Becoming Cuenca

How To Get to and from Cuenca – Part 2

Nov 5, 2022

Time to fly to Cuenca!

There is a good chance you will be departing from an airport that does not have non-stop service to Quito and Guayaquil. You have to be living in an airline’s hub city to have no stops along the way.

Delta Air Lines flies non-stop from its hub in Atlanta. United flies out of Houston while American uses its Latin American hub in Miami. Air Canada was flying out of Toronto.  JetBlue Airways uses its hub in Fort Lauderdale as well as Spirit Airlines. The Colombian airline, Avianca, has a non-stop out of New York to Guayaquil. JetBlue flies non-stop out of New York to Guayaquil, too.

Your trip to Cuenca begins at the ticket counter, where you have to present your passport. It is only the first of several times showing it before you get to your seat.

The next thing may surprise you: Many airlines want you to show a ticket (airline or bus) that you will be leaving Ecuador within 90 days. Like many countries, Ecuador gives you 90 days in the country without a visa. Going over that without paying a fee involves a fine.

Airlines are worried that they will be left holding the bag with getting you back to your home country. For several years, Copa Airlines has required proof of a return trip before they would let you board their planes. They do not want to pay for your return flight.

When Joanna and I checked in at the Miami ticket counter in January 2020 for Copa Airlines, the agent asked us to see our temporary visas. Then, she asked me to email them to her supervisor. I am guessing that was to cover her butt as she was allowing us on the plane with one-way tickets (We were moving to Cuenca).

Just last month, Delta Air Lines at RDU surprised us. The ticket counter agent asked to see our return trip ticket. It was the first time Delta had asked us for this. I informed him that we were permanent residents of Ecuador and I showed him an electronic copy of our permanent visas. He nodded his head in approval.

A little side note here. I keep electronic copies of all of my important documents. When I travel internationally, I have copies of our passports, permanent visas, driver’s licenses, and our vaccination cards from Ecuador and the United States. You never know when you will need them. Delta Air Lines at RDU is a good example. Another one is if you lose your passport. Having an electronic copy in your email will make it easier for you to get a replacement passport.

Most of you know about what it takes to get through airport security so I will not dwell upon it. All I will say is that TSA Pre-Check makes getting through security a lot faster. It certainly helped Joanna and me when we went through a busy TSA at Atlanta in September.

Getting onto an international flight usually means the airline starts boarding 45 minutes prior to the scheduled time. No matter the airline, people who need assistance (i.e., people in wheelchairs) board first. Business Class goes second, followed by what tier you are (that group number will be marked on your boarding ticket).

Something new that Joanna and I experienced at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport was having our photos taken before boarding. On our flight from Atlanta to Quito last month, Delta Air Lines announced that everyone getting onboard had to have their faces photographed.

I asked one of the airline agents what it was for, and he told me the images go to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the largest federal law enforcement agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Big Brother is watching you.

Since most of our flying experience has been at Quito, I will focus on that airport. Upon landing at Aeropuerto Internacional de Quito Mariscal Sucre, you will have to go through passport control and customs.

Passport control at Quito is efficient and quick. I do not think I have spent more than ten minutes in line. The health declaration form for Covid is no longer needed so the process is rather fast. At passport control, they will photograph your face. Take off your hat and your face mask if you are wearing one. Yes, everyone is thoroughly documenting your movements.

Right after passport control is the duty-free shop. This is a typical maneuver by international airports to sell you stuff. After passing through the store, you end up at baggage claim, where you get your luggage to possibly be inspected. I am jinxing myself, but we have never had our luggage inspected by Customs. Basically, you are waved right on through to the public area of the airport.

Quito’s airport is relatively new and has been recognized for its excellence. Skytrax, the highly respected and authoritative organization that evaluates the service offered by airports and airlines worldwide, recognized Aeropuerto Internacional de Quito Mariscal Sucre as the “Best Regional Airport” and “Best Airport Staff” in South America. These awards are in addition to the five-star rating given to the airport by Skytrax in March.

It is the seventh year in a row that the airport has been rated the best in all of South America. The awards are considered benchmarks of quality for airports around the world, evaluating customer service and facilities at more than 500 airports.

One of the reasons for Quito’s airport being so highly rated is its airport center. Right across the street is a large center for pre-security services. This is impressive as the choices of pre-security restaurants and services is superior to most airports. An excellent sushi restaurant is located in the heart of the center.

If you want to eat outside, you can. I do not know of another airport where one can eat and drink outdoors at an airport. The weather in Quito is usually very nice to enjoy the fresh air and the view of the surrounding mountains.

The odds are high your flight from North America will arrive too late to catch a flight to Cuenca. Currently, flights to and from Cuenca are rather limited with LATAM Airlines and Avianca providing the only air service between the two cities. Our good friends, who have lived in Cuenca since 2010, say there are now more flights than prior to the pandemic.

For a fee, you can sleep at Layover Stay in the airport center. Joanna and I tried that once, and we will never be doing that again. They have some leather chairs, but it is rather dated with little to offer, especially for the price they are commanding.

We prefer a comfortable night just down the road at EB Hotel Quito. The excellent EB Hotel is located just eight minutes away from the airport, in Tababela, a metropolitan district of Quito. It has a great view of the mountains. Our room on our last stay had a great view of the sunrise.

Owned by a Venezuelan company, it provides world class service for a very affordable price. It is described as a 4.5-star luxury hotel. They certainly live up to the high rating.

That starts with their free shuttle to and from the airport. Unlike most airports with their designated area across the street to get your hotel shuttle, EB Hotel’s driver will be waiting for you right outside the exit doors for the international arrivals area. He will have a sign with your name on it. All you have to do to get picked up is to notify the hotel in advance. They will monitor your flight online to make sure you get to the hotel.

It is a very modern hotel with excellent customer service. Every single employee we have met in our times at EB Hotel has had a smile on their faces and has been extremely helpful.

You can have breakfast as part of the cost of your room. We highly recommend a very good breakfast at EB Hotel. The buffet style breakfast with table service starts at 6:00 in the morning, giving you plenty of time to catch a 9 a.m. LATAM flight to Cuenca.

Most likely, you will be flying LATAM to Cuenca. It is our airline as we fly Premium Economy for just a tad more. LATAM’s price for Premium Economy is more affordable than most flights in the United States. Premium Economy offers priority check-in, priority boarding (Group 1), and additional baggage amenities (such as three suitcases allowed per person). With Premium Economy, the middle seat is blocked out.

LATAM is using an Airbus A319 for its flights to and from Cuenca. The plane has 144 seats. Premium Economy is located in the first three rows and features 12 standard style seating. It seems to have extra legroom, too.

The flight from Quito to Cuenca reminds me of flying from Raleigh-Durham to Charlotte. By the time you reach altitude, it is almost time for your descent. On your final approach, do not freak out. Aeropuerto Mariscal La Mar is completely surrounded by houses and businesses. The airport used to be out in the country, but the city grew up all around it.

Heads-up! Unlike the U.S., civility is in order. No one gets up as soon as the plane stops. Everyone remains seated until their row is told they can exit the plane. Joanna and I find this to be very refreshing and orderly.

Your plane will literally be parked at the door to the airport. That was our October flight’s plane you see in the photo above. We just had to walk down the steps to the tarmac. Cuenca has an older airport and does not have jetways to the planes.

Make sure you have an umbrella with you! Though it is only a two minutes’ walk to the building, you never know what Cuenca’s weather will be like. Once inside the building, it is very easy to figure out which carousel your suitcases will arrive on as there are only two choices. Only one carousel will be used for your arrival. The other one will be inactive as there will not be any other flights at your arrival time.

A big advantage of having a small airport, your luggage will arrive in no time. It is not an exaggeration to say you will be on your way in just five minutes. How many airports can do that? I cannot count the times I had to wait 30 to 45 minutes for my suitcases at other airports.

And right out the door is the main terminal of the airport. Catching a taxi is just feet away or your ride is waiting for you. If you are renting from Europcar, it is just to your left. You cannot miss their big green sign. With locations in more than 140 countries, Europcar is a leader in car rentals in Europe and worldwide.

After having a great time in Cuenca, you have to go home. Many airports tell you to be there two hours ahead of your flight for domestic flights. We arrive 60 to 75 minutes before ours due to the size of Aeropuerto Mariscal La Mar.

Like most airports these days, you go to a kiosk to check in. This will give your boarding passes as well as the tags for your luggage. Once checked in, it will take you less than five minutes to be at your gate.  That time includes going through security and through a store for any last-minute gifts. Choices of food and drinks is rather limited due to the size of the airport and number of flights every day.

Do you have your umbrella? Make sure you have it as you have to walk across the tarmac again to your flight. We highly recommend you have outerwear on, too, as it can get cool rather quickly at 8,400 feet / 2,560 meters above sea level.

Cuenca to Quito is a domestic flight, and most likely, you will be taking a different airline back to your hometown. You will have to check them in with your airline to the United States or Canada.

Quito rotates its ticket counters. With our three Delta Air Lines flights to the U.S., we have been at three different ticket counters. Look for the huge semi-curved electronic signs above areas A, B, and C. The signs will tell you which area, but not which side. Pay attention to your airline setting up.

The airline does not always turn on the electronic signs for their area until the last minute. That can create confusion as one time we were in the area with a JetBlue flight and neither airline was giving us a clue where to queue.

Being a retiree, I have been flying Business Class. One reason is bigger seats with a lot more legroom. Business Class seats are far enough apart that when the passenger in front of you leans back, they are not in your face.

A big reason for flying Business Class is the number of people on international flights. Delta Air Lines uses a Boeing 757 for their flights. There are 24 Business Class seats, 21 Delta Comfort+ seats, and the remaining 135 seats are in Economy. Business Class gets its own check-in line, eliminating 156 passengers from your check-in. I can pretty much guarantee your flight back to the States will be full. Our three flights from Quito did not have any empty seats.

Another advantage of Business Class is that your airline will give you complimentary access to the Sala VIP International lounge at Quito Mariscal Sucre Airport. It is Certified as a Skytrax 5-Star Airline Lounge for the standard of product facilities and staff service.

Skytrax said, “The international VIP facility in Quito delivers excellent airport lounge standards. The quality of decor throughout is superb, and this includes an appealing outdoor terrace area. Food service and bar choices have good appeal, but alcohol is limited to two drinks per guest. The washrooms are well-appointed.  Staff is attentive and helpful with acceptable English language skills.”

It is great way to kill a couple hours as complimentary spirits and / or wine are available. It is limited to two per adult with a valid boarding pass. Both my wife and I think their food is meh, but it is something to eat as your flight will most likely be a redeye to North America.

Every airport in the United States is different with passport control. That includes using your Mobile Passport app or Global Entry, a program of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection service that allows pre-approved, low-risk travelers to receive expedited clearance upon arrival through kiosks at select airports. Atlanta got rid of using Mobile Passport. For our flight from Quito, it does not matter as it arrives at the slowest time of day at Atlanta’s airport.

For most travelers, you will have a connecting flight. Make sure you have enough time to make your connection! Clearing customs and immigration can take ten minutes or several hours. It depends on your airport, the time of day, the month, as well as other factors.

If your airline suggests an itinerary that includes only two hours between flights and you know you must go through customs and immigration, add more time to your itinerary. Two hours is usually not enough time. It is why my wife and added more time between our flight to Atlanta and the connecting flight to Ontario, California. We felt Delta gave us too little time, so we booked the next flight to Ontario. It was worth the long wait as we made our flight, and all of our luggage made it to California.

This information should make your trip to and from Cuenca a lot easier. Make sure you have the airlines’ apps on your phones so you can get the latest information. As a bonus with our Delta Air Lines app, we were notified when our luggage made it on to the plane and when it had been offloaded.

A lot more information on life in Cuenca can be found in my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life.” Some say it is the most thorough book out there concerning moving to and living in this beautiful city.

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Salud, mi amigos.

 

 

 

Una Nueva Vida – A New Life

- by Stephen Vargha

There are over 80 professional-quality photos shot by me to give you a clear ‘picture’ about life in this historic mountain city.