March 9 – May 12, 2019
While still in SE Asia, we put the question out to friends, fellow travelers, folks we met on the road. Where should we settle for a bit in Central or South America? Ecuador and Guatemala popped up on our radar as best for learning and practicing Español, and Cuenca (pronounced “Kwen-Ka”) was mentioned a few times as a safe and beautiful city that would match our interests. So after a brief visit to Quito, we went to Cuenca, stayed for 2+months, and really, really enjoyed it. Thank you to our virtual community for the recommendations!
It was fantastic to be in one location; to spend some time getting to know its places, people, history and culture. It was a place that came to feel like a home away from home, one that we were sad to leave. But settling in for a bit versus traveling through requires a change of mindset, and I admit the first few weeks made me antsy and frustrated. We had unpacked, found both an apartment and a Spanish school we could all go to, and I was ready to explore. My family, however, was so happy to slow down, decorate their bedrooms, do school, watch movies and read books. Incredulously, I tried to drag them out every day while they resisted me and my impatience, claiming that homeschool (which we indeed had ramped back up after weeks of fast travel) and Spanish lessons were tiring enough.
Finally, a double-decker bus tour gave us the layout of the ciudad and a beautiful view from Mirador Turi.
And eventually, we all adjusted to both living and exploring.
Cuenca, in the southern Andean highlands at ~8300 feet, boasts a beautiful combination of lasting indigenous influence, powerful Inca impact and Spanish colonial architecture.
Museos Pumapungo, Remigio Crespo and Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes helped us gain a better appreciation for the multi-layered history of Ecuador and the city we were living in.
Reading a few young adult novels set in Ecuador – notably the co-written biographical story of Maria Virginia Farinango titled The Queen of Water– provided important (and painful) historical context around the tensions between the indigenous populations and the Spanish, who conquered the Inca in the 16th century.
We were fortunate to celebrate many special days here – after election frenzy settled, we had Amelia’s and my birthdays, Semana Santa (Holy Week leading up to and including Easter), 12 de Abril (celebrating Cuenca’s founding in 1557) and Dia de la Madre (Mother’s Day).
Holy Saturday procession: 14 estaciones del via crucis (14 stations of the cross)
We logged many miles along two of Cuenca’s powerful rivers – Rio Tomebamba and Rio Yanuncay – flowing from Cajas National Park to the Amazon.
We enjoyed the family-oriented parks, trying Ecuadorian food, practicing our espanol at numerous mercados and panaderias, and experiencing some of the rich local arts scene with visits to the Cuenca Symphony Orchestra (free performances) and the National Ballet of Ecuador.
We also enjoyed a couple of relaxing visits to the mineral baths at Hosteria Duran (caps required!).
See Annabelle’s post here about our visit to what we think might be one of the best zoos/sanctuaries in the world, and Amelia’s description here of how living in one place for awhile enabled her to play weekly pickup volleyball, and for us all to volunteer walking a wonderful crew of rescued street dogs.
It’s not a surprise that with all Cuenca has to offer plus a relatively low cost of living, there is quite a big community of retired ex-pats. We spent time with a lot of them and learned how living abroad can help stretch retirement dollars and enable more travel (or just enable an earlier retirement). One of the couples we met at a conversation group invited us to their home for a viewing of the 2006 movie Que tan lejos about two young women trying to get to Cuenca, and another generous and knowledgeable ex-pat took us for a visit to the Cajas.
We also went on four Saturday hikes with Fredy Ordóñez of Spanish Outdoor. Fredy is a local Profesor de Español and tour guide – he leads weekly hikes to areas within a 1-2 hour bus and mixto (white pickup truck taxis that can go high up into the mountains on dirt roads) ride from Cuenca, and most of the participants are retired ex-pats. With Fredy we got to practice spanish, experience the green mountainous beauty of Ecuador on foot, learn lots about retiree life in South America, and try some fantastic family-run restaurants we wouldn’t have ventured to on our own.
We all took 1:1 Spanish classes at Simon Bolivar – the girls each logged almost 70 hours of total class time.
Weekly conversation groups were a great supplement to classes, where we met lots of people, young and mature, all working on either Spanish or English. It reminded us all how hard it is to learn English, and we appreciated being able to help others in that quest while improving our own Spanish listening and speaking skills.
A bonus to our stay in Cuenca was getting to hang out with Anne, Jason and kids of chasingwarmth – also traveling for a year. Wayne & Anne met briefly in Vietnam (in an Australian cafe no less) right as we were leaving Hoi An, and we estimated that we may be in Ecuador at the same time. Luckily we overlapped in Cuenca and all became fast friends – dinners, card games, Anne and I meeting at 6:30am for Bailando Terapéutica (likely the original Zumba, but free, outdoors and in spanish), and Wayne and Jason venturing out for multiple riverside runs.
Watching a 12 de Abril parade along Avenida Loja
We’re so glad we spent the majority of our 90 day Ecuador visa in Cuenca. It was a perfect place to see and do a lot but also, thankfully, slow down our travels. The downside, however, is knowing that there is still SO much more of Ecuador, and South America, to see. Luckily, we have a bit more espanol in our tool belts now for when we return!