Sunday, January 8, 2012

Top Topics of 2011 -- Answers to your Questions

Besides the List we compiled for 2010, we received additional questions off and on-Blog about Cuenca in 2011.

Everything from Internet speed and availability, how to find a rental or a hotel, how to meet expats, prices and availability of goods/services, what to see and do, what to pack and more. 

We could probably wile away whole days chatting or typing to our readers...But, to get you started, we've decided to hit the highlights with our thoughts and updates in this blog. 
For more in-depth information, you can always come visit in person and there are always folks who can give more info over a cuppa, a glass of vino, a soda or a meal.

We hope you all continue to surf the Net, other blogs and forums.  There is a wealth of good info out there!  Everyone's got their unique point of view.  We wish we'd had all this info before we made the move!
Be sure to check the dates on the info you find...could be old and out of date.

(These pictures are more from the Children's Parade on Christmas Eve in Cuenca.)

There are several companies here, all offering Internet access and WIFI at various speeds.  Be aware that your  location may or may not be accessable, be sure to check before you rent or buy, if this is important to you.  And, of course this is Ecuador, meaning your up-time and speed may not always be there for you. No guarantees for perfect service (or any service) around the clock.   The vendors will take the service off-line for repairs/maintenance as they wish.  Sometimes you never know why. 
Some buildings have dead spots, depending upon how much concrete and steel there is and where you are located...your connectivity may work in some rooms of an apt or house and not in others.  Adding a repeater can help, but not always. 
Also, we've noticed a drop in speed and availability when new users in the neighborhood come online as the vendors balance traffic loads.  Eventually, it settles down.  Heavy traffic periods could also impact the service:  mornings as Cuenca wakes up, meal times when everyone is home, mid-afternoon when the kids get out of school, etc.  Some vendors also switch towers and do maintenance on the service, which could impact you while they run through the processes.  Just be patient, eventually it all clears up just fine and you're back online.  No need to keep switching the cables and restarting the router and rebooting the computer and getting yourself all worked up!  Patience!  Take a break, take a walk. There are good techs here if you do need one.  They charge about $10-20/hr depending on their service. 

Short and longer term rentals are available, as a good alternative to a hotel stay.  We offer 3 apts, 10 night minimum, links are on the right hand side of this page, as well as links to others offered by our friends. 
Sometimes there is confusion regarding our penthouse and other available penthouse rentals... our penthouse is not the only penthouse in town for rent!  We call ours  'La Fragata penthouse'( La Fragata is the name of the building).  Chuck and Nancy also offer a penthouse unit.
Some apts for rent, including ours, are turn-key, you just need to bring groceries and your luggage.  Others may not have all the amenities you need, be sure to check.  Since we are not agents representing other properties (we only represent our own),  we can't help you locate, view or answer any questions regarding other rentals.  There are rental agencies here, if you want to go that route. 

We can't recommend hotels or hostels in Ecuador.  But, we can tell you we usually stay at the Sheraton when we're in Quito or Guayaquil, but that's just habit over the years. 
For lots of hotel choices, you can find good deals and reviews by real people if you go to  Most hotels can arrange drivers, tours, airport pick-up and more, sometimes in English.

For the Coast, we recommend Bob and Rox's Suites near Montanita, the surfing capital of Ecuador. (Bob is Rich's brother, link to their blog is on the right.)

*Expat hangouts. 
There are several Gringo events offered around town.  We don't attend the expat nights much any more, but they can be valuable for newcomers.  Ask around or search the blogs and forums for the most currently popular venues.  You can meet other like-minded folks at these events.  Some of the folks we met during those early days are our closest friends!
There are also other places you will want to check out,  as you're looking for info and companionship.  These businesses are owned by English-speaking expats:  Carolina Bookstore, California Kitchen, Kookaburra Cafe, Inca Lounge and more.  Some folks meet other expats at the markets, tours, in the parks and restaurants as well, so don't be shy!  Us Gringos stick out.  Most are friendly.

*Cost of Living
Some prices of goods/services seem to have gone up a bit since we arrived 3 years ago.  Compared to US prices when we left, cost of living here is still way lower. 
We can buy a kilo of perfect cherries (2.2 lbs), for instance, from a street vendor for $4-$5, at the beginning of the cherry season.  Tangerines, 8-10, sometime 12 for a buck, same as last season.  Utility bills are also way lower than the central heat, no air conditioning.  Gas for your car is still $1.48/gal.  Some say real estate has gone up about 10% in the last year, but we're not sure...  we think there are still some good deals out there.  Medical appointments are still about $25.

*What to do
So much to see and do here!   We're still having fun walking around this City and we learn/see something new each day.  There are fun double-decker tour buses that will take you all over the City.  You can catch them at the Square outside the Old Cathedral.  There are also good tour companies in town, some speak English.  The tourist office, located at the Square, has maps and other info on upcoming events.  Check out the newpapers, too.  A visit to the Cajas and the small towns outside Cuenca are fun excursions; wandering the streets, watching the people in the parks, visiting great museums and Cuenca's 52 (some say 53) Churches, trying out the food and shopping...all great ways to learn about Cuenca. 
Since Ecuador is about the size of Oregon, you can easily visit the distinct areas of the Country.  The coast and Quito are about a half-hour flight from Cuenca. You can catch ground transport easily, too.  Ecuador shares its borders with Peru and Colombia, all fairly short flights from either Quito or Guayaquil.  The blue buses in Cuenca will take you most everywhere in the City; still 25 cents for the ride.  Taxis are about $2, could be a little more depending on where you are going.

(This Christmas banner is at the flower market.)

*What to bring
Packing for your visit here should be fairly easy.  Bring layers, as the weather can change on a dime.  You can have all seasons in one, cold, rain, wind (occasionally hail and frost, but no snow).  Temps rarely go over 80F, but can feel much hotter.  Nights can be chilly, down to 40-50'sF, depending on the day and the season.
House heaters are not common, so flannel Pj's or sweats are good to bring to lounge in.  No need to pack shorts or flip-flops, unless you're headed to lower altitude and warmer temps. Bring good, comfortable walking shoes!
If you forget something, most items can be found here:  umbrellas, sweaters, wool sox, sun hats, shampoo, sunscreen, sunglasses...all might not be your favorite brand or style, but they are here.
 Larger clothing sizes can be hard to find, especially shoes, sox and underwear.  If you're moving here, you may want to bring those items that are either hard to find or way expensive...  big-size clothes, computers/electronics, US brands, etc.  The import taxes are high.   You can find good tailors here, especially good as you lose weight walking around and eating all the fresh produce! 
Bring small bills, $1's and $5's.  Cash is King here, but there are lots of ATMs.  (If the ATM is out of money or your card doesn't work, just go to the next one.)  Just a few businesses accept credit cards.  Be sure to let your bank's or credit card company's fraud unit know that you'll be traveling so your cards are not blocked.  If you bring travelers checks, some banks won't cash them, or the fees are high.  It's also hard sometimes for banks, taxis and businesses to cash large bills. 
Don't pack valuables in your checked luggage!  You don't want to be surprised and sad if they disappear somewhere between your home and Ecuador. 
We don't have an opinion about container shipping, mainly because we moved with just luggage.  You can check other blogs for recommendations and more info on this topic.  Some had good luck, some didn't, only you can decide. 
Be sure to pack your brains. too!  What would be considered 'foolish' in your home Country, applies here, also...whether it's buying real estate without doing your homework (we suggest getting an attorney involved, too), signing contracts that you don't understand, flashing big wads of money, trusting someone just because they speak your language, driving while drunk or high...(you get the idea).  Pack your tolerance and your very best manners, too.  'Manana' will be frustrating....sometimes you'll feel like you're 'waiting for Godot'.

*High altitude
Cuenca is about 8300 ft altitude.  Cooking here will be different as water boils at a lower temperature the higher up you go.
You may feel differently, too.  A friend who has been here almost as long as we have, still feels a little 'foggy-brained'. Another still has trouble catching her breath.  Both are considering leaving Cuenca and dropping down to lower altitude where they feel better. 
You can try mate de coca tea to help with any symptoms and you can google for high altitude diets/considerations, too. (You can buy the tea in the markets and some shops and some restaurants and hotels offer it.)

*Should I learn Spanish?
Yes, you should learn your Spanish!  We are still learning and we learn more each day.  There are good classes offered here and many students come to Cuenca to learn as Cuencanos tend to speak more slowly (sometimes!)  Several language schools, classes, private tutors and the University of Cuenca has a good program, also.  Translators are about $10-$12/hour.  Yes, some Ecuadorians speak English, but you will have more choices in vendors, services and friends if you speak some Spanish. 

 Remember, Cuenca is a big City, so crime is everywhere, as it is in other cities of comparable size.  Be careful and pay attention, watch your valuables (or don't carry or wear them), take a taxi at night and you'll have a better chance at staying safe.  We feel safer here than in some US cities.
 A good thing to do on a regular basis is to download your pictures from your camera!  We try to do that each morning before heading out.  If your camera disappears, you'll still have at least some of your pictures (hard to replicate, after the fact.)

*Health considerations
For your health, besides paying attention to the altitude and the sun, be sure to talk with your doctors before arriving.  Don't travel sick!  Your Public Health Nurse can help with any vaccines and precautions you need to pay attention to.  We don't believe you need any special shots for Cuenca, but you may for other areas in Ecuador.  We got just about every shot and pill they offered before coming, but that was because we didn't know where we'd end up and what would be available here.  Many newcomers do get sick, may be because they arrive exhausted and the food and water are different. 
We do drink the tap water here, but some folks drink only bottled water to be extra safe.  Water in Cuenca is probably the safest in South America.  But, you never know about the old pipes, street construction and your particular location in the City.  You will want to only drink bottled water in other parts of Ecuador.  You will also want to have a few bottles on hand as water can be shut off at any time.  Remember, there could be new bugs that you are not immune to here, everything from colds/flu to parasites!  Your doctor can help.  Good doctors here, too. 
Keep washing your hands and wash all produce. Pay attention to the cobblestone sidewalks!  You can fall and really hurt yourself.  Pedestrians have no rights here and drivers are nuts, so be careful crossing the streets.
We met a dermotologist here recently and learned alot about skin cancer. He sees many new cases all the time. As the doctor says: We are in Ecuador! This country is right on the equator and Cuenca is at relatively high altitude, meaning you are more at risk for skin cancer. The sun is not your friend. His advice is: wear sunscreen! If you're out between 11am and 3pm, the time when the sun is most intense, reapply the sunscreen. Hats! Get those sun blemishes frozen off so that they don't turn to cancer!
Don't forget to add sunscreen to your scalp under the hat.  There is a good sunscreen spray lotion, not greasy, you can use so your hair isn't all yucky from the thicker lotions.  (You can get it here, made in Quito.  Look for Suncare 100 Total in the drug store.  About $15.)  You can also bring one of those roll/gel sunscreen sticks.  Ours came from the US; we haven't seen them here.  Those sticks are good for tips of ears and noses.
The doctor also mentioned that the sun can damage your eyes, so go for really good sunglasses. The cheap ones in the markets might be cool, but you will want to get better ones with UV and UB protection. Save your eyes!  Nancy wears her sunglasses sometimes even in the rain.  Bright light can hurt and less squinting with sunglasses.
There are clothes on the market that help block the sun and the bugs.  You can do a search and see if they are something you want to add to the luggage, too.
The air up here in the Andes is thin and mostly may notice lots of dry skin, but good, thick creams and lotions help.  Nivea and Eucerin brands are available here.  You can add a couple drops of coconut or other oil to the creams.

Controversial topics abound.  Everything from politics, religion, to real estate and investments, to deisel fumes.  There is always something to debate, even though we try not to...just raises our blood pressure. 
We are legal residents, but we are mindful that we are guests in this Country.  We like that the Ecuadorian Constitution gives nature the same rights as the people.  We like that this Country is fairly woman/children/family-friendly.  We don't see the heavy male dominance of other Latin American areas (could be we're old...  we like the respect for old people, too!) We like the kiss on the cheek and the sweetness of the people. 
We can't vote, but we sure like to watch the involvement of the citizens!  Folks protest and get involved when they are unhappy and the officials listen...power to the people!  Ecuador is a progressive, Constitutional democracy and people take their participation seriously.  Unlike the US, the citizens are required to vote, with very few exceptions.  Economically, Ecuador is highly entrepreneurial.  It seems the people think first of opening a small business, rather than other employment opportunities.
 For real estate deals and investments, we always tell folks to get a good attorney and do your homework.  If a deal sounds too good to be true, chances are it is...there are usually trade-offs for your high interest rate or cheap real estate.  Only you can decide if the trade-offs are worth it.  Get every promise in writing. 
Although Catholicism is the dominant religion, there seems to be more tolerance for 'alternative lifestyles'  than one might imagine before coming here.
For news junkies, you can get your fix with English TV...CNN, FOX, BBC, Bloomberg, ESPN, etc.  We don't watch much news on TV...we get enough via the internet (and then we need that nap).  You can find the Miami Herald in some cafes and shops if you need an English newspaper.
About the oil thing...please don't get us started!  We'll probably pass out from over-the-top high blood pressure!!

*Earthquakes and volcanos
Natural disasters happen everywhere.  Yes, there are earthquakes and volcanos in Ecuador.  We were nervous before we first visited, but we got online, made some phone calls and learned that both were not happening before we got on the plane.  (Well, a volcano was blowing near Quito at the time, but not near Cuenca.) 
We've lived in earthquake country before (San Francisco) and the best you can do is be prepared.  We have felt a few trembles, but nothing too earth-shaking, just a little rock n roll.  It's a little worrisome that we live in a 10 story building, but we know where our shoes and cell phones are!  It is comforting to know that planes won't fly if the ash or smoke is heavy from the volcanos.
 On a more mild note, our rivers flooded a bit last year and we have had torrential storms...but nothing that put us in danger.   We think crazy drivers, uneven sidewalks, bootleg liquor, diesel fumes, the intense sun and parasites are more of a danger!

*Is Cuenca noisy?
Yep, can be, especially around the holidays and special events.  Cuenca and the surrounding area has a population of almost a half million people!  It feels like a small town (good and bad), but it's definitely more populated than rural Oregon where we last came from.  In comparison, our ranch was much more quiet and peaceful than Cuenca!
Here, you may hear traffic, car alarms, birdsong, thunder and rain, fireworks, roosters, maybe cows, weedeaters, construction, dogs, children, parties, church bells, the roaring rivers and loud music.  You might want to pack earplugs if you're not used to noise.  (You can buy them here, too.)  The further you stay from El Centro, the quieter it can be, but you'll miss out on all the action!

3 main airlines in-country:  Aerogal, TAME, LAN.  All fly from either Quito or Guayaquil.  We hear the Loja airport is closed for a year-long maintenance.  That new airline, Air Cuenca, has been bought by another company and is no longer in business.
Ground transport options include hiring a van or car or public buses.  You can make arrangements through the hotels or at the bus station. 
For private drivers, ask around.  Officials have been enforcing laws about driver and vehicle registration and safety, so some can no longer operate until they comply and get their papers together.  You will want to hire a legal driver.
Roads over the Andes are better than they were before all the improvements were made, but it can still be a harrowing ride depending on the driver and the weather.

Hope this info is helpful.  Our computer counter tells us we've been in Ecuador now for 1041 days!  We still love it here!
 It's not the US (sometimes good, sometimes bad), but it's pretty wonderful. 
In our humble opinion, of course.

Ending this blog with more pictures from the beach...the amazing, incredible, HUGE and always-fascinating Fragata birds!


  1. Great Blog and very informative! Your blog saves us all lots of emailing! Hugs, Mick and Kathy

  2. Very keen observations and all of them spot on.