Becoming Cuenca

Inspiration and Life in Cuenca

Aug 5, 2022

Sail away, sail away, sail away

Sail away, sail away, sail away



Enya Brennan is a famous Irish singer, songwriter, and musician, known for pioneering modern Celtic music.  The lyrics above are from her 1988 hit, “Orinoco Flow.”

This song has an obvious meaning that probably applies to you. It is intended to take the listener’s mind away from their actual environs. When I first heard it 34 years ago, I thought of it as “a journey of the imagination.”

Today, Orinoco has a special meaning for me as it is one of the longest rivers in South America at 2,250 km. / 1,400 miles in length. Needless to say, the Amazon River is the longest.


Sail away, sail away, sail away

From Peru to Cebu hear the power of Babylon

We can sail, we can sail


The listener is called upon to “sail away” with the singer to distant lands. Enya mentions Peru, which is Ecuador’s neighbor to the south. Cuenca is just 360 km. / 225 miles from there.

I mention all of this to encourage you to sail away to Cuenca to discover a city that can be your new home and the beginning of a new and wonderful life at three degrees south.

You are probably at that time in life that you’re about to step out and do what you’ve always dreamed of pursuing. Or maybe the Covid pandemic or the insane number of mass shootings in the United States is threatening your sense of certainty or future plans.

Whatever it is, it’s times like this that we could all use a little encouragement. For what it’s worth, it’s never too late to be whoever you want to be.

Andrés Zambrano can point you in the right direction… with encouragement, of course. He is a very good friend of mine, who owns and operates one of the two best restaurants in Cuenca (per TripAdvisor reviews).

My friend left Ecuador as a 14-year-old and grew up in a tough neighborhood of Harlem. Surviving being a minority in Harlem, Andrés went to Bard College, a liberal arts school 90 miles north of New York City.

He spent some time in New York. Andrés wrote on his Facebook page, “After graduating from college, I was lucky enough to work with Sir Jonathan Miller, (an incredible opera director), who said to me that ‘life is a series of negligent details that only matter to you.’”

Andrés returned home to where he was born and his family lives and opened up a restaurant in his childhood home on the western edge of El Centro (the historic district). The restaurant caters to both expats and Ecuadorians. It has all sorts of entertainment and events in his intimate and artful setting.

This includes “Canelazo Stories.” Prior to the pandemic, Andrés and expat Jeff Salz started thinking of ways to create “community” and came up with this popular event of telling a snippet of one’s life story. Covid temporarily ended these special nights. And sadly, Jeff passed away from the coronavirus before seeing the speaking series return.

Darius Grant said, “Human beings are not perfect creatures, but their constant striving to better themselves with each step makes humanity in itself a perfect situation, and that is the beauty of life.”

The packed El Centro restaurant enjoyed two hours of sharing the beauty of life. It was very clear that the message every one of the speakers presented was to enjoy life right now. Every day is special. There is ‘always’ something to like and appreciate about your life.

After the uplifting night, Andrés posted on his Facebook page, “I wish I could tell you how much I enjoyed it. I loved every single moment of it. The house turned magical, and every speaker left a tiny bit of themselves on that stage. What that means to me and my development as a human is truly impossible to grasp; all I know is that I am better for it.”

You need to meet some of the people who spoke that night. Their stories will end up giving you that encouragement you need to move forward to a new and fulfilling life in Cuenca. Their stories will convince you that Cuenca is a true possibility for you.

Let’s start with Sarah Hanenbauer. The native of Bozeman, Montana moved to Cuenca in 2009 as a 33-year-old pursuing her Spanish Education degree at Montana State University. She told me recently, “I had a voice in my head that told me to study in Ecuador. The problem was I did not know where it was, so I pulled out a big atlas and had to go to the index to find it on the map.”

She knew less than you! But she pursued her dream of living overseas in a Spanish speaking country. The first seven years were spent in Cuenca before spending some time as a volunteer at the Ecuadorian coast. It took little time for the Montana native to become involved with the arts.

Because Sarah had organized several cultural events in Cuenca, and because she ran workshops as well as being heavily involved in the independent arts scene, she agreed to take over idiomART, an El Centro arts center. She never imagined running idiomART.

Sarah just moved idiomART from cramped quarters on the east side of El Centro to a two-story century-old house on Calle Mariscal Lamar. She said, “It is an indoor urban garden space with plants everywhere,” she said. “There are no hummingbirds or fountain, but it is a beautiful and comfortable space with lots of light. We have so much natural light.”

Cuenca is now entrenched in Sarah’s life, and she told me that she is glad she is running idiomART. It was scary at first, but now Sarah has expanded the art center’s programs, including cultural road trips that are conducted in Spanish.

She hopes to have everything in place soon to make IdiomART an arts destination for expats, Cuencanos, and Ecuadorians. The goal is to keep idiomART’s roots and sense of purpose, but to expand upon the first four years of the art center’s existence.

Scott Cushing’s story had everyone’s full attention. The native of Wenatchee, Washington started his worldwide adventure way earlier than most. Working for a circus in his childhood state, he was offered a job at the age of 18 with an Australian circus.

He jumped at the chance to experience a world that was different than eastern Washington. During his time with the circus, his travels took him from Sydney to Perth via an old train. It went through the Outback, a vast remote area in the center of Australia. It is arid, dry, and almost entirely uninhabited. On the long ride back to Sydney, Scott found his life’s passion: photography.

While leaning out of the train to capture the vast expanse on film, a trapeze artist in the window behind him snapped a photo of him. Scott has kept that photo and showed it to everyone that evening. He wanted everyone to know his passion for photography is full of excitement in Cuenca. The city is never short on subject matters to shoot. Scott’s love brought him to idiomART, where he is helping to get the word out through his camera.

Steve Chasson’s story addresses what may be holding you back. He founded Fundación GRACE (Give Refugees A ChancE) in 2019 to provide health care services to refugees and locals in need. The Cuenca charity started out providing services to 120 people per week, who have both emergency and chronic health needs. In three years, the number of people the organization helps has grown tremendously.

What he has done with Fundación GRACE is a story unto itself, but his message to the audience is what everyone fears. Steve told the story of his wife battling terminal cancer. She finally decided enough was enough and ended her painful drug treatments. Soon after she passed away, Steve’s parents in the United States died within a matter of days.

His story is ‘not’ to be a “Danny Downer,” but one of inspiration. As he smiled telling what happened to the ones nearest to him, Steve was encouraging everyone to enjoy life. Though his parents died far from him, he is very happy living in Cuenca. A good number of expats return home when their parents pass away, but Steve feels Cuenca is right for him as he continues enjoying life.

It was not only Americans reaffirming life in Cuenca. Sofia Palacios is an Ecuadorian, who told her inspirational story.

Sofia grew up with her two sisters and two brothers near the Colombia border, in Carchi Province. As a young woman, she decided to experience the world, spending six months in the Middle East, with four of them in Israel.

She came back to Ecuador loving Falafel and Shawarma. With a love of food, Sofia was part of the first class at the culinary arts school at the University of Cuenca.

It took Sofia six years to graduate as she was a part-time student, trying to make ends meet. During that time, she worked at Di Bacco, an Italian restaurant that catered towards Americans and at one time hosted a popular “Gringo Night” gathering.

Her good friend (an American) encouraged Sofia to open a restaurant. She wasn’t sure that running a restaurant was right for her due to it being a very stressful business. That restaurant did not last long due to disagreements with the landlord, followed by the Covid pandemic.

Fortune fell upon Sofia during the pandemic. She told me, “One day I was having coffee at Mansión Matilde, in the Casa del Parque, and my friend told me I needed to open a restaurant at this location. I agreed with her, so I signed a contract in July 2020 and three months later, we opened Sofy Glocal Cuisine.” It is now one of the top-dozen restaurants in Cuenca.

Sofia laughs about how close her restaurant never came to fruition. At “Canelazo Stories,” she told everyone that as a senior in high school, she was riding a thoroughbred horse in a pasture. A mad bull came charging at her. Sofia fell off the horse and tried to get to the fence. Someone pulled her up just as the bull’s horns were about to strike her. Her message was that life is full of unexpected events while others are of your choosing. That includes living in Cuenca.

Naza Gomez concurs. He is a highly talented blues guitarist from Buenos Aires, Argentina, who now lives in Cuenca.

When I worked in Little Rock, Arkansas, I would drive the two hours to Memphis to hear live blues music. Instead of hitting the touristy spots on Beale Street, I would go to a club that only the locals knew about.

Christina Aguilera said, “Blues and soul and jazz music has so much pain, so much beauty of raw emotion and passion.” That “raw emotion and passion” was clearly pleasant as Naza performed his love for the genre. My feet were stomping and tapping like I was back in the Blues Capital of America.

At the end of the evening, Andrés made a passionate plea to Naza to make Cuenca his home. I posted the same thing on Facebook. The Argentinian said, “Last night I experienced something different, I didn’t expect it and it was a surprise. This basin that doesn’t let me go.” Basin refers to the literal translation of Cuenca.

After posting that, Naza told me, “I am very grateful because in each show and in each place, there is always someone new to meet and enjoy. Yesterday was a special night and it was felt in every minute. The affection and their words of each one at night, made me feel that I have a place here and that I have a path to work hard on.”

He went on to say, “Thanks to the community of foreigners who value and help spread the art scene in Cuenca much more and who keep it completely alive and thanks to that we have work. And I am very happy because I will do my best to deliver more music and I know that many people will give me their encouragement to continue in this branch. Infinite thanks for the words of each one, now and last night.”

David Bowie said, “Aging is an extraordinary process whereby you become the person you always should have been.” If you are nearing retirement or are already at retirement age, Bowie’s advice should be taken to heart.

There’s a good chance that Cuenca is where you should have always been.

Naza concurs. “I’m happy. I assure you Stephen, Cuenca is my home.”

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.