Cuenca: A Day in the Life

photo of three blue domes of a cathedral about a market plaza with white-walled buildings and red tile roofs

Each weekday morning, we walk an hour to school. I did not expect I’d be saying that in my retirement! Until now, I had not gone “to school” in, um, more than 40 years except for parent-teacher conferences. But for the past two weeks, we have spent four hours a day learning Spanish—and while the note-taking, whiteboards, worksheets, and, yes, homework bring back distant memories, the rest is brand new. We are not only learning the language—though Rachel had already learned enough basic Spanish to get by—we are also learning about the city’s culture, history, geography, weather, and way of life.

Our walk is by choice—when the weather is bad or time is tight, we take the TranVia, a modern, clean, efficient street-level train that whisks us to school in 15 minutes. But the walk is refreshing and gives us a chance to practice our Spanish before class. We follow the riverwalk near our house, along the Rio Yanuncay, and then turn up a broad avenue with statues of prominent Cuencans decorating a grassy median. We pass dozens of small shops and restaurants, a new bilingual school, the oldest high school in the city, and a university. Then we turn onto the riverwalk at Rio Tomebambo, cross a bridge dedicated to women who lost their lives to domestic violence, climb a steep stone stairway up the riverside cliff, pausing to catch our breath in the 8300-foot altitude, and pass into “old Cuenca.” 

We live in “new Cuenca,” which has spread across the valley over the past 50 years or so, but “old Cuenca” was the only Cuenca from the mid-1500s to the early 1900s. Before the Spaniards arrived, there were cities with different names, such as the Cañaris’ Guapondeleg (“land as big as heaven”) and the Incas’ Pumaponga (“the door of the puma”) that were as grand or grander. Old Cuenca, or the city center, still has stone sidewalks, a dozen or so historic churches and cathedrals, and colonial townhouses with wooden balconies, red-tiled roofs, and stucco walls. It is also crowded with shops, sidewalk vendors, restaurants small and large, bookstores, electronics stores, pharmacies, streetcars, and buses—all the trappings of a modern South American city. As in most Latin American countries (and much of Europe), people gather in stone-paved plazas scattered throughout the city’s grid, often adjacent to a church. 

Cuenca is a small city, with about 320,000 people (close to half  the population of Boston), spread out across a valley, intersected by four rushing rivers, and surrounded by mountains. Its houses and other buildings tend to be only a few stories high, with the steeples and domes of churches and cathedrals often the tallest structures. Catholicism is even evident in the train stops—one is named Corazon de Jesus, or “the heart of Jesus”, which is also a nickname for the city, and several others are named for saints. 

Some of the churches, like the three-domed “new cathedral” pictured at the top of this post, are famous for their striking architecture; others, like the “old cathedral” across the square, for their history. Construction on the New Cathedral was begun in the late 1800s and continued for almost a century, until cracks from the settling of the growing structure brought a halt to the work. The Old Cathedral dates to the 1500s and incorporates layers from multiple eras in its walls, decorations, and foundation, including Incan stones, murals from multiple centuries, and an exposed crypt where Spanish nobles were buried. In fact, the Old Cathedral also serves as a museum of religious art. I find it fascinating to realize that, by the time the Pilgrims had built their hardscrabble Plimouth Plantation, Cuenca was already a thriving city and this cathedral had already undergone its first major renovation. (And of course, all this was built on top of temples and cities of the Incas, who in turn had built theirs on top of Cañari structures.)

Photo of Gilded ceilings and altars in the Old Cathedral in Cuenca
Gilded ceilings and altars in the Old Cathedral in Cuenca

We learned much of this by taking excursions with our teachers for part of our lessons—to the market, to historic churches, to museums. After two weeks of these lessons, we decided to re-up for a third week. It lends structure to our days, fills us with new knowledge, and is really moving us toward our goal of being able to get by in a Spanish-speaking country. Rachel is still carrying the load in public conversations, by far. Go figure – two weeks of Spanish lessons have not made me fluent! I recognize more words now, and can painstakingly cobble together some primitive sentences, but I have a long way to go before I can “understand and be understood,” as I’ve heard the goal described. 

Upper level atrium in our school
My classroom

The school itself is in a colonial-era building on Calle Hermano Miguel in Old Cuenca. It has stucco walls, a wooden balcony in an atrium, a few modest-sized classrooms, and a couple of areas to sit and chat. The teachers are welcoming, supportive, and lead interesting lives in addition to teaching us—one runs a small business making and selling ice cream treats; the other does distance teaching and coordinates a university program. There’s also a flow of students coming and going—adults of all ages and nationalities. Most recently we met a retired gentleman from Switzerland who speaks German, French, and English already, and is learning Spanish while he travels alone through Latin America. Before that, there was a young Chicagoan taking a couple of months off to visit Ecuador and Columbia before starting a new job. 

After school, we tend to walk around the central city, maybe go to a market or try out one of the vendors selling lunch, and then make our way home. We love living on the outskirts, where it is quieter, adjacent to one of the rivers, and still provides easy access to the heart of the city. And each weekend so far (hard to believe we have only been here just over two weeks!), we’ve taken an excursion somewhere nearby: a long, steep hike to a gorgeous view of the city last weekend, and this weekend a bus trip to Ingapirka, where ruins of an Incan city and temple sit side-by-side with ramshackle farms.

photo of cows grazing between a river and brick houses

It’s these kinds of contrasts that continue to stand out to me. There are many shared spaces in Cuenca, but walled-off courtyards surround many houses. Cows, sheep, and horses graze next to riverside suburban houses and in vacant lots next to newly constructed apartment buildings. Street vendors and local farmers wear traditional Ecuadorian dresses, fedoras, and alpaca sweaters in vibrant colors, yet knock-off handbags, brand-name clothes, and tight jeans fill the sidewalk stores. It can be quiet enough to hear the river from a block away, and also chaotic and crowded near the market areas on weekends. The streets and paths are clean, the tap water is safe to drink, and yet people seem to be less careful about picking up after their dogs—of which there are many! And for some reason all of the dogs seem to bark and howl loudly around the same time every night and every morning, yet all is quiet in our neighborhood by 9pm. Most nights, we no longer wake up when the roosters start crowing at 2:30am to start their own cycle all over again. 

Oh, and by popular demand, I’ll close with a photo of our home’s ever-present, enthusiastic welcomer, Pip! 

Photo of a small brown and white dog

7 thoughts on “Cuenca: A Day in the Life

  1. Russ+Klein says:

    Wow. Great photos and a fascinating description of the city and the outskirts. Some of what you describe is oddly familiar. For instance, all the dogs in the village here howl in unison at the same time every night and I can’t explain why. The roosters are the first sound in the morning, though here they don’t tend to start calling until 4am. Don’t worry, if my experience is any indication, you will soon learn to sleep through both the dogs and the roosters. I also love that you walk to school. It sounds like a wonderful routine. I particularly like the photo of the interior of the Old Cathedral. Thank you for painting such a vivid picture for us.


  2. Lane Klein says:

    Dear Al,
    You are a marvelous writer. I feel as though I am walking the neighborhoods with you and Rachel. I can almost smell the aromas and hear the sounds. Thank you for including your readers in your discoveries and impressions. I wish you continued joys in your months in Cuenca.
    Con besos,


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