Almost exactly five years after I studied abroad in Ecuador, I returned to visit my second family - my host family who so kindly took me in as their daughter, sister, aunt and granddaughter for four months of their lives. It might not sound like a long time, but throughout those four months, we celebrated birthdays and anniversaries, holidays, and even the sad and unfortunate loss of a family member. And when you spend that much time together, living under the same roof and sharing all of the same experiences, you bond quite quickly.
I knew the moment I left Cuenca that I would be back someday. Not only because I now had a second family I was leaving behind, but also because Cuenca is a city worth going back to. Nestled in the Andes where the weather is always perfect and mild, with a beautiful blend of Spanish colonial-style architecture and cobblestone streets, Cuenca is a true gem. And returning after five years sure felt like coming home.
We returned to all of my favorite places in Cuenca, but our first stop was El Cajas National Park. Located just minutes outside of Cuenca, the main road that cuts through the park quickly climbs to a higher elevation where there's almost always a foggy cloud cover, and tundra-like plants and pine trees thrive. At the park's center you'll find the continental divide at 13,550 feet - and as the tiny beginnings of rivers flow down either east or west, many will meander through one or more of the 270 lakes and lagoons within the park. It's a gorgeous place to spend an afternoon.
After we came down from the mountains, we climbed back up a much smaller hill to take in the views from El Mirador de Turi, or "the Turi lookout." With a white church serving as a beacon from below, the views span almost the entire city from east to west. From above the city is a beautiful mosaic of red tile roofs and off-white stucco - and you can't get this kind of view from anywhere else in the city.
Though it may sound silly and mundane, one of the most important things for me to do on my visit was to simply walk the route I used to take from my house to my school every day. Some of my favorite memories of Cuenca are from that daily walk - stopping to chat with Aaron, the Peruvian jewelry maker who set up shop on the stairs up to Calle Larga, or taking the long way so I could meander through the flower market. It was about 45 minutes from door to door, but I remembered each turn, street and river crossing along the way, even all these years later.
Cuenca's main city square is adorned with two absolutely gorgeous (and historic) churches. They're somewhat humorously referred to as "the old cathedral" (dating back to 1557) and "the new cathedral" (dating back to 1829). While the old church is now a museum, the new cathedral, or Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, still holds mass multiple times per week, and now welcomes sightseers to the top of the towers for up-close viewing of the three incredible blue and white glazed tile domes. The contrast of the periwinkle domes against the terra cotta roofs is truly a sight to see.
We spent a lot of time simply wandering the city, dipping into cafes for coca tea and meandering through local artisanal markets. We had a few beers like Pilsner and Club at local bars, but we ate almost every meal at home with my host family. My boyfriend still swears his favorite meal from the entirety of our time in South America was served at my host mom's lunch table - and I think I agree.
There was something wonderful about coming back to a familiar place - while I've always made an effort to go new places and keep seeking new experiences, every now and then you visit a place and a people that sticks with you in a way you can't quite explain. It sticks with you and it will keep calling you back, incessantly, until you return. And once you do - three or five or ten years later - a feeling of intense familiarity will sweep over you as if you were pulling in to the driveway of your childhood home. And suddenly you'll find yourself navigating the streets of a city in a foreign country like you never left - and it will be exactly what you'd been yearning for.
To see more photos from our Ecuadorian adventure, click here!