Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Parade of Homes

Yesterday, Mocha and I were walking in the neighborhood and I came across three homes for rent and today there was only ONE. It happens that fast! One day a “parade of homes” and the next day none.

Mocha and I have been “networking” a bit with the security guards so they don’t arrest me while I’m snapping up pictures of the neighborhood. When one of the guards asked me what I was doing, I had to explain that I was researching an article.


Before he had time to respond, I picked up Mocha and we made a run for it. Spending time in a Latin American prison is nothing I aspire to, so I think this will probably be the last time I poke my lens through an iron gate!

Most of the more stately homes in Cuenca are protected by a cement fortress and an electric fence with broken glass on the top to prevent intruders from “taking pictures.” Other homes are in a gated complex with a guard posted at the entrance and a few barking dogs to keep him company. And then there is the occasional home where you can actually get a decent view of the front door and snap a picture before a team of barking dogs tracks you down.

Cuenca has some of the most beautifully carved doors I have ever seen. I’m not quite sure, but I think it’s more of a status symbol than anything else. Instead of who has the nicest lawn on the block; it’s more like who has the nicest door in the neighborhood. Since most of the homes are made of brick and cement, it’s rather flashy to have something made of wood “hanging on the door.”

Most expats prefer to live in condos, but the trend is changing a bit. If you have a large pet (more than 15 pounds), you might want to look at houses for rent when you first come to Cuenca. That way you can just open up the door to let “Fido” out to do his business instead of waiting for the elevator to pick you up on the 15th floor.

Homes for sale or for rent are found just like condos; you look for the sign on the window that says “se arrienda” or “se vende.” If you don’t want to go through a realtor, just take a walk in your favorite neighborhood and write down the cell phone number(s) posted on the sign. If you don’t speak Spanish, bring along someone who does. We recently talked with an expat at SuperMaxi and he said, “I just paid the taxi driver to take me around all day and translate for me.” Now, there’s an idea! He found something to rent in one day.

Thankfully, I’m not in the real estate business; I’m just a writer reporting on what’s available. So when you arrive in Cuenca (or you’re thinking of arriving), remember that the “parade of homes” will be waiting for you!

Until next time…hasta luego!

Monday, April 25, 2011


Holidays in Cuenca take on a different tone—especially during Easter. As I reflected back on the Easters we spent in various parts of the world, I have to say that Cuenca is much more subdued. Instead of Happy Easter, it’s “feliz semana santa” (happy holy week)!

Two years ago, I spent the Easter holiday in Switzerland and Italy with a good friend. Europe celebrates Easter in much the same way as we do in the States: chocolate bunnies, Easter baskets, huge chocolate eggs filled with toys and treats, and colorful window displays enticing little ones to ask mommy for just one more thing.

You will be delighted to know that there’s none of that in Cuenca: no marshmallow peeps, no Reese’s peanut butter "cups" and no Jelly Belly beans. So if you're planning a trip to Cuenca during Easter and you need one of those three major food groups, then be sure to bring them with you!

It was delightfully refreshing not to have this holiday exploited by commercialism which so many countries have done. Although I enjoyed the pageantry in Europe all the years that we lived there, I must say that Cuenca has restored the true meaning of Easter.

We spent the day at church, Verbo Iglesia, with some friends, out to lunch, then a walk to San Blas for “gelato” at Mixx Gourmet Ice Cream, and a pleasant ride home on the bus (meaning we actually got a seat!). Parque Calderon was bustling with activity: families were having dinner out and sharing in the gorgeous day without a drop of rain.

It was our first Easter without family and I would be lying if I didn’t say it was just a “teensy-bit” difficult. Our family has built in some strong traditions at Easter—starting with the menu (green bean casserole, ham-turkey and yams with marshmallows on top). We called both of our boys and our oldest son ended up having an Easter egg hunt by himself—throwing up the eggs and catching them! I had to chuckle at that one, but he said he was keeping the Pombo tradition alive.

Holidays always make me reflect on our decision to come to Cuenca and at the end of the day, I realize we made the right decision for us, albeit a little painful at times.

Until next time…hasta luego!

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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Condos in Cuenca!

Mocha and I walk at least twice a day on the river trail by the Tomebamba and then hop on over to the sidewalks around the condos of Cuenca. I enjoy the trail, but Mocha likes to see his girlfriends, Lulu and Lucy, in the neighborhood where condos mingle with houses. In fact, it’s not unusual to see a huge condo complex, large homes, and townhouses all on the same street with a few guard shacks nestled in between. Today, while we walked (in the rain -- again!), I saw three condos for rent and one house for sale— all in a 30-minute walk.

It’s really the best way to find a place in Cuenca—walk in your favorite neighborhood and scout out places for rent. Most of the time the sign will be taped to the window with the words: se arrienda, se renta or “department for sale.” I chuckled when I saw that sign because it was in the gringo neighborhood “(departamento” is Spanish for apartment!). We live near the Oro Verde Hotel and Gringolandia. But if you walk across the Tomebamba River you reach a residential section of homes which has a panoramic view of the Cajas!

We lived in a high-rise luxury condo for about two months which had a gorgeous view of the city, but the noise level was not conducive to sleeping. So we headed across the street and asked the security guard if there were any “departmentos” for rent. He said, “Not right now…can you come back next week?” And the following week, we came back and he showed us a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment overlooking the Tomebamba River for $200. It was that simple.

The last two weeks, I have received a lot of e-mails regarding how to find the best deal on a condo and these are my thoughts:

*Make your “wish list” of all the things you want in a place (three bedrooms, two baths, large kitchen with granite countertops and a view of the Tomebamba River in a quiet neighborhood).

*Decide on a location. Do you want to be in “el centro”; outside of town, but within walking distance to town or close to the shopping malls?

*Budget. Are you willing to pay a little more for rent to have your “wish list” complete or do you need to stay within a fixed budget?

*Noise factor. We lived in a gorgeous apartment with a fantastic view, but we just couldn’t enjoy it because of the noise. I traded my granite kitchen countertops and my view of the city for a quiet place “down by the river” and now the ripples of the water lull me to sleep. So how do you know if a place is going to be noisy or not? This is where a little detective work takes place. We actually ran across the street four times a day to make sure there wasn’t any outrageous noise at our new place. I remember reporting back to my husband, “I don’t hear anything—what do you think that means?” We couldn’t believe it! All we heard was the rippling sound of the river. But some folks would be willing to put up with a “little” noise if they could have a spectacular view of the city and a dream kitchen. Only you can decide that.

*Word of mouth. This is the best way! Our neighbor found a luxury condo along the Tomebamba for $300 a month (3 bedrooms, 2 baths, granite countertops, and an amazing view of the city). He was talking to his Ecuadorian friend and they knew some “friends of some friends” who were looking for an American to rent their condo. Believe it or not, Ecuadorians like “gringos.” We pay our rent on time, we don’t stay for very long, and we usually improve the property!

*Be quick. The best deals happen before the sign goes up. If you inquire about a place before the sign goes up, you most likely will get a better deal. We had an Ecuadorian couple call on our behalf because we wanted to make sure we weren’t getting the “gringo” price and then we made an appointment the same day to meet with the landlord in person.

*Newspapers, Real Estate and the University of Cuenca. One of our favorite places—La Esquina de las Artes—is right by the University of Cuenca and so we often wander on campus and check out the bookstore. Mark picked up a newspaper, while I glanced at the student bulletin board—trying to decipher all the messages. I found pictures of condos for rent and one for sale! Why didn’t I think of that before? A lot of the university teachers and students come for a semester (or a year) and then leave their “condos” behind. Between semesters and at the end of the school year are probably the best times to check the “message board.”

*Rental Agencies. You are going to pay more for using a rental agency, but you already knew that! They are performing a service and in turn they need to make a profit. Apartments come furnished and unfurnished and sometimes they pay the utilities as well, which will result in a higher rent. We used a rental agency and signed a short-term lease and we were able to get out of it when we found our new place. Be sure to ask!

There are plenty of condos in Cuenca, you just need to have a little patience, keep your eyes and ears open, and act fast when an opportunity arises.

Until next time…hasta luego!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Is Cuenca the New Costa Rica?

We've had a lot of blog visitors this week and one question keeps popping up: “Is this the new Costa Rica?”

Wow, I don’t think so because Cuenca is a city and Costa Rica is a country! However, I understand the deeper meaning behind those words. Translation: Is Cuenca going to be so expensive in a few years that we can’t afford to retire there?

This is how I see it. You can’t keep a place like Cuenca a secret forever. When International Living named Cuenca, Ecuador as the number one place in the world to retire (2009) and MSN did a series of articles on the cheapest places to live on a pensioner’s budget and named Cuenca as “numero uno," it garnered a lot of attention.

We have seen a definite connection between news-worthy material and how many visitors come to Cuenca. Let’s face it, when gas is almost $5.00 a gallon in the U.S. and more baby boomers are trying to find a place to stretch their retirement dollars, Cuenca looks pretty good!

Will Cuenca become too expensive to live in 5, 10 or 15 years? Yes and no. I believe that the goods and services that expats require (restaurant dining, rent and housing) will continue to go up in price; however, the basic economic structure will remain the same. There will always be $2.00 “almuerzos,” open markets and 25-cent bus rides.

To put my theory to the “taste test,” I found a new ice cream place that just opened up: Mixx Gourmet Ice Cream. Tom Carbone, the owner, is a Canadian who has Italian roots (Bari, Italy), and let me tell you it shows in his “gelato.” I haven’t tasted this kind of ice cream since we left Italy. And his passion for making ice cream is what makes his place a success after only one week of being open.

His specialty is making flavors you haven’t even heard of before, like: “Cerveza” (beer ice cream); taquilla, pina colada, and sangria. And then there’s brownie ice cream, tiramisu, cappuccino and “yes” chocolate. There are so many flavors to choose from that if you don’t have your mind made up when you enter the door, you’re going to be spending a lot of time with a tasting spoon in your mouth.

My personal favorite is mango in a waffle cone (made fresh before your very eyes) and dipped in chocolate! The price for two homemade waffle cones is $1.68. I think the most expensive thing on the menu is $2.50.

I know what you’re thinking! What does ice cream have to do with Costa Rica?  Here’s my point. Mixx Gourmet Ice Cream  is an expat’s dream come true: affordable gourmet ice cream, great location, wonderful ambiance with passionate, friendly service. I think it’s a pretty safe guess that his prices are going to go up in about six months (maybe less). We have seen it over and over again in places where expats frequent; the menu has been altered with “White-Out” to reflect the higher price. However, our “almuerzo” lunches are still  just $2.00!

For those of you who are thinking of coming to Cuenca in the next year or two, it won’t affect you all that much. But for those of you who are planning to retire in 10-15 years, we'll just have to wait and see!

Is Cuenca the new Costa Rica? Time will tell...

Until next time…hasta luego!

Mixx Gourmet Ice Cream (San Blas Plaza)
San Blas 2-73 y Tomas Ordonez
Cuenca, Ecuador

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Why We're Here!

Today when we were with some of our Ecuadorian friends, they asked us why we chose Cuenca as a place to "retire." I think it baffles their mind that we left the States and came to Ecuador. For us the decision was simple: we couldn’t afford medical insurance in the States after my husband’s retirement. One more catastrophic event and we would have been bankrupt. Unlike so many, I have not been so fortunate with my health. I’ve lived 15 years beyond the doctors’ “expiration date,” so every day is a precious gift!
When we explain it to our Ecuadorian friends, they can’t believe what we have paid in medical bills through the years. I prayed many times, “God, heal me or let me die.” He chose to let me live for which I’m grateful; I was able to see our boys through safe passage into adulthood.

We are thankful for the medical care in Cuenca, which was our number one priority, but we got so much more than we ever anticipated in the way of extras: perfect climate, affordable living, lots of sunshine, mountains, four rivers, and loving people to share life’s journey with.

Most of our time is spent with Ecuadorians because they teach us so much, especially how to really live life. They are generous with their time, their resources and their ability to make the language fun for us. We only speak Spanish when we’re with them and they're quick to correct any mistakes (all mistakes!). Knowing Italian has been a great asset, but also our worst enemy. We still revert back to Italian without even knowing it, until someone brings it to our attention. "Que paso!"

We're grateful to be able to learn another language and culture. We mostly hang around folks who want to do the same. We know one American couple who has diligently gone to language school for a year and have a tutor as well. They are mastering the Spanish language in their 60’s. Some expats have no interest in learning Spanish and that’s okay if that’s what you choose to do, but you’re missing another whole world!

Maybe it was our missionary life in Italy that makes us gravitate toward lanugage learning. I’ve gleaned a wealth of information from the Ecuadorians and how they view Americans, which will be a topic for another blog post!
We’re learning to say that we’re not “jubilados” (retirees) because to Ecuadorians that means we’re wealthy. When we say "jubilado" they rub their fingers together (money, money, money). We explained to them that not all Americans are wealthy, but in their eyes we are. When you realize that the average Ecuadorian makes between $264 and $340 a month and the average indigenous person makes $30 a month, it changes your perspective.

We came here for the medical care, but we’re staying because we have fallen in love with Ecuador!

Until next time...hasta luego!

P.S. Happy Birthday Cuenca -- 454 years today!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

"Houseboat" and Friends!

It’s always fun to meet bloggers, Facebook friends, and other folks who come to Cuenca for a visit. I like to get their first impressions and thoughts on the city and hear about their plans for the future. Some come to invest, others come to live here part-time, and the rest sell everything and now call Cuenca home. There’s no right or wrong way!

Retiring overseas used to be considered a luxury, but today it's almost a necessity -- especially for the baby boomer generation. We're thankful we can combine both retirement and luxury in Cuenca!

This weekend we had fun dining, going to concerts, eating out with friends, meeting new folks in town and attending cultural events. Not all our weekends are this full, but there’s a lot going on with pre-Easter activities. It’s been fun to slosh around in the rain while hopping from one event to the other. The river is at full roar with no sign of letting up. Normally we can see boulders popping out of the water, but they’re completely buried under a rush of white water rapids.

We’re so close to the Tomebamba that we’ve already made an exit plan in case the river overflows its banks (which is unlikely!). We can jump from our second story balcony and man the life rafts (which we don’t have). We had friends over on Saturday who commented, “This is like being on a houseboat!” That’s probably the best description of our place that I’ve heard yet. We’re enjoying our new “vacation” home!

Sunday we took a break from our "houseboat" and met up with blogger friends, Bill and Donna, who are here to check out Cuenca. We enjoyed “almuerzo” at La Esquina where an art festival was going on. We’ll catch up with them later on in the week for some Chicago Pizza after they’ve had an opportunity to view some properties. We’re excited to see what life has in store for them. Although the days of $30,000 luxury condos are gone, there are still some really great deals in Cuenca and the surrounding areas.

Back at the” houseboat,” we’re winding down from the weekend and we're enjoying being lulled to sleep with the sound of "waves lapping at our feet"!

Until next time…hasta luego!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Gift of Time!

We had an interesting discussion today with a couple who has lived here for ten years, and it made me think how differently my life has become. He said, "We are so fortunate; we have the gift of time!"

That's what we didn't have in the States and that's what makes living here so wonderful -- almost blissful. Yes, I'm still a writer and I have "deadlines," but they’re my deadlines!

This week, I've had a lot of e-mails from folks who are preparing to pack up the container and come to Cuenca. I smiled and thought, Yeah, they're doing it! They didn't let the naysayers stop them from coming.

The gift of time is elusive to some of you in the preparing stage because the activities to actually get you to Ecuador are almost mind boggling. That part was painful for me -- terribly painful. I don't envy anyone going through that stage; in fact, you have my sympathy.

But once you're here, the pain will fade and in its place is something we all treasure: T-I-M-E! That's not to say we aren't busy (some of us are busier than we've ever been in our lives), but it's a good kind of busy: picking out flowers at the market, going to concerts, eating out at five-star restaurants with one-star prices, taking a buggy ride through the city, enjoying ice cream with friends at Tutto Freddo, and listening to the sound of the river until we fall asleep to its "whispers." That's real living!

The couple—that came to visit us this evening—is in their 30's; he has a full-time business that he runs from an office in Cuenca. They have small children and yet; they have the gift of time. After four hours of visiting, he said, "Do you really think I would have had time to do this if I were in the States?"

"No, absolutely not!" I said, looking at my watch. (It's still a bad habit that I'm trying to break!)

He smiled and said, "That's why we live here, so we can enjoy life!"

Why do we have to wait until we're 55, 62 or 70? I think in some ways we're pre-programmed to work hard and not enjoy life because time stands in our way. In Ecuador, you'll learn a new pace of life that comes with great rewards. It might take some of you longer to adapt (especially the "Type A" personalities), but you'll get used to it. I promise.

Some of us have learned how to enjoy the gift of time through life-altering events (before we arrived in Ecuador), and the rest of us have learned it while being here.

Wherever you are in this journey—selling a house, packing up a container, saying goodbye to family and friends, waking up at 2:00 a.m. thinking you're crazy or waiting for the red light to turn green—know that we've all been there and we're waiting to give you hugs on this side of "zero"!

Until next time...enjoy the gift of time!

The Cajas

The Tomebamba

Cuenca at Night

Tres Cupolas at Sunset

Nueva Catedral

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Villa Rosa and Celebrations!

Today we had lunch at the Villa Rosa with a friend. It's was our second visit to this amazing restaurant and I have to tell you this is definitely five-star dining: white starched tablecloths and napkins, fresh flowers at every turn, and food that is a cut above the rest. But the service is what makes it a dining experience. It was celebratory! Berta and Patricia Ventimilla, the owners, make you feel like family from the moment you step in the door.

We went to savor the famous "Fanesca" which is only served once a year (a pre-Lenten "meal"). Every region of Ecuador has a different version of this "sopa" (soup), but Villa Rosa's Fanesca is simply the best.

Berta proudly brought out the spoon to show us what they stirred the pot with and let me tell you; it was a huge spoon. The soup was a meal in itself and nothing else was required. It was a cream-based soup with 12 different beans and grains in it! There were peas, fava beans, lima beans, fish (salt cod), seeds, squash and served with a hard boiled egg on top. Villa Rosa has been rated consistently by Frommer's and Conde Nast as the best place in Cuenca to dine and I will have to agree with them. This elegant restaurant is located at 12-22 Gran Columbia at Tarqui in a restored colonial home.

When we returned home with our tummies quite full, I checked my e-mail and then I knew why we were celebrating. The Kindle edition of Living and Retiring in Cuenca was on the "bookshelf." And the best news yet, you don't need a Kindle. You can actually download Kindle on to your PC, iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry or Android (absolutely free). You can even preview a sample chapter. Now Mark and I don't have to "fight" over the Kindle anymore; it's on my laptop!

It's been a celebratory day in every way. Even the rain is making me happy; the Tomebamba River is almost full to overflowing and it sounds like Niagra Falls from our balcony and in every room in the house. It feels like we're on a cruise ship -- only we're staying still and the river is moving!

Celebrations happen every day in Cuenca and today was no exception!

Until next time...hasta luego!

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