One of the things I love about living in Cuenca, Ecuador, after spending nearly 40 years in the sweltering heat of Florida, is that I can actually walk outside during the day without worrying if the heat steaming from the blacktop will melt the soles of my tennis shoes.
In Florida, I lived like a mole person, only venturing out at dawn and dusk, because the heat-stroke level temperatures made walking during the day impossible most of the year. Consequentially, living in the temperate, walkable city of Cuenca, a Spanish colonial town of 500,000 nestled in the Andes Mountains, has opened up a new outdoor playground for me.
The only requirement for any outing in Cuenca is to make sure you bring a jacket and umbrella as the weather typically gets warmer throughout the day (74 F) and cools in the evening (59 F) and showers are a daily likelihood. Because of Cuenca’s year-round spring-like weather, a lot of my activities focus on being outside all day until the cows come home (which they do, walking on long ropes guided by festively dress indigenous women).
Although not everything I do is outside, it’s nice to know it now predominates my leisure activities. Here are 10 of the ways I love to spend my days in Cuenca.
1. Shopping at El Centro mercados
I can spend hours lost in the hundreds of tiendas in El Centro shopping for anything from freshly baked breads and fragrant Italian cheeses to mining for unique décor to hang on my walls. I start at San Francisco market, where artisans sell alpaca blankets, colorful hammocks, and beautiful hand-crocheted sweaters and then wind myself through the tienda-lined cobblestone streets where I window shop for hours. When I get tired, I stop in one of the numerous juice cafes and pick from an array of colorful smoothies—mango, berry, pineapple or a papaya concoction for instant energy.
2. Watching fiestas from my front porch
I could easily live under house arrest in Cuenca because there’s so much to see from my front window. On some mornings, polka-sounding music blares from trucks toting propane tanks down the street alerting us that gas is for sale. We have nightly fireworks displays and a regular line up of parades celebrating anything that moves. The revelry picks up during the holidays when little girls dressed as angels ride on elaborately decorated horses in parades in front of our house, not to be outdone by the mariachi bands who accompany them.
3. Eating Ice Cream at Parque de Calderon
The downtown heart of Cuenca is Parque Calderon, the city’s town square, which is surrounded by the ornate New Cathedral, a myriad of government buildings, fine restaurants, and awe-inspiring Spanish colonial architecture. It’s a community ritual to grab ice cream at Tutto Freddo, an Ecuadorian mainstay selling tubs of ice cream they double scoop with flavors such as tangy mango or papaya. I load up on Oreo ice cream before walking across the street to the park, where I sit on a bench and watch locals lure tourists to pose with husky St. Bernards for photo opps and break-dancers swirl on the floor of the gazebo.
4. Vino and Van Gogh painting class
I do not know how to paint, but I do know how to drink wine. My friends Pat, Stefani, and I hook up at least once a month to demonstrate why we won’t have a showing at a prestigious gallery. Our teacher, Amelia, makes the more than 15 ill-fated artists in my class feel like we are Van Goghs, only with intact ears. By the second glass of wine, we don’t care what we are painting as much as that we are having fun.
5. Walking my dogs on the river trail
I have four dogs, and two of them demand daily walks. They start nagging me after my first cup of coffee so my husband, Rowland, and I leash them up and take them on walks on the Yanuncay River trail. My husband likes to amaze the Ecuadorians, who largely fear my German Shepherd, by having her sit, stay, and lay down for a tummy rub. Our Bassett thinks of herself as eye candy and does no tricks to impress. The hour walks we take in the mornings are met with the sounds of a rushing river, Ecuadorians jogging the trail, and children kicking soccer balls.
6. Eat a T-Rex burger and down a cilantro-laced mojito
For $3.50 ($2 when they run specials) I can chow down on a Ranchero T-Rex burger made with a half-pound of hamburger meat topped with ranchero sauce, lettuce, tomatoes, sautéed onions, bacon, and cheese, along with a cilantro-laced mojito for an additional $1.75. Located in El Centro, the three table, hole-in-the wall diner features proprietor Caesar flipping the burgers on the grill.
7. Hike the Cajas
Recently I went on a three-hour hike in the Cajas Mountains (part of the Andes Range), in a 70,500-acre national park filled with tundra vegetation on a rugged landscape of mountains and valleys located about 20 miles west from Cuenca at an altitude of 13,222 feet. Standing at the Three Crosses monument marking the continental divide, I followed the tradition of placing a stone at the base of the monument in memory of those who have died on the trail and as good luck for the hikers heading out to experience a moment at a sublime Andean summit. It’s a humbling experience, reminding me that I’m only here for a blink in time and to breathe it all in.
8. Getting tranquilo in mi casa
After years of working 50-hour weeks at a job where I was on call 24/7, it’s nice to just be lazy. I love sipping coffee until 10 a.m. uninterrupted and doing something I never had time to do while working…dallying. I have mastered the internet here, so I can watch Netflix, Hulu, or U.S. cable TV, and I don’t mind disclosing that I can stream Forensic Files all day in my pajamas without guilt.
9. Lighting candles in the New Cathedral
Located at Parque de Calderon, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, better known as the New Cathedral, boasts the three baby blue mosaic domes that helped make Cuenca a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I buy three candles from a blind hombre in front of the church and walk into the massive sanctuary, with its magnificent gold embossed altar. I like to join the hundreds of locals for the noon service, and although I don’t understand the Spanish sermon, the music and chanting of prayers give me peace. I light a candle for my family, friends, and for peace in the world at one of the many alcoves housing statues of religious figures.
10. Take Spanish lessons
Spanish lessons are right of passage for an expat. It’s a wonderful way to make friends with others who slaughter the Spanish language and laugh at our fumblings. I take private lessons with Lucia, my long-suffering Spanish teacher, who patiently corrects my Spanglish. We spend an hour a week talking about politics, our philosophies, and what our families and friends are up to…leaving me to understand that although we are from different cultures, our daily lives aren’t very different.
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