Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Why Cuenca?

Tres Cupolas

Every week, I'll post a question from the second edition of the book 101 Questions Answered. After five years of living here, some of the questions are vastly different and others are amazingly the same, like Question #1.

Question #1: Why retire in Cuenca and not one of the other top retirement destinations in the world?

Answer:  Cuenca was not really our top retirement destination; Italy was our first choice. But on $1,317 a month with my husband’s pension from UPS, we knew that our quality of life wouldn’t be that great. We had lived in Italy for six years in the 1980s. It was expensive back then, and the health care system wasn’t anything to write home about.
     When we looked at other countries in the running, like Panama, Mexico, Malaysia, Costa Rica, Spain, Malta, Colombia, Portugal, Thailand, and Uruguay, we realized they were too far, too hot, too cold, or too expensive. Cuenca kept rising to the top and still remains in first place.
     The things that drew us to Cuenca are the same things that keep us here:

     *Cost of living. Although items have gone up in price over the past five years, you can still find a $1.50 almuerzo (but $2.50 is about average). The things that will cause you to go bankrupt in the States aren’t even a possibility here, namely health care. Utilities are ridiculously low—almost a joke—and there’s no need for heating or air conditioning. Public transportation is great (a 25-cent bus ride or a $2.00 taxi fare will get you where you need to go). Fruits and vegetables are inexpensive. All this allows us to live comfortably without the fear of a medical crisis using up the rest of our hard-earned savings.

     *Spring-like temperatures. As mentioned, Cuenca enjoys a mild climate—there’s no need for air conditioning, and heating costs are minimal. The only place I know in the U.S. that has pleasant temperatures all year long is San Luis Obispo, California (hovering around 68˚F to 70˚F). Cuenca enjoys what is called a subtropical highlands climate, which basically means that lush green tropical plants flourish without the heat and humidity of the coast. Because of Cuenca’s altitude—8,300 feet—and its proximity to the Pacific Ocean and the Amazon, with the equator in the middle, the climate remains relatively temperate with highs in the 70s and lows in the 50s. Yes, we have rain and hail sometimes, but no snow or ice, and no oppressive heat or humidity.

Parque Calderon where Humming Birds are Everywhere

     We have two “seasons”: dry (June through December) and rainy (January through May). Our coldest month is August, and our warmest months are November, December, and January. My least favorite month is April, which is called aguas mil (a thousand waters), when we average 4.29 inches of rain during the month. If you’re looking for tropical and hot, Cuenca will disappoint you!

     *Affordable health care. This has been the greatest part of living in Cuenca. As a cancer survivor, I’ve experienced how devastating a medical crisis can be and how it can wipe out your savings. We pay $145 per month for IESS, Ecuador’s medical Social Security system, which covers everything (no co-pays). We also have our private doctors—out of the system—with visits ranging from $25 to $40 and follow-up visits are free.
Laboratory Clinic

     Dental care is highly affordable as well. A dental cleaning and x-rays are $45, and fillings run about $35. My husband has had four root canals with implants and crowns, and they’ve never cost more than $500. Cosmetic surgery is also affordable. I can’t comment on the price tag as I haven’t gone under the knife, but many of the doctors who practice here have received their training in the States. Medical care is highly personal in Cuenca; you’re not just a number. It’s normal for physicians to spend forty-five minutes to an hour with you.

     *Even more reasons. Another thing that keeps us here is Cuenca’s colonial charm. El Centro (the historic center) occupies approximately 12 blocks by 20 blocks and contains a variety of restaurants, Spanish colonial buildings, and adobe houses alongside elegant hotels, cafes, and bakeries. I still marvel at the cobblestone streets, terracotta rooftops, and colonial period architecture, including the churches and cathedrals. From our condo, we enjoy a view of the Cuenca skyline with the blue domes of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (New Cathedral)—absolutely breathtaking at sunrise or sunset. I never tire of our city view and the Andes Mountains.
     Cuenca is the cultural capital of Ecuador, so tourists from around the world descend upon Cuenca every year. In addition, because of the many Spanish-language schools, there are people who come just to study the language—usually you’ll see them wearing flip-flops and shorts and carrying backpacks. Many events like concerts and symphonies are free. And the restaurants continue to grow in size and diversity. Outdoor cafes are also becoming more popular and you can find them throughout the city. My favorite place is still Parque Calderon—the center of the city—with the Nueva Catedral (New Cathedral) on one side with its pink
marble columns and the Catedral Vieja-Iglesia del Sagrario (Old Cathedral) on the other side (where the tour buses line up).
    As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there’s always something going on and buildings being preserved and transformed. But the diversity of the culture is what makes living in Cuenca so interesting. Alongside the indigenous women with their colorful velvet skirts, you’ll see conservatively dressed Cuencanos wearing European-styled suits. The contrast is fascinating. The Spaniards ruled Cuenca for 500 years, and we can thank them for the colonial period architecture, which is so prevalent in the city.
Santo Domingo Iglesia

Cuenca Symphony

     Lastly, the expat community is one of the largest and most well established anywhere in the world. When we first arrived, there were only a handful of expats. Today, we can’t walk around the block without seeing a Norte Americano. When we moved into our condo building, we were the only Americans. Now, we’re one of three in our building. With the expat population booming, there are a variety of volunteer opportunities, support groups, art and language groups, and two English-language magazines for expats.
     Personally, we love the diversity—not only culturally—but in the land with the Galapagos, the coastal regions, and the Amazon. We find our way to the coast (four hours away) by bus at least three times a year, and the Galapagos is only one and a half hours from Guayaquil by plane. We have yet to get to the Amazon, but it’s on our bucket list. In five years, we’ve grown to love this unique city and its people. And we have just as many Ecuadorian friends as we do American, which we count as one of our greatest blessings. This means we have finally integrated and have been accepted. We also volunteer and give back as much as we can.

     We live comfortably on $1,317 a month because we own our condo, so rent is not a consideration. One of our greatest luxuries is not having a car; we use public transportation, walk, or take a taxi. We also wanted to live somewhere where plane tickets to fly back to the States weren’t outrageously expensive. We fly to JFK on Avianca Airlines from Guayaquil (round trip) for $500 per person, which is less expensive than flying East Coast to West Coast in the States. 

Independence  Day Celebrations Nov. 3-5, 2015

Until next time...hasta luego, 

Connie & Mark 

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