Cuenca – #1 Destination

Ecuador2010 527 I’ll admit it – Cuenca is the primary reason we went to Ecuador.  It has been named as the #1 retirement destination in the world by International Living magazine as well as being singled out by other publications.  It’s a city of approximately 450,000 residents in the southern highlands of Ecuador at 8,000 elevation.  At that elevation, even at the equator it has a year round “spring like” climate.  It retains it’s Spanish colonial architecture with arched doorways, interior courtyards, cobbled stone streets and 52 churches.

To get to Cuenca from Guayaquil, at the recommendation of the hotel staff, we used a minivan service which makes several daily non-stop trips between Guayaquil and Cuenca as well as other destinations.  The cost was $12 per person each way for a 4 hour trip.  We were told this was about twice the cost for the regular bus lines but a little faster and apparently, a little more “upscale”.  Among the other passengers was a gentleman wearing a ball cap with Miami, FL on it.  He’s a resident of Guayaquil, spoke very good English and is a professional billiards player on the way with a couple of others on the van to Cuenca for a tournament.

Once we got into the mountains, it was very lush and green with lots of little “waterfalls” flowing out of the mountain sides.  The road was undergoing major construction upgrades.  A new concrete surface was being put down.  This is part of Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa’s commitment for numerous infrastructure improvements.  This led to a few delays but overall it was a comfortable trip.  We could have flown into Cuenca but we wanted to see what Ecuador looks like outside of the cities.  The mountain scenery was fabulous.  Very green with dramatic peaks and beautiful lush valleys with a river running through and cattle scattered about.Ecuador2010 447

In Cuenca we had selected a hostel to stay in called Hostel Americano.  It was a little further from the city center, El Centro, than I would have preferred but the hostess, Eulalia was very friendly and helpful and the accommodations were very nice at $36 per night.  This is a 3 level house on the hill just on the North side of Cuenca with great views of the city.  It was mid-afternoon when we arrived so we took the opportunity to do a little walking and get oriented.  It’s so amazing to experience a place so different from your usual surroundings.  Looking down street after street seeing the buildings with tall windows and iron work on the small balconies.

We learned quickly in Ecuador that the pedestrian has no right of way at intersections.  Do not leave the curb until you have examined all directions and don’t necessarily take your cue from the locals since they are a little more adept at dodging vehicles and not tripping on the cobble stones.  Driving in Ecuador involves a heavy reliance on the horn.  We were not able to fully decipher all of the various patterns but there seems to be a horn cadence for every occasion.  Interestingly, one of the uses for the horn does not seem to be for expressing displeasure with another driver.  Even in the midst of traffic snarls, we didn’t see any shaking fists or shouts.  It seemed very civilized and respectful.  The one traffic related negative is that apparently Ecuador doesn’t put much effort into reducing vehicle emissions, particularly from busses and trucks.

We wandered around the central square which is a very lovely park like setting with plenty of benches for resting and observing.  We had a very nice meal of “typical” Ecuadorian foods at a restaurant on the central square called Raymipampa.

Another of the notable first experiences are the “cholas cuencanas”.  They are indigenous women from the surrounding countryside that come into the city to sell produce and other items they “manufacture”.  They dress in the traditional manner with a full skirt with an embroidered hem that can identify which community a woman comes from, a beautiful fringed shawl and the Ecuador2010 552 chola hat.  It is made using the same materials and techniques as the Panama hat (which is an Ecuadorian originated item) but it is painted white and will often be handed down from one generation to the next.

We got back to our room and settled in relatively early and before long heard some loud popping noise that could have been gunfire or fireworks or possibly a small explosion.  The popping repeated periodically and then seemed to intensify around 9:00pm.  We looked out our window in all directions and finally saw the fireworks.  I had read that the people of Ecuador really like their fireworks and will use any occasion for setting them off.  It was a really nice display that included a most interesting aspect.  We could see several reddish lighted objects that seemed to float upward.  They were not exploding or making any noise, just floated with a flickering red glow.  I told Valerie that they looked like little hot air balloons.  When we had the chance to ask about them, they confirmed that my description was fairly accurate.  I’m not sure what provides the fuel, but the flame heats the small balloon and it floats upward and is carried by wind until it burns itself out.  It was a very lovely display.

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Guayaquil – Our Gateway to Ecuador

Before leaving for Ecuador, I checked the State Department travel site where they have information for Americans traveling to foreign countries.  Regarding safety in Ecuador:

Crime in Ecuador continues to occur at a dramatically high rate and is often violent.  American citizens have been victims of crimes, including but not limited to homicides, armed assaults, kidnappings, robberies, sexual assaults, and home invasions.  American citizens have also been victims of violent crime on beaches, both at popular tourist destinations and in remote areas.  Robbery of taxi passengers is a serious problem in the Guayaquil and Manta areas.

I saw this after I had booked our airline tickets for Guayaquil.  I booked the travel to allow us to arrive into Guayaquil in the early/mid afternoon to give us a chance to find our hotel and get oriented before dark.  The Lonely Planet guidebook I purchased for this trip referred to Guayaquil as having a possibly unearned reputation as a dangerous place for visitors.  At any rate, I was a bit apprehensive about this part of the trip, particularly getting from the airport to the hotel.

While Guayaquil revealed itself to be unremarkable at best (most of Guayaquil was destroyed in a major fire early in the 1900’s so it’s Spanish colonial beginnings have been mostly lost), we didn’t encounter any difficulty or situation approaching danger.  Although, we did stick to the recommended “safe zones” for tourists.

We stayed at the Hotel Presidente Internacional which was very nice but in a somewhat drab section of town.  However, we were only 3 to 4 blocks to the main drag, Avenida 9 de Octubre.  Along this street were lots of shopping, fast food, banks and other needs for daily life.  One end of the street begins at the Guayas River along which runs the Malecon 2000, arguably, the best feature of Guayaquil.

Malecon 2000 - Guayaquil

The Malecon is a wide promenade or boardwalk that runs for perhaps 2 miles along the river.  There are benches, trees, bridges, towers, food stalls and a very lovely garden space along the Malecon.  According to Lonely Planet, this areas is completely safe and is well patrolled by police.  Based on our experience, this is true.  We spent several hours exploring the Malecon from one end to another on Sunday.  There were lots of couples, families and other groups along with us. At the Northern end of the Malecon is Barrio Las Penas, a colorful hillside community of houses, restaurants, bars and shops.

Las Penas - Guayaquil

There are 444 steps from bottom to the top at which point you’ll encounter a small lighthouse, a chapel and a nice view of Guayaquil.

On Monday, we took a taxi to the Terminal Terreste (the bus terminal) and purchased a ticket to Salinas ($3.50 each way).  First, the bus station is very large with many shops and eateries in one hall and a vast selection of bus companies in the other hall.  For each section of the country and for international bus travel, there are various bus companies to choose from.  We had been give the name of a bus company to use by the very helpful front desk staff at the hotel.  They told us that this particular bus would be (mostly) non-stop to Salinas.  This type of bus service is sometimes referred to as “Executivo”.  After purchasing our ticket, we were directed to go immediately to the departure area for boarding.  The bus was nice with comfortable seating and mostly empty.  They played a US action movie, “The Marine”, dubbed in Spanish with the volume at the high end of the scale.  The trip to Salinas was about 2 1/2 hours. At various points in the trip, there would be a brief stop and someone would hop on the bus with some type of snacks, fruit, ice cream, water and other beverages.  Food service at your seat.

Did I mention that Ecuador is either the #1 or #2 exporter of bananas in the world?  Suffice to say that along the highway you can see miles of banana trees and large piles of bananas at every roadside stand.  They also grow most other fruits we’re familiar with and some we didn’t recognize.

Beach at Salinas

Salinas is the primary beach destination for residents of Guayaquil and the rest of southern Ecuador.  There’s also a marina there that apparently is a prime stopping point for yachts traveling the Pacific coast.  It’s a nice beach and a pleasant break from the heat of Guayquil, but a block in from the water it’s a poor, dusty little town.

Interesting sights while in Guayaquil:

  • Iguanas in Parque Bolivar
  • Seems like motorcycles are sold in appliance stores?
  • On Avenida 9 de Octubre, a car experienced a flat tire.  While the car remained in the traffic lane and passengers remained in the vehicle, several men set about to change the tire.  No need to drag it away somewhere.  Just take care of it right there and then move on.