Safe Haven Condo, Cuenca, Ecuador

Sometimes, taking a chance is a good idea.

I was looking for a place in “Gringolandia”, an apartment or condo to stay in for a few days so I could learn my way around Cuenca more.

As luck would have it, there was a new listing on  The lady offered Kangen water (wow!) and I immediately concluded she must somehow be involved in healing.  She also chose the name Safe Haven for the rooms she rents.  I was pretty much able to discern the approximate location from the photos.

It turned out that the condo was located near four bus lines with easy access to El Centro as well as far flung places.  It was a blessing in more ways than one –  a delightful host and a great location.

Condominio Los Cipreses

Condominio Los Cipreses

As you will see below, the residence has magical views to downtown (El Centro, looking east), to the Tomebamba River (south), to the Andes in the west (known here as Las Cajas), and, to comfortable neighbors below.

For those of you who haven’t yet been to Cuenca, this is one of the more privileged areas of town.

View to El Centro

View to El Centro

My room looking toward the Tomebamba River

My room looking toward the Tomebamba River

My room looking to the Andes

My room looking to the Andes

Traditional Ecuadorian home below
Traditional Ecuadorian home below

View across the street to villa of wealthy Ecuadorian

View across the street to villa of wealthy Ecuadorian

December 5, 2012 at 10:36 am 1 comment

Flying to Cuenca, Ecuador from California…

Happy flyer me reporting in again.

On my way to Cuenca for the fourth time with trustworthy TACA, an excellent airline choice if  flying from the west coast ( San Francisco or Los Angeles).  The flights are direct, traveling south along the Pacific coast, and, the journey is relatively painless.

On other trips I departed on  TACA after midnight in order to arrive in Quito (via Costa Rica), at midday, and then changed planes  in Quito for the 50 minute flight to Cuenca. For this trip I decided to try an alternate route and fly during the day from LAX to Guayaquil, changing planes in San Salvador.

Guayaquil airport

Guayaquil airport

Not sure the day trip was the wisest choice as I had to overnight late at night in Guayaquil – it’s unwise for a woman traveling alone in this not so tame city.  I chose a hostal close to the airport recommended by someone from Cuenca’s ex-pat newsletter the Gringo Tree and was so disappointed.  There was no rest for the weary – a loud party and barking dogs across the street all night.  For the same price I could have been in an immaculate, quiet, charming three or four star hotel anywhere else.  Just another affirmation of my lack of affinity for Guayaquil, and another lesson about why one must not trust web site photos – what you see is not necessarily what you will receive.  Though if passing through again, I will learn of better places to stay.  On I viewed a handful of apartments and homes I might have enjoyed for half what I paid at the dreary hostal.

The good news is that flying through El Salvador meant not having to go through security with hand luggage as one must do changing planes in Costa Rica or Guatemala.  I also avoided Quito’s new airport which is over an hour from the city (not convenient if you are stuck there). The airport in Guayaquil is beautiful, and this time of year the balmy weather in the city feels wonderful.  Another bonus is that the flight to Cuenca, on a clear day, goes over the Andes.

Flying into Cuenca

I flew Ecuadorian airline TAME to Cuenca (third time using this company and still delighted with their service).   I like their planes – they are older, seem sturdier, and have leather seats.  On the Guayaquil-Cuenca run they use a small propeller plane which is surprisingly quiet.

December 5, 2012 at 9:32 am 1 comment

Captivating New Medicine & Travel Title from Little, Brown Publishers

A new book will be released April 3 about a young woman practicing medicine in 16th century Venice, and the journey she ends up taking to five nations in search of her missing father.  Medical lore and foreign travel are at its core.  Eager to read it!!

The Book of Madness and Cures

Here is the publisher description:

Dr. Gabriella Mondini, a strong-willed, young Venetian woman, has followed her father in the path of medicine. She possesses a singleminded passion for the art of physick, even though, in 1590, the male-dominated establishment is reluctant to accept a woman doctor. So when her father disappears on a mysterious journey, Gabriella’s own status in the Venetian medical society is threatened. Her father has left clues–beautiful, thoughtful, sometimes torrid, and often enigmatic letters from his travels as he researches his vast encyclopedia, The Book of Diseases.

After ten years of missing his kindness, insight, and guidance, Gabriella decides to set off on a quest to find him–a daunting journey that will take her through great university cities, centers of medicine, and remote villages across Europe. Despite setbacks, wary strangers, and the menaces of the road, the young doctor bravely follows the clues to her lost father, all while taking notes on maladies and treating the ill to supplement her own work.

Gorgeous and brilliantly written, and filled with details about science, medicine, food, and madness, THE BOOK OF MADNESS AND CURES is an unforgettable debut.

March 18, 2012 at 12:42 am Leave a comment

Long Awaited “On the Road” Movie to be Released Summer 2012

Here below is an article from, my favorite publishing industry on-line newsletter which writes not just about books, but books into film as well…

On the Road Finally Nearing Destination?

A long, strange trip to bring Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road to the big screen (Kerouac asked Marlon Brandoto play Dean Moriarty in 1957, and producer Francis Ford Coppola acquired the rights in 1980) may finally reach its destination at the Cannes Film Festival in May.IndieWire reported that “the post-production is wrapping up and European theatrical dates are slowly coming into focus.” The film is directed by Walter Salles (The Motorcycles Diaries) and stars “a promising young cast” that includes Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Tom Sturridge and Kristen Stewart, as well as veterans Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, Steve Buscemi, Kirsten Dunst and Terrence Howard.”We just finished the edit and the mix in Paris,” Salles said. “There are still a few steps left until the film is completely finished (designing titles and credits, getting the digital workprint back to 35mm, etc.) The independent company that produced the film, MK2, is now working on the site and trailer. As for release dates, they tend to vary from country to country when a film is distributed independently.”

IndieWire noted that “the release in France, which producer Charles Gillibert revealed on Twitter is set for May 23rd, running concurrently with the tail end of this year’s Cannes Film Festival (scheduled for May 16-27). This primes the film for a potential premiere on the Croisette, which will precede the Gallic theatrical release.” On the Road does not have a North American distributor yet.

January 18, 2012 at 12:13 am 2 comments

Why Cuenca, a City I Love, is a Top Retirement Destination

Have you ever traveled to a place and then wanted to go back? Somehow it spoke to you of comfort and you felt at home? Cuenca, Ecuador does this for me.  I have been there before. Loved in then, love it now.

Cuenca (Santa Ana de los Quatros Rios de Cuenca is the official name) is beautiful, clean, charming, and welcoming. It is also livable, presuming you have life or travel experience in other countries and are easily adaptable.

Over the past five years I’ve found Cuenca continuing to appear on polls and magazine lists as a top retirement destination worldwide.

It attracts more residents from around the world than any other Ecuadorian city.

Umm, what’s up?

Well for one, Cuenca is a UNESCO Heritage Trust Site full of splendid colonial buildings and cultural events.  Think happy visuals and pleasing experiences.

Catedral de la Immaculada Concepcion

Cuenca (which means “basin”) is nestled in a valley surrounded by the Andes with panoramas and vegetation that are fabulous eye candy – lavender flowering jacaranda trees swaying in the breeze, Tipu Tipuanas (aka the Pride of Bolivia) brimming with yellow flowers, pepper trees and weeping willows, roses of every variety and color – among the most perfect I’ve ever seen – including the gorgeous roses of France!

The Tomebamba and three other rivers pass through the city with grassy knolls on both sides for miles, inviting you to lounge and fall asleep to the sounds of the water. Bridges and walk ways are mostly of old stone, and there are lovely homes, both old and new to admire. The skies are clear and crisp, the clouds ever changing in their shape, and the colors, especially at sunset, are amazing.  For the most part, the air is uncommonly fresh if you come from a place like Los Angeles.

Along the Tomebamba River

Stately buildings along the Tomebamba

Approximately 200,000 people of mostly Spanish, African, mestizo, and indigenous descent live there. The elevation is 8,200 feet.

The pluses for retirees (and others):

Again, physical beauty, nature in abundance – this is also a bird lover’s paradise; and, there are thermal baths and waterfalls just outside the city

Bookstores and Libraries – meet new friends at Carolina’s Bookstore (American owned), or at book and DVD exchanges Thursday mornings at Windhorse Cafe

Cuencanos – the people of Cuenca are kind, helpful, friendly, and educated (it’s a university town)

Culture – art fairs, concerts, cathedrals, historic buildings, museums, theatre – often free and all year long

Made to order lunch at La Negrita

Made to order lunch at La Negrita

Ex-pat activities, clubs and meet-up groups

Fresh and often organic produce (see photo to right)

Housing – apartments, condos, and homes, often gated, and often built with green, eco-friendly materials, more affordable than in North America and Europe (average 2 + 2 unfurnished is $5-600/month); “Gringolandia” to the  northwest of town is a favored area

Gringolandia along the Tomebamba River


Insects and other creatures – rarely a mosquito and other pests at this altitude, but there might be a few ants as well as large moths almost 12” from wing to wing whom you can befriend.

A Cuencan Moth

Medical care – outstanding, state-of-the-art hospitals (three) with top notch equipment; three universities with medical schools; physicians and dentists who have also studied in the U.S. and Europe; small herb, vitamin, and indigenous medicine shops; a school of naturopathy which is scheduled to open in spring 2012; medical costs about 1/5 what they are in North America; affordable private medical insurance; and a government health plan if you are over 65 and living in the country on a pensioner’s visa. Cuenca is also considered a top medical tourism destination.

Restaurants – Austrian, Chinese, crepes and waffles, Ecuadorian, East Indian, International, Japanese, Mexican, Spanish, vegetarian, and more; $2.50 to $20 depending on where you choose to eat

The charming owner of La Negrita

Safety – physical safety, it’s unlikely you will be assaulted, think 1950’s America; economic safety (the country is considered stable, at the moment)

Sports and Exercise – fly-fishing (there is an ex-pat fly fishing club), golf (one club), swimming pools, tennis courts, running and walking groups, Tai Chi classes, yoga classes, dancing classes, for your brain… language classes

U.S. dollar-based economy – for Americans this makes life easier

Value – economic (Americans can live here for $1000/month), mental (gentler life style than in North America), spiritual (maybe more time for yourself)

Transportation – for the moment prices are reasonable – between $1 and $3 in town for a taxi; around 50 cents on the bus (25 cents if you are over 65); you may not need a car; there’s a gorgeous, easy to get to airport

Cuenca's beautiful airport

Weather – for anyone coming from a very hot, humid place, or a place where it snows, Cuenca might be considered heaven with its comfortable “springtime” weather

The challenges:

Clothing, Furniture, Electrical items, and Toiletries – ouch!!  No Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Nordstroms, Marshalls, TJ Maxx, or Steinmart… rare to find quality clothing (bring your own); not the best quality furniture but it will do and there are exceptions, just search; bring your own lap top (all computer equipment and appliances cost more than they do in North America); no organic cosmetics or hair color found recently but maybe someone will start an organic business soon?!

Ecuadorian buses – usually with standing room only; even though there are places designated for the disabled and the elderly I have not witnessed men and young people getting up for women or the elderly

Ecuadorian driving habits – if you are hit crossing a road on foot it will be your fault, be careful!!

Ecuadorians who party, party late into the night with loud music that can be heard for blocks. This can be any night of the week. Unless you are a night person and wish to hear fabulous cumbia melodies vibrating in your head, you might choose the “Gringolandia” area for living if you prefer to retire early and wish an atmosphere of peace and quiet.

Gasoline emissions – even though petrol costs a little over $1 a gallon, it is unrefined, and, there are no emission standards like those in North America; cars and diesel buses emit noxious odors, especially in the downtown area; you might consider protecting yourself with a face mask when on main city streets

Hard for the physically impaired, unless you have a driver, as it is not a wheel-chair accessible city – roads are not flat and smooth, the city is on different levels, and there are a lot of stairs (escalinatas) to climb or descend

Movie theaters – just two, but better than none.  One plays films in English.  You may end up downloading, exchanging, or bringing DVD’s

Petty theft – you must watch if anyone is following you, not carry valuables, and not wear expensive jewelry

Weather – I have heard that some Americans have contracted pneumonia and had to be hospitalized so it is advised that you research the climate and assess whether or not it is compatible with your health needs; also related, please note that some people are sensitive to Cuenca’s bouncing weather patterns from 70 in the afternoon to 40 at night.  June, July, and August are known for heavy rain every day.

Please keep in mind that Ecuador is still a developing country, and that no place on the planet is perfect any longer. Despite some of the sacrifices mentioned, I remain an ardent Cuenca fan. I’d love to live in a quiet apartment with a view to the Tomebamba!!

For more information I highly recommend Cuenca resident Connie Pombo’s book Living and Retiring in Ecuador, full of very useful tips, and available on

I also like Sofia Hoffmann’s  site (she’s a Cuencan married to an American), the website which offers practical information for Cuenca and the rest of the country, ditto for Charles Barrett’s, noteworthy for its visa information, and,  For whimsy and fabulous photographs click on Deke and Shirley’s

See for an idea of what is happening at the moment in Cuenca.  I wish I had known about the Gringo Tree newsletter list before my recent trip.  You can subscribe on the web site.

There’s a Cotacachi, Ecuador based blogger, Gary A. Scott, a business man who focuses primarily on real estate; he seems to provide worthy insights at  There are several other ex-pat blogs to discover and learn from; I have yet to discover them but plan to.

If you are curious about discovering Cuenca, I trust this blog has helped a little.  If you are curious about Cotacachi, there is a December entry further down on this site.

Blessings,  Guendalina

January 2, 2012 at 7:42 pm 3 comments

Greeting the New Year 2012 with Neighborhood Tourism

Hello dear readers,

Welcome to the New Year 2012 (of the western calendar)!! How fortunate we are to have survived another chaotic year on our planet.

It is January 1 and I have walked two blocks from where I live to enjoy Sunday brunch at Luca’s Fresh Bites (aka Luca on Sunset at ) in West Hollywood, CA. I am sitting on a leather banquette facing the mountains of Laurel Canyon. The sun is out and it will be 80 degrees today. How lucky I am to live in what is considered to be one of the best microclimates in the world (along with Capetown (South Africa), Perth (Australia), and Valparaiso (Chile)).  Yes, weather is subjective, of course. 😉

I’m not that hungry today (thank goodness!), so I ordered something simple. And I am breaking the food combining basics of waiting one-half hour that I try to follow because everything here is eye candy and so tasty!!! I never feel guilty with their organic wonders.

Homemade granola at Luca on Sunset

To the left  is a photo of Luca’s homemade granola with fresh fruit and homemade yoghurt. The coffee you see is yes, organic (another special treat, I usually drink green tea) but today is a special day. And the Italian latte cup is inscribed “for music Puccini, for art Bernini, and for espresso Pasquini”!!

Luca is owned by a northern Italian and his American wife Rebecca. Everything served here is made with love, and the Italian entrees are authentically Italian as opposed to Italian-American. You can read the menu and see some photos at . I like coming here not only because it is dependable but also because I believe in supporting local businesses that do everything they can to be green, environmentally conscious, and health conscious. I also like that this morning I am surrounded by two lovely Ethiopian ladies, a handsome family from East India, a variety of Asians, and various Americans of other backgrounds.  Today I hear gentle music from the Middle East.  Delightful!

Some people say grow where you are planted. Please know that despite my nomadic tendencies and passion for living in other countries, I still love LA!! I believe it is named City of the Angels for a reason, despite its reputation for glitz and the superficial. Believe it or not, LA, as many other places, can be a marvelous place for inner travel; it offers a plethora of Buddhist, Self-Realization, and Vedic temples, gardens, a great variety of yoga homes and churches, lakes and an ocean, and, need I add, my own little sanctuary in West Hollywood surrounded by trees, green, and the energy of light.

This year I hope to introduce you to more adventures in America and abroad, and to some of the heroes and heroines I meet along the way, such as Luca and Rebecca of today, all doing their part to make our lives more pleasant.

I am open to all the wonders that await me and I send each of you my wishes for a 2012 filled with laughter, happy opportunities, health, prosperity, peace, and traveling if you so desire.

Always with love, Guendalina

January 1, 2012 at 9:26 pm Leave a comment

The Way – A Meaningful Film About Traveling the Camino de Santiago

I have envisioned walking the “El Camino de Santiago” from St. Jean Pied de Port, France to Santiago de Compostela, Spain since I was 21, when I had the privilege of staying at the Parador de los Reis Catolicos in Santiago with one of my sisters. Imagine ending up here after an almost 500 mile walk!! (See photo below)


Room at Parador de Santiago, Santiago de Compostela

One of the next best things to taking that walk is watching The Way-The Movie about that journey. For me it was a blessing to see this soul-searching film just in time for Christmas!

Do not wish to spoil the pilgrimage for you so I’ll refrain from mentioning the story line, but thought I’d introduce you to the four main characters – a sweet Dutchman, a tough cookie Canadian gal, a charming Irish writer, and Martin Sheen as the American ophthalmologist who has just lost his son. None of them have met each other before; they meet on the road, just as the universe intended. The film is lovingly produced, directed, and written by Martin’s real-life son Emilio Estevez, who also appears in magic realism moments. Special notes: part of the movie is filmed in Galicia which is the land of the Sheen-Estevez ancestry.  And Taylor, Martin’s grandson and Emilio’s son, is married to a young woman Taylor met on his first trip to Burgos with Martin.

After watching the movie you might be compelled to run out and buy Spanish sheep’s cheese, some rustic bread, and a Jerez sherry, or, if more inclined, you might be compelled to make this trip of a lifetime, or another trip you’ve always had in mind.

Below the photo you’ll find a review of my favorite book on the subject of this journey which was written for

David Alexanian/Arc Entertainment

Yorick van Wageningen, Deborah Kara Unger, James Nesbitt and Martin Sheen in “The Way.”

Review of Hape Kerkeling’s I’m Off Then: Losing and Finding Myself on the Camino de Santiago:

This is my favorite book so far this year. Perhaps because I wish I could have written it, perhaps because I’ve always wanted to be one of those pilgrims arriving in Santiago de Compostela after experiencing the long walk from the French Alps through Spain. This often arduous journey to the Shrine of St. James in Galicia, on a route that is 1,200 years old, is followed by over 100,000 people per year. And it is popular German TV comedian Hape (Hans Peter) who has paved our way. His road trip diary is engaging and hilarious – sore feet, sore knees, big angry dogs (or dogs that just look dangerous), blazing sun, filthy hostels, unusual encounters, breathtaking landscapes, and all. You get a feeling for what you might or might not do. Maybe you’ll do what he did, treat yourself to special hotels on occasion, stay more than one night in one place, and every now and then take the train instead of walking. What matters, as he shares, is what you experience, what you learn about yourself, what you may or may not learn from meeting other pilgrims, how you bring yourself to the events, the feelings, your thoughts, your soul. He braved much to bring us his charming story. (Thanks Hape, I feel happy reading about you and your friends). You’ll understand why this book is a bestseller in Germany (kudos by the way for the stellar translation by Shelley Frisch), how it won the Bruce Chatwin Prize for Best Travel Book of the Year, and how it has sold over 3 million copies. Highly recommended. – September, 2009

Happy traveling to all!!!!!

December 25, 2011 at 10:01 pm 1 comment

Lasse Hallstrom Movie to See in Spring 2012, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

For all you Lasse Hallstrom fans (me), lovers of south Yemen (one of my all time favorite destinations), fly-fishing  afficionados (some day), and multi-cultural stories (me), this movie will be a must see!!  Imagine,  an Arab who hires a Scotsman to bring fly-fishing to the high desert.  Fun!!  Release date is set for March 2012. Yalla!!


CBS Films has released a trailer for Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, adapted from Paul Torday’s novel and directed by Lasse Hallstrom from a script by Oscar winner Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire). reported the film, which stars Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt and Kristin Scott Thomas, was originally seen “as a possible awards contender after it premiered at Toronto in the fall, but the distributor decided it was too late for the tale of Middle East politics and fly-fishing to enter this year’s Oscar race. It instead has set it for a limited-run release March 2, 2012.”

See the trailer at

December 19, 2011 at 11:04 pm 3 comments

Are You Wondering About Retirement in Cotacachi, Ecuador?

If you are reading the Expat Exchange, International Living, Retirement Abroad, Shelter Offshore, Street Wise World, Transitions Abroad, or other web publications about retiring in another country because it might be a better use for the funds you currently live on, you have no doubt discovered Cotacachi, Ecuador.

If you haven’t discovered it yet and are wondering where it is and why several Americans, Canadians, and a few Europeans have made their way to this immaculate town, here is a bit of information I’ve both read and heard from locals about why this place is so well liked:

It is located in the northern most province of Imbabura (close to Columbia) and offers pleasing views as it is set in a valley between two volcanoes

It is small; population 8,000

It is relatively quiet compared to other Ecuadorian cities and it is flat; no steep inclines and therefore senior friendly

It is clean – no litter

There is a plethora of potable water, and if you know what you are buying and where it comes from, organic produce

The quality of air is a vast improvement over most North American and European cities

The cost for a two bedroom unfurnished apartment is around $200/month and goes up from there; there are eco-friendly “green” homes already built and continuing to be built of adobe and other materials

There is a Relais & Chateau Spa & Resort

There is an impressive community of alternative health care practitioners.  I have heard there is an ayurvedic doctor, a very well-liked American naturopath, a group of Cuban energy medicine men that visit once a year, plus midwives and masseurs.

There are plans for a small six-bed assisted living home for ex-pats, and for a high-end assisted living facility where the business model is to buy your living space (ground has been broken but its completion is about a year or two away).  There is one home for elderly women, the Hogar de Ancianas Carmen Ruiz Echeverria, considered by the government as one of the best elder care facilities in the country, according to the secretary.  It is run by loving nuns and attentive caregivers.  Half the population is indigenous Quechua-speaking; women with smiling eyes and hearts.

Eldercare home in Cotacachi

adorable residents of the eldercare home

The currency of Ecuador is the U.S. dollar

WiFi and telephone are about $100/month, electricity about $100/month, gas $2.50/month (these amounts have not been verified)

Meals in restaurants are under $5

If you own a car, gasoline is a little over $1 a gallon (the country produces petroleum)

Larger towns of Ibarra and Otavalo are 30-45 minutes away, Quito is 2 hours away

The municipality is encouraging growth and has a progressive indigenous mayor who is well regarded for his “participatory democracy,” which include efforts to bring together all residents – black, indigenous,mestizo, and ex-pats.  One of his city colleagues, a refined and charming gentleman, spends his days devoted to community building and outreach.  The city motto is “vive, ama, y compartelo” roughly translated to live, love, and share. Read more at .

Cotacachi City Hall

There is an excellent American breakfast and lunch restaurant Serendipity offering healthy as well as vegetarian choices (plus natural products and medicinal herbs), and Café Intag, which also serve as ex-pat meeting places

Serendipity Cafe

You can qualify for a residency visa if you can show proof of an income of $800/month, and will live at least 9 months a year for two years in Ecuador. Or, you can buy property or bring added value with a business which also assist in qualifying for the resident visa. See the visa page of the Ecuadorian Embassy in the U.S. for details at

Ecuadoreans are generally kind-hearted and will welcome you

There’s an American couple that teaches tango!

The challenges:

Rain which causes electrical outages every so often

Apparently no mosquitoes at this elevation (around 9,000 feet), but there are biting flies

A developing infrastructure with a long way to go

Pockets of poverty (low standard of living) though not readily evident in town

Like most of northern Ecuador, it is often damp and humid in Cotacachi, except for nearby Ibarra-Inbaya which is known to be warmer. This detail is important for asthmatics and those who are easily susceptible to bronchitis. Note: most buildings are constructed of brick, cement, and tile.

You need to stay healthy; ex-pats tell me they go to Ibarra, Otavalo, or Quito for emergencies and/or to find a hospital.

For culture (Cotacachi is not a university town, a museum town, a library town, or a theater town though there are important local fiestas and artisan fairs) and shopping, ex-pats seem to go to Quito or Cuenca, or back to the U.S., Canada, etc. They order books, clothing and other items from the U.S. Note: there is a kind American woman who has a small resale shop with books, clothing, nick-knacks

Some Ecuadorians will tell you that the increase in crime in their country is because of a new wave of immigrants from Columbia and Peru, although in my experience and that of expats who have lived here a long time, theft has been in existence in Ecuador long before the new wave of immigration. I have not heard of any incidents in Cotacachi.  Be extra careful in Ibarra is what I’ve been told. I understand there are expats who live in Ibarra and surrounding areas; I have yet to meet with any to hear their experiences and perspective.

The best thing to do is take a trip to find out in person how it feels as you explore Cotacachi and surrounding cites.  Meet the residents.  You will know if this city makes sense or not for your health, your pocket book, and your lifestyle. Happy journeying!

December 1, 2011 at 10:58 pm 3 comments

Ways to Travel to and in Ecuador from Los Angeles “Easily”

You want to visit Ecuador. Yes do that, for the most part you will be warmly welcomed! There is much to see and experience – historical sites, eco destinations, extraordinary vistas of the Andes and volcanoes, delicious fruits and vegetables, and most of all the gentle people of every origin – black, indigenous, European, mestizo.  But do prepare to experience a lower standard of living if you have not yet traveled in this part of South America. Earnest Ecuadoreans are doing their best to improve quality, and, prices are considerably less than in the U.S. so it offers terrific budget traveler value.

If it’s your first trip to Ecuador I suggest you start in the north by flying into Quito, travel around the north, and then head south to fly out of Guayaquil (closest to the Galapagos Islands), or vice-versa.

To reach Quito, the capital, which is a UNESCO Heritage Site, taking the plane is a fine option. American Airlines works if you are collecting or using mileage ; there’s a day trip via Miami. I did that once but found the Miami Airport challenging because of its long distances between terminals and international and domestic flights; I almost lost my flight. As I am writing this I have just read that American Airlines has filed for bankruptcy. Ouch!!! There goes that option. Continental, Delta, and Mexicana also fly to Ecuador.

30-minute layover on tarmac in Costa Rica

My preferred route seems more direct if traveling from the West Coast. I like the overnight TACA/LASCA flight from LAX via Guatemala and Costa Rica, (you stay on the same plane so it is relatively painless); or LAN through Lima where you have to change planes. The LAN choice is less inviting if you have to overnight in noisy Lima. Wouldn’t you rather be stranded in lush Costa Rica?  Also, TACA prices are a little bit less than LAN prices as of this post.

Other than flying, which offers speed, great panoramas, and generally fewer challenges, you could bike down (as many adventurous Canadians and Americans do), drive down on the Pan-American Highway, take mostly country buses, or, go by ship – days to manifest. Wish there were a rail system through Central and South America the way there is in Europe.

Once you arrive in Quito (a small airport by North American and European standards) and pass through customs, you will see three booths on the right side as soon as you exit that offer taxi transportation. The price will be between $12 and $20 with a certified taxi (bargain if you can), often a van, direct to your destination in Quito. You can take taxis on the edge of the airport for $3-$5, but it is not recommended unless they are yellow and have orange plates.

In case you hadn’t heard, Ecuador, like some of its neighboring countries, is notorious for petty theft, so you must be vigilant at all times. Best to keep your passport, credit cards, and cash in bra stashes and interior holsters with small amounts in your pockets. Please watch your bags and your camera. Best not to wear expensive jewelry either.

The currency in Ecuador is the U.S. dollar.  Taxis in most cities are $1 to $2 for a trip, $3-$5 for longer city trips, depending on the time and distance. I like to agree ahead of time on the amount, less stress. Local buses are 25 cents. If the ride is about ½ hour or more, expect to pay 50 cents.

Long distance buses are generally a step above local buses in comfort and cleanliness but they cannot compare to a Mercedes Benz first class bus in Mexico, for example, or to buses in western Europe. Tourist buses are the exception in Ecuador, you can expect a modicum of quality with them.

One of the buses that goes from Quito to Otavalo

Flota Imbabura runs an overnight bus which starts in Ibarra, with stops in Otavalo and Quito, and then goes all the way to Cuenca for $14. It also travels from south to north. The time between Otavalo and Cuenca is 12 hours. If you are traveling alone, buy two seats and put your luggage next to you, not underneath the bus. And do not put anything underneath your bus seat. On occasion, travelers have lost belongings and funds. These buses have one driver and a ticket taker/luggage valet; there are bathroom facilities on board (not recommended). These direct buses are not supposed to pick up passengers along the road, but they do. Pack your own snacks and water.  There are other long distance bus companies to choose from as well but this is the only one I have experience with.

The best option for ground transportation, if you can afford it, is to hire a driver. There are several reputable tour companies that can arrange this service for you.

Suggested itinerary:
Arrive Quito.
Take a certified taxi to the north bus station, the Carcelen.
Travel directly to Otavalo which is about 2 hours north.
Take a taxi from the bus station to your hotel. ($1).
Spend two nights in Otavalo with side trips to Cotacachi, Ibarra, and the fabulous mountain and volcano sites around Otavalo.  Otavalo is famous for its indigenous marketplace full of handmade leather and wool goods, and, folkloric art.
Take the bus to Quito and spend two or three days that include a quick trip to the Middle of the World, the equator, if it is of interest.
From Quito drive or fly to Cuenca. It’s a long trip by car but worth it during the day with a private driver; you’ll see a part of Ecuador with vistas that may remind you of Switzerland except for the occasional cactus.
Spend two-three-four days in charming Cuenca, another UNESCO Heritage Site with many architectural wonders (you’ll see why so many North Americans have moved here); try to include a side trip to Banos to the thermal baths, to see waterfalls, and other wonders of nature. From Cuenca make your way to Loya and Vilcabamba to what is termed the Land of Eternal Spring with the best weather in all of Ecuador.
Then make your way to Guayaquil for a quick visit (it’s a port and commercial center known for its night life – not my favorite place but I do like that there are iguanas in the city parks), and then on to the Galapagos for more incredible experiences with nature and finally, relaxation.  Additional note about Guayaquil:  the U.S. State Department has put out warnings to not hail taxis in Guayaquil as there have been taxi kidnapings recently.  For all you beach lovers, the cities of choice for most travelers are Manta and Salinas.

Most of all, have fun! Ecuadorians are, generally speaking, kind-hearted and they wish you well.

November 29, 2011 at 8:19 pm Leave a comment

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