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.
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.
Anticipation was high as we awoke on the third day of the South American leg of our annual Expat Research Destination Vacation. Planning only a single day of sightseeing in Quito, we left the jackets and long sleeve shirts behind and headed for a totally different climatic zone. Realizing Ecuador’s boundaries include a large chunk of untouched Amazonian jungle, we jumped at the chance to experience our third different rainforest adventure. Freshly embedded memories of Borneo’s jungle excursion remained strong and having already visited Costa Rica in 2002, that leaves Madagascar as the only rainforest we have yet to explore. Probably too far and expensive for early retirees in Malaysia, we’ll settle for orangutans over lemurs.
Sunset at Sacha Lodge
Understanding human encroachment remains the biggest threat to the world’s rainforests, there’s a handful of lodges that personify sustainable ecotourism at its best. Not to be missed, Sacha Lodge, in Ecuador’s Napo Valley Region fits the bill. Located on a pristine piece of privately owned land and bordering Yasuni National Park, one of the world’s most biologically diverse regions, the lodge is accessible only by navigating the Napo River for 50 miles, hiking inland on an often muddy boardwalk and crossing a scenic lake. Beginning the journey in Quito, Diane and I boarded a 25 minute flight over snow-covered peaks to the small town of Coca where guides met us for the start of a 4 day, 3 night adventure that exceeded our expectations.
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.
Nazca Boobies on Genovesa Island in The Galapagos chain
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. Continue reading →