Becoming Cuenca

Small Businesses Are the Heartbeat of Cuenca

Nov 25, 2022

“We might as well be eternally like this, wavering between everything and nothing, being happy.” ~Pablo Andres Uyaguari

This quote could apply to the majority of Cuencanos. Their spirit and attitude are so uplifting. It is why many Americans and Canadians have found Cuenca to be the place to enjoy life to the fullest.

Their enthusiasm for life carries over into their work. That includes Pablo Uyaguari and his father, Luis Uyaguari.

Little did he know that playing in his father’s guitar workshop as a child would lead him down the down the family path. For years, Pablo Uyaguari had other plans for himself.

Pablo became the fourth generation of family dedicated to the manufacturing of custom guitars. His father was the third of eight children of Don Uyaguari, an artisan from San Bartolomé, a town of about 4,100 people that is famous for guitar workshops.

A small shop like the one Pablo and Luis has or a small gourmet foods store like my friend, Luis Villacís, has are the norm in Cuenca. Corporate America has a small presence in this city.

Yes, there is a Pizza Hut, a few KFC restaurants (Cuencanos love chicken!!), and there are just two McDonald’s in the entire city of about 660,000 people. One McDonald’s is a stand-alone near Parque de la Madre and the other is in the largest mall in the city.

There is no Home Depot or Lowes Home Improvement. Michaels and Hobby Lobby do not exist here. 7-Eleven and Circle K are nowhere to be found. You will not find a Bass Pro or a Dick’s Sporting Goods in Cuenca.

The small man is predominant in this city at three degrees south. Both Joanna and I find it refreshing to be doing a good portion of our business with locals. We truly believe in “Shop Local.”

This attitude is why Pablo and Luis have people waiting for their guitars. Their guitars are made with a wide variety of high-quality wood. German Spruce and Italian Spruce are used for the sound board. Red Cedar from Canada is used too, for this part of the guitar. As for the fingerboard, they use Ebony. Acoustic boards use exotic woods, including Indian Rosewood and Walnut from Ecuador and the United States.

Earlier this year, Pablo told me, “We still have some walnut that we go 80 years ago. I love mixing the woods as it gives each guitar a really good sound.”

The family will soon be celebrating a century of guitar making. Their high-quality guitars sell for $1,200 and more.

Pablo is currently working on a 100th anniversary guitar. “It is a Classical Guitar that will be inlaid with Mother of Pearl for the design of the rosette,” Pablo told me. “I have not decided what to do with this guitar. I may use it for a presentation of our family’s guitars. I really do not think I will sell it as it is homage to my father and grandfather.”

In addition to the guitars, the family makes charangos and requintos. The charango is a small Quechua (the largest of any indigenous peoples in the Americas today) stringed instrument of the lute family. It came about in post-colonial times, after Spanish stringed instruments had been introduced to the Quechua.

Three young sisters are producing high-quality chocolate in Cuenca. In an industrial part of the city, in their father’s factory, the sisters are contributing to the world class chocolate that Ecuador is producing.

They named the company, Viferchi: A combination of their names: Viviana (VI), Fernanda (FER), and ‘Chiqui’ (CHI). “Chiqui” is the affectionate name given to Ximenia Alvarez, the sister in the middle. Fernanda is the oldest and Viviana (in the photo above) is in her final year of high school.

The three sisters founded the company three years ago. No amount of chocolate is too much for this small business. Recently, Viferchi produced 23,000 pieces of artisanal chocolate for Cooperativa Policía Nacional. It is the second largest coop in the country (JEP is the largest).

Viferchi produces visually appealing boxes for their chocolates. Fernanda told Joanna and me, “We have a printer that has 2 million colors. With this many choices, we can make personal boxes for chocolates.”

It can be as little as one box or as many as a thousand. Viferchi will make personal chocolates for a baby shower, weddings… whatever the occasion.

Our very good friend in Cuenca just ordered a box with a pink dragon for her granddaughter in Washington state. The specially designed pink dragon and the Viferchi chocolates were just taken to the U.S. this month as a gift.

The sisters only produce chocolate at 55 percent. Joanna and I were surprised when Fernanda told us that they only make sweet chocolate because people in Ecuador do not like a dark chocolate. Fernanda added, “Manicho (mass produced Ecuadorian milk chocolate filled with peanuts) is very popular here because it is milk chocolate.”

The sisters’ chocolate is excellent because they only use Cacao Arriba Fino de Aroma. Only 7 percent of the world’s cocoa is classified as Cacao Arriba Fino De Aroma and is predominantly grown in Ecuador. Fernanda told us it is the best cacao bean.

Fernanda, Ximenia, and Viviana have flavored chocolate, too. Their Menta (Mint) chocolate is very popular. Needless to say, Maracuyá is favored by many. Maracuyá is a variety of passion fruit that is a little milder and sweeter. Some say the flavor is similar to a tart mango.

Only the best flavored chocolates will make it to market. “If you try a flavor, you do not like, you are not going to try our other chocolates,” Fernanda told us. Because of that, Viferchi chocolate can be found at all of the Coral stores in Cuenca as well as at The Winery. It can even be found at a gift shop at Cuenca’s airport.

It truly is a family business. The sisters’ father owns Juan Alvarez CIA Ltda. Established in 2009, the family-owned company has around 50 employees.

One of the things they make are cocinetas. Prior to moving to Cuenca, Joanna and I had never seen one. A cocinetas is a stove that sits on top of the kitchen counter or is recessed into the cabinetry.

Many homes in Cuenca only have a cocineta. More than one Cuencano has told Joanna and me that unlike Americans, they do not bake. When they want fresh breads and cakes, they go to a panadería.

Juan Alvarez CIA Ltda. also produces hot water heaters. The family business is diversified, helping it survive the coronavirus pandemic. One day, the three sisters will be at the reins of the family business. Hopefully, they will continue making their great chocolates.

The mercados are filled with small businesses. Think of the mercado being a farmers’ market. On our side of the city is Mercado 27 de Febrero. It is not the largest market in the city, but we all feel it has a more Ecuadorian feel than some of the bigger and more popular ones. Mercado 27 de Febrero is where Cuencano families hang out on a Saturday.

It is also when hornado is served at several booths in our mercado. They are family run are very popular with the locals. That includes yours truly, who enjoyed eastern North Carolina BBQ for four decades.

Cooking hornado reminds us of a lot like a pig picking in eastern North Carolina. To obtain a crisp and tasty skin, it must be simmered. If the temperature is low, the fat melts and confits the protein. In other words, the fat enters the meat and gives it that softness and flavor. Oh my!

The original recipe for suckling pig changed when it arrived in Latin America. It is now marinated with saffron, wine, pepper, and cloves. A second version has the pig marinated with chicha, onion, garlic, and lots of cumin. But the ingredient that makes the difference is annatto. It is an orange-red condiment and food coloring derived from the seeds of the achiote tree, and it is only used in Ecuador for this particular dish.

Narcisa is the biggest reason we go to Mercado 27 de Febrero. We have been going to her fruit and vegetables stand inside the mercado for almost two years. Every time we approach her area with our Miniature Australian Shepherd, Peanut, she smiles and greets the three of us.

Joanna tries to use Spanish for what we need, and Narcisa is always trying to learn a new word in English. On our last trip, she wanted to know the word for cinco.

Earlier this month, I met a couple from southwest Florida at their El Centro hotel. Peanut and I were escorting them to our home on the south side of Cuenca as Joanna was cooking our dinner. Along the way, I showed the couple several points of interest, including Mercado 27 de Febrero.

It was Sunday, and I did not know if Narcisa would be there. Not everything in Cuenca is open on a Sunday as Cuencanos can be rather observant about the Sabbath.

She was there. I gave Narcisa a hug and introduced my new friends to her. After the introductions, Narcisa asked, “¿Donde está tu esposa?” (Where is your wife?)

I replied, “Mi esposa está en casa.” (My wife is at home.) Narcisa smiled as she understood my limited Spanish.

Most things at our mercado are sold in one-dollar increments.  One does not ask for 400 grams or a half-kilo, but just requests a buck’s worth.  You can ask for cincuenta centavos (50 cents), but most things start at one dollar.

Narcisa always gives us a good deal. Sometimes, there is “yapa” (a little something extra). We can usually get everything we want from our mercado friend, but there are times we go to another stand for what we need.

That includes piña (pineapple). Piña is grown in the coastal provinces and is shipped up to Cuenca. That means that many of the pineapples have not completely ripened before being for sale. Having lived in Hawaii for four years, I know how to pick out a nice juicy pineapple. Many times, the piña Narcisa has is too green, so we look elsewhere at the mercado. She is not incensed with us doing that as Narcisa knows we want the best for our kitchen table.

One of the wonderful things about Cuenca is freshness. In this case, I mean fresh eggs.

Right off the farm.

Like Narcisa, we have our favorite lady for eggs. Her small “store” is located on the outside of the mercado. Almost the entire exterior of Mercado 27 de Febrero is lined with “Mom and Pop” stores.

Our eggs lady always recognizes us. She gives us a big smile, welcoming us to her offerings. Of course, there were several choices of eggs. Brown eggs are the most common. Colorful eggs are aplenty. They sit next to the big bags of pasta, beans, and rice.

Unlike the United States, they are not washed prior to sale. This means the natural protective coating is still on the eggs. Refrigeration is not necessary due to the protective coating being present.

Many small businesses are located just down the street.


A good example is Ecuafrigor. The appliances / refrigeration repair business is a mere 100 meters from our front door. They are in the middle of our neighborhood. If you look closely at the photo above, the owners live upstairs. In Cuenca, there is no zoning to make an area exclusive for just businesses or for a certain type of housing.

On the same street with Ecuafrigor are two tiendas, a private school, an automotive repair shop, a small company that makes cleaning solutions, an apartment building, and several houses. Small businesses are an integral part of every neighborhood, making it very easy to get what you need without hopping into a car.

Because Ecuafrigor is our neighbor, Joanna and I just used them to hook up our stackable washer / dryer. We used them because the dryer runs on gas, but more importantly, Ecuafrigor is a small business.

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.