I’ll admit it – Cuenca is the primary reason we went to Ecuador. It has been named as the #1 retirement destination in the world by International Living magazine as well as being singled out by other publications. It’s a city of approximately 450,000 residents in the southern highlands of Ecuador at 8,000 elevation. At that elevation, even at the equator it has a year round “spring like” climate. It retains it’s Spanish colonial architecture with arched doorways, interior courtyards, cobbled stone streets and 52 churches.
To get to Cuenca from Guayaquil, at the recommendation of the hotel staff, we used a minivan service which makes several daily non-stop trips between Guayaquil and Cuenca as well as other destinations. The cost was $12 per person each way for a 4 hour trip. We were told this was about twice the cost for the regular bus lines but a little faster and apparently, a little more “upscale”. Among the other passengers was a gentleman wearing a ball cap with Miami, FL on it. He’s a resident of Guayaquil, spoke very good English and is a professional billiards player on the way with a couple of others on the van to Cuenca for a tournament.
Once we got into the mountains, it was very lush and green with lots of little “waterfalls” flowing out of the mountain sides. The road was undergoing major construction upgrades. A new concrete surface was being put down. This is part of Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa’s commitment for numerous infrastructure improvements. This led to a few delays but overall it was a comfortable trip. We could have flown into Cuenca but we wanted to see what Ecuador looks like outside of the cities. The mountain scenery was fabulous. Very green with dramatic peaks and beautiful lush valleys with a river running through and cattle scattered about.
In Cuenca we had selected a hostel to stay in called Hostel Americano. It was a little further from the city center, El Centro, than I would have preferred but the hostess, Eulalia was very friendly and helpful and the accommodations were very nice at $36 per night. This is a 3 level house on the hill just on the North side of Cuenca with great views of the city. It was mid-afternoon when we arrived so we took the opportunity to do a little walking and get oriented. It’s so amazing to experience a place so different from your usual surroundings. Looking down street after street seeing the buildings with tall windows and iron work on the small balconies.
We learned quickly in Ecuador that the pedestrian has no right of way at intersections. Do not leave the curb until you have examined all directions and don’t necessarily take your cue from the locals since they are a little more adept at dodging vehicles and not tripping on the cobble stones. Driving in Ecuador involves a heavy reliance on the horn. We were not able to fully decipher all of the various patterns but there seems to be a horn cadence for every occasion. Interestingly, one of the uses for the horn does not seem to be for expressing displeasure with another driver. Even in the midst of traffic snarls, we didn’t see any shaking fists or shouts. It seemed very civilized and respectful. The one traffic related negative is that apparently Ecuador doesn’t put much effort into reducing vehicle emissions, particularly from busses and trucks.
We wandered around the central square which is a very lovely park like setting with plenty of benches for resting and observing. We had a very nice meal of “typical” Ecuadorian foods at a restaurant on the central square called Raymipampa.
Another of the notable first experiences are the “cholas cuencanas”. They are indigenous women from the surrounding countryside that come into the city to sell produce and other items they “manufacture”. They dress in the traditional manner with a full skirt with an embroidered hem that can identify which community a woman comes from, a beautiful fringed shawl and the chola hat. It is made using the same materials and techniques as the Panama hat (which is an Ecuadorian originated item) but it is painted white and will often be handed down from one generation to the next.
We got back to our room and settled in relatively early and before long heard some loud popping noise that could have been gunfire or fireworks or possibly a small explosion. The popping repeated periodically and then seemed to intensify around 9:00pm. We looked out our window in all directions and finally saw the fireworks. I had read that the people of Ecuador really like their fireworks and will use any occasion for setting them off. It was a really nice display that included a most interesting aspect. We could see several reddish lighted objects that seemed to float upward. They were not exploding or making any noise, just floated with a flickering red glow. I told Valerie that they looked like little hot air balloons. When we had the chance to ask about them, they confirmed that my description was fairly accurate. I’m not sure what provides the fuel, but the flame heats the small balloon and it floats upward and is carried by wind until it burns itself out. It was a very lovely display.