Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Top Topics of 2010 -- Answers to your Questions

We've been going back in our blog and emails and notes to see what some of the top questions from our readers were in 2010.  Thought it would be helpful to recap them here to save you the time of asking again.  We also thought it'd be helpful to have a bunch of info in one place.

We're listing these topics in no particular order...It's a long blog, but we wanted to share as much info as possible to help you plan and pack.  We'll include more in future blogs.  These are just our opinions (we've lived here now pushing 2 years) , but be sure to keep reading and doing your homework as you plan your visit or your eventual move.

Weather --
Cuenca's weather is fairly mild, at least compared to the seasons of southern Oregon where we used to live.  Cuenca is more like San Francisco (we've also lived there, too), but not much fog except over the surrounding mountains.  Not too hot, not too cold, just right for us.

Yes, it rains, sometimes with Biblical Force!  And, sometimes it rains a bit each day, mostly in the afternoons, complete with lightening and thunder.  Be sure to pack an umbrella (for both sun and rain), or you can easily buy one in the markets or on the streets.  Temps can range from the 40's at night, and warm up into the 70's during the day. 

Pack layers.  You'll start the day with a jacket, peel off a couple layers when the sun gets too hot, and then put your jacket back on in the evening.  If you're really cold, you can always buy an extra warm sweater, wool sox or blanket at the markets.    Sometimes there are space heaters in the hotels and apts, but usually not.  No central heating and no air conditioning.  Neither is really needed here, but we did have a particularly cold snap last year for awhile, down into the high 30's at night.  We could see our breath on the porch in the early mornings.  Most of the time, a light jacket is fine.

There is no snow here, but there can be hail when it rains.  The sun can be intense and feel hotter than the temps.  Think 'eternal Spring'.  Our seasons are the opposite of the northern hemisphere, so we're in the summer now...a bit warmer, a bit more rainy than the winters here in July/Aug.  Overcast mornings, but it burns off later in the day.

We did have a draught last year and some scheduled power outages (rain means power availability here).  But, this year it rained enough and the officials have improved the hydroelectric systems.  We do have the occasional power outage, but not often.  Some newer buildings have generator back-up systems.  The smaller, older buildings usually don't have back-up power, so some businesses may close during  an outage.  A flashlight is a good addition to the luggage.

Bugs --
Yes, there are bugs in Cuenca.  Very few mosquitoes at this altitude of 8300 ft and in some months, we see none.  But, we do get flying beetles and occasional, amazing! jumping spiders, but it's not bad.  Much less bug population than we experienced in the summers in rural Oregon.  We just capture the bugs and let them go out the window.  Not a problem for us.  After a good rain, we often see lots of birds, which is good for keeping the bug population down.  We don't have screens on our windows and we leave them open day and night. 

There are more bugs in other areas of Ecuador, mostly in the lower altitudes.
Do a search on this and other blogs for more info on bugs.

Safety and Security --
Cuenca is a City of almost a half million people, so, yes, there is crime.  Cities of this size all have some crime.  But, we feel safe here. 

We try to be smart and mindful...Nancy doesn't carry a purse with valuables.  Her shopping bag contains easily-replaceable items:  umbrella, water, kleenex, cookies for the neighborhood doggies.  All valuables, keys, camera, cell phone, wallet go in secure pockets.  We have pockets that are either velcro'd shut, zippered or we use safety pins to slow down the opportunity.  Pickpockets are common  (some little kids are really good at this!) 

You will see houses and shops with bars at the windows and high fences and armed guards at the banks and shops and some apt buildings.  We think it's precautionary and habit and maybe 'historic'.  Some shops and banks use their guards to control traffic and parking, too.

We have a peephole in our apt door, even though we live in a modern building with 24/7 armed guards.  We always check the peephole before opening the door, even with the guards downstairs.  But, we always checked in SF, too, and our ranch in OR had a gate with an entry system. 

We lock our doors, take taxis at night, the usual precautions in any city. 

You might see armed military here, too.  Sometimes we see lots of military when the banks move money or if there is a parade.  We've only seen a couple of protests since the widely-reported political unrest/police strike event a few months ago. Protests tend to be noisy, but peaceful, here in Cuenca.  Shops may shut down during a protest in the area and traffic could be diverted.  There usually is a police presence at the protests.

We've heard harrowing stories of violence here, but we heard similar stories happening in cities in the USA, too.  We haven't been victims of violence here.  Take precautions here that you would take in any big city, like San Francisco, Chicago, NYC...Leave jewelry at home or lock them up at the hotel, including flashy costume jewelry.  Thieves don't know the value.  Some folks here may act impulsively and grab your jewelry and other valuables and you could get hurt in the process. Carry copies of your passport and lock the original in the safe in your hotel or apt.

We have witnessed  'swift justice' regarding suspected thieves.  The citizens do not hesitate to help chase down the thief and beat the heck out of him/her before the police arrive.  Citizens get involved.

Pack good walking shoes.  Be aware of the cobblestone streets and other walking pitfalls..  You can slip and fall on the sidewalks, the driveway cutouts and in the streets.  Be mindful of the crazy drivers here, too.  Pedestrians and bikers have NO right of way!  Don't depend on the traffic lights for safe crossing.

Some have asked our opinion on whether to take a bus or fly into Cuenca.  We fly most everywhere we can, but that's just our preference because Rich gets horrible motion sickness.  When we can't fly somewhere, we hire a careful driver or go with careful friends who drive.  We don't recommend driving over the Andes at night because of fog and some unsafe roads and you can't enjoy the beautiful scenery!

You can fly most everywhere in Ecuador in about a half hour - 40 minutes.  The drive from Quito is about 8 hours in good weather.  The drive from Guayaquil is about 4 hours, again in good weather.  There could be delays for road construction.

Our favorite airline is Aerogal, only because it has frigate birds and iguanas painted on the planes!  (Silly, we know!)  But, all the other in-country airlines are just as efficient.  The bigger airlines that fly in-country are Aerogal, TAME, LAN and most have online booking in English.  The Cuenca airport is easy to navigate and has been recently remodeled with lots of shops and food.  One exit security point near the baggage area.  Not sure if all the flight rates are the same; it's a good topic for you to check out when you're ready to book the flight.  Remember...the weight limits in-country could be different from the international carriers' sure to do the research so you're not surprised.  Re-packing your bags at the airport, or paying higher fees, or not being able to get all the luggage on board! is no fun.

The bus terminal is busy.  Each van or bus service has their own drop off and pick up area.  Can be confusing if you're trying to meet someone to pick you up.  There are taxis lined up at the bus terminal and other buses for in-city transporation.  If you take a taxi from the airport or bus terminal, ask the rate before you get in.  Should be about $3-$4 for the trip into town.  No more than $5 and that's pushing the high side.   Taxi drivers may charge more when it rains or at night or if you have a ton of luggage or shopping bags. You can go most everywhere in town by taxi for about $2.  Some busy areas have taxi fares posted (like the Mall de Rio). 
This picture shows the red number on the side,which means it is registered by the City.  Some taxis have no number and the fares could be higher.  Buses are 25 cents.

Water --
Yes, it's safe for most to drink the tap water in Cuenca.  We say 'most' because some have trouble with the high mineral count.  You can buy bottled water here. Cuenca's water system is considered by experts to be one of the best systems in South America. In other places in Ecuador, drinking the tap water is dicey...bottled water is easily obtained everywhere.   Be sure to drink your water!  You can get dehydrated pretty quickly at this altitude.  When we get dehydrated, we get bad headaches. 

If you plan to travel outside Cuenca, it's a good idea to pack 2 toothbrushes,  as you may forget and run the first one under the tap.  The 2nd one comes in handy, if you do forget.  Remember to throw away the polluted one.

Noise --
Ecuador IS noisy!  Big cities are noisy!  Cuenca is very noisy, especially during the holidays.  Downtown Cuenca is noisier than the outlying areas.  But, it's a trade-off.  Being in the center of the action downtown, you'll have an opportunity to walk everywhere, be in the middle of everything and be up close to all the action.  Or, you can be further out and enjoy more quiet and less diesel fumes, traffic, etc.  But, be aware it's noisy everywhere!  Coming from a quiet, rural setting, it took us awhile to adjust to the noise levels.

Even in our neighborhood and 10 stories up, we hear fireworks, roosters, dogs, cows, construction, some traffic, children, car alarms,  church bells, parties, music.  (If you are looking at a map, we're in the west part of town, near the Oro Verde Hotel.)  Pack ear plugs and patience. 

Even though there is the downside of Cuenca with noise and pollution, it's a charming and historic city and we love it here!  The almost daily prevailing wind and the almost daily rain in the afternoon helps clear the air. City officals are working to convert the buses from deisel to propane. 

Getting sick --
Many newcomers do get sick here.  Could be the stress and strain of travel, could be the altitude (we're at 8300 ft; Quito is at 9500 ft), could be the change in food, could be sure to check with your public health nurse for travel shots and pills and the nurse can also perscribe cipro or something similar for the yucky 'Inca Revenge'! 

We tried to get our digestive systems ready before we arrived by taking probiotics and eating yogurt to help ward off the typical traveler tummy problems.  We think it helped.  Packing some Pepto Bismol caplets is a good idea, too.  There are several meds readily available at the pharmacies over the counter and good doctors.  To help adjust to the high altitude, we drank mate de coca tea.  You can find it in the markets and some restaurants and hotels.

You'll need a good sunscreen here.  You can buy sunscreen, but the choices are limited.  If you have a favorite, you might want to bring it...same with sunglasses.  You can also suffer from different plants, new perfumed products, construction dust, deisel fumes and more. We did, at first, but we've adjusted to most.  Either we avoid the allergen or we're used to it now.

Remember to carefully wash ALL produce, whether from the people's markets, street vendors or the big SuperMaxi (like Safeway), just like you'd wash produce in the US.  There apparently is no standard or laws for 'organic', like the Oregon Tilth requirements (google for more info). 

We hear that 'organic' might mean animal (or human) manure for fertilizer and pesticides for pest control, both 'natural' and chemical methods on the same crop.  Just because food is labelled 'organic', doesn't mean it's 'organic' according to what you might be used to in the US.  But, produce is generally fresh, high quality and well worth a good washing.

We have bought fresh fish and meat in the people's markets, but we buy very early in the morning, as the vendors are unloading the refrigerated trucks on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  We don't buy fish and meat mid-day.  It's been sitting out too long in the sun for us.

Learning Spanish --
Some travelers are concerned they won't get by without knowing fluent Spanish here.  Not to worry!  There are English-speakers here, both expats and other travelers, as well as some Ecuadorians.  There are translators available for about $10/hour.  But, your visit will be more enriched, more fun and less frustrating if you speak some Spanish.  We've been practicing our Spanish with the adorable children which is really fun!

Spanish classes are very popular here in Cuenca for those who want to take a class. 
Various programs available, from a couple hours up to total immersion, a classroom setting to private tutors.

Cuencanos speak more slowly and in a kind of sing-song, almost musical accent.  There are several phrases and words that are different from other versions of Spanish, as there is sometimes a crossover to Quechua, another native language here.  We often tell folks that you should learn the Spanish you need...Taxi Spanish, Restaurant Spanish and Shopping Spanish. 

Add in some other basic Spanish ( like 'hello and 'goodbye', 'good morning', 'please and thank you', 'nice to meet you, 'where's the bath room?' and 'I love you'...) and you'll get a good head start in communicating. The websites for children will also get you started...numbers, days of the week, colors, etc.  Anything beyond the basics is a plus.  Ecuadorians often like to practice their English with you, too. 

Overall, Ecuadorians are patient with your Spanish and really appreciate you trying!  (This is a picture of our always-patient and kind friend/ bi-lingual teacher, Fabian.) 

Don't be shy.  Be willing to make mistakes and ask for help.  If anything, you'll have a good laugh, learn something new and you'll make a new friend in the process. 

We also use online translators and our Spanish/English dictionary alot!  We watch Spanish TV stations with the dictionary nearby. 
It's all hard, especially for our old brains, but we're making progress and you will, too.

City Services --
Cuenca is a big city, so, yes, there are a variety of services.  Good shopping, good hospitals, good doctors and dentists.  More variety here and better prices than the smaller outlying areas.  You can find even more variety in the other big cities, Quito and Guayaquil. 

Most everything we need we have found in Cuenca, from clothes (off the rack or made to order), to kitchen stuff, appliances, medicines, to furniture, to cosmetics and other sundries.  There isn't much we can't find that we really need.  But, coated aspirin, some vitamins and supplements, some food items are hard to find here, if they do exist.  But, we roll with it and adjust (or we have friends bring them when they go back to the US to visit).

Electronics are expensive here, so consider that when you're packing.  Yes, you can ship goods from the US to Cuenca, but the customs fees could be very high, sometimes more than the item is worth.  (Everything in this picture was purchased in Cuenca, including the custom made furniture and tiles on the wall.)

We have cable TV and internet access.  Good techs can help with computer and TV problems.  Some days, the internet goes down and sometimes we never know why.  We just give it a rest and check again later.  Often, the connectivity comes back up and we don't have a clue what the downtime was all about.  There are internet cafes and WIFI around town, too.

We do get some TV channels in English, and a couple in Chinese, but most are in Spanish.  We get International CNN in English and Spanish, Bloomberg in both, Fox News in English only.  Lots of movie channels through HBO (with Spanish and English sub-titles) and several sports channels, including ESPN in English. 

We watch more movies than news.  There are also movie theatres with the latest releases and you can buy a wide variety of DVD's for a couple bucks.  Many DVD's are pirated, so some of the quality is not too good.

Pack small bills.  Ecuador uses the US currency, but making change of even a 20 is tough. Banks and other vendors, including taxi drivers, may not be able to make change for you.  There are popular change machines
outside the Central Bank, but the lines are long.  By the time you get to the machine, it could be out of change. 

Bring as many $1's and $5's as you can.  Vendors and Banks are cautious of counterfeit bills, which seems to be a growing problem.  They will check and re-check your bills by hand or through a machine.  ATMs work fine, but be sure to talk to your Bank fraud unit to let them know you'll be traveling so your card will work.  There are enough ATMs here that, if one is out of money, you can go to the next one and try again.  Some of the more high-end hotels and restaurants accept credit cards, but, overall, Cash is King.  You can use your credit/debit card at SuperMaxi and some other bigger stores.  It's cash only, usually exact change,  in the people's markets and for the street vendors.

We don't have a car, but several other bloggers do.  You can read about driving in Ecuador on their blogs.
You can get an international drivers license before you arrive through your local 3A in the US.  It's good for a year. You'll need your US license, too, to rent or drive a car.

You can find good hair salons, good manicurists, housekeepers, good hardware stores...with much lower prices than the US.  If you're patient and ask around, you'll find the good ones that you like.  You can also find good workers who take pride in their work and do the job perfectly and on time.  We recently had the upstairs of our apt painted, and some touch-up downstairs, and the painter and his crew were fabulous!  They were fast, careful and respectful. 

Most other workers we've hired have been the complaints here.  But, we're patient and we do the follow-up and ask alot of questions as the job progresses.  We can't imagine trying to manage a project without being here for that look-see-ask phase especially for construction/re-model projects, but some do manage from a distance and do just fine.

You can search our blog for more info on these topics and others.  Be sure to add other blogs, forums and websites to your reading list!  There is a wealth of information out there to help as you pack and plan.

Happy New Year!

For updated info in 2011, go here


  1. Thank you for the information. It is good to have all this information in one spot. I only have one comment regarding the water quality. Yes, in comparison to other South American countries and even other cities in Ecuador, the water in Cuenca is clean. While Etapa claims the water is pure and Cuencanos all drink the water, there are still problems by the time it reaches your home. The public service anouncements say the water should be boiled at least 20 minutes before consumtion and most Cuencanos will treat themselves for parasite every 6 months because they drink the water. Just FYI.

  2. Excellent.

    I will be in Cuenca in a week or so to check it out. I have been reading a lot and this post is one of the best.

  3. Hola Anonymous,
    Thanks for the sdditional info on the water. We hadn't heard your information about boiling the tap water. We've been drinking the tap water since we arrived almost 2 years ago.
    About the paracites...we hear from our doctor you can get them through food and some are airbourne, too, not just through the water.
    Thanks for writing, good info. We value other opinions and learn everyday.

  4. Thank you for taking the time to post this valuable information. I know a lot of time and effort went into this. I will be referring newbies to this post.

  5. Información excepcional.

    Muchas gracias.

    Hasta pronto.


  6. Rich & Nancy,
    Great post, thanks for taking the time and effort to share your experiences. I plan on making an exploratory visit to Ecuador this spring. My wife and I are two more potential candidates for retirement in Cuenca.
    Thanks again, Mike

  7. Love your blog, appreciate the valuable information! We are trying to decide what time of year to come on our first visit; do you have an opinion (weather etc.) on a visit in May,June or September? Thank you in advance. Debbie

  8. Hola Debbie, thanks for the nice words. Glad the info is useful.
    It's hard to predict the weather here. We always tell folks to plan for rain, plan for sun...could be both each day, year-round. We suggest you go with the calendar of fun events instead...Corpus Christi is coming up and that's always a fun time. Easter Week is fun, too. You'll want to book early at the hotels or apts around the holidays, as they book up quickly.
    Enjoy the planning and safe travels,
    ==N and R

  9. Thanks so much for the frank and detailed info. We are a retired couple from the midwest/USA seeking a winter escape. can you siggest resources for locating a short term apt rental in Jan/Feb 2012? Your blog gave us many insights.

  10. The last comment was quite some time ago, so I don't know if you're checking or maintaining this, but I'll give it a shot. I was interested in possibly purchasing a guitar from one of the guitar makers from San Bartolomé, 20 minutes east of Cuenca. I had some questions but wasn't sure how I might get answers before I arrived. (Stuff like do they have guitar cases available, are the guitars steel string or classical, etc.) My Spanish is pretty rudimentary. Do you have any suggestions? I was wondering about a bilingual guide, perhaps. Thanks very much

  11. Hi Greg, I think a bilingual guide would be helpful in getting your questions answered. Contact me off-blog and I'll give you Fabian's info. He's a guitar player, too!