In the evening of April 6, 2019, we arrived at our new home in Cuenca, Ecuador. Traveling for 9 solid days had sapped all our strength and enthusiasm. Relief flooded our beings as we stepped onto the grass of our Ecuadorian house’s lawn. Home at last! This house had been posted on Facebook, so we had never seen it in person. it was far bigger and prettier than it seemed online. It had a big yard with flowers, fruit trees and veggie garden. The whole lot was perched on a steep hillside, overlooking the city and a range of mountains. The animals sniffed and explored every inch of the place. It felt like an oasis we could replenish within.
The view of the sunrise from our hilltop house was stunning! It was the first time of many many many future times that we photographed the sunrise over the landscape. Mountains filled our living room’s wall of windows. El Cajas is the wilderness park covering the mountains. Morning mists gave way to dramatic cloud sculptures that gradually thinned, leaving us with a sky of deep blue.
The owners were away for a vacation. They had invited us to stay in the house when we arrived, and we would all share the house for a week when they returned from their trip. It was good to have a couple days to rest and unwind from the arduous journey. When they returned, it went beautifully. We’d never met before, yet a nice friendship quickly developed. We discovered much in common. They took us to their Buddhist meditation gathering, and showed us hiking spots and the best mercados. Apparently we had slid right into the place where we were meant to be.
Our first week was spent largely resting, with the animals always at our sides. At an altitude of 8,500 feet, our bodies required a lot of adjusting. The dog and cat too. At first we napped twice every day. Any exertion required an immediate nap. We knew to drink a lot more water than usual. Still, it was a few weeks before we could get by on just one nap per day.
Our wondrous, helpful facilitator, Tina, helped us complete the process of getting our cédulas. This required three more days of cab rides and visits to multiple offices. First we took the papers we got in Quito to an office in Cuenca. They told us we had to go to another office in the town of Azogues, which was a 45 minute drive away. We hired a recommended local driver, Nestor, and were so glad we did. He was knowledgeable, familiar with both cities and was a safe driver. He spoke English very well, so he was a big help with translating. In Azogues, we waited and waited and met with people who told us to walk to their bank and deposit $10 into their account and return with the receipt. There were a few hitches in the process, so we had to return the next day with Nestor. Thankfully, he was available to drive us again. When that was complete, he drove us back to Cuenca to another office. After much waiting, we had our photos taken at last received our cédulas! By that time Gary and I, Tina and Nestor were all starving and drained.
In the course of doing all of this, we caught the usual stomach bugs. Our digestive systems are not accustomed to the microorganisms that live in the water here. It’s best to avoid local food and water for a little while, while our systems adjust. Gary and I spent the next two weeks struggling with digestive distress off and on. We brought with us a powerful herbal tincture for digestion, which helped. We explored the city and explored the countryside near our rural house during the next weeks. But our digestive troubles necessitated short excursions.
Thus passed our first month: in a whirlwind of activity and illness, punctuated by naps and long hours spent wandering in the heavenly beautiful garden to ground ourselves into our new locale.
The moment we’d been aiming towards for a year finally arrived. Clusters of city lights emerged from the darkness as our plane sank lower, skimming over the nighttime Andes mountains towards our new home in Ecuador.Our airline changed our flight from a daytime one to a much later flight. We had to accept a midnight arrival. As the plane touched down, I could hear Star, our Australian Shepherd dog, begin howling in the baggage compartment, right beneath our feet. Our cat Maya was surely huddling wide-eyed in her kennel next to Star’s, letting the howling speak for her.
When we filed in the Customs area, I had to switch my brain from English to Spanish.The Customs agents were swift. They briefly reviewed our Temporary Residency Visas and cheerfully welcomed us to Quito.
Within minutes, the animals’ kennels rolled out on the conveyor belt. Had we sent them via cargo, there would have been a wait of many hours, while all the cargo was checked in by the Agriculture department. We were so thankful for our facilitator, who advised shipping them as baggage. According to her, American Airlines has the best record for taking animals safely as baggage.
Cristian (our facilitator’s assistant and our driver) met us shortly after we stepped out of the Customs area. The first order of business was to take Star and Maya outside for some relief from their kennels. They were so well behaved! We expected some misbehavior after their ordeal, but there was none.Maya, in her harness, explored the bushes. Star bounded around licking everyone in sight.
We stuffed our 4 duffels, 2 backpacks, 2 carry-ons, and 2 kennels into the driver’s truck. He drove an hour to the historic Hotel Vieja Cuba in metropolitan Quito. Bleary-eyed, we met the equally bleary-eyed hotel staff at 3 am. We carried everything up three flights of carved wood stairs to our room.
The next two days were spent beginning the process of obtaining our national ID cards, called cédulas.Good thing we had an expert driver who knew the city and knew the routine for applying for cédulas. Lots of driving and lots of walking were required.
It was our first exposure to some unexpected Ecuadorian methods of doing business. We went to one agency and stood in a long line. When we got to the window, they began the paperwork, then told us to go pay a fee of $5 each at their bank. Cristian led us to their bank a few blocks away.We stood in line there (noticing many of the same people who were in the first agency) and eventually paid our $10 into the agency’s account.With the receipt of deposit in hand, we returned to the agency and stood in line again to prove that we’d paid. Then they issued the first set of papers indicating that we were immigrating (temporarily).This whole process was repeated a few times at different offices, to get varying levels of proof that we had visas and qualified for a cédula.
This whole process plus the altitude plus the exhaustion from travel wore Gary and myself down. When we were done, Cristian took us to a big lovely park to soothe our exhausted brains and bodies. It was a spacious expanse of woods and meadows, with an old adobe barn. Star raced along the paths. After a week in a car and hotels, then a day in a plane and more hotels, she was ecstatic to stretch her legs. We all lay in the grass, gazing at the deep blue sky filled with huge fluffy clouds. I chatted with a woman doing Kundalini yoga under a blossoming tree. Star trotted with a dog pal. I wondered if the dogs had any language barrier.
In our down time, we explored the city of Quito a bit. Between modern skyscrapers and city parks, there were little tiendas (stores) selling a specific product such as bread, or pastries, or batteries or toys. Gary and I ate most of our meals in the hotel, but had a couple excellent lunches at nearby cafes. We loved seeing some of Quito, the capitol city that we aren’t likely to visit often. Within a few blocks radius we found great food and met interesting locals.
On our last day, we we checked out of the Hotel Vieja Cuba, we bumped into a friend from our first visit. Fabiano was the charming and knowledgeable tour guide that you probably read about, in our previous story about our visit to the volcanic crater, Lake Cuicocha, near Cotacachi. He remembered us, and gave us his number to stay in touch. We will surely hire him for some future adventure tours.
DRIVING ACROSS ECUADOR
Gary and I had the choice to take a short flight from Quito to our destination of Cuenca, or drive it. Driving meant navigating ten hours of sometimes winding roads through the Andes Mountains. We chose to have Cristian drive us, so we could see the countryside at close range. Thankfully, he’s a safe and careful driver. We’ve since learned that many are not… many drive way too fast and text while they do it.
Cristian loaded us into his SUV with the kennels strapped to the top. There was room for the dog and cat to move around a little bit between suitcases, and see out the windows.
What a good decision it was, to drive! Ecuador is filled with every kind of scenery imaginable. No cookie-cutter chain store malls were visible on this drive. Cristian was a good tour guide, letting us know what we were passing when it was of interest.He even knew the names of the various volcanoes, and whether or not they were active. We shared a lot of interests with Cristian – an architectural engineer as well as part-time driver – so our lively discussions helped the hours pass quickly.
The scenery endlessly changed, kaleidoscopically. Cristian drove us past small farms with families tending their corn fields and farm animals.Llamas wandered around the yards of shacks with tin roofs.Cattle roamed loose as children played around them. Quechua women in colorful wool dresses led goats along the roadside. Always there were loose dogs guarding the animals and people.
Sprawling haciendas sat on immense rolling hills, surrounded by tidy symmetrical flower gardens. Their well-tended acreage showed the ripples, terracing and furrows of the mountainous terrain. Shadows of the ever-present “cloud forest” clouds slid across the fields of grass.
There was variation in the terrain, in the altitude, in the animals we passed, and in the wealth of the populace.Towns displayed fascinating architecture of differing styles, built in different centuries. Tiny shops lined narrow streets in the cities and in the smaller pueblos. Pretty gardened neighborhoods showed typical Ecuadorian housing styles. Ice cream (“helado”) shops were everywhere that there was civilization.
In a high mountain pass, we were engulfed by the cloud forest! Cristian had to drive slowly through the thick mist. I peeked over the edge of a cliff as we drove, looked down and saw the tops of other mountains below me!Looking down a mountaintop was a highly unusual experience. We parked at a restaurant on that mountaintop, to get some lunch with “chocolaté caliente”.All three of us took photos of the valleys with villages far below, wreathed by clouds. Even more memorable than the scenery was the delicious hot chocolate. Ecuador is where chocolate comes from, and it is beyond heavenly.
Heading towards Cuenca, the towns evolved into small cities, with all the amenities. A sign advertised ancient Incan ruins to visit. Businesspeople in suits zoomed to and fro on the sidewalks, passing indigenous women in velvet skirts and panama hats selling fruits out of baskets. The typical Ecuadorian contrasts are always in view. These cities are anything but boring…. colorful, active, full of life.
Just as we entered the outskirts of Cuenca, the clouds opened to release a huge beam of golden sunlight that shone down onto the city and the University. It perfectly it the city streets that wound around and up and over the many hills. What a perfect welcome to our new home! With this first view, I already felt at home.
Gary and I were deep in sleep-deprivation mode, from a month of being awakened a dozen times per night by roosters, dogs, horses, church bells and burglar alarms. If we were to move there, we would definitely have to bring a white-noise-generating machine to block out the sounds of the Cotacachi nights.
High tea in the Andes Mountains? That sounds highly unlikely! Unlikely, yes, but not impossible. One fine Thursday, we visited La Mirage Garden Hotel & Spa in Cotacachi for their weekly tea.La Mirage is a 5-star hotel on the grounds of a 200-year-old Andean hacienda.Their website is worth perusing, so you can see the photos of their beautiful offerings.
Afternoon tea takes place in the Pandora Lounge. It is decorated with carved furniture, Victorian paintings, art nouveau lamps, knick-knacks and even a carousel horse. Servers bring course after course of fine tea, coffee, crustless sandwiches, and one dessert after another. Gary and I were amazed every time another course was delivered on a silver platter.We spent several hours lounging, eating, then walking the lawns to watch the many peacocks strolling and displaying their feathers.All this cost us $20 – a pittance in the US, but a fortune in Ecuador.
Cuycocha is a 10,000′ high volcanic caldera containing a sublimely lovely lake, above Cotacachi.
Recently a U.S. friend visiting Ecuador hired a driver, an Ecuadorian tour guide, and an Indigenous tour guide to take us up to the park for a hike around the caldera.
For over a century, the lake has been called Cuicocha, or Cuycocha.“Cocha” means lake and “Cuy” means guinea pig, which is a common food animal here. (We managed not to eat any “cuys” during our stay. )Our indigenous guide, José Antonio, explained that the real name for this lake, in Quechua, is “Kuychikocha” (kwee-chi-ko-cha) which means “rainbow lake”.As rainbows are not common in this region, a lake with rainbows is a sacred thing. The Spanish conquistadors apparently changed the name of the lake.
On our last weekend in Ecuador, a “taxista” drove us to the far side of Otavalo, to Lago San Pablo, a lake at the foot of the volcano Imbabura.
The original plan had been to take a bus. Gary and I and our friend were waiting with a dozen other people at the bus stop when a taxi driver pulled up. He shouted out that he’d take anyone to Otavalo for 50 cents each.We jumped in, and so did a teenage girl from the bus stop.He explained that he lives in Otavalo and had to go home anyway, so he offered discount rides to us.
My dental work is DONE!! So is Gary’s. Our Spanish lessons are DONE!!Finito! The dental work seems to be totally successful. Our teeth are now in relatively great shape, and our responsibilities are completed.We are free to spend our last few days doing whatever we like. This is our Ecuador journey so far.
We exercised our new dental work on some freshly baked cinnamon rolls and chocolate bread.Eating bread from the local bakers (panaderías) doesn’t seem to bother my digestion, here. Something is apparently different in the way the wheat is processed, or grown, or something along those lines.
In the US, one of my favorite pastimes is to hike with my dogs. Whenever and wherever possible, that’s what we like to do as a family. Here in Cotacachi, that hasn’t happened yet. Outside the town, the landscape isn’t filled with parks and trails as we have in the US. I understand other Ecuadorian towns have a better park and trail system.
Oh no… Only 7 days left in Ecuador. How could this month have flown past so quickly?! We don’t feel ready to leave yet.
Gary and I are eager to return to our comfy bed, our dog and cat, garden, neighborhood, and friends. We are eager to return to a city where burglary is less of an issue… although my hometown has experienced more burglaries in recent years and our house was robbed, our neighbor’s car was burglarized and friends in other towns have been robbed. hmmm… maybe it’s no more dangerous here.
On the other hand, we are sorrowful to leave this relaxed, interesting lifestyle among friendly people in this tranquil landscape.I shudder to contemplate the amount of work that’s backlogged in my business during our month here.Remembering how strongly we felt the absence of uncomfortable ‘buzzing” vibration in the atmosphere when we first arrived, I’m reluctant to return to that nebulous buzzing sensation again. My whole body relaxed tangibly, over this month without it.
The rainy season began in Ecuador. Our plans shifted fluidly. Instead of visiting Cuenca, we opted for more extensive dental work here in our beloved Cotacachi.
Visiting Cuenca was on our list because it’s a whole different atmosphere. We wanted to visit a few different areas in Ecuador, if possible, to get a better feel for the variety of experiences possible. Cuenca is a popular destination for expats from various countries because it’s a more international city with two symphony orchestras, plenty of art, museums and cafes, and residents from all countries. It has a greater quantity of desirable features, such as hiking trails, parks, hot springs nearby.On the negative side, it has urban features such as traffic jams, smog, and noise. Our pal from the Ft. Lauderdale airport, “Papa” Ron Cropper, wrote to say: “I absolutely love Cuenca. It is the cleanest city that I have ever been in. There is lots to do here. It’s a shoppers paradise and plenty of parks. The people are fantastic. The weather is also fantastic.”I hear it’s nearly as peaceful as Cotacachi. Gary and I were personally interested to go see it, in case we decide to retire in Ecuador.Alas, that trip will have to wait for another time.