For several years, my wife and I extensively researched practically every Latin American country, trying to find the perfect place for winter getaways or possibly even a permanent retirement haven. We are not youngsters (I am 81 and my wife a young 72) and we eliminated many possibilities because they simply didn't meet all our essential requirements. These included: economic and political stability, a year-round pleasant climate, friendly, welcoming people, good and inexpensive medical facilities, clean, fresh air, culture, beautiful scenery, locally grown organic produce, inexpensive housing and a place where the dollar really stretches.
Mexico was originally top of the list. We spent two six-month periods, one in the Baja and one on the mainland; we loved the people and their country. Then, there was Panama, but the "baby boomers" were pouring in and prices were skyrocketing. Finally, last June, we found ourselves on a plane heading for Quito in Ecuador, 9,300 feet up in the Andes and the second highest capital city in the world! As it turns out, this little country, slightly smaller than the State of Nevada, has met all of our basic requirements.
The four major cities, Quito, Guayaquil, Cuenca and Ambato are important cultural centres. Quito is a fascinating blend of old and new. This historic town was founded by the conquistadores in 1534 and consists of a maze of crisscrossing, narrow cobblestone streets leading to spacious squares with magnificent colonial architecture - richly exquisite churches and monasteries, fine old governmental buildings, wonderfully maintained 16th, 17th and 18th century mansions with ornate wrought-iron balconies and street lamps. Everywhere you turn, a new delight catches the attention of the eye, making it a virtual paradise for artists and photographers. It's a glorious concentration of fine architecture in South America, and UNESCO recognized this in 1978 when it named the city its first World Heritage Site.
Many people still regard Ecuador as an unstable "banana republic," as it was in bygone days. However, the discovery of oil in the Oriente and the adoption of the U.S. Dollar as the national currency in 1999 have led to a much more stable economy and a strong government, which, backed by the people, is determined to introduce major social reforms. There is always dislike of any government, particularly if all the media belongs to the opposition, but this firm leadership intends to introduce sweeping changes democratically.
When we arrived in early summer, the daytime temperatures were late 20s to early 30s [Celsius] and, now, in mid-winter, they are still in the mid to late 20s. Sweaters are necessary in the evenings, when the thermometer drops, but it's never really cold because we live in the Sierra astride the equator.
The people are the endearing charm of Ecuador - good natured, helpful, and truly welcoming with smiling eyes and friendly greetings. In a land with such low wages and so much poverty, they always appear to be happy, contented and well dressed, no matter how poor their living conditions. The indigenous women are a joy to see wearing beautifully embroidered blouses, colourful shawls and wrap-around skirts, often with a child or heavy load strapped to their backs. It's a huge plus to know a smattering of Spanish, so we can interact with the locals.
Modern equipped medical facilities are plentiful with well-trained doctors (many of whom speak English) and staff, but there are two huge differences here: Fees are very low, by comparison, and doctors care. They listen to you, there's no conveyor belt and they don't look at their watches every five minutes. When my wife slipped and seriously hurt her knee, we rushed to the nearest hospital, which is new and beautiful, and were attended to immediately. The consultation, plus three X-rays, came to only $32. Later, a visit to a cardiologist in Quito, with ECG, was $40. Our Chinese acupuncture treatments are $6 each and, at a wonderful alternative medicine foundation in Cotacachi, a one-hour consultation cost $6 and back-up treatments only $2 each.
It's quite amazing how such a small country can contain such a wide range of awe-inspiring scenery. Glorious beaches on the Pacific Coast to the west, dense Amazonian jungle and rivers in the Oriente to the east and then, in between, lies the high Andean Sierra running the whole length of the country from north to south, with snowcapped mountains and volcanoes soaring to almost 21,000 feet. Lush green valleys and canyons split the mountains apart and rain and cloud forests, containing a vast assortment of colourful birds, orchids, butterflies and exotic wildlife, such as the spectacled bear, cover the slopes. Above it all lies the precious jewel, the Galapagos Islands, named as Ecuador's second UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978 and a World Biosphere Reserve six years later.
The malls, even in smaller towns, are superb, with smart and trendy stores and well-stocked supermarkets, including an astonishingly wide range of locally grown fruit and vegetables, many organic, at temptingly low prices. But it's much more interesting and fun to buy from the small family owned stores and to wander through the wonderful, noisy, sprawling, picturesque street markets. Last week, we bought a huge fresh cauliflower for 40 cents, three cucumbers for 50 cents, a bag of 18 sun drenched medium tomatoes, another of fresh shelled broad beans and yet another containing 12 lemons for a dollar each. Then there are the superbly colourful flower markets - 12 beautiful long stemmed roses for a dollar!
Like anywhere else in the world, you can pay a lot for the right location, but for only a fraction of what it would cost back home. A modern apartment in Quito sells for under $70,000, and to rent one on fashionable Gonzalez Suarez costs $750 per month. Houses in the suburbs are advertised from $55,000. Presently, we rent a furnished apartment in a large house on three acres on the outskirts of Tumbaco, a 30-minute drive from Quito, with an orchard of 20 exotic fruit and nut trees, behind which is a meadow meticulously cropped by five pet llamas. There is nothing beyond but open countryside sweeping up the slopes of an extinct (that's what they tell us!) volcano. For this we pay only $310 a month.
Until now, we have only seen the northern and central sierra, which encompasses Quito and the other old colonial cities of Ibarra, Ambato and Riobamba. We have been to the huge and colourful indigenous market in Otavalo (said to be the largest in South America), the leather villages of Cotacachi and Quizapincha (how about a stylish, fitted jacket for $30?), the woodcarving village of San Antonio de Ibarra, the weaving centre of Atuntaqui, and the jeans workshops at Pelileo (a real competitor for Levi's), all of these selling a vast range of quality products at rock-bottom prices.
The mountains are dramatic patchwork quilts of farmland, and the highest and most magnificent is snowcapped Chimborazo (20,700 feet), where, to my surprise, my wife climbed to the second refuge hut at 16,300 feet without breathing problems. We have made several trips to the thermal baths at Banos, a small town threatened by the "Black Giant," Volcan Tungurahua (16,475 feet), which has spewed out rocks, lava, steam and smoke daily for the last seven years. Christmas was spent in Mindo, a little village nestled amid cloud and rainforest, famous for its birds, orchids, frogs and butterflies. One garden, open to the public, attracts 26 different species of hummingbirds and an official bird count, held one week earlier, produced the astonishing figure of 456 different species in one square kilometre - claimed to be the highest number in the world. Incredibly, Ecuador has more bird species than America and Europe combined.
As I write this, sipping coffee on the balcony in the bright morning sunshine, I can see the distant high-rises of Quito across the valley, framed between the hillsides beneath the peaks of Pichincha (15,696 feet), which covered the city in ashes when it erupted in 1999. Behind me is the snowcapped peak of Cayambe (18,996 feet), the third highest mountain in Ecuador. Butterflies meander by and multi-coloured birds constantly serenade me. Iridescent hummingbirds dart from flower to flower and, when evening falls, the frogs will take the stage, pick up their castanets and strike up the band. We feel at home in this delightful country amongst these warmly welcoming people, so much so that we have applied for new visas to stay another year in this beautiful and challenging new environment. Modern communications have opened up the world so, Ecuador? Why not!
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