Cuenca: A Second Look

imageThe sign in the antique shop on Calle Larga said, “Apartment for rent.”  The sleek modern place on the Tomebamba River is available next February and March. Cuenca’s much delayed electric tram is supposed to be up and running sooner instead of later. Ecuador’s elections are too close to call at the time of this posting. Political unrest? That hangs in the balance as well. What can I say? When we left Cuenca for Vilcabamba we were feeling uncertain. Has that changed?

Vilcabamba exceeded expectations. It’s Paradise shortly after the fall. In our view staying in Vilcabamba for an extended period of time would be dependent upon being able to make an easy urban escape. Loja is that destination. Within the first couple of hours in Loja Donna’s gut instincts were saying, “I’m not feeling it!” Every downside we’d heard about the place was ringing true. The upsides didn’t overcome the sense that “There’s no there there!” In the end lingering in Vilcabamba looked pretty darn good. Loja inspired the urge to escape.

Our escape from Loja took us to Saraguro. The town is named after the indigenous Saraguro people. They are one of Ecuador’s strongest and most intact indigenous groups. Local customs and culture are strong. The Sunday market is a gathering place for proud Saraguro’s dressed in their traditional finery, and for youngsters with cell phones. Many youth were dressed in the latest fashions with their long braids tying them to traditional culture.

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The photos we took in Saraguro were discreet. We were the ones who were out of place. Our manner of dress was worthy of sidelong glances.

A woman our age, wearing a stylish fedora, pigtails, and a fleck of coconut on her face, served as a warning. “I just love the Indigenous!” She was organizing a return visit with friends. A project was in the works. Truth? The locals are probably too polite to tell you what they think of you. Just be there and soak it in. Gushing and projects aren’t necessary. The Saraguro have been doing fine for centuries. What can you possibly think you have to offer them?

At this point we’ve started discussing the possibility of using Cuenca as a base and escaping to the small towns. Yes, Cuenca’s busses still belch black smoke. We found ways to avoid them, and discovered neighborhoods where the smoke doesn’t quite reach. Cuenca is an attractive city. It has interesting architecture, great restaurants, and the river. You can rent a nice place for $500 to $800 per month. A $5 bus ride will get you to one of the small towns. From there other towns are an inexpensive taxi ride away. There is a reason so many ex-pats live in Cuenca.

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Overall Ecuador is an intriguing retirement/snowbird option. Recent changes allow tourists to stay for six months instead of three. A Canadian ex-pat shared that high interest rates (9%) are offered by the banks. He also shared that bank accounts up to $30,000 are guaranteed by the government. Economic stability??? That’s a global issue. I’d say Ecuador’s economic climate is in flux. With that in mind it makes sense to rent a place instead of buying one.  “Keep it light enough to travel.” has always been solid advice.

Nuts and bolts and bottom lines are worthy considerations. Still, it comes down to an emotional connection. Without connection there is no reason to do the figuring. It’s a big world and the options are endless.

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From Saraguro we caught a three hour bus ride into Cuenca. It cost $5.00 and was a nice way to travel. The landscapes were beautiful. Double rainbows greeted us as we entered town. The churches in the historic center of Cuenca were a familiar sight. It felt like coming home. In my mind that’s about as good as it gets!

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