The Spanish word, “suburbios” is something of a false-cognate of the word, “suburbs.” In spirit, they mean the same thing, ‘the area on the outskirts of a city where people live.’ Functionally, in Ecuador, suburbios aren’t thought of in the same way as in the US at all.
This topic recently came up in my Spanish class. My teacher was giving a cultural lesson about Cuenca’s recent history She explained how the regions of country were very isolated from each other until the late 1960s and 70s, when the first “modern” highways were completed. Until then, it took two to three days to travel from Guayaquil to Cuenca.
Along with development also came changes that forced thousands of campesinos off of their family lands across the countryside and into the larger cities. The unfortunate reality of the situation also included terrible poverty; people who could not afford to live in the cities were forced to the edges of town where they built suburbios.
As the teacher spoke, she stopped and asked if we knew what a suburbio is; we nodded, but when pressed, we realized that those of us from North America and Britain had something completely different in mind.
She explained, suburbios are the areas outside the edge of the city where the extremely poor go and build shacks from recycled materials. Because they are outside the local municipal jurisdiction, they can be very dangerous for everyone who lives there and anyone who happens to show up on accident.
Like me, the other former suburbanites in the class we actually picturing the “cookie-cutter” subdivisions where we grew up. We were very confused when our teacher that Cuenca differs from other city in Ecuador because it doesn’t have suburbios surrounding it. When you go to the edge of Cuenca, you arrive at another village with its own church plaza and identity.
Suburbios, on the other hand, are better described as ramshackle and makeshift. These neighborhoods often spring up around industrial areas and can become very elaborate, eventually putting pressure on the city to incorporate the neighborhood. While this may mean the possibility of municipal services being offered to residents, the poverty problem that caused them to seek the outskirts of town where they didn’t have to pay is hardly addressed.
Outside of Cuenca’s unique artisan crafts and toquilla hats, there was no heavy industry in the city until the early 1970’s. In order to develop the economy, the city created the Parque Industrial on the east side of the city after the national highway system had been completed.
So really, this post is about bus safety.
I didn’t even think about the possible dangers before I started the CBS project and riding all the buses from end to end. I was really lucky that I didn’t end up riding out to an unsafe area and put myself in real danger.
After doing it multiple times now, I feel perfectly safe getting on any bus in Cuenca, riding to the end, and getting off and walking around. That’s not necessarily true for other cities. I tried it in Loja back in January and ended up in a neighborhood much poorer than any I’d seen closer to town; I’ve specifically been warned NOT to try doing the same thing in Guayaquil, even in daylight hours.
For what it is worth, the suburbio I ended up seeing in Loja wasn’t as bad as some I’ve passed by on the bus from Guayaquil to the coast, but it was enough to remind me not to have any valuables showing or take out my smart phone. There were very few people out in the neighborhood at the time of day I arrived, but the few I saw took little note of my presence, went about their own business, and I caught the next bus back into town. The houses were made from scavenged and “recycled” materials, but they weren’t built without attention to details and care. Each of the structures may have been simple and small, but more than a few had small, fenced-in gardens complete with vegetables and fruit trees, all in a very small growing area. Also, it was interesting how the western “edges” of town in this case was high up on the mountainside with magnificent views of the countryside; the ‘upscale’ developments in Loja seemed to be on the eastern mountainsides.
What to do if you get lost outside of Cuenca
Although in Cuenca you have little to worry about riding a bus all the way out to the end, if you miss your stop and get turned around, it’s very easy to get disoriented and not know where exactly you are.
First of all, when this happens, don’t panic! Take a look around and see if you can locate the mirador Turi, if you can see the white church up on the hill, then you are looking south. If you can’t see it or anything that looks familiar and you decide you want to go back the other way, here’s what to do:
WAIT! Don’t hit the button to get off yet!
The important thing to do before getting off of a bus on an unknown route is to watch for buses returning from the other direction BEFORE getting off the bus!
You may be on part of the route that the return bus doesn’t share, so to be sure you can catch a bus going in the other direction, WAIT till you see one, THEN push the button, get off the bus, and cross the street to catch the returning bus.
You may think you could always catch a cab if you get lost in Cuenca, but there are those times when you need a taxi that none are to be found. Depending on which bus route you are on, at some point, they may go into some very rural locations that no taxis go to, unless they happen to be there dropping off or picking up a pre-arranged fare. Best to be prepared for those times when the bus back to town is the only option, and you just have to wait for the next bus to pass.
Share Your Stories!
We’d love to read about your adventures riding buses or taking them out to the very end and having to wait for the next bus! Please comment with your stories below!