Stepping into the Fox Gym Center is like stepping into a high-end gym in any major city in the United States. The place is immaculately clean, bright, and full of more modern exercise equipment than you can imagine in Cuenca. The large space has rooms dedicated to free weights, spinning classes, aerobics, and exercise machines of every sort. The attached salon and spa echoes the modern and sophisticated look of the gym. Staff are friendly and speak perfect English. The people exercising and using the salon are a mix of expat and Cuencanos of varying ages. Fox Gym is the kind of place where you instantly feel welcome and at home.
Ignacio Valdivieso, the founder of both the Fox Gym Center and the salon, works hard to create the atmosphere of possibility and welcome. It’s not just a business to him, but a way to help others. His life story would make a great motivational movie, not because his life was easy, but because he overcame tremendous odds.
When Ignacio was four years old, his father walked out on the family, leaving his mother with eight children. Living in a small village near Cuenca, she worked endlessly to care for them all and earned money by tailoring. It was very difficult, and there was never enough money. Ignacio went to work at six years of age, doing farm work to pay for his school clothes. He loved sports and was a natural athlete but was unable to participate in any team sports because he did not have money for the uniforms and shoes.
Those hard early years created a strong work ethic and an enduring love for his family. Ignacio was a good student and wanted to attend medical school after graduating from high school but did not have the funds. Instead, he went to work at the Sanchez optical lab. By the age of twenty-one, Ignacio was managing the lab. He was good with people and soon moved into a sales position where he traveled throughout Ecuador distributing frames and eye glasses.
In 1997, Ignacio moved to the United States to join his sister, Sylvia, in hopes of better opportunities. He studied English, worked in a gas station, and then secured a position bussing tables in a restaurant in New York. Within a few months, he was a waiter there. When he wasn’t at work, Ignacio worked out at Bally’s Total Fitness. One day he noticed a help wanted sign there and completed an application.
A few months later, Ignacio was offered a position as a commissioned salesman at Bally’s. It wasn’t the job he expected, but he decided to give it a try. It was very hard work and initially he wasn’t making any sales. He wanted to quit, but his sister Sylvia encouraged him to give it a little longer. Fast forward a few years and Ignacio was the 3rd most successful fitness salesman in all of New York City. He was delighted to be able to send money back to Ecuador to help his mother and extended family.
Then the events of September 11, 2001, changed the complexion of New York. No one was buying gym memberships in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center. Always encouraging, his sister suggested he become a hair stylist. Ignacio went back to school and got a barber’s license, then bought a small salon in Brooklyn. Other merchants in the area told him he’d made a mistake. There had been a salon in that spot for twenty years, and none of the former owners had been able to make a success of it. There were six other salons in the same block so competition was fierce. It was not a promising start, but having the odds stacked against him was nothing new for Ignacio. He walked the neighborhood meeting people and distributing coupons as well as taking classes in color and styling for women.
After a few years, his salon started to become very successful. Ignacio found he had a real talent for styling hair and for The weight room at Fox Gym creating beautiful hair color. The area of Brooklyn became very trendy with professional people who worked in New York and wanted to look good. Ignacio worked with a diverse clientele and became skilled in styling hair for every ethnic group.
By 2009, Ignacio had been in the United States for 14 years and was ready to return to Ecuador. He settled in Cuenca and opened a salon. He was delighted to be reunited with his mother and family. Often when he’d attend social events, he’d meet former schoolmates and old friends. He also reconnected with the Sanchez family and opened an optical shop in Mornay Plaza in partnership with them. He hired one of his sisters as the general manager there.
Ignacio continued his love of body building and fitness in Cuenca. When the gym he frequented was offered for sale, he purchased it. Like many of his ventures, the gym needed some re-organizing and updating, but Ignacio used his years of experience to turn it into a successful venture. He started sponsoring women participating in Miss Cuenca and Miss Ecuador pageants, offering all the candidates physical training and conditioning in preparation for competitions.
When the owners of the new River Side building across from Hotel Oro Verde, wanted a successful gym as a tenant, they approached Ignacio and invited him to move his gym and salon to a prime location. He moved his businesses there in July.
Fox Gym Center is now the largest and best equipped gym in Cuenca. It offers a wide variety of classes including aerobics, spinning, functional fitness, tae bo, and dance, along with weight lifting and a wide variety of exercise machines. There are seven personal trainers available, all with college degrees. All the trainers are full-time employees of the gym so that Ignacio can ensure the quality and professionalism of the training. Many expats work out at Fox Gym, attracted by the English speaking staff. It’s the kind of gym where everyone is welcome, from the highly fit to those just beginning a fitness journey.
Right next door is the Ignacio Valdivieso Salon and Spa, which Ignacio owns with his business partner Alicia Pesantez. The salon and spa offers cuts, color, facials and waxing, manicures/pedicures, and massage. Ignacio is considered the best hair colorist in Cuenca by many expats, especially those with blonde hair. The salon serves men and women, and at least half of the clientele are expats.
For the owner of three successful businesses in Cuenca, Ignacio is surprisingly humble. He still works hard, spending time at all of his businesses to ensure that customers are well treated and never taken advantage of or misled in any way. He alternates between seeing clients in the salon and encouraging people at the gym. He is still growing. His next goals are to open another fitness center for yoga, Pilates, and other quiet fitness activities. After that, he wants to open a restaurant.
When asked for some fitness tips, Ignacio shared that it is important to begin slowly, especially if it has been a while since engaging in regular exercise. It’s best to start with walking and stretching. Then, have a consultation with a personal trainer who can assess your current fitness levels, learn about your personal goals, and develop a plan to help you reach those goals. A consultation with a personal trainer at Fox Gym ranges from $5-10 per hour, so it is in reach of most every budget.
Ignacio is very involved in the community and has a big heart for helping people living in poverty. For the last few years, he’s collected gently used clothing, toys, and school supplies for distribution. He selects a remote village on the coast. When asked why, he said, “The community around Cuenca is doing good work serving the poor here. Hearts of Gold and other charitable organizations are doing a great job. I look for places where there is no one is helping the children and go there instead.”
Last year Ignacio and his sisters distributed the items in a village near Esmeraldas which was so remote they had to use horses to reach it. It was very meaningful for the siblings to give to children who were just as needy as they’d been during their youth. This year, they want to do even more.
If you have gently used clothing, drop it off at either the Fox Gym or salon. There is also a need for school supplies such as paper, pencils, crayons, and pens, small toys, and sports equipment like soccer balls. Please bring your donations before the end of October.
Ignacio Valdivieso has come a long way from that poor little boy who was unable to participate in sports because he could not afford shoes. That challenging childhood shaped him into a man known for his kindness, encouragement of others, and a deep desire to continue to grow. He says, “Life is progress. Everything happens for a reason. It’s up to us to use what happens to us to make a good life and to help others.”
It is a surprise to meet a muscular gym owner with such a kind and encouraging manner. However, this is Cuenca, where a big heart is part of every success story.
Fox Gym Center is open from 5 am to 1 pm and then again from 3 pm to 10 pm Monday through Friday. Saturday hours are 8 am to 1 pm. There are no initiation fees. The location is Ave. Ordonez Laso y Los Claveles, across the street from Hotel Oro Verde. Stop by for a free guided tour and one-week trial membership or call 07-4073319 for more information.
Ignacio Valdivieso Salon and Spa is open from 9 am to 7 pm Monday through Saturday. Walk-ins are welcome, but appointments are recommended. Call Alicia at 099-621-6236 or Ignacio at 09-92761339 to schedule your appointment.
Lynne Klippel is a best-selling author, ghostwriter and publisher who specializes in non-fiction books and information products. She’s lived in rural Paute since 2012. For more information on her work visit www.sagemountainbooks.com