At last – off to Cuenca. As we left Guayaquil, Ecuador’s pricing structure once again did not disappoint. The 3.5 hour bus ride cost only $8 per person. For the first hour, there was upbeat Latin music piped through the bus. To my dismay, it was followed by a movie. Usually, I love a good movie, but this was not a good one. It was about a bunch of brutal prison fighters – and it was in Spanish (of course). So how to distract myself? The beautiful Ecuadorian countryside. Guayaquil is almost at sea level, and we climbed up into the beautiful Andes mountains to 8,000 feet to reach Cuenca.
Three years in a row, Cuenca was named as the #1 city in the world to retire by International Living magazine, and we were curious to see what the fuss is about. Cuenca is also a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its colonial buildings, original cobblestone streets dating back to the Spanish Colonial period, and over 50 churches. It also is described as having a “perpetually Spring-like” climate. This is true, in that it never gets too cold or too hot, but it also means that it rains at least once a day some months of the year, and gets a bit chilly overnight.
When we arrived, Cuenca greeted us with a typically drizzly May afternoon, so rather than walk to our host family, we hopped in a cab – a rare move for us. (The $2.50 price tag was just right though.) For our first week in Cuenca, we had decided to take Spanish classes at a local school. Through the school, we also signed up for a home stay. This means that rather than couch-surf, we would be staying with a local family who would feed us breakfast and dinner, and give us an opportunity to practice the Spanish we would learn. The parents speak almost no English, but they have two daughters in their 20s living at home who speak some English. Between the girls, our Spanish phrasebook, the indispensible dictionary app on our iPod, and lots of hand gestures, we were able to communicate pretty well over the course of a week, and notice our Spanish improve.
School started bright and early at 8:00 am every morning, and included four hours of classroom time with our own, dedicated teacher. Our teacher – Bertha was fantastic, and really got down to teaching us the things we need to know. Fortunately for Stephanie, she had several years of Spanish in high school. Fortunately for me, I had Latin once upon a time, and know some French which is often similar, and I seem to be able to pick up languages somewhat quickly. We were off to a good start.
On our second day, Bertha took us on a field trip to a local market, Nueve de Octubre, a few blocks from the school. (They like to name things here after important dates, and Nueve de Octubre, or October 9th, is the day in 1820 that Guayaquil became the first city in Ecuador to earn its independence from Spain.) Here we not only got to see a local Mercado, similar to a farmer’s market back home, but Bertha explained everything in Spanish, continuing our education. The merchants we talked to were very patient with our broken Spanish, and we even came away with a few treats. The market was a dizzying array of fresh produce, meat, and all sorts of other foods. In addition, several stands prepare fresh, local dishes for only a few dollars that smelled absolutely wonderful. Stephanie and I resolved to back in a few days and test some of them out.
On Wednesday, we took another field trip. This time we hopped one of Cuenca’s famed 25 cent buses to “Feria Libre” – which means “Free Fair” – a giant outdoor flea/farmer’s market where you can buy just about anything you can think of from clothes to household goods to underwear to food. Wednesday is the best day of the week to go as the market expands way beyond its usual covered area. As Bertha toured us around, we just could not resist some of the fresh produce such as a half-pound of blackberries for 50 cents, a pineapple for 75 cents, and a bunch of 17 bananas for a dollar. (By the way, Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar, which makes purchasing things really easy here.)
The school also had free activities every evening. Our first day was a Spanish video about traditional medicine. Fortunately, one of the administrators of the school was there to pause and explain frequently. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the school offers salsa lessons. Never ones to turn down a dance lesson, we went, and even learned a few steps. Salsa is a very quick dance, and so our Spanish-only instructor would use Cha Cha music which is slower. I think he was impressed by the fact that we knew the difference. On Wednesday was “Las mesas español.” Since mesa means table, we assumed this would be a discussion of Ecuadorian food. It turned out to be a trip to a local bar where we could relax and chat in Spanish. Our final night at the school we watched a video on an indigenous tribe – the Secoyas – in their national dialect with subtitles in Spanish. No English at all. Together we were sometimes able to figure out a few words; if only the subtitles wouldn’t disappear so quickly!
To celebrate the end of the week, one of the instructors took a large group of us out to lunch to try Cuy – guinea pig. Cuy is a very common and luxurious dish up here in the Andes. The animal is roasted whole on a spit until the skin is crispy. No sweat, I had eaten squirrel in Mississippi (remember that, Mom?), so this should be no problem. The biggest problem for me was that the animal is indeed roasted whole, and is served with head, teeth, limbs, toenails, etc, all attached. Mercifully, I got a section with no head parts. To those of you who are wondering, it tasted a lot like dark-meat chicken. The crispy skin was extra tasty. (Stephanie disagrees with my opinion on the crispy skin. In her words: “Bleah!”)
We also tried Canelazo with our Cuy. This is an alcoholic drink served hot. It’s made with aguadiente which is a catch-all phrase similar to “firewater” for distilled spirits, canela (cinnamon) and fruit juice. Muy delicioso.
We still have a lot to learn to become true Spanish speakers. Hopefully, our next few weeks in Cuenca will allow us to develop our Spanish skills. This week we will study and try to absorb what we learned. But the school taught us so much, that we’re going back in a week for another week of lessons.