Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Scouting Trip: Cuenca

The "Cultural Capital" of Ecuador. This one’s tempting.

We are not looking to live in a city. Too much noise, light, pollution, distraction. With few exceptions, cities are the same the world over and generally gauged by the kind of cultural offerings they have, number of Ikea stores, or quality of coffee shops. We want to go somewhere that is notable for the quality of its community, its people.

Cuenca--for some of the reasons I mentioned, but really more just by feel--walks the line between town and city. At less than half a million people, it is quite small for a city, and its heart, “El Centro,” is four hundred years old and laid out on a human, rather than car, scale. So let's right there jump straight into a rant, shall we?

An alien could probably guess the age of the automobile by counting the concentric rings emanating from this city center, though the age of the automobile is less relevant than its success in taking over and controlling its host.

Some would argue the car is a story of a symbiotic relationship: we can drive great distances for long periods of time in order to earn enough to spend long periods of time with our families, and the car gets pampered and maintained better than we care for ourselves. But let me offer Cuenca as evidence that we have handed over the keys (so to speak) of our own nature to our cars in order to create and enjoy elegant beauty, tranquility…community!

Sure, the Spanish had their day in history to rape, pillage, conquer, and destroy, but they at least left behind some really freaking killer architecture, design, engineering, and art. Cuenca is a UNESCO World Heritage Sight, Stone paver streets, grand streets lined with balustrade balconies, dozens of epic cathedrals with attendant plazas of trees, flowers, and fountains, and grand statues. All of this has inspired great poetry, art, and music ever since at last the 16th century (and probably even before with the Incas, whom the Spanish whooped to take this valley).

But all that has taken the backseat to loud, smelly, polluting (no emission controls here), homicidal vehicles. No different here than anywhere else (convenience inevitably trumps beauty in a democracy), but the reason Cuenca is such an important example is that it is clear that it would actually be more efficient to ban cars from the historic El Centro and use a shuttle or trolley system. The Spanish, show little foresight, did not design this place for cars in the 16th century. Traffic jams, exhaust trapped among the maze of buildings, noise bouncing around the stone walls...make El Centro a horrible place to drive, and consequently also a poorer place to walk than it should be.

Panama Matt
Of course, being the cultural capital, Cuenca has loads of cultural offerings--operas, concerts, plays--and remarkable artisans in furniture, guitars and other musical instruments, Panama hats, (yes, they come from Ecuador, not Panama) and ceramic and metal crafts. It has a beautiful natural setting, nestled in a high mountain valley (same elevation as Minturn!). It’s climate is year-round spring (never hitting 80 degrees and rarely falling below 40). But you have to weigh that with the fact that I’ve already found a windmill to tilt at.

So, though we can’t deny that Cuenca is more city than town, and that it would bait my pathological compulsion to fix something, it is has definitely made the list.

1 comment:

  1. I was pleased to read that they will soon have a light rail system there to cut down on the buses (pollution, traffic) and will be closing several streets in El Centro to make pedestrian only. http://www.cuencahighlife.com/post/2012/10/30/Cuencas-new-light-rail-system-Tranvia-de-los-Cuatro-Rios-begins-construction-in-November.aspx