Thursday, January 26, 2012

Prices in Cuenca: 2012 Vice Squad Edition

In 2010, I posted up about the prices for cigarettes, alcohol, and recreational drugs in Cuenca. It's turned out to be one of my more popular posts, but with the passage of time my education has expanded and my pricing has gone outdated. So, new for 2012, here's the Vice Squad edition of Cuenca prices, moving from mild vices to more serious, um, adventure items:
  • Coffee: The price of coffee in Cuenca has gone up slightly over the last two years, driven in part by poor local harvests. We had some damp years and one of the major suppliers moved into a new niche. There's also been an increase in artisanal and organic coffee in Cuenca, which naturally costs more. Expect a cup of joe to set you back at least 60 cents, with prices moving up past $2 in some of your nicer cafes.

  • Pack of cigarettes: $1.85 plus whatever your local tienda adds as a mark up. $2 is common for a full pack of Lider, the dominant local brand. Also note that since 2010, Cuenca has passed a law against indoor smoking in restaurants and public places.

  • Cocktails/Booze: Oddly, cocktails seem to be coming down a bit, depending where you are drinking them. Well drinks and glasses of wine start at $2 and move up from there. Do expect to pay $5+ for top shelf or cocktails at more upscale/gringo oriented establishments. Discount happy hours and bargain glasses are available, but you drink what you pay for!

  • Beer: Beer is still in two sizes as reported before, with Club starting to edge Pilsner as the dominant local beer after some fun price wars in the supermarkets. At the store, you'll pay around 60 cents for a small beer, which will be $1 in cheap bars and $1.50 - $3 or more in upscale/gringo bars. For "grandes" your local tienda will hook you up for about $1, while the average going rate in the bars is $2 (more or less, depending where you are drinking). If you don't like the local stuff, Heineken is making some distribution inroads at bars, while SuperMaxi now has Budweiser.

  • Condoms: $2.80 (ish) for three. These are sold at pharmacies and most supermarkets, though not always in sections one might think of as logical. Duo, Lifestyles and Trojans are the big brands. as the major foreign players. The day after pill equivalent is a local tea designed to start menstruation, and Ecuador leads South America in illegal abortions due to the strict official stance against it. Be careful out there!

  • Sex stores: In 2010 I didn't know where these were. Now I do - hunt down "Sexy Locuras" on the street next to SuperMaxi El Vergel - it's the pink thing next to the soccer shop. Apparently a chain.

  • Bribing the police: $10 and up, depending on the offense. I'm throwing this in there just in case you get up to something in the next section. Ask nicely, "Como podemos solucionar este?" (How can we solve this?) Traffic offenses will be the easiest to get out of (speeding, license issues) and remember, not everyone will take your money.

  • Hookers: $6 and up. Pay more than $6 for your hooker. Ecuador's STD stats are frightening - that's all I'm saying. May be found near the Terminal Terrestre (main bus station) or in the brothel area (ask your taxi driver). Those near the bus station are frequently transvestites, and crime in that area remains high, especially late at night.

  • Marijuana: Minor possession of marijuana is legal in Ecuador (one of two countries in South America with the loophole). You may score a hit of low grade stuff for $5 or $10, with pricing moving up sharply from there. I continue to be surprised at the number of retiree users in Ecuador. To buy, put it out there that you are interested and local expats will help you network in (but do realize not everyone here knows or is interested in helping you find pot, especially on a first meeting).

  • Hallucinogenics: San Pedro cactus will set you back 25 cents to a dollar a chunk at almost every local market. Preparation instructions are on the Internet. Jungle trips for Iowaska adventures start at around $40 and go way up past $200 depending on the shaman and tour package you're doing with it.

  • OTC medications: Codeine blend pills are readily available, and can be purchased individually or in packs from your local pharmacy, generally without a prescription. More intense stuff you'll need a prescription to get and Vicodin level stuff is very hard to source.

  • Cocaine: $10 and up. I've heard mixed reviews of the effects at Cuenca's altitude - evidently it is not as good as lower elevations. I have no idea on the science on that, nor do I have any first hand experience. In terms of buying, no, I don't know anyone, and nor have I seen/heard much in the way of news on other drugs.
And that's the 2012 update. Anyone want to (anonymously) report how this compares to their own area back home?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Talking to the Taxis

One of the fun things I get to do almost everyday is talk to my taxi drivers. I run with a taxi crew I call "the grandpas" and they probably know me better than anyone else now!

Riding with the grandpas happened by accident. Moving into the place on El Batan, we noticed there was a taxi syndicate stand just up the street. I didn't use them at first, but then I started to appreciate the convenience of having taxis waiting for me whenever I wanted one without having to call for a ride. And so we began spending a lot of time (and money) together.

The grandpas got their name because the group is anchored by two drivers who are (approximately) 100 years old each. Riding with one of them terrifies me because he can't really see over the wheel and big cars seem to scare him. He is also cranky about people trying to give him anything other than exact change - but he's there in the afternoons when I need a ride, and that's just how it goes.

The other truly ancient driver is adorable, especially this season. Apparently they decided that since they have foreigners as regular riders, they should learn some English. He has mastered "Good Afternoon" which he tells me every morning on my way to getting a ride for my 9 am class.

It's not that no one in the group speaks English - some of them worked in the States, and many are much younger. Out of the 30+ cars in the syndicate, I know 6 of the drivers well enough to have their life stories. Chatting in traffic, you can pick up a lot - Bruno, for example, says he's relieved to have left his delivery route in NYC because taking bread to the Italian bakeries meant getting involved with the mafia and you know, those Russians are crazy.

We chat about visa issues, the weather, vacations, my students, their kids, and anything else that comes up. Many women riding alone in Cuenca complain that their taxi drivers hit on them - not my regular guys! They're married (one with 6 kids!) and besides, at 3 - 4 rides a day sometimes, they already know all about me and my boyfriend.

It is sometimes a check that I have to watch what I share - the taxi guys have lots of time on slow days to share stories. Everybody knows when I'm on vacation, doing exams for the school, upset about something at work, etc, etc - even the drivers I don't talk with regularly. On the other hand, I know quite a bit about their habits and lives, too, so I suppose it evens out in the grand scheme of things.

The other thing that evens out is the price I pay for taxis. As a regular, I pay the minimal fare for everything - something I'm reminded of when I dare to ride with another set of drivers. Cuenca has more than 100 taxi syndicates, some of which have over 70 cars. They can set their own rates for fares from their home base spot to the rest of the city, but good luck finding out what those rates are without being a regular rider, and good luck getting the best rates with a random cab hailed off the street. That's just the way it goes, and I'm lucky to have a set of good cabbies I can trust since I live in one part of the city and work in another.

So do come for a visit - fares are down for 2012 to Ecuador, and then you, too, can talk with my taxis.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Fresh Thoughts For 2012

2011 came and went in a flash.

The last few months seemed like a race - each day was a marathon and I was not trained up to take it! After resolving that 2012 would be my year to really be healthy, I started the year with a hideous cold and lost voice, no doubt as things finally slowed down a bit and my body gave itself permission to be ill (I was not consulted). Still, better now and getting started on 2012 in force ... just a little late.

This week wraps up the writing class I have been teaching at the local university. You may remember that I thought this would be fun and interesting to do - and I can say that it has definitely been interesting and eye-opening. During a season when the university as a whole is campaigning for academic excellence, my class grades have enjoyed the active involvement of the administration, and the final projects were cancelled in favor of a multiple choice test. For a writing class. When I am back in NE in March, stop me and ask me more about that - it's a nice bit of local drama that helped eat all my spare time in December.

When the class is over, what will I do with my extra time? Write, naturally, but also explore. This summer will mark one of the major turnovers in Cuenca - we have multiple friends who are leaving and they are all bemoaning that they haven't seen enough of Ecuador. So we are resolving that we will cross more places off our list. Over the Christmas break, I got to see a number of the outlying towns, some major Inca ruins, and the coast of Ecuador (ocean at last!). This year, I want to see more of the coast and some of the museums here in the city, since the exhibits rotate and I should probably do more than just ignore them.

Packing in touristic activities locally will help warm me up for the year as a whole - I have five big trips planned and am sure some little ones will get tucked in there, too. I laugh that I'm approaching them as "travel at last!" trips - because you know I just haven't done any traveling in the last few years :-)

Here's to a new year, starting late for me but certainly underway. How's your new year going?