How to Get Around Cuenca – Part Two

Getting around Cuenca is fairly simple using 4 wheels, 2 wheels, or 2 feet. Last week, I discussed using cars, taxis, and light rail for daily transportation. Today, I will tell you about using buses, bicycles, and walking.

Buses

The bus system in Cuenca, or Moovit, is quite extensive and up to date. There are 475 buses crisscrossing the city until about 10:00 pm. Like the Tranvia system, you buy a $1.75 card to which you add money. Purchase your card at one of 4 offices in the city, and later look for a red sign in shops where you can go in and add money to your card. There is a map showing where these stores are and a map of the routes at the tourist office opposite Parque Calderon.

Get on the bus at the front, swipe your card for a $.30 ride, and exit toward the rear. The stop names are announced on each bus. The integration of one card you can use on both the Tranvia and the buses has started to take place and will be fully developed as the year proceeds.

Each bus has signs in the front showing a route number along with the start and end points. The  Moovit system operates with an interactive app which you can download to your phone or computer.. The system can suggest routes to destinations of your choice. You can select your route, find stops, determine how long your trip should take, and even learn how far you will need to walk to your destination after departing the bus. Wi-Fi is available on the bus for you to use your app when traveling.

Bicycles

Bicycles in Cuenca are very common as the city fathers have been very proactive constructing bike lanes throughout much of the city. Called ciclovías, these bike lanes parallel major roads and run alongside the rivers. They often  double with pedestrian paths, so the bike rider must be careful when coming upon a walker. These bike lanes may be cement stretches or gravel paths, and more lanes are being improved or added continually. Riding a bike is one way to combat the congested streets.

Don’t have a bike? No problem. Bike rental stations are scattered throughout the historic district and popular parks. Join the BiciCuenca program for a low fee and then pay a quarter for a 30-minute ride or $10.00 for a full day. First, register at the BiciCuenca office along the Tomebamba River and deposit $8.00 for a card you can use at any of the rental stations. A secret is to pay the quarter for a 30-minute ride, check the bike in and then pay for another 30-minute ride. Otherwise, a 60-minute ride is 75¢ or $2.00 an hour thereafter.

If you download the app, you will be able to see the amount of money on your card and find the number of bikes available at the stations. After your ride, simply return the bike to any station.

Walking

The cheapest and most scenic method to traverse Cuenca is to walk. Cuenca is mostly a very easy walkable city, as much of it is flat with only a few hills, while steeper hills lie outside the city center. There are, however, stairways between 80 and 90 step leading from the Tomebamba River up to El Centro. A couple of these have ramps in addition to the stairways. Three of the rivers have walkways running alongside in park-like settings, often with children and adult exercise equipment for your use.

Cuenca’s sidewalks are not uniformly constructed as many of these are old and may have broken pavement, holes, or other obstacles with which to contend. Consequently, these sidewalks are challenging for the impaired or those needing a wheelchair. Other stretches are newer and a pleasure to walk.

In Ecuador, pedestrians do not have the right of away. At corners, it is essential to look for turning cars before stepping into the street. Legally, you may jay walk with care.

However you chose to get around in Cuenca, you will have a positive experience, see the sights, and easily get to your destination. Cuenca is one of the safest cities in South America, which allows you to have an even better exposure to the city.

Fact: Cuenca employs a team of 1000 people who keep the streets and sidewalks clean, 7 days a week
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How to Get Around Cuenca – Part One

If you stop in front of a porch in Maine where two old men are sitting in rocking chairs and ask for directions, you will undoubtedly get the answer, “You can’t get there from here”. There are challenges to getting around Cuenca, Ecuador, but there are also solutions. Your choices are car, taxi, Metro (or tram), bus, bicycle, or walking.

Cars

There are approximately 858,000 cars (excluding 8,000 taxis) in Cuenca with a population of 436,000. In Chicago, there are approximately 1,731,600 cars (excluding 7,000 taxis) with a population of 8,901,000. This results in fewer people per car in Cuenca compared with Chicago, but there are more taxis in Cuenca than Chicago. My conclusion is there are too many cars in both Cuenca and Chicago. Might this not be an example of our problem with greenhouse gases?

The center of Cuenca and some of its close-lying areas are composed of predominantly one-way streets. Given the number of cars, there is more driving, faster speeds, and excessive gridlock. One-way streets are necessary in El Centro because the streets in this old part of town are narrow. Because of the one-way streets, going from point A to point B may require going around several blocks to arrive at your destination; hence more driving. High speeds are the results of traffic lights being coordinated to lessen the amount of stop and go. In Cuenca, from 2021 to 2022, the number of vehicle registrations grew 7.2% from 152,676 to 163,598 while the population grew 2.11% . It is this excess number of cars which result in the gridlock.

Taxis

Taxis are a popular means of transportation because they are usually readily available and the fares are inexpensive. With more taxis than Chicago, it is often easy to flag a ride. There are also popular phone apps for requesting a taxi. You never have to tell a taxi where to pick you up. You open the app and a map appears giving your exact GPS location. You will receive an estimated time the taxi will arrive and you can watch a car icon traveling the streets on its way to your location.

At times, however, it is difficult to get a taxi—on holidays when fewer taxis are operating and when it is raining and more people are soliciting taxis. All taxis are required to have a visible meter so you know the cost of your trip. Generally, a taxi ride within Cuenca costs $2.00 or $3.00. Drivers also expect a tip, so you can round up the meter charge. Uber and other cars-for-hire are not allowed in Cuenca.

Tranvia

Not to be outdone by the taxis, the metro or light rail system (called Tranvia) also offers an option of paying a fare with an app. Your charge will come from your local bank account. With the large number of tourists in Cuenca, it will probably only be a matter of time before the payment will come from any bank.

Jorge Moscoso, the Tranvia Director, predicts the use of the app will increase ridership by 20%. Currently, the Monday-Friday riders amount to 19,400. The Tranvia is new in Cuenca with only one 11 km line starting at Parque Industrial via the airport and ending at the Rio Tarqui. There are 27 stops along the way. taking about 35 minutes, but expectations are more lines will be developed in the future. You can purchase a card at the Tranvia office or various other locations for $1.00. You then insert your card into pay stations at various metro stops and add money to the card; you cannot use cash on the metro. The normal fare to ride anywhere on the line is $.35 (or a discounted fare of $.17 for students or senior citizens with a cedula). Without the card, expect to pay $1.00 per ride.

For the more intrepid, I will discuss bicycling and walking as well as the bus system in the post next week.

Fact: Getting around Cuenca is quite easy
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Embracing the New Year in Ecuador

Feliz Año Nuevo! Happy New Year! Ecuador’s custom to welcome in the New Year is “out with the old”. I’m waiting to see what “in with the new” will be.

The old is symbolized by papier-mâché  masks and large characters called monigotes which may represent anything real or imagined. These are effigies of well-known figures, Disney-like characters, or creatures from another world and can be six or more feet in height and elaborately decorated. They are stuffed with paper, cardboard, sawdust, or other materials and sometimes dressed in old clothes. A person may make his own mask or character or more likely, purchase one already made.

The masks and effigies offer visual delight to old and young alike. They are put on display in front of homes and businesses, anywhere along the street, or in parks and other public spaces. At midnight, they are ignited to burn away the bad things of the current year. They must be completely burned to prevent  any of the year’s displeasures from returning. While they burn, one custom is to jump over them 12 times to wipe away all bad things encountered each month. This can be a little dangerous, especially if the characters are filled with firecrackers.

My own neighborhood park was a site to behold with many of these characters on display for the evening burning. It was difficult to get close while individuals were assembling  their displays, but I attempted to get some pictures from behind the fences. When the evening came, there was constant noise from firecrackers and a band broadcasting all over the neighborhood until 5 o’clock in the morning.

Today, there will be piles of ashes all over the streets and parks. I will step over these and go looking for what is new in the New Year.

Fact: Another custom is to eat 12 grapes at midnight
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The Pope, a Statue, and a Parade

It all began in the 1960s when a statue of the Christ child was blessed by the Pope, brought back to Cuenca from Rome, and a tradition was born. This statue, the Nino Viajero (child traveler), became the impetus for Cuenca’s largest celebration of the year, a children’s parade on Christmas Eve.

The focus of the parade are the statues of the baby Jesus. The first statue was made in 1823 when Josefa Heredia of Cuenca commissioned a local artist to create such a statue. One hundred years later, it came into the possession of the local Monsignor, Miguel Cordero Crespo. The Monsignor took the statue to Rome in 1961 where Pope John XXIII gave it his blessing. Monsignor Crespo then brought the statue back to Cuenca, displayed it with a parade, and the festival has grown every year since.

The Pase del Nino, or parade of the child, re-enacting Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem, begins at about 10:00 in the morning and proceeds along El Centro streets throughout the day, ending about 7 hours later.  Children dress up in sacred or secular costumes, march through the streets, and join the revelry, along with floats, horses, dancers, stilt walkers, and musicians. People line the streets all day to observe the children and to kick off the Christmas season. The parade has continually become more secular. Recently, the Three Wisemen have followed their star on motorcycles, and Mary and Joseph have done cartwheels down the street.

I attempted to take pictures of the parade, but I couldn’t get close enough. The pressing crowds prevented much movement behind blockade fences. I’ll leave the picture taking to the professionals from atop trucks. See here a 23-minute video in Spanish of the parade:

Cuenca’s festive celebration has been a latecomer to honor the Christ child. The Spanish actually introduced the observance to Latin America some 500 years earlier. However, over the years the parade has taken hold predominately in Cuenca and is considered the largest in Latin America.

As many as 50,000 may participate in the parade, while 150,000 will line the streets to watch. The parade is actually made up of smaller units, neighborhoods and nearby towns, each carrying their own statue of the baby Jesus. The parade brings visitors, expats, Cuencanos, and the Indigenous together to become one big family expressing peace and hope for the coming New Year.

Fact: Cuenca is often seen as the capital of artistic abilities and culture in Ecuador
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Food Shopping in Cuenca

The cost savings when purchasing food can be great when you know where to shop. As in cities of similar size, Cuenca is blest to have several options for shopping. These include the city markets (mercados), the chain stores, the local mom and pop shops (tiendas), and the street vendors.

There are five large mercados scattered around Cuenca. The largest of these i s the Feria Libre, an overwhelming market in size and number of products for sale. One of Cuenca’s popular tour operators gives us a tour of this market. He offers a commercial opening but continue watching to see the scope of this  popular market.

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h6rDIwya0ZA).

The other four mercados offer similar merchandise but on a smaller scale (see last week’s post at  https://wp.me/pdrVMz-ia). This is the mercado where I usually shop as it is the closest for me (a 25-minute walk).

Large local chain stores in Cuenca serve all the residents. One of the popular stores is the SuperMaxi, a large American-style grocery store popular with ex-pats. For five years, this chain has been building a MegaMaxi at a cost of 36 million dollars. It is due to open in 2023 and will be similar to a Walmart. Which brings us to another super store: Coral. This chain has six stores in Cuenca, from small to large; it is owned by Walmart. There are a few more large chain-type stores.

The local tiendas are the most numerous grocery outlets in the city. Many of these are too small to even enter. They have a counter across the doorway where you ask for what you want. The advantage of these tiendas is convenience for last minute shopping, and a place where you can purchase small quantities (such as a cup of flour). They are not to be overlooked.

The choice of shopping outlets is yours. You may choose for convenience, price, or location. Like many Ecuadorians, you may also need to shop at several of these in order to find all the products you want. Shopping in Cuenca is an adventure. Next week, I will discuss the costs and comparisons  of shopping for groceries.

Fact: Ecuadorians juice some fruits instead of eating them
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Herb, Hornado, or Haircut

Do you need a fish head, a wooden spoon, an exotic herb, a hornado, or a haircut? In Cuenca, you need to head to 10 Agosto Mercado in the El Centro, an authentic Cuenca market, where you will these items and many more than you can imagine. You must experience the sights and smells of this colorful market. Although it is open 7 days a week, it is best to go on a weekday when it is running full tilt.

When you approach the Mercado, you will find many vendors in front with their goods spread out before them or in a wheelbarrow. Wend your way through them and up a few steps and you are in the entry way of this large mercado. Ahead is a partial wall to block the elements from coming into this covered market.

You will first see piles of food stuffs along either side of the walls. Here you will find stalls of organic items in large baskets. Suddenly, you find yourself in a large courtyard-type space. Ahead is a decorated elevator with escalators on either side. Below one of these escalators stand indigenous women beating their clients with sage leaves as a purification rite.

Moving forward from the courtyard-type space are rows of meats, fruits, beans, and vegetables. Ride the escalator up to the second floor and these rows are duplicated. In addition, you will find multiple products for sale on individual tables: bags of various nuts, fruit drinks, more herbs; there are also Chinese imported products, wooden spoons and other wooden utensils, and even a couple of vendors offering a haircut for $2.50. Not to be outdone by the food products are rows containing clothing, shoes, and hats.

The prepared food smells will draw you back toward the escalators. Along either balcony side are individual food vendors offering you an inexpensive meal of typical Ecuadorian fare with tables opposite for your use. At the end of these food rows in a larger eating area are more food choices. Here you will find the hornado, a whole roasted pig served with boiled local corn kernels, mashed potato balls glazed with homemade sauce, and fresh salad mix. The pulled pork meal will melt in your mouth. This $4.00 meal can be topped with a glass of coconut milk or a fruit drink for another $1.00.

The 10 Agosto Mercado has been around since 1954. A trip to El Centro would not be complete without visiting this amazing “grocery store”.

Fact: Ecuador has some 40 large and colorful native mercados
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Latin American Cuisine Doesn’t Get the Credit it Deserves

Reprinted with permission from Cuenca Highlife, Sep 27, 2022 [edited]

By Carrie Dennett

Back in August, I wrote about how I wouldn’t promote the Mediterranean diet like I used to. One reason is that the heavy emphasis on this way of eating – although delicious and nutritious – rejects other traditional ways of eating, also. It’s delicious and nutritious, but it hasn’t benefited from being highlighted by research. Take Latin American cuisine, for example.

Like the Mediterranean [diet], “Latin America” ​​is not a monolith. It is quite diverse, consisting of Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and South America – countries influenced by Spanish or Portuguese colonization that began centuries ago.

While there are common threads, the cuisines in this part of the world can be strongly regional, reflecting the blending of influences from the … natives, their colonizers, and enslaved Africans. In her stunning book, “The South American Table,” food writer, cookbook, and culinary historian Maria Baez-Kejak describes South American cuisine as “a unique cuisine that I believe has no equal in the world.”

From Cuenca Highlife, 9/27/2022

Unfortunately, I’ve noticed a common non-Hispanic misconception that Latin American cuisine is less than healthy — too high in carbs and fat, and too low in vegetables. Ironically, because I’ve also seen diet/wellness culture … cherry pick some traditional Latin American foods like “superfoods” – avocado, chia seeds, quinoa, coconut milk, cashews, and oat milk – while demonizing other traditional foods, like corn, white rice, and potatoes. No matter that corn is a whole grain, potatoes contain a lot of nutrients, and a cup of brown rice contains only one gram more fiber than white rice.

It is easy to get an idea of ​​a culture’s cuisine from what we see on restaurant menus (including fast food menus), although this usually does not reflect what people from that culture eat and cook at home on an average day. For example, soups (sopas) and stews (caldos) are important in Latin American cuisine, but most Latin American restaurants do not feature them.

In the United States, we are often used to meals that contain separate sources of protein and vegetables, such as grilled chicken with broccoli. With Latin American foods, mixed dishes are more common, and vegetables are used as a basis for flavor and as a garnish, so it may not be clear how many vegetables you’re eating.

Beans, soups, and stews can be cooked with sofrito – most versions start with onions and/or garlic, then other ingredients like tomatoes and bell peppers are added – then topped with fresh sauce or raw vegetable garnishes, such as shredded cabbage, radish, carrots, or onions. Sauces, another important ingredient in Latin American cooking, are often also made from aromatic vegetables. There may also be a serving of pickled, fermented, or grilled vegetables on the side.

Pixabay.com

When I visited Buenos Aires, Argentina, nearly 14 years ago, I had a little whim when quite a few restaurant menus had salads like what I ordered at home. But the grilled vegetables were plentiful. (As I learned from Maricel E. Presilla’s James Beard Award-winning cookbook, “Gran Cocina Latina,” there are Latin American salads — they’re not just the leafy green combinations you’re used to.)

From Cuenca Highlife, 9/27/2022

When I visited Ecuador a decade later, I was much cooler about the food.

We can learn a lot from Latin American food, including how to use vegetables as flavor and how to incorporate more beans – a great source of protein, fiber and other nutrients. Like every food culture, Latin American food culture is nutritious and delicious, and it’s worth celebrating.

Fact:  Ecuadorian food is as diverse as its landscape. 
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Shrunken Heads Found in Cuenca

A collection of shrunken heads rests alongside one of Cuenca’s main thoroughfares. They lie in state at the Pumapungo Museum and Archaeological Park, a beautiful edifice housing exhibits of early Ecuadorian  history. Pumapungo means door of the puma.

The museum has over 5000 exhibits with rooms devoted to art displays ranging from the Baroque to the contemporary. In 2019, the museum exhibited 37 works by Salvador Dali, his first presentation in Ecuador. Traveling exhibits also occur regularly. In addition to art, there is a collection of 5,000 cassettes of film and musical performances.

Out in the “backyard” is the Archaeological Park of about 10 acres filled with the ruins of the northern capitol of the Inca civilization. The Incas captured the area originally known as Tumebamba from the Cañari tribe in the 1400s. About 1525, an epidemic wiped out many Incas, and the remains of the city were destroyed by the Inca’s civil war. Much of the ruins lie buried beneath the city of Cuenca, except for those making up the Archaeological Park.

The Spanish arrived in the 16th Century and used many of the ruined stones to build their own homes and churches. Those stones exist today throughout the city. The Central Bank of Ecuador acquired the ruined property in 1981 and began to recover the old city of Tumebamba. The city sat upon a high hill and down its sides. The Inca, a highly religious people, held beliefs of a heaven, earth, and hell. An Inca had only to look up to see a heaven above the clouds while living hill top. Down the side of the hill was the entrance to the underworld, a long tunnel which served as a mausoleum, seen today behind a locked gate.

The bottom of the hill served as the agricultural  grounds, where today there are more than 230 species of plants. There is a large pie-shaped birdhouse with each piece of the pie housing a native bird which was prized by the Incas. A pond collects the mountain water and distributes it along a 590.5 foot aqueduct the Incas used to irrigate their crops. Midway, there is a ritual bath built out into the shape of the Southern Cross.

Like Cuenca itself, the archaeological park is a UNESCO-supported site, open daily (except Mondays) at no charge. This is one of Cuenca’s must-visit sites.

Fact: Spanish settlement began in 1557
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Is Cuenca Safe?

Among the largest cities in Ecuador, Cuenca is considered the safest. Petty theft and vandalism do exist, though. Unfortunately, crime is up from last year. This may be due to the conditions left by Covid-19.

Cuenca’s population is roughly half a million. The growing number of crimes in Cuenca this year are 5 domestic abuse incidents resulting in death, and other violent deaths numbering 21. These murders log in at almost 6 per 100,000 people. This compares favorably with the murder rate in the United States. Search out any major US city and you will find the rates much higher.

So, is Cuenca safe? Well, yes and no. Based on the numbers just cited, the answer is yes. However, smaller crimes do exist. As you would in any city, you must be cautious and observing wherever you are. Physical and verbal attacks are low; attacks based on religion, gender, nationality and skin color are particularly low. Because of these low crime rates, Cuenca has a safety rating of 78 during the day and a moderate 45 at night.

Large crimes are usually drug related. Drugs passing through Ecuador are far more prevalent than drugs originating in Ecuador. If you are not involved in the drug scene here, you will be relatively safe. The good news is Ecuador’s national government has made drug trafficking one of its major priorities. The bad news is the country simply doesn’t have enough personnel or money to adequately enforce this priority.

Cuenca, on the other hand, is working hard to keep its city even safer. The locals have always been the focal point for providing safety by the police. Since tourism is a large element in the makeup of Cuenca, a newly instituted team of 31 multilingual tourism police have been put into place. Twenty-nine of these are on duty every day, focusing on the tourist locales.

Most of these officers are on foot, which allows tourists to easily approach them for any help they need. They have even been known to climb the steps the the Cathedral tower to protect any tourists there. Some officers have been given bicycles for greater mobility and wider coverage. These officers are on duty 7 days a week. “I believe this program will expand,” said Fernando Aguirre Cordero, former  local province governor and politician. “The idea is to have more police officers. This is the best way to make tourists to feel safe as they travel around the country, including Cuenca.”

Fact: Ecuador is the only country in the world named after a geographical feature (the Equator)
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We’re at the Top

We made it up all those steps! Now we’re at Calle Larga (Long Street). If we head left for about 3 blocks and turn right, we can take an angled street up to the heart of El Centro and arrive at Parque Calderon. This square block park was modeled on Versailles and once hosted bull fights. It is like a wagon wheel with spokes radiating to the edges. Always a busy place, people mill about, sit on benches and people watch. A few vendors have their wares on carts.

The buildings around the park show off the history of Cuenca. On one side is the Old Cathedral, now an historical museum. It was constructed in 1557 over some Inca ruins. A pipe organ proudly sits on an upper balcony and was reached (no longer by the public) via a circular staircase. I’ve been told that this organ hasn’t sounded in 100 years. What a shame.

Let’s cross the square to the New Cathedral. Ground for this active cathedral was broken in 1885 and the building completed in 1975. Due to an  architect’s structural error, the towers are truncated, as they can not hold any more weight. However, three giant domes in striking blue and white glazed Czechoslovakian tile hover over the cathedral and have become the city’s visual apex. Inside, the profusion of gold on the baldacchino glares against my camera. Gold has been mined here since the days of the Incas. To my dismay, this cathedral lacks a pipe organ.

Crossing to another corner, we will find my favorite building, the Palace of Justice or the old courthouse, constructed in classic French architectural style. It was originally built for the University of Azuay, Cuenca’s province. Today, it is used as an educational school for the legal profession. There is an art exhibition on the first floor, but if we walk up to the second and third floors, we will see that this building is designed around an open courtyard, gaping to the elements in one section. I hope you will be as dazzled by this interior as I have been.

Wandering around El Centro, we will see a number of plazas. Cuenca has not skimped on open spaces, be they plazas or parks. Near the square is the Plaza de las Flores (Flower Mart), overflowing with beautiful fresh flowers. We can choose from prearranged bouquets or create our own. Let’s go a little further to the Plaza de San Francisco where the traditional Latin town name is spelled out in large letters. It is customary to have your picture taken in front of the letters, and if I have to do it, so will you. Around this plaza are many vendors, selling clothing, household goods, ceramics, ironwork, chinaware, rugs, and the list goes on. The scene is colorful with the Cathedral towers looming over.

Pixabay.com

If we have the time, we can just wander up and down the cobblestone, one- way streets and view all the little stores and restaurants. You will be amazed at how many of these hole-in-the-wall stores exist and, with so many, how they all stay in business. Maybe we’ll take this walk another day.

Fact: For a flavor of El Centro: https://youtu.be/a4bh5z3uG-M 18 minutes
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