Becoming Cuenca

The Heart of Cuenca

Jul 5, 2022

They say that lights are the heart of every city. City lights make the night beautiful and full of life. It illuminates things that you may have never seen in the sunlight. Not only do city lights make places beautiful, but they also symbolize that there is always hope in the darkness. That may be one of the beauties of Cuenca, Ecuador.

Ellie Lieberman said in Society’s Foundlings, “There’s something about the thousands of glittering lights, the veil of nighttime that almost makes this place beautiful, especially in the reflection of the water. It makes everything askew, disoriented. There’s more truth in a ripple of water than in a clear day.”

In Cuenca, you get a bonus on many nights, especially during the wet season (the summer months of January through March). The wet cobblestone streets of El Centro glisten and reflect the lights of the night. It is almost as if there is a special shine in the historic part of the city.

On one rainy night, a green neon light was glowing on Calle Juan Montalvo. It beckoned me to capture it on camera. The primitive, lone sign, hanging on the side of the building, was trying to entice people to stay at Hotel Las Gardenias. It seems there is an affordable hotel on every block of the historic district.

Growing up in a big city, I have always been infatuated with neon lights. Calling this glowing green light in the heart of El Centro a neon light is a misnomer as it is filled with krypton gas. Neon was the first gas used to make light (which is red). That is why all gas-filled tubes are now called neon lights. The very first neon sign used for advertising in the United States was introduced 97 years ago.

At night, Cuenca gets livelier with vibrant colors. On one walk through El Centro, while on Calle Mariscal Sucre, the gorgeous architecture in the dim light was a delightful and soothing scene for Joanna and me. A traffic light shone a bright red next to the panadería (bakery). The iconic blue domes of La Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción (known as the “New Cathedral”) were a bright blue beacon above the rooftops.

The three giant domes, covered by sky-blue glazed tiles from Czechoslovakia, are not normally shot from this angle as it does not give one a total view of the cathedral. My goal was to make the domes to be the “icing on top of the cake” for the historic buildings on Calle Mariscal Sucre.

There are an infinite number of great shots to be had in El Centro. And nighttime gives you a totally different perspective in the historic part of the city. Walk slowly, and you can experience every-day life through your camera.

The gentleman in front of the closed jewelry store was inspired by “The Family of Man.” It was conceived as an exhibition for the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1955 and became an ambitious exhibition of 503 photographs from 68 countries curated by the Luxembourgish American photographer Edward Steichen.

I cannot count the times I looked at every photo in that book. “The Family of Man” may have been the impetus for my love of photography. There’s no doubt that it inspired me to show life in ways most people do not notice. Many times, it is something simple.

That included this man, who was reading what was on his smartphone. Using the light in the jewelry store behind him to separate him from the darkness, I was able to catch the glow of his phone on his face. You can see his concentration from the light emitting from his handheld device.

Galileo di Vincenzo Bonaiuti de’ Galilei (commonly referred to as Galileo) said, “It is a beautiful and delightful sight to behold the body of the Moon.” No doubt the moon looks great over any city, but Cuenca offers so many interesting settings to enjoy a full moon rising.

That includes in the photo above, where the full moon is rising in the east over the Yanuncay River and the southern part of the city. All along the city’s rivers, you will see Eucalyptus trees that were brought to Ecuador from Australia. Although the trees were first introduced to Ecuador in the late 1800s, it was not until the mid-twentieth century that a significant number of the trees were planted in the Sierra region of Ecuador.

In the 1970s, there were approximately 69 square miles / 18,000 hectares of Eucalyptus trees in the country. By the turn of this century, the number of Eucalyptus trees had soared to 313 square miles / 81,000 hectares.

The trees grow to such great heights along the city’s rivers that they are easily seen in the night. To me, it appears the trees are trying to touch the moon.

Part of what makes Cuenca so photogenic at night are the surrounding mountains. As you know, we live in a basin (“cuenca”). At night, Iglesia de Turi becomes a beacon for Cuenca. It is the religious center for the parish on top of the hill. The name Turi comes from the indigenous word, kuri, which means gold.

To many, it is like gold for its fantastic views of Cuenca, the artisan shops to peruse, and the restaurants for a drink and a meal. Most visitors take a city tour bus to Mirador de Turi (“Lookout of Turi”). Joanna and I love a challenge by walking up and down the 439 steps from Camino a Turi to the top. These steps are not for the faint of heart or out-of-shape. But the views you get while climbing the steep incline (an 80 meters / 262 feet vertical rise from the first step to the last one at Mirador de Turi) is really worth it.

If you look closely at the photo of Turi, you will see construction just below the century-old church on the hill. It is renovations and improvements to Mirador de Turi. According to Paúl Pañi, president of GAD Parroquial de Turi, this project was proposed several years ago, but due to “resource problems,” it had not been possible to execute until now.

The construction of this work has a term of 300 days and is supposed to be completed by the end of 2022. We all know how deadlines are never met (This is a worldwide phenomenon). The “regeneration” includes the improvement of approximately 4,000 square meters / 43,055 square feet, which is very close to an acre of land.

Currently, Mirador de Turi has very limited parking spaces so an underground infrastructure will be built. There will be a cafeteria and space for the sale of handicrafts. Cuenca is investing around $1,700,000, funded by the Development Bank of Ecuador.

Pañi told the local media, “Turi is the balcony of Cuenca. This is a project that will allow our people, our tourists, to enjoy a safe place, an adequate space, worthy of loving and loving it.”

One of the highest hills near the city is “Radio Hill.” I have not been able to find any online sources to reveal its true name. All I know is that dozens of radio towers sit high atop this 8,730 feet / 2,660 meters high hill, broadcasting to the city below.

The towers and the road leading up to it help separate the peak from the night sky. Meanwhile below, the city is aglow as people have their dinners and wrap up another day in this beautiful city. By the way, that is my departamento complex in the lower portion of the photo. Our complex has a huge rooftop area for all its residents to enjoy.

Christmas is too sparkly… said no one ever.

Amen to that!

Someone said that if you want light to come into your life, you need to stand where it is shining.

Cuenca does that at Christmastime. And it is extra special. Like many cities, it lights up for the holiday. This city does it with style and lots of “energy” (pun intended). It is my understanding that there are about 300,000 lights throughout the city to celebrate Christmas. That number seems to keep increasing every year, making the holiday season even more special than the year before.

The American actress, singer-songwriter, and producer Ashley Tisdale would be in heaven here. She said, “I love Christmas, not just because of the presents but because of all the decorations and lights and the warmth of the season.”

Plaza de San Francisco, with the country’s tallest Christmas tree, would be a good place for Ashely to start. It may be manmade, but it is quite impressive at night. Add the smells of food from the numerous street vendors, and it was like a mini-Christmas.

Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción’s striking blue and white glazed tile from Czechoslovakia shone brightly through the giant Christmas tree. It felt like the city’s landmark was watching over us to make sure we were having a great time during the holiday season.

Lights and lit figures have been placed in many places of El Centro for all to enjoy. Apparently, there is a “Luminous Route” that is more than two miles / five kilometers long and goes along Calle Simón Bolívar from Park San Blas (on the eastside of El Centro) to Plaza de San Sebastián (on the westside of El Centro). The route goes down the numerous steps to Plaza El Otorongo. It follows the Tomebamba River to Plazoleta Cruz Del Vado, Plaza de San Francisco, and Parque Calderón. You get the idea as it is a rather serpentine-like route through the historic part of the city.

When I took the photo above, the Tomebamba River was really flowing due to the hard rain we had just before our walking holiday journey. Maybe that is why the fish were jumping out of the river! This is one of the Christmas features that everyone loves in Cuenca. It is one of the reasons I wanted to be in Cuenca at Christmastime. I have been wanting to see these fish for a decade.

It may sound tacky or over-the-top with lit fish over the river, but it really isn’t. The lit fish and the lit animals alongside the river truly get you into the Christmas spirit, even if you do not celebrate the holiday.

The major streets in El Centro are all strung with festive lights. It is a “Must” to visit Parque Calderón as it is all lit up for all to experience Christmas together with family and friends.

Parque Calderón is stunning at night in December! The center of the park will stop you right in your tracks as you take in all of its beauty. It certainly did that to Joanna and me! Right in the center of the park are eight Chilean pine trees that were planted by former President Luis Benjamín Cordero in 1912. Each one of their trunks have been lovingly wrapped in Christmas lights.

Literally winding our way back down to the Tomebamba River, we all stopped at Bajada del Padrón. The pedestrian walkway was covered with beautiful blue stars that shone over the stone path. This pedestrians-only street is one of our favorites in the city. It is very European-like, not only for its looks, but that vehicles are ‘not’ allowed on it.

It is my intent that these photos of mine give you the incentive to visit this UNESCO World Heritage city. Hopefully, you can come to Cuenca at this joyous time of year. We want you to experience this lively and beautiful city. Any time is good, but Christmastime is extra special.

Cuenca will certainly brighten things up for you.

I promise.

It will leave a little sparkle wherever you go.

Hopefully, this post will make you move forward to what I think is a better life at three degrees south.

Or at least think about it.

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.