I had high expectations of Cuenca, especially after being pleasantly surprised by Quito, and how much it reminded me of Antigua, Guatemala. My Lonely Planet described it ot be the reigning city of colonial splendour in Ecuador. It is so beautiful that UNESCO also designated it to be a World Heritage Site, just like Antigua and Quito. The mention of "narrow cobblestone streets", "whitewashed red-tiled buildings", plus it being full of university and language school students... well, all these made me love Cuenca even before I got there, and decided in my mind that I would spend another two weeks there for Spanish classes when Iris leaves.
Things started well enough... We woke up to the chitter chatter of a food market outside our window, and we admired the various colourfully dressed indigenous people hawking, and walking with bundles of food or child on their back. There were cobblestone streets, but there was something... modern, civilised about them, and not quite like the ancient bumpiness of Antigua. As we approached the city centre, the Central Park (here, called Parque Calderón), it was nothing like Antigua! Though the layout was similar - the Park was surrounded by cathedrals and colonnaded buildings, but the overall impression was much much more modern. Almost European.
Although Iris was very happy with Cuenca, and actually prefered it to Quito, I was in shock for the rest of the morning. I decided to study a week in Quito, and a week in Cuenca, as I didn't like Cuenca as much anymore. Nonetheless we still hunted around for Spanish schools, to make enquiries into costs, availability etc, and to get an impression of what the school was like. They were all offering more or less the same packages, but all priced at twice the amount of the classes in Antigua ($8 per hour, as opposed to $4) , and not to mention the cost of homestay on top of that! In the end, found a much cheaper alternative... buy a Self Study book, and take myself off to a beach somewhere. With that sorted, was happier to explore the rest of Cuenca.
We walked alot around Cuenca - and got to know the streets well. But we hardly looked into any of the famous sights, as Iris wasn't keen on churches etc. We sat and watched a little girl wash her family's laundry in the Rio Tomebamba, whilst her brother entertained himself on the bank nearby. One afternoon, we hiked 4km up to the Mirador Turí, for a view of the city basking in the late afternoon sun, then dwindled to little twinkling lights at dusk. We found some nice shops selling meat on stick, boiled sweetcorn and yummy chocolate bread, and these, well, were pretty good enough for us!
We went into the Univeristy of Cuenca, a nice campus, if somewhat dead of students, and overhead an English class in progress. The British professor looked up embarrassedly at us when we walked past, though he wouldn't have known we were British as we weren't speaking at the time.
The first evening, we wanted to hit the bars, but had a bit of problem finding our way there. Two university students walked us there, and practised some Spanish with them over a few beers - well, they managed to practise some English with Iris, though they only knew a little bit more English than Iris' Spanish. Hence my toilet visits were limited, as the conversation somewhat stalls without me translating.
The second evening, we went to a traditional Ecuadorian restaurant, to try out more of their hot rum with sugar cane. We were rather attracted by the mention of live music being performed, though were pretty taken aback when shown into a posh setting with four Ecuadorian musicians playing exclusively for us. It did mean they were able to do requests, and even let us try out blowing through their flutes. They encouraged us to sing English songs and they sorted out their music, though they were more familiar with the notes than we were with the lyrics... whoops!!