Arcadia? Athens? Cuenca!

The mythical Arcadia is a place of harmony with nature, a utopia free of pride and avarice, uncorrupted by civilization, over which Pan—god of wild nature—reigns. It has been imagined, written about, painted, and depicted in media over for thousands of years. Many towns around the world have given themselves this name, ambitiously, foolishly, ironically.

Cuenca, Ecuador, while obviously not named Arcadia, has had the ancient nickname for over 150 years. Early colonizers took the idea seriously, nestling the city into the Andes mountains and building around the beautiful Tomebamba River. The heavy emphasis on encouraging literature, arts, and intellectualism also gave the city nickname Athens.

While the reality of the relationships between the Spanish and the indigenous, as well as the pollution and destruction that accompanied a growing population, break down the fantasy rather quickly, the heritage status of the historic downtown and the preservation of the pathways and parks along the Tomebamba make it a near idyllic place today.

Museums

Cuenca has about a dozen museums dedicated to subjects such as the Inca and other indigenous people, the Panama hat (which actually comes from Ecuador), and modern art. If you know me, I’m not one for modern art. But when my tour to some waterfalls outside town got cancelled because the guide (and just about everyone else in town) got COVID, I had some extra time to spend in town. And what a lovely surprise to find I actually enjoyed most of the modern art exhibits there, probably because most of it was from artists who consider themselves ecological activists. I fell in love with Eugenio Ampudia’s Concert for the Biocene and wish I could enjoy that experience in person. These two were also among the ones that most spoke to me: Paul Rosero Contreras – El Pensamiento de las Plantas. Capítulo 2 and Basia Irland – Ice Books and Hydrolibros.

Also, the Museo Pumapungo has the most comprehensive exhibit on all the different indigenous groups in Ecuador, including the Coloradans. The signage is in Spanish only except for the exhibition on the Shuar people, because they were the headshrinkers and we all have a morbid curiosity about that. Yes, it was a real thing. No, it’s not allowed today. Despite the autonomy the Ecuadorian government has given Amazonian tribes, they do have to lay down the law sometimes, and this seems like a good case to do so.

Physical Activity

There are a number of decent gyms in town, including an incredibly affordable climbing gym. The parks have outdoor fitness equipment for functional training. And the Tomebamba River offers the best urban running experience I’ve found anywhere in the world. That is not an exaggeration. The river is wide and beautiful, the land around it is lush, and the trails are fairly well maintained and go for miles and miles and miles and aren’t too crowded.

Cajas National Park is about 45 minutes away and offers magnificent, high elevation trails and great rock climbing. There are plenty more trails beyond those in the national park, and there’s a Cuenca trail runners group you can join to start finding out about them.

Bookstores

Many famous Ecuadorian writers come from Cuenca, and the city even has a beautiful museum dedicated to one of them, the poet Remigio Crespo Toral. So it’s no surprise that there are several great bookstores (with English language books too) in the historic district, more in other parts of the city, and several cafés that offer book exchanges. While not so good for someone like me with a bad case of tsundoku and who shouldn’t be buying anything especially while traveling, in general, this makes Cuenca a nice place to live.

Colonial Architecture

Cuenca’s center is a UNESCO world heritage site. It’s beautiful and charming and everything you need is at your fingertips. Even outside the historic downtown, there are various lovely neighborhoods all along the river in two miles either direction from the Escalinata and the bridge memorializing female victims of domestic violence. I’ve always loved places that are blends, for example, Riga, Latvia, which is (or was in 2003 anyway) a perfect mix of modern, Western Europe and the dark, lawlessness of Russia. Cuenca has that mix too of the best elements of Europe and Latin American. And while the downtown has plenty of entertainment, it is also fairly quiet.

Restaurants

Many of those old colonial buildings have been split up into office buildings or hotels, and many of the stately homes of the old aristocracy are now old-world-style, glamorous cafés. The mansions were build around courtyards, the open skies of which have now often been covered in glass. So you enter the building from the street into a room with a warm hardwood floor and banquette seating, which is already reminiscent of the most artistic places in Paris, but then you move back into another room that has ornate tiling on the floor, a pattern of glasswork overhead that lets the right amount of soft light fill the room, and large, leafy plants in every corner. The tables with their wrought iron legs are perfectly spread apart so no one bumps into you on their way to the bathroom and you type away on laptop while a group across the room sitting on velvety sofas has a philosophical discussion. After delivering your food ($5 for a filling breakfast of eggs, hashbrowns, fruit, toast, juice, and coffee), your waiter never bothers you again and you are free to sit and write or read as long as you want. It’s magnificent.

My favorites were:

Even when you sit outside, there’s no smoking. There’s almost no smoking in general in Ecuador and it’s not allowed on restaurants patios, so while I’ve also loved the patio/café culture in places like Montenegro and Italy, Cuenca is superior in this regard.

There are also a ton of international restaurants (Indian, Arabic, Argentinian, Chinese, Thai, and Peruvian all within a block or two of my AirBnB) and a bunch of places with names ripped off from American places: The Ritz and Chiplote (no, that’s not a typo) Grill, for example.

And, obviously, there’s plenty of delicious local food. The $2.50 almuerzo (lunch) is staple in the city. My favorite was at Moliendo, a Colombian (which is almost local) restaurant. Easily 100 places in the center district offer soup, a full plate of rice, protein, and vegetable, juice, and even sometimes dessert for this absurdly low price. The service is fast and friendly, the food is healthy, and there’s really no need for you to ever cook. Should you get tired of almuerzo, you can also head over to the market where the second floor is all vendor stalls of encebollado (onion soup, sometimes also with fish) and hornado de chancho (whole roasted pig). Yes, there are whole pigs on spits at the top of the escalators. Again, magnificent.

How better to advertise whole roast pig than with bloody Jesus himself?

The Downsides

There are always downsides to anywhere, and in my short two weeks in Cuenca, this is what bothered me:

  • Everything is closed on Sundays. Ecuador is a rather religious country and while there is enough secularism in Quito that you can find open businesses on Sundays, not so in Cuenca. About 95 percent of places are closed. Some restaurants that cater heavily to tourists open in the evening, but that’s about it.
  • Because of the large expat/tourist contingent, some people will default to speaking English with you. When they hear you stumbling a little, or even not stumbling at all but they hear your accent, they will only use English and not give you a chance to practice.

The Million Dollar Question

Would I move here? YES! Within days of arriving here, I thought I might want to come back next year on a one-year digital nomad visa, but then I realized it’s too far away from the volcanos I have yet to hike. True, Quito is only a fifty dollar, thirty-five minute plane ride away, but still, I’m in active mode at the moment and want good proximity to peaks. Plus there’s still Bolivia and Uruguay and Peru and Paraguay. But this place is a clear frontrunner for somewhere to settle down. Maybe that’ll be in two years or maybe in twenty when I retire, but I can see myself very happily living in this version of Arcadia.

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