Becoming Cuenca

More Than One Source Is Needed (Here’s Another One!)

May 1, 2023

“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” ~Zora Neale Hurston

There is a good chance you are reading my blog because of “formalized curiosity.” Research is critical part of moving to another country.  It is why my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life: A Rejuvenated Enthusiasm in Cuenca, Ecuador,” constantly states for you to look at other resources.

Do not rely on just one source. That includes me.

I cannot count the times I have heard and read on Facebook how a certain leading international publication misled them about living overseas. The word, “Liar” has replaced the second word in their name when they speak of it.

I am not taking a stand with that publication as I used them as my initial source for my research back in 2010. My “formalized curiosity” pushed me beyond them.

As a journalist of four decades, Wikipedia was a resource for my research. But! The free, collaborative, multilingual online encyclopedia was far from my only source. Wikipedia was used as my starting point to find out more about what I was researching.

This all leads to a very good friend of mine, who live in Florida. He and his wife were recently in Cuenca for their second exploratory trip (research). We met them for the first time on their initial trip to Cuenca.

One day in his El Centro hotel room, my friend wrote a very thoughtful Facebook post about Cuenca and Ecuador. He has tired of what has happened to the United States and because of some recent personal experiences in the Sunshine State.

That is why I am passing along his thoughts, followed by some commentary by me. On March 25, 2023, my friend posted his excellent thoughts and observations:


Just some observations about Ecuador:

(Noting that no country is perfect) –

Ecuador is the size of Colorado and incredibly diverse – the coast, the Amazon, the Andes, the Galapagos.

This country does not encourage hate and violence.

This country encourages a sense of togetherness and not individuality alone, not divisiveness.  A sense of community.

They encourage consideration and respect for everyone.  They honor their senior citizens.

They welcome immigrants and the variety of ideas and experiences they bring. They are not threatened by change.

They honor and respect the environment- it’s clearly delineated in their constitution.

They enjoy peace and love.

When you have met an Ecuadorian, you have made a new friend.  You immediately feel as though you have known them forever.

There is no hate – no anger, even from those who have little.

The mindset and belief system are one of tolerance.  Inclusiveness, not exclusivity.

There is little acknowledgment to how you’re dressed, or how you identify.

The culture here is counter to the U.S.  It offers a peaceful, kind, and cooperative nature.

It knows not “woke” or the nonsense north of its border.

It could easily be attained in America – but it takes an effort on the part of everyone.  Too much political gain by encouraging disinformation and even violence – and far too many people prefer the chaotic and destructive course that hate brings.

People in Ecuador have a strong faith – not just on Sunday – they live it every day.  They don’t try to force their beliefs on anyone.

They will help a stranger without a single thought.

They SMILE – they acknowledge you when you walk by – Buenos Días – Buenos Tardes.

They live a tranquil and peaceful existence, so foreign in America.

Are there issues, problems, crime?  Yes – in certain areas.

Guns are [generally] not permitted. They are not needed.  Outside of drug cartels in certain areas, there is no gun crime.  No mass shootings.  No widespread fear. Certainly not encouraged by government leaders.  Hotels and restaurants want you to be happy – and are always making sure you are.

English is spoken just about everywhere in the cities.  The people love practicing their English and encourage you to practice your Spanish – A wonderful dance of sorts. Lots of laughing.

Food is natural and organic – some items sold other than all natural, are CLEARLY LABELED.  Food tastes better – fruits and vegetables are incredible.

In any society, people make choices and decisions.  They are making really good choices in Ecuador – America and Americans are making terrible choices, with devastating consequences.

We wish people in our home country would be more open-minded, embrace more love and tolerance, celebrate the differences.  Unfortunately, we don’t see that happening.

Just an honest observation.

To add to what my good friend said, there is no doubt that no country is perfect. A publication of the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network that was released last month said Finland, Denmark, and Iceland are the happiest countries in the world (in that order).

Despite their level of happiness, I rarely hear or read about these countries being the retirement location for foreigners. Apparently, they are not perfect for those looking to move abroad.

Most likely, it is those long winter nights (There are fours of daylight on the first day of winter in Reykjavik) and the temperatures (In Helsinki, it is -5.5°C / 22°F in February) that do not make them perfect.

Both my wife and I feel that Cuencanos are the most welcoming people in the world. Most of our friends and visitors concur with this.

Cuencanos will go out of their way to help someone. They think nothing of it. In my opinion, Cuencanos are some of the most unselfish and friendliest people you will ever come across.

My very good friend, Lee, concurs. He told Joanna and me that he was walking on the sidewalk in Cuenca and took a misstep. That bad step led to him falling into a busy street.

Without hesitating, a Cuencano pulled Lee from the street before a vehicle would hit him. To the Cuencano, that was no big deal. To Lee, it left a lasting impression.

Lee is by far not the only one to have been helped after a misstep or fall. So many expats have told me stories of Cuencanos helping them out.

“People here are happy, friendly, and helpful,” said my Cuencano friend Martin. “It is not surprising to see a Cuencano help someone. I have gone up to people who looked lost or were needing some help in their journey through our city. When I spoke to them in English, they were surprised. Maybe more surprising for them was that someone was helping them.”

My American friend said in his Facebook post, “The mindset and belief system are one of tolerance.  Inclusiveness, not exclusivity.”

According to a March 13, 2023 report by the FBI, hate crimes in the United States surged 11.6 percent in 2021. The largest number was against Black people, followed by crimes targeting victims for ethnicity, sexuality, and religion.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) collects its own criminal and non-criminal data on acts of hate against Jewish people. The ADL counted a total of 2,717 antisemitic incidents in 2021, which was the highest figure since the ADL began tracking such data in 1979.

On October 28, 2022, the Washington Post ran an opinion piece entitled, “American Jews Start to Think the Unthinkable.” Dana Milbank wrote, “For Jews, just 2 percent of the population but the targets of 55 percent of reported religiously motivated hate crimes, the trend revives centuries-old fears.”

Segue to Ecuador.

Despite being a Catholic country, it has had open arms to Jews. My friend Martin is most proud of is fellow Cuencano Dr. Manuel Antonio Muñoz Barreto, who was the Ecuadorian Consul in Stockholm, Sweden during the Nazi era. He was recognized by the State of Israel as Righteous Among the Nations. It is an honorific used by the State of Israel to describe non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis for altruistic reasons.

“I want people to know that Dr. Manuel Antonio Muñoz Borrero issued hundreds of passports and visas to Jewish refugees in Europe. Those people ended up in Ecuador, including Cuenca,” Martin proudly states.

Borrero issued the visas at the request of a Swedish rabbi. The Cuencano came into conflict with the Ecuadorian foreign minister, who had asked him to cease issuing visas. Despite the pressure, Borrero continued to issue visas.

In 1942, the German government put pressure on the Ecuadorian government to fire Borrero.  He was warned and interrogated several times by the Swedish police and by the Swedish secret service (Säkerhetstjänsten).

One thing you will notice immediately in Cuenca is the lack of hatred, anger, hostility, and discrimination towards minorities, including the LGBTQ community. If you are a white person, you will definitely be in the minority in Ecuador.

Another Cuencano friend of ours is Paul. He wants everyone to know that despite Cuenca being a traditionally conservative city, it welcomes everyone.

“Because of our culture and traditions, you will never hear derogatory comments about gays nor one’s skin color,” Paul told my wife and me. “Everyone here is a good person. Everyone is nice.”

Renata and Vivi are Cuencano sisters in their late twenties. They say that the reputation of the natives of Cuenca is known throughout the country. “In other cities in Ecuador, they say Cuencanos are the friendliest,” says Vivi. “They tell us that they always feel welcomed in Cuenca.”

For these two lovely ladies, it goes beyond being welcomed. Joanna and I met Renata a couple of years ago when I was writing a story for CuencaHighLife.

After publishing the story, Renata invited us for a Father’s Day celebration with their entire family. We spent most of the day with this very loving Cuencano family. Food, wine, laughter was all shared. It ended up being the best Father’s Day I ever had.

Today, we are considered part of their family. Joanna and I were the only foreigners invited to a family christening. It brought us so much joy and the family felt honored having us there.

The other day, Renata sent me a WhatsApp message: “You have to come again!!! Because 14th May is Mother’s Day. And I would like to celebrate this day with Joanna. She is very motherly and deserves to be celebrating.”

Renata wrote this in English as my Spanish is still not good enough to carry on a lengthy conversation. It shows her sensitivity, compassion, and love of her fellow man.

My friend said on his Facebook page, “Are there issues, problems, crime?  Yes – in certain areas.”

It is misleading and does not help when the London Guardian has a headline exclaiming, “Headless bodies and deadly bombs: cartel violence escalates in Ecuador.”

It is an excellent newspaper that I read, but the problem is that many Americans are only headline readers. This journalist knows that many Americans read the headline and think they are now informed.

Though only the size of Colorado, many will glean that headline to mean that Cuenca is a dangerous city and that the drug cartel is running around uncontrolled throughout the Sierra of Ecuador.

Far from it! Native residents of Cuenca want foreigners to know their hometown is a safe city. “Generally, a Cuencano is an honest person,” Paul told me. “I do not worry about being in any part of Cuenca. Just use common sense.”

Martin agrees completely with Paul. “Wherever you walk in the city, you feel safe.”

He should know as he grew up in New York City during the years when crime was rampant. Despite it being a safe city, there are some expats stating that Cuenca is dangerous via their Facebook posts.

“They think that people are being robbed every day,” said Paul. “That is a total misconception.”

I conclude this post with this thought from Peter Morville, best known as an influential figure and “founding father” of information architecture. He said, “What we find changes who we become.”

Please research and look beyond what I have stated and what my American friend posted on Facebook.

I think you will like what you find and discover at three degrees south.

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.