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A walker’s guide to Old Cuenca: The pleasures of life on the hoof as well as hazards and the do’s and don’t’s

By 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.

Tourists and expats on foot.
Tourists and expats on foot.

Cuenca’s expats agree. Several surveys, conducted by researchers and expats alike, show that 70% to 80% of foreigner 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. You see lots of expats as well as tourists, stopping, looking, pointing, smiling, and marveling, because the city’s so stimulating and enchanting.

Much of the architecture that you pass is historic: two- or three-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.

But mostly you pass small family 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.

Walkers can check out Cuenca’s striking architecture.

Visiting them, or just peaking 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 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.

chl cuenca gringos1
Expats typically walk to cafes and other meeting places.

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.”

Reposted from CuencaHighLife, 2015.

23 thoughts on “A walker’s guide to Old Cuenca: The pleasures of life on the hoof as well as hazards and the do’s and don’t’s

  1. One of our favorite things to do when we visit Cuenca is to walk around downtown (El Centro) all day.

  2. Every time I visit Cuenca I lose ten to fifteen pounds. The longest I have stayed is 5 weeks. I can’t imagine what shape I would be in, if I lived permanently in Cuenca and walked daily. I would probably get back to my high school weight. I would love that! LOL! There is nothing finer than spending a day walking “Old Town Cuenca”! The food, panaderias, the helados, OMG I need to return!

  3. One thing the author failed to mention – one better learn a quick two-step to avoid doggie exhaust while strolling the sidewalks of Cuenca.

    1. Ha, ha – or the dogs that will sometimes snap out to bite you through the fence if you walk too close to the fence, or the garbage stands that protrude into the sidewalks and are difficult to see, especially at night, and the unprotected guy cables from the telephone poles that are especially dangerous for unwary bikers. In Cuenca, it is best to remember “pedestrem cavete” (Latin for “pedestrian beware”). In Cuenca, the normal rules of etiquette of the gentleman walking closer to the street to protect the lady from the un-pleasantries of the road must be adjusted depending upon the circumstances that one encounters. 🙂 – but yes, Cuenca is a lovely city. (Oops – left out the bus fumes and the ugly graffiti.)

      1. Some countries feature the occasional piece of rebar sticking straight up from some yet-to-be-completed concrete project. Are these common in Cuenca?

        1. You might see some rebar sticking up from the ground now and then, but it is usually from something that has been demolished, rather than something unfinished, however, protruding rebar is common on the tops of buildings with the rebar indicating that an additional floor is yet to be built.

  4. did the walk of all walks this morning, up Turi, then up to the electronic towers, and back down the other side, 8.75 miles in total and a 1000 foot vertical, but the views 🙂

  5. The worse thing is the local people not yielding. Since the sidewalks are usually narrow there is only room for two and if you are walking it is rare they will yield. If you are along side the street you don’t want to walk in the street and if you are next to a building there is no where to go either. Sometimes I just stop and they have to go around. This aspect of the culture is the low point.

    1. Ah, another day, another fredtover bitch about how awful life is in Ecuador. What’s next, another complaint from Ricki about her awful plight over having to move (which she only threatens, but never does) because of the increase in IESS premiums?

      1. I’d probably be more trollish when hiding behind a screen name too. Puts your constant attacks in perspective.

    2. That’s a valid observation, fredtover. Many folks in this culture do not respect each other’s space. I don’t know if it’s being rude, or just oblivious. I’m a fast walker so my challenge is passing the people in front blocking my way. I am finding however, more and more that they do move over before I have to “permiso” myself. There is hope for cultural change!
      The other day I was walking down a very narrow plank along some tranvia construction. I was almost to the end, when another pedestrian entered walking the other way. He could have waited two seconds and I would have been gone. But no, he started walking so that we had to squeeze together to get past one another. A lot of times they walk (aggressively) the same way they drive.

      1. @Lorenzo Thanks for the confirmation of the personal space invasion! I do not like people bumping into me either! I guess the answer might be to steel oneself, and think of it as ‘jousting.’ Lol!

    3. I agree hon! Bumping into people in this way is not very nice, and not courteous at all! It’s good for people to be honest about what is not so great in the place they live, so thanks for that.

      One of the comments here also said there is dog excrement left on the pavements. I thought the law was that ALL dog owners has to pick up behind their dogs? Maybe, by the time I hope to move to this area, the law will be enforced. They are strict about that in America, and citizens are not backward in telling a dog owner to ‘pick up!’

    4. Yes there are clueless people in the world who have no personal space sense. I just left Cuenca and have lived in Vietnam and now Thailand. If what stands out to me is how people behave on sidewalks I’m missing the important things in life. At my age (67) I am finally learning the old adage: “Don’t sweat the small stuff, it’s all small stuff.”

      1. Or, as George Carlin said, “Don’t sweat the petty things, and don’t pet the sweaty things!”. lol!

  6. NO!!…’laws protect pedestrian rights as they do in North America’…is incorrect!!!!
    ALL vehicle traffic has the right of way here in Cuenca, not pedestrians.
    I was hit by a car as she came around a corner when I was 3/4 way across the street. The police report said I walked in front of the car. That’s the ‘logic’ here.
    Be vigilant of all vehicles as they will not yield to pedestrians as they usually do in North America. Pedestrian crosswalks aren’t considered safe.
    I always get eye contact with drivers when crossing a street.

    1. Actually, pedestrian rights are very similar to those in the U.S. I just took the drivers test and had to study that stuff. In fact, the answer to one question is that drivers must ALWAYS stop for pedestrians when they are in the roadway, regardless of circumstances. The problem is enforcement … and it’s a big problem.

  7. Such a well written and informative article (posted first in 2015?…and no one caught the “peaking”…which should be “peeking?”) Fire away..I am on the ‘grammar wagon’ but allow myself to fall off twice a year…and this is my second and final fall….

    1. Whahaha!! Well, I just read it, and caught it too, because I’m a natural-born grammar hawk!!

    2. Does counting your post add the second? I see a few errors in your posting. You’re well over two.

  8. My wife, the sturdiest of German walkers slipped and fell badly on a driveway, we from then on, either walked looking at the ground or stopped and enjoyed the view…but chewing gum and walking at the same time, a danger to ones health in Ecuador…

  9. Always nice to read a “straight from the hip” account of life in Cuenca. I don’t speak much Spanish (although I’m taking classes in Canada). I was able to figure out most of these words (peluquerias, papelerias, restaurantes, micro-mercados, dentistas, abogados, florerías, artisenías, panaderías, immobalarías, distribuidoras) except for “immobalarias”. Can anyone tell me what that means?

    Great article though…much appreciated!!

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