Cuenca, the Gringo Paradise

I’m seated at a cafe’ on the Parque’ Abdon Calderon in central Cuenca, and a woman is pestering me to buy her mangos. She has them in a great basket, and she’s stopped by my table because, I think, it’s raining, so I’m the only potential customer, however unlikely it is that a lone gringo drinking wine at a restaurant needs fresh fruit. I finally succumb and hand over a dollar. She proceeds to put one in a be, and I’m thinking I’ll get some change back. Then she gives me another. And another. Soon, I have a bag full, so I’m figuring they’re about 8 cents a piece. I don’t do the grocery shopping at home, but I think that’s a great deal, especially since I didn’t have to actually rise from my chair to buy them.

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Everywhere you look in downtown Cuenca, Ecuador, there are salespeople plying their trade. In the afternoon, you can buy huge cherries and other produce sold out of wheelbarrows parked at strategic street corners. When it rains, a woman will appear out of nowhere selling parambas (umbrellas) to passersby. Flower stalls dot the plazas, and hand-drawn food carts offer fast food to the masses.

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And did I mention the taxis? My last ride was about 15 minutes in heavy traffic. The price? 2 dollars. The kicker? The driver didn’t try to rip me off, and I didn’t have to bargain for the ride like I was buying a rug in a Moroccan bazaar. No, I didn’t even ask about the price ahead of time. You can do that in Cuenca.

All of which underscores how cheap and easy it is to live here, and it’s a fact that hasn’t escaped the (estimated) 7,000 gringos that call it home, mostly expat Americans. They hang out in an area called “gringolandia”. Nope. Not making it up.

The locals don’t seem to mind or resent the fact that their city is so popular to foreigners. In fact, they seem to take a bit of pride in it.

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They’re right to love their city. At 8,000 feet elevation, it takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s worth the toll on your lungs. It’s full of beautiful colonial buildings, and the cathedral rivals even some of those in Europe. Flowers spill from window boxes, bronze statues stand in the tree-lined parks, and at night the Christmas lights are everywhere this December.

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The weather? Gorgeous. High 70’s in the day, 50’s at night. Year round.

Oh, BTW, they use US dollars for their currency. See why so many Americans come here? What’s not to like?

Well, just from my short stay, it does have all of the poverty you expect to see in Latin America, especially as you get away from the city center. You can’t drink the water, and of course the language is Spanish (though English is widely spoken). You’re still going to be the outsider, no matter how long you’re here. And while there is a symphony orchestra, don’t expect much more in terms of entertainment.

But nice? Absolutely. I can see myself living here.

So could the hotelier that checked me out today. A German national, he married a local girl and has built a life here. He got tired of the corporate grind and just decided to check out. He seems happy enough.

Nor should I discount the large numbers of available women here. Plenty of men are here from the Americas for precisely that reason. Sure, I hate the idea that income disparity drives these relationships, but I must say that seems to drive many of them in the USA, also, so I’m trying hard not to judge.

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Cuenca is a keeper. I’ll come back here again. In the meantime, I’ve taken the advice of my new best friend Don Colon, owner of the restaurant where this story started (and the most interesting man in the world-he has known Larry Bird, Patricia Nixon, and a host of other celebrities). I asked him where he’d advise me to get my best ROI (return on investment) in Ecuador. It seems the JEP Cooperative is paying 8.5% your money. Guaranteed through a private insurer. Hmmm…where’d I put my checkbook?

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