Well, here we are in Santa Ana De Los Quattro Ríos De Cuenca, or simply Cuenca, living as much like locals as two gringos can. Our apartment is on a busy street called Avenida General Escandon, so its fun to look out the window at the busyness of street life in our community. We are close to many things and our space is quite comfortable with large picture windows overlooking the street and a quiet bedroom further back. We are also blessed to have a washer and dryer in the apartment.
We have been off to a slower start since arriving in Cuenca. Brian had a miserable head cold, but I am happy to report due to my fantastic nursing and great cooking he is back on his feet.
We have been out doing some exploring around town. We can get a bus just outside our apartment that will take us downtown in about 15 minutes or we can walk it in about 40. The first day we went downtown we chose the bus and made out just fine. Downtown Cuenca has many beautiful buildings, narrow streets, parks and magnificent cathedrals. Recently recognized as a World Heritage Site for its splendid inner city architecture. There is so much to see and do here. The second time we went downtown we decided we would walk along the river to see how long it would take us. The banks of the river are park like with lots of green space to enjoy. Every day you can see several locals along the riverbank washing their clothes and hanging out with family. There are magnificent old, tall trees along each side of the river that provides a calming environment from the hustle and bustle of the streets. Lots of people frequent the riverbanks and its path on both sides.
Another day we caught a cab and went to the Homero Ortega Panama Hat Factory and Museum. Although the hats are actually started in artisans’ homes elsewhere in the area, we saw the finished products and of course the showroom at the end. We had a lot of fun trying on the various hats. The Heisenberg hat from the television series Breaking Bad was made here. They make nice handbags here as well so I bought a bag to go with my hat. Brian is quite striking in his new hat.
The following day we went to visit Luis Uyaguari’s guitar workshop. A third or fourth generation luthier with more than 40 years experience, Luis and his English speaking son gave us a personal tour and demonstration how this family has been making handcrafted guitars for generations. They are the oldest guitar making family in Ecuador. We were invited to view their workshop and saw how detailed every step is in the process of making such a quality product. The prices of these guitars start at $1,000 and go up. With strict attention to every detail and inlaid patterns that include mother of pearl, these guitars are made with a labor of love and as they said, a piece of their heart and soul goes into every guitar they make. We came away humbled that we got to see the process of a master craftsman and to learn how much they put into and care about every guitar they make. It can take up to four months to build a guitar from scratch and they have many orders to fill.
Recently, we hired a local tour guide, Edgar Galarza, to help us see several nearby communities and sites. Cuenca, at 8,400 feet above sea level, is surrounded by the Andes Mountains and quite close to Cajas National Park. As well, many smaller communities such as Chordeleg, Gualaceo, Biblián, are only a short drive away. Ingapirca, where the most notable Inca ruins in Ecuador can be found, is only about two hours away by car.
Edgar did a wonderful job showing us these sites. We hiked to several hidden lakes in the Cajas. Stopping frequently for elevation adjustments, we managed to get a few more kilometers out of our old legs. At one point we reached 13,671 feet. The Canadian Rockies are more visually majestic, but I think the Andes win on elevation.
There are several communities near here each with different artisans making shoes, pottery, leather goods and textiles. Chordeleg is one of these towns that still adhere to the guild system established during Spanish colonial times. The guild system required each town to have a certain skill or craft that they specialized in.
The early citizens of Chordeleg were metal workers and today they specialize in silver filigree jewellery. So renowned is this craft, there are models of the jewellery hanging from streetlights. Edgar arranged for us to visit one of these craftsmen, who opened his shop for us one evening and gave us a personal demonstration of how this intricate art form has been handed down for generations. JoAnne came away very happy that evening.
We also visited a local market with lots of vendors offering fresh roasted pork, all in various states of display. In Biblián we visited Our Lady of the Dew church. It was built circa 1895, but amazingly right into the side of a mountain.
The highlight was Ingapirca, the largest known Inca ruins in Ecuador. Since the Incas worshipped the sun, the most significant building here is the Temple of the Sun, an elliptically shaped building constructed around a large rock. The building is constructed without mortar, as are most of the structures in the complex. The stones were carefully chiselled and fashioned to fit together perfectly. The Temple of the Sun was positioned so that on the solstices, at exactly the right time of day, sunlight would fall through the center of the doorway of the small chamber at the top of the temple.
We started this adventure many months ago asking ourselves the question… “Can two Canadians really retire in South or Central America?” In Ecuador, the short answer is yes, absolutely. Although we have only been in Cuenca for about a month, it is clearly an affordable place to live for two retired Canadians. In our particular case we don’t have substantial retirement savings or long service company pensions. However, we have some modest savings and our Canada Pension benefits are sufficient for us to live comfortably here. We have met a number of other Canadians who have been here for years and have used CPP to qualify for Ecuador’s Retirees Pension Visa. This visa grants you permanent resident status.
Rental apartments or condos that would fit most North American standards can be found here for various prices but a decent place with 900 – 1,100 square feet, 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms goes for about $350 – $500 per month. Larger places with 3 bedrooms average $500 – $600 per month. Some rental accommodations come furnished, some do not. Some are more centrally located than others and individual tastes and other amenities will obviously affect your rent.
If you don’t wish to rent, you can purchase similar places for $95,000 to $150,000. Detached houses are also plentiful and prices vary according to size and location. Food prices are not that different from Canada. Locally produced meats, bread, dairy products and produce are quite a bit cheaper. Anything imported is generally more expensive. Utilities are very inexpensive and because of the moderate climate you are not spending anything on heating bills or air conditioning. Health care is quite a bit cheaper, as well as cell phone and internet services.
Like other oil exporting countries, Ecuador is struggling under current world oil prices. The government is therefore laying substantial taxes on many imports, particularly liquor. Chilean wine is plentiful and reasonably priced but decent whisky is not. Panamanian rum is very cheap.
Brian had his teeth cleaned recently for $45 and was quoted $1,600 to replace 4 old veneers with crowns. A similar quote before we left Calgary was $10,000. Bus fare is $0.25 and taxis are very plentiful and cheap as well so you could likely live quite well without the added cost of a car.
While retirement here is quite affordable, there is the emotional side to such a decision. Since leaving Canada, it has not all been sunshine and roses for us. We have had some very tough days. We deeply miss our two daughters and the home and lifestyle we had in Calgary. Yet, our circumstances in life can and do change. It is true that what happens to you is not as important as how you handle it. So for us we must answer a bigger question. “Can two Canadians handle living in another country with a very different culture and language while so far from friends, family and all things familiar?” As we ponder this, we covet all of your prayers for us as we discover what lays ahead, further on up the road.