet food stores and tiendas as well as the renovated Supermaxi grocery store. Many compare it to a Publix or a Harris Teeter. There is a decent size mall with lots of choices, including a tea shop. You can pretty much find everything you need within walking distance in this neighborhood.
Like elsewhere in the city, high rise buildings are being built to meet the increasing demand for housing and office space. This neighborhood is home to the 77-year-old Estadio Alejandro Serrano. The 16,540 seats stadium is where both the men’s and women’s fútbol (soccer) teams play. At times, music events are held inside the stadium.
Oro / Gringolandia is an area west of El Centro that has a concentration of high-rises. Gringo is not a derogatory term. It just means someone who is not Hispanic or not from the area. Usually it refers to North Americans, but Europeans are also technically Gringos.
The origins of the name, Gringolandia, have not been confirmed, but it does not refer to the high number of expats who live in this part of Cuenca.
Despite having “Gringo” in the name, a good number of its residents are middle class Ecuadorians. This leads credence to the best explanation that the neighborhood is called Gringolandia because of the number of tall residential buildings. Cuencanos have told me it reminds them of Miami and Miami Beach, hence the neighborhood’s name.
The super busy Ave. de las Américas runs right through it, and Av. Ordóñez Lasso runs straight west to Parque Nacional Cajas. The city’s French-built tram, El Tranvía, makes this neighborhood convenient as it goes east to El Centro and the airport as well as points south, such as the huge market, Feria Libre.
Some of the high-rise condo buildings are as high as 10 stories. Many of these buildings are rather nondescript. It is not an insult but compared to the beautiful architecture in the rest of Cuenca, these high-rises are rather boring from the outside. A good number of these buildings have a beautiful view of the Tomebamba River.
Sector Los Totems gets its name from the three totems situated in the middle of the roundabout for Ave. Remigio Crespo Toral and Calle Unidad Nacional. The totems are a landmark, created by the renowned local ceramic artist, Eduardo Vega. Because of these two major roads, and it is near Coliseo Jefferson Perez Quezada, this is a busy area.
Almost everything you could need is located in this neighborhood, including what is probably the best appliances store in Cuenca. Feria Libre (literally the Free Fair, or Free Market) is on the western edge of this neighborhood. The huge mercado encompasses seven acres; with everything you could ever need for your home. Possibly the freshest and cheapest food in the city is sold here.
When you make it to Cuenca and see it in person, one thing you will quickly notice is that Cuenca’s neighborhoods are not segregated by class. Several Cuencanos have told me both Quito and Guayaquil have segregated neighborhoods, but Cuenca has rich people living right next door to someone who is at the poverty level while across the street is a middle-class family.
To clearly understand what poverty is in Ecuador, Instituto Nacional de Estadistica y Censos (INEC) defines a person to be poor if they have a per capita family income less than $85 per month. They are in extreme poverty when they earn less than $48.
Joanna and I have every income class on our neighborhood street in southern Cuenca. We live on the east side of the street, which is mainly middle-class homes and departamentos (condos). On the other side of the street are people in the upper income levels. One of the families owns a nearby and popular delicatessen, offering meats, sausages, quality breads, pastries, as well as some gourmet food items.
At the very southern end of our street are some homes that have families that would be deemed in poverty. We all live harmoniously together. This melding of income classes works.
Back to that quote at the beginning of this post. They say that shine can rub off with time. In other words, your first weeks or months can be very exciting in a new city. The longer is at a place, the luster can wear off.
For Joanna and me, our feelings, our enthusiasm for Cuenca are just as high in Month #34 as they were when we arrived in January 2020. Nothing has changed. Well… I think our love for the city has increased in our three years here.
Maybe a big reason for it is that we walk almost everywhere. Cuenca is a very walkable city. Every street seems to have a sidewalk on at least one side. Most streets have sidewalks on both sides.
We feel safe walking because of sidewalks everywhere. It is a rather strange concept for most Americans as sidewalks are not common in many cities outside of the downtown areas. My oldest son lives in a suburb of Philadelphia. He was telling me the other day about a place less than a mile from his home.
“That’s great,” I said. “You can walk to it and not have to use your car.”
“I can’t,” said my son. “The busy main road I would have to walk down has no sidewalk. I’ll have to drive.”
Unlike the United States, Cuenca did not grow up around the automobile and big oil. The original part of the city was laid out with blocks being 100 meters in every direction.
Though a lot bigger today, it is easy to get to where we want to on foot. Our mercado is a 14 minutes’ walk. The big grocery store is just 22 minutes away. Getting to historic El Centro is only a half-hour on foot.
When Joanna and I walk, we try to mix things up. The goal is to not walk on the exact same streets. If possible, we try to walk on a new street for us. There is always something new to discover or enjoy. That includes a sunset over our neighborhood river as we completed our rewarding nine miles for the day on foot.
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.