By Ian Ramsey
I’m getting settled in Cuenca, Ecuador, where I’ll be based for the next 14 weeks. With that in mind, gentle reader, I thought I’d give you an introduction to Cuenca and the Andean region.
1. It’s an American City. One thing that people in the USA often forget is that the Americas extend just under 10,000 miles, from near the north pole down to the tip of Argentina, just over 400 miles from Antarctica. As such there are 953 million people who consider themselves to be American in some form, and only 324 million of those people live in the USA. South America includes a huge range of cultures, from uncontacted indigenous groups deep in the Amazon, to very European urbanites in Argentina. When I’m in South America, I don’t called myself an Americano, but a norte-americano.
2. It’s really high. Sitting at 8,517 feet in the Andes, Cuenca is more than 50% higher than Denver. As such, the air is quite thin compared to, well, most places. As a mountain runner, I’m really excited to build out my lungs here. Indeed, the city is surrounded by mountains that are even higher, and within a few miles, you can get up to 13,000 feet. Ecuador is an incredibly ecologically diverse country, which includes coastline, Amazonian jungle, and some of the highest mountains in the world. Indeed, Ecuador’s Chimborazo volcano, at 20,548 feet is the highest peak near the equator, and due to equatorial bulge, its summit is the farthest point from the earth’s center (even beyond Mt. Everest). Quito, the capital is the second-highest situated capital city in the world at 9,450 ft (La Paz, Bolivia is first at 11,942 ft.).
3. It’s one of the oldest cities in the Americas. Settlements here go back to 500 AD, when the local indigenous Canari people established society here, calling their city Guapondeleg, which translates into “land as big as heaven.” In the 1470s, the Incans conquered the Canaris and renamed the city “Tomebamba” with an eye to making it the regional capital, second only to Cusco, their main capital in Peru. The Incans built a grand city here called Pumapungo (“The Door of the Puma”) which supposedly rivaled Cusco in grandiosity, but they destroyed it in the 1530s before the Spanish Conquistadors arrived. There is a good chance that Cuenca was the mythical “El Dorado” (City of Gold) that the conquistadors heard about, which is why the Inca destroyed the city. There is still considerable gold mining happening in this area, so it makes sense. Spanish settlement began here in 1557, making it one of the oldest European cities in the Americas-older than any settlement in North America (St. Augustine, Florida, established in 1565, holds that honor). That European heritage is still evident in Cuenca’s Spanish colonial architecture. Most of the buildings in the city center are beautiful, old, colonial buildings with red-tiled roofs and wrought-iron balconies. There are many enormous cathedrals, and I can only imagine how impressive they looked when they were built centuries ago, visible for many miles.
4. Cuenca is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Because of its outstanding colonial architecture, cobblestone streets and cathedrals that go back to the 14th century, Cuenca gets lots of attention from UNESCO, but also from elsewhere: it has won all kinds of awards, including a five-year sweep as the worldwide “Best Green Travel Destination.”
5. It has unique weather. Being equatorial, the temperature doesn’t change enormously through the year. Cuenca is classified as having a subtropical highland climate, with an average daily temperature of 58 degrees. That said, there is a rainy season and a dry season, and any given day can see temps swing around 40 degrees, sometimes in minutes. Being so high in elevation means that the sun is really intense, especially with reduced ozone. Even when it’s hot, people cover their skin and wear sunscreen all the time.
6. Gringolandia. Cuenca has nearly 8000 expats, mostly from the US, but also Argentina, Canada and Spain. The majority are retired, but there are also families and people of all stripes. As a result, prices in Cuenca are higher than most of the rest of Ecuador, but it is also possible to get more products from the USA than elsewhere in the country.
7. The food is great. Being in the Andean highlands, most dishes include potatoes (which originated in the Andes). Hornado and fritada (roasted and fried pork), chicken and mote (boiled corn kernels – served as motepillo and mote sucio) are popular. Being only a few hours from the coast, there are all kinds of fish and seafood available. The one dish that not everyone will like is Cuy (Guinea Pig)-a local delicacy, but for anyone who has had a pet Guinea Pig, that’s a tough meal to swallow.
8. It has a national park in its backyard. Cajas National Park, less than 15 miles outside of the city, is a huge mountainous conservation area that has mountains up to nearly 14,000 feet. Andean Condors, the rare Giant Hummingbird, Alpacas and Spectacled bears, among other creatures, wander through the park. Most of the park has a Paramo (high elevation grassland) ecosystem, but there are also a few high elevation forests (polylepis) and some lower-elevation cloudforests.