Bicycling in Cuenca, Ecuador is a different experience than bicycling in the United States.While both have their risks and rewards, bicycling on the Cuenca city streets has far more hazards, number one being the drivers, if you’re riding on the roads.
Drivers in Cuenca put themselves first over pedestrians and cyclists.You have to stop for them, they won’t stop for you and when they have to, they wait to the very last minute, just before they hit you.Then they honk at you, even in a crosswalk.Ecuadorians are beautiful people, until they get into a car.That being said, if you stick to the bike paths and stay alert, it’s a great place to ride your bike.
Recently we had two appointments downtown, with many hours of down time between. We decided to ride the double decker tour bus to turn the down time into an adventure.
First, I needed to locate a public rest room. The one we found was a great example of ways that Cuenca keeps people employed. A woman had the job of sitting at a desk outside the restrooms. She held the toilet paper hostage, until customers paid their 20 cents. For 20 cents you get a pre-cut and folded allotment of toilet paper. I guessed that the fees paid for its maintenance and for the salary of the attendant. Maintenance is necessary, because in Latin America, the plumbing is not able to handle toilet paper at all. Wastebaskets are provided for the paper. That feature took some getting used to, on our first trip here.
Our two hour bus tour cost $8 per person, and included a cup of a traditional Ecaudorian drink made up of guanabana fruit juice, sugar and other delicious ingredients. A dollop of rum was optional. As we waited for the previous group to disembark the bus, we enjoyed people- watching. The giggling uniformed school children being patiently herded down from the top deck clearly loved their field trip. Probably 8 years old, the boys and girls laughed together and pranced down the bus aisle in high spirits, stopping every 30 seconds to linger and admire some feature of the bus. One teacher smilingly tugged at their sweaters and backpacks to urge them to keep moving along. Their sense of fun got my own mood bubbling with joy.
In our first two weeks here, we napped twice a day! The altitude (8500′ at our house) was hard on our bodies. Then we went down to one nap per day, then every other day. Now we don’t nap much unless we really exert ourselves. Gary bought a great quality bike from a guy who was heading back to the US. It’s a hybrid road-offroad bike, so he can take it anywhere. When he rides it way down the mountain along the river trail, and then back up the mountain to our house, its nap time. I’m impressed that his lungs are able to manage the altitude and the uphill exertion! I still get winded when I walk up the steep terraced hillside from our veggie garden to the house. Progress: I can now walk from the bus stop up the unbelievably steep curving sidewalk through our hilltop neighborhood, often without resting. I love seeing that improvement.
With the decision finalized, the project of moving internationally took on a different flavor. The number of details to be arranged was overwhelming. Everything must be done at once, in this phase.
We realized that impeccable organization would be the only way to survive. We set up file folders for different aspects of the planning process, and put to- do lists within the folders. Gary made lists on his computer. I had stacks of legal pads, each with notes on a different topic.
The main work of the moment was to begin application for temporary residence visas. After having read about how expensive visa lawyers are, we decided to do all the work ourselves. That silly decision didn’t stand long!
What did it take for us to begin making this a reality?
Some of you are wondering about retiring to Ecuador, yourselves. You’ve asked about what it took to make this decision and how we made the choices and how specifically the move came about. So I’m posting an amended compilation of some of the blog posts that I wrote for a travel company as we went along. Now you can benefit from our experience! ——————————————————————
PHASE 1 – Considering The Idea of Retiring in Ecuador
In the second month after our return from Ecuador, Gary and I started talking seriously with each other and with a few friends about the pros and cons of leaving our beloved home country and having an adventure in a place where we would be perpetual foreigners. (Retired, debt-free, relaxed foreigners.) Do we really want to live in South America for several years? The idea is thrilling to both of us! After decades of hard work, we love the idea of having an adventure that’s totally different! We love the U.S. but we want to see more of the world too.
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.
“Do you have indoor bathrooms in Ecuador?” This was a question that I was asked when I told someone we were moving to Ecuador. And this person is not poorly educated.
That’s not the only odd comment we heard from people in the USA when Ecuador was mentioned.
Here are a few good ones:
When Bonnie told one person that Ecuador was in South America she said, “oh, so its considered part of our country”.It’s South, not North America.She was thinking it was part of the US.
From a person in another state when I was visiting:“Isn’t that somewhere up by Russia?” I was hoping he was kidding, but I don’t think so.
Others, like my dad, are pretty sure we are either going to be thrown in jail for something or killed by drug runners. This comes from watching too many movies.
So the answer is yes, Ecuador does have indoor bathrooms. In our rental house in Cuenca, we have three, complete with flush toilets.We also have indoor cooking facilities, a nice big kitchen, washers, and dryers.Not everyone has all these amenities, but there are some pretty fancy houses down here.
Ecuador is part of South America, the American continent that is farthest south.Not the same continent as Mexico.We are still Americans (South Americans) down here, just not North Americans.
The truth is, we live in a beautiful custom built house on a hillside, overlooking a beautiful mountain above and a large river below, that is one of two that flow through the city we live in.The city, Cuenca, is a **UNESCO world heritage site**, and home to many people from all over the world.It has a modern public transport system, bike paths, public bicycles, towering apartment complexes, large super markets, spas, car dealerships, great restaurants and all the other amenities of a modern city.
We don’t own a car here because the public transportation is very effective.We walk, and take buses and taxis everywhere.If we have to go somewhere far, we have specific drivers that we use who are very affordable.It’s much cheaper than owning a car in the US.Granted, there are limitations not having a car handy at all times, but the trade offs are worth it and you get used to it.It’s kind of nice having someone else do all the driving!
If your looking for big box stores, there aren’t any familiar ones down here.No Home Depots, Best Buys, Bed, Bath and Beyonds, etc.There are local versions but they are not the overflowing adult candy stores like those in the US.I do miss that sometimes, but not enough to long for them.They are replaced by many small to medium size mom and pop stores.Entrepreneurship is very prevalent here.
The bottom line is, Cuenca, where we live in Ecuador is beautiful, safe, clean, and has everything we need.We live an almost US city lifestyle, except it costs a lot less to do so.And, the weather and sky is awesome.Now if you will excuse me, I have to go use my indoor bathroom!
Street dogs are uncommon in downtown (El Centro) Cuenca but become more prevalent as you get into the outlying areas.Still, there are not as many as we encountered in Cotacachi, Ecuador, until you get to the outer areas of Cuenca.In our area of Cuenca, Rio Amarillo, it seems like everyone has a dog, either running loose on the street, or captive behind a fenced or gated yard.
Rio Amarillo is a barrio about two miles west of El Centro.There is a mix of really nice houses and some plain ones.It’s a very mixed income neighborhood, but a very nice one.There are lots of dogs here.
Many people in Cuenca seem to own dogs for one reason…property protection. For a majority, they are not pets, companions, or “furry friends” here.Some live on the street or sidewalk in front of businesses, some wander the street in front of their homes, and others are kept behind fenced in areas.Yet others are staked or chained near the property they are there to protect.The neighbor behind us has a dog on a two foot rope, with a doghouse, near their guinea pig pens.Since there are stray cats in the area, we assume his sole purpose is to protect the guinea pigs from the cats.The guinea pigs here are food for the household.That dog has no freedom.
It’s unusual to see an Ecuadorian walking a dog on a leash but we have seen a few.When we walk ours down the streets, the street dogs and the ones behind the gates go berserk barking and growling.When we take a walk without our dog, the other dogs don’t bother us. I’m guessing it’s a territorial thing.
Many of the dogs we’ve encountered, both on the street and behind fences, look like they could use a bath.I’ve heard that most people never bathe their dogs in their lives. Some of them are downright mean, while others try to look mean, but you know they are just posing.I learned not to reach out to pet any of them, especially the raggedy poodles.Dirty, mean little nippers they are – most that we’ve seen. Again, most of the dogs seem unbothered by us, unless we have our dog with us.
It is painful to see how badly many dogs are treated around here. A dog can be a wonderful friend and companion if treated properly, and can and will still protect property if needed.Some locals don’t see this.They show little to no compassion for dogs and because the dogs are taught to be mean and aggressive, many are afraid of dogs.
We have a loving, very friendly dog who likes to meet people.When we walk her here, people avoid us out of fear they will be bitten.Many are surprised and pleased that Star, our dog, is so loving and friendly.Many Ecuadorians are amazed at how well trained and behaved she is.At our hostel in Quito, the staff fell in love with her, and even all had their pictures taken with her before we left.Star was a star to them.
As more gringos move in with their dogs and more locals see that there is another way to live with them, things should change for the better.I acknowledge that the reason many dogs go uncared for is because it takes every penny for many locals to just feed their families, and pets need to be low on the priority list.I also will note that many of the dogs on the street are very friendly and street smart.Most dogs brought from the US would never survive the way these savvy dogs do, after years of cushy treatment.
There is a reason for the way things are done in every culture and we acknowledge, that while we may not like the way some of these dogs are treated, this is the native culture and it is not our place to judge.We will continue to treat our own dog and the friendly dogs we meet with love and compassion and maybe that example will be seen and followed by others.
Last night, we had the pleasure of dining at one of the highest rated restaurants in Cuenca, Ecuador, La Petit Jardin, which happens to be in our neighborhood.Our friends, hosts, and landlords, introduced us to this restaurant and are friends with the owners and chef.We walked, almost a mile, uphill to the restaurant, through what many North Americans would consider a shady neighborhood, passing abandoned buildings, street dogs, and vacant lots.Undeveloped areas like this are common in Ecuador, and not to be feared.Eventually we turn onto a dirt road offering the same but with one beautiful huge house (casa) behind a fence.One more turn onto another single lane dirt road, and we reach La Petit Jardin, situated in a beautiful house with gardens and a llama hanging out in the field nearby.It is in the most unlikely location you would ever expect such a fine restaurant to be in, but it works.
We arrive, the front door opens, and we are greeted by one of the owners.The restaurant is empty and it looks like we are the first guests for the evening.They only open Saturday and Sunday.The rest of the week, the chef and owner, Giovanni, is shopping for ingredients for the next week, and spending time with his family.Their residence is next door.
We are seated,given our menus, which offer a limited but delectable looking selection of Entrees, Appetizers, and drinks.After polishing off two appetizers, we order four different meals between us.Trout, short ribs, a shrimp dish, and a chicken dish.Wow!They were all beautifully presented, and perfectly cooked.I had the short ribs, which melted in my mouth.Our friend Lucy had the trout and offered me a taste.I think it was the best trout I have ever tasted.I didn’ttry the chicken or shrimp but was told they were exquisite also.We finished the meals with a bowl of ice cream, called helados here.The ice cream was home made with local fruit.DELICIOUS!
Then, the big shock, the bill!Four entrees, two appetizers, two Mojitas with Cuban Havana rum, one craft beer, and one desert.$54.00.We just had the most incredible dinner for four, for $54.00.My jaw nearly dropped.No where in the United States would you find a meal of this quality for that low of a price.My kudos to Giovanni for being able to offer such a fine meal for so affordable a price.That makes it easy to go out to a fine restaurant more often.
We pay our bill, and say goodbye to Giovanni and his wife.As we are leaving he says to me, “we are neighbors now, so we will see you again.”He was exactly right, he will.