Cuenca is full of surprises, and as an expat, you can count on more than a few!
From the moment you arrive, you might be taken aback by some of the quirky customs and ambience that make Cuenca such a unique and charming place. For example, the constant stream of parades, the appearance of roasting cuy (guinea pig) and the beauty of the blue domes and other architecture which all contribute to a truly unique cultural experience.
Sure, there might be a bit of culture shock as you navigate the differences in driving and banking, but trust us, it’s all part of the Ecuadorian experience. And don’t worry, these small adjustments will help you fit in and feel like a local in no time!
Embracing these new cultural norms and practices only adds to the magic of living in Cuenca and getting to know the incredible people who call this city home. It has a rich and diverse cultural heritage, blending indigenous customs with European colonial influence. With its mix of different races, Cuenca boasts a truly unique blend of traditions and customs.
The Risks of Writing About Culture
After doing the research, I came to see that there are an overwhelming number of cultural differences. For me, that is part of what attracted me here 5 years ago and what keeps life endlessly interesting. I learn about a new custom, historical oddity or surprising Cuencano attitudes every day.
And depending on how you define “culture”, this article is either way too short or way too long. Living in Cuenca has a great abundance of differences and I have done my best to highlight some of the bigger, more interesting and practical ones.
Another danger is a lack of scientific method and evidence. This is not a scholarly article with footnotes and I am not Margaret Mead. In fact, much of the evidence and content is anecdotal and referential. So, not all you read here will match your experience or understanding. But it all matches mine.
With those disclaimers out of the way, let’s get stuck in!
Many expats are attracted to Cuenca by its remarkable concentration of artists and art of all kinds. And many of them rekindle or ignite their own artistic expressions in the midst of this fertile artistic environment. Those expressions span the entire range of artistic pursuits: music, theater, painting, sculpting, writing, dance, film, ceramics, etc.
In fact, each year for 10 days, Cuenca holds The Fiesta de Cuenca in November specifically celebrating the city’s cultural heritage. With music, dance, food, and plenty of festivities, this is the perfect opportunity to immerse yourself in Cuencano culture.
Cuenca is known as the “Arts Capital of Ecuador” for good reason and is considered the “Rising Arts Capital of Latin America.” With its growing artistic community, the city has a lot to offer for art enthusiasts. Below are just a few examples that appeal particularly to expats. With very little effort you will find hundreds of others. For example, look for many of them in places like Cuenca’s idiomART which offers artistic experiences of all kinds in el centro.
The Cuenca Symphony, founded in 1972, performs regularly and is loved by expats for its world-class music. Cellist Yackson Sanchez and other musicians either walk or bike to rehearsals and performances.
Jazz lovers can find internationally acclaimed saxophonist and clarinetist Su Terry and her band Jazz De Barro at the only jazz club in the country, The Jazz Society Café.
Renato Albornoz, a talented classical guitarist, can be heard at local venues like La Guarida. Eduardo Segovia, a master ceramicist, creates stunning ceramics that show his passion for the craft.
Young and upcoming painter Catalina Carrasco is one of the most recognized creators in the city, and her modern artwork can be seen throughout town. Cuenca has a plethora of public artwork, including the wooden sculptures in Parque de la Madre and murals on streets like Calle Menendez y Pelayo and Paseo 3 de Noviembre.
Although the majority of Cuencanos are Spanish-speaking Catholics, the city is becoming more and more demographically diverse as expats flow in, leading to a more inclusive society. So, if you’re looking for a new adventure or just want to experience something truly unique, Cuenca offers a lot of both.
Spanish is the go-to language, and it’s important to note that finding English speakers may be a bit of a challenge. Interestingly, in the rural areas around Cuenca and even in the city itself, it’s not uncommon to come across someone who speaks both Spanish and Quichua, a variation of the ancient Inca language of Quechua.
Many expats come to Cuenca thinking it will be like tourist destinations in Mexico where English is commonly spoken. It is not.
Mastering some Spanish is one of the biggest indications to Cuencanos that you are trying to assimilate to their culture and will lead to winning their cooperation and friendship. And it will make your life far easier and more enjoyable because you can communicate what you want and need and make local friends, both of which are keys to enjoying life here or anywhere. There is a lot of help available to learn the language: cellphone apps like DuoLingo, excellent instructors offering inexpensive private lessons and even more inexpensive group lessons. See this guide for some tips on learning Spanish before you arrive and this one taking Spanish lessons in Cuenca.
Language exchanges are a popular form of both socializing and learning conversational spanish.
On the other hand, as tourism continues to grow in Cuenca, English has become a more widely spoken language as it has become a hub for American expats and as a result, English is becoming more widely spoken by Cuencanos. The global use of English as a language of business has led to its inclusion as a language requirement in schools here, leading to a rise in English proficiency. However, there are still few truly bilingual school options.
Family and Community
Family and community are of utmost importance to Cuencanos. They have close relationships with their neighbors and extended family members, and they often gather for meals, holidays, and other special events. It can be difficult for gringos to appreciate just how important this element of life is here given the frequently looser family relationships, geographic separation and autonomy gringos often experience in their family lives. Cuencano couples produce large families and want to keep them close and living in their homes long after the kids turn 18.
Compare that to the typical U.S. household with a few offspring that can’t wait to move out after High School to start their own lives with parents expecting (and often wishing) them to do so.
Greetings and Communication Style
The first thing you’ll notice about Cuencanos is how warm and friendly they are. They will look complete strangers in the eye as they pass on the sidewalk or down a hallway and issue the greeting appropriate to the time of day, “Buenos Dias, Buenos Tardes, Buenas Noches”. And if you want to start fitting in, it is a good idea to initiate the exchange or reciprocate by repeating a greeting.
And they’re frequently happy to chat, and they’ll often ask you how you’re doing and if you need help with anything. However, it’s important to keep in mind that they have a more relaxed pace of life, and conversations may take a bit longer than what you’re used to. So, grab a coffee, relax, and enjoy getting to know your new neighbors.
Whether conversing in English, Spanish or “Spanglish” as often happens, expats will also notice a very different communication style.
Non-Direct vs Direct Communication Styles
Cuencano’s and many other Ecuadorians have a habit of “beating around the bush”. Ecuadorians, unlike North Americans, have a much higher sensitivity to how what they say affects the feelings of the person with whom they are speaking. This can be charming or frustrating depending on the circumstances and how you look at it.
You may feel the joy of being treated with kid gloves and great deference when ordering custom furniture as I did. Then be surprised to find that none of your requirements were received or considered by the maestro who produced the same furniture design he produces for smaller Cuencano customers.
Or for example, you may spend an hour in a conversation to arrange the details of an event or business transaction and leave the meeting very optimistic because you got agreement on your agenda. But more often than not, on follow up you learn that exactly none of the agreed points will materialize because the Cuencano was never committed to the plan but was instead committed to telling you what he thought you wanted to hear.
Yes or nodding may mean “Yes, No or Maybe”. But you will rarely hear “No”. Gringos have no problem saying “No” by comparison as they generally care less about the other person’s feelings and believe both participants will appreciate the time-savings of being direct.
And if you think you have a grasp of Spanish, try reading a personal or business letter written by an educated Cuencano and see if you can dig through the mountain of flowery prose and byzantine sentence structures to discover the point.
Quick Point about Personal Space
In Cuenca, personal space tends to be not as important as in other countries. People here tend to stand closer together when talking, and they may touch your arm or shoulder while talking to you. This may feel a little overwhelming at first, but it’s just a sign of friendliness and warmth.
The attitude may also explain a rather peculiar tendency for new acquaintances and even taxi drivers to launch into a series of arguably personal questions immediately: “Are you married? How many children do you have? Where do you live? Where do your children live? Why do you only have X number of children? How old are they? How old are you?” This is the Cuencano version of small talk, so best you get used to it.
How Cuencanos Treat Time
Big difference. For example, doing business in Ecuador can be frustrating for Americans used to getting things done promptly. In the U.S., a business that fails to meet our expectations in a timely manner may face negative feedback and a loss of future business. But here, things are not the same.
The phrase “Ya mismo” is commonly used and may be translated literally by Americans to mean “soon.” However, here it can mean a longer wait than expected. The relaxed approach to deadlines and appointments can be challenging, but it’s important to keep in mind that you are in a different, Latin American culture.
Instead of getting frustrated, try to keep a relaxed attitude. Late is better than never, right? Embrace the laid-back lifestyle and take a step back. When you are told to pick something up on a specific date, it’s often a good idea to add a few extra days to your plan. This way, if it doesn’t arrive on the promised day, it will be easier to wait a bit longer.
Remember: In Cuenca, deadlines, like stop lights and traffic signs, are often treated as mere suggestions.
Social Etiquette and Manners
Cuencanos have a strong sense of hospitality, and they’ll often go out of their way to make you feel welcome in their home. As in the U.S., when invited to somebody’s home, it’s a good idea to bring a gift such as flowers or wine.
In terms of social etiquette, Ecuadorians are polite and well-mannered. They treat superiors with friendly respect, using titles (such as doctor, economist or engineer) before their names.
For social occasions, Cuencanos have no qualms about showing up late for dinners and parties because they have a much more flexible relationship with time. On the other hand, you can always tell the gringos because they show up early.
Cuencanos dress nicely and conservatively, especially for special events. If you’re attending a wedding or a fancy dinner, it’s best to dress up in your best attire. However, for everyday wear, you can get away with a more casual look.
In business, punctuality is expected for sellers. However, unannounced no shows and missed appointments by customers are extremely common and expected depending on the perceived importance of the meeting by the buyer and the buyer’s perception of the seller’s relative status.
Business customs in Cuenca are similar to other Latin American cities. Cuencanos maintain a formal demeanor in business relationships, with suits and ties being the standard while more casual attire is acceptable in warmer regions and the Amazon. Business meetings can be held in offices or restaurants, with the latter option serving as a way to establish a closer relationship with potential business partners. Although meetings may start later than the agreed time, it’s expected for Americans to be punctual. Regardless of the meeting location, small talk is common before business discussions.
Expats wanting to do business with Cuencanos or any Ecuadorians should prepare to invest a lot of time, energy and conversation in getting to know prospective participants. Assume your opposite wants to know a lot more about you and vice versa before any large of meaningful transaction willk occur. Interpersonal trust factors here are extremely low which is an explanation of why a longer courtship period is required. The low trust factor also helps explain why so many businesses are very small and family-owned as the resistance to bringing in potentially untrustworthy outsiders is high.
The Cuisine of Cuenca
Cuencano and Ecuadorian cuisine is renowned for its natural and organic flavors, sourced from the various ecological zones in the country. The country spans from the tropical rainforest in the east to the alpine grasslands of the Andes and the humid coastal lowlands, each region offering unique specialties. Local meals typically consist of a main protein (such as pork, chicken, beef or fresh fish), a soup, and a starch (such as rice or potatoes) accompanied by a drink such as juice or coffee and a small dessert. Cuencanos enjoy foods originating from all parts of Ecuador and other parts of the world.
It can be a big adjustment for expats to get used to local food. For one thing, food from this mountain region is flavored differently and may seem to be practically flavorless compared to the rich, spiciness of much ethnic food enjoyed in the US (Italian, Chinese, etc.).
Below is a quick overview of the kind of food that is consumed here. By the way, Cuencanos love McDonalds and KFC too but I will stick with local foods.
A popular dish in Ecuador, chefs often use their own unique ingredients and preparation style. In Ecuador, ceviche is usually seasoned and boiled shrimp served in lime juice with chopped onions, tomatoes, and cilantro.
A popular Sunday morning stew that is considered a cure for hangovers. It consists of spices, onions, peppers, and chunks of yucca around fish (typically tuna or albacore).
With a Pacific coast of over 2,000 km, the variety of fish, crab, shellfish, and other seafood is extensive. Fishermen cast their nets early in the morning, and coastal towns are filled with freshly caught fish by noon. The provinces of Manabi, Esmeraldas, and Guayas are known for their diverse seafood offerings.
Seco de Pollo & Poultry
Every family in Ecuador has its own secret recipe for delicious chicken dishes. One of the most common dishes is seco de pollo, marinated in a mixture of cumin, garlic, cilantro, and other spices.
A unique Ecuadorian dish featuring potato pancakes topped with a fried egg and a peanut butter sauce, typically served with sausage, avocado, and rice.
Raised in the brisk rivers and fisheries of the central Andean highlands, Ecuador offers some of the best trout in South America.
Arroz con Pollo
A popular dish in many Pacific countries, Ecuador’s version consists of rice mixed with a vegetable oil, shredded chicken, and vegetables like peas, carrots, and raisins, served with ketchup or mayonnaise.
A peanut sauce-based soup with fish and spices.
Cuy (Guinea Pig)
Although more popular in Peru, guinea pig is still commonly found in the Ecuadorian highlands, where street vendors roast them on spits. They have a tough texture and unique flavor. (They are also the subject of their own beauty pageants in some places!)
Much of the beef in Ecuador is marinated flank steak, but other cuts can be found at upscale restaurants and hotels. Most cuts are not aged or marbleized as they are in the U.S.
Ecuadorians prepare pork in various ways, including slow-roasted ribs, marinated and fried cubes (fritada), or in a similar marinade as seco de pollo.
No meal here is complete without rice, usually locally grown white or grain rice, which accompanies most main dishes.
Tubers (Yucca, Camote, Potatoes)
The selection of tubers offer delicious variations in preparation, from mashed to blended to chopped to pancaked (tortillas).
Plantains are a staple in Ecuador, prepared in many different ways. Green plantains (verde) are used to make chifles and patacones (deep-fried plantain chips). Ripe plantains (maduro) have a sweeter taste and can be sliced and fried or sauteed, and also mashed.
Cuenca is home to many indoor and outdoor markets, and they’re a great place to find fresh produce, handmade goods, and local souvenirs (but you might want to avoid the unrefrigerated meat). One of the most popular markets is the Mercado 10 de Agosto, which is located in the heart of the city on Calle Larga. Here, you’ll find everything from locally grown fruit and vegetables to handmade pottery and jewelry. The markets can be overwhelming, with bustling crowds and bright colors, but take your time, explore the different stalls, and haggle with the vendors for the best price. And, if you need a break, grab a bite to eat at one of the many inexpensive food stalls serving “chancho”, Ecuadorian roast pork and potato pancakes “llapingacho”.
Shopping Centers and Malls
If outdoor markets aren’t your thing, don’t worry – Cuenca also has modern supermarkets, shopping centers and malls often co-located in places like Mall del Rio and Batan Shopping. These modern locations offer a more familiar shopping experience, with air conditioning, escalators, and plenty of restaurants and cafes. The most popular shopping center in Cuenca is the Mall del Rio, which is located on the outskirts of the city where you find a wide variety of clothing, electronics, and home goods and Coral (one of several in Cuenca) which offers a Walmart-like selection and experience.
A couple of provisos:
- You will not find many of your U.S. supermarket brands though local brands often prove just as good.
- Taller and bigger expats like myself will not find clothing in shoes in their size for the most part. But the import services like Tiendamia are a great way to order items from the U.S. and will deliver many hard to find items from Amazon.com, Walmart and even e-bay right to your door for a reasonable extra charge.
Small Shops and Boutiques Abound
Cuenca offers an almost unlimited number of independently owned stalls (visit Plaza de San Francisco or Rotary), shops and boutiques, many of them family owned. These independent retailers offer a mix of local and imported goods, and they’re a great place to find one-of-a-kind gifts and souvenirs. You’ll also find many artisan workshops, where you can see the artists at work and purchase their handmade creations. Just one example is locally-produced “Panama” hat shops some of which are attached to their factories like Homero Ortega or the Barrancos Panama Hat Museum.
Haggling and Bargaining
No matter where you choose to shop in Cuenca, be prepared to haggle and bargain. This is a common practice in Ecuador, and vendors will often start with a high price, knowing that you’ll try to negotiate a better deal. Don’t be afraid to make an offer – just be polite and respectful, and be prepared to walk away if the vendor isn’t willing to meet your price. By the way, these tactics usually work more readily in stalls and markets than in upscale shops.
You will hear rumors about the “gringo” price – some amount added to pricing offered to locals for some goods and services. Some expats believe it is a common pricing technique based on the perception that gringos can afford to pay more. Whether it is real or imagined, you can offset its effect with the local custom of bargaining.
If you don’t ask for a discount, you probably will not get one. In some cases you are expected to ask such as when negotiating for a second hand car. However, advertised discounts in shops are frequently misleading as retailers here promote padded prices so that many goods and services get “discounted” down to their retail price.
Even gringos discover the rewards of the delightful custom of “yapa” – being offered a little something extra to sweeten and close a transaction (a baker’s dozen of roses or a few extra mandarinas) and to encourage repeat business. Read more about “yapa” and why we chose it for our brand.
Pets Are Just Animals
You will notice lots of street dogs.
When it comes to pets, the attitudes of Cuencanos and Ecuadorians are generally very different than those of expats. In the United States, pets are often treated as companions or members of the family, receiving the best food, toys, and medical care. In Cuenca and throughout Ecuador, however, pets are often seen as simply animals, and are not given the same level of attention or care as in the US.
Dogs and cats are not typically allowed inside homes. Instead, they are kept outside so they may not receive much care and attention, and may not be given adequate food, water, or medical attention. In fact, many dogs spend most of the day on the streets, going back home at night.
Their owners provide some food, but some dogs rely on scavenging for sustenance. Commercially prepared dog food is sometimes too expensive for their owners. Despite a lack of attention, I have observed dogs showing affection towards their owners through tail wagging and excitement.
One of the most difficult things to watch is when they walk across busy streets and intersections knowing many are hit by cars. I have even seen dogs killed chasing cars in the street having left the side of their owner who was walking them unleashed.
There are also many homeless animals and there are a number of people and organizations, both expat and Ecuadorian, like FAAN and PAWS focused on alleviating the suffering and neglect of abandoned domestic animals. Check out our Pet Adoptions section if you’re looking for a forever friend.
Despite these differences, pets are an important part of life in Ecuador. And there are still many Cuencanos who love and care for their pets.
When dining in restaurants, be aware that your bill may be higher than expected due to the added 12% tax and 10% service charge at upscale establishments. Check your bill for the service charge, and if it is not included, you may consider tipping a small amount. Tipping is not required and many Ecuadorians do not tip at all.
Tour guides and bus drivers in Ecuador are grateful for tips as they earn low salaries. For a private guide, a daily tip of $10 is appreciated, and for a group trip, a $5 per person per day tip is recommended. Remember to tip the driver too, a couple of dollars will suffice. In hotels, a small tip is customary when someone assists with your luggage and $1 per bag is a suitable amount. Taxis do not usually require tipping, but rounding up the fare is a nice gesture if they handle your luggage. I always tip the helpers at the supermarket who bag and move my groceries out to a taxi or to my car -usually about $1 per $100 of groceries.
Please do not come here and tip just because that’s what you’ve always done in the US. That’s placing your values higher than those of locals and it’s really quite ignorant. US-style tipping can very quickly change behaviour and it can cause friction between expats and locals.
Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion in Cuenca and throughout Ecuador but there are also other Christian denominations present. Indigenous Ecuadorians have combined Catholicism with their traditional beliefs, as seen in the close association of Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) and the Virgin Mary. The country has religious freedom, resulting in a small presence of other Christian groups such as Adventists, Mormons, Evangelicals, and a tiny Jewish population, as well as a few other religions.
Visiting Cuenca during holidays like Christmas and Easter can be a unique experience and utterly different from the US. Religious customs often involve musical events, long processions with local brass bands and dancers, and many floats and displays. Novenas, a Latin Catholic tradition, are frequently observed with community walks or services for nine days leading up to a holy day for pious preparation and prayer.
During the Advent period preceding Christmas, live nativity scenes and Christmas pageants are common. On Christmas Eve, communities often reenact Mary and Joseph’s search for an inn in Bethlehem through Posadas. Another tradition is to drink the eggnog liquor rompope and have a family dinner of ham or turkey. During the holiday season, individuals purchase dolls symbolizing Baby Jesus, which they dress up and carry around.
Cuenca’s most important parade is the one dedicated to the “Niño Viajero”, celebrated on December 24 of each year. The parade starts early in the morning and may last 8 or 9 hours with every conceivable social and religious organization represented in the procession. It is known by this name from an image of the Child God that was ordered to be sculpted by Doña Josefa Heredia in 1823.
New Year’s Eve
Just a week after Christmas, New Year’s Eve is another major holiday. It is celebrated with a turkey or ham dinner, a toast to the old year with wine or sangria, and the consumption of 12 grapes for good luck in each month of the new year. At midnight, fireworks are set off all over Cuenca, sometimes creating a 30 minute 360 degree show (less so post pandemic) and “Monigote” papier-mache figures, ranging from 1 to 5 meters, are burned.
Sometimes it can be difficult to separate religious from non-religious celebrations for example Carnaval, Lent, and Easter: Two days before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent, there is a national holiday known as “playing Carnaval,” involving chasing each other with water balloons, powdered paint, and spray foam. During Lent, there is a somber mood of reflection and penitence. During Holy Week, one may witness a Via Crucis, a live reenactment of the Stations of the Cross, depicting the sentencing and crucifixion of Jesus.
Day of the Dead
Like in many Latin American destinations, the Day of the Dead is a time to honor deceased family members. It is observed on November 2, visiting the cemetery to light candles or lay flowers, followed by parades, community parties, and big celebrations.
Quito, Guayaquil and Cuenca all celebrate different independence days from Spain and the country celebrates a national Independence Day. Many are celebrated at the national level with fiestas and days off of work. On November 3rd, the day after Day of the Dead, Cuenca residents take to the streets in large numbers to commemorate the city’s independence from Spanish rule, which was declared almost two centuries ago on this day. This two-day long weekend is filled with festivities and traditions.
Beauty pageants are popular. There is a Miss Cuenca pageant which serves as a way for Cuencanos to come together and support and empower teenage girls as leaders.
Walking and Traffic – Pretend You’re Invisible
Cuenca is a wonderful place for expats to learn to walk again (and they often lose weight after only a few months of walking). The city is a very manageable size and offers so many architectural, cultural and other sights and sounds that are best seen on foot.
But it may save your life to know that pedestrians are rarely afforded the right of way when crossing the street, even in official, striped crosswalks and despite laws to the contrary. There are many stories of severely injured expats and Cuencanos alike who fail to heed this advice. Traffic laws are not observed or enforced much here. So, vehicles and especially motorcyclists simply ignore them. Add to this the “machismo” behavior of many drivers compete for speed and the smallest crack in traffic.
These attitudes make driving and walking very hazardous.
The best advice is to proceed with great caution and to assume that you are invisible to any traffic (or that you are actually a target) and look in all directions several times before venturing into the crosswalk. A corollary: do not assume that because you see a green, pedestrian shaped light in the stoplight that you are not at risk. Many drivers will turn right in front of you without looking.
Standing in Line
You guessed it. Cuencanos have a different relationship than gringos with line etiquette at supermarkets, doctors offices and other public places. You are not in the US. or Britain where line etiquette and queues are “fair”. Cutting in line is common and accepted with little irritation. Some places like banks lobbies foster very orderly and controlled lines. But in many places you will find yourself more in a swarm than in a line.
But if you hold your ground and step forward with a little assertiveness, you will get the attention of the person behind the service window or at the cash register. Those folks don’t bother to keep order and seem satisfied to serve whoever is standing before them at any given moment. If you make it into a little game, it can actually be fun. And iIt is never worth taking personally or getting too irritated about it. It is just part of how things are.
Tercera Edad (Third Age) Preferential Treatment
Deferential treatment of older people is part of Ecuadorian culture and law. If you are a 65+ year old expat with temporary or permanent residency in Ecuador, you are eligible for certain benefits which are definitely worth knowing about for expats retiring to Cuenca.
Some of these are “soft” benefits like being offered a seat on a crowded bus, a special bank or supermarket line to save you time and a generally more polite attitude from others. Some benefits are actually statutory and in the Ecuadorian constitution. They include exemption from the 12% value added tax known as IVA, some municipa, utility taxes, notary and registration fees as well as discounts on various transportation, cultural and sporting events, cellular services and utilities.
I hope you have found something new about Cuencano culture. I covered a fair range of obvious differences to help expats navigate around life here like: language and communication, food, holidays, social norms and etiquette, the arts, walking, family, pets, shopping, tipping, Tercera Edad culture and benefits and “Cuencano Time.”
I also know I omitted big topics like the differences in: safety and crime, travel and transportation habits, legal system, ethnic composition, driving, sex, dating housing, healthcare, machismo, class and racism, living standards, cost of living, politics, history, levels of consumerism, etc. Phew.
I might address these in a future article and I would love to get your thoughts on other cultural topics you would like to see written about. Leave us a comment below or in the YapaTree Cuenca Facebook Group.