Becoming Cuenca

Santa Ana de los Cuatro Ríos de Cuenca

Aug 12, 2022

“Water is the soul of the Earth.” ~W.H. Auden

For many reasons, the quote from the 20th century poet rings true. Water is life in many forms. Because of that, humans stopped roaming tens of thousands of years ago to settle near sources of water. From Mesopotamia to New York, Paris, Budapest, Montréal, and Ho Chi Minh City, humans have always lived near water.

Everyone wants to be near a river. In the 1990s, a survey in Raleigh, North Carolina asked its citizenry for what they wished the city had. The number-one answer? A river flowing through it.

Cuenca, Ecuador has every city beat with the Tomebamba River, Yanuncay River, Tarqui River, and Machángara River. For those who do not know, the official name of Joanna’s and my hometown is: “Santa Ana of the Four Rivers of Cuenca.” But almost everyone just calls it, Cuenca. It is certainly a lot easier to say.

“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.” ~Loren Eiseley

What a perfect statement by the American anthropologist, educator, philosopher, and natural science writer. Cuenca is certainly centered around “magic.”  It starts with the clouds over the nearby Cajas mountains. Cerro Arquitectos (Architects Hill), peaks at 4,450 meters / 14,600 feet above sea level.

Though it looks intimidating with its volcanic rock peaks, the Cajas is like a gigantic sponge. The volcanic soil on top of the rocky surface absorbs much of the water that falls from the sky. Once saturated, the water heads towards Cuenca.

Every drop of water that the spongy ground releases get bigger and bigger as it goes down the mountains. The water drops eventually become a small stream above the tree line in the Cajas. As it collects more water, the small stream finally reaches the first plants on its way down the mountains.

The filtered water is clean and crystal clear.


This refreshing and tasty water is so good that we can drink it straight out of the tap. The water in Cuenca reminds me of the great tap water I enjoyed in Seattle, Washington.

“El Río Tomebamba is my favorite river.” ~Reni Garcia Figueroa

How that water makes it way down and through the Cajas to where Joanna and I live is an amazing journey. A good portion of the water makes its way to Laguna Toreadora and other lakes, in the middle of Cajas National Park. The Cajas has more than a thousand bodies of water (You read that number correctly!).

From there, it snakes it way towards the huge valley below and its 300 square kilometers / 115 square miles watershed. Just west of Cuenca, it is large enough that it is called the Tomebamba River. Our good friend and Cuencano, Reni Garcia Figueroa, is partial to this river as her family is building a place for all its members to live right next to the Tomebamba.

Despite being the shortest of the city’s four rivers at 23 km. / 14 miles in length, the Tomebamba is certainly the most photographed river in Cuenca. One reason is that it flows right through “Gringolandia,” the unofficial name for the western side of the city where many high-rise residences are located.

This river is lined with Eucalyptus trees. How it got to Cuenca, we do not exactly know as this very tall tree is endemic to southeastern Australia and Tasmania. This tree can tower everything as it sometimes tops out at 90 meters / 300 feet. It has smooth bark, sometimes with rough bark near the base, lance-shaped to curved adult leaves, flower buds in groups of three or seven, white flowers and cup-shaped or hemispherical fruit.

Its bark always intrigues us as it looks like paper from a distance but is a lot firmer… more like heavy duty cardboard. Many trees look like someone tried to shred it. Colors abound with the tree as there are all sorts of reds and browns making up this beautiful tree. We like the wood so much that we rescued a rather large fallen branch and is now on our terrace.

The river provides a natural and beautiful separation between Cuenca’s historic district, El Centro, and the newer part of the city to the south. It changes its name when it merges with the Machángara River to become the Cuenca River. Just a short ways downstream, where the Cuenca River joins the Santa Bárbara River, it becomes the Paute River. Why the name keeps changing, I have no idea why.

Eventually, all this water makes it way to the Amazon River and the Atlantic Ocean. It is wild that despite Cuenca being only 80 miles from the Pacific Ocean (as the Andean Condor flies), the water of the Tomebamba ends up in the Atlantic Ocean, which is about 2,700 kilometers / 1,700 miles away.

“A river seems a magic thing. A magic, moving, living part of the very earth itself.” ~Laura Gilpin

Because this city believes in green spaces for all to enjoy, we have what are called “Parque Lineal.” It is what you think: “Linear Park.” In 2021, expats in Cuenca were asked what their favorite walk was that is not in historic El Centro. Parque Lineal Yanuncay was the clear winner.

Starting on the east side at Tres Puentes (“Three Bridges”), a tree-lined pedestrian dirt walkway follows the curves of the Yanuncay River. There are many places to sit alongside the river and pass the time away. You will find families having picnics at the river’s banks. On higher ground in the river park, it is not unusual for there be a game of fútbol (soccer) or ecuavóley (three-man volleyball teams). It is definitely a slower pace of life here than the United States and Canada.

To avoid traffic on the major streets in the city, the pedestrian walkway goes under the city’s bridges. It gives Joanna and me an interesting perspective of our rivers, especially at Puente Felipe II (in the photo above). I hope the bridge’s archway gives you an idea of how big some of those boulders are. And these are by far not the biggest along the banks of the Yanuncay.

Water is a very powerful force, and it never ceases to amaze us as to how it has carried boulders that weigh hundreds of pounds downstream. It is such a powerful force that Cuenca is lit by hydroelectricity… a form of renewable energy.

At 43 km. / 27 miles in length, the Yanuncay is probably the second most photographed river in Cuenca. On the south side of the city, it merges with the Tarqui River on the eastern edge of Jardín Botánico de Cuenca (Botanical Garden of Cuenca).

Residents of the barrio (neighborhood), La Isla, call the 21 hectares / 52 acres garden their neighborhood park though it is definitely a park for all in the city to enjoy. A pedestrian bridge connects the north side of the Yanuncay River to La Isla and the botanical garden. Another bridge, in the botanical garden, follows the Yanuncay for a while before it crosses the Tarqui River. Bridges are an integral and beautiful part of this garden oasis.

In August 2018, under the leadership of Mayor Marcelo Cabrera, the city signed the contract for constructing this gorgeous and magnificent park at the eastern end of our neighborhood. Cuenca invested $3.2 million for this botanical park that is dedicated to “environmental knowledge, so the project will help the population increase their responsibility towards the environment, in the area of responsible management of natural resources such as water and soil.”

At the entrance, a marshland has been created to make a pleasing border between Jardín Botánico de Cuenca and Calle Paseo Río Jadán. The botanical garden displays the flora in our region of Ecuador, with plants from Azuay (including Cuenca), Cañar, Chimborazo, Guayas, El Oro, and Morona Santiago provinces.

Visitors have the opportunity of seeing some 8,000 species of plants of the forests, moors, and wetlands. It is a living educational campus for students and teachers of nearby Universidad del Azuay.

A local environmental engineer told the media that the botanical garden is important for the conservation of plant and amphibian species. With the afforestation (the establishment of a forest or stand of trees in an area where there was no previous tree cover), the return of native birds and endemic fauna is expected. This will enrich the research by the university students.

“I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.” ~John O’Donohue

Living in La Isla, we have two neighborhood rivers. According to online information, the Tarqui is the longest river at 48 km. / 30 miles in length. Though it may be the longest in the city, it could be the smallest.

It flows through the southwest side of the city by the city’s largest mall and by the residences in the south side of Cuenca. Do not be surprised to see several cows grazing along the river, inside the city limits. Many times, these cows roam the grasses on the banks of the Tarqui, in our neighborhood. While this would probably bother many people in the States, we consider a delightful ambiance to our neighborhood.

Cuenca is full of wonderful parks. Some serve neighborhoods while other parks are for the whole city to enjoy. That includes Parque Tarqui Guzho. This lovely park is located just off of Av. Doce de Octubre and along its namesake, the Tarqui.

There are several pedestrian suspension bridges over the river. None of them swing like the Capilano Suspension Bridge in North Vancouver, British Columbia. Nor are they as high above the river. One of these pedestrian bridges takes you to a lovely cookout area. There are at least ten barbecue stations. All of them look very beautiful with their chimneys. There are several children play areas. One has animals and flowers as its theme. It is a very colorful play area.

Needless to say, it is a beautiful and huge park. It is hard to guess how long it is due to the tranquil Tarqui winding its way through the park. If we have to guess, Parque Tarqui Guzho is about seven blocks long. Its width varies due to the twist and turns of El Río Tarqui.

It is a great place to spend a good amount of time to escape the noises of the city. If you time it right, it will only be you, the bees, and the birds. Well, I exaggerate a tad as there will probably be some other people who have the same idea about escaping the city while still being in the city.

Do not let looks deceive you about the little ol’ Tarqui. Like all of the other rivers in the city, it goes up and down quickly with the amount of rain we get. In May 2021, a freak weather incident had rain coming down hard at its headwaters. None of the other rivers got a deluge of rain.

Statistics show the Tarqui’s headwaters gets the least amount of rain of the city’s four rivers. But that May, the Tarqui became an angry river. At its height, the city said the flow of the Tarqui was 328.4 cubic meters per second. To give you an idea of how much water that is, 328,400 liters / 86,754 gallons were going by our neighborhood every second!

Yes… That figure is hard to wrap one’s head around. Think of it this way: A 12-by-24-foot rectangular pool with an average depth of 5 feet will hold approximately 10,800 gallons of water. A 16-by-32-foot pool with the same depth will hold about 19,200 gallons, and a 20-by-40-foot pool will hold 30,000 gallons.

More amazing than shattering its old record of 220 cubic meters per second is that the Tarqui River did very little damage. The river was just inches from flowing onto our neighborhood street. And no one in Cuenca was flooded out of their homes.

“A river is water is its loveliest form, rivers have life and sound and movement and infinity of variation, rivers are veins of the earth through which the lifeblood returns to the heart.” ~Roderick Haig-Brown

The Machángara River is way on the northeast side of the city. It is a four-dollar cab ride from our departamento. To give you an idea of that fare and distance, we can get across the city for usually three bucks.

It is not the longest river as El Río Machángara is only about 40 km. / 25 miles long. It starts in the mountains just north of Cuenca and flows southward by the east side of Cuenca. Just beyond the bridge for Panamericana Norte​, the river merges with the Tomebamba.​

Like every other river in Cuenca, it is easy to get beautiful photos of the Machángara River. Though in the city, a grove of Willow trees made for a mini forest along the river. Along the riverbanks, ferns are happily growing, accentuating the beauty of the river. I feel at ease, free of stress, on this part of the river.

When the river is low, it exposes numerous boulders. All of the boulders give the river a totally different look. and this part of our new hometown.

Just across the street, in a neighborhood, is a small, quaint craft brewery: The Hop Factory. One of the brewery’s owners told Joanna that the huge fallen log under the Willow trees is where he and his son like to sit to take in the river’s beauty.

When our family and friends make it to three degrees south, we will give them a “two-fer.” We can all enjoy the beautiful Machángara River, followed by some very good craft beers and camaraderie at The Hop Factory.

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.