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Making Life Changes in Ecuador; Doing the Expat Thing and Even More in Cuenca


The Tomebamba River runs through Cuenca, Ecuador separating the historic and modern districts.

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We stacked on thick blankets and mostly stayed under the covers for our first week in Cuenca, tightly cuddling our dog’s and cat’s bodies, using our pets as warming devices. When the clouds lifted and the sun finally appeared, we crawled out of bed and discovered we both had infected knees from separate falls we took at the airport (Fred) and at the new apartment (Susan) – the day of our move to Ecuador.
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I’ve had to make some big changes in my life. And really, who hasn’t? Some changes I have made under duress, and others just naturally happened. Fred and I decided last year that we needed to do something about the high cost of retirement and our small retirement purse strings. Like many other people close to retirement age, we lost most of our savings when the stock market crashed. Because I was the chief investor, and felt guilty about “what I should have done,” I did not want to take on the chore of reinvesting what was left. We needed to do something else, instead of giving our money right back to Wall Street cheats.
Why don’t we live somewhere else that is less expensive? We won’t need as much money if we can do this – I asked myself and approached Fred with the idea. He and I love adventure. We love exploring other cultures, so the idea of expat living sounded quite good. I speak some Spanish and have always been interested in South America, so we joined several thousand other baby boomers like us and moved to the current expat hot spot this past August – Cuenca Ecuador, arguably the most charming city in this small South American country, with its cobblestone streets, old-world cathedrals, colonial parks and urban rivers with lush greenways. Cuencanos continue a proud intellectual tradition that has produced more notable writers, poets, artists, and philosophers than anywhere else in their country.
This was going to be a big change, moving so far from home, away from our son and granddaughter.
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OVER THE YEARS I have not been cautious about taking care of my diabetes. Not cautious? Well, let’s say not doing much about it. But I am getting ahead of myself; a discussion on diabetes comes later. When we got to Ecuador, I really was not thinking of being careful of what I eat, because at first we were really just trying to stay warm.
We arrived in Cuenca at the end of August and it was cold; especially at night and not much warmer during the day. Further, we were living in a cute little apartment without heat (the way they do things here in Ecuador) that was set along the Tomebamba River, a beautiful and very cold stream that runs through this city, separating the historical and modern districts, and eventually flowing into the Amazon River. One of the reasons we chose Cuenca was because of its natural beauty, with four rivers running through it.
In late August, it is traditionally cold. The night time temperatures typically drop to about 46 degrees F. and when you have no heat in a cement and stone building, believe me it is cold.
…And so we stacked on piles of thick blankets supplied by our apartment manager and mostly stayed under the covers for our first week in Cuenca, tightly cuddling our dog’s and cat’s bodies, using our pets as warming devices. When the clouds lifted and the sun finally appeared, we crawled out of bed and discovered we both had infected knees from separate falls we took at the airport (Fred) and at the new apartment (Susan) – the day of our move to Ecuador.
The next few weeks involved finding a doctor and getting our knees cleaned up and for Fred, taking antibiotics because his knee was a particularly bad mess. He fell at the hotel in Albuquerque as we were headed with our bags for the airport. Fred doesn’t complain about things like this, but I noticed at the first stop in Dallas that he looked almost dizzy. I asked for, and received from American Airlines, quick help in getting to the next gate. They were right there with wheelchairs for both of us. The airline’s wonderful care continued through our landings in Miami and then Guayaquil, where agents met us each time with their assistance.
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CUENCA, ABOUT A HALF million population with some four to five thousand expats, is 274 miles south of Quito and 155 miles southeast of Guayaquil, cities with international airports. To get to Cuenca, requires flying into one of these cities and then catching a domestic flight. Driving is not the quickest way to get here, as curving single-lane mountain roads about double the time you’d think it would take.
The drive from Quito to Cuenca, for instance, takes about 12 hours. But we were bringing a dog and cat to this cultural city and could not simply fly to our final destination. Ralph is a pug-nosed shih tzu and no airlines allows these dogs to fly under the plane for their health safety (they have trouble breathing). In Ecuador, the rules change, and no pets can fly in the cabin, so we had no choice but to drive from Guayaquil to our new home.
No problem said the apartment manager where we would be staying in Cuenca when I emailed him about this dilemma, asking for his ideas on how to get to his apartments from the airport. “I will come and pick you up.”
Xavier thankfully found us at the airport late the night we landed in Guayaquil. I had really screwed up, giving him the wrong description of our clothing and then losing his cell phone number. But after 30 minutes or so of airport terror, he honed in on Fred and was still smiling when he said Hola!
His double red truck was parked at the airport and he quickly loaded us in, packed our stuff– dog and cat in cages, two bags of computer stuff, 7 suitcases in all – and we headed out for the breath-taking four hour trip (with a couple of stops) through Parque Nacional Cajas (Cajas National Park), where even in the dead of night, this national treasure in the highlands of this South American country was stunning. 

XAVIER, WHO MANAGES the Otorongo Apartmentos, is also a fearless bike racer and he drove along this winding road with ease through the narrow parts of the highest pass reaching 4,450 meters or 14,600 feet. Cajas provides about 60 percent of the drinking water for the Cuenca area, and two of the four rivers of Cuenca originate from Cajas, the Tomebamba and Yanuncay rivers.
This late night in the mountains as we passed through each small village, people were having wonderful times, roasting whole pigs on grills, eating and visiting each other as their children played. We stopped for some fresh fruit from stands holding the must wonderful-looking fruits I had ever seen, and many kinds of fruit I had never seen in my life. Tiny bananas, pineapples and so much more caught our eyes and tasted so good.
As we left the warm air of Guayaquil and drove into the cool mist, the view coming over the Cajas was amazing, with stars brilliantly shining, perhaps as welcoming omens to our new home and retirement venture. “Maybe we will see the Southern Cross,” Fred hoped out loud, referring to Crux, a well-known constellation easily visible from the southern hemisphere at practically any time of year. We looked around and probably did see it – but wouldn’t have known if we had. This was all so new!
Next – Fixing our banged up knees and coming to grips with diabetes