Before he leaves a visitor sizes up Cuenca; He loves what he sees (mostly) and pledges to return

May 14, 2019

I stayed in Cuenca only five weeks. That was long enough to learn that the Tomebamba river is often called Julian Matadero but not long enough to eat a guinea pig (aka “cuy”).

I love Cuenca for its friendly people, historic beauty and small town feel. I can’t help feeling that the magic seems too good to last The population is projected to double by 2050, by which time the new tranvia should be operational.

These projections don’t include roughly 6,000 expats, many of whom can be found at the Supermaxi Americas hunting for decent cheddar cheese.

The Rio Tomebamba was once known as the Julian Matadero.

During my stay, Ecuador made the headlines for evicting a famous fugitive from its London embassy. There are so many gray haired gringos in Cuenca that Julian Assange could have hidden here in plain sight. He could have even taken the alias, Julian Matadero.

While here, I learned that many expats live in a chic neighborhood affectionately called “Gringolandia” where they enjoy river view condos, U.S. Netflix, and cheap hip replacements.

The healthcare system in the U.S. is such an expensive mess that medical tourism abroad is booming. It’s no wonder people come to Ecuador, what with slogans like, “Come for the ‘Cuy,’ stay for the root canal!” (By the way, why are so many taxi drivers fascinated to know if I have tasted “cuy” yet?)

Speaking of taxis, many drivers think they can beat red lights by driving at relativistic speeds. I know it’s a newbie problem, but can the Bishop of Cuenca please declare there will be no absolution for drivers who pretend their meter is broken or say they lack change for a five?

I haven’t been here long enough to understand zoning or urban planning, but does anyone? If so, please explain why my neighborhood had an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting center right next to a liquor store. This seems a bit predatory .

I have managed to solve a few mysteries while I’ve been here.

Cuy? Maybe next time.

I now understand where all the USA’s Sacagawea dollars and Kennedy half coins disappeared to.

To the ongoing mystery of disappearing socks and Tupperware lids I add taxi seatbelt mating buckles. Someday we will find them.

I know Cuenca doesn’t need my suggestions, but wouldn’t it be helpful if the sprawling labyrinth known as the “Feria Libre” issued tracking devices to prevent loss of first time visitors?

Before visiting I didn’t know that Panama hats were really from Ecuador. I thought the hat prices were steep until I tried to make one at the Casa del Sombrero. Forty cross-eyed hours later I had a lopsided yarmulke and a deep appreciation for the craft.

I’m glad to have been here for Cuenca’s 462nd Birthday, the municipal elections, Semana Santa/Sopa Fanesca and the bi-annual “Tuesday Without a Rain Cloud.”

The ever-changing weather is fascinating. Thunder cracks so loud that roosters and car alarms feel the need to respond. The sudden, biblical downpours are amazing.

While here, I witnessed many customs and rituals that were foreign and beautiful to me. The only one for which I have yet to find an explanation roughly translates as, “tranvia testing.”

These sleek red tranvia bullet trains are not even operational and already cars are crashing into them. Wait until kids start putting pennies on the tracks and taxi drivers decide to race the warning bells.

Cuenca’s Gringolandia: Where gringos live like they never left home.

I was delighted when it was announced that all of the smoke belching blue buses would be replaced with electric vehicles by 2025. This seems like a achievable schedule, but don’t hold your breath (unless you are near a bus which is the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes).

And, hey, pedestrians beware! Car drivers consider you a lower life form. À propos, I learned that I can always make an Ecuadorian laugh by trying to explain that police in my hometown of Los Angeles will give “multas” (traffic tickets) for jaywalking.

That said, it’s risky for me to crack jokes in Spanish. My language skills have improved after two months in Ecuador but I still stumble over false cognates like “preservative,” “constipation” and “compromise” which mean one thing in English and another in Spanish. Trust me, this can be really “embarrassing.”

Also really embarrassing is always arriving way early for everything. I love that cultural events are everywhere and eventually understood that nothing starts on time except on the one day I’m running five minutes late. The 7 p.m. show generally starts at 8 p.m. and the 8 p.m. show starts whenever the musicians show up. Everyone else seems to know this so I interpret my terminal earliness as sign that the universe wants me to relax.

Ecuador is a wonderful country and Cuenca is the crown jewel. Beautiful, safe, stable, sincere — kind of like Switzerland except that the people here are friendly.

I love Cuenca and hope to live here someday. This town and its people are very special. If anything I’ve said seems the least bit critical, it was only in service of an untranslatable punchline and to suppress my sadness about leaving.

R.S. Gompertz is a native of Southern California who currently lives and writes in Seattle. He recently completed a tour of Mexico and South America during which he spent several weeks in Cuenca. His most recent book, “Life’s Big Zoo,” is available on Amazon. For more information about his life, work and travels, click here. 

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