Attempting to ease the anxiousness and boredom of our last six weeks in California before we finally begin our expat adventure in Malaysia, I started to reminisce about our visit to another popular expat destination that we decided against. Exactly one year before my untimely dismissal from the work force disguised as a layoff, Diane and I set out to discover what makes Cuenca, “the most livable retirement community in the world” according to popular retirement publications like InternationalLiving.com, Forbes and even Kiplinger’s. Having thoroughly enjoyed the tourism part of our Expat Destination Research Trip with stints in The Galapagos Islands, the rainforest and Quito, we headed to Cuenca for a few days. Originally planning to stay at The Santa Lucia Hotel, the staff mysteriously refused to allow us three nights in a row even though our local Ecuadorian travel agency requested the rooms almost a year in advance.
Already discouraged by the hotel’s ridiculous unwillingness to accommodate us, we booked a room at The San Juan Hotel, another “boutique” option. Described as an excellent place for expat retirees, we expected a beautifully restored Spanish colonial town, similar to various picturesque Mexican we’d seen profiled. In fairness, we loved Ecuador top to bottom for its people, delicious fresh food and scenic beauty. Relative to Asia, however, South American lifestyle was a bit rustic for us and we understand many readers might thoroughly disagree with us. But like a good sportscaster, I call them as I see them so my commentary is subjective and based solely on observations. Initially planning to fly from Guyaquil to Cuenca, the only airline flying that route apparently cancelled it with little notice, forcing our tour adviser to book a driver for the spectacular drive from coast to mountains.
Possibly one of the best constructed and well maintained paved mountain roads anywhere in Ecuador, it’s obvious the government spends enormous sums of money connecting the country. Propaganda billboards remind you of this about 50 times during the excursion. Learning the meaning behind the signs, our guide explained that almost all of Ecuador’s indigenous population will vote for the current leadership over and over in exchange for any type of progress and of course, internet and phone connectivity to the outside world.
Leaving the countryside, the landscape changes and the seafood crates change to fields of cocoa plants. After an hour or two we stopped and pulled over to watch the early stages of cocoa harvesting. Translating for us, our guide explained that the farmer’s family all works to pitch in even after attending school during the week. Known for having some of the best cocoa plants in the world, we observed how the plant grows, how it’s hand-picked bean by bean and how complicated the process is.
After gaining thousands of feet in elevation, the views become incredible and we literally passed through the clouds, lowering visibility to almost zero at times. Unlike other dangerous mountain pass roads that passenger buses often plummet from, this road features guard rails, lookouts and even rest stops. Noticing about a 25 degree drop in temperature, it’s necessary to keep a sweater handy. Finally we approached a turnoff indicating our arrival in Caja National Park. Although we didn’t have time for hiking, many trails abound making the park a worthwhile stop when visiting this part of The Andes region.
Approaching the outskirts of Cuenca, we passed through small rural villages with wonderful smelling food stands. Typically noticeable are the throngs of stray dogs all over (albeit cute ones). Nearing lunchtime, our awesome guide recommended one of his favorite local Ecuadorian bar-b-q stands nestled in the foothills of the city. Finding out later that many Cuencans spend weekends here in the village with their families after working in town all week, the extreme disparity of wealth becomes clear. Undeterred because we hadn’t yet seen Cuenca, we stopped and enjoyed some delicious dishes including soups, potatoes and roasted pork.
For the unfamiliar, Ecuador’s most repulsive food from a Westerner’s point of view is cuy. Roasting guinea pigs on a spit is both economical and practical compared to other crops like cattle and beef. Found only in the high Andes mountains regions, the rest of Ecuador considers it peasant food and snickers when mentioning the word. Passing on the bar-b- q furry cute pet, we did eventually eat this later and it turned out to be not so bad. More details are here.
Not realizing we’d arrived in Cuenca and with no signage to greet travelers, the first thing we noticed is all the facades of the supposedly restored buildings are in need of repair with cracks in all the stones and graffiti covering the sides. Looking like a city that kind of ran out of money before they finished the restoration, our expectations changed quickly. Filled with enormous buses spewing pollution akin to old Communist Eastern Europe, all the main streets in the Old City are one lane narrow passageways. Annoyingly loud and reminding me of my childhood in Brooklyn, the most obnoxiously loud car alarms blast on and on continuously like it’s a national pastime and traffic inches along. Never stopping even in the wee hours, they grated on us like fingers scraping on a blackboard.
Completely contrasting the outside view, entering the lobby of The San Juan Hotel or any one of the other boutique hotels was like entering a bizarre alternate universe. Expecting Rod Serling to tell us we’ve just crossed into The Twilight Zone, the lobby looked like the most sophisticated five-star English style Tudor hotel you could imagine. Stylishly decorated with lavish furniture that’s totally unfitting of the hotel’s outside appearance, the colonial style chairs and silverware seemed applicable had Queen Elizabeth booked a room. Strangely quiet when compared to outside, It was almost spooky.
Understanding English is not the native language in Ecuador, I always give leniency when it comes to language skills but I also believe in a fine line. Workers at a four star hotel working in a city where thousands of English-speaking guests would be expected need to display a modicum of multi-linguistic skills. Sadly, this is not the case at this hotel. Making check in very difficult, nobody uttered one word in English or gave us any kind of information whatsoever. Unable to communicate at all, we eventually summoned our guide who translated an entire ten minute conversation whereby the hotel clerk remained as stoic as an officer posing for a Changing of the Guard picture at Buckingham Palace.
Across from the small front desk is where the hotel serves breakfast but we couldn’t really figure that out given the language issues. Attempting to ask for change of a $20 to tip the concierge for no clear reason other than basic courtesy, the woman motioned that they have no change. What kind of boutique hotel has no cash? Oddly, our guide was somehow able to negotiate with them and suddenly some small bills appeared. Looking like waiters in a zombie movie, the hotel staff dressed to the max in stuffy suits way out of line for a casual tourist. As a city filled supposedly filled with thespians, we failed to understand the formalities. Also applying to the best restaurants, we patronized Villa Rosa, stepping over dust and open street construction to walk into what looks like the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan complete with tuxedo clad waiters.
Cuenca’s old stone construction explains the strange quietness inside buildings even though the streets are so noisy. Facing a grassy courtyard in the back, the hotel was relatively empty and the marble floors meant you could hear a mouse stir yet somehow we didn’t hear one sound for three nights. Equipped with two double beds and enough sheets and pillows to satisfy any visiting deceased dignitary that rose from the 1920’s, the room was quite spacious. The bathroom is large enough with a decent shower but like most of Ecuador, even royalty throws their soiled toilet paper in the garbage can and not the toilet due to lack of advanced plumbing.
Attempting directions from the hotel staff proved interesting. Using Google (in Spanish of course), the front desk staff knew absolutely zero about the surrounding area and even after that was still confused. Oddly, the only information provided by the hotel for its guests was seven paragraphs warning visitors not to venture out at night and remain mindful at all times. Using lines like “If someone sprays something on you like mustard or mayo DO NOT let them clean it up”, we felt as welcome as an American in Yemen after a State Department ordered evacuation of all Embassy staff. What the hell kind of stupid thing is that to say to your guests?
Offering not a single positive word about why you’d visit Cuenca, I immediately wondered what kind of life expats have if they’re all in fear all the time. Explaining about a recent rash of crime committed by neighboring Colombians and Peruvians, our guide criticized the government for allowing them to cross the border with no passport and wander around aimlessly. Citing political rhetoric that somehow came out as an unspoken rule that Ecuador allies with their mostly anti-American neighbors, this didn’t really make sense to us given that so many Americans live in Ecuador. Despite the warnings, Diane and I ventured out for several days seeing what the city had to offer. Visiting local markets is always high on our priority list so we found a large one and went crazy.
One of the funniest things we saw had to be the Chinese restaurants and shops where the owners spoke English in a hilarious Spanish accented tone. Yet they did speak English better than many of the other locals. No, we didn’t eat Chinese food in South America.
Quaint enough for a South American city, we visited the famous landmarks like the cathedrals, an interesting museum in The old Bank of Ecuador Building (free admission) the main public square and various local markets but didn’t really find anything that would keep us interested enough to leave America for. Perhaps a bit biased due to living in California where half the population is Spanish, we just don’t find enough of an immersion between the expats and the locals. While not mean or rude, most Ecuadorians in Cuenca seemed relatively indifferent to the expats that hang around certain coffee houses and bars designated as “expat friendly”.
Serving excellent food almost everywhere, we stopped at a small cafe that looked good one day and pointed to food that sounded somewhat appetizing. Amazingly fresh and delicious, we enjoyed it thoroughly.
We never actually visited the neighborhoods where all these expats are flocking to but our guide explained there are two areas, one wealthier and one working class. Rarely leaving the expat quadrants of the city except to use the paths along the scenic river valley, much of the gated suburbs seemed typical of other Latin and South American countries we’ve seen. Feeling too unwelcome for our taste, we prefer an expat destination where almost everyone co-mingles among one another and doesn’t segregate themselves from foreigners. While I will obviously stick out as a foreigner in Penang, at least Diane’s Chinese ancestry should help us navigate our new life with a bit more comfort than we felt in Ecuador.
Realizing that expat magazines have a vested business interest in places they tout as “havens”, our advice is visit Ecuador for its friendly people, spectacular beauty, fresh food and interesting culture but understand that crime rates are higher, many South Americans have little desire to learn English and be aware of the nuances thoroughly before committing to a big decision like becoming an expat.
Did we miss the mark? Please share if you’re an expat in Cuenca or thinking about becoming one
Coming next: April 15th: My favorite Day