Friday, May 13, 2016

Six Years in Cuenca, Ecuador!

Mark and I are approaching our six-year anniversary in Cuenca next month. It hardly seems possible, but in that amount of time we have grown to love this country and its people.

April 2016 - The Gardens of Mansion Alcazar
We were young retirees (age 55) when we first arrived and I wondered how we would fit in because everyone was sixty-five or older and now that we’re in our sixties, we feel right at home! Actually, the tide has changed and there are a lot of younger retirees in their 30’s and 40’s. Recently, we met a couple in their early 40’s and asked how they managed to retire so young and they said, “We decided not to have kids!”  There you have it – your ticket to early retirement.

In six years we’ve married both our sons, gained two lovely daughter-in-laws, and have a granddaughter who will turn a year old in August. We will be back in the States for that occasion and hope to make more trips to the States as we’re both about a year from receiving our Social Security. The last six years we've been living on Mark’s pension from UPS. Since we own our condo, the extra income from two Social Security checks, will help with traveling expenses back to the States to visit family.  We’ll still live on $1,317 a month, but our extra income through writing and teaching ESL will go to traveling as well.

The Pombo Family 
In many ways Cuenca has remained the same and in other ways it’s a different city. I’ll try to summarize some of the changes.

*A lot more gringos. We arrived with the “Class of 2010,” and gringo sightings were occasional and spotty. Now—especially in Gringolandia—you can’t help but run into “muchos gringos.” Norte Americanos are just part of the landscape. Depending on where you live in Cuenca, there will be greater concentrations.  Probably the largest population of gringos can be found by the Oro Verde Hotel, which is affectionately termed as Gringolandia.

Yanuncay River and Walking Trails
*More high rise condo buildings.  We were fortunate to buy our condo when prices were low and in a great section of the city (Primero de Mayo), which is close to the Yanuncay River and walking trails; three blocks to Mall del Sol, and a 35-minute walk to El Centro. We still don’t have a car and believe it or not, we consider it one of the best things about living in Cuenca. We walk, take a bus or taxi to wherever we need to go. We average about five to six miles of walking every day, which is how we stay in shape.

*Tranvia (electric train). Personally, I think the city would have been better served with a fleet of 400 new buses that were energy efficient and handicapped accessible rather than investing the time and money in the electric train that only serves a portion of the city, but it’s a little late for that. The train should be finished sometime in 2017 and we’ll probably ride it as a novelty, but that’s about it. Primero de Mayo and Avenida Solano where we live aren’t serviced by the tranvia.

*More International  Restaurants. It seems like there’s a new restaurant opening every week and just as many close. In El Centro (the historic part of the city), it’s a struggle to compete with so many restaurants and to maintain a profitable business with the rents continuing to rise. I’m happy to report we have some amazing new Italian restaurants, which make us happy little campers!  Along with the movement of Italian restaurants has come cheese – glorious cheese!  We lack for nothing in the cheese department now and with it comes olives and Italian bread.

Cheese -- Glorious Cheese!
*Food Prices Have Gone Up. If you eat like an Ecuadorian, you can keep your food bill to $30 a week.  That’s because we eat just fresh fruits and vegetables along with lentils, rice, and pasta. We don’t drink alcohol, so our grocery bill hasn’t changed. But with the economic down turn, imported items have gone up, along with alcohol and liquor, which is now being sold on Sundays. For the first time since 2010—when we arrived—alcohol will be available in stores and in restaurants on Sunday and will be reviewed every six months. All this is in an effort to increase sales and tourism. The fruits and vegetables in Ecuador are just short of amazing and the variety is astounding. We think it’s the best part of living here, except for the weather.  We have cherimoyas, guanabanas, uvillas, mangoes, pineapples, and dragon fruit in our fruit bowl right now. Probably the only one I could buy in the States might be a pineapple, but I’m sure it wouldn’t be ripe. We’re so spoiled in Ecuador!

*Transportation police. In 2010, the presence of police in their brown uniforms with fluorescent vests was about all we saw. Now, we have the transportation police on their bikes, on foot, on horseback, and at intersections directing traffic. We have traffic lanes and bike trails that are constantly monitored by police and we enjoy riding our bikes, which is something we wouldn’t have done six years ago. 

La Policia
*Four Points Sheraton.  For the first time, we’ll have a chain hotel in Cuenca. The ten-story hotel by Mall del Rio should be completed in a few months and will have a 120 rooms, conference center, pool, restaurant, and gym, so we’ll be like the other big cities—Quito and Guayaquil. Personally, we prefer the boutique hotels like Mansion Alcazar, but I’m sure it will be good for the tourism industry as travelers love to use their “points” and now Cuenca will be able to offer something for everyone.

Four Points Sheraton from Our Condo 
*Visitors from the States. I can still hardly believe it, but my sister and her husband came to visit us in March. Besides our older son who came to visit in 2010, this is the first family we’ve had in Ecuador. They stayed for three weeks and we had so much fun showing them around Cuenca. 

Family Visitors!
Thankfully, they left before the April 16th earthquake, but since they’re from California I’m sure it wouldn’t have rattled them too much. They said they’ll be back!

In the future (2017), Mark will probably just teach one or two classes and I’ll still be writing because that’s what I do, so I guess you can say we’ll be “retired.” It will just be nice not to have our life run in cycles like it does now.

One of the greatest perks of living in Cuenca is the health care. We've been 100% pleased with our care here and how wonderful to make an appointment online and show up at the doctor's office the next day – even specialists. 

We use a combination of IESS (the Social Security Hospital) and private doctors. We pay a total of $71 for both of us, which includes office visits, medication, hospitalization, surgery, labs, etc.  The IESS system is much like Kaiser in the States in that you have to go through a primary care physician first before seeing a specialist.

We always have the option of seeing a private physician for $25-$40 per visit and the follow-up is always free. I remember in the States having to wait five months just to see a dermatologist!  We're spoiled with the health care in Cuenca.

And I will have to mention the earthquake as that has also changed Ecuador. The last big one we felt was shortly after our arrival in 2010 and it was a 7.1 and six years later, the Pedernales earthquake that was 7.8. It’s been a month and it will take years for any sense of normalcy on the coast, so continue to keep our wonderful country in your prayers. When people ask how they can help, I always mention the Ecuadorian Red Cross or Samaritan’s Purse Ministry

Until next time…hasta luego,

Connie & Mark

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