Cuenca - Week 1March 10 in Ecuador ⋅ ⛅ 68 °F
I'll split up the Cuenca visit into 2 posts since we're here for 2 weeks. We enrolled in Spanish courses with Estudio Sampere, a Spain-based school that has offices in Quito and Cuenca. We had poor internet connections in the Galapagos and were having so much fun there that we never got around to booking a school and homestay until we got to Cuenca. We arrived on a Sunday night and showed up at this school on Monday morning. Within an hour we had a family to stay with for 2 weeks and enrolled in classes for the same time. We started classes that afternoon. What luck, since schools here only let you start on Mondays.
I preferred to have 1-1 instruction and Deanne wanted a group beginner class. My private tutoring only cost $40 or so more per week. Sheesh. That's cheap. I think it cost us about $8-9 per hour of instruction. The homestay included room and board. All told, 3 hours of Spanish instructions and full room and board for 2 weeks was about $1500 for both of us, or a little over $100/day. That's great value. Our teachers were great and had been teaching Spanish for over 20 years each.
Our family was the Polo family. Benigno and Lorena are about our age and have 4 kids. One is a doctor, the 20 something twins are in medical school, and the youngest at 19 is thinking about med school. We're in good hands! The house is awesome and has lots of light. It's in a newer, nicer neighborhood just south of the old town center, south of the Rio Tomebamba. It's a 15 minute walk to classes. We walk through the lovely Parqe de Madres every day at least once. This is a really nice park with a running track, new exercise equipment, a basketball court, a small plantarium, and room for concerts. It's awesome to see so many people exercising and hanging out every day. A couple nights a week, there's a large Zumba class and on weeekend mornings, there's a yoga class in the corner.
It's a little bit of a shock for us to live with strangers, but the Polo family is awesome. Benigno Sr. lived in the US for a year as an exchange student in high school and Lorena lived in Miami for 2 years. They've forgotten about as much English as I've forgotten Spanish, but we get by. Benigno Jr. lived in Chicago while studying for US medical schools and speak English fairly well. He hopes to pass a test so he can practice in the States. We miss a lot of the conversation once they get going, but they slow it down for us and can translate when needed.
The morning slots at the school were full, so we had to study between 3-6:15 pm each day. Not my most attentive time of day, but hey, we got in the school at the last minute, so we took it. I took a month of lessons in Quito 25 years ago and lost a lot of it since I don't study or practice. I picked up a lot of bad gringo Spanglish since then and I've had to unlearn some bad grammar. The first hour and 15 minutes is grammar lecture and the last hour and 15 minutes is conversation. Deanne had some basic high school Spanish, but is starting from scratch, basically.
Cuenca really is a lovely city. It's grown a bit since I was here last. My first visit was April of 1992 and I visited one other time a few years later. I remember it being the "conservative, quiet town." Not anymore. The fist visit I remember walking around town alone on a weekend night and there were no bars open. Now, almost 30 years later, the streets are full of them and restaurants, many of them ethnic restaurants from other countries. It's a lot cleaner and busier. There are 3 Universities here so there are lots of young people. I remember bringing a few beers down to the Rio Tomebomba with my friend Bill Henry and watching Kichwa women do laundry on the rocks in the river. Now, the river is a parkway with pedestrian paths, a bike path, and absolutley no clothes washing is allowed.
I told Deanne about an embarrasing incident from that first trip. I was wondering around Calle Larga alone when I saw what I THOUGHT was a beautiful antique shop. I wondered in and glanced at a few nice pieces. An elderly woman asked me if she could help me. I said (In Spanish, of course) that No, I was just looking. She glanced up and yelled for her grandson who came out onto the balcony looking down on me and he said "This is our house!" I was mortified and apologised profusely. But now, 30 years later, I'm pretty sure I found the spot on Calle Larga. And guess what it is now? An antique shop! I told the story to my conversation teacher and she laughed and said that sounds like the place down the street and there's an elderly lady that is a tad lonely and likes it when people stop in to chat. Too bad is was closed when I found it again.
Lots of expats have chosen to live here for the year-round spring-like weather. At 2500 meters and near the equator, it's about 53- 75 degrees each day and this time of year, it rains about every afternoon. There are about 8,000 expats that call Cuenca home, and about 5,000 are Americans! That's a lot. And they've changed Cuenca quite a bit, for better or worse. Housing costs are up but there are so many more cultural events to see/do. For a gringo, it's still pretty cheap. Many live in one area NW of town in new condos in an area the locals call GringoLandia. But I don't feel any animosity here. People are incredibly friendly until they get behind the wheel. They are not the safest drivers. There are few pedestrian lights, so you have to crane your neck to look for the one car light per intersection and try to guess if it's safe to cross. But, there are lots of good sidewalks and it's really a safe city. There are lots of cops in the parks and central city, and many neighborhoods like ours have private security guards. I haven't heard of any crime but I'm sure there is in other parts of town. And beers are still cheap. A 750 ml beer costs about $2.50 - $3 here. In the Galapagos, they were $5-6. And wow, there are a LOT of microbreweries here, like maybe 8 or more. That's a huge change.
Our school sponsors events for us and we're taking advantage. We went to a nearby National Park called "Cajas" which means boxes. Supposedly, the many lakes up there in the mountains look like boxes. We had a great guide who was a biologist and he explained all the unique plants to us. There are so many that only grow in this area, at 3500-4000 meters. One green plant looks and feels like astroturf. It has to withstand the high wind. Our guide found a small flower that when plucked, looks like a tiny bird. He said it's eaten by a tiny bird that looks just like it! That freaked me out. We went on a long hike from the Continental divide and down to some Podocarpus trees, these unique trees from the area. It was a great day and a nice break from school. I gotta say that learning a language at this age is much harder than 25 years ago, so we appreciated the cultural breaks.
With the Polo family, Almuerzo (lunch) is the main meal. It's very formal and the entire family is there. Breakfast is light and is fresh fruit, juice and some eggs. But we need to be back by 1 pm for the big lunch. I have no idea what they do for dinner because we're the only ones that seem to eat it at home. It's included with our plan. Many times we have leftovers, but we've started going out for dinner so we're not a bother to Lorena and also because we want to explore the restaurant scene. It's good and varied here. A set lunch or dinner can be as cheap as $2.50. It's basic, but includes a juice, protein, and 2 starches. But we've been opting for better fare in the $10 range each. We splurged a couple times on the nicest restaurants with wine, and that sets us back about $80 for an amazing seafood meal with a bottle of wine for 2.
Before classes, we either study or hit a museum or the local market. There's a place with a LOT of hustle and bustle. There are lots of women in their cool hats selling the veggies they bring in from the countryside. One of the more intersting museums we went to was the Museum of Forbidden Art. It's nice to know there are radicals in a conservative Catholic city. Check out the pics. Think: possessed babies, fallus faucets in the bathroom, caskets for selfies, etc.
We also visited a 100 year old chocolate factory in town that was sponsored by our school. That was fascinating. I've taken chocolate tours before but this was different. The machines were made by the owners dad when he started the company. They only make 100% pure chocolate from cacao. They sell it to bakeries and chocolatiers in Ecuador only since international shipping and taxes are crazy expensive. Everything is by hand and by very basic machinery. See the pics. Basically, once they separate out the dried seed from the shell, they grind it and it turns into a thick liquid chocolate that then cools to a solid. They make (for lack of better words), a blob, a pancake, and a large banana leaf imprint and then package these by weight for confectioners or bakers in the area.
Deanne found some nightlife for us on Facebook. We saw an Argentine rock band called Espiritus at a really nice hostel. It cost $25 each, which is pricey if you're in Cuenca and don't know their music. The warmup band wasn't very good, but we really liked the band. We were definitely the oldest ones around and the only gringos. There's so much more we've done and seen that I probably have forgotten. But after studying in the morning a bit and (gasp!) doing homework and then having 3 hours of PM classes, many nights were were just pooped and hung out in our private room. And yes, we got a private bathroom too.
All photos and vids from Cuenca's week 1 are here. https://photos.app.goo.gl/DNnq8go5ca5sbPWx9Read more