Becoming Cuenca

Still My Favorite Color

Jul 1, 2022

The American child poet Mattie Stepanek wrote, “Sunset is still my favorite color, and rainbow is second.” I wish he would have lived a long life to enjoy his favorite color in Cuenca, Ecuador.

Most blogs, most videos, and many publications focus on the obvious of this beautiful city. El Centro is always mentioned and shown. Of course, La Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción de Cuenca has the top spot. The beautiful and iconic cathedral deserves it, but there is more to Cuenca than the obvious tourist spots.

Audrey Hepburn once said, “The most important thing is to enjoy your life – to be happy – it’s all that matters.” Cuenca has done that for my wife and me. Joanna and I are always taking walks in this city that constantly has something new for us to enjoy.

It is not always the big things, but sometimes it is a very small object, plant or even insect that draws our attention. Since arriving in Cuenca in January 2020, I would have to say that at least a quarter of my daily Facebook posts talk about what I had discovered that day on my journey through my hometown.

It helps that Joanna and I live in a beautiful part of a delightful city. Our departamento (condo) is located in a neighborhood with a name that is a misnomer: La Isla (The Island). If you look on a map, it could be a peninsula as the Yanuncay River and the Tarqui River merge on the east side of our neighborhood. The two rivers do get within a block of each other on the west side, so I guess Cuencanos decided to call it La Isla. Close enough.

In just three minutes, we can be at either one of our neighborhood rivers. And in five minutes, we can be at what we call “Our Neighborhood Park,” even though our true neighborhood park is just two minutes from our front door. Its official name is Jardín Botánico de Cuenca. I think the botanical gardens will eventually become a crown jewel of the city. I shot the photo above of our departamento building with one of the botanical garden’s pedestrian bridges. This one spans the Yanuncay River.

The English photographer Claudette Dudley said, “I love walking because it clears your mind, enriches the soul, takes away stress, and opens up your eyes to a whole new world.” If you move to Cuenca, that enrichment will quickly happen.

Many expats have rid their lives of owning a car for a whole new and healthier world that is seen by walking. I have no statistics, but it is my guess that 90 percent of North American expats are carless. Read that last word carefully as one’s eyes can play tricks. Most expats do ‘not’ own a car.

This allows them to walk all over the city. It is a perfect physical activity for people who are overweight, elderly, or haven’t exercised in a long time. Health experts have said a 30-minute walk a day improves cardiac health, reduces excess body fat, strengthens bones, reduces the risk for Type 2 diabetes, and is good for your mental health.

The average American walks 3,000 to 4,000 steps a day, or roughly 1.5 to 2 miles. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that most adults aim for 10,000 steps per day.

Maybe Jefferson Pérez is the inspiration for us walking all over Cuenca. He was born in the El Vecino neighborhood in Cuenca and is considered the all-time best Ecuadorian athlete.  Pérez won Ecuador’s first Olympic medal in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics for race-walking, becoming the youngest-ever gold medal winner in the 20 km walk event. In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Pérez won the silver in the same event. A statue of this great walker is in the beautiful Parque de la Madre.

I get a weekly “progress report” from Fitbit concerning the number of steps I do. These stats will give you an idea of what you will be doing once you are living in Cuenca:

  • Last Week: 11,214 steps per day for a total of 35.9 miles / 57.8 km.
  • Two Weeks Ago: 12,276 steps per day for a total of 39.3 miles / 63.2 km.
  • Three Weeks Ago: 9,126 steps per day for a total of 29.2 miles / 47.0 km.
  • Four Weeks Ago: 10,851 steps per day for a total of 34.8 miles / 56.0 km.

You get the idea! We have a friend from Arizona who puts my stats to shame. Every day on Facebook, she posts her steps, and it is a minimum of 15,000 steps per day. It can be done! The other day I did 18,738 steps.

Walking not only keeps you fit and in good health, but it also helps you appreciate the beauty around you. The Tomebamba River is a very popular walk for expats and tourists alike. Paseo 3 de Noviembre is a quiet and narrow cobblestone street that parallels the north side of the city’s most well-known river. Joanna and I never pass up an opportunity to walk on it when we are in El Centro.

At Puente del Centenario, the street becomes a cobblestone path that is tree lined. Though you are in the middle of the city, you will feel like you are in the middle of the mountains. The Tomebamba River will sing to you as the water rushes over the infinite number of boulders. There are plenty of opportunities for photos. That includes the one I took of Puente de El Vado.

The Zimbabwean-born and Canadian philosopher, Matshona Dhliwayo said, “You cannot cross large rivers without building bridges.” If you love bridges, you will be in heaven with Cuenca’s four rivers and bridges. You could say Cuenca is a small version of London or Paris without a Pont-Neuf or Albert Bridge (though we have El Puente Roto or Broken Bridge).

If you look closely at the photo above, you will see people walking across the bridge across the Tomebamba River for Ave. Loja. That is a common sight for Cuenca as a huge percentage of the city’s population walks. Cuenca reminds Joanna and me of Europe, where many opt to walk versus jumping into a car.

Let’s be honest… Most major streets in the United States you want to avoid like the plague if you are on foot. Many don’t have sidewalks. Other major streets are chocked full of strip malls with lots of asphalt, lining each side of it. Walking on these streets is not a pleasant experience nor desirable.

My favorite street in Cuenca is named after Fray Vicente Solano (1791-1865). He was a debater, orator, theologian, and writer. Solano helped found Cuenca’s first newspaper, with the Echo of the Azuay in 1828.

It took on its current characteristics of an avenue with three lanes in each direction with a tree-lined walk in the center. It followed the concept of urbanism called Garden City (Initiated in 1898 by Sir Ebenezer Howard). It is my understanding that Champs-Élysées was the inspiration for this beautiful street. Though this street is the major north-south route in Cuenca, it does ‘not’ feel like it.

Going south from El Centro, a five-story building at 12 de Abril is an artistic welcome to Av. Fray Vicente Solano. With an indigenous theme and hummingbirds accompanying it, the big four stories mural is a favorite of Joanna and me.

One of our favorite buildings in the city truly reflects Cuenca’s love for French architecture (and the expats for that matter). The huge French neoclassical high school, with its iconic red roof, was designed by Quito architect Luis Felipe Donoso Barba in 1930. It is our understanding that plans are in the works by the city to restore this glorious building.

The wonderfully landscaped avenue is an open book that recounts part of the history of Cuenca. There are a total of 12 monuments on this one-mile-long avenue dedicated to the illustrious people who have made Cuenca what it is today.

One of my all-time favorite guitarists, Carlos Santana, said, “There’s never one sunrise the same or one sunset the same.” That is so true of Cuenca. But I would add to Santana’s statement that Cuenca has more beautiful sunsets than anywhere I have lived or have been to.

Seriously!

A good friend of mine, who has lived in Cuenca for over a decade said to me, “The best and most frequently beautiful sunsets we’ve ever seen have been here in Cuenca — surpassing even Hawaii, Aruba, etc.”

For me, I would add Seattle, South Dakota, and North Carolina. The National Geographic said, “When a beam of sunlight strikes a molecule in the atmosphere, what’s called “scattering” occurs, sending some of the light’s wavelengths off in different directions. This happens millions of times before that beam gets to your eyeball at sunset.”

That explains what causes sunsets, but it does not explain Cuenca having more intense sunsets than elsewhere. I am going with the clouds… something Cuenca has a lot of. According to atmospheric science, the essence of a beautiful sunset is held in the cloud layers. Any clouds that are too low make for cloudy skies, covering up the sight of the setting sun.

You would think that would be problematic since Cuenca is at 8,400 feet / 2,560 meters above sea level. You could say that I have my head in the clouds being so high up.

But NOAA may have the answer for Cuenca’s numerous stunning sunsets. They say that typically, the best sunsets are seen in skies with high and mid-level clouds like altocumulus and cirrus clouds. Conversely, low-lying clouds rarely yield noteworthy sunsets.

“(Lovely Sigh) … So dreamy!”

That was the reaction from a friend of mine in North Carolina, who saw some of my Facebook photos of last night’s sunset in Cuenca. Frankly, it is a typical reaction from my friends back in Estados Unidos. It only confirms what I have been saying about the sunsets here.

If I had to guess, sunsets in Cuenca are probably the second most popular photographic subject matter. Taking the top spot are the gorgeous historic buildings in El Centro. It is why in 1999 the historic part of the city became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are five UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Ecuador. Three sites are cultural and two are natural.

It is not difficult to find Facebook posts by expats of the most recent sunset in Cuenca. I think that no one ever tires of seeing the brilliant reds, oranges, yellows illuminating the sky. Even in the heart of Gringolandia, the sunset is a magnificent thing to behold.

The name, Gringolandia, needs to be explained. It is ‘not’ a derogatory name, nor is it because it is the part of the city where most of the Gringos live. According to my Cuencano friends, it is named after Miami and Miami Beach with its 439 high-rises.

Oh! Gringolandia is ‘not’ predominantly expats. Everyone agrees that the majority of residents in the high-rises are Ecuadorian. I have been told many of them returned from the United States and purchased a departamento in one of the tall buildings on the west side of the city.

Sunsets are not only beautiful, but they also have so much meaning. They signify change, endings, and transformation. Nightfall reminds us that change is part of life. And for us in Cuenca, it is our “favorite color.”

I hope this post makes you move forward to what I think is a better life 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.

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.