We are amazed to be more than half way through our year in Cuenca. We are feeling some pressure to see and do it all in our remaining months, but we are also extremely thankful for all our family has been able to experience thus far. Our time here has strengthened our family bond – mainly because we are far less stressed and have so much more time together. Our challenge is to stay present in the moment while still making the necessary preparations for our return. As part of our reflection on our time thus far, we have compiled what me most love and most dislike about Cuenca.
Things to love about Cuenca – in no special order
Rivers – Cuenca means basin, in this case the basin where four rivers meet. One cannot walk far without running across or beside one of rivers. It is lovely to be surrounded by water on a daily basis and the parks along the rivers are a real treat.
Cost of Living– We pay $400 per month in rent, our kids attend the most expensive private school in Cuenca which is less than half the cost of TLC, a doctor’s visit costs between $2 (if we use our Coopera HMO type insurance) and $25 (if we go to a private hospital), avocadoes cost $.30 each not to mention papaya for $.50, utilities cost less than $20 per month….we could go on. It is no wonder there are so many ex-pats living here.
Laid back lifestyle – We are not running from here to there all the time. Things just seem to move more slowly here. While that can be frustrating when it comes to getting something done quickly or bureaucracies (see things we dislike), it is heavenly as a day-to-day way to live.
Abundant, fresh and varied food – Lisa goes every Wed. to a local market which sells an amazing variety of vegetables – broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, beets, spinach, cabbage, cilantro, parsley, avocadoes, peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, Swiss chard, etc. We buy our free range, organic eggs there directly from the farmers – mainly indigenous women. There is also homemade yogurt, raw milk, raw milk cheese, honey, whole chickens and fresh mountain trout. The “healers” stalls on the side are an added bonus and fun to watch. Fruits vary according the season, but what is not available at the market can be found at our local food co-op – we especially enjoy oritos (little bananas), papaya, pineapple, different kinds of plums, mora berries, strawberries, passion fruit, soursop…the list goes on!
Walkable/Public transportation – We live about 15 or 20 minutes from the city center walking, but we are definitely in an urban environment. The bakery, hardware store, mini-markets and pharmacy are only a couple of blocks away. Even if we need to take a bus, there are many and it is quite affordable at $.25 a ride. Taxi rides run anywhere from $1.50 – $3 on average. We use them a lot. It is so nice to have lots of reasonable and accessible transportation options – Most of the time I don’t miss the car!
Historic downtown – Cuenca’s colonial historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage sight which means it has buildings dating back to the 17th century. The plazas are reminiscent of those we visited in Spain. The churches are said to number 52 – one for every Sunday of the year. We are constantly charmed by the beautiful balconies and courtyards that are visible only when one enters – luckily lots of the restaurants and public buildings are housed in these buildings.
Almuerzos (lunches) – In addition to many good places to eat in town for breakfast, lunch and dinner, we are particularly fond of almuerzos or “fixed menu lunches”. They typically are homemade with fresh soup, real fruit juice, rice and a meat dish for anywhere between $1.50 and $3.00. We buy two or three lunches from a restaurant around the corner ($1.75 each) and that feeds our family lunch. They are pretty heavy in the starches (with only a little side of vegetables), but you really can’t beat them for value and quality! On a side note, we are not the only ones who buy lunch. What is notable is that everyone brings their own containers from home. We could learn a thing or two about recycling if we would just replicate that at home.
Safety – Cuenca is the third largest city in the country, but it still is very safe. There are reports of petty crime, but all in all it is very safe to walk around. We like that our kids can safely play outside with neighbors and we do not have to worry at all for their safety.
Entertainment – Cuenca is also known to be a cultural center for Ecuador. The symphony offers a free concert once a month in different venues (we loved it when they played at the church around the corner and when they played at the old cathedral downtown). There are bands, indigenous dance troupes and festivals many weekends.
The Coliseum – Wayne loves this place which is a few blocks away – he usually swims there three times a week in an Olympic size pool ($1.25/each visit), plays tennis twice a week and maybe basketball on Sundays.
El Cajas National Park – We’ve already blogged about that, but it remains one of our favorite places.
Climate – It’s generally 60-75 degrees everyday. It’s rare to have a day without at least some sun. We have missed spring and fall, but have not missed the NC winter!
Friends – We have been fortunate to have made some great gringo friends here. There is something about being in a new environment, far
from the normal support networks, that causes people to come together, more quickly than normal and in a deeper way. There is a certain self selection for those that decide to make an overseas move – some are downright loony, but others have very interesting lives and perspectives that have enriched our lives as we get to know them better. We see them regularly and really enjoy exploring and learning about our new home together.
Good and improving infrastructure – It is amazing to see the amount of public money spent on improving the sidewalks, roads, parks, etc. Big news in Cuenca is that they are beginning to start construction of a $200 million light rail system similar to many found in European urban centers that will alleviate some of the traffic in the center.
No panhandlers – While there is poverty here, it definitely is not 3rd world. Much of the time it seems like being in Spain.
Ice cream – is almost a major food group here. Seems like most people eat ice cream once a day, or they definitely would if they could. The kids love it!
Some Not so Great Things about Living in Cuenca
Noise Pollution – We’re in a city with ½ million people so it’s understandable to have more noise. But, Cuencanos use their car horns for everything – go, stop, don’t come into my lane, go faster, go slower, etc. Dogs bark at all hours and car alarms seem to have a life of their own.
Missing Asheville – We miss our friends and family and our dog, Charly, and know that life goes on there in our absence. There are times when something happens there that we are sad to miss.
Bureaucracy – Getting our visas was an experience in collecting useless forms, with many stamps that had to be just right. We are surprised by the amount of busy-work that our kids bring home from school that emphasizes form over content. Seems it is part of the culture and having lived in Latin America before, we were not all that surprised by it although it can still be annoying!
Hard to make friends – Cuencanos are very friendly on the street, in stores, or whenever you meet them, but it has not been easy for us to create deeper friendships. We feel fortunate to have been invited to join a few families on weekends and holidays – but ongoing contact usually requires us to do the bulk of reaching out. Cuencanos are very rooted in family – we have found that weekends are spent with family, not friends.
No Pedestrian right of way –While Cuencanos are very mild mannered folks, their alter egos take over in a car. Pedestrians have no rights and, if you can’t run fast enough, it might take a while to cross the street!!
As you can see the positives outweigh the negatives. There is so much to like about Cuenca – we feel so lucky to be able to call it home for a year. We’re sure the list will continue to grow during the upcoming months – new doors open up everyday…we’ll see where they lead us!