Quito!

Landed safely (after a missed approach due to high winds) in Quito. Now taxi-ing to our hotel. Unfortunately unlike Cuenca where the airport is almost downtown (a $3 cab ride even with a 100% tip) its a 45 minute (and $25) ride here.

Airport Lunch

At the departure gate (1 of 2 in the airport-both share the same very comfortable seats) awaiting our flight to Quito. Having a delicious lunch and while the prices are “airport” prices, the are Ecuadorian ones. Our total lunch (beef empanada, Costco sized hot dog, chips and two drinks) was $10. I suspect in a US airport one of the combos would have been that much.

Hats

Just a quick post. I failed to take many pictures the other day in the hat factory showing how they are made. We stopped in the hat museum adjacent to our apartment building today and thought I’d share a couple of pictures that show they are actually woven.

We tried to find hats to fit us, alas we are too big headed…..now don’t go there!

Below is the view from the museum’s second floor looking out over Cuenca. Below that are two showing the view of “our” shady balcony from the same place. The balconies cut into the roof are in the third floor apartments

Cuenca Week One

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Other than some minor issues (like breathing) we had a great first week. While a larger city than I realized (I really need to do more research!) it has the feel of a small town.  This is especially true in the historic center of the city which is centered by Parc Calderon, a block fronted by both the old and new cathedral (that is it in the background above).

The people are friendly and greet you with a nod and a Hola or Buenos Noches as you pass on the sidewalks.  The central area is FLAT! and there is only a slight slope (at least by Portuguese standards) up to our Airbnb. Speaking of which, it is one of the nicest while one of the cheapest we have stayed in during our adventure.  It has two bedrooms (with double beds – our only real complaint) and two baths, a nice living/dining room, working kitchen and in addition to the washing machine –  a dryer. Below is a sunset we enjoyed from the balcony.

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Cuenca is known for having a perpetual spring, the temperatures typically don’t vary more than five degrees throughout the year – typically low 70s during the day and upper fifties/low sixties at night.   Except during their “winter” when they can be slightly cooler and they have more rain.  So far we have only had one grey day and the temperatures have been glorious – especially compared to those being experienced by our friends in the US.  The coolest evening has been 51 and the hottest day was 73….typically, it has been in the upper 60s during the day and the upper fifties at night with partially cloudy skies.  Since nobody in Cuenca has heat, we have been sleeping under blankets. For both of us it has been heaven!

Well, except for that breathing thing….Cuenca is at 8,399 feet above sea level (remember the bus ride up from Guayaquil at the coast took almost 4 hours to go what is 78 miles as the crow flies) which means the air here has 72% of the oxygen that most of you are breathing right now.  Mike didn’t have any trouble the first couple of days (when we tried to take it easy to adjust) but I experienced some dizziness and what our friends (Janet & Christian LeBlanc from my Clemson days) who live here refer to as being a zombie. After a busy day on Wednesday when we likely overdid it walking to the big supermarket (we taxied back) and then uphill (in this case a hill the Portuguese would recognize) to the LeBlanc’s for dinner, we both felt very rough (headache, dizzy, woozy) on Thursday.  Mike spent most of the day prone reading…and I barely moved around the apartment. Thankfully that awfulness passed by the next day and except for getting out of breath if I forget and walk a normal pace or when we walk up the hill and then the steps to our second floor unit, I think all is good now on the high altitude front.

During the week we took both legs of Cuenca’s tourist bus – they say it is HopOn HopOff and is a double decker with open seating on top but we never saw anyone HO or HO.   One route heads south and the highlight is a stop at Turi where there is a small village with a great overlook of the entire city. But we also passed many historical spots in the city.

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The northern bus route which we did on Wednesday (before the ill fated death march to the supermarket) was not quite as interesting other than we got to see some parts of the city that we would have been unlikely to visit otherwise.  But the highlight was a visit to a factory where they make Panama Hats.  From what we were told, Panama hats were initially made only in Ecuador and got their name because they went through Panama and (this is what I suspect is the real truth) when Teddy Roosevelt was asked where he got that snappy hat, he said Panama.  The hats are still made by hand and by indigenous women (not being sexist…that is just the case) typically at home.  This factory then takes their product that looks like a woven holder for a potted plant and bleaches or dyes it and shapes it into the hundreds of different shapes – men’s, women’s, planter, fedora, etc.  Depending on the weave (the finer the straw from which it is woven the better) prices range from $30 up to a thousand or more.  If we decide to spend much time here in the future, then I suspect we will end up with them to keep the very strong sun (closer to it by being at the equator and at the high altitude) off our tender heads and noses.

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We have enjoyed reconnecting with Christian and Janet.  Christian and I were classmates at Clemson and housemates during graduate school.  Janet was an art history professor.  They lived in Greenville, SC until last year when they bought a house here.  It has been great to have local friends.  Especially after six months of really only having each other to talk to.  We have met a few folks along the way but only a very few, so we are enjoying time with them.  They are putting the final touches on their house renovation and are really enjoying their life here.  We went to church and then brunch with them last Sunday and since then have been lucky enough to have two (one more is promised) home cooked meals at their place.  We celebrated Christian’s birthday (photo below) by joining them out for dinner one night and last night went to see the Pacific Boy’s Choir perform at the Cuenca cultural center (to a full house!).  It was a great evening.  First a local girls choir honored us with a three songs, then the guests from San Francisco performed.  They were great.  I hope that some of them end up going to UVA and joining the Virginia Gentlemen…they are certainly of their caliber.  From what the LeBlancs tell us, the government funds almost all of the cultural performances – symphony, concerts, shows and the public is invited gratis.  Yet another thing budget friendly about Ecuador!

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Speaking of budget, I am happy to report that we were about a $1000 under our budget for the month of June and are over $6,000 under for the year so far. WhooHoo….though I know the are going to need that surplus come September since we hadn’t budgeted for the Baltic Cruise.

Certainly Ecuador is living up to its budget friendly reputation.  I got my shoes shined for a buck down at Parc Calderon while waiting for the HOHO bus and for the first time in my life pretended I was Rosie O’Donnell and tipped 100%! And we bought bunch of sunflowers at the flower market for $4.

Supermarket prices are in line with the US for the most part except some things are much cheaper – avacados, limes, oranges and some are way more expensive – can you say $7 for a small jar of Peter Pan peanut butter?  With the exception of the birthday celebration which was at an upscale restaurant and happy hour which included mojitos, none of our restaurant meals have cost more than $5 per person. Even then, the fine dining experience, our entrees were under $12 per person…and they were high end.  I only took a picture of mine which is below, but Mike had a large portion of Tuna, Janet an equally large and delicious filet of salmon and Christian had a steak.  The total bill for four with 2 beers and two wines and two desserts including tax and tip was $81.  When is the last time you ate out at a high end restaurant for $20?  Most of the small restaurants offer a fixed price lunch which typically includes a soup, a main, a dessert and a fresh juice.  All have been tasty some outstanding.  The most expensive was $4 and the least $2.

Our $$2.50 lunch of potato soup, some sort of stew with rice and a teeny tiny brownie and juice.

Our $2.00 lunch of a different potato soup, a chuckwagon steak (they were out of chicken) and delicious fresh fruit for dessert.  Of course I splurged and spend another $2 on a piece of chocolate cake and a coffee!

Dinner at a seafood place one night – Mike had a combination plate that included Cerviche served in a friend plantain bowl & ecuadorian seafood fried rice with a piece of fish.  I had fish with rice and beans and tostones.  Both dishes were tasty.  Total meal including two beers was under $20.

After making delicious Chicken n Dumplins (tortillas make fine dumplings) at home for lunch one day and not being really hungry for supper we went to happy hour down at a little cafe Christian and Janet told us about.  We had two for one mojitos and a delicious “nacho” plate – half fried flour tortillas and half fried potatoes with chili and delicious guacamole – it was not mushy – maybe made with grated unripe avacado? and lots of onions and lime juice.

During the week we finalized our plans for Quito – four nights there starting on the 14th and for Mexico, found a nice one bedroom condo with a community pool in San Miguel De Allende on Vacation Rentals By Owner (all the Airbnbs we liked were booked or uphill!) so if the weather turns hot (it isn’t supposed to) we will at least be able to have a pool to enjoy.  We will be there until August 6th when we head to Mexico City and overnight using Hilton points at their hotel IN the airport for our flight the next day.  We then are heading almost immediately to Seabrook Island to celebrate our dear friend Claudia’s birthday at the beach.  After that weekend, we will be in Danville until September 8th when we head to Copenhagen with Mike’s Mom Lois for the Baltic Cruise. She will finish her trip with four days with us in Lisbon.

What we do after Lois’ departure is still up in the air.  The plan had been to go stay where we think we might want to retire if that place is in Europe.  And Portugal seems to be the lead horse in that race. If we have decided on somewhere else, then we figured we would pick someplace in Europe we hadn’t been to spend the month before it’s time to head to home in November. We really like Cuenca and think it might make a great retirement locale BUT they changed their visa rules so that we can only stay 90 days each year on a tourist visa OR have to stay all but 90 days on a residence visa (for the first two years).  Since neither of those work with our desire for significant travel while we are able, it doesn’t appear Cuenca is right for us at this point.  So, we aren’t sure whether we are going to spend October on the Portugal coast (no hills please) or take up the offer of Jenny and Brian from Scotland (we met on Viking Sky crossing in March) and visit them in Aberdeen and see some of Scotland ….or maybe both, ain’t the flexibility of retirement great?

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last minute update…as the pictures were uploading we had a minor tremor! Nothing significant- rattled the doors to the balcony

Ecuador!

Had on time and uneventful flights on COPA from Miami to Panama City to Guayaquil. Lovely meals served on both and discovered that Guava Juice and Rum is a tasty cocktail!

After a short taxi ride to the combo shopping mall/food court/bus station and a little bit of difficulty in finding the ticket office, we boarded our bus to Cuenca. Because Ecuadorians are relatively small, we bought 4 seats to make sure we had leg room. They assigned us the front row so we had extra. I guess we traveled business class the whole trip!

The ride from the coast up to 8399 feet took about 3.5 hours but it was beautiful. The picture at the top of his post was just after we left the city. The rest are as we rode up higher and higher. Lots of switchbacks. I can only imagine how beautiful without the fog in must be in some places. At two places vendors literally jumped on the moving (albeit slowed down) bus and rode a bit. One had ice cream and two others had baskets of empanadas and other pastries. They then jumped off and I guess rode a different bus back to their starting point? We passed huge fields of sugar cane and bananas and/or plantain trees. At roadside stands we saw those, pineapples (hanging upside down), dragonfruit and tons of pumpkin and other goards.

Unfortunately we hit at Friday rush hour when we got to Cuenca so it took another 45 minutes to get through town to the bus station. Then a short taxi ride to our Airbnb and we can finally have a real night of sleep! We did go around the corner and have dinner from a Mom, Pop and 3 kids stand? Stall? Former Living Room? Around the corner. Had two skewers (one pork and pork sausage, the other turkey and chicken) with rice, lentils (or some bean that looks like a lentil) potatoes and plantains. Along with two warm cokes our total bill came to $6!

We are now back in the apartment and this is our view of the cathedral from our balcony.

More later…but after 57 hours of traveling with only a 2 hour plane nap and a 4.5 Hotel sleep, I am going to bed! ‘Night