Becoming Cuenca

Scouting Cuenca / Scouting Out Your Future Home

Jul 30, 2022

Walt Disney once said, “We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

That new path may be Cuenca, Ecuador. Many have been in your shoes prior to you. And that includes yours truly.

I first found out about Cuenca in 2010 when International Living claimed it was the number-one place to live in the world. This journalist was not going to rely on one resource for such a big thing, so I contacted bloggers in Cuenca and met several people during my visit in 2011.

Being only 53 years old at the time and far from retirement age, I kept Cuenca in the back of my head. I made sure to be up to date with the latest information.

Your first visit to Cuenca starts with research. That may be why you are reading my blog. This blog is to supplement my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life.” I want to go beyond what I wrote to help you with your decision about moving to Cuenca.

You need to do the work at home even before getting on the plane. In my opinion, combining being a tourist with acting like a resident of the city is a good way to approach it. Let us be honest, expats in Cuenca can act like tourists, too. And that includes me. We enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of the city. Why shouldn’t you on your first visit to Cuenca?

That is why I think your research should start with travel websites such as TripAdvisor. And you can get some excellent travel information from the Miami Herald as this newspaper covers Latin American more than any other American media outlet. My good friend David Morrill, who owns the English-speaking online newspaper CuencaHighLife and lives in Cuenca, occasionally contributes to the Florida newspaper.

The New York Times has an excellent Travel section so that is another resource you should use, too. On September 12, 2014, they had a very good article entitled, “Three Sides of Ecuador.”

The reporter wrote, “By the time we reached Cuenca, roughly 8,000 feet above sea level, we were ready to ditch the car. Thankfully, its historic center — a UNESCO World Heritage site filled with terra-cotta-tile roofs, domed churches, plazas, tempting bakeries and cobblestone streets, all set above the grassy banks of the Tomebamba river — is a perfect place for strolling.”

By the way, the article’s primary photo was shot from Mirador de Turi, which overlooks the city below. By the time you get to Cuenca, it will not look like that as the city is doing a major renovation and upgrade to the mirador (overlook).

Being a tourist gives you an idea of why a city is so attractive. Paris is considered one of the two most visited cities in Europe, bringing in over 30 million tourists a year. The French city is one of the largest in Europe with over 11 million people in the metro area. There has to be a connection between the two.

Visiting museums is a great way to learn about the culture and history of the area. Museums are a microcosm of a city. And museums are usually huge repositories of historical artifacts and great examples of local art. It maximizes one’s knowledge of the new city with lots of time being saved by not having to go to all parts of the urban area. Maybe what is most important for you is that museums can offer visitors a chance to pursue their interests in seeing what Cuenca has to offer up close and in person.

By visiting the museums in Cuenca, potential future residents gain a better understanding of the city and its people. For Joanna and me, no matter where we travel, our journeys always involve visiting at least one new museum. This helps us understand the world a little bit better.

Some of the more popular museums in Cuenca are:

  1. Museo Pumapungo Parque Arqueological
  2. Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes
  3. Museo Catedral Vieja
  4. Museo Remigio Crespo Toral
  5. CIDAP – Centro Interamericano De Artes Populares (photo above)

Use public transportation to see the city. It is cheap and fun. When I travel to other countries, this is one thing I love to do to cheaply experience a city and to get my bearings. Ride a bus in Cuenca for 30 cents.

The Tranvía (the French-built tram) is a nickel more. Please note those fares are subject to change. And to ride a bus or the Tranvía requires an electronic smartcard. It is just like London’s Oyster Card where you slap the card up against the card reader when boarding. The tourist office in El Centro should be able to set you up with one.

If you are intimidated by riding on public transportation in a foreign city, ride a double-decker bus. You get an entirely different view of the city from up top of the London style buses. Two companies offer the bus tours seven days a week.

Tickets can be purchased at the buses that start on the east side of Plaza Abdón Calderón. The tour includes information about museums and other attractions as you ride about town. If you stay on the bus the entire time, it is just short of two hours.

Buses start operating at 10 a.m. and run until 7 p.m. They take a one-hour break in the middle of the day. The double-decker bus will stop and pick you up almost anywhere.

Another form of public transportation is very green and healthy: Bicycling. There are no schedules to know nor are you restricted by the route of the city bus or Tranvía. You decide where to go and at what time. Bici Pública Cuenca has rental bikes available throughout the city. In 2021, bike rental rates were 25 cents for 30 minutes, 50 cents for an hour, and 50 cents for each additional hour.

Tourists can use the system for a daily fee of just ten dollars. You can register at Bici Pública Cuenca’s office at Paseo 3 de Noviembre and Calle Juana de Arco during regular business hours or online. The cost of registration is $3. If you do not want to venture to their El Centro office, there is a mobile app that is available for android and Apple smartphones.

There are at least eight bike stations in El Centro so you will not be far from one if you are staying at a place in the historic district. Worried about getting lost? Make sure you have GPS on your smartphone. Cuenca is not that large for you to be too far from where you need to be.

The next best way is to get acquainted with a tour guide. This involves an organized tour or one that is fitted to your particular needs. You may think that hiring a private tour guide is a luxury. But it is pretty much a necessity for you to research and experience Cuenca in person. I think it’s an expense that is worth the cost.

Martin Avila runs Ecuador Trips from Cuenca. The Cuencano grew up in New York City but returned to his homeland in 1997. He believes that an organized walking tour of the city is enlightening. “I think it is very important to learn about the history of Cuenca while walking through the city,” Martin told me. “Foreigners always think about the Incas, but never the Cañaris. The Incas were only here for about 50 years. Look into the history of the people who have been here for thousands of years.”

His company offers a complimentary walking tour of El Centro that covers a little bit of everything. It is not just an excursion on foot. “People learn about the city’s history, architecture, famous Cuencanos, neighborhoods, churches, museums, and artists. When I give expats, who have been here for seven- or eight-years tours, they are amazed at what is here,” Martin said. “People learn about our history. At the end of the tour, everything comes together. You will have a very good idea of what this city is.”

One of the best ways to get to know a country and its culture is through its food and drinks.  The best way to try local foods is having someone local plot a course of where to go and what to eat. If you are lucky enough to be staying with friends, it will make it so much easier to figure out what is considered local and where to find it.

Joanna and I make food and drink a priority on our worldwide travels. It is the best way to experience the culture, learn about the people, and to immerse ourselves in the way of life at our new destination. Seriously, a lot can be learned and experienced by combining travel with gastronomy. You open up yourself to discovering the area’s history, its traditions, and local culture that goes beyond a visit to a museum.

Something that my wife and I love to do when we travel is to visit a local grocery store. A farmers’ market (or “mercado” in Cuenca) is the best place to experience local foods. Usually, there are no corporations and companies at the markets. It is only local farmers and the locals themselves selling what is abundant in the area.

Cuenca has modern grocery stores. While we do not have anything to rival Wegmans, we do have Supermaxi. Think of it as a Harris Teeter or Ralphs. In 1971 the first Supermaxi store opened in Quito, and eight years later they opened their first store in Guayaquil. They have several stores in Cuenca, including a Megamaxi that is under construction on the southeast side of the city. Think of a Megamaxi as a Super Target.

Joanna and I go to Comisariato Popular, located on Av. Remigio Crespo Toral. It reminds me of an A&P, the American chain of grocery stores that operated from 1859 to 2015. We like the smaller grocery stores due to smaller crowds in the aisles.

Besides, “Popular” has a small-town feel to it. Everyone at the grocery store knows my wife. When we returned from our six-week visit to the United States, the security guard at the front door asked my wife where she had been. “¡Estados Unidos! Visitamos a nuestra familia” (United States! We visited our family.). The guard smiled back at Joanna.

My goal is for you to believe everything I present and to have a great understanding of this colorful city that is three degrees south of the equator. It is why I encourage you to do your research, too. Verify what I have written. Every good journalist confirms his or her sources. I am only one source for you. It is important to have many sources before making the big move.

Join Facebook groups in Ecuador. There are local expat online publications. Cuenca has an online English-language news site (CuencaHighLife). All of this helps provide a sense of what is going on around the city.

Ecuadorian Facebook groups can also help you with your research.  A woman In California wrote on the Ecuador Expats Facebook group in August 2021 that she was looking at every negative review of the country she could find. Her goal was to get all of the pluses and minuses to make an educated and informed decision. She presented to the group what was “maybe the most intense” negative article she could find about Ecuador. The California mother wanted to see if expats agreed with the 2016 article.

It quickly got a lot of responses. Almost every response said the article had incorrect information and unrealistic statements presented as fact. Several expats informed the Californian that the writer was biased. I chimed in that the writer had lived in Panama since 2009, and the writer had a vested interest in enticing people to Panama instead of to Ecuador (she owned a relocation business in that country). It was so biased that one expat said it looked like it was written by the Panama Tourism Board.

I do not know what the woman in California did, but it is my hope she took those responses, and used them to find reliable sources that confirmed the answers she received on social media.

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.

You may want to sign up to be notified when I post new information and photos. By doing this, you will get the latest as soon as it goes online.

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.