This is my fourth Christmas season in Ecuador (can you believe it?!), but no matter how I try, it is still hard to really get into the Christmas spirit in a tropical environment. That is why I was so excited when my new friends, Donald and ML, offered me an opportunity to dust the sand off my feet, put on long pants and a jacket, and accompany them on a trip to visit the city of Cuenca.
The historic city of Cuenca is the third largest in Ecuador, (behind Guayaquil and Quito, respectively) with a population of just over half a million people. This 500 year old city was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. The city has a very European feel and still boasts an impressive amount of Spanish colonial architecture, historic churches (52 in all) and meandering cobblestone streets. Cuenca sits around 8,200 feet above sea level, nestled in a bowl with the Andes mountains 360 degrees all around. Traveling to the city, we went through Cajas National Park. About an hour outside of Guayaquil we reached the park entrance, which is approximately 500 feet above sea level. Within less than an hour, we had climbed to almost 14,000 feet! The beautiful drive reminded me of meandering through the Alps. But due to being on the equator, the climate stays relatively steady year round, so they don’t get snow. In Cuenca, the temperature ranges between 50 to 70 degrees most days, and usually with a rain shower in the afternoon (although the first day I was there, I was treated to a full blown lightening and thunder storm!).
We left Puerto Cayo at 5:00 a.m. and after a 6.5 hour drive (including rest stops), checked into our historic hotel. Shortly thereafter, my friends accompanied me to the main park and town square, so that I could take the city bus tour. ML previously lived in Cuenca and she and Donald have spent a lot of time there, so we had already agreed that while they were taking care of some business and meeting with friends, I would explore the city on my own. They headed off and while I waited for my tour, I enjoyed a much needed cappuccino at a quaint little Parisian style cafe on the square.
The tour, which lasted two hours, was in an open air, double decker bus. It was a great way to get an overview of the city, with a stop at a scenic overlook. Unfortunately, the rain began shortly after the tour and was finally coming down heavily enough, that eventually we had to go down to the lower part of the bus. By the time we reached the overlook, the whole city was obscured by the storm. However, it was quite the vantage point to watch the incredible lightening show, and it cleared just enough to get some decent pictures before we left.
That evening, I met back up with ML and Donald and after a light snack of a Christmas tamale, we headed back to the town square to the old cathedral (we’re talking over 500 years), which is now a museum, but was hosting a Christmas concert by the Cuenca International Chorus. This group is composed of English speaking ex-pats from various countries, and they put on quite a wonderful show. For years, vocal concerts were a regular part of my Christmas festivities, and it was really special to be able to enjoy one again. The last few songs were traditional carols, that included the audience singing and lighting candles that we were all given when we came in. At the final song, “Silent Night,” we all filed out of the cathedral with lit candles into the cold night air, to be greeted by the streets lit up with Christmas lights – finally, it felt like Christmas in Ecuador!
The next morning, we went for a walk along the river. Cuenca actually has four rivers running through the city, but the Tomebamba River is the main one that divides the old, colonial Cuenca from the new, modern part of the city. Afterwards, my friends led me back to the flower market that I had remarked about passing on the bus tour the day before. Here we parted ways, and while they did more errands and visiting friends, I enjoyed the rest of the day wandering through the city. I meandered through the streets and back to some of the areas we’d already been to, for further exploration. At one point, I was passing back by the park area and was drawn to the sound of a familiar tune. As I walked into the park to listen, I realized it was coming over a loud speaker system. The scene before me, put to the beautiful background music of, “The Very Thought of You,” was too much not to stop and take it all in. I recorded a small bit of it so you could get a feel for the magic of the moment:
Later that evening, we met back up for a wonderful dinner at a tucked away restaurant that served a variety of tasty fare. My friends enjoyed Thai bowls, while I was enthralled with my chicken pesto sandwich. After dinner, we walked back along the river, taking in the transformation from our views earlier in the day, to a beautifully lit nighttime extravaganza.
The following morning brought more errands for my friends and more wandering for me, before we departed the city nearly 48 hours later than when we’d arrived.
I cannot say enough how much I loved Cuenca! It is a very safe city to walk around in, because everyone else is out walking too. The seemingly endless blocks of coffee houses, bakeries, museums, shops, parks, candy stores, boutiques, churches, etc. are a wanderer’s dream! Strolling along, one can’t help but be drawn to the smells of fresh coffee or baked bread, the occasional music wafting from various stores, or just the people of all walks of life, from casually dressed, to three pieced suits, to indigenous ladies with their long braids, skirts and traditional hats. Cuenca is truly a feast for the senses in every way – the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings of the warm sun, crisp air or rain droplets, all add to the charm of this incredible city. If you can’t already tell, I’m in love with Cuenca – so plan a trip to visit me, and I’ll take you there so you can fall in love with it too!
Below is a slideshow of some more pictures from my visit. If you are receiving my blog by email, click here to view them – I hope you enjoy!