10 Years of Blog Archive

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Sights, Sounds, and Smells of Cuenca Ecuador

It is a pleasure, as I sit here working in my cubicle in the U. S., to learn about another culture through your eyes. Your post has made me wonder about the sounds and smells of the city. Are there boom boxes or loud music, either from passing cars or shops? Is it stinky from the public urination? Is there a floral scent in the air? I'm also curious about the public restrooms: are they clean, and are there toilets or just a drain in the floor, as I found in Paris? Is it like Mexico, where you have to throw the tp in the trash because the septic system is bad? And one more, any thoughts about doing laundry there? My questions would be inappropriate at a dinner party, and I'm a little reluctant to ask, but this is what I am curious about. You have been so forthcoming with practical information; I hope you don't mind my asking plumbing and sanitation questions. Thank you.

All of the above questions are perfectly normal questions and concerns to wonder about. We too, before moving here, thought about all of these things, and the truth is even though someone tells you what it’s like here and they answer all of your concerns and questions, it’s nothing at all like experiencing these things first hand.

Downtown Cuenca
Depending on where you are in Cuenca, the sounds, smells and sights are different. Let’s take a stroll to downtown Cuenca first. We were all awe-struck when we first got here and experienced walking around downtown. Frank came to Cuenca first to set up a house…we’re a family of five and we didn’t want to wrack up huge hotel and restaurant costs so it made sense for us.

Anyway, I remember when Frank called us the night he got in. He was so excited about the fact that the downtown area reminded him of Southern Italy. He kept talking about the cobblestone streets and the old world architecture—he was really excited and amazed about the beauty of downtown Cuenca.

You are surrounded by tall colonial style buildings with red tiled roofs, and the streets are cobblestone and very narrow. There is lots of traffic and loud buses and car horns honking. The sidewalks are narrow and you have to be careful and watch where you step because there are potholes and other objects jutting out of the cement; there are huge cracks and slants in the sidewalk too. And sometimes there is not even a sidewalk to walk on. You have to be careful because when a big huge city bus drives by, they are only a couple feet away from you standing on the sidewalk!

The only negative we have about being downtown is the buses exude a lot of exhaust into the air when they first accelerate and if you’re standing right there this huge whiff of black smoke goes into your lungs, often times we try and hold our breaths until it dissipates enough to be able to breathe.

There are mom and pop shops everywhere! They have lots of panaderias (bakeries) here and when you are near one of these bakeries and they are baking, usually in the morning, the smell is incredible. Imagine smelling bread baking and a burnt sugar smell…it is almost irresistible and when we first got here we were always wanting to get a freshly baked doughnut, cookie, roll, or pastry from one of the bakeries. After a while we realized our little habit isn’t that great for our health. We bake our own cookies and cakes at home using at least half whole wheat flour.

Ecuador is very family oriented and no matter where you are there are families everywhere! They stick together here, generally speaking. The younger take care of the older and the older take care of the younger...what we mean is they work together and support one another--they are like one unit even if its a family of 12! We've noticed lots of small children and lots of young married pregnant moms!

Some of the mom and pop clothing shops like to play loud Latin music through huge speakers to garner attention from people walking by. Their mannequins are different here, more realistic, and they really like to dress them up, especially the female mannequins. You’ll see some things on the mannequin’s here that you would never see in the states, well, I take that back, you might in California or NY.

There are public restrooms downtown and they charge $0.10 cents to use them. They will give you about two feet of toilet paper. We always bring our own in our back packs just in case we might need more. The public restrooms just off the street usually smell like they spray a flowery aerosol to keep down the odors. The plumbing is old downtown and they do not flush toilet paper down the toilets, however, on accident we have and nothing happened!

The public restrooms in the Mercado downtown always smell. These restrooms are very busy, and so imagine if everyone is putting their toilet paper in the garbage cans?? And if you don’t give the lady at the door a nickel she complains and keeps asking you for it, even if you bring your town toilet paper. We try not to use these restrooms because they do smell pretty bad.

Usually if we are downtown we eat out in one of our favorite almuerzo restaurants and the restrooms there are much better and cleaner. By the way, all of the downtown Cuenca restaurants we posted in our free eBook all have clean, fresh restrooms with soap and toilet paper.

We have to admit at first this way of dealing with the TP was a bit off-putting and it was one of the shocks of the culture for us, but when you think about it, they have been doing it this way for hundreds of years and to them there is absolutely nothing wrong with putting the toilet paper in the garbage can, and in fact, they may think it is weird flushing it down the toilet. The shock is gone for us and we’re adapting to this cultural aspect of old town Cuenca.

If you have ever been in a smelly outhouse, that’s pretty much what it’s like. In an outhouse, the toilet paper and other digestive material just sit there in a bucket for days, and days, and days… we do see them cleaning the restrooms all the time too, but it’s difficult to get rid of the smells when the bathrooms are so busy.

On a positive note, if your rent a newer house and or apartment/condo that is not downtown you can put the toilet paper down the toilet. This is just for the older plumbing downtown.

Parque Calderon
The park is a great place to sit in the afternoon and listen to the piped out classical music and have an ice cream cone for $0.25. It is a lovely little park with tiled floors and a big water fountain. There are beautiful palm trees and evergreen trees adorning the center of the park. People-watching is a pastime for most people who patronize the park. The governor of Cuenca lives right across the street from this park, and the tourist office is close by as well.

Parque Calderon is where you will see most of the Gringos. There are many expat/gringo restaurants and hangouts across the street or nearby this town square, such as Tutto Freddos, which is a favorite dessert spot for us as well.

There are lots of taxis everywhere in Cuenca. You’ll never wait long if you need to hail a taxi and you have probably heard, they only cost around $2 to $3 to go just about anywhere. The buses only cost $0.25.

The Steps Leading up from the River into the Downtown Area
Cuenca downtown is up from the river and sits upon a hill. If your journey starts down by the river then you’ll have to walk several steps up to get into the city center. This area is known for public urination, especially in the corners of the steps on a landing. It reeks pretty badly, and even though there are public restrooms below the steps the men still prefer to urinate on the steps.

Anywhere around or along the river you may spot a drunken man passed out lying in his own urination and sometimes defecation and vomit. It is really sad, alcoholism is a problem here because they make a VERY strong fermented drink out of sugar cane—the factory for manufacturing this strong alcoholic drink is right here in Cuenca. It’s so cheap that virtually anyone can afford it. We’ve seen the indigenous Indian women also drunk on buses and passed out at their vegetable stands.

Supermaxi - Avenue De Las Americas
Away from the downtown area, there are many newer brownstone type condominium complexes popping up, mostly around Supermaxi. There is a lot of cars and buses here too and mom and pop shops but the difference is they are not in colonial style buildings here, but in new homes and offices. There are sidewalks for walking but some of them do need a little work.

Supermaxi off of Avenue Las Americas is in a neat little mall with about 15 other retail shops. There is a couple of clothing shops, kitchen ware, and household items shops in this little mall. The public restrooms outside of Supermaxi are super clean and never have a bad odor. We also see other gringos in Supermaxi more than we do at Coral (Cuenca Walmart).

Feria Libre – Avenue De Las Americas
The first couple of times we went to Feria Libre we were amazed at the size of the place…you might get lost. It is the largest mercado in Cuenca. This is where most of the farmers bring their produce and other items they are selling. It is packed with people on any given day, but mostly on Wednesdays and weekends. You can virtually buy anything here from food to hardware items to house wares. Feria Libre is where you will see most of the indigenous population.

The fish area can be pretty smelly and same with the meat area...ummmm, the restrooms at Feria Libre are pretty nasty. It is because there are so many people at this market and the restrooms stay really busy here. We recommend that you make sure you won’t need to use the restrooms while you are here and don’t drink any fluids until you get home, just to be on the safe side.

There is also a big rock wall that separates Feria Libre from the street...and well, it reeks of urination also...so we try to avoid walking anywhere near this wall. All we can say is, its an appalling cultural habit of peeing in the streets and now the people are bearing the consequences of the stench in some areas of Cuenca.

Apart from that, Feria Libre is an amazing place to go shopping and bargain for some great produce prices. You will pay about half as much for produce here compared to Supermaxi.

Parque  El Paraiso

Paraiso park is the biggest park in Cuenca. There are walking trails through the woods and a river runs through it. As you stroll through the walking trail in the woods by the river the scent of flowers blooming is in the air. This park has lots of green space for playing games and sports, several play grounds for the little ones, and even paddle boats for the bigger kids and adults. The sounds of laughter from small children is ever present as you stroll through this park. 

The smells, the sights and the sounds of Cuenca are so variable depending on where you are at. This park is a great place to go if you want to get away from the noisy traffic and exhaust of the city.

Doing Laundry? Oh well, they sell appliances here. You can find washers and dryers but you will pay more…they cost around $800 to $1500 for a good sized whirlpool washer and I think dryers are a little bit more than that. Or, you can do like some of the Ecuadorians do and use the sink outside to wash your laundry and then hang it on the clothesline to dry...or some of the Ecuadorians make a day of it at the river and do their laundry in the river and dry it on the hilly, grassy slope while they eat their picnic lunch.


  1. I wonder if the indigenous people have the same gene as the American Indians in the US who also have a terrible alcohol problem. They cannot tolerate even a small amount without getting drunk. There are many Indian reservations where selling alcoholic beverages are banned. A preacher in a church I used to belong to spent 20 years as a missionary in the mountains of Guatemala living among the Quiche Indians, who are descended from the Mayans and he said the same happens there.

  2. Just wanted to say how much I enjoy your blog. I read a lot of blogs for expats in Ecuador and yours is my favorite!! Excellent, helpful information presented very well. By the way, I glanced at your restaurant ebook and it says that to ask for a check you say "La Quinta por favor". My Spanish is rusty but I believe it is "La cuenta por favor". Anyway, thanks for a GREAT blog.

  3. Sure, but as long as our non spanish speaking readers keep saying "la quinta port favor" they'll get the check every time!!! (;-)

  4. Thanks for the open critique on life in Cuenca. Your honesty is refreshing!


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