Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A few tips and observations about Cuenca, Ecuador

Buenas dias!

The usual reminder applies here: I can only describe my experiences and observations. Other people have different thoughts and experiences.  Take the best and leave the rest.

Life in Cuenca, Ecuador is tranquilo, sometimes loud, often quiet, peopled by friendly, kind, handsome Cuencanos and by an ex-pat community that is welcoming and easy to connect with.  Life here is always interesting.  I have lived in Cuenca with my husband for 10 months.  I created this blog to chronicle the first year of joys, adjustments, challenges, surprises and experiences. That year is almost up.
                        On the road from Guayaquil to Cuenca, abandoned fruit shack

My thoughts today are about some of the adjustments I've experienced in moving here.  And always the joys, as there are many.

Whether it is a barber, a new friend, a taxi driver or a neighbor, everyone wants to know "How do you like it?".  For me that answer is very clear.  I LOVE it here.  Me gusta Cuenca!  There are challenges, as with living anywhere.  But every day has doses of joy and new experiences are just outside the door.

Some of my challenges stem from not speaking Espanol very well. I have lessons 3 times per week so I am making progress but it seems s-l-o-w to be learning a second language when I am 62.  How I wish I had taken Espanol in high school and college!  It is a fact that if a person knows any second language, learning a 3rd language is easier.  But I must not get discouraged. My conversation is improving and I am getting braver at speaking with strangers. Living here certainly gives opportunity for "almost immersion" experiences.  

At the same time, one could live here and associate mostly with English speaking ex-pats and decline the opportunity to learn Espanol, never study the culture, rarely communicate with local people from all social strata.  But each person who arrives on the shores of Ecuador will make his/her own decisions as the next stage of life unfolds.

Another challenge for me is that mucho patience is required to survive well and thrive in Cuenca.  Why?  Ecuador is not the US and South America is different from North America in many ways.  Part of the charm of the Ecuadorian culture is that they rush less.  They lust after material possessions less. They value family above everything else.  Many Cuencanos will go far out of their way to help a friendly ex-pat in need, especially if the ex-pat can speak even a tiny bit of Espanol. But...
                                          The road to Loja

But back to patience.  I was used to the American culture where you get an estimate of when something will be fixed or even if it can be fixed.  Here, Cuencanos do not want to deliver bad news (like "it can't be fixed" or "that will take a month") so they estimate something will be done long before it can possibly be completed. Like "sure, that engine will be rebuilt by tomorrow" kind of thing.  

The internet is a rather constant issue so it can be a huge irritation or you can adopt the Ecuadorian way of "just waiting and staying tranquilo".  
As I have said before in these pages, patience is a lifelong learning process for me. It's tied up with my karma.  God sends me opportunities. Buddha observes. Some days I learn better than others.  It is an opportunity to address an issue with a different mind set. You may bump into some issues of your own.

There are several internet companies here.  At first my mind set was to ask which is best and get us signed up with the best one.  Now I believe there is no "best service".  They all have times where they go down.  There are moments when you have good speed.  There are hours where you do not. Paying more for faster speed may be worth it or it may not. It is just another opportunity to practice patience.    ETAPA is one type of internet service that is DSL. Centronet is through the power line. Puntonet uses Wi MAX which is line of sight. TVCable has service varying from $20/mo to $100/mo.  Of course, the more you pay, the faster the speed is promised to be.

Cuenca gets a lot of brief thunder and lightning and many changes of weather - sometimes a service is down related to that.  Most of the time, if your service goes down, it is not for too long - minutes to hours rather than days.Usually you never know the cause of why the service went down. So patience is helpful and the mindset of "it's Ecuador - this is normal" with a shrug will help you live longer and stop gnashing of teeth.

Many little annoyances of getting used to a different way of life are trumped by the fantastic attitudes of Equitorianos, the incredible tropical fruits at very low prices, outstanding handmade crafts and views available only to those living high in the Andes Mountains in a UNESCO heritage city preserved for several hundred years. 

The phone numbers here take a bit of getting used to. Some need a 0 at the front and some don't. Getting used to the messages being in Espanol takes a bit. BTW, I recommend getting a phone, especially if you do not speak Espanol, so that you may communicate with other English speakers. An example follows later in this paragraph. Basic phones are more expensive for what you get than in the US but you will most likely need a cell phone.  Very few people buy a plan, most people just put minutes on the phone or rather you put dollars on the phone. For example, getting $10 on your phone gives you a good start in case you are somewhere and want to ask another expat you've met for a restaurant recommendation in a different part of the city.  You can call, get a quick recommendation and directions and walk there rather than wandering into an unknown restaurant. If you are out in the city at night, you can call a cab if no taxis seem to be are around.

My husband and I each bought a used phone at AirLink in Portland,  3626 NE Sandy Blvd. Len's phone cost $35 used in the US and works great. But AirLink is only in Portland, Oregon.  If you are thinking of moving to Ecuador, your US or Canadian city probably has a similar phone store where you can buy an unlocked used phone. You will want an unlocked phone and it needs to be GSM (not CDMA) to work in South America.  Then, after you go through customs and get your bags in Quito or Guayaquil, if you have time, or here in Cuenca, you buy the chip to insert with the $10 or whatever amount you want.  The minutes do not expire. You can use the phone in the US if you want with a different chip. So I have my pretty little used raspberry-colored phone to use in Ecuador but when I go to see grandchildren/family/friends in the US, I simply buy a chip in the US with some minutes and I can use the same phone wherever I am. There are 2 companies in Cuenca that sell the chip you reload with minutes: MovieStar or Claro.  I've been told most expats use Claro.  Calls to another person with Claro cost less for the caller and the call quality seems better.

                                                     Bananas in Vilcabamba

Will you bring a computer? It is better to buy in the US if you want a new one.  Prices are 30-40% higher here for computer items, especially Apple products. If you do not bring a computer, there are internet cafes everywhere.  If you bring a laptop/IPad, the entire square of Parque Calderon by Nuevo Catedral has wifi, as does much of El Centro.

 And don't forget, there is an IPad Users Group to connect, learn, share about IPad, IPod, IPhone, etc.  Lenny Charnoff, my husband, started that group which meets once a month.  Contact for more information.

Which reminds me, I plan to start a Gluten Free User's Group in May, date and location to be announced. If you are sensitive to gluten or have celiac disease, it can be helpful to talk with others about resources.  What restaurants are aware of gluten issues?  Where can you buy gluten free bread that is not only edible but very good? How can we search the area for resources needed by people with gluten intolerance?  Please email me that you are interested and we'll see how this new idea unfolds.

Things are casual and somewhat spontaneous here.  Life is pretty laid back, especially since many of the ex-pats are newly retired and exploring what to do with their time now. The younger expats are busy with work, children, activities, like in the US. For those with some time and not too much cash, there are art classes, a fly fishing group, dance, chess, symphony, tennis, writers' group, meeting for coffee and everything in between those diverse topics. Bring your hobbies but also try some new things, find some things you love to do and enjoy your time in Ecuador!
                 This is Blake our grandson who was in the hospital last week but is fine now.
                 In the background, the little one with the red hair is Blake's cousin Andrew.

Have a terrific rest of the week!


  1. I appreciate your information regarding your Fibromyalgia. My husband and I are looking into relocating to Cuenca and the weather is one of the main reasons. I too have Fibromyalgia and cannot tolerate extreme heat, cold, or humidity (although the cold is easier to handle). We are fairly young, 40 is around the corner. My hubby will soon retire, so we're planning to visit EC sometime this year. Thank you for all the information. I have to admit that I've read all your blogs in the matter of just a few days, and I found it very informative.

  2. Hey Sharon,
    Very informative.. I am posting it to the FB group if you have not done it already.. You answered alot of current questions on there!

  3. Hi Sharon,
    I always enjoy your posts, thanks! My husband and I are wannabe retirees to Ecuador and have just returned from a FANTASTIC introductory tour with Experience Ecuador. We had thought that we would be more attracted to the coast, but found ourselves entranced by Cuenca. I too am gluten intolerant and would be very interested in your Gluten Free Users Group, but unfortunately it will be a while before we are in a position to join you down there :( Currently we say we are on the 4 year plan!
    Looking forward to your next informative instalment.