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A walk through Cuenca: Happiness, and no bugs

I just realized: We have been here for 18 months. This city, Cuenca, is really an interesting and beautiful place.


It is an old city in Ecuador that was founded in 1557 and has four rivers flowing through it. There are many small neighborhood parks, as well as nicely manicured linear parks that border the rivers with bicycle/walking paths and have the outdoor version of indoor exercise equipment. One can walk from one side of the city to the other side on the river paths.

Having grown up in Bainbridge and Elizabethtown, and having lived in Middletown, I considered myself a small-town boy. I never liked cities, and always felt uneasy in them.

In fact, on one visit to New York City, I had my only panic attack – and had to go to Central Park so I could breathe.


So when deciding to live in a city of 550,000 people, I had serious trepidation.

My fears were vanquished our first day here.

The city has a small- town feel and I am totally comfortable walking the streets day or night.

Cuenca lies one degree from the equator, hence one would assume that it would be very hot. Not so. The altitude of the city is 8,250 feet above sea level and because of that the weather is wonderful.

During the summer the daytime temperature is in the 70s and at night in the 60s. Here in the Southern Hemisphere the seasons are reversed – as you approach summer there we are going into winter here, which means our temperatures will be about 10 degrees cooler.

Because of the altitude the air is thinner and has less oxygen, which affects about 25 percent of tourists and new residents in a negative way. The main symptoms: Light-headedness and tiring quickly. But one becomes acclimated to the altitude.

Fortunately, I never experienced any such problems, but Olga, my wife, did for about the first 10 days.

The altitude’s big plus is insects – there aren’t any. In Middletown, we used to walk by the Susquehanna River and, unless we bathed in insect repellent, we were a black fly and mosquito buffet. We walk by the rivers here and ... nothing. 

There is much to do here. Cuenca is the cultural capital of Ecuador and has a plethora of museums, art galleries and historical sites. There is the symphony orchestra, the youth symphony orchestra and the youth orchestra. We have been to four performances in the past two weeks, and all for free.

There are four universities in the city. The largest museum and also Incan ruins are a 10-minute walk from our apartment.

There are about 52 cathedrals in the city. The oldest was built in 1567.  Most are magnificent architectural masterpieces.

A new state-of-the-art planetarium just opened in October and looks like the planet Saturn, complete with rings.

There are many parades and holidays. One of the longest parades in the world is the Christmas Parade [“Paseo del Nino Parade’’] on Dec. 24. It starts at 9 a.m. and goes until around 5 p.m. There are about 50,000 participants and about 200,000 spectators. And on the day I’m writing this, there is a parade to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the oldest high school in Cuenca.

The people here are very happy, friendly and laid back. Their attitude seems to be that they work to live, not vice-versa.

The crime rate is low. Unemployment is low. Thousands of Ecuadoreans that lived and worked in the U.S. for years are returning to Ecuador, mainly to Cuenca.

There is all kinds of construction in the city. A new $230 million light rail system is being built and should be completed in 2015.

Approximately 500,000 tourists visited Cuenca in 2013 and more are expected this year.

There is a fairly large expatriate community – the estimates are between 2,500 to 5,000. North Americans comprise the majority of ex-pats, but more Europeans are calling Cuenca home. Olga never felt at home in the U.S. after living there for seven years. She does here.

There is a Chamber of Commerce  for ex-pats that has seminars and events to assist the new “gringo’’ residents. We joined a group of volunteers that helps  University Of Cuenca students majoring in hospitality, (tourism, gastronomy, hotel management), with their English. Olga joined a fitness class and I joined the Veterans In Cuenca group, former U.S. military men and women.

Is our new home perfect? Of course not. I’ll delve into that later.

                                               Stay tuned,

                                       Eddy the Ex-pat

Ed O’Connor, a former resident of Middletown and Lower Swatara Twp., is an expatriate living in Ecuador.