“Rules in Cuenca are more like guidelines,” one student warned. Keep this in mind and you won’t gasp at the sight of six people in the backseat of a car, naively believe that the bus will stop taking passengers, or scuff in anger at the speeding driver who proceeded with that turn although you were clearly crossing the street.
At this moment, you’re invited to get off your law-abiding high horse and realize that in Cuenca, sitting in the make-shift seat at the back of the bus driver – clearly more suitable for a backpack than two students – is only strange to you, the foreigner. And pedestrians DO NOT have the right of way. The latter is an unwritten, yet valuable rule by which to abide if you fancy surviving the streets of Cuenca.
Cuenca is the capital of Azuay, a province located in the southern sierra region of Ecuador. Home to four rivers, one of which separates the old Cuenca from the new (el Rio Tomebamba), this lovely city offers many activities to travelers. Before you pack your bags for a mountainous adventure, here are a few things you should know.
Layers. Equator = warm, right? Not if you’re in the Andes! Weather in Cuenca ranges from chilly to comfortable, so leave the flip-flops at home and remember your chompas (sweaters) for the cold Cuencan nights. Sleeping between two wool blankets is not dramatic; it’s necessary in a home without heaters. Cue the alpaca scarves, blankets, and sweaters at every turn. You may see the locals bundled on a 60-degree day, but don’t be alarmed. While you master the art of not acting surprised, don’t forget your umbrella. Sunny blue skies may turn gray at any moment, sprinkling the city with a morning or afternoon llovizna (drizzle). It is wise, then, to be prepared. Oh, look. Rain.
Change, and lots of it! So now that you’re all dressed for the part, it’s time to go out. A little cash goes a long way in Cuenca, and for visitors from the United States, there is no need to change those bills into another currency. Ecuador uses the dollar. However, it is necessary that you change your bills into monedas; gold dollar coins are all the rage. Due to the low price of goods, paying for something under $5 with anything greater than a $5 bill will, more often than not, result in a sigh or an angered look from the vendor. With local bus rides at $0.25 and yummy bakery bread at $0.13 a piece, it’s understandable why many places do not carry sufficient change. Simply take a few bills to any bank and ask for cambio. That should save you from the glares when it’s time to pay for your $4 meal with a $20 bill.
Hungry? A decent meal in Cuenca may cost between $3-6. It all depends on the place and the crowd, but you can eat well on a tight budget. Breakfast at restaurant-hostel La Cigale costs a whopping $3. For that price, you get two eggs prepared to your liking, a buttery croissant, the choice of coffee or tea, and a refreshing glass of the juice-of-the-day. Unrelated to La Cigale, a pack of Ritz crackers and bottle of water at a local store cost $0.40, each. Forty cents! Alcohol also costs little in Cuenca. With beer at $1 and mixed drinks at $4, you’d better spend the extra cash on salsa dance classes. Stencil Café-bar always has deals on drinks and attracts a young crowd – if you’re down with the youth, that is. Cuenca offers a variety of equally hip and economical café-bars, so try a few on for size. I, on the other hand, will head home. It’s past my bedtime.
His tolerance is not her tolerance is not yours. In Cuenca, you’ll find many street vendors selling treats like gelato ice-cream or freshly cut fruit. But, just because the locals are snacking on pineapple slices does not mean that you can follow suit without possible consequences. They have eaten the same foods all their lives, unlike you, who are not yet accustomed to the new diet. So, before shouting “When in Rome!” and biting into that tempting street-side humita, set aside your fearless mentality for a moment before you spend your time in “Rome,” somewhere else.
Time to get physical! But, not so fast. Cuenca sits approximately 2,500 meters above sea level, over 7,000 feet. Engaging in physical activity could be more tiring than usual at these heights. The locals have been running laps and climbing stairs at this altitude for longer than you have, so give yourself time to acclimatize. Then take those adjusted lungs to the landscapes of Cajas National Park.
Because Cuenca. Simply put, keep an open mind. At no point should you, dear traveler, expect the customs and events of Cuenca to replicate those of your own home country or hometown. Do not resist the culture, but let it take you on an enjoyable journey. If this means being prepared for all seasons in one day, so be it. The piece of meat with eyes on that plate is cuy (guinea pig), a delicacy in Cuenca. Go ahead, try it. And while you’re trying new things, forget about taximeters. They don’t exist here. A taxi ride around this small town should cost no more than $3. When in doubt, just ask the locals to be sure – about anything – and remember: because Cuenca.
Pilates by the Tomebamba River on a Thursday night? Because Cuenca.
Adorable puppies in glass cases for the price of lunch? Because Cuenca.
Late night community runs by athletically clad locals? Because Cuenca.
Adopt this phrase and you will dismiss the differences as quickly as you embrace the culture of this South American town.
¿Cómo se dice…? English is not common in Cuenca, so knowing some key Spanish words and phrases can help you better navigate your way around town and perhaps score new friends. Besides, a properly dressed and acclimatized foreigner with change and native lingo is chévere, or cool, by any standards.