Former New Yorker editor returns to Cuenca to enjoy the charms of a ‘great walking-around city’

Mar 1, 2023

By Calvin Trillin

“But haven’t you been there before?”

Walking around in El Centro.

That’s what people tended to say when they heard that I was about to spend a week or so in Cuenca. “Funny, I never get that sort of response with Paris,” I would reply. If I mentioned that I was about to spend a week or so in Paris — the opportunity to do that has appeared all too rarely, I regret to say — I doubt that anyone would reply, “But haven’t you been there before?”

Truth to tell, I’d been to Cuenca twice before, although I’m not sure the first trip should count. In 1995, through a logistical mishap, I arrived in Cuenca, a city known for its solemn observance of the Roman Catholic calendar, the day before Shrove Tuesday. There was so little open and so few people on the streets that I was moved to comment, “This must be what Ecuadorian Yom Kippur looks like.” I did stay for Shrove Tuesday itself—actually, there was no choice, since the airlines were among the commercial ventures not operating—but the Mardi Gras celebration in Cuenca turned out to consist entirely of people throwing water on each other, a spectacle that is, I must admit, somewhat less exciting than, say, Carnaval in Rio. Still, I loved being in Cuenca, even when it was closed.

Considering the pleasure I’ve taken in visiting various parts of Ecuador, in fact, it has always seemed strange to me that so many American travelers use the mainland as a transit point to the Galápagos, without bothering to stop.

On a Sunday, when motor traffic is banned from the old town section of Quito, I’ve spent a glorious afternoon strolling from one magnificent church to another. At an open-air restaurant called La Lojanita, in the beachfront town of Salinas, I’ve eaten bowls of Ecuadorian ceviche so good that the populace was moved to elect the proprietor mayor. I’ve looked for rare birds in the Ecuadorean rain forest. At a variety of Saturday markets, I’ve purchased any number of sweaters I didn’t need. Outside Otavalo, which has one of the great markets in South America, I’ve relaxed between market days at Hacienda Cusin, which I once described as the rare example of a seventeenth-century hacienda “that has been restored into complete comfort with no accompanying glitz.” In Cayambe, a dairy town north of Quito, I once attended just about the best local festival I’ve ever been to; on Halloween these days, I wear a mask I brought back from there, even though it doesn’t make me as scary as the Cayambe celebrants who were masked with what seemed to be actual cow-heads. And, yes, on the Galápagos. I’ve picked my way carefully along a beach full of sunning sea lions that stared off obliviously while I heard myself murmuring, “Excuse me … pardon me … terribly sorry.”

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.

But I’m particularly attracted to Cuenca. A colonial city that was not connected to Ecuador’s other urban centers by a usable highway until the 1960s, it is considered the cultural capital of the country, Quito being the political capital and Guayaquil the center of commerce. But by themselves those facts can be misleading in picturing Cuenca’s El Centro.

It 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. Most of the buildings do indeed have a colonial look — two or three floors, whitewashed or pastel walls, red tile roofs — and the streets are indeed narrow. Some of the churches do conjure up visions of colonels attached to Spanish gold-snatching expeditions making their confessions to priests who had just arrived on galleons from Galicia. But there are also some recently constructed buildings and some strangely altered buildings and some buildings that appear to have been built in the late 1950s, when there might as well have been an international conspiracy among architects to ugly up the world. Cuenca has the imperfections of a place that is being lived in.

In other words, it looks like what I think of as a walking-around city — the sort I like going back to. That impression is heightened by the climate, which the guidebooks tend to call “eternal spring” and I would call perfect walking-around weather.

In walking-around cities, I like browsing the local markets to inspect the variety of vegetables and make certain that the fish are properly aligned. I have been known to drop into office supply stores to see what the notebooks look like. Walking-around cities are often short on well-known sights. I don’t mind. For one thing, that makes them less appealing to gaggles of people who follow the checkoffian approach to travel — a reference not to the Russian writer but to their custom of checking off certified sights as they go. I mean no disrespect to world-famous travel destinations. I am grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to see, say, masterpieces of art in Florence. But when I yearn for that part of Italy, I think of Lucca — a walking-around city that has no world-famous attractions, unless you count the olive oil. I like to walk around.

Cuenca’s market overflow with shopping options.

That’s why, ten years after my first visit, I returned to Cuenca to make one of my occasional (and invariably unsuccessful) assaults on the Spanish language — assaults I usually picture as looking like drug raids in which I’m helping to swing a battering ram against a door while wearing a windbreaker that says, instead of DEA or FBI, “Yo Hablo Espanol.” In the spring of 2005, I took Spanish lessons and I walked around. I covered most of the streets of the centro. I walked along a path next to the Tomebamba River, a fast-flowing stream that separates the centro from the modern city that begins on the south bank.

I spent a lot of time at the markets, where, at the prepared-food stalls, vendors come out from behind their whole roasted pigs — pigs that are stretched out like sunbathers trying to get a little color on their backs — and offer passersby a sample of pulled pork or of pork skin that’s as crisp as a cracker. I shopped, without ever closing the deal, for what people in other parts of the world call a Panama hat and Cuencanos call un sombrero de paja toquilla, after the sort of straw it’s made from. (If credit were handed out fairly, a Panama hat would be called a Cuenca hat: Cuenca has been the principal exporter of such hats from the beginning, while Panama was simply a distribution point — as any Cuencano can tell you at the drop of a, well, a sombrero de paja toquilla.)

By design, I was doing my Spanish course during Holy Week, traditionally the only time of year that Ecuadorians serve a spectacular soup called fanesca, and I ate nearly my fill of fanesca.

Panama hats should be called Cuenca hats.

“But not my fill,” I said to my older daughter, Abigail, last winter when she informed me that she and her family would be going to Cuenca during Holy Week to visit some friends who were spending a sabbatical semester there. Joining Abigail and her family — her husband, Brian, and their girls, Isabelle and Rebecca — would mean repairing a five-year fanesca deprivation. It would mean a return to eating tostados, which are what, in an ideal world, corn nuts would taste like. It would mean a return to hunting for the best humitas, which are like tamales made by someone who simply can’t shake off her years of training in soufflé-making. It would mean an opportunity to do a lot more walking around. I figured that Holy Week rituals — which in Cuenca, as in some other Roman Catholic communities, include the obligation to visit seven churches on the evening before Good Friday — would provide just enough spectacle. (We walking-around types like public manifestations of any kind.) Furthermore, I’d been given a more sincere answer for those who said, “Haven’t you been there before?” I could say, “Yes, but this time my granddaughters will be there.”

As I poked around the Internet, I found to my surprise that my choice of Cuenca as a place to return to was not as eccentric as some people might have thought. According to the website CuencaHighLife (presumably a reference to the altitude, which is 8,200 feet), the magazine International Living recently named Cuenca the world’s top retirement city — an honor the expatriates already in residence did not necessarily greet with unalloyed enthusiasm. (One of the site’s writers was quoted as saying he didn’t want Cuenca to become another San Miguel de Allende — a city whose colonial buildings I’ve always thought of as having achieved a level of Mexican authenticity available only to rich Texans with Italian decorators.)

Cuenca’s famous Easter Soup, fanesca.

Toward the end of my Spanish language school visit in 2005, I’d had the good fortune to meet Berta Vintimilla, who, along with her sister Patricia, runs what is considered the premier upmarket restaurant in Cuenca, Villa Rosa. (Upmarket in Cuenca usually means that the entrées run around eight or nine dollars. Since 2000, Ecuador has used the American dollar, and not a whole lot of them. Outside restaurants throughout the centro, it is not unusual to see the daily “executive lunch”—say, potato soup, breast of chicken, salad, and dessert—advertised at three dollars.) On the Wednesday of my latest visit, I went with Berta and Patricia to the Feria Libre market, a vast retail and wholesale market on the edge of the city, to shop for dinner. A lot of people were there shopping for ingredients needed to make fanesca, which requires salt cod and twelve different kinds of beans and grains. There were a couple of stands that had such a thorough inventory of ingredients that a merchandising consultant from North America might have suggested a sign saying “One Stop Fanesca Shopping Here.”

I’ve spent a lot of time walking around the markets of Cuenca — mostly the three indoor markets within the centro. The vendors are mainly Cholas Cuencanas — women from the surrounding countryside who wear white blouses and pleated skirts of bright colors and stiff, high-crowned straw hats. The hats are often worn at a jaunty angle, and that combines with the bright skirts for a look that often leaves me with the impression that the woman I see walking down the street toward the market is about to start jitterbugging — although it would not be easy to cut a rug with thirty pounds of potatoes on your back.

Berta bought, among other things, fruits we wouldn’t be familiar with — some zapotes, which look something like hand grenades, for instance, and some achotillos, which appear to be the result of Ecuador crossing a large strawberry with an exceedingly small porcupine. When we were finished, her market basket looked almost too heavy for one person to carry, but suddenly, we were joined by a tiny chola — a woman so old and frail-looking that, in my Boy Scout days, I might have offered to help her across the street. Without a word, she whipped off a long scarf, wrapped it around the basket, pulled the scarf tightly around her narrow shoulders, and trotted off to the car. When I expressed my astonishment, Patricia told me the bright side: Cholas, for obvious reasons, practically never get osteoporosis.

A Chola Cuencana.

I saw some goats at the market, and at first I thought that the man holding them was offering them for sale to anyone who wanted to raise goats. What he turned out to be selling was goat milk, which some Ecuadorians believe has health-giving properties — but not from bottles, from the goats. He would produce a clean paper cup, hold it underneath one of his goats, squirt the milk into it, and hand it to the customer.

Before our dinner at Berta’s, she and a grandson launched several celebratory globos — large balloons, three or four feet in diameter, that are open at the bottom except for struts that hold some fuel which looks like a large version of a Sterno can under a chafing dish. The fuel is set on fire with a burning newspaper, and the globo rises swiftly in the thin Andean air, floating off above the neighboring rooftops. I told Berta that if Abigail and Brian decided to try that in San Francisco — sent balloons with fire in them up in the sky — they might, with a good criminal lawyer and some aggressive plea bargaining, get away with only six or eight months in the slammer.

When the Vintimilla sisters were children, their grandmother dressed in black during Holy Week. No music except religious music was allowed in the house. According to an old superstition in Cuenca, if a child took a bath on Good Friday, he or she would turn into a fish, or maybe a mermaid. (The latter sounded rather glamorous to the sisters.)

Some Holy Week customs remain strong. Fanesca is still made in huge quantities — to take to people who are living alone, or to give to the poor, or just to have around in case friends drop by. The symphony orchestra still presents requiems during the evenings leading up to Easter. Other Ecuadorians still think of Cuencanos as devout and traditionalist and rather formal. But Cuenca has loosened up a bit. That may be the result of Cuencanos having been exposed in recent decades to somewhat looser societies: Many of the Ecuadorians who work in New York are from the Cuenca area.

Still, on the evening before Good Friday, the center of the city was packed with people carrying out their obligation to visit seven churches. Some people say that the custom is connected to the magical properties of the number seven. Some say that it comes from the fact that Jesus said seven words on the cross. (By my count, it was ten, but, then, I can’t count in Aramaic.)

A Cuencano who is now in his seventies told me that when he was in high school, boys his age looked forward to the Thursday night of Holy Week because, in an era when strict separation of the sexes was observed, it presented a rare opportunity for casual interactions with girls. It’s true that even the particularly somber events of Holy Week give the centro an almost celebratory air. On Palm Sunday, on the long wall of the cathedral where cholas sell palms woven into crosses and other designs, I’d seen two bands — an Andean band and, just out of earshot of that music, a band in cowboy hats playing the music that Ecuadorians call the pasillo. Outside the churches, vendors sell not just religious pictures but balloons in the shape of cartoon characters and shish kebabs and tostados and cotton candy and empanadas and humitas. An expatriate I met said that the custom of visiting seven churches was to him “a sort of pub crawl.”

El Carmen de la Asuncion.

It’s also an opportunity to see the churches of Cuenca. We started with Cuenca’s vast and imposing New Cathedral, which would be even more imposing if an engineering error hadn’t necessitated tucking its blue-and-white-tile domes almost out of sight. From there we went across the street to El Carmen de la Asunción, a church connected with cloistered nuns, where the religious statuary in the alcoves is shielded from view by purple drapes during Holy Week and where, in a side room, honey and jam and sacramental wine are sold through a wooden turntable that allows you to purchase items from a nun who can be heard but not seen. Outside El Carmen de la Asunción, we grabbed some zeppole-like doughnuts that Ecuadorians call Chilean eggs, to hold us the block or so to San Francisco, a lovely church from which the domes of the cathedral can actually be seen. Just before going in, I had a fantastic dish (if you can call something that’s served in a plastic bag a dish) that consisted of combining new potatoes, plantain, hard-boiled egg, chicharrón, and hominy. Then, as the crowd seemed to grow, we made our way to Santo Domingo, a Dominican church, where I scored some particularly good tostados, and then to San Alfonso and then to Las Conceptas — which was so crowded that we basically just got ourselves inside and out, like a cricketer edging his bat over the crease and hurrying back toward the wicket he came from. Finally, almost back at our hotel, we entered La Merced, our seventh church. I felt virtuous, not to mention full.

“Don’t worry about me: I have plans,” I said to Abigail one day, after I’d told her that I would not be accompanying them on an outing to a waterfall an hour or so away. My plans were these: I would visit the Casa de la Mujer, a crafts market where the day before we’d purchased a flute that an instrument maker named Luis González had fashioned from the femur of a turkey. Mr. González makes all the instruments he sells, and he can also play them — as he’d demonstrated by picking up a beautiful panpipe and knocking out the opening bars of the Andean classic “El Cóndor Pasa.” The mouthpiece of the flute had gotten lost, and I figured that having it replaced might give me the opportunity to hear Mr. González demonstrate a few more instruments. We walking-around types don’t need the bright lights.

After I had completed my business with Mr. González, I intended to visit the 10th of August Market, nearby, where I needed to make certain I had found the best version of the roasted pork that the vendors pull off the carcass of their hog and serve with hominy and a cousin of potato knishes called llapingachos. Also, I had previously spotted a bench outside the centro’s other indoor market, the 9th of October, that looked like a perfect vantage point for watching a goat owner dispense milk in paper cups. On the way, I intended to stop by a small shop on Hermano Miguel to confirm my impression that its proprietor makes one of the best humitas in Cuenca. Humitas are slightly sweet, and Cuencanos like to eat them in the middle of the morning with black coffee. I eat them all day long.

My plan was to watch the goat-milk man for a while, and then walk to the Parque de la Madre, just on the other side of the river, where there is a statue honoring mothers but a much larger statue honoring Jefferson Perez, described on the base as the greatest Ecuadorian athlete of all time. A racewalker, Perez is the only Ecuadorian to have won medals in the Olympics — a gold and a silver — and I’d been told that at certain times of day would-be Olympic racewalking champions trained in the park. But I’d found myself mesmerized by the goat-milk man. It occurred to me that if leaders of the locavore movement witnessed this process — no middlemen, no waste of irreplaceable fossil fuels in shipping, no bottles or cans to overburden landfills — they might decide on the spot to hold their next world conference in Cuenca.

By the time I was ready to leave, Cuenca’s customary afternoon shower had begun. I couldn’t get to the park. I’d also have to put off stopping in a sporting goods store to see if I could find some Ecuadorian soccer shirts for my grandsons. And I’d have to wait for another day to check out what I’d heard about a street called Las Herrerias’s being famous not only for its iron smiths but for its humitas. I realized what the checkoffian tourists mean when they complain sometimes about simply not having time to do everything they need to do.

Calvin Trillin, poet, food writer, novelist and former senior editor for the New Yorker magazine, also wrote a cover story for that magazine in 2005 about Cuenca’s famous Easter soup. This article originally appeared in Conde Nast Traveler magazine.


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