A walker’s guide to historic Cuenca: The pleasures of life on the hoof as well as the hazards
By Deke Castleman and Sylan Hardy
In his articles about Cuenca, former New Yorker editor, poet and food writer Calvin Trillin describes the joys of walking in the city’s historic district.
In a November 2011 Condé Nast Traveler article, he wrote that Cuenca’s Old Town “doesn’t look like a 16th-century city that has been preserved; it looks like a city that has been in use since the 16th century.” The only way to really appreciate it, he says, is on foot.
Cuenca’s expats agree. Several surveys, conducted by researchers and expats alike, show that 70% to 80% of foreign residents don’t have cars.
Hoofing around old-town Cuenca, and new-town Cuenca as well, is a never-ending delight. El Centro is compact, roughly 10 by 20 square blocks, so it has an intimate vibe, a human scale that’s immediately accessible to all the senses.
In the trying times of the coronavirus, walking takes on special value, providing an escape into the fresh air and opportunity to pull down the mask.
Inevitably, the first thing that strikes the walker is Cuenca’s architecture: two-, three- and sometimes four-story adobe walk-ups, some with small balconies with wrought-iron banisters and stone balustrades. The walls are whitewashed or pastel-painted and the roofs are distinctly red-tiled. An infinite variety of front doors, many of them hand-carved, and gates lead to hidden residential and business spaces, many with parking areas and old courtyards that merge inside and outside spaces.
You pass small family street-level stores and shops, long and skinny enough to be secured at night and on Sundays by single-wide security gates. The variety is endless: cabinas, tiendas, almuerzos, farmacias, hostals and hotels, peluquerias, papelerias, restaurantes, micro-mercados, dentistas, abogados, florerías, artisenías, panaderías, immobalarías, distribuidoras, and on and on.
Visiting them, or just peeking in, reveals Cuenca on the human scale, of old-world manners and business as it has been conducted for centuries.
In the ubiquitous tiendas, everything seems to be for sale: produce and meat, snack food and dog food, clothing, pots and pans, napkins and toilet paper, household goods, memory A chips, hats and umbrellas, wine and beer, fabric.
In the large mercados, you’ll find almost every type of home-grown food –vegetable, fruit and meat and fish– in endless variety, and see the merchants and suppliers performing their age-old rituals.
And on the sidewalks, people sell lottery tickets, DVDs, plastic-bagged chifles, mandarins, and mangos from wheelbarrows. Barbecue grills smoke up doorways and street corners dishing out everything from vegetable shish-kabobs to salchipapas (the Ecuadorian national fast food).
In short, there’s no telling what you’ll encounter on a daily stroll. Your senses will thank your feet.
There are, however, very important “rules of the road – and sidewalk” for pedestrians.
Sturdy walking shoes are mandatory. And you have to be careful where you put those sturdy shoes, since you’ll encounter plenty of hazards, including potholes, uneven pavement, and (tiled) surfaces that become slick when wet. You’ll navigate narrow, centuries-old cobblestone streets and two-person-wide sidewalks providing various widths of passage; some buildings jut out over the walkways and crowd the street, leaving barely a curb between the front door and clattering traffic. Walking into the street in such situations presents obvious dangers.
And watch out for the sudden, short, and steep driveways cut from the curbs every few yards, plus other ankle-twisting irregularities.
Sprained and even broken ankles are a common malady among expats, especially those who’ve just arrived and are not familiar with the hazards.
A seldom-mentioned hazard is posed by truck and bus mirrors. Because sidewalks often extend to the street curb and because streets are narrow, mirrors of passing vehicles sometimes protrude into sidewalk space. Every year, three or four pedestrians walking on the street-side of the sidewalk get whacked. Don’t walk on the edge!
No matter where it’s practiced, the rules of pedestrianism must accommodate local conditions. In Cuenca, and almost all of Latin America for that fact, the first rule is that you’re responsible for your own safety, a critically important fact. From the outset, consider yourself a marked woman or man, and expect minimum consideration from the drivers careening down the streets and avenues.
Although laws protect pedestrian rights as they do in North American, they’re seldom enforced and you’d be foolish to attempt to assert them in the face of thousands of pounds of oncoming steel.
As you acclimate to life on the hoof and overcome the initial shock, you’ll learn that there is a logic to life on foot, and how to interact safely and efficiently with drivers as well as other pedestrians.
You will also understand why Calvin Trillin refers to Cuenca as a great “walking-around town.”