Sitting on the small rectangular balcony outside my room at the Hotel Milan, I look down on the cobblestone streets of the city of Cuenca. Traveling alone is liberating. I have just arrived to explore the Ecuadorian city I will be living and teaching in for the next three months. I have been hired as an English teacher at The Center for Inter-American Studies.
I leave the hotel and wander into 10 de Agosto, the main food market. I am not that tall, but seem to tower over the local people. Booths containing colorful fruits and vegetables extend like a patchwork quilt beneath a canopy. I see exotic fruits I’ve never seen before, fruits native to Ecuador such as: Tomate de Arbol (tree tomato), Maracuya (passion fruit), Naranjilla (little orange), Taxo (banana passion fruit), and Chirimoya (custard apple) – a soft-skinned,
heart-shaped green fruit that has a hint of bubble gum flavor.
Next to the rows of greens, in stark contrast, is the meat section, which unabashedly hangs slabs of raw meat, whole carcasses stretched down from hangers, stripped of their hides. Body parts behind glass attract flies to flesh. The faint citrus scent of fruit blends in from across the bloodstained tile floor. Nowhere is the sterile smell of chemical sanitizer present.
I spend a few moments observing the market – women selling mini-bananas by the bushel, men slicing through red flesh, clusters of people gathered around booths, making deals, filling their baskets.
Back on the streets, I wander around. In my short time here, I already have a sense of where things are. The major streets in Cuenca are clearly marked with old-fashioned, tiled signs on the corners of buildings. Like many places I’ve been to in Central America, the people in this South American city seem friendly. Cuenca appears to be a balanced combination of busy and calm – a fairly relaxed feel with a bustling influence.
Cuenca is the third largest city in Ecuador (Quito being the largest and Guayaquil the second). It was founded on April 12, 1557 and is known for its charming historical architecture, which led to its nickname “The Colonial Jewel of the South.” In 1999, UNESCO, the World Cultural Heritage Site, recognized it as a historic landmark. Cuenca is known also for its beautiful parks and the famous Rio Tomebamba, which flows through the southern end of the city.
After leaving the market, I head over to Parque Caledron, Cuenca’s plaza principal or main plaza. The bright blue domes of the Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepcion (the new cathedral) shimmering in the sunlight attracts me. Minutes later, I arrive at the plaza and the impressive church towers over me. I imagine the indigenous people, the Inca Tupac-Yupanqui, constructing this great work of art, carving and laying stone after stone, and I realize there is a story behind every building, every basket of bananas, and every cobblestone street.
I take a seat on one of the benches that line the perimeter of the plaza. Elderly men sit reading newspapers, teenage couples hold hands and stare wide-eyed at each other, small children laugh and chase each other around the fountain in the center, while mothers watch them play. A man pushing an ice cream cart rings the bell, as the children run over with coins jingling in their hands. I feel the sun warm my face and in this moment, the plaza is the center of the colonial jewel that sparkles beneath the clear sky.
Brittany Michelson studied abroad in Costa Rica for a semester in college, where she lived with a host family and was first drawn to the Latin American culture. Since then, she has traveled throughout Central America, and more recently, taught English twice in Ecuador. She is awaiting her next trip to see the rest of South America.