Cuenca is a city meant for walking

Feb 26, 2024 | 0 comments

By MikeTrebilcock

With cobble-stone streets, colonial architecture, tree-lined parks, and historic churches, this quaint, overseas gem just beckons visitors to explore on foot. Cuenca is clearly meant for walking.

Not only is the temperature a perfect cool for exercise, and the people genuinely congenial, the combination of flower-filled balconies, and tree-lined walkways – some along beautiful riverbanks – beckons visitors to discover the city on foot, so I set out to do just that.

The center of the historic district – from Parque Calderon and two Cathedrals – was a perfect starting point.  From there, I could admire the historic spires, and interiors of these colonial landmarks.  Then I headed towards one of the principal streets – taking Avenue Simon Bolivar to Calle Hermano Miguel towards the river.  From there, I could admire colonial architecture at its best, with beautifully restored balconies adorned with brightly colored flowers.

Hermano Miguel is a cobble-stone street with gift shops, cafes, and nearby restaurants serving a variety of natural dishes.  It was impressive to see many with vegan options, even with green juices – a healthy surprise.  Also in the mix were Spanish immersion schools and countless tour companies – catering to national parks, distant Volcanoes, and of course the sublime Galapagos Islands.  A formal hat shop had perhaps the best “Panama hats” in Ecuador – made in Cuenca, of course.

I headed towards the Rio Tomebamba, passing the Café de Nucallacta — a Coffee House with the best pour over coffee in the Andes and plenty of good books to read.  As I continued on, the street ended overlooking a wide, massive set of steps, called Las Escalinatas, or “Staircases.”  The impressive stairs reminded me of the Odessa steps in Ukraine – an outdoor staircase that qualifies as its own destination.

At the top of the steps was a beautiful graffiti-style painting spread across a massive 20-foot wall called, “Lady of the Leaf,” done by Lady Pink, an artist from the United States.  The image was brilliantly colored, with a stylized face – done in dazzling colors — orange, yellow, and pink with outlines of shocking blue and green.

Also sharing these steps at any time were local athletes of all ages who used the inclines to run successive sprints and build endurance.  The steps were a challenge to climb, and it’s part of the local scene – they are bred runners, walkers, and cyclists.  I would find out later that Cuenca even has an historic walking school – founded by legendary walking coach, Luis Chocho – a local trainer.

For more about “Walking in Cuena,” see Calvin Trillin’s Conde Nast Traveler article.

At the bottom of these impressive steps was scenic bridge that crossed a shallow, but turbulent rocky river called Rio Tomebamba. Along this beautiful stream was a wide, tree lined walkway that followed the University of Cuenca Medical School.  It can be walked in either direction for a mile or two, to breath in the water-churned air, then returning back to the bridge and Las  Escalinatas.

Right across the street from the base of the Staircase is a beautiful, tree-lined park, bordered by a running track – with landscaped hills, and generous exercise equipment. There was an area for monkey bars, pullups, and dips — stations that were actually used.  People gathered at all of them, mingling and talking while doing the calisthenics, pushups, pullups and dips – the same way they used the steps.  It was part of their social scene.

I came to a small, bronze statue of a woman running with her children — hence the park’s name — Parque de La Madre, or “Mothers’ Park.”   A bit further on, in the far corner of the park was a massive, larger than life, bronze statue of Ecuador’s legendary Olympian, Jefferson Perez.

He was one of the great race walkers to emerge from Cuenca and its famed walking school, and in fact he participated in the 1996 Olympics, in Atlanta.  When the Olympic race walker was in the last leg of his 20 grueling kilometers event, Jefferson had a major obstacle for a world-class walker – the soles of his shoes were coming apart.  But the roar of 85,000 fans erupting to their feet, sustained a cool Jefferson who flapped his shoes into the Atlanta stadium as the winner.

His shoes were in disrepair because he wore a pair from the previous year.  After winning the 1995 Pan American Games, Jefferson made good on his promise to buy his mother a house – so he took his race winnings and bought his mother a dream home, after which there was no money left over to buy new shoes.  Wearing the same footwear from the 1995 championship race into the Atlanta Olympic stadium, he found that his shoes could not keep up with him, but the groundswell of applause from 85,000 screaming fans did.

As he crossed the finish line, he collapsed and had to be helped off the field – having just won Ecuador’s first Olympic medal – and a gold one – in one of the Atlanta games’ most dramatic events.

He gave his mother a house and gave Ecuador a hero; what better tribute to the mothers of Ecuador.
________________

Mike Trebilcock earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations, with Honors, from Florida International University, the state university in Miami.  While working as a firefighter, paramedic, and fire inspector in South Florida, he earned a Master of Arts Degree from the University of Miami in International Relations, with a specialty in Inter-American Affairs, followed by a Master of Fine Arts Degree, with Honors, also from the University of Miami, in Motion Picture Production (or Communication – yes singular).  He wrote extensively for Florida Sports Review Magazine and wrote and filmed for the travel industry, including Latin Travel Magazine. He produced and directed several documentaries that have appeared on public television and on South American television.  He is fluent in Spanish and learning Portuguese.

Photos by Mike Trebilcock.

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