SHEL’S AND FRANK’S EXCELLENT ECUADOR ADVENTURECuenca — the dream is real: feeling right at home

Apr 30, 2010

Editor’s note: This is the seventh installment of a multi-part series chronicling the adventures of Shel and Frank Drake on their first visit to Ecuador. Frank is a travel writer and Shel is a professional travel photographer.

The plane touched down at Cuenca’s Mariscal Lamar, the cutest little airport you ever saw, especially for a city of a half-million. It has a small wing with two rental-car cubicles (one Avis), a dinky little ticket-counter area, and a couple of gates on the ground floor; upstairs is a more spacious fast-food court, naturally lit by picture windows overlooking the runways, and the houses right on the other side of the alambre de puas fence.

We grabbed our suitcases, showed the baggage claims to the checker, who actually compared the numbers on the claim checks to those on the luggage, walked out the front terminal doors, and were on the sidewalk talking to a cab driver before we even knew it.

Having conducted a little research on the computer at the Montecarlo in Ibarra, I was aware that a hotel-van ride to central Cuenca for gringos cost $7, while a cab ride for locals, and foreigners who know how to negotiate, was $2-$3. And I suppose I might’ve asked the driver up front how much he planned to charge to take us to the Villa Nova Inn, then bargained him down to the going rate.

But he was immediately friendly and patient with my Spanish. He was driving a minivan, convenient for our luggage, which he loaded with a smile. He pointed out a few sights along the way and unloaded us at the hotel, so when he said, “Cuatro dolares,” I figured I was saving $3 on a hotel van, or paying an extra $2 for baggage handling and a quickie tour of Cuenca en Espanol; either way, at least he put some effort into earning what he overcharged us.

Another eight-foot security gate with a doorbell greeted us at Villa Nova, a small 12-room hotel right on the Rio Tomebamba on the edge of El Centro, colonial downtown Cuenca. Villa Nova’s website is excellent, written in good English with photos of the river setting and the various rooms, a good map function, an efficient reservation system, and a list of area tours — in short, everything you need to know about the hotel and environs except the room rates. So I reserved a river-view double for one night, figuring we could move to another room or another inn, depending on what the rates turned out to be.

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We paid $50 for the front-room first night, with its view of the gleaming Tomebamba complete with a running-water soundtrack and a green belt as far as we could see in both directions, a sparkling urban vista that reminded me of downtown Reno where I’d lived before moving to Vegas. But we also made arrangements to relocate to a $35 back room, windowless but with two bright skylights, for our remaining three nights, graciously assisted by Andres and Cristina at the front desk, both of whom speak good English. Breakfast, we were told, was served at Sakura, the sushi restaurant two doors down.

Thus settled into Cuenca at four p.m. after starting out from Ibarra seven hours earlier, we set out to get a closer look at the city I was hoping to make our home base for the three years I, at least, would be living full-time in Ecuador to qualify for citizenship.

***

We walked along the Rio Tomebamba and marveled at the architecture of the houses, apartment buildings, and hotels lining the edge of El Barranco, the 100-foot-high bluff looming over the river and I found myself looking at Cuenca with a different pair of eyes. Rather than judging a whole country, I was now confining myself to a city. Instead of seeing an entire people as ecuatorianos, I was sizing up the ones we were now passing as cuencanos.

I also knew my perspective had switched from the macro to the micro as I felt myself on a quest to conquer Cuenca. I wanted to haunt the heart of the old city, the 15 or so square blocks of El Centro, till I was as familiar with those 30 streets as I was with downtown Las Vegas. I wanted to tour neighborhoods, ride buses, compare Spanish schools, shop for real estate. I wanted to orient myself to sun and compass, hills and wind; I wanted to tune into the vortical vibrations. I wanted to start living where I wanted to live.

Shel, on the other hand, didn’t see it that way at all. She remained the same as she’d been since we’d arrived and throughout our travels, entirely skeptical about moving abroad and leaving home: the kids, pets, friends, families, the cars, all the stuff in the house and garage and yard, our California-king bed, her physical therapist, her comp account at Bellagio, her favorite Thai restaurant, In-n-Out Burger, boulder-scrambling in Red Rock Canyon — all the familiarity that she still couldn’t contemplate forsaking. To Shel, Cuenca was just another city in Ecuador, which was just another country in South America; Cuenca was an urban base of operations from which to launch excursions out into the countryside. She wanted to rent a car and keep touring, like, today.

“Sure,” I agreed, validating Shel and her desires. “But let’s start from here and expand outward. Tomorrow we can go to the outskirts of town and Saturday we can go for a drive. How’s that?”

“Good idea,” she said, validating my plan in return.

We crossed the Tomebamba and walked through the big park on the other side, right across from the Villa Nova. Beyond that, we stumbled into a major upscale mall with a movie theater and a Supermaxi and got another inkling of the benefits of our river location. 

Our next inkling came a little later, when we climbed the 100 steps next to the Villa Nova up El Barranco to Calle Larga and the edge of typically teeming old Cuenca: close-packed storefronts and apartments, hotels and hostals, restaurants and cafes, schools and warehouses, churches and markets, parks and plazas, all basting in the black billows from belching buses, the sound of car tires slapping the compact cobbled streets, denizens of all kinds crowding the narrow sidewalks.

We hadn’t gone five blocks before I saw, a half-block away and walking toward us, none other than my most important contact from the International Living conference. “There he is!” I exclaimed to Shel. “That’s David Morrill.”

I’d singled out David at the Swissotel. Six years ago he’d abandoned a career as a journalist and columnist to move to Cuenca and become a real estate agent to the gringos. He updates International Living’s Ecuador Owner’s Manual; he’s also the brains behind CuencaHighLife.com. He’d led the Cuenca real estate tour on the Monday and Tuesday following the conference when we were in Cotacachi and Ibarra, so at the conference I made an appointment with him to see a few rental properties on Friday. But here it was Wednesday and we were bumping into him on the street.

David was a little frazzled from the tour — “talking nonstop,” he told us, to two big busloads of people looking to move to Cuenca, a number of whom were still floating around a day later. “I’m on my way to meeting several right now,” he said. “Where are you staying? I’ll call you later this evening.”

He did call, which impressed me, and we made plans to meet for breakfast. The next morning, he took us to the Kookabura, a beautifully renovated and recently opened coffee-house run by a young expat couple from Australia. As talked out as he was, David still gave us a verbal tour of the town and life here as an expat and the more he spoke, the more I liked what I heard.

Photo captions: the view from the front deck of the Villa Nova Inn; the greenbelt of the Rio Tomebamba as seen from the Villa Nova; one of the apartment buildings backed up against El Barranco, the bluff between the Tomebamba and central Cuenca; a bicycle vendor selling icees; Cuenca — All One World signs decorate the city streets; another bicycle vendor selling cut fruit

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