It could be called the City of Shapely Women With Very High Heels to celebrate the hordes of working women who daily defy the physics of foot travel while briskly clattering over the uneven stone and tile streets, but Cuenca has even more to offer, as the street signs and posters boast, “Todo un Mundo,” which roughly translates into “a world of its own” — an appropriate tagline for this city of half a million people in the mountains of Ecuador.
According to International Living Magazine, which claims it has been “helping people live and retire overseas since 1979,” Ecuador is the world’s No. 1 retirement haven.
One reason for Ecuador’s popularity with the retired gringo set is the climate. Ecuador — Spanish for equator — is at the centre of the Earth, but its mountainous terrain and jungle regions provide a number of different micro-climates, much of it quite temperate.
At 2,500 metres above sea level, the city of Cuenca, a UNSCO World Heritage Trust Site, is high enough to provide a year-round climate like the best of our Newfoundland summers.
Unlike the searing heat that you would expect at the equator, the highlands of Ecuador enjoy daytime temperatures in the 25 C range all year long.
Most houses and apartments don’t have heating or air-conditioning — they rely on the weather to provide constant shirt-sleeve comfort.
Another big draw for the estimated 4,000 North Americans living in Cuenca is the low cost of living.
In 2001, Ecuador dumped its currency, the sucre, and replaced it with the American dollar. You can rent a modern, furnished two-bedroom condo for US$500 a month.
Food is cheap, especially fruit and veggies (Ecuador is the world’s largest exporter of bananas), and you can find many good restaurants with $5 entrées.
With gas at 50 cents a litre (diesel sells for half that), a taxi across town costs $2, and, like Mexico, the bus system in Ecuador is efficient and economical — 25 cents around town, and a two-hour inter-city excursion will run you $1.50.
Wife and I flew to Cuenca in mid-January to spend a month and check it out. We stayed a few days at Hotel Cuenca and then, from the same family that owns the hotel, we rented a furnished apartment on Calle Luis Cordero in the oldest part of the city.
Our spacious one-bedroom apartment was on the top floor of a grand old Spanish colonial home called, appropriately for Wife and me, Casa de los Abuelos (Grandparents’ House).
It featured high ceilings, plenty of tile and wooden floors, and a rooftop patio. There was no hot water in the kitchen, but there was free Wi-Fi.
Just two blocks from Plaza Abdon Calderon, the historic well-manicured main square, we paid $418 for our three-week stay at the apartment — including utilities and daily hotel-type maid service and laundry.
Even though we were in the dense downtown area of Cuenca, there were clucking hens and a crowing rooster under a canopy of trees in the adjacent backyard. Perhaps the smell of chickens roasting at the vendor stands on the street gets them worked up. There are Guinea pigs roasting, too — I didn’t eat one, but they sure smelled good.
The apartment owner even threw in a bicycle for me to use.
However, the only helmet I could find to fit my pin head was a child’s helmet, but I didn’t feel comfortable fighting trucks and taxis for elbow room in the warren of one-way streets of Historico Centro without some protection for my head — which, being distracted by glimpses of my high-heeled fellow travellers, was prone to involuntary swivelling.
The cool air of Cuenca’s subtropical highland climate can mask the strength of the equatorial sun. Like Newfoundland on the 24th of May, when there is a pleasant breeze to keep your skin cool you can easily get sunburned.
Every day I lathered on the sun screen, but evidently I didn’t get enough around my eyes and somehow managed to get the copious wrinkled flesh under my eyes burned. I woke up one morning looking as if I didn’t get my goggles on in time for the nuclear test.
Not far from the bustling downtown, there is a peaceful bicycle path running alongside the Tomebamba River. The altitude takes its toll when riding uphill, though.
But our bodies adjust (somewhat) to the rarefied air and after a few trips up the hill from the river I could make the climb without too much puffing and wheezing.
The best bicycle trip was a
15-kilometre ride along a winding concrete highway with designated bike lanes (how progressive) through a cattle-filled valley to the town of Cumbe.
I stopped for lunch at a diner where a young woman wielding a giant propane torch was roasting a whole pig right on the roadside. It was a dramatic end for Piggy, but served up with fresh roasted corn and potato, it was a delicious outcome.
People were friendly and polite, vendors were careful with our change and we always felt safe. However, after 10 p.m. most streets are a line of locked gates, and walls topped with electric fences or barbed wire or even broken bottles cemented in discourage trespassing.
The landlord chewed me out for accidently leaving my key in the lock outside the front door — “Peligroso!”
In Cuenca, the police seem to be everywhere: on motorbikes zigzagging their way through the traffic, on horseback by the Tomebamba, or walking through the main square and markets.
There is even a “tourist squad” who can speak English.
Security at banks and other businesses is handled by private guards — even the guy at the cinema is armed to the teeth.
After weathering a devastating financial crisis in 1999, Ecuador’s
15 million inhabitants are doing better these days. Levels of poverty and unemployment are being driven down with the help of growing revenue from oil, bananas and cut flower exports (more than 4,000 species of orchid grow in Ecuador; there is even an orchidarium attached to the University of Cuenca, where for a dollar you can take a tour of the greenhouses and see many different types of these strange flowers that like to show off their roots).
It seems there are new construction and roadwork projects underway everywhere, and the city is promoting its plan for the new Tranvia — an electric rail system that will run from the airport right through the heart of the city.
In the run-up to Ecuador’s Feb. 17 national election the streets regularly filled with thousands of enthusiastic party supporters creating travelling rallies of dancers, marching bands, giant caricatures of the candidates, and flag wavers and poster bearers of all ages.
The young servers at restaurants along the street left their posts to catch a glimpse of their president, Rafael Correa, as he made a rolling election speech from the upper level of a double-decker bus jammed with his supporters.
On election day the handsome and popular Correa was re-elected for the third time, by a significant margin. The young president is an economist who has had a turbulent relationship with the media (sound familiar?).
Cuenca’s streets are the scene of other pageantry, too. Every year from Dec. 24 to late January, children on horseback parade through the streets elaborately costumed as winged angels, or little Mother Marys, or bearded Josephs, accompanied by their families and a marching band to celebrate Pasa del Niño Viajero — “the Passage of the Child.”
Judging from the number of discotheques and bars, I suspect there is a rich nightlife in Cuenca, but aside from a night of live jazz at a restaurant, we didn’t see much of it. I don’t know if it is the sun or the altitude, but I was usually asleep by 11 and stayed that way until the urban rooster went off at the first sign of daylight.
Despite the dearth of small adult bicycle helmets — I finally found one imported from Spain (not cheap) — there are a wide variety of products for sale in Cuenca.
At the many markets and stores, you can find hand-made silver jewelry, world famous Panama hats and alpaca sweaters, or, if you fancy the high-end fashions of Fossil, Herrera or Ralph Lauren, you can find it all at the upscale Mall Del Rio.
When you’ve had enough of Cuenca’s stunning architecture — some churches take up a whole city block — the restaurants and the pastry shops, you can head out to the countryside, where the high heels give way to the hats, braids and pleated skirts of the rural women who grow everything from pineapples to potatoes.
A $5 bus fare on one of the huge fleet of snorting Mercedes diesels will buy you a round trip to the Incan ruins at Ingapirca, and when it comes to moving people, Cuenca bus drivers do it best. They are not about to let a yellow double line keep them at the tail end of a lumbering gas truck long enough to fall behind schedule — it’s a roller-coaster ride over winding mountain roads flanked by cactus, corn, cattle and clover. Todo un Mundo!