By Martin Simmons
As someone who has spent five or six months a year in Cuenca since 2003, I always appreciate the fact that I’m able to see the city with fresh eyes every time I return.
For me, it’s like viewing a series of snapshots, taken in chronological order. It also reminds me a little of the old Alan Alda movie, Same Time Next Year, although my romance is with the town, not Ellen Burstyn (I’ve been happily married for 42 years, truth be told).
My wife and I are always excited to see the changes around Cuenca when we come to town: the latest public works, the new restaurants, and the changing culture. Over the years, we’ve been impressed with the improvements in the city, the renovated parks and plazas, the new walking and bike trails, and the rebuilt streets and sidewalks. We were especially thrilled a few years ago to see the new Parque de la Madre, located two blocks from our condo (we take full advantage of it for creative loafing).
We always have a blast checking out the new restaurants and trying to remember the ones that are gone. I should add that when we first arrived in Cuenca 18 years ago, the only international flavor in town was provided by two Italian restaurants and two or three rather atrocious Chinese joint (otherwise, it was all comida tipica). The growth of the restaurant scene in the area around Parque Calderon, in particular, is truly phenomenal.
We also enjoy the things that change slowly, like the festivals, parades, and symphony concerts. We make a point to be back in town every year for the Cuenca holidays in November and for all the Christmas parades and festivities.
It is one of our true pleasures to reacquaint ourselves with the city on foot, as much as possible — and thank God we still can. My old friend, writer and poet Calvin Trillin, has written several excellent articles in praise of Cuenca (the more recent ones can be found online, I believe, from the New Yorker, Conde Naste Traveler, and other publications) and he calls Cuenca a “great walking-around city.” I fully agree: enjoying Cuenca as a pedestrian is certainly the way to go.
Besides checking out what’s new in Cuenca and enjoying the old standards, I have to admit that I also get a kick catching up on the expat scene. In my time away, I keep up with local news on this website, the local newspapers, and a number of expat blogs. Just for laughs, I even check in occasionally on the Facebook pages and email forums.
I take special, probably perverse, pleasure in hearing the gringo gossip du jour, and the general commentary of the expat experts. I especially enjoy the latest conspiracy theories.
Much of the gossip is similar to what I’ve heard in other expat communities I’ve spent time in, like Boquete, Panama, and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
There are the old standards, mostly complaints. “The government is changing all the rules,” “anti-Americanism is on the increase,” “criminals are targeting foreigners,” and “gringo pricing is getting worse.”
And there are the tales of woe from the supposed protectors of local culture who attack other expats for changing the nature of the city, for being rude to locals, and for driving up prices. These too are universal among expat communities, and although there’s always some truth to the complaints, they seem to me to be mostly a reflection of gringo arrogance (“We’re so damn special we must have an overwhelming impact on all we come into contact with”).
Particular to Cuenca this year, I’m hearing from several friends that expats are leaving in droves as a result of the Covid pandemic and that the overall expat population is in decline.
From my annual snapshot perspective, I’m baffled that anyone of reasonable observation skills could believe this. I cannot help but notice a substantial year-to-year increase of tourists and expats on the streets, in restaurants, in the supermarkets and mercados, and at the festivals and concerts. I also can’t help but notice an increase of the number of young expat families of European and North American origin. And, just last week I talked to a Chinese lady who “facilitates” the relocation of Chinese nationals and people of Chinese ancestry in the U.S. to Cuenca. She believes that about 500 Chinese who have moved to Cuenca since 2014.
Yes, it’s true the pandemic slowed the flow but, from what I see, things are quickly returning to normal.
And who hasn’t noticed the growing community of Venezuelans, most of them professionals who are fleeing the instability and politics back home. The city’s international affairs office estimates that as many 2,000 have relocated to Cuenca in the past two years.
Frankly, I don’t care if expat numbers are going up or down and would be just as happy with fewer expats. I also readily admit that my choice of Cuenca is mostly personal. I try to avoid discussions about which expat country or city is the best, or better than others; this is mostly a matter of personal opinion, after all. At my age, I am not interested in the latest, greatest expat destination that has just been “discovered” (I quit reading International Living years ago).
My message to those thinking of becoming expats but have reservations about leaving the old country behind is to consider becoming part-time expats. We love many things about our hometown in California, and we love being able to see our children and our grand children on a regular basis. On the other hand, we feel blessed to spend time in Cuenca.
By dividing our time between two countries and two cultures, my wife and I feel we enjoy the best of two worlds without leaving either behind.
Martin Simmons and his wife Rebecca have divided their time between Cuenca and California since 2003. A former criminology professor, he has studied international crime trends, including in countries and cities popular with expats, since his university retirement in 2001.