Encountering a heavy bout of turbulence, Diane and I fastened our seat belts and sat peacefully as we watched other passengers meandering about the cabin. After 13 years in a post 9/11 world, all Americans understand that full compliance with any instructions by flight attendants and crew members is mandatory, not optional. Oddly enough, not only did nobody listen, several passengers seated in first class wandered back and started conversations with friends seated elsewhere. Realizing Ecuadorians are not Asians, we found it a bit unnerving that an American based airline would allow total disregard for Federal safety rules once out of U.S, airspace.
Travelling in November, a relatively empty season for tourism, Diane and I were adventuring to Qutio for the South American leg of our annual Expat Destination Research vacation. Having already gained positive impressions from two trips to Southeast Asia where we engaged in excellent adventures like trekking to a village of Hill people and spending quality time with orangutans, we decided to investigate the reasons behind the hoopla of the hottest expat destination according to Forbes and International Living. Although the mostly local passengers on the plane provided an interesting first impression, all negativity quickly faded after landing. Blessed with mountains, rain forest, beautiful beaches and The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador is one of only a few expat havens with so much to offer in one small country.
Planning a vacation in Ecuador usually includes a side trip to overly popular tourist meccas like Machu Picchu in Peru or the Patagonia region of Argentina. While spectacular and worth their own separate trip, part of the journey’s purpose was to investigate inexpensive and interesting opportunities in an unfamiliar overseas destination. Defying advice from other travelers, Diane and I chose to navigate all four regions of Ecuador and include a stop to Cuenca. (Actually, we didn’t make the beach but met an American couple living on the coast). Charting our path via the picture below, please understand it takes multiple posts to cover each area properly so this is our “summary post” covering the semantics and presenting a quick synopsis in words and pictures .
Touted as one of the hottest destinations for expats escaping North America, Ecuador’s year round mild climate, beautiful scenery and thriving expat community make it sound perfect on the surface. Aided by a long time local resident and friend of our primary tour guide, we combined some business with pleasure and sought out the local expat community’s hangouts during our Cuenca visit.
Because our trip covered all four corners with distinctively different climates we searched for a local company and reiterated an important cost-saving feature; Companies based in the home country give the same services as overpriced American or European based counterparts, charge up to 40% less, often have an in with local companies and usually offer guides with expert knowledge. Utilizing Galapagos Islands.com, a subsidiary of Columbus Travel, a Quito based tour operator, Diane and I received incredible personalized service from a qualified and friendly representative named Salo Prieto. If you’re interested in Ecuador, click here and ask for her.
After many emails and discussions, Diane and I mapped out the trip, using Quito as the both the starting and ending points as well as a hub between destinations. Situated in a spectacular valley, Quito’s elevation is 2,800 meters (9,250 feet) making it the highest official capital city in the world. Acclimatizing to the high altitude takes a day or two and because the city’s cosmopolitan charm combines modern amenities with old colonial style architecture, it makes it’s worthy of a day or two anyway.
Labeled jet-setters by my old-fashioned conservative parents, Diane and I are far from it. Normally budget conscious, we did spend more than normal on this excursion and Ecuador can easily be seen (and lived in) on a smaller scale. Unaware that exactly one year later, I’d be unexpectedly cutoff from my salary by a heartless bank run by idiots, we chose lodging in the upper echelon thinking this might be our only South American visit since Southeast Asia led the exapt destination contest.
Easily the best choice for convenience, luxury and comfort, Diane and I used the Quito Swissotel as our base for exploration. Unaccustomed to luxury chains, we basked in comfort as the hotel pampers its guests from arrival to departure including a greeting complete with warm towel and some sort of “hot toddy” concoction that soothes any travel blues rather quickly. Booked in and out of the hotel three separate times, the European owned resort ranks up there with the best hotel chains. Unclear of exactly how much we paid due to the nature of our package price, a quick check of rates indicates affordability for a moderate price, at least by American standards.
Although Diane and I are not as well-traveled as many expat bloggers, we enjoy connecting with guides that are knowledgeable, personable and willing to go the extra mile and teach us tidbits of whatever country we’re in. Already having experienced situations where we’ve befriended excellent local guides in Costa Rica, Malaysia, Thailand and Mexico, we believe it’s an important part of researching an overseas destination. Exchanging ideas and stories with our guides helps foster a friendship and we’re willing to pay extra for private tours.
Occasionally it’s not possible to use private tours due to sensitivity of the local environment. Opting for the smallest groups available, we followed these guidelines and met our primary guide for the trip, Byron Riera Benalcazar, when we landed in Quito. Unlike most licensed Ecuadorian tour guides, freelancing allows Byron to contract only with people or he deems compatible and within twenty minutes we already knew more about Ecuador than most guide-books.
Remaining Facebook friends today, Byron gave us an added dimension of understanding and even hooked us up with a friend in Cuenca to help us examine the expat culture. Please look him up and tell him we recommended him if an excursion to Ecuador is in your future. Dropping us off at the hotel, he guided us through Old Town Quito the following day before sending us off to the Ecuadorian rainforest. Should you decide to hit The Galapagos Islands as the first part of an Ecuadorian trip, make sure you allow an extra full night in Quito due to flight delay possibilities. With limited transportation and high demand, nobody will wait for you or refund any money should you miss your connection.
Promising full posts on all aspects of our trip, summarizing the highlights in chronological order is the focus for now. Roughly divided into three parts, Quito’s focus for tourism lies in The Old City. Conveniently located from the Swissotel, there are 40 churches, 17 plazas and 16 monasteries as well as several notable museums. Other major attractions include the world’s second highest cable car, more open parks than you can count, acres of beautiful colonial and independence era architecture and lots of mountain biking for outdoor enthusiasts.
Limited to one day due to our busy itinerary, Byron picked us up and parked near the main plaza where we saw every day Ecuadorian life. Unclear what to expect from a culinary point of view, we were amazingly impressed at the variety and freshness of Ecuadorian food. Uncharacteristically varied compared to the usual taco/enchilada/tortilla diet they teach us is “Latin American”, Ecuador’s Andes Mountain regions produce over 17 different types of vegetables. Unique to the Eastern Hemisphere, the high altitude valleys remain frost-free all year-long despite being almost 8,000 feet high because of the Equatorial latitude.
Resulting in a cornucopia of fresh and delicious cuisine, Ecuadorians enjoy chicken, meat, pork, mounds of coastal seafood, an enormous array of soups, some of the tastiest potato dishes that puts Idaho to shame and even the infamous cuy (Guinea Pig). Considered peasant food by the middle class population, only indigenous people in the mountainous regions near Cuenca eat it and although considered a delicacy, you won’t find it in any Quito marketplace. OK, one picture and then you’ll have to wait for my post on Bar-B-Q Pets as Food
After sampling some local juice, an empanada and a delicious dessert that’s carried on the head of local vendors, we visited the main government plaza where we saw some schoolgirls in local uniform, a military guardsman similar to our a Canadian RCMP during the changing of the guard, a beautiful church and some local folks living their daily lives. Wishing to take advantage of the incredibly good dinner at the hotel, we called it a day, checked the bulk of our luggage with the hotel for our in-between return and packed a three-day bag for our excursion to the rainforest.
Unlike its large neighbor Brazil, Ecuador still retains a large chunk of unspoiled Amazon wilderness. Although besieged by oil and gas interests like most South American nations, Ecuador’s reserves are paltry by comparison and with most of the lucrative wells already past their prime, several lodges deep in the Amazon allow visitors an opportunity to experience eco-friendly tourism at its best.
Although closer to civilization than some of its competitors, Sacha Lodge is a spectacular lodge built for comfort yet constructed with traditional materials that blend into the lush surroundings. Nestled in a 5,000 acre private reserve near Yasuni National Park, getting there is half the fun. Departing from Quito, Diane and I hopped on a small commuter plane bound for the small community of Coca, gateway to the Ecuadorian Amazon region. Founded as a supply station for oil and gas employees, the town is the drop off point where we headed into a small boat for a three-hour jaunt down the river.
Finally arriving at the dock, we picked up our gear and hiked thirty minutes down a muddy trail where a final quick and easy boat trip shuttles guests to the main lodge and introduces everyone to the guides. Attractions include birdwatching, canopy walks, paddling, swimming, treks for wildlife viewing, a visit to a butterfly farm and a trip to the national park where thousands of rare parrots feed on a salt lick. Detailing the beauty and splendor as part of this post would take too long so below is a pictorial sample for now.
After three days in the sultry heat and humidity, Diane and I headed back to Quito. Stuck in Coca due to a downpour I’d never imagined could last so long, the airline cancelled our flight so we ate lunch while waiting for clearer skies and enjoyed the local monkeys begging for food. Barely making it back in time for sleep, we were up at dawn the next day and ready for an amazing excursion to the Galapagos Islands. Unlike anyplace we’ve ever been, I can honestly say the Galapagos are one of a handful of truly amazing unspoiled environments left on Earth. Second to only Antarctica, there’s nowhere else left where nature remains almost as it was hundreds of years ago.
The Galapagos Islands are like a Wild Animal Them Park only for real
Reiterating what I said earlier, spending an exceptional amount of money when traveling for the sake of having the best hotel, highest class of service or most expensive dinners is normally not conducive to an early retirement and doesn’t necessarily buy extra quality. Allowing for an exception to every rule, let me state two important points about what class of service to choose for a visit to the Galapagos Islands:
Just once, go all out with a five-star luxury cruise in a small catamaran
Don’t let them convince you need 8 to 16 days to “get the real experience“. Diane and I took the five-day option and were fully blown away beyond our expectations.
Perhaps the only experience I can think of where you really get what you pay for, the islands are so sensitive, so spectacular and most importantly, so limited to the public, it pays to book a quality cruise on a highly reputable ship. With more than 100 choices, we recommend a trip on the Ocean Spray, luxury catamaran owned and operated by Haugan Cruises, the premier tour operator in Ecuador.
Larger than some hotel rooms we’ve stayed at, the boat was like a hotel and the large staff includes a sous chef and deckhands that go out of their way to please. Only natives of the islands can become guides and Javier is one of the seasoned veterans. Exemplifying a consummate professional attitude, he thoroughly enjoys his job and fully understands the history and geography of the area. Until I compose posts on all five days, please enjoy the gallery below which will explain my enthusiasm:
Encompassing way too much for an introductory post, the skinny of our trip was this: Five days and nights in a modern comfortable room larger than most cruise ship berths, gourmet meals cooked by professional chefs, visits to 7 islands, wet and dry landings, more photographic opportunities than we ever had before and a cornucopia of bizarre wildlife from giant tortoises over 100 years old to rare endemic birds that sit on the ground with their eggs underneath them while you stroll past them. Looking prehistoric, scores of marine iguanas abound and of course the sea lions are among nature’s most lovable creatures.
After it ended, we boarded the plane and disembarked in the industrial port city of Guyaquil. Unclear why the plane stops in a place that nobody ever boards or departs, Diane and I said a teary goodbye to our fellow shipmates who all continued to Quito. Easily finding our guide we began a three-hour journey that starts in sweltering 95 degree heat and humidity, climbs almost 8,000 feet on a beautiful paved road considered an engineering feat and built by a government that stays in power mostly from keeping everyone happy, including 14 different indigenous groups, the most in any South American country.
Described as the one of the world’s best places to retire, Cuenca lies at the end of the road. Set in a gorgeous valley miles from nowhere, its Mediterranean climate means it’s never too hot or cold although it can rain a lot. Expecting something like a Mexican tourist mecca, instead we pulled into a small cobblestone street with half broken facades on almost every building that looks like the government ran out of money after building the paved road.
Strangely, entering the hotel was like stepping into a different planet. Engulfed with a Plaza Hotel like atmosphere, the hotel was way too luxurious looking for Cuenca’s expat community, mostly working class Americans that lost their jobs, gave up trying and bolted for Ecuador knowing they use the US Dollar and things cost less. Emptier than a ghost town, the hotel was oddly quiet and the lavish atmosphere didn’t match the relaxed atmosphere of the town.
With help from a local resident that Byron arranged, we visited many of the tourist attractions, walked through both expat communities, one wealthy and one working class, patronized several local markets and shops and discussed all the pros and cons from an Ecuadorian’s perspective, Deciding right then and there that Cuenca could never be home for us we learned that many locals flee the city for the poor villages every weekend leaving little room for any meaningful interaction between expats and Ecuadorians.
Unlike Malaysia’s MM2H visa, our guide explained how Ecuador allows scores of unemployed losers from neighboring Peru and Columbia to simply enter the country creating a real drain on the local economy. Reading a note left they left on our bed warning tourists of the dangers of venturing out at night, the hotel staff presented their city in a ridiculous negative light, convincing us that Ecuador is a not for us. We still plan on moving to Malaysia and Thailand is “Plan B”. I’ll post more extensive details on Cuenca in a future article.
Reconnecting with Byron after Cuenca, we left the most scenic part for the end, Diane and I departed the expat haven for a slow trip through the Andes Mountains including a trip on the Devils Nose Railway, a famous train trip dubbed “the most difficult railway in the world”. Also considered an engineering marvel, workers carved a series of zigzags out of rock, allowing the train to climb 800 meters by going forwards then backwards. Although scenic, the town of Alausi where we caught the train proved more interesting than the trip itself.
Passing through small villages on the way back to Quito, we stayed at a country inn on a beautiful piece of property known as Hacienda Abraspungo but ate the only disappointing meal of the entire trip. Unable to see the main local attraction, Cotopaxi Volcano, (due to fog) we bypassed an opportunity to hike and instead opted for the environs southeast of Quito. Flanked with beautiful waterfalls and awesome valleys, we ended the long trip with a relaxing visit to Termas Papallacta, a famous hot springs resort near Quito.
Returning to Quito for the last two nights, we reflected on expectations of expat life in Ecuador. Always a barrier, don’t expect anyone in South America to speak English simply because you don’t understand Spanish. Unlike Asia, economies of South America remain relatively stable but stagnant. Adopting the U.S. Dollar as last-ditch effort to save a sagging economy, Byron told us about a year of misery where average citizens lost much of their life savings and watched purchasing power plummet in exchange for a ridiculous sweetheart deal between the country’s wealthiest bankers and the US government. Not my cup of tea.
Ranking somewhere as a “Plan D” behind Costa Rica, Diane and I thoroughly enjoyed visiting Ecuador and many North Americans find its laid back style, inexpensive cost of living and stable but stale economic policies very beneficial. Over the rest of the year I’ll share more detailed posts about the places we visited in this post.
Amar la Vida !!
Does anyone live in Cuenca ? Please share your expat experience.
Coming in November: Galapagos Islands Day by Day and a full review of Ecuador’s best rainforest lodge