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ACCESS CUENCACuenca’s compact El Centro is perfect for exploring on foot

As Calvin Trillin wrote in the November 2010 Condé Nast Traveler, the central colonial section of Cuenca “doesn't look like a sixteenth-century city that has been preserved; it looks like a city that has been in use since the sixteenth century.” Trillin describes himself as an inveterate urban walker, taking great pleasure in strolling city streets around the world, so it's no accident that the journalist-essayist-novelist and former New Yorker editor has been to Cuenca several times.

Hoofing old-town Cuenca is a never-ending delight. El Centro is compact, perhaps 10 by 20 square blocks, so it has an intimate vibe, a human scale that’s immediately accessible to all the senses. Cuenca’s visitors are easy to spot: They stop and look and point and nod and smile and marvel, because it’s all so exotic and stimulating and enchanting.

Most of the architecture is colonial: two- or three-story adobe-sided walkups; some have small balconies with wrought-iron bannisters and stone balustrades. The walls are whitewashed or pastel-painted and the roofs are distinctly red-tiled. An infinite variety of front doors and gates leads to hidden homes, many with large parking areas and colonial courtyards that merge inside and outside spaces.

Reportedly, Cuenca has 53 churches in El Centro alone, one for every week of the year and one for good measure. You can see the oldest (Catedral El Sagrario or Catedral Antiguo), the largest (La Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción or Catedral Nuevo), and the most ornate (Iglesia San Francisco) within three blocks of the central plaza. Another two mark the east (Iglesia San Sebastian) and west (Iglesia San Blas) boundaries of colonial El Centro.

The market scene in Cuenca is lively, vibrant, and bountiful, with large bustling produce and meat markets scattered around town, along with an organic coop, clean and bright supermarkets, micro-mercados here and there, family tiendas on every block, vendors on bicycles, and squatters selling their produce on the street and from wheelbarrows.

A great place to dip into Cuenca’s fresh-produce culture is the 3 de Noviembre mercado on the corner of Coronel Talbot and Mariscal Lamar, a couple blocks north of Plaza San Sebastian at the west end of El Centro. Smaller, less bustling, and maybe a tad friendlier than the larger operations, this market also features vendors who post signs with the names and prices of their produce, which provides a good introduction to what’s available and how much it costs.

The two big produce markets in El Centro are 10 de Agosto, in the southwest at the west end of Calle Larga, and 9 de Octubre, in the northeast at the corner of Sangurima and Hermano Miguel. The former is a sprawling two-story building, while the latter is a slightly more compact three-story affair. Both have numerous vendors selling fruits and vegetables, meat, grains and beans, bread and pastries and sundries, as well as a food court serving juices, almuerzos, and prepared foods.

The Feria Libre is an enormous (several acres at least) open-sided mercado on Avenida de las Americas near Avenida Remigio Crespo, on the western side of the city, just south of the Tomebamba River. All the westbound and northbound buses stop here; a new bus terminal is being built right next door. This isn’t a cute little mercado; it’s a huge hard-core produce market that sells everything you can imagine, including live animals: chickens and chicks, pigs, guinea pigs, even goats.

You’ll also see produce sellers squatting on sidewalks, especially outside and around the indoor markets and on street corners. This is technically illegal, so from time to time the police make them move. Some squatters make it easier on themselves to sell their produce from wheelbarrows. They’re sort of an upscale version of squatters: When it’s time to move, they can roll their wares away.

Maps of Cuenca's El Centro are easy to come by. They’re often available for free at the tourist office and hotel front desks, and on brochure racks. But if you want the biggest street map of Cuenca available, stop off at Imprenta Monsalve Moreno, the big stationery stores located on Luis Cordero a block and a half up from Parque Calderón on the right and at the redondel of Remigio Crespo and Avenida Solano. Ask for el plano grande de Cuenca, which sells for a bargain $2.72.

If you’re not carrying a laptop and want to check your email or get online, look for the ubiquitous internet and phone cabinas. These are storefronts, one or more on nearly every block in El Centro, where you can use a computer or make international phone calls. Rates vary slightly, but most charge a penny a minute; two of you’ll pay $1.20 for an hour on a computer. Just walk in, ask for una computadora, sit down at a work station, and pay on your way out.

Cuenca is lucky to have the English-language Carolina Bookstore, owned and operated by Carol and Lee Dubs since 2006. Carolina, located on Hermano Miguel a half-block up from Calle Larga, sells hundreds of books of all kinds and Lee, usually manning the front desk, is a veritable fount of information about Cuenca and Ecuador. A college professor who taught Spanish in North Carolina, he also holds Spanish classes upstairs from the storefront.

A few blocks up the street from Carolina on Hermano Miguel, at the corner of Mariscal Sucre, is the multi-lingual bookstore, Libri Mundi. Though most of the books are in Spanish (on whose spines the type goes from bottom to top, rather than from top to bottom), Libri Mundi also sells some books in English, French, and German, especially dictionaries. Check out the two big coffee-table books in Spanish on Cuenca, one on its history, the other on its architecture.

But mostly you pass 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: Internet cabinas, tiendas, almuerzos, farmacias, hostals and hotels, peluquerias, papelerias, restaurantes, micro-mercados, dentistas, abogados, florerias, artisenias, panaderias, immobalarias, distribuidoras, and on and on. 

Banks with heavily armed guards in the doorways; department stores selling everything from memory chips to motorcycles; men’s and women’s and boys’ and girls’ regular wear, outerwear, underwear, formalwear; storefronts four feet wide and 20 feet long full of pots and pans, stainless-steel containers, Panama hats, barber chairs, fabric, produce, yogurt, among other things.

And on the sidewalks, people sell lottery tickets, DVDs, plastic-bagged chifles (plantain chips), mandarins and mangos from wheelbarrows. Produce sellers squat against walls. Barbecue grills smoke up doorways and street corners dishing out everything from chuzos (shish-kabobs) to salchipapas (fat French fries and hot dogs).

Don't leave home without sturdy walking shoes. And be careful where you put your feet. You navigate narrow centuries-old cobblestone streets and two-person-wide sidewalks; some buildings jut out over the walkways and crowd the street, barely a ledge between outside walls and clattering traffic. And watch out for the sudden, short, and steep driveways cut from the curbs every few yards, plus other ankle-twisting breaks and holes and irregularities.

It all adds up to the wonder and joy and magic of moving to a foreign land.

Reposted from the Miami Herald International Edition, Aug. 3, 2011.