Becoming Cuenca

Though a Resident, You’ll Become a Tourist

Dec 20, 2023

“The worst thing about being a tourist is having other tourists recognize you as a tourist.” ~Russell Baker

This quote from the American journalist has me laughing about me and my fellow expats.

It is because living in Cuenca is different than elsewhere I have lived.

For most people, they are not tourists where they live. In other words, people do not visit the attractions in their backyard.

Growing up in Seattle, I cannot count the times residents of the city told me they had never gone to the top of the Space Needle. You know… the symbol of the city, the iconic tower with a restaurant on top that was built for the 1962 World’s Fair. Many residents had never visited the Space Needle to experience the world’s only revolving glass floor.

That is not true of expats in Cuenca.

We are tourists in our own city.

There is so much to explore, enjoy, and be entranced by, that we are always checking out the sights. The City of Cuenca thinks so, too, as it submitted to Ecuador’s Ministry of Tourism 38 points of interest:


Bajada del Padrón

Bienal de Cuenca

Calle Santa Ana

Casa Azul Resto-Bar Gallery

Casa de La Lira

Casa de las Palomas

Casa de las Posadas

Casa Municipal Márquez

Catedral Antigua (Old Cathedral)

Catedral de la Inmaculada (New Cathedral)

CEMUART (Centro Municipal de Artesanias)

Centro Cultural Prohibido

CIDAP (Centro Interamericano de Artesanías y Artes Populares)

Corte Provincial de Justicia

El Barranco – Río Tomebamba

Iglesia Carmen de la Asunción

Iglesia de La Merced

Iglesia de San Alfonso

Iglesia de Todos Santos

Iglesia del Cenáculo

Iglesia San Sebastián

Mercado 10 de agosto

Mirador de las Cúpulas

Museo Culturas Aborígenes

Museo de Arte Moderno

Museo de la Ciudad

Museo de las Conceptas

Museo Remigio Crespo Toral

Museo Sombrero de la Paja Toquilla

Parque Calderón

Plaza de La Merced

Plaza de las Flores

Plaza El Otorongo

Plaza San Francisco

Plaza San Sebastián

Plazoleta Cruz del Vado

Puente Roto (Broken Bridge)

Seminario San Luis


“Cuenca presented to the ministry in September why it should be considered as a magic corner of Ecuador,” María Rosa Aguirre told me earlier this month. María is the director for Zone 6 for the Ministry of Tourism. It is the largest tourism zone in Ecuador, encompassing 10 provinces.

Niels Olsen, Minister of Tourism of Ecuador, made the decision to add Cuenca as a “Rincón Mágico del Ecuador” (Magic Corner of Ecuador).

The city joined Guaranda, Latacunga, Riobamba, Salinas de Guaranda, and Vilcabamba. Cuenca is by far the largest city to be recognized. Note Quito and Guayaquil – Ecuador’s two largest cities – are not on that list.

Though Cuenca’s presentation focused mainly on El Centro, María told me it goes well beyond that.

Cuenca has many well-known and talented artists including internationally renowned ceramicists Eduardo Segovia and Eduardo Vega, and well-known Miguel Illescas.

Joanna and I have several pieces from Segovia, six place settings and more from Vega, including two of his large platters hanging on our terrace brick wall. Of course, we have a few beautiful metalworks from Illescas, including a large hummingbird on our terrace.

Restaurants are another important reason Cuenca was recognized by the ministry as a Magic Corner of Ecuador. “We have many, many places with good food,” María told me. “The yellow house (Mansión Matilde) is very nice. There are lots of restaurants in El Centro to enjoy a good meal.”

And many of those restaurants are outside of El Centro. El Vergel is a general area that is southeast of El Centro and north of the Yanuncay River.

In a previous blog post, I mentioned tPasta. It is an excellent Italian restaurant that is so good that my wife’s surprise 60th birthday party with ten of our very good friends was there last month.

Parque Santa Anita has become the center for lovers of food. Facing the park is El Club del Queso. Maria Augusta and her childhood friend Erika Bermeo opened this restaurant/cheese shop.

“We bring in cheeses no one else has. We do not have the cheese that everyone else in Cuenca is selling,” Erika told me earlier this year.

“We have about 35 different types of cheeses,” Naula added.

The two are proud of their selection of international and domestic cheeses that are spicy, filled with herbs, smoky, have truffles, or with garlic. And they serve delicious food with their cheeses as well as a very nice selection of wines to go with it.

Other popular restaurants in the area include Lacraft Beer Garden with a good selection of Ecuadorian craft beers, La Pizza de Juanja, which many expats consider the best pizza in town, and La Enfrijolada, a Mexican restaurant that also sells Mexican food products. Then, there is Primitivo Artisan Bakery with its wonderful selection of sourdough breads.

María admitted to me it was not always that way. And I know that from firsthand experience when I visited Cuenca in 2011. Twelve years ago, the Inca Bar and Lounge and California Kitchen were about it.

Now, we have great restaurants like LaGuarida, where Andrés Zambrano not only prepares delicious meals for you, but there is also usually great live entertainment to boot.

According to María, the exponential growth in quality restaurants and wide varied types of food are attributed to two factors. The first is the University of Cuenca’s relatively young gastronomy program. Many graduates stay in Cuenca and open up their own restaurants.

The second factor is the expats. “We have many expats here which creates competition and a variety of foods,” María told me. I replied to María that Cuencanos agree with her.

Two years ago, I interviewed several Cuencanos for my popular book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life.”

Paul Wilches told me, “Because of the expats, new foods have been introduced to Cuenca. Foods we never knew about are now prevalent throughout the city.”

Martin Avila is in the same camp as Wilches. “Because of the foreigners, gastronomy has blown up in Cuenca,” Martin told me. “You used to only have a few lunch spots, but we have more restaurants and more choices of foods to eat because of the expats.”

Christmas is a fantastic time of year for every resident of Cuenca. It is why the Ministry of Tourism is now promoting events such as Festival de Luces (Festival of Lights) at Plazoleta de Santo Domingo and Encendido árbol Navideño (Christmas Tree Lighting) at Parque Inclusivo Circo Social. The artificial Christmas tree is the tallest in Ecuador and its location is rotated throughout the city.

Pase del Niño Viajero (Christmas Eve Parade) is a huge local event when most Ecuadorian families stay home, but lately, visitors have come to see it. This hours-long parade will now be part of the ministry’s promotion.

What makes Christmastime so great in Cuenca?

Av. Fray Vicente Solano is a beautiful tree-lined boulevard connecting El Centro with the southern part of the city. On December 9th, it became extra special when Cuenca turned on all of the Christmas lights on this 1.6 kilometers long street.

Joanna and I, along with two good friends of ours, went out to see the lights and take in this special time of year that our hometown makes so great. While waiting for the lights to come on, we met a few people from our edificio (condo building). They were just as anxious as us.

The seven of us were very giddy and excited to get into the spirit of Christmas as it’s the most wonderful time of the year with the trees in the middle of this beautiful boulevard all lit up.

Our hometown had musicians about every 225 meters in the middle of Solano, performing Christmas music and providing holiday cheer. To Joanna and me, it was the definition of keeping things merry and bright.

But Cuenca was not through with the Christmas decorations on Solano! A week later, our hometown had lined the entire length of the boulevard with Christmas trees by converting the tall streetlights into tall “Arboles de Navidad.”

As Joanna and I walked with our three friends up the lit street to El Centro, my wife remarked how the Christmas trees looked like they were topped with stars. They certainly did from our vantage point on Escalinata del Centenario, where I took the photo above.

It is certainly a beautiful and bright time to behold. As Coldplay said in their 2011 song, “Oh Christmas lights, keep shining on.”

Christmas lights are strung up all around the city’s historic district, El Centro. This part of the city is absolutely beautiful at any time of the year, but right now, it is a jaw dropper with its hundreds of thousands of lights.

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.

Right in the center of the park are eight pine trees that were planted by former President Luis Cordero in 1912. Despite not being wrapped in lights this year, they stood out as all of the trees around them were lit for the religious holiday.

Not only is the park all lit for Christmas, but the buildings around it are also. That includes Catedral de la Inmaculada, which had very long icicle lights hanging from it. Joanna and I both remarked that we were glad that we were not the ones to hang those lights from the 53 meters / 174 feet tall cathedral.

The Christmas lights in the heart of Cuenca are so popular that on the weekends, there are thousands of people partaking in the Christmas illuminations. A couple we know went there on a Saturday and told me there was little room to move around. That is why our friends at our edificio, Joanna, and I chose a Tuesday night to see the lights. Being retired gives us a lot more flexibility to schedule visits like this.

Weekends are an extra special time to visit Parque Calderón. Nine days before Christmas, a small version of The Nutcracker Suite was performed in the middle of the park, under all of the Christmas lights. An expat, who grew up going to the New York City Ballet and New York’s Metropolitan Opera, told our mayor at the performance that it was prettier than anything she had ever seen in the Big Apple.

Along with three of our friends, we visited the heart of El Centro on Tuesday night. Despite being a weekday night, there were a few thousand people partaking in the festivities, be it the lights, the live Christmas music, or the merchants set up along Mariscal Sucre.

As we started our walk back home, I remarked to one of our friends, who had lived in Germany for several years, that though it is not the size of the famous German Christmas markets, I found what we had experienced to be better. He smiled and concurred with what I had said.

I found it interesting that this year’s lights are different from what was hung last year. Making it more fascinating for me is that last year’s lights were different than what was hung in 2021. Cuenca tries to bring a unique Christmas experience for everyone each year.

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. Wishing you a Christmas that’s merry and “bright!”

Everyone’s spirits are lifted up by what our hometown does at this time of year. That includes the sounds of children singing and playing Christmas music in an unadvertised holiday event.

In the middle of the day, they were set up at an appliances store across the street from Parque Calderón. With the Christmas spirit, the store gave them valuable space at the front of the establishment so all could get into the Christmas mood. Joanna certainly did, listening to the beautiful Christmas music from her bench in our central park square.

Social media is a great way to get the word out about what’s happening. Relying on third-party data collected and published by a selection of trusted organizations and individuals, DataReportal says there were 14.72 million Internet users in Ecuador at the start of 2023, meaning 81.3 percent of the country had connectivity. Ecuador was home to 13.30 million social media users in January, meaning 73.5 percent of the country was on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok.

Cuenca does an excellent job of publicizing upcoming events, especially for Christmas. Using social media, the city posted a PDF entitled, “Agenda de Eventos Diciembre 2023, Navidar Con Amor” (Agenda of Events December 2023, Christmas with Love).

The calendar of Christmas events was eight pages long. Almost every day had something going on. I made sure all of my friends had this agenda, so we could be totally immersed in the holiday season.

For many expats, the Cuenca Symphony is part of their lives. That includes Joanna and me.

Especially at this time of year.

Like the city, the symphony is very active on social media.

They advertised online Antonio Vivaldi’s “Gloria,” which is one of sacred music’s most uplifting choral works. Gloria is a joyful hymn of praise and worship divided into 12 relatively brief movements and is performed worldwide at Christmastime.

Along with our beloved symphony, led by Augusto Carrión, the Youth Choir of the José María Rodríguez Superior Conservatory, and the Vocal Ensemble of the Polyphonic Choir from the University of Azuay performed on a Thursday evening at Museo del Monasterio de las Conceptas.

It is a religious museum in the Convent of the Immaculate Conception, which was founded in 1599. Established in an elegant house donated by Doña Leonor Ordóñez as a dowry for her three daughters, the current structure was built between 1682 and 1686. The church was constructed between 1720 and 1729.

The setting for the Christmas concert was perfect.  It was an intimate and uplifting setting for 300 people. For many of us expats, it was our first time in this gorgeous building as it was closed to the public.

Yuppers… We felt like tourists.

Dr. Seuss said, “Christmas will always be as long as we stand heart to heart and hand in hand.”

For Joanna and me and the rest of the expat community, we truly feel that way with what Cuenca does at this time of year. Our hometown goes beyond anything either one of us has seen.

And we thoroughly enjoy playing the tourist.

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 amigo.

Feliz Navidad.


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.