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.
Managing to travel in three distinct regions of Ecuador without sampling its most elusive food, Diane and I began salivating as our van approached the outskirts of Cuenca, one of the most popular expat havens in South America. Having completed the recreational parts of our annual Expat Destination Research Vacation with stops in the Amazonian rainforest and fresh off five days cruising the Galapagos Islands, we enjoyed delicious food but the locals simply smirked when we asked for bar-b-q Guinea Pig. Commonly known as “Cuy”, guinea pig is only enjoyed in the Andes Mountains Highlands where swaths of indigenous Ecuadorians live. Promising us a taste from the first day, our guide Byron pulled into a small food stand about five miles from the center of town and sat down with us for a real life version of Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods.
Guinea Pig, some potatoes and a beer. Yum
Ironically, I searched high and wide all over the websites of International Living, Barrons, Forbes and other organizations that praise Cuenca’s reputation but couldn’t find even a short blurb mentioning cuy. Apparently, the locals had either been paid off or told by the wealthier folks in town to prohibit photography that might discourage potential Westerners from settling there by grossing them out with pictures of grilled pets. One woman was so upset when we tried to snap a photo that she threw rocks at Byron and we had to move on and find another stand. Fortunately, our resourceful guide knew a stand run by a friend where we eventually settled in for lunch and grabbed some pictures.
Awakening one last time to the smooth motion of gentle waves, Diane and I reflected on four amazing days visiting various locations in The Galapagos Islands where time appeared to stand still. Unlike any place we’d experienced before, the islands are one of a handful of places on the planet where animals coexist with tourists while totally oblivious to human presence. Observing the most northerly penguins on earth, treeless boobies that sit on the ground protecting their young, several endemic bird species, iguanas that swim and colorful ones that prefer land, prehistoric looking giant tortoises and sea turtles that come up to you, the islands proved well worth the hefty price tag.
Clearly everyone’s favorite creatures are the Galapagos Sea Lions, and although we saw them almost every day, the crew saved the best for last with a trip to Mosquera Island, a small sandy island in the channel between Baltra and North Seymour Islands and home to a large colony of sea lions. Completing the recreational part of our annual Expat Destination Research Vacationto Ecuador, we’d visited Sacha Lodge, an awesome Amazonian rainforest lodge and spent the last four days on board the Ocean Spray, a luxury catamaran offering Galapagos cruises from five to fifteen days long. Unaware I’d be writing my blog exactly two years later as an unemployed house husband thanks to an unexpected layoff, visiting Ecuador was an exceptional trip and we both highly recommend it even though we’re choosing Southeast Asia for our early retirement.
Expecting Barney Rubble to emerge with Fred and Wilma, Diane and I visualized a scene from Bedrock on the fourth day of our fascinating cruise around The Galapagos Islands. Already experiencing close up views of adorable fur seals and penguins, large treeless birds staring up at us from the ground and marine lizards emerging from the sea like scaly fish, it all seemed surreal. Imagining a scene from a prehistoric world was easy while viewing North Seymour Island’s beautifully colorful land iguanas and walking among enormous Galapagos tortoises older than both of us on Santa Cruz Island, the main population center of the islands.
Unaware I’d slept through several hours of rather violent seas on the return from an incredible day of bird watching on Genovesa Island, I woke to beautiful calm seas as Diane and I prepared for the third day of our Galapagos Islands Cruise. Part of our annual Expat Destination Research Vacationin Ecuador, we planned to visit Cuenca and discover what made it so attractive to expats. For now, however, it was something completely different and our guide Javier briefed us on the day’s activities featuring close encounters with Marine Iguanasand a rare opportunity to kayak and swim with Galapagos Green Sea Toirtoises, the only species nesting anywhere in the islands. Allowing me to relive the experience, this is the third in a five-part series and I hope the post conveys some of the islands beauty.
Thinking early retirement was still years away and unaware I’d be laid off exactly one year later, we went first class on The Ocean Spray,a beautiful 16 passenger luxury catamaran. Fully satisfied so far, we learned about Santiago island, an island flanked with mangrove forests, pristine beaches and teeming with many creatures only found in The Galapagos Islands. Landing at Espulmilla Beach, the group headed inland for a short walk but before we did, scores of beautiful Galapagos crabs scampered across the beach making the morning’s first photo opportunity a bit tricky, but well worth it. Stunningly colorful. adult crabs are bright orange with pink and yellow spots and grow as large as 20 centimeters.
Waking to the gentle rocking of the catamaran from our comfortable king sized bed, Diane and I hopped out of bed and headed to the balcony. Sleeping soundly after adjusting to the motion, we stepped outside and gazed at the shores of Genovesa Island, a spectacular but rather remote island for the second day of our Galapagos segment of our annual Expat Destination Research Vacation, this time to Ecuador. Having already seen fur seals, iguanas and penguins on day one, anticipation built quickly as we showered and headed for breakfast. Promising incredible bird watching opportunities, the crew briefed us on the morning’s activities that began with a wet landing at a beautiful coral beach in Darwin Bay.
On the beach at Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island
Technically a shield volcano and built almost entirely of fluid lava flows, Genovesa Island is horseshoe-shaped, occupies only 5 square miles, has a salt water filled crater lake and cliffs all around the perimeter. Located eight hours from most other islands, only smaller vessels can visit due to habitat sensitivity and the crew navigated the waters while we slept. Known as Bird Island, wildlife abounds including assorted boobies, swallow-tailed gulls, Darwin’s finches, Galapagos mockingbirds and marine iguanas. Separating this experience from most bird watching expeditions is the unspoiled and unique environment which eliminates the need for binoculars as many birds don’t see humans as predatory and literally sit in front of you. Glancing right at us with googly eyes, scores of amazing big birds were on the trail guarding their eggs while wide-eyed visitors strolled past.
Navigating through the hectic crowd, Diane and I headed for the AeroGal airline counter, eagerly anticipating the next five days of our Expat Destination Research Vacation. Fresh off an incredible three-day, four night expedition to Sacha Lodge, an amazing rainforest lodge in Ecuador’s Amazonian region, we spent one quick night in Quito and continued the journey. Leaving the expat research in Cuenca for later in the trip, we splurged on the Ocean Spray, the newest 16 passenger luxury catamaran in the Galapagos Islands but chose the shortest trip available, a five night journey. Traversing six different islands including a long overnight cruise to Genovesa Island, so distant that hardly any tours go there, it’s home to some of the oddest wildlife ever and was worth the choppy ride that caused most of us to forego a lobster and shrimp dinner due to acute sea-sickness.
Although Malaysia is our destination in 2015 as soon as my 50th birthday rings in an opportunity to file our MM2H visa, my layoff was unforeseen and South America was still high on the list of possible early retirement destinations. Although pricey, missing the Galapagos Islands while visiting Ecuador is akin to ordering lasagna in a Chinese restaurant. (dumb). Although it’s possible to arrange lodging on the largest island and try day-tripping, budget options are not the way to go. Justifying the phrase, “you get what you pay for”, an overnight excursion on a ship is the best way to enjoy the amazing array of incredible sights and many different types of cruises are available from five to sixteen nights on a variety of vessels.