On April 3rd, I had posted “The Remembrances of Another Time Found in Cuenca”. The post was a reflection of how so many things in Cuenca were a reminder of what life was like growing up in the United States in the 1950’s. I continue to be astonished at the way things are done in Cuenca that harkens back to an earlier time in the United States.
My intent was to type a follow-up post the following week, but I became side-tracked with life’s demands and the writing of other post topics that served a greater sense of immediacy for me at the time. Therefore, the germination of that follow-up post has come to fruition today, and is entitled, “The Other Side of Cuenca”, which deals with a Cuencano society in which both tradition and modernity are currently coexisting side by side. I did not want to leave in the minds of Norte Americanos that Cuenca is simply some throw back to an earlier era. Much of Cuenca is as contemporary as anything that is found in the United States and Canada.
While El Centro is the historic district recognized and protected by UNESCO, and where outside alterations to the Spanish Renaissance architecture must be in keeping with that style; outside of many parts of El Centro is a very modern Cuenca of new homes generally done in both traditional and contemporary Spanish architectural styles. There is no doubt that this city of 500,000 people who have lived in low-lying structures in which the tallest buildings were generally no more than four floors in height, have seen the Cuenca landscape particularly over the last five years experience an enormous explosion in new high-rise condos and commercial office buildings. Even with this growth in high rise construction, there is little chance of Cuenca becoming a densely populated city of high rises. The tallest building is seventeen stories, and for the foreseeable future no building will be allowed to rise above fourteen stories. Along with the high rises, many townhouses are beginning to make their appearance on the housing scene as well
Even as high rise condos parallel near the Rio Tomebama and stretch westward along Calle Lasso and similar streets in the area. The high rises are either scattered among one and two story housing, or surrounded by low rising housing divisions. There are no blocks after blocks of high rises being built as can be found in cities like Chicago and New York City.
Like the urban sprawl in the United States over the last half a century, new housing tracks continue to spring up across the Cuenca valley with newer homes extending into the lower mountain sides. The South side of Cuenca is one of the most elegant areas of Cuenca, with a combination of low rise apartment buildings and attractive neighborhoods of homes most reminiscent of upper-middle class neighborhoods found in areas around Los Angeles or San Diego, or a Scottsdale, Arizona; where handsome homes are walled off in gated communities. Avenida Solano is the heart of the south side. It is a perfect example of a beautiful four lane street divided by a wide median green belt with bountiful trees which line the median as well as align along the curbsides of the avenue which extend for two to three miles until the street comes to a T when Solano reaches the Rio Yanuncay. Radiating from Solano are a myriad of gated communities of elegant homes nestled behind the walls. Solano is graced with wide sidewalks that are set-off from the curb by the grassy areas and trees that align the avenue. The walk along the shady tree boulevard of Solano can be a leisurely stroll that introduces one to a Cuenca quite different from El Centro. I met an expat lady who has lived with her husband in Cuenca for thirty years, and remembers when the south side of Cuenca was all farmland when they first arrived.
The new construction is found everywhere in the city, and so are the nice neighborhoods. Yet even in these areas one can find a herd of cows eating grass along a parkway, and the areas are further enhanced by the beauty of the rivers that run through many areas of Cuenca and the walkways along the banks of the rivers, only to be further enhanced by vaster green areas like Parke Madre, which lies across the Rio Tomebama and just below El Centro on the south side of the city, or on the east side of Cuenca where the very large, beautiful, and greatly appreciated Parke de El Paraiso is enjoyed by Cuencanos particularly on the weekends.
There is little industry in Cuenca, and that includes the eyesores that generally are concomitant with an industrial sector. Except for bus fumes, there is little in the way of pollution. Even the airport and the terminal bus station are located on the outskirts of Cuneca’s northeast side, thereby causing little infringement upon the city as a whole. As the cultural center of Ecuador, Cuenca is blessed with two major universities, which grace the central south sides of the city. Further to the east is Azuay University, a private institution; and more toward the central part of Cuenca, south of the Rio Tomebama lies Cuenca University, the public university. Both campuses are modern institutions of higher learning occupying traditional brick and mortar buildings in park-like settings.
I don’t wish to leave in your minds the impression that El Centro is old and everything outside of the historic district is new. In El Centro while there is a continual refurbishing of exterior structures in keeping with its historical context, there are also many interior renovations taking place that are very contemporary in replaced infrastructure like plumbing, electrical wiring, as well as in interior designs. Some of these homes and condos have been renovated while keeping the traditional layout of the interiors intact, while other renovations have taken the dramatic step of removing interior walls from smaller enclosed rooms to provide space with a modern open-concept and loft-style arrangements.
In turn, outside the historic district, one will find neighborhoods that have existed for long times. Indigenous neighborhoods range from more antiquated homes in semi-rural areas to areas that have a more densely populated feeling like in El Centro. Generally speaking, class lines in housing sub-divisions are not as well defined as in the states. It is not unusual to find an upscale new home constructed next to a Spartan older home, or next to a building much in need of repairs, or even next to an abandoned old wood and adobe building probably constructed in the 1800’s.
Intermingled among the various communities is the very large, enclosed, and attractive Mal del Rio, which can hold its own with the best designed malls in the states. Like malls back home, it features an endless variety of specialty shops, kiosks, cinemas, major play areas for children, video arcades are still prominently featured as well, and there is a massive food court with many Ecuadorian cuisine twists that cannot be found in food courts back home. What is missing from the mall are the large department stores that anchor most enclosed malls in the states. The one store that approximates a department store in Mal del Rio and which is the largest single store in the mall is the two storied, Corral, which would be a store more on the level of a “Target” back home.
Other smaller enclosed malls also exist, usually with few stores. One such mall is the Milenium Plaza on the southside with its stadium seated cinema complex, and a food court that dwarfs the handful of stores in the mall. There are also three malls that are anchored by Supermaxi, a modern upscale supermarket of which these malls are found one on the south side and the other on the west side of town. On the east side of town the third SuperMaxi occupies a mall space that includes Kiwi, which is the Ecuadorian equivalent of Home Depot in the states. The west side mall has the closest thing to a department store in Cuenca, which is called Sukasa, and while not as large as what one normally thinks in department store sizes in the states, it carries a merchandise line similar to Macy’s in price and quality. These smaller malls also have some unique specialty shops, once again these malls reflect upper-scale shopping that manifests the greater growth of affluence in Cuenca in recent years, and the fact that proportionately in population-size Cuenca has the largest middle class of any large city in Ecuador. The malls prove to be a great attraction, especially on the weekends. The food courts are jammed, and like in the states, the malls attract teens as a place to hang-out and be seen.
Automobiles continue to become a bigger problem with congestion. One taxi driver told me that one out of every three Cuencanos now have a car. Assuming that figure is accurate, there is no doubt that congestion during certain times of the day can make a ten minute ride from where I live about three miles from Parke Calderon into a slow crawl. There are no expressways in Cuenca, and I hope there never will be. There are a number of circles which make for interesting driving patterns, and with no traffic lights, pedestrians truly take their lives in their own hands in attempting to cross the streets in these areas. The most dangerous and challenging by far in my opinion is the Circle at Grand Columbia and Avenida de Americas. Supposedly an underpass is to be constructed at this site, but to date no construction work has begun.
Cuenca is rapidly developing an excellent reputation for health care, with a number of very fine up to date hospital facilities, and well trained doctors. Medical care is provided at a fraction of the cost in the United States. Nevertheless, there are still Cuencanos particularly among the indigenous population as well as some expats who prefer to frequent shamans for their medical care.
Finally, there are two strips in Cuenca. One strip is Calle Remigio Crespo, which runs east-west through the south side of town and is blessed with stores and numerous restaurants and up-scale bars. Chinese restaurants in particular are plentiful along Crespo. It is an area for evening and weekend leisure.
The other strip is Calle Larga on the south edge of El Centro with many restaurants, and a munificent bounty of bars--many of which seat only one dozen to two dozen patrons. A disco is also available, as well as an Indian restaurant karaoke bar. Music and large screen videos of futbal, rock-type concerts, or just luscious ladies in music videos on large screens are the form of entertainment in most bars used as distractions when people are caught in intermittent conversation.
Calle Larga has a large number of shawarma restaurants as a Pakistani area exists among the bars and restaurants. The Hookah is popular in the Pakistani bars and restaurants, with many young people who come to smoke more than to eat at these hangouts, as I am sure these young folks feel they are doing something risky and edgy.
Many young people can be found on Calle Larga in the evenings especially Thursday through the weekends, which includes many young gringos, since the area is filled with inexpensive hostels that cater to youth. There are always Norte Americanos, Europeans, and Australian youth who are just traveling through Cuenca, or most likely studying Spanish in one of the foreign language schools. While many people warn of personal safety concerns along the area at night; despite the occasional drunk on the street left over from the night before, who is usually an older guy, the area is relatively tame compared to comparable areas in other countries. Very young people can be found drinking in the bars. I have been told the drinking age is eighteen, while others have told me it is sixteen. I have the feeling from my observations that who gets served may be left more to the discretion of the bartenders. I have not witness young people abuse alcohol in these bars, the way they do in the states. Maybe the price of alcohol is too expensive for their wallets, but the binge drinking which has become quite a phenomenon across the United States does not appear from what I’ve observed to be anywhere near as prevalent here in Cuenca.
Ecuadorians I have talked to personally about drug abuse in Cuenca may not know the true situation. However, I am usually told there is illicit drug use, but it is not prevalent. That after what Columbia has gone through with its drug wars, Ecuadorians frown on drug use. On the other hand, I am told by some young people that they can get their hands on any drug they desire. The difference in drug abuse between Americans in the states and Ecuadorians may be more in degree than in kind. I would venture to further speculate that drug use may be proportionately somewhat less in Cuenca than in Guayaguil and Quito, due to the still lingering conservatism of Cuencano culture in contrast to the coastal cultures.
The traditional and the modern— I suggest as you read my April 3rd post and this post you may think I am describing parallel universes of reality. In my next post, I will consider the sociological implications of a culture in transition. That is if I don't get sidetracked again.