The Little Things of Cuenca

What makes a location, let’s say a city, special? Sometimes it’s very obvious, well-known characteristics (I’m thinking: Eiffel tower, pastries, art, history, mimes, etc.)  But I think it’s often the multitude of little, seeming inconsequential quirks, that breathe distinct life into a place. Subtleties that may even go unrecognized but create a unique feel and flavor, both for residents and visitors. And I think that sometimes these qualities are so subtle that they hard to appreciate unless you’re a visitor, or if you’ve been absent and returned.

Cuenca, Ecuador is a well-loved city, by many people, for many reasons. Tourists and resident expats feel welcome and safe here. The colonial architecture of the historic district distinguishes Cuenca from other Ecuadorian cities. It’s a very walkable city, with the best drinking water in the country (or so we’ve heard). Cuenca is supposedly more “laid back” than other cities in Ecuador, and while I haven’t actually visited any other cities in Ecuador yet, Cuenca definitely seems to fit the “laid back” designation.

As a new arrival, I have a lot to learn about Cuenca, her people, and what makes this city special to so many. And yet, there are qualities that Rodney and I noticed right away and have appreciated from day one. Other characteristics took me longer to realize, and I’m sure there are many other little things that make life in Cuenca pleasant or different, but I just haven’t recognized their presence or absence yet. I’ll try to add to this list as my thick skull allows- and feel free to comment if you’re a local or have visited Cuenca and would like to add in your thoughts!

I will note that this list is purely from our experience, and others may have different opinions/realities. Also, some of these characteristics might be valid for all of Ecuador, or even all of South America, as I have yet to visit any other areas of the continent. These are just some of our impressions; the little things that make Cuenca special, welcoming, and pleasant to us.

  • this may not be particular to Cuenca, but it’s something I noticed in the last week: older children holding hands with their parents as they walk down the sidewalk. My heart feels a little fuller every time I see it, and I feel like I didn’t see it as much at home. But maybe that’s just because, at home, we drive everywhere? In Alaska, would I see adolescent boys and girls holding their parent’s hand on the way to school or to the store if they were walking instead of driving?
  • locals seem to be very patient and low-key in their (at least public) demeanor
    • folks do not ever seem to be in a hurry nor seem to get worked up/impatient when there is a line or inconvenience
    • in the almost-month we’ve been here, I’ve yet to hear yelling, screaming, or even an argument with raised voices. Actually, I don’t think I’ve witnessed a recognizable argument yet.
  • I feel like, in general, the epidemic of “self-importance” has not hit Cuenca.
    • I was just realizing how much I appreciate the lack of persons with the “holier than thou art,” “I’ve got places to be and people to see,” “don’t inconvenience me,” mentality. I wonder if it’s because there isn’t much of a wealth/class disparity? It may well exist, but I haven’t recognized it yet … I don’t see well-dressed folks avoiding or snubbing those with less.
  • sidewalks and parks are kept very clean from litter and dog waste
    • Rod discovered that there is a pretty steep fine for not picking up your dog waste- I love that!! I wish that littering fines were enforced in the USA … even (or maybe especially) for cigarette butts. It’s mind-boggling to me that people think throwing a butt on the ground is acceptable.
    • there are folks regularly sweeping the sidewalks (not to mention that many shop owners scrub the sidewalk in front of their business most morning)
    • park vegetation appears to be cared for well and regularly (no long grass or overgrown landscaping)
  • we were really surprised about this one: cigarette smoking is uncommon
    • the majority of smoking I see is by foreigners
    • when I asked a local about why there isn’t more smoking, she didn’t really have an answer; she didn’t seem to realize that there isn’t as much smoking here as in other places. She did say that you’ll see more smoking at bars and discos, but we have yet to visit such an establishment to verify this 🙂
    • all the restaurants we’ve visited have been smoke-free, and have only experienced smoking annoyances at an outdoor seating area of a cafe
  • locals do not approach us (obvious foreigners) to sell things/ask for money
  • taxis have working meters and drivers charge only what the meter reads
  • grocers and shopkeepers appear to charge foreigners and locals the same prices for goods
  • very, very, very few insects/arachnids/creepy-crawlers (this is super remarkable to us, coming from the land of incessant mosquitoes, plentiful no-see-ums and other flying and crawling pests)
  • we’ve rarely seen folks who appear to be homeless or that blatantly struggle with substance abuse
  • it feels like a very family-friendly city. The parks are well used and families seem to spend a lot of time together. Kids seem to go everywhere with their parents and to really be members of the family, i.e. helpful, given responsibility, and acknowledged as a person, rather than simply doted on or excluded from “real life.”
  • I think this last one is a difference between the USA and the rest of the world … maybe? I appreciate, what appears to be, the honest representation of self here. The lack of disingenuous friendliness, particularly in customer service. I think so many interpersonal interactions in the US are plagued by social facades that mask true feelings and over-emphasize cheeriness and interest until we don’t even know what is “real” and “honest” in a relationship anymore. I suppose it’s because I’m an introvert, who appreciates candid and honest social interactions, that I appreciate that folks here just seem to be who they are, whatever mood they are in … and are generally neither super-friendly, nor frustratingly rude.

Maybe these aren’t even things that are unique to Cuenca and maybe folks would argue that they aren’t things that make the city special. Maybe these are just some things that I’ve noticed and wanted to recognize. I don’t know. But now there’s a list.

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