Paradise Found…Cuenca, Ecuador
Seeing a taxi driver running through an airport waving your purse in the air is a tear-jerkingly awesome moment. We were in line to check our baggage for our flight home from Cuenca, Ecuador when I realized my purse was missing. The purse containing our tickets, passports, and money had been left in the cab! We thought all was lost…!
Cuenca has attracted a diverse expat population. Ecuador boasts a stable economy (tied to the U.S. Dollar) and government, as well as a modern health care system making it very attractive for retirees.
After touching down at Mariscal Lamar International Airport; by way of Miami and Panama City, Panama; we easily found our luggage and hailed a cab ($2.00) to the Casa.
Accommodations range from cheap hostels with shared rooms to pricey luxury hotels. We chose a reasonably priced ($75/night) family-run boutique hotel in the heart of the historic city center.
Casa Ordoñez was to be our home base for 9 days.
We were met at the gated entrance and cordially and enthusiastically greeted by our hosts. Introductions were made to the staff and they showed us to our second floor accommodation. A small window overlooked the street and a view of the interior courtyard was just outside our door. The room had a Spanish colonial feel, a tiny little bathroom with shower and creaky wood floors. Fresh flowers were placed in the room daily. Each morning started with a complimentary traditional breakfast, served at a time of our choosing in the courtyard. This was everything we expected and more.
We set out exploring the cobblestone streets. Two blocks away we found Parque Calderon, the central park of the colonial city.
There were many trees and shady benches to sit, people watch, and enjoy the food vendor carts. On one side of the park is the Old Cathedral, Iglesia del Sagrario. With its construction beginning in 1557, it today serves as the Museum for Religious Art. Across the park stands the New Cathedral, Catedral de la Immaculada Concepcion. Construction on the New Cathedral began in 1880 and, while we were there, was wrapped in blue and white tarps, undergoing renovations.
For getting around town, taxi cabs are $2 – $2.50 and the bus is 25¢ The narrow streets in the center of town are congested with buses, taxis, delivery trucks and cars. The exhaust fumes were a bit over-whelming. Fortunately, there is a plan being implemented to build a Light Rail Transit system into the city center, banning all vehicles from the area. The Tram was projected to be in service by August, 2016 but, construction has been delayed. We did see a French made, Citadis Tram car on display promoting this coming convenience.
Our hosts at Casa Ordoñez arranged a daylong tour of the outlying area for us. We boarded a packed van headed south of Cuenca toward the Andes mountains. Other guests on the tour included a radio news personality and her producer, a couple who had been backpacking across Ecuador after working in the Galapagos islands and others visitors just like us. Traveling through small villages, the tour stopped at weaving shops, silversmiths, Panama hat makers, and botanical gardens full of many varieties of orchids.
Near Girón, we visited the magnificent El Chorro de Girón waterfall. At 340 feet high, the falls seem to cascade out of the clouds of the rain forest.
Admission to the falls is $2 for foreigners and $1 for locals. The rough wood stairs are surrounded by lush vegetation and towering trees as you make the 5 minute climb from the hosteria with the sleeping dog to the base of the falls. A mist of cold water hangs heavy in the air, dropping the temperature as you approach the falls. It looks like a scene from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. After many pictures you descend the stairs back to the dog sleeping in the sun.
Our last stop was in a mining region with steep mountain roads. As destiny would have it, it was too much for the van, and the vehicle died. Cell phones were not working except for one passenger’s. Help was called but it would be a couple hours until a new van could arrive. Gathering what water and snacks were in the van, we found a shady spot to wait it out. A few of us took off on a short hike and picked fruit from a naranjillas (little orange) tree. The hours went by quickly as we spent the time getting to know each other.
We had tried to learn some basic, rudimentary Spanish for our trip but found we were not very bilingual. Happily, it turned out we didn’t need it much as most shop owners and restaurateurs spoke English very well. And speaking of restaurants, the Ecuadorean cuisine is awesome, plentiful and inexpensive. Almuerzo (lunch) was typically $3-$5 and cena (dinner) could be found for around $8 for a huge plateful. They served mostly seafood, fruits and vegetables; but the plate seemed to always contained plantains, rice, and potatoes.
Among our favorite stops were Goza Espresso Bar, an open air expat hangout near the river with Killer Irish Coffee. We talked with Ralph, a Canadian sitting at the next table. He has lived in Cuenca for two years and does not miss Canadian winters. The comfortable year-round climate, the laid back lifestyle and the healthy food are all his reasons for staying. He said, “Everyone who moves to Ecuador loses weight and lives healthier.”
Ralph suggested Fabianos, another expat hangout serving up excellent pizzas and calzones, just like your favorite pizzeria back home. Fabianos hosts a weekly gathering of expats on Thursday night. La Fornace was another unique place for pizza, a narrow little hole in the wall where you could actually see your pizza bubbling in the brick oven.
Our top choice was Don Colon Restaurant where we were greeted by Don himself and delighted by his young daughter as she shyly made sure each table was properly set and had fresh flowers. Don hails from Miami and loves to talk with his customers. Try the Paella y Langostino, fantástica.
Late in our visit we discovered Maria’s Alemania Cafe, purveyors of decadent Bavarian style pastries. Raymipampa came highly recommended for their lightly breaded jumbo fried shrimp. We were not disappointed as the portions more than filled the plate. And right next door, we ended every evening at Tutto Freddo for the absolute best ice cream on the planet. $2-$4 dollars depending on the size.
The open air markets are a bit of a culture shock, but in a good way. Endless stacks of exotic fresh fruits and vegetables covered an entire city block.
Flower markets offered very reasonably priced exotic bouquets, individual stems, and potted plants. Pure chocolate that had been poured on a large leaf, retaining the imprint of the leaf, and local arts and crafts can all be bargained for. And the vendors do like to bargain! The most unusual, for our questionable American sensibilities, are the fresh meats displayed openly, including such local delicacies as goat and guinea pig.
Culture and history buffs should take advantage of free admission to Pumapungo Museum and Arqueoligical Park, a museum built on ancient Incan ruins. The ruins are mostly stone foundations filled with trees, flowers and caged tropical birds; with llamas keeping the grass trimmed. For a small fee, get a more up-close and personal experience with ancient Incan and Canari relics at the Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes.
The picturesque Rio Tomebamba flows through Cuenca, separating the old city center from the newer, modern side of the city. The park-like banks of the Tomebamba are lush and green. Although really no longer allowed, you can often see locals washing laundry in the river and spreading it on the banks to dry.
Shopping in Cuenca varies widely from small Walmart style stores to tiny little shops selling anything and everything. Most shops do not stock clothing or shoes in larger sizes for our over-nourished American bodies. I enjoyed watching as my new Panama hat was custom made for my big head. Handmade hats range from $30 to $50 at Barrancos Panama Hat Museum.
Housing in Cuenca is very affordable. We met up with Gary, an expat we had been in contact with while researching this trip. After talking over coffee and a pastry, he invited us to visit his home on the modern side of the Tomebamba. We exited the elevator on the 7th floor and entered his 2-bed, 2-bath corner apartment where we enjoyed some coca-leaf tea. Juliette balconies overlooked the river from the dining room and kitchen. He had furnished it with locally made custom furniture. His monthly rent was only $265, including basic utilities, for a secured building with a guard/doorman. His only extra expense was cable TV and internet, around $50/month. One more thing, no HOA fees.
We absolutely loved Cuenca. Only one problem, the altitude, at about 8200 feet, was not good for our asthma. Otherwise, we may already be living there. We are planning another trip to a coastal area, perhaps Manta or Salinas. The charms of Ecuador are still beckoning us.
Oh yes, back to the missing purse… Although we never felt uncomfortable or threatened, we had been warned there is a lot of theft and robberies in this colorful city. The chances of getting the purse back seemed hopeless.
The staff at the customer service desk in the airport were very helpful in contacting the taxi company. We soon saw our driver running through the terminal toward us waving the purse in the air. As luck would have it, he was only a few blocks away when he heard the call to check all taxis. I gladly offered and he graciously accepted a suitable tip for his efforts. Our faith in the basic good in humanity was upheld.