By Deke Castleman
As Calvin Trillin wrote in a recent Condé Nast Traveler, colonial Cuenca “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.” Trillin describes himself as an inveterate urban walker, taking great pleasure in strolling city streets, so it’s no accident that the journalist/essayist/novelist 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. You see lots of foreigners, tourists and expats, stopping and looking and pointing and nodding and smiling and marveling, because it’s all so exotic and stimulating and enchanting.
Don’t leave home without sturdy walking shoes. And you have to 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.
Most of the architecture is historic: two- or three-story adobe-sided walkups, some with 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.
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 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, and on and on.
And on the sidewalks, people sell lottery tickets, DVDs, plastic-bagged chifles (plantain chips), mandarins, strawberries, and mangos from wheelbarrows. Produce sellers squat against walls. Barbecue grills smoke up doorways and street corners dishing out everything from vegetable shish-kabobs to salchipapas (fat French fries and hot dogs).
I always carry a map, but try not to navigate by. Rather, I memorize the street names, using mnemonics to order them west to east, north to south, starting with the four main streets that border Parque Calderon and five or ten streets radiating out from them in all directions.
I also carry my trusty 1995 microcassette recorder. I often talk into it on the street, figuring that, at best, I look like a writer about town, taking verbal notes, recording memos to myself on all the different fascinating, frustrating, curious, enlightening, annoying, amusing moments I experience, adding up to the wonder and joy and magic of living in a foreign land. At worst, I look like a nut, but I’m a happy one.