Thursday, December 4, 2014

Santa Barbara Hosteria

One of our favorite getaway spots is Santa Barbara (Ecuador that is!) in the picturesque town of Gualaceo where the people are warm and friendly, and the town is bustling with leather shoes, purses and jackets.

We spend one or two days every three months at this oasis and each time we think our stay can't get any better, but it does!

Santa Barbara Hosteria is located about 22 miles from Cuenca and for 60-cents you can be transported by bus to the subtropical paradise of Gualaceo where beauty knows no limits. You can catch the green Gualaceo bus every 10 minutes at the Terminal Terrestre in Cuenca and the scenic drive takes about 45 minutes to an hour because it stops to pick up passengers along the way.

Once in Gualaceo, you'll be dropped off at the bus station and you can take one of the white pick-up trucks (aka taxis) to Santa Barbara Hosteria (cost $1.50). Driving up the palm-tree lined entryway reminds me of Santa Barbara, California (without the ocean). There are tennis courts...gardens, pools, horseback riding...and a luxury spa area. Each room is well-appointed with every imaginable luxury and a five-star restaurant, La Campiña del Sol, which literally means "Countryside of the Sun."

If you book a room Monday through Thursday, it's $75 per person and includes breakfast, lunch and dinner. Their meals are absolutely divine and one of my favorites is the Penne Picante with jumbo shrimp.

This time of year, they're all decorated for the holidays and since we didn't put up a Christmas tree this year, it was a treat to be surrounded by all things cheery and bright.

The service at Santa Barbara Hosteria is impeccable, including a welcome drink when you check in and you always feel like royalty as soon as you enter the reception area. When you call them for a reservation, be sure to mention if it's a special occasion. It was our anniversary and they had some special surprises for us (I won't spoil it by sharing!).

The views are spectacular and this time we had balcony with a view that took my breath away and while Mark took his afternoon nap, I treated myself to the spa area. We usually book a Monday or Tuesday and we practically have the place to ourselves. I wouldn't suggest making reservations on a Friday-Sunday as this is a popular hot spot for weddings.

While we were in California for seven months in 2012, we passed through Santa Barbara many times but I have to say that even though there's no ocean view, I love this Santa Barbara better. At night, the twinkling lights from the city of Gualaceo are simply magical.

Our next visit will be for Valentine's Day and we already know what room to ask for in advance. Hope you enjoy this place as much as we do.

Until next time...hasta luego!

Also, the Second Edition of "Living and Retiring in Cuenca: 101 Questions Answered" will be available in 2015!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

World Class Orchids and the International Film Festival

If we were back in the States right now, we would be shoveling snow, making sure the car didn't freeze overnight so we could get to work, and planning our holiday schedule around the weather system patterns.

I reminded myself of that last week as I was walking through the Orchid Festival at Mall del Rio. It's November in Cuenca and not only did I get to enjoy orchids inside the convention center, but outside -- as well -- on my walk to and from the mall.

The International Orchid Festival and Film Festival coincide with one another, which makes for some spectacular day and evening dates. The entrance fee to see the orchids is $2.00 and includes displays from the USA, Taiwan, Japan, Italy, and, of course, Ecuador. Not only are the orchids on display, but a Bonsai exhibition and flower arrangement extravaganza can be seen as well. The smell of orchids wafting through the air stays with you long after you leave the convention center.

Mark and I attended the opening of the film festival and got to meet some of the actors and directors. Not until I got home and looked up everyone's name did I realize...these people are famous! The first film we saw was "La vida es facil con los ojos cerrados" by director David Trueba. It's a fascinating story about an English teacher who interviews John Lennon in the '60's and takes a trip to Spain to see the singer on location (along with two "students" that happened to come across his path). It won the Goya Award (Spain's version of the Academy Awards) for best film, best director, best original writing and best lead actor.

This evening, we'll be seeing Boyhood at Multicines Millenium Plaza. Where else can you attend free films all during the week without having to shovel snow to get there?

See ya at the movies!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

My Favorite Things

Mark affectionately calls "my favorite things" -- Connie's uniform!

If I had to do it over, I would have brought less of everything to Cuenca, including clothes and shoes. As it turns out I wear the same thing practically every day of the year: jean jacket, jeans, Nike walking/running shoes, North Face Jacket, scarf, Tote's umbrella and my leather boots. That's it! I brought shoes from the States that I haven't even worn yet. In fact, it's not much different from my California look, except I wear jeans instead of Capri pants and flip-flops.

On occasion, I do have some fancy dresses which I'm glad I brought because we're being invited to Ecuadorian weddings and other special events which require nice attire, but other than that it's casual, casual, casual.

While we were in California for seven months, I got a great deal on a North Face Jacket with a fleece in my favorite colors -- pink and black. It retailed for over $250, but I got it for $95 as it was on clearance and it was a children's size 14. I normally wear a size 4 or 6, so I've found out that I can get away with a kid's size 14 sometimes which is a lot less expensive. I wear that jacket every day and it has inside pockets, so I don't have to carry a purse. It also has an attached hood, so it's great when I forget my umbrella like I did the other day when it just poured down rain during the Anniversary Celebrations in Cuenca.

My jean jacket was on sale at Old Navy for $14. It has outside as well as inside pockets, so it's perfect for carrying a coin purse, keys, Kleenex and a tube of lipstick. The jeans are my favorite -- boot cut -- so I can wear them with my leather boots or tucked inside which is pretty popular these days.

The diesel fumes really irritate my eyes if I'm in El Centro for any length of time, so I do have a variety of sunglasses; I wear them even if it's cloudy! And, of course, I always have a scarf with me to cover my face when the clunky blue buses start sputtering out diesel fumes. I've actually come home and had black soot on my face. I realize that El Centro is a popular place (lots of shops and restaurants), but I absolutely could not live there. I'm horribly allergic to the fumes and sometimes it takes two days for my eyes and nose to calm down. We've been in El Centro a lot this week because of all the Anniversary Celebrations of Cuenca and let me tell you...I've suffered for it. Don't get me wrong...I love Cuenca, but my body sure doesn't like black sooty diesel fumes!

My uniform!
Walking is tricky -- at times -- because there are uneven sidewalks, rebar sticking up out of sidewalks, no grates on gutters, and unexpected holes that appear out of nowhere, so a good pair of walking shoes is important. I love my Nike Air walking shoes and will probably have to get another pair soon. The great thing about Cuenca is it costs only about $2.00 to have something resoled. I've had my boots done twice already! They also have sneaker soles as well, so two pairs of shoes go a long ways.

I also have one pair of switch flops and ballerina shoes by Lindsay Phillips with 20 different snaps. One pair of shoes that turns into 20 different ones.When I go to a special event, I wear my high heels and immediately switch into my ballerina slippers with their classy snaps to match just about any outfit I own.

I'm sure there are other expats who own a ton of clothes, but I'm just not one of them. I feel most comfortable in a pair of jeans. Also, I own four bathing suits as I go to the thermal baths at Baños. That's it, my wardrobe for Cuenca!

I do more with less and my favorite color is black because you can accessorize with it easily with scarfs and jewelry and since I ride the bus quite frequently I don't have to worry about stains. I do have some summer tops and Capri pants, but I only use those for the beach.

Through the years I've had a variety of hats -- expensive Panama hats and others, but I do a very good job of losing them. My favorite hat I left at the Guayaquil bus station last year, so now I only buy cheap sun hats.

One thing I don't understand is the "jungle camouflage look" that I see a lot of expats wearing. Maybe they're just visiting and are planning a trip to the Amazon, Galapagos, and the Andes, so they need those zip off pants with Indiana Jone's hat and vest. It's okay if you're passing through, but it's probably not a good everyday look as it screams "gringo."

Oh, I almost forgot. I have a Samsung tablet that I bought two years ago and it goes everywhere with me along with my $1.00 pink earplugs. And, my Clinique essentials in their to-go bag which fits nicely in my pocket. My gratitude goes out to all the visitors who come to Cuenca and remember reading in my book what I missed in the States and surprise me with a Clinique Bonus Day bag and products. You are my forever friends!

That's favorite things!

Until next time...hasta luego!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Cost of Paradise 2014

After four years, things have changed in our "cost of paradise" budget!

We've made a few alternations. And gone are the days when you can live comfortably on $600 a month, although we know several single people who live on that amount and do just fine. And you can still find rents for $300; in fact, I saw one on Craigslist the other day for $280 that was two bedrooms, one bath with granite counter tops and modern kitchen, but it was only 538 square feet. We live in 800 square feet and it's perfect for us: 2 bedrooms, 2 baths and every room with a view. That works for us!

However, I still get sticker shock at Supermaxi -- in the make-up aisle -- when I see Maybelline mascara for $16.00. Ouch! I guess we can't put a price tag on beauty -- right?  I just make sure I stock up on all those "necessary" items on our trips back to the States.

Thankfully, we're vegetarians, we don't drink, don't smoke, and have no other vices so we're fortunate in that regard.

Our shopping list looks basically the same almost every week. The fruit and veggies change, depending on what's in season. We juice a lot, so we keep everything fresh and sometimes we'll make 2-3 trips a week to Coral, Supermaxi or the mercado to get what we need.

Broccoli                                      .54
Pulpa de Pina (pineapple pulp) 1.68
Cauliflower                               1.03
Mora (Blackberries)                 1.12
Avocadoes (3 large)                   .83
Tomatoes (6 large)                     .81
Onions   (4 large)                       .78
Cucumbers   (3)                         .53
Pre-pizza                                  1.27
Bouquet of flowers                  1.29
Dental floss                             2.94 (x2)

As you can see the most expensive thing on the "menu" is dental floss; it's by Oral B and imported. I have no idea how much dental floss costs in the States, but something tells me it might be cheaper.

If you shop on Wednesdays at Supermaxi you can get a discount of 20% on produce and flowers, so that's usually when we shop, along with the rest of Cuenca!

I know, we're NOT your typical expat couple in that we don't drink alcohol, but we can drink all the "jugo" (juice) we want. We enjoy eating healthy and our blood pressure thanks us (and so does the rest of our body).

Our new budget is about the same with a few exceptions; we don't pay rent!

Rent                                  0
Alicuota  (condo fees)   $45
Water & Gas            $9
Electric                           $25
ETAPA phone                 $4
ETAPA Internet             $39            
Groceries                      $330
Medical/IESS               $142
Transportation                $50
Savings                         $160
Life Ins.                          $94
Rx's                                 $50
Misc.                               $50
Entertainment                 $50
Cell                                   $5
Doctor                             $50
Charity                          $152

Total                            $1,210

Our allotted budget is $1,317.17, so we are below budget. We cancelled Direct TV and switched to Apple TV. Initial investment was $150, but we love it (no commercials). We actually spend less than we did four years ago, but that's because we own our home. All the rest that we make goes into savings -- including our teaching and writing income. We use the extras to go on vacation to the States once a year and take a few vacations within Ecuador. This year we went to the coast twice and enjoyed a few overnight trips. We don't have private medical insurance because we have found it to be a waste of money and only use IESS. Our medical insurance is a little more expensive because we're considered professionals (teachers). Normally it should be $70 with the dependent paying $11.

We don't have an iPhone with a data plan (just a flip phone -- like Gibs on NCIS) and we use Skype or FaceTime to connect with family and friends. We don't own a car as we live 3 blocks to the main shopping mall (Mall del Rio) and 20 minutes to El Centro. We walk a lot, take the bus and hail an occasional taxi.

Life is simple -- just how we like it!

Jardin del Valle
For others, this budget would NOT work -- not at all. I would say that $1,500 - $2,000 per month would bring you into the category of the majority as 70 percent of expats rent and eat out more often. When Mark and I dine out we never spend more than $12-15 (total) unless it's a special occasion, like a birthday or anniversary. We always split entrees. One thing I didn't include in the budget is our Spanish Intensives which is $80 a month, but it's not part of our regular budget.

I exercise at the park around the corner where they have resistance training equipment, dance therapy at 8:00 p.m. Monday-Friday, and swim at Hosteria Duran once a week for $3.10. We ride our bikes on the weekends and use that time to explore the city.

My $3.10 pool at Hosteria Duran on a busy day!
We are still considered young retirees (59) and won't receive Social Security for another three years, but life has taught us -- "never rely on the future." If we do receive it, we'll triple our income and look forward to more travel. But in the meantime, we're enjoying life and saving too!

The best part: We savor each day to the fullest. I love my writing world and look forward to some more stories coming out this year, including Chicken Soup for the Soul: Power of Forgiveness, and Mark enjoys teaching at CEDEI.  Mark always wanted girls and this cycle he has 16 of them!

Life is still good in paradise!

Until next time...hasta luego!

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