A New Kind of Blog

There is a world of information about Ecuador. It is one of the most popular countries for people who want to retire to a place where the dollar goes much farther than in the US, a place for adventuresome families who want to experience a new language and exciting culture. However, much of what you read or hear does not touch on the practical, the problematic, or the local information necessary to make things work. There are many blogs which are basically daily diary’s from people who live here. But this blog will be different. We know how hard it is to get accurate and timely information. We have been through it. All of us who live here have learned step by step and we question whether it is necessary to have every newcomer reinvent the wheel. We hope this blog will help shorten the learning curve. There are many hurdles but all are surmountable. What is required is patience, an understanding of local ways, and a realization that you are going to live in a country which is not the same as the US, Canada, or Britain. Our choice was to live in the wonderful city of Cuenca in the Southern Sierra but this may not be your decision and you will therefore have to look further to find the answers you need for different areas like the coast or the Amazon. Please realize that all the suggestions and ideas are based on our experiences. Ecuadorian regulations change rapidly and must be checked before you make any investments or major decisions. Please email us at Sailorburr@gmail.com and let us know if you have any questions or comments.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Getting around Cuenca

It is really not really necessary to have a car if you live in the city as almost everything is within walking distance and taxis are cheap. If you have a home in the countryside it is almost essential to have a car. Purchasing a car here is expensive.  Most private cars appear to be Hyundai Tucson’s and Chevrolet Vitera SUV’s possibly because they are big and can dominate at the street crossings. To compliment the SUV’s there are many small subcompacts from every imaginable country including China and India.  It is interesting to see many old Volkswagen bugs, a lot of them dating back to the earliest models.

They have rusted out and been patched numerous times and, with a new paint job, look terrific yet always touch a nostalgic nerve. We have driven American automatic shift cars for so long that we felt we had to have one. We searched and searched for a used automatic and found they are almost non-existent in Ecuador. There are absolutely no automatics in the small cars and maybe one in a hundred among available SUV’s. We were fortunate enough to find one but also found the price for an automatic approximately 50% higher than a stick shift. However, gasoline is a real bargain. Ecuador is an oil exporter and the gasoline industry is nationalized. The government controls the price of gas which at present is $1.48 per gallon and has been so for the last year. There are no daily price increases or decreases like in the US. Getting an Ecuadorian driver’s license is a real hassle. It is expensive and we understand the driver’s test has to be taken in Spanish. Most gringos who opt to get one hire someone to take the test for them. For almost everything bureaucratic here in Ecuador there is someone who can do it for you. To register our Hyundai Tucson, we hired a taxi driver who specializes in car registrations. It took four stops, one to have the car inspected, another to get official papers that became covered with stamps, another to have copies made of everything in triplicate and lastly a visit to a special office that looked over everything and sent us out for more official papers.  Car insurance is yet another story, one we have yet to investigate. If it is like health insurance, the conclusion will be that you should self-insure as the insurance companies are notorious for not honoring claims. Good maps of Cuenca are hard to find. The best one is provided by Cathy at Cuenca Real Estate. It shows every street on hard, glossy heavy paper. Driving in Cuenca takes some getting used to as there are many one way streets. Most river crossings into town are also one way. There are very few street signs that identify cross streets so learning the basic thoroughfares is important. Home and business addresses in the city are numbered with a dash in the middle like 3-82 or 1-24.  If you have a car you will have to get used to the wild taxi drivers who dodge in an out of unbelievably small spaces often within inches of your fenders. It is a game of bluff where cars, trucks and busses inch their way into an intersection until they intimidate someone approaching to slow down and they then charge into the intersection. There are many traffic and driving rules just like in the US but they are mostly not obeyed. Police sit at the circles and intersections talking to each other and pay little attention unless there is a problem.  If you have an accident, the locals advise you not to call the police as it opens a potential criminal case if you are in the wrong. Most local drivers just leave the site of an accident. Our maid’s father was walking his cow across the Autopista in Challuabamba and both were killed by a car that just kept going and was never apprehended. Traffic circles are everywhere. You enter the circle after giving right-of-way to the cars already in the circle. Then, when there is enough space for your car, you enter quickly yet watch carefully for other cars trying to find a hole in the circular procession. Almost always some small car will dart into the circle from your right side letting your car shield him from oncoming traffic. At intersections, vehicles inch slowly forward, more and more until they are almost blocking the oncoming traffic. Again, they hope someone will get nervous, stop or slow down and let them proceed. Nighttime is even worse. Car radios are one of the items that petty thieves find almost too easy to steal and convert to cash.  Everyone advises that you take the removable radio out when you park the car almost anywhere except in the safety of your home. We have lost two radios due to carelessness on our part. But, driving is not really that bad. It just takes getting used to. Enormous patience and super care are primary requisites to navigating the city.
However, if driving is not your cup of tea, busses run often and go almost everywhere at twenty-five cents per trip. The 4 hour bus ride to the coast from Cuenca is approximately $8. One of our problems with the profusion of buses and the trucks is that they are all diesels and spew enormous quantities of black smoke. 
Taxis are also a bargain as you can go almost anywhere in the city for $1-2 although some taxi drivers take advantage of the Gringos who they think don’t know the system. Taxis at night are sometimes about a dollar more. Almost all taxis are little fiat’s, Yaris, or Chevrolet subcompact cars. Small and agile, they are the best way to get around the city. Just sit back and hang on. If you are driving a car, it is a little unnerving to be waiting at a red light and the moment the light goes green, a taxi behind you will start honking his horn. Seat belts are provided in private cars but are used much less than in the US. It is frightening to see children riding without car seats.  We have often seen a two or three year old’s head hanging out an open front seat window. Older children and the wives often ride in the back of an open pick-up truck along with the family dogs and merchandise.
Then there are the motorcyclists. Dirt bikes, mostly Yamaha’s, dart in and out of traffic with almost no concern for safety. It is a local belief that this is the fastest way to make your way through the grid-lock traffic in the city during the rush hours. Most motorcyclists wear no helmets. We have seen four people on one bike, Father at the handle bars, two kids squeezed into the space between him and Mom who has her arms circling around the kids. He might be wearing a helmet but no one else does. We know three men in their twenties and all three have had serious motorcycle accidents, each have been left with a limp and scars. Motocross racing is a big sports event and many of the bikes darting between cars in traffic have racing numbers painted on back.
Air travel is quite sophisticated in Ecuador with three local airlines serving the larger and even many of the small cities. The airlines are LAN Ecuador, Arogal and Tame. Since this is a mountainous country, air travel will save an enormous amount of travel time compared to road travel. For instance, driving from Quito to Cuenca can take eight to ten hours whereas a flight will take 30-45 minutes and today costs approximately $79 each way. Presently, Cuenca does not have an international airport but LAN Ecuador is planning direct flights from Cuenca to Miami and New York. This will be a great help for those traveling to and from the US as present schedules both ways require an overnight stay in Quito before flying on to your destination. Quito has an airport tax of approximately $45 to leave the country and a similar airport tax at Guayaquil is around $27.

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