It's been ten days since we arrived in Cuenca and already we're in a rhythm of life which has allowed us to discover the top ten things we love most about this city. I affectionately call Cuenca the emerald of Ecuador. There is nothing not to like about this lovely city! For those of you thinking of making this move, here are ten of our favorite things (thus far):
#1 - Home with a view. I'm not sure what it is about waking up to see the Caja Mountains, a panoramic view of the city, and an ever-changing skyscape that automatically puts you in a good mood. Both Mark and I wake up with a smile on our face. Even when we're out shopping, we can't wait to get back to our condo, put our feet up, sip a cup of coffee and enjoy the view from our living room!
#2 - Abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables. We have been to the open markets (mercados), Supermaxi (American-like grocery store), and the Coop. By far, the best prices, selection, freshness, and availability of food has been the Coop which is located within walking distance to our home. We can literally live on $12.71 a week on groceries. I prepare fritatas with at least seven varieties of vegetables, fruit salad, pasta, chicken, rice and beans (not all at one time -- of course). The only thing the Coop lacks is plastic wrap, cleaning supplies, and paper products, which we can easily pick up at the mercado. We only use Supermaxi in emergencies. The prices are much higher than the States on many items. Rule of thumb: Shop the bottom shelf first and the periphery of the store!.
#3 - Friendliness of the people. This was totally unexpected. We are foreigners, gringos, Americans -- whatever you want to call us -- but we are not Ecuadorian. So when we appeared lost one afternoon, a young woman and her mother asked if they could help us. About 20 minutes later, we had exchanged phone numbers and they had invited us over for dinner. Not only was she genuine and sincere, she offered to take us where we needed to go. I would like to say that was an exception, but it's the rule. This didn't happen to us once, but many times during our ten days in Cuenca.
#4 - Eternal springtime. Coming from Pennsylvania (the state of harsh winters and humid summers), I'm pleased to report that Cuenca has lived up to its reputation. Mind you, this is the "winter" season in Cuenca, but it's simply amazing. We only have two days of this kind of perfect weather in Pennsylvania (one day in May and one day in October). There were several days of rain this past week, but it was sporadic. Most days the sun comes out in the morning, giving way to fluffy white clouds and brilliant blue skies, and then clouds roll back in toward the evening. The temperature is perfect human weather (mid-60's). I wear a leather jacket only because I don't want to appear American. Remember: Ecuadorians think this is winter, not flip-flop weather. Oh, and be sure to carry a fold-up umbrella with you (the moment you don't; it will rain!).
#5 - Cleanliness of the city. I had read on other blogs how clean the city was, but I wasn't convinced until we arrived. You will see a variety of cleaning folks around town all performing a special function. Their uniforms are different colors (orange, green, and blue), but they all take pride in keeping Cuenca free of debris. There are signs posted around town to remind you to keep the city clean. And if that wasn't enough, at night the street cleaners come along and water down the sidewalks and streets to make it squeaky clean. That isn't to say there isn't occasional garbage littering the streets, but it's the exception and not the rule.
#6 - Ease of transportation. We do not own a car (nor do we want to). Having driven in Sicily six years was enough entertainment for us! Most days we take a taxi if it is a long hike or if we feel adventuresome, we take the bus. One day we took the right bus but got off at the wrong stop, so we rode it to the end of the "trail." At that point, we were politely asked by the driver to get off (which we did). The bus driver then drove to the other side of the street where he told us to wait and then picked us up again after paying another 25 cents. When you're retired, you're never in a big hurry to get anywhere, so it wasn't a big deal. We just enjoyed the scenery. But we laughed all the way home about the experience: get off, cross the street, and get back on the same bus!
#7 - Availability and affordability of medical care. This was a delightful shock! Mark and I wanted to be established with a doctor right away because of our medical conditions. So we made an appointment with an English-speaking medical doctor at Mount Sinai Hospital. We brought our medical records along with us, which he reviewed in detail, taking notes and asking questions. He spent over an hour with us and asked us to return for our physicals next month. He told us to give our medical records to his secretary so she could make copies of them, so he could review them thoroughly for our next visit. Having worked in the medical field for 20 years, I was in total shock -- not only the amount of time spent with us, but the price. Our total visit came to $25 (for both of us).
#8 - Food, food, food. Every restaurant we have been to has been a delight. We have not had one disappointment -- not one! One of the best Italian meals we ever had was here in Cuenca (Il Vino). There is something for everyone here, including the Kookaburra Cafe which is a great place to meet up with expats and enjoy great conversation and outrageously good food. The prices will astound you and I'm still getting used to it. At some of the "mom and pop" style restaurants (for approximately $2.30), you can enjoy a five-course meal consisting of rice, tamales, chicken, salad, bread, drink, and possibly dessert (which may be extra). The portions are huge and we often take the other half home and eat off of it for the next two days. One of the biggest surprises has been the gelato. Ecuadorians love their ice cream and I can see why. One of our favorite places is Frutilados Cafe and Heladeria. You won't be disappointed. We prefer Fruitilados in the historic district (Bolivar y L. Cordero). It has a lovely courtyard (not to be missed!)
#9 - Pace of life. There is no sense of urgency in Cuenca (except for the occasional wild driver!). There is a rhythm of life which we haven't experienced since living in Sicily. The morning is spent working, followed by lunch (almuerzo) and then from 12:30 to 3:30 things start to slow down -- during the "siesta" -- and then by 6:30 (darkness prevails), and it's time to have dinner and relax. Mark and I run our errands in the morning, followed by our big meal of the day, a nap or time of language study in the afternoon, followed by a light dinner. We're in bed by 9:30 p.m. Who would have thought? We actually feel retired! There is no way we could have this quality of life at this price in the States. And I want to add, we are not wealthy Americans. My husband's pension is modest (we will not receive our social security for another seven years at age 62), but yet we have five-star living at one-star prices.
#10 - Americans. I was hesitatnt to add this one, but our experience has been so wonderful we had to include it. Every American we have run into has been so helpful and kind that we have to pinch ourselves. We share our experiences, gather information, and learn from each other. On Saturday, I was having a manicure/pedicure at the grand opening of a new spa, when I heard a familiar voice! Diane was getting her nails done as well. She looked vaguely familiar, but her voice was so recognizable. After conversing, I found out that Diane was the one in the HGTV special (House Hunters International) with her husband, Juan Moreno. It was -- in part -- because of their experience shared in the program that we decided to make the move to Cuenca. On Sunday, Juan and Diane took us with them to view the Ecuadorian countryside. We spent the day enjoying a great meal, shopping and meeting a lot of Juan's family on our way to Chordeleg. It was a perfect day!
These are just a few of our favorite things about Cuenca. Overall, living in Ecuador has exceeded our expectations. We haven't found a negative yet, which is surprising in itself. The only real negative is not being able to share it with our family and friends. Mark surprised me on our first night in Cuenca with some photos in frames that he had "snuggled" into his suitcase. There were several family pictures, memorabilia from Italy, and the music box that my oldest son gave me on Mother's Day when he was 14 years old. I have to admit that more than a few tears betrayed me at that moment!
Oh, I forgot to mention the lanuage "barrier." It has not been much of a problem as we speak fluent Italian and so we just add new Spanish words as we learn them. But we do plan to attend language school at Nexus to soften the edges a bit (mas/menos). I do believe we have an advantage in that area, but even if you don't speak Spanish you will find that there are many Cuencanos who are ready to help you!
Until next time...hasta luego!
Marco y Concetta