As in any city, there are customs and rituals that are different compared to daily life in the States or European countries. The observations on this list are small things, noticed over my two years of living in Cuenca. The topics vary from extended mealtimes to excessive high heel use. These customs are so woven into the fabric of daily life, that you may not even realize how commonplace they are until you pause during your daily stroll and really take in all the sights, sounds, and tastes.
1. Lunch Is a Process: It’s true that Latinos enjoy their mealtimes. In Ecuador, lunch is usually a 2-hour affair. That doesn’tmean you’ll be eating the whole time, but many businesses close down between the hours of 1 and 3pm (or, more realistically, 12:30-3:30pm). A typical lunch (almuerzo) ranges between $2.00-$5.00 in the city center. It includes soup and a segundo or plato fuerte: typically chicken/fish/pork, rice, potatoes, and salad. There is typically a juice and sometimes a small dessert (jello, cookie, chocolate) as well. Try to find some of the huecos (hole-in-the-walls) in the city center around CEDEI. Even though you’ll have lunch provided with your host family every day, sometimes you just want to go out and explore on your own.
2. Cuencanos “Sing”: It’s true, there is a lilt to the Cuencano voice that is different from many others in Ecuador. Like all countries, there are different accents in all regions. But within Ecuador, Cuencanos are always known as cantantes, or “singers.” Don’t be surprised if you can’t always understand some words or phrases. The language can even sound Italian, or Spain-Spanish, with lots of r-rolling. Try to imitate the accent that you’ll hear all around you, and you’ll soon be called a cantante as well.
Tomebamba River, Cuenca
3. Be Prepared for All Weather/Use High Heels Only If You Dare: Cuenca is known as a more conservative city– this conservador mentality extends to politics, social norms, and even clothing choices. In terms of dress, the conservative tendencies to cover up, or layer more clothes on, is related to the colder climate. On the coast, in places like Guayaquil and Manta, expect dresses, tank tops, and shorts. In Cuenca, even on sunny days, shorts and skirts are rarely seen on women. The temperature in Cuenca is always changing though, so you have to be prepared for all possibilities. A typical day can span from sunny and hot, to chilly and cloudy, to rainy and cold by evening. Bring rain jackets or umbrellas with you if the sky looks even a little threatening. However, even with the unpredictable nature of the weather, many Cuencana women will wear high heels (takos) on a daily basis, somehow maneuvering their way over the uneven, brick pathways, even in the rain. Walking on bricks, in rain, in high heels, is never recommended.
4. Cars and Drivers Rarely Follow Traffic Rules: While it is unlikely that you’ll be driving in Cuenca, it’s important to note that traffic regulations, such as red lights, green lights, turn signals, stop signs, and street lanes, are all considered suggestions rather than rules. When pedestrians are at crosswalks, it’s typical that they will have to wait through a slew of cars until a driver finally stops, letting the pedestrian pass across. Drivers also love to communicate–with their horns. It’s a whole other language. You’ll also notice that with bus and taxi drivers, they always seem on the verge of an accident, but they never actually crash (for the most part). The flow of traffic all seems to be some grand orchestration that the passengers are unaware of, but the drivers have mastered. Some streets are one-way, some streets are two-way but are so narrow, you can’t possibly imagine how. Just note the streets around you, look both ways, and join the traffic orchestration.
5. Cuencanos Aren’t Shy About Public Display of Affection: It is time to get comfortable with public displays of affection. While you do not have to partake, it is unavoidable in this city. Teenagers will walk hand in hand, drooped over one another, kissing in the most inconvenient places, both in the city center or on the river walks. They’ll even meander down the bike lanes, in theory reserved only for cyclists, hugging and kissing. This behavior is not just confined to adolescents. On a sunny weekend afternoon, you can find middle-aged couples and elderly couples lying in the grass, lying on one another, along the river paths. Embrace it; it’s a city of love.