Enjoying the Culture and Everyday Life of Ecuador’s Andes, Rent Free

Sitting in our own private little courtyard with a bubbling stream on one side, a warbling symphony from the aviary on another, with pink bougainvillea and fiery red geraniums cascading down a third, my husband Michael and I could be in Italy. The warm sunny days and cooler nights are so similar to Tuscany in the springtime that it’s hard to believe we are actually high in Ecuador’s Andes.

Paute is just 40 minutes from the expat favorite of Cuenca, yet the 1,200 feet difference in altitude makes for a warmer climate here. Much smaller in population and size, Paute is a quiet, peaceful little town, virtually undiscovered by expats, yet within reach of all the amenities Cuenca offers.

Our current home—which we’re living in rent free—is skillfully adorned with an eclectic mix of art work gathered from local artisans. The best way to find these talented people is to visit one of the local festivals, which we did on our first weekend here. Artists and artisans gathered in Cuenca from nearby towns, villages, and even from Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile to showcase their arts.

In addition to a wide range of paintings and sculptures there were hand-knitted alpaca sweaters and scarves, dainty filigree silver jewelry from nearby Chordeleg, traditional weaving from nearby Gualaceo, and one enterprising artisan had converted gaily painted gourds into a range of fun and colorful mobiles fit to grace any child’s room.

Paute itself sprawls alongside the Paute River and a large park dominates the bank. Here the energetic can play basketball, go dirt-bike racing, use the exercise equipment, or just go for a leisurely stroll along the bank. One of our favorite pastimes while living here is to walk for miles, stopping occasionally to admire the view or sniff the fragrant flowering plants along the way.

On the way back home we may even pop into a local bar for an ice-cold Pilsner, a big bottle—enough for two—costs just $2. The central plaza is also a good spot to catch our breath. Dominated by the church with its sparkling stained glass windows, the plaza is full of large shade trees and ample benches, perfect for people watching and practicing our Spanish as the friendly inhabitants of this little town pass by.

Another thing we love to do is visit the local markets. Despite the cavernous building, the vendors overflow into the nearby square. Indigenous ladies, their braids topped with Panama-style hats and wearing the traditional, heavily embroidered, knee-length skirts and shawls were selling everything from potatoes by the sackful to live chickens, cuy (guinea pig, a national dish), and rabbits.

Of the two large markets in Paute, only one is home to the meat and fish vendors, where you can buy local fish including trout, prawns, fresh chickens, beef, and pork. This is where we also tried the Ecuadorian staple hornado (a whole roasted pig) for the first time. A plateful of this slow-roasted pork, accompanied by mote (boiled whole corn kernels) and lapingacho (a fried potato cake) costs just $3.

An added bonus is that we have no option but to practice our Spanish at the markets. The friendly locals patiently wait while we stumble along and each success is greeted by a wide grin.

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