Becoming Cuenca

Modern Historic City

Sep 5, 2022

Though Cuenca is 465 years old, it is a modern city. The iconic red Tranvía represents my statement very well. In 2020, the city opened its 11 km. / 7 miles line for its red trams, otherwise known as El Tranvía. There are 27 stations between the southwest side of the city through the northern side and onwards towards the airport on the east side of Cuenca.

Our tram is only the third one in Latin America. The other two are in Brazil: Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. To be fair, Quito is just about to open its much-belated 22 km. / 14 miles underground train line.

Trams are a great way to move about a city. They move lots of people quickly over a long distance while buses move smaller numbers of people for shorter journeys. Trams are more flexible than trains because they stop more often, and they are faster and more reliable than the bus. Another advantage is that trams tend to be a lot quieter than buses.

Basically, on average, trams travel between 40 km. and 55 km. per hour when travelling along city streets. I have no idea what the median speed is for the Tranvía, but I bet it is at the lower end of that average.

Cuenca’s tram is based on Bordeaux, France’s 78 km / 48 miles of tram lines. Cuenca city officials visited the city of Bordeaux just before Joanna and I went there for part of our honeymoon. During our time in Bordeaux, we rode the wonderful trams numerous times. I shot one photo of their blue trams while we were there in 2016. Notice the similarity in the trams?

El Tranvía and Bordeaux use the same electric tram that is manufactured by the French company, Alstom SA. You may have never heard of the company, but you probably have heard of their TGV. Alstom builds this fantastic train that holds the world record for going 575 km. / 357 miles per hour in the Champagne region of France. Joanna and I have ridden this train several times, and we highly recommend that you ride one in your lifetime.

Like Bordeaux, our trams switch to battery power in some areas to avoid the use of overhead cables. You will not find any overhead lines in historic El Centro. There are no power lines for the trams in Cuenca and Bordeaux to keep the historic integrity of both cities.

Built in 2014, TRYP by Wyndham Cuenca Zahir became an instant hit. The uniquely designed blue glass hotel sits just steps from Estadio Alejandro Serrano Aguilar (soccer stadium) and just up the street from Parque de la Madre. It has won World Travel Awards as Ecuador’s Leading Design Hotel in 2021, 2020, and 2018.

In addition to having won several awards for its innovative style, TRYP by Wyndham Cuenca Zahir was awarded the TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice™ in 2021. This hotel has received several awards for being one of the best in South America, and certainly for Ecuador.

The hotel’s restaurant is definitely above the standard fare. Though Joanna and I live in Cuenca, we have walked to this El Vergel neighborhood hotel for romantic breakfasts.

It is not only their ground floor restaurant that makes this modern hotel a joy to be at. Twenty-five meters above Cuenca is Zielo, an excellent rooftop restaurant. On the roof are clear glass domes for couples and groups. The domes of various sizes were installed for the Covid pandemic and have become a very popular place to hang out.

The domes can be decorated in a personalized way for each occasion. With a 360-degree view, we have enjoyed food, drinks, camaraderie with other couples. Zielo is open in the evenings, Wednesday through Saturday. Reservations are highly recommended for a great view of Cuenca.

When our family comes to visit, we will make sure to take them to Zielo. It is a great place to have some excellent food and drinks and to take in all that Cuenca has to offer. It is truly a lovely experience.

A modern city is a city that is able to support a large population concentrated in a limited space. Cuenca is restricted by being in a valley. And it has a dense population. With a few exceptions, the big lawn surrounding a 2,261 square feet home (average size in the United States) with a two-car garage does not exist in Cuenca.

The first feature of any modern city is having the local authorities look at developing the land in a way to accommodate as many people as possible by considering practicality and functionality. Higher concentrations of people also allow local governments to efficiently support its services and infrastructure.

With high-density housing, tons of asphalt do not have to be laid down for new roads to keep up with urban sprawl. The only new asphalt (it is mainly concrete) in Cuenca is for paving dirt roads that still exist in the city.

Research suggests that residents in high-density communities tend to be more physically active and healthy. It takes little effort to get your 10,000 steps in every day in Cuenca. Most expats will tell you that they have lost weight since moving to Cuenca. This 5-foot-10-inch man used to weigh 192 pounds but has been rather steady at 170 pounds.

By walking everywhere in Cuenca, my BMI (Body Mass Index) is now under 25. By the way, Americans’ average BMI is now almost 30, which is the cutoff for obesity, according to the CDC.

The cost for transportation tends to be lower. If everything is close by, there is no need to hop into a SUV that gets 17 miles to the gallon in the city. And! We do not have to pay for parking or search for a place to park our vehicle.

Our monthly transportation budget is $42 for taxis or $9.66 per week. Frankly, ten bucks per week may be too high for us as we walk almost everywhere. To put our transportation budget into perspective, according to AAA’s 2022 Your Driving Costs report, the average yearly cost to own and operate a new vehicle in 2022 is $10,728, or $894 per month. Our transportation budget is a mere five percent of owning a new car in the United States. It should be noted that AAA is the authoritative source of this sort of information.

Though utility costs are a lot lower than the U.S., it is even cheaper because of living in high density housing. In 2021, the average U.S. household spent $122 per month on electricity. We have accurately budgeted $20 per month for our departamento’s electricity. This means our electricity bill is just 16 percent of what the average American shells out each month.

High-density communities may also be more environmentally sustainable as well. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said, “Higher densities might better protect water quality, especially at the lot and watershed levels. Denser developments consume less land to accommodate the same number of houses. Consuming less land creates less impervious cover in the watershed.”

And in areas where demand for housing exceeds supply, greater density may help alleviate issues with affordability. A huge majority of expats live in multi-residence buildings. It is very affordable to live in an apartment or departamento (condo). Finding an authoritative source of what the average monthly rent in Cuenca is difficult. But I am safe to say it is $550.

For comparison, it’s now $1,230 per month for a 30-year, fixed-rate loan, according to data from home-listing site Zillow. I use this loan figure (which does not include taxes and any PMI) as nearly two-thirds of Americans own a single-family home. The bottom line is that high-density housing in Cuenca is about 40 percent of owning a single-family home in the United States.

Despite the arguments in favor of density, high-density residential construction is not the norm in the United States. In Cuenca it is as the huge majority of new housing is multi-story buildings.

A modern city also needs public spaces. Parks and plazas are a great place for a city’s residents. It has been shown in several case studies that inviting public spaces help maintain a sense of community and connection to the urban environment of the city. They also help improve the overall health and wellness of the population.

Green space is beneficial to everyone, especially in the urban concrete jungles. Why are green spaces so important? Cities across the world are growing rapidly. By 2050, it is estimated that two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities.

It is now widely accepted that immersing ourselves in greenspaces has many health benefits. Having greenspaces benefits people with improved general mood and attitude, stress reduction, better mental health and functioning, and improved mindfulness and creativity.

Multiple studies have shown urban green spaces such as parks, sports fields, woods, lakesides, and gardens reduce stress and boost mental and physical health. Green spaces are also associated with better air quality, reduced traffic noise, and cooler temperatures.

The love of greenspaces and parks here started with the founding of the Spanish city with what is now called Parque Calderón. Bounded by four streets (Simón Bolívar, Benigno Malo, Antonio José de Sucre, and Luis Cordero), this central square and park is full of cultural and historical contrasts. After the founding of the city, Gil Ramírez Dávalos took a piece of land in the very middle. Dávalos planted his sword and a cross, which he used to baptize the square with the name of Plaza República. It is the oldest landmark in Cuenca.

In 1875, the Chilean government donated eight Araucaria trees. The name of the tree is derived from Arauco, the name of a district in southern Chile where the trees were discovered. These eight magnificent trees were a gift to President Luís Cordero, who was the leader of Ecuador from July 1892 to April 1895.

The tree grows to a height of 50 meters / 150 feet and are probably about that height in Parque Calderón. In the wild, the trees can live up to a thousand years, so it is the hope of the city that they thrive here for generations to come.

A major redesign of the park was made in 2001. The formal gardens and old gazebo were reincorporated into the central square. The walkways were replaced, and brand-new lighting was installed to highlight this park’s beautiful features.

Of the attractions inside the city limits, Parque Calderón is the third most popular place to visit on TripAdvisor’s list. This is impressive for a greenspace. For residents of the cities, including retirees, the park is a great place to watch people and just relax, letting time go by.

It seems that every neighborhood in Cuenca has their own park. Easy access to parks, green spaces, and recreation areas are critical to the well-being of urban communities. These parks serve as a social and recreational focal point for neighborhoods.

You will find out very quickly when you announce your interest in moving to Cuenca or declare your intent on moving to three degrees south that the term, “Third World Nation,” will be voiced. It will be made more than once. I guarantee it. For a good many Americans, they use the term to mean poor countries. Some may use it in a derogatory sense instead of what it really means.

To quickly clarify the term, The “three worlds” arose after World War II. French demographer Alfred Sauvy coined the term “Third World” in a 1952 article entitled “Three Worlds, One Planet.” The First World included the United States and its allies. The Second World consisted of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites.

The Third World were all the other countries that were not actively aligned with either side in the Cold War. Technically, Ecuador is a Third World Nation as it did not align with the U.S. or U.S.S.R.

A great example I use to shoot down the negative connotation of Third World Nation is Edificio Atlántida. This departamento building has the latest technology. Earlier this year the Cuenca high-density residence added a new way to gain entry to the underground garage. A camera mounted at the entrance reads the vehicle’s license plate as it approaches the doors.

Once the vehicle is recognized, the security doors open up the garage. No key fob is needed. A smart card in your wallet is not necessary. Of course, you can still put your thumb on the reader at the garage’s entrance to open the doors…

These are just some ways to show you that Cuenca is a modern city. 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.