Ecuador: Before the quake...floods & volcanic eruptions

by Betsy Herbert

After a memorable tour of the Galapagos Islands in February, I headed back to the Ecuadoran mainland to hang out for a couple of weeks in Cuenca, Ecuador's third largest city. [I couldn't have known that five weeks later, on April 16, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake would devastate parts of Ecuador; even so, the quake did not seriously impact Cuenca.]

Cuenca is well known among American ex-pats as one of the most attractive places to retire. I wanted to see for myself, since I noticed that most of hype about Cuenca is published by the real estate and tourism industries. Whenever I read about a place that sounds too good to be true, well, I get curious. Cuenca is touted for its great climate...it's near the equator, but at 8,500 feet, it's not unbearably hot and humid. It's also known for it's beautiful old buildings and town squares and its cheap cost of living. 

When I checked into my hotel, I was surprised to find that some 50 of the International Tennis Federation's wheelchair tennis team was also staying there. Cuenca was selected as the site of the 2016 BNP Paribas World Team Cup, Americas regional team playoffs. There were players from all over North and South America. This made for exciting times, since the players would head out each day to play and then return in the evenings, when we'd see the results of the matches on TV. Turns out that the winners of the American regionals were the Brazilian women and the Columbian men. They will be heading to Tokyo in late May to compete in the World Finals.

The first day I had lunch in town, I overheard an American ex-pat--he was a musician--talking about life in Cuenca. I approached him, asked how long he had lived there and how he liked it. He offered quite a story. He and his wife were from California. They both spoke fluent Spanish. They had built a house and music studio in Cuenca, using local contractors and securing local permits. But during that 2-year process, they had been burgled three times. He said they were facing the reality that if they wanted to stay there, they would have to install gates and a complete security system, get a guard dog and put up a fence with razor wire. He said that they really didn't want to live like that...they had wanted to be accepted as part of the community, but felt that it wasn't possible for gringos to do that, even if they did everything with the best intentions. So, they had decided to go back to California.

Needless to say, that effectively shattered any smiley-face perspective of Cuenca that I'd picked up from real estate agents. I decided to concentrate on exploring and taking photos of Cuenca and its people and forget about the ex-pat angle.

As I walked on the streets of Cuenca, an immediately apparent problem was the terrible traffic and resulting vehicular air pollution. This was especially bad in the downtown area, with its narrow streets and dense buildings. The Municipality of Cuenca and the World Bank have acknowledged the existence of this health problem in a 2015 report entitled "The Cost of air pollution: A case study for the city of Cuenca, Ecuador."

It seems that nothing much yet has been done to reduce air pollution, though. Cuenca was otherwise quite beautiful and picturesque. See photos below:

Woman walking through the flower market in Cuenca's downtown.

Woman walking through the flower market in Cuenca's downtown.

Historic limestone building lit up at night in downtown Cuenca, Ecuador.

Historic limestone building lit up at night in downtown Cuenca, Ecuador.

Street scene near the river in downtown Cuenca.

Street scene near the river in downtown Cuenca.

A flower vendor at work in Cuenca's flower market.

A flower vendor at work in Cuenca's flower market.

Typical architecture complete with tile front and wrote iron balcony in Cuenca, Ecuador.

Typical architecture complete with tile front and wrote iron balcony in Cuenca, Ecuador.

Two local women wearing their ever-popular Panama hats, which are actually made in Cuenca, Ecuador!

Two local women wearing their ever-popular Panama hats, which are actually made in Cuenca, Ecuador!

I visited the Homero Ortego hat factory in Cuenca, where world-famous Panama hats are made.

I visited the Homero Ortego hat factory in Cuenca, where world-famous Panama hats are made.

Photos of famous celebs who have bought hats at the Homero Ortega factory...

Photos of famous celebs who have bought hats at the Homero Ortega factory...

Cuenca streets have lots of colorful murals.

Cuenca streets have lots of colorful murals.

Historic church in downtown Cuenca.

Historic church in downtown Cuenca.

I celebrated my birthday in Cuenca with a super-sized Margarita, the best I'd tasted so far on my trip!

I celebrated my birthday in Cuenca with a super-sized Margarita, the best I'd tasted so far on my trip!

On March 10, as I was sipping my Margarita, the rains had been pouring down for three days on Cuenca. I took the video below as the river that flows through the city was reaching flood stage.

I was getting a little nervous as I watched the river surging, even as more rain was expected. I left Cuenca on March 11. Lucky for me the airport was open as it had closed the day before due to heavy rains. I flew from Cuenca to Quito that day, where I got a birdseye view of the volcano Tungurahua erupting. I could see a long trail of ash being spewed into the air, very near our flight path. (Photo below).

I took this photo from my seat on the flight from Cuenca to Quito, Ecuador on March 11, 2016. You can see the boomerang-shaped ash plume being spewed by the 16,480 foot volcano Tungurahua, 140 miles south of Quito.

I took this photo from my seat on the flight from Cuenca to Quito, Ecuador on March 11, 2016. You can see the boomerang-shaped ash plume being spewed by the 16,480 foot volcano Tungurahua, 140 miles south of Quito.

Soon I'd be in San Salvador, where I would start a tour of four Central American countries, my last adventure before returning home.