Living In Cuenca Ecuador: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I think I should also remind you that THE REAL WORLD is a serious, satirical, and sometimes surreal opinion column.  Most columns in GringoTree tend to be the upbeat “ain’t Cuenca Ecuador a wonderful place to live.”  For the most part I tend to agree.  As a matter of fact my wife and I have often discussed that Cuenca Ecuador will be our home base for as many of the 50 extra years I actually achieve.

I recently watched Serge Leone’s movie with the same title as this week’s THE REAL WORLD article.  My memory (never trust it) tells me it was the film that launched Clint Eastwood’s motion picture career that continues in high velocity some 50+ years later.  I doubt this article will make me a writing star for the next 50 years although I do plan on living until I am 128.

Despite all the great things about living in Cuenca Ecuador there are some real issues that seldom get examined in public. Today’s column will discuss some of those issues.  Some good, some bad, and some ugly.

The Good: People & Places

I am convinced at their very core, Ecuadorians are friendly, welcoming people.  The ones we know, and they number in the dozens, are honest, hard-working, and naturally mellow as long as they are not behind the wheel of a car.  Sure we have a sometime problem with the Ecuadorian sense of time.  My wife more so than me at the moment.  However, the longer we live here, 10 years this year, the more we learn to go with the flow.  Does it really matter whether a party starts at 7:00 or 8:00 or whether a workman shows up in 30 minutes or an hour?  Not in the larger scheme of life is my conclusion.

Living in Cuenca Ecuador As an Expat
Living life as an expat in Cuenca Ecuador can have its challenges

With a few exceptions, which I will cover later, Cuenca Ecuador is a beautiful place to live.  The sky is a fantastic pallet of constantly changing blues, grays, and reds thrown in at dawn and twilight.  The mountains are not just fantastic to look at, they offer wonderful places to walk and ride.  There is nothing more soothing than contemplating the rushing waters of the Rio Tomebamba after a rain storm in the mountains while the dog makes up her mind where to do her business.  Yes, I carry and use a plastic bag.

The Bad: Buses, Cabs, Drivers, & Dog Crap

I ride buses, cabs, and walk every day.  The buses are inexpensive, dirty, ill-repaired, polluting chambers of the highest order, and usually driven by men who have not yet learned how to shift gears.  The drivers have obviously been given schedules that can be met only if they practice for their next career, driving at Le Mans.

Years ago I attempted to deal with the issue of bus pollution in Cuenca Ecuador.  The diesel fumes contribute to myriad lung diseases, and they slowly destroy the many limestone facades in El Centro.  And trust me, if the problem is not corrected, the bus fumes will eventually destroy the tourist industry and contribute mightily to a reduction in the expat population. The irony is that every bus could be converted to natural gas for something in the neighborhood of $150.

I know natural gas is not a miracle solution to the problem of pollution, but it is a step in the right direction.  The real answers lie in a 10-year conversion plan to electric buses or even more revolutionary to buses that run on compressed air.  Don’t laugh, they both exist.

The cabs are less of a problem but they, too, could be converted to natural gas for very little money.  They could also be replaced over the next 10 years with electric or air powered systems.  All that needs to be done is to start small with every cab that needs to be replaced.  Instead of a new gas guzzler, simply purchase an electric car.  Even better, start converting the existing 3,000 taxi cabs to six passenger vehicles powered by compressed air.  Think that’s a crazy idea? Ask Tata Motors, India’s large car manufacturer, why they purchased the exclusive rights to manufacture air cabs, cars, and buses in India.  Remember, world peace and a world free of pollution begins with me and you one step at a time.

As I stated earlier, Ecuadorians are among the friendliest, laid back people in the world…until they get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle.  I don’t care whether it is a motorcycle, car, or truck.  Once behind the wheel, they become self obsessed kings of the road.  God (or whoever else rules the universe) forbid if you think pedestrians have any rights of way.  I am not sure what the Transito Policia are supposed to do?  Obviously it is not to protect the thousands of pedestrians who take their lives in their hands every time they cross the street.

Finally, for today, the last “bad” thing about Cuenca Ecuador is dog crap.  Yes, I know there are new laws mandating that owners clean up after their dogs. However, I have no idea who is responsible for enforcing this law.  We live in a very nice Westside house.  One of us, or the housekeeper, walks the dog three times a day, seven days a week, 1,095 times a year for six years.  That totals 6,570 times so far.  We always carry and use a plastic bag which gets deposited in the garbage.

In those six years we have never seen another dog walker, an exclusive, illusive phenomenon, pick up after their dog.  I am not saying they are not out there.  I am just saying we have never seen one.  Perhaps Happy Dogs and the other good works folks who are dealing with spaying dogs could also provide “Dog Crap Clean Up” starter kits with plastic bags and written instructions how to pick up dog crap.  Also, I suggest the street cleaners, who do yeoman jobs sweeping the gutters, also begin to sweep the sidewalks as well.

bush2“Personally, I couldn’t do my business with a human waiting plastic bag in hand! “

 The Ugly: Sidewalks & Pollution

I’ve already discussed vehicle pollution.  There is another kind of pollution that has a big impact on tourism and my eyesight.  The city needs an intense campaign to teach people, starting with the kids, to throw their trash, no matter how small, into a trash can.  Aha, you say, where are the trash cans?  There are a few.  However, what the city government needs to do is lead this cleanup campaign by installing bolted down trash cans, three to a block on each side of the street in El Centro and four on each corner for the rest of the heavily populated areas of the city.  Sound like overkill?  Maybe!  But I figure if I ask for the moon I might get one on every block.  That would clean up the “eye pollution” that is swamping parts of the city (every market district and most parks) as well as just simple neighborhoods.

Finally, we come to the sidewalks.  The main reason we can’t truly enjoy the beauty of the city’s architecture is the terrible condition of so many sidewalks.  You have to keep your eyes down to be sure you don’t step in a hole or broken payment while glancing up to be sure you don’t run smack into a hanging garbage holder.  Granted ,there has been a significant effort to install new sidewalks in sections of El Centro as well as a new ordinance that requires garbage racks to automatically snap up to a vertical position that don’t impede the sidewalk.  What has been accomplished is just a drop in the bucket of what needs to be done.  Let’s hope that in those sections of the city where Tranvia is ripping up the streets they will not only repair the immediate sections of street but also the sidewalks along the entire route.

That’s it for today.  I am off next week for the USA.  The next two issues of THE REAL WORLD will be in the capable hands of our cartoonist Glen Birbeck, who will entertain you with his experiences in Krakow, Poland and other European areas that lure him to visit this summer.

7 Responses

  1. The city has been putting a lot of work into modifying and sprucing up the Virgin del Milagro Park on Ordonez Lasso (west of Hotel Oro Verde and the Palermo highrise). What is sorely lacking is a bolted-down trash can at the major (at least three popular routes – #3, #8, #50) bus stop in front of the futbol field. Students from the adjacent Colegio de Ciudad Cuencana routinely purchase salchicha papas from nearby tiendas and toss the yellow Styrofoam containers (and other trash) on the grass and sidewalks. There were actually THREE trash cans in that block during the end-of-the-year period when Año Viejo vendors were set up there! But not a single trash can in the area now!

  2. I enjoyed Bill’s article on the City of Cuenca. He put into words thoughts that have run through my head during the 3 years I have live here. I am particularly amazed by the way locals drive. I have also noticed that few expats have adopted the same approach to driving.

  3. Bill, thanks for the article. I do have a question about the cost of converting a Diesel engine to natural gas. Your dollar amount may just be a typo.

    A Diesel engine runs with compression ratio of 16 to 18 to 1. A natural gas engine runs best at around 10 to 1.

    This would require new pistons and the reworking of the combustion chamber for correct air fuel mixing.

    I could go into many other changes that are needed, but this type of conversion requires many other modifications.

    My best guess is the conversion would cost between $3500 to $6000. The other problem I see is the access to natural gas here in Ecuador. I believe propane might be a more more available, but whatever fuel is used, the modifications to the engine would be very similar.

  4. The worst annoyance for me is car alarms! The average Ecuadorian does not understand them well. And now the new alarms have a 3 button system that the owner must put in a code to stop it. These car alarms also arm themselves automatically if you don’t have it switched to manual. That means about 2 mins after they turn off the ignition it arms itself and then people slow to leave open or shut a door thus activating the alarm. That combined with heavy trucks setting off the other sensors in the alarm system. Thank God they can only go for 90 seconds unlike house alarms that can go for much longer.

  5. I liked Bill’s thoughts. I would add ONE more issue based on my 4 years living and working few years in Cuenca.
    NOISE – there is no regulations on noise in Ecuador. I hear all kinds of disturbing laud noises everywhere: car alarms, music from the laud music, sirens, and laud noise from the traffic.
    Every day I need to work on publications in a library and people there are talking, laughing, eating, drinking, and playing – in a LIBRARY!!!! I asked them politely if they could lower there voices a little – they did for 2-3 min. then continued they routine of a laud behaviour for the rest of the day.
    One time in one of the most expensive RESTAURANT a 4 y/o kid was screaming his lungs off, nobody reacted, not his family, no waiter. I waited 30 min with covered ears then I talked to the manager and he didn’t do anything either.
    In my 6 story BUILDING the acoustics are amazing. Every single day 3-5 kids are running on the hallway(s) from 6:00am to 11:00pm. screaming loudly. I asked them a few times not to be so laud..uhhhh… OMG, what I’ve heard from the old women was horrible (at that moment I wished I wouldn’t understand Spanish at all). The older caregiver is “singing” loudly and walking through the entire bld. One kid has an electrical car(toy) and he is driving it from 6am to 11pm…I close my doors, windows, put my ear plugs and music on and I still can hear them! In my block there are at least 5 houses being built, renovated or repaired. I talked to the neighbours – they have no clue what to do. There is also a constant noise from the CONSTRUCTION aras – well, it’s OK because they have to work, but why they start at 6am on Saturday and Sunday? Sometimes I go out to to relax. I went on a few occasions to the SAUNA, jacuzzi at the University of Cuenca. There were 4-5 guys talking loudly for min. 2 hours – finally I left almost in tears…I do have a hart condition and my doctors claim it’s a stress related condition…really??? They suggested to take it easy and to relax. So I visited to Piedra de Agua hot springs – we paid $36 to enter. Then instead of relaxing ourselves we had to deal with a bunch of kids in a swimming pool jumping, splashing and screaming all over the place. I really love Cuenca, I am a mother and a teacher, a missionary, and a volunteer to orphanages around the world so really I do love kids and noise sometimes is OK…but with such a concentration of noise I can’t relax, think, sleep, so not sure what to do….

  6. Get over yourself…we ( gringos) moved to THEIR city, THEIR country, THEIR culture!!!
    Evolution is a process participate don’t PREACH !!!!
    My husband and I walk along the river with our dog # times daily ( sorry no housekeeper) yes there is dog shit but there are also many dog owners Gringo & Ecuadorian that pick up their excremento

  7. Questions I have regarding moving/retiring half time to Cuenca, Ecuador include the concerns of one who has never been there. How high is the crime rate, specifically, can a immigrant own guns for home protection? Are the women safe from harassment? The children safe in schools? Are there street muggings? Air quality: I read above the diesel fumes from buses are terrible, but how about overall smog levels, is this city polluted in certain times of year ( inversions) , generally clean air or smoggy even away from bus routes? I would probably want to work remote to the US part time, so is there good internet access there? Are the locals generally welcoming? Is there another region that folks here would recommend higher for US transplants to feel at home? I like smaller towns close to mid size cities with decent roads, hospital, grocery shopping convenience. Thanks in advance for any info you can give regarding the above questions

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