Thursday, July 26, 2012

Quick Info on Cuenca -- Today's Top 10

These are some of the recurring topics some folks have been asking about...
We've written about these topics before, but wanted to recap (and update) some of the info, all in one place, for those who are deciding on visiting Cuenca or moving here. 

Here are the Top 10 questions just in the last month, with our comments.
Be sure to do your research by reading this and other blogs and forums. Lots of good info out there. 

1.  Weather?
Cuenca is not hot, not tropical, usually doesn't feel humid unless it's raining.
The higher the altitude, the cooler it is.  Cuenca is at 8300 ft.  Some folks will say Cuenca is the land of 'eternal Spring', but that doesn't mean it's warm.  Generally, the temps range from high 30's to 50's at night, into the 70's during the day, rarely going over 80 (it can feel hotter in the blazing sun).  Weather can change quickly.  The sun can be intense at this altitude.  Rain can range from a couple of sprinkles to a torrential downpour with thunder and lightening and sometimes hail.
No need for air conditioning here.  No snow.  The sun rises and sets at about the same time each day, about 6:30 am and 6:30 pm.  No daylight savings time.  Lots of beautiful rainbows and sunrises/sunsets!
We've added a link to Weather in Ecuador, which includes several cities, so you can check it periodically (righthand side of this page).

2.  What to pack?
Layers!  Good walking shoes! Pack clothing to layer.  You will most likely start out the day with a few layers, peel some off as the day goes on, layer back in the evening.
Pack comfortable walking shoes as Cuenca is a walking city.  You can see so much more while walking rather than spending time sitting in vehicles and traffic.
 If you plan to be out for the day, make it a habit to always have a sweater/jacket and an umbrella/hat with you.  You can always buy warm items, hats, umbrellas in the markets if you don't want to bring them. 
Forget the shorts and flip-flops, unless you plan to visit warmer areas at lower altitudes.  You can find most items in the shops and markets, but the choices and sizes are limited and may not be your favorites.  Cuencanos are smart, neat dressers.  We tend to see outfits of nice jeans/top/jacket or work/school uniforms during the day.  We only see shorts/flipflops on tourists.  Men tend to be in suits or jeans/trousers/, shirt, jacket. 
Remember -- if you are planning a trip further up into the Andes, it will be cold.  At 12-13,000 ft, it's really will need warmer jackets, mitts/gloves, hats.  No centralized heating in Cuenca, so packing sweats/slippers/socks can keep you warm.  You might find space heaters which help take the chill off, but they are not common.  You can buy blankets at the markets. 
Ecuador uses the US dollar, no need to convert money.  Bring small bills, sometimes hard to break even a $10. Shops and taxis rarely have much change.
ATMs are here.  If the ATM is out of money or won't accept your card, try the next one.  You can bring credit cards, they are accepted in some businesses, but Cash is King, exact change, especially in the people's markets.
Check with your bank's fraud unit before you come, so they will know you're traveling and won't block your cards.  Traveler's Checks are expensive to cash and some banks and businesses won't accept them.  Banks and shops will often check and recheck your bills to be sure they are not counterfeit.  You could still get counterfeit bills out of an ATM...

3.  Noise?
We wrote a whole blog on this topic...expect it. Cuenca is a City, with construction, loud music and more. Pack ear plugs.

4.  Food?
Ecuadorian food is not Mexican.  Some folks think typical food is bland, but most tables have aji sauce with a variety of hot.  Yes, you can find fast food, like Burger King, KFC and hot dog stands.  You can also find some international food in some restaurants.  You can find fresh fruit and vegetables in the markets and from the street vendors.  Be sure to wash everything before eating.  Soups and juices are really good!  You might find your favorite foods and brands, but chances are they will be expensive with import taxes.  Local brands are usually just as good and cheaper.
Yes, the tap water is safe to drink in Cuenca, for most people.  Bottled water is available. (Tap water is not safe in other areas in Ecuador, so be sure to check if you're headed out of the City.)

5.  Health?
Check with your public health nurse to see if you need vaccines or pills for Ecuador.  Ask about altitude sickness, too.  Some folks do have problems with the altitude.  Mata de Coca tea and Pedialyte may help mild altitude symptoms. (You can buy both here.)
Many folks do get sick when they first arrive.  Remember to take it easy the first few days while your body adjusts to the altitude, new food and the environment.  Good doctors here if you need.  Doctors here know all about altitude, they deal with it all the time.  Some folks with pre-existing conditions find their health problems are more intense at this altitude and they feel better at lower levels.
You usually don't need a prescription for your meds at the pharmacy and most meds are cheaper than the US.  Some meds are not available, but a generic or alternative may be available and the pharmacist or doctor can help. 
Don't forget to drink your water!  You can get dehydrated quickly.  Be aware of the intense sun.  Wear a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen.  (Your umbrella can be used for the sun, too.) 
More air pollution downtown than outlying areas.  Try to avoid walking the bus routes when you can.
There are a few bugs here: spiders, beetles, house flies, aphids, moths, fleas, ants...we've only seen maybe 2 mosquitoes here in Cuenca.  Much less bug population than at lower altitude, certainly less than we suffered with at our ranch in Oregon.  Most windows don't have screens, not much need. We hear there are bed bugs in some places, but we haven't experienced any. There is also mold in some places.

6.  Finding Friends?
Be sure to check out the expat/gringo social events around town.  You can check online forums and blogs for schedules.  Some businesses are owned by expats who speak English (or their customers do) so check them out, too:
Carolina Bookstore, California Kitchen, Inca Lounge, Moca Cafe, Coffee Tree, Kookaburra, Zoe's, San Sebas, Bananas, etc. 
You can also take a tour or Spanish lessons, weaving/knitting/cooking classes or join one of the many clubs around town or a place of worship.
Remember, just because some folks speak English, they may not be the experts with your best interests at heart.  Most expats are friendly and willing to help.  If you come across one who isn't, just move forward.  There are many expats to choose from, so you will find like-minded folks to enjoy and pal-around with.  As you learn your Spanish, you will have even more choices for friends.

7.  Laws?
Good attorneys can help with residency questions, real estate purchases and rental contracts, customs, shipping, etc.  We recommend Grace and Nelson here in Cuenca.  Laws can change quickly, all the time.  Best to be up to date and legal.  We don't have any experience with 'facilitators', so can't recommend.
You will see military on the streets, along with police.  Military is also used for crowd and traffic control. 

8. Spanish?
Yes, you should learn Spanish, at least enough to get around.  There are some English speakers, but the language of Ecuador is Spanish.  Learn Restaurant Spanish, Taxi Spanish and Shopping much easier if you know the basics.  You'll also have more choices for friends and services.  Good Spanish classes here.  Cuencanos appreciate you trying to speak their language and learning about their culture.

9.  Safety?
Cuenca is a City, so there is some crime.  Crime seems to be on the rise, but not to the levels of some US areas.  More guns with the police, guards and military, less with citizens.  Protect yourself and your belongings by being smart...don't walk alone at night (be mindful if you're alone during the day), don't carry or flash money or valuables, carry just enough money for the day, etc. Carry only a copy of your id and passport, leave the originals in a safe or other secure place.
If you forget your belongings in a taxi, chances are you will never see them again.  There are about 3500 legal taxis in the City and about 1000 illegal ones.  There are about 50 taxi co-ops here.  If you note the taxi number, you might have better luck finding your valuables, but your chances are still almost nil.  If you leave something in a restaurant, you might have a better chance.  On a park bench, not so much.
Pedestrians have no right of way, so mind the traffic, not the signs nor lights.  Some drivers are crazy!  If you drive, you could be slowed by mudslides and bad roads and traffic outside of town, as well as in Cuenca's gridlock traffic downtown.  Only park in legal spaces or your car could be towed.
Be aware...this is earthquake country.  We haven't felt much here in Cuenca, maybe a 4.0, tops, in our 3+ years.  No volcanoes here in Cuenca, but be aware there are about 4 volcanoes that are still active in Ecuador. 
Sidewalks are in the process of being repaired, but you will still find some unsafe walk-ways.  Be careful walking around construction, too.

10.  What else to bring?
Pack an open mind, patience, an adventurous spirit and smiles!
Overall, Cuencanos are helpful and friendly. 
Ecuador is not the USA.  There are more similarities as more folks move/ return from the US, but there are also some striking differences.  Ecuador is a young democracy, with some growing pains.  Some of the things you are used to in the US are different here, or non-existent (good and bad).  Best to go with the flow for your own peace of mind.
Manana may not mean 'tomorrow', it usually means 'not now'. 
Utilities, including the internet, can go down for hours and you may never know why.  Hot showers with good pressure could be unavailable when you want them in the mornings, even in newer buildings, so you may need to adjust to afternoon/evening showers.  In some neighborhoods, power can be disrupted by construction. Some newer buildings have power back-up, most buildings don't.  Shops and restaurants usually close if they have no power.

No one can tell you if you'll like Cuenca, only you can decide.

From our point of view...we love it here!
Be prepared to be wow'd by the beauty and fun of our Cuenca!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

More Pics of Quito

We made a fast trip to Quito recently. 

A cute little restaurant at the airport with good food.

Fun street art to greet you as you arrive.

Here are some pics from the plane on the way home.  Lovely scenery. 

On the Quito runway headed out.

Airborne over Quito. 

A little turbulence but not bad.
Weather can be extreme here in the Andes, but we made it back safe and sound.

On the ground in Cuenca.
Home Sweet Home!

We stayed at a new-to-us place (we usually stay at the Quito Sheraton, mostly out of habit).  New place was great, called the Stubel Suites and Cafe.  Some airlines put their flight staff there.  We had great service, including a driver back and forth from the airport. It's always a relief when we see a driver with our names on a sign at the airport, even when your flight is late. 

Our room was small, but modern, nice amenities, clean and comfortable, with very helpful and professional staff.  One of the few hotels where you can open the windows in the rooms for fresh air.  (We paid about $70/night, plus taxes/fees.) 
We'll stay there again.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

San Francisco Pictures, Part 2

A continuation of an earlier post.

These pics are mostly for our Ecuadorian friends who are curious about San Francisco.  Our pleasure to share, wish we had more.

Taxis in San Francisco come in all colors and models.  Taxis in Cuenca are all yellow.  Last we checked, a ride to downtown was about a $50-60 ride from the SF airport! 
In Cuenca, it's less than $5, more like $2-3.

In San Francisco taxis, you can't sit in the front seats.  The passenger side is filled with all kinds of high tech equipment.

Lots more clothing sizes available in San Francisco!  Up to 3X (Grande!) and  bigger.

Construction is different in San Francisco...  These are pallets of sheet rock/drywall being hoisted up several floors.

Food choices are definitely different.
This is a garlic bagel with smoked salmon, onions, capers and cream cheese.

Dim Sum (little plates) in Chinatown.

Crab salad!  There is crab in Cuenca, but not like this!

Seafood choices at Fisherman's Wharf.

These are to-go. Crab, shrimp, oysters and clams.

Coffee kiosks for to-go coffee are  common  in San Francisco, but not in Cuenca.  We like coffee from Loja here.
There is delicious chocolate in Cuenca, but not from Ghiradelli Square. 
We always enjoy funny signs.
Some of the things we used to take for granted in SF aren't common here in Cuenca... yet.
But, the government and businesses are working on it. 
More signs you won't see in Cuenca.

Some similar things...street-sweeper and road construction,
a gated entry,
Veggies at the market in SF.(some with hefty prices),

Doggies (many not on leashes in Cuenca)
Service dogs in training.

More flowers!
Orchids are in SF, too.
Probably imported from Ecuador!
A condo complex.  Thst pointy building in the background is the Transamerica building, mostly offices.  You can see the overhead wires for the streetcars.

Creative art.

You'll find art galleries in SF..a little different from the ones in Cuenca.
Street entertainent in SF. Note the gal hailing a Cuenca, the arm doesn't go as high. 
Snack food, SF style.  Churros, pretzels and corn dogs.
Yes, there is good bread in Cuenca, but nothing like the extra-sour french bread in San Francisco!   They say you really need the SF fog to make this good bread...
Much safer sidewalks in San Francisco...nothing to trip over.  Cuenca's old sidewalks are being repaired now and looking good.
Another taxi, this time yellow.

You will see palm trees and blue skies in Cuenca, too.
State and City Flags. 
'Wonder which came first...this hotel or the Eagles' song?
In case you're too young to remember the tune, here it is:

The State of California is the equivalent of Azuay, but so much bigger!
A flight from Los Angeles in the southern part of California, to San Francisco in the northern part, takes about an hour. 
In contrast, a flight from Quito or Guayaquil to Cuenca takes about a half hour.

We hope you have enjoyed this little tour of our birth City. 
We have enjoyed sharing our pictures with you and re-visiting.