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Cuenca Ecuador Water Quality Test w/ Lab Results (SteriPEN Review)

Posted in: Cuenca Ecuador, Living in Ecuador

cuenca water qualityHow’s the drinking water in Cuenca?

Do you drink it? Is it safe?

In this post, we share the lab results of tests we ran on Cuenca’s water – straight from the tap and after sterilization with a SteriPEN. We share specifics about what we found and how well the UV light works.

Read about Tap Water Safety Around the World

Water Safety in Cuenca

After publishing about our water filter two years ago, we learned that water quality is a hot topic among expats. There are almost one hundred comments on that post – showing how important this is for everyone.

As part of a review for SteriPEN (a UV light water purifier) that we published on GringosAbroad – we tested the water in Cuenca. Because of the interest in water quality, we also decided to publish on Inside Ecuador as well.

We took water samples from two locations:

  1. tap water from a public washroom
  2. the Tomebamba River

I know, what were we thinking? Well, two things. First, we wanted to avoid taking water from a building that had a secondary filter. We wanted to get true Cuenca water – so we took it from a non-residential area. And secondly we wanted some really dirty water to see how well the SteriPEN actually worked. The river water worked well for this.

Boiling water is another good way to make it safe to drink.

Cuenca Water Lab Results

What were the results?

  • Cuenca’s tap water: PASSED,  even though it came from a public washroom. There were some bacteria, but it was free of amoeba and parasites. The lab technician said that it was safe to consume.
  • Cuenca’s river water: FAILED. Not surprising, the river water was a dangerous mix of parasite eggs, amoebas, and bacteria. The technician said it looked like a zoo of microscopic activity.

Here are some of the critters we saw in the water:

parasite cuenca ecuador

cuenca water quality

Before water treatment

drink cuenca water

Same organism as above, but after sterilization: Dead

pH Levels of Cuenca’s Water

In addition to contaminant tests, we also tested pH levels of both types of water. Cuenca’s tap water had a pH of 7 (neither alkaline nor acidic) and the river water had a pH of 8 (moderately alkaline). The SteriPEN treatment didn’t change the pH level. A pH level of 7 is considered perfect for drinking water.

SteriPEN Sterilization Results

We initially planned to use the SteriPEN to sterilize both water samples but because the tap water came back safe, we didn’t bother.

We did treat the river water and then we re-tested. This was very interesting.

During the initial test, we saw live ameobas and parasite eggs. After sterilizing the water with the UV light, they were all dead. We saw the same organisms but they had been killed by the light.

Note: the UV light in the SteriPEN will kill living organisms in the water, but it doesn’t filter the water. Although the dead organisms remain in the water, they won’t do any harm.

So, the SteriPEN was able to take dangerous water and make it safe to consume.

How to properly use a SteriPEN

Here is a video of the whole process.

Cuenca Ecuador Water Test Lab Results (Video)

Watch on YouTube

chart of common ecuador parasites

Chart of Common Human Parasites in Ecuador

Does This Mean All Ecuador Water is Safe?

Can you drink all the water in Ecuador? Of course not. The technician noted that he has tested the water in some small towns just outside of Cuenca and they are unsafe and will cause sickness. He told me that he uses a water filter system in his home.

While we will continue to occasionally drink the water in Cuenca, we prefer to filter all of our water at home. We use a counter-top ceramic filter for an extra level of security to keep us healthy. When we lived in Canada, we drank our well water – but only after running it though a ceramic and sediment filter. It is inexpensive and worth the trouble to stay healthy.

Other expats in Cuenca don’t filter the water and don’t have have trouble with sickness. It really is a preference / confidence issue.

When would you use a SteriPEN? It is ideal if you are either living outside of Cuenca and/or planning traveling around the country or more of South America.

Contest: How will you use your Steripen? (Contest closed)

Tell us how (or where) you will use the Steripen Ultra and you might win it! Have a trip planned? Where are you going? Why do you need water sterilization? How will you use your SteriPEN Ultra? Tell us all about it in the comment section below and our favorite comment will receive the SteriPEN Ultra (the same model we tested and reviewed in this post) direct from SteriPEN. Contest closes Saturday, September 27th 2014 at 12 noon (GMT-5, Ecuador time). The winner will be contacted directly and published here on this post. Contest is sponsored by SteriPEN.

(Update, September 30, 2014) The contested is closed and the prize was awarded to Dan Ritchie. Read Dan’s winning comment.

Meet the Author

Bryan Haines is co-editor of GringosAbroad - Ecuador's largest blog for expats and travelers. He is a travel blogger and content marketer. He is also co-founder of ClickLikeThis (GoPro tutorial blog) and Storyteller Media (content marketing for travel brands). Work with GringosAbroad.

50 comments… add one
  • John Sep 17, 2015, 12:02 am

    I am a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador. The medical staff told volunteers that we could treat the tap water by boiling it, using a ceramic filter or by using bleach. Using bleach is one of the easiest, most cost-effective ways to treat water. You can buy a dropper from a pharmacy and buy bleach for treating water. You can find the bleach at small stores, Tía, Supermaxi, and Coral. It is sold as “Cloro” and says something along the lines of “apto para tratar a agua”. Use one drop of bleach per liter of water, and it will be ready in 30 minutes to consume. The nice thing is that you don’t have to use gas and/or wait for the water to cool. I bought a 20 liter jug and dispenser and fill it, treat it, and drink from it. Easy peasy lemon squeezy, haha.

  • Brian Cosier Aug 27, 2015, 1:41 pm

    Product reviews not very encouraging

    • Bryan Haines Sep 1, 2015, 7:44 am

      Check Amazon or another larger vendor for reviews. You’ll get a clearer picture of what it’s actually like.

  • OrganicMom Mar 29, 2015, 12:40 am

    Bryan, Do you know if the water is flouridated in Cuenca and whether there is any place you can get water that isn’t flouridated? Thanks

  • Markuhno Dec 19, 2014, 10:40 am

    Could you please tell me which Lab you used to have the water tested? We are looking for a detailed report of what is in the water and what is added to the water, other than chlorine. We can not find any detailed report other than “it’s safe to drink”. Any and all information on this is very important to us. The only report we have seen is at one of the spas in Banos.
    Thanks for your efforts.

    • Bryan Haines Dec 19, 2014, 1:17 pm

      It was a friend who did it as a favor – he generally works under contract with a few clinics so he doesn’t take walk in customers. We didn’t run the full report – but just for living things. I expect that you can get it done at any of the labs in the city. Just walk in and see what they require. We’ve used the lab at Santa Ines (just off of 12 de Abril and Solano) for a few random blood tests that we didn’t have doctors orders for. They should be able to help.

  • HimalAbility McClintock Dec 14, 2014, 2:35 am

    Bought the sidewinder, looking fwd. to using in Nepal.

  • Anna Nov 4, 2014, 2:16 pm

    Thanks for posting this information. I am planning trip to Ecuador next year with possibilities to come back there for good but I am so scared now. I am raw vegan person, means no cook food and a lots of water. How do I survive there? Any tips ????

    • Bryan Haines Nov 4, 2014, 4:33 pm

      No need to be scared.

      With a good water filter – or a sterilizing light (SteriPEN) you won’t have any trouble with the water. Most expats soak their fresh produce in GSE or an equivalent disinfectant. You can buy it at all the grocery stores.

      • Anna Nov 4, 2014, 4:45 pm

        Thank Bryan .. how about restaurants or food on the street. It will be safely to eat uncooked food there?

        • Bryan Haines Nov 5, 2014, 6:37 am

          It would depend on the restaurant – but we seldom eat uncooked food away from home.

          Of course, there are exceptions but there is a need to be careful.

  • Marion Gillespie Oct 3, 2014, 5:16 pm

    Thanks for the info.

  • Jeff Sep 22, 2014, 1:33 am

    I would literally use the SteriPEN every time I ate out, and, quite likely, whenever I had to drink unfiltered water at home. I found out the hard way that a glass which appears to be clean, can be anything but!

    While eating at a local Cuenca restaurant, I ordered a bottle of water. The waiter served it, along with a glass. Without thinking, I poured the bottled water into said glass. Several swallows later, I felt something tough land on the back of my tongue. After struggling to keep it from going down my throat , I was finally able to get it out of my mouth and onto the restaurant table. It was, indeed, a parasite — about one-half inch long, a wide head with a tapered body, and almost *completely* transparent! At least in water, and also when I first examined the glass. It was like hard, translucent plastic, but it was quite alive, with a little “sucker” that kept popping out and trying to attach itself to the table. The only satisfaction I received was that they didn’t make me pay for my bottled water!

    Now, this occurred about a week after a sneak-attack by another, much nastier parasite. In fact, I’ve only recently been able to get rid of it, do the lack of locally available medications for my particular parasite. In the time it took me to get adequate treatment, I managed to also acquire a couple of “house guests” for my original pet.

    I have seriously suffered a great deal to both the primary and secondary infections, and I’m fairly certain they were all acquired by drinking beverages out of glasses (or from glasses with ice). That’s why, whenever possible, I just don’t drink out of any glasses offered to me. But, however, when I’m having almuerzo and I get served a glass of juice… well, that’s tough. Do I drink it and hope for the best? Actually, I would *much* rather be reaching for my SteriPEN, so I could partake of my favorite juices when I’m out and about, without worry about a re-infection.

    Regardless of how I get one, I am *very* much going to need my own SteriPEN as soon as I can figure out where t then them.

    If I had a SteriPEN, it would go into any liquid I was about to drink before I drank it. Always.

    • Bryan Haines Sep 22, 2014, 6:38 am

      That’s a rough story! I haven’t seen a live one in water (except with a microscope). Not sure that I ever want to.

      Explorer sells them in Mall del Rio – at the entrance to the food court.

      • Jeff Sep 22, 2014, 7:57 am

        You have that right, Bryan! — you never want to see one. That’s as graphic as I’ll get. As an additional warning to your readers, they should keep in mind that under-cooked meat and unsanitary food-handling procedures are the chief ways of picking up a nasty parasite.

        I know the food being cooked at the street-vendor’s cart smells awfully good (and probably will taste the same). But… did you notice how she/he handles *both* the cooked and the uncooked food items with the same unwashed hands? Do you see those skewers of raw meat on the grill, and, just as you request one of your own, they take a cool one and place it back on the grill (many times actually touching the uncooked stuff) so they can warm it up for you? That would be “under-cooked” meat, bumping up against your cooked meat. And all by someone who handles each version, interchangeably without washing their hands. Do you even see anywhere they can wash or sterilize their hands? If not — or in they’re not using it — then wait and buy something safe.

        I’m not a medical professional, so take this accordingly: Consider taking a round of the locally available anti-parasitic called “Colufase” every six months, whether you think you need it or not. You take it once every 12 hours for 3 days (six pills). Then, wait 7 full days and repeat. If you *don’t* repeat, then the eggs of any adult parasites are going to be left behind to hatch and mature. This is not a good thing. If you’re still not feeling better a week or two, get in to see a knowledgeable physician right away. Don´t worry too much about the specialty of the doc, but rather, on their background knowledge and their attitude toward getting you the help that you need.

  • Ralph Sabean Sep 21, 2014, 6:37 am

    I will certainly try out something like that steriPEN water cleanser as we are planning to stay for the three months October 28 th to January 21st though I wish it were until March. We usually buy bottled water from suppliers and in a family of four plus us two we go through a great amount of water. It is so important as we age to be more careful as to what we eat or drink. This products seems to be the one we will try for a certainty . I sure hope it is as good as Brian says and I’m totally sure it is. He is a very reliable person and we have known him for quite a while so we trust his view explicitly. I know if Brian has taken the time to do the tests on this product it has to be good so we surely do want to give it a try when we get there. Thanks for being so conscious of your family health and ultimately ours and many others as well.

  • Sue Pearson Sep 21, 2014, 12:56 am

    Yes, great to know Cuenca’s water is good. Very interesting tool, would have came in so handy for past trips, but would love to use one for traveling around South America while living in Cuenca! Was nice to see it in action on the video. Thank you.

    • Bryan Haines Sep 29, 2014, 10:38 am

      It is so much more convenient than a filtration unit – and it takes less than a minute to have a glass of save water.

  • Charline Ahlgreen Sep 20, 2014, 8:54 pm

    We came to Cuenca in July and and after two weeks there, did the Yunguilla Valley, Cotacachi and Quito. Everywhere except Cuenca, we had to depend on bottled water – and we drink a LOT of water. We decided that Cuenca was the place for us, so we’re getting everything ready here in North America to begin our new life there next year. One of the reasons we’re so excited is that we are going to continue our exploration of Ecuador once we get our Cuenca life in order, but as a couple bordering on elderly, the thought of constantly having to drag water bottles (and all the extra weight) around with us is already exhausting! Having a SteriPEN sounds like the ticket. Fishing in the Cajas? No problem! Beaching it for a week? No Problem!! Surfing the craft markets? NO PROBLEM!!!

    • Bryan Haines Sep 29, 2014, 10:39 am

      That is the beauty of the device. Just use the water on hand and drink it safely.

  • amraah carole white Sep 20, 2014, 5:00 pm

    Dear Friends….as I read these comments.. I am prompted to as if it might be possible to be put in touch with Tina Marshall, the midwife near Loja…I am okay with passing on my email to her to facilitate my request….
    I think the one word (community)n might be replaced with two words: come unity! has a great deal of info about water filtration and a huge ‘science’ base to use for research.
    In my view,the most important part is our personal work to strengthen immunity within us…I do all my own self care without a doctor in sight…working for 40 something years….we learn as we go….Much Love and Blessings to us all. Amraah

  • Carrie Sep 20, 2014, 12:26 pm

    Thanks for posting this! When we lived off-grid in the states, we hauled our water from a river nearly as dirty as the rivers here. We brought our Berkey filter with us from the states, and it works very well.

    However, the steriPen would be ideal to take in your suitcase or bug-out pack while traveling! We are getting ready to explore other areas of Cuenca, and water is important to us (can’t live without it, in fact).

    Speaking of water, what do you do when it’s WATER you’re choking on. Eat food? 🙂

    • Bryan Haines Sep 20, 2014, 12:42 pm

      The SteriPEN is so much easier than an actual filter. I didn’t know about the Berkey filters – I took a look and they have a great portable option. It does weight 4 pounds, so it isn’t really the same as the SteriPEN but might be a good second option.

      Thanks for the comment!

  • Amraah Carole White Sep 20, 2014, 12:08 pm

    Dear friends….what a wonderful article and thank you so very much for the initiative to put it all together…yes it is a very big issue: clean Water….as I am working up here getting ready, I am assessing my own need for clean water.
    Love and Blessings to you, Amraah

  • Megan Sep 20, 2014, 11:28 am

    As a growing, adventuring family we would definitely always keep this on hand. I can’t think of one place in particular to use this, but rather to make sure it travels with us on all of our adventures. As a family of 3, plus one more in December… You can never be too prepared for water consumption during your hikes thru beautiful Ecuador. We often hike with a camel pack for day hikes… But for multiple day hikes it’s always a concern of how we will clean the water for drinking. This would be great to win!!!

  • Russell Gregg Sep 20, 2014, 11:12 am

    Thank you so much for all the great articles you guys write. I travel several times per year to the Caribbean, Med, Mexico, etc and I am always suspicious of the water so I drink a lot of beer and pop while away. Although I don’t mind this usually, there are times when a nice glass of water would be awesome (like when I take pills at night) yet there are no bottles available. The SteriPEN would solve this issue…please send it to me! 🙂

  • Dan Ritchie Sep 20, 2014, 9:40 am

    We have been here in Cuenca since Sept. 9. I have heard from several people that the water is safe to drink but once you have had your head in a bus toilet in route from Chihuahua Mexico to El Paso Texas you don’t throw around sayings like “I never get sick” or “just drink Tequila and the germs can’t live in your body”. If that sounds a little specific that is because I know of what I speak! At this point in my life I just don’t want to take that chance. Later we lived in Baja California for the better part of a year and we purchased a water ionizer. We were using the ionizer along with some prefilters and we were drinking crystal clear purified AGG water from a pond. But those things cost $1500-$4000 and they are kind of big to be flying to South America with. By the way, reluctantly, we also left our espresso machine back in the states too . So we thought we would try one of those backpacking straw filters. When we are out to eat I like water! Not soda not juice and bottled water just seems like a needless expense and not good for the environment. The straw filters seem to work, filtering water to .1 micron but I know some bacteria is smaller than that and besides I feel very conspicuous pulling it out in a restaurant. I don’t want locals to get the impression that “their water is not good enough for me”. I did not know that a device like the SteriPEN Ultra existed. I definitely will want to get one for use in restaurants, while traveling and even here in Cuenca.

    • Bryan Haines Sep 20, 2014, 12:45 pm

      We feel the same. The risk of sickness just isn’t worth being casual about water safety. The SteriPEN has been around for a while – but this latest version with USB charging is their best yet.

      • Dan Ritchie Sep 30, 2014, 8:10 am

        How exciting! I had told my wife that I thought the story about childbirth would win! But then that is not something everyone can relate to. At any rate, thank you.

    • Bryan Haines Sep 30, 2014, 7:08 am

      Congratulations Dan! You are the winner of the SteriPEN Ultra. I will email you directly to get your info!

  • john Sep 20, 2014, 9:23 am

    The article is interesting but you never said how or where to use the SteriPen system and how much it costs. I live in Bahia and would be interested in more information for this area. I would also like to know if I would need a filter as well or if a filter alone would make water here safe to drink. There are companies here that say their filter systems really work, but somehow most gringos here, including me, are very skeptical. We are a family of five and would love to be able to use tap water again.
    I would to here from you on this subject. If you can’t provide this information, maybe you could supply us, the gringo community here in Bahia with the contact agency to do a water test here and its cost.
    Thank you, John.

    • Bryan Haines Sep 20, 2014, 12:53 pm

      You’re right. I overlooked the actual usage…

      To use the SteriPEN, you need to insert the light tube into the water and once the two metal prongs make contact with the water it will turn on. Just move the unit in a circular motion until the digital timer shows that the time has expired. It will give you a 🙂 to show that it worked properly.

      The SteriPEN should be used on all water that may be contaminated. This could be water from a river or even in a restaurant. While this is very practical for travel, it is also useful at home. We’ve used it a number of times to sterilize drinking water at home.

      You can buy the SteriPEN from Explorer in Ecuador. They carry a number of different models. Explorer has locations in Cuenca, Quito and Guayaquil (at least). I couldn’t find a current list of locations.

      More tips and details on SteriPEN usage.

    • Bryan Haines Sep 20, 2014, 12:55 pm

      In regards to your question about water testing, you can just take the water to a lab and have them test it for contaminants. We purchased a sterilized urine sample bottle at the pharmacy and had it tested. I couldn’t find a lab dedicated to water testing, but I think any competent lab tech can evaluate the safety of your water sample.

  • Dr Don Sanders Sep 20, 2014, 9:06 am

    Thanks for the info on the ZEN systems water filter. I bought the same unit from Mercado Libera 2 years ago. It is made in Korea and sells for $45 US plus $6 shipping on Servientrega. Replacement filters are $27 . It has been a good filter. I also filter the water from the blue 20 liter water bottles. We do not have municiple water delivery, only tankero delivered water, which we do not drink. It is amazing how much it takes out of the bottled water.
    I enjoy your informative news letters.

    • Bryan Haines Sep 29, 2014, 10:41 am

      Great to know that the same system is available within the country. We didn’t know that when we bought ours a few years ago.

  • Don McKay Sep 20, 2014, 8:50 am

    I already subscribe to your news letter. Used the Steripen in Cuenca, Guayaquil and Machu Pichu last year. It worked fine. Will definitely use it again. Leaving to trek the Everest region of the Himalayas in two weeks. Adios and Namaste. D. J. McKay

  • Joseph relick Sep 20, 2014, 8:04 am

    I am quite familiar with UV light killing bacteria, as I have used it successfully in large water systems where chlorine was not avaialable. The water test in Cuenca is passable, howecer, not every persons gut bacteria are stong, this is especialy true as we age. Where can I buy one? I would use the Steripen on every ounce of water I consumed.

    J. R. Relick

  • Lillian Asihene Sep 20, 2014, 7:54 am

    I would use the SteriPEN Ultra in Quito and when traveling around the country. I boiled water for the first year. After that, I have used a magnetic water filter and have had no infection from the water. It would be good to know how the water purity is compared to Cuenca. I would use the SteriPEN as an extra precaution for my drinking water since it kills water-born organisms.

  • Judith Greenhow Sep 20, 2014, 7:52 am

    Since a friend of ours got sick and had a parasite for over a year from a bottle of water on a bus in ecuador. I think this pen would come in very handy as we plan to travel this November not only around Ecuador but also to Peru

  • Julie Doneux dit Brialmont Sep 20, 2014, 7:25 am

    My hubby traveled to China in 2013 as part of an engineering exchange group. He was going to be going into some pretty remote areas in addition to the major cities. Keep in mind, this was right at the peak of H1N1, the bird markets had all been shut down, and the Yangtze was clogged with the carcasses of dead pigs. He was stopped while going through the US airport security, when they searched his carry-on bag. They pulled ziplock bag after ziplock bag after ziplock bag of medicines out of his carry-on. They then asked him if ALL of these medicines were for him. He said “I’m going to be in China for 15 days.” Without batting an eye, security put all of his ziplocks back into his carry-on, and let him through. Even with the traveling pharmacy that he brought with, he and just about everyone else got sick on his trip. Yes, they remembered “don’t drink the water”, but many forgot that ice in drinks is made from the same water. They were brushing their teeth with bottled water. He’s been asked to go back to China, this time as a faculty advisor. I’d love to send him. But we’re worried about him getting sick again. I know I’d feel a lot better sending him back to China if there was a SteriPEN in his bag.

  • Tina Marshall Sep 19, 2014, 11:00 pm

    I attend a few births every year in the mountainous areas of Loja. I have an old steripen that I use at these homes, where often the river water (ewww), or worse, from the irrigation canals (huge EWWW), are their only water sources. I set up one of the older children, or the new dad! teaching them how to use the SteriPen, only push the button once for this amount of water, twice for the other…. And have them clean water for at least the first days of new mommyhood! I hate to see new moms (or anybody, really) drinking filthy water. I recently gave my SteriPen to a family who had a premature baby who needs formula. Can’t have a new teensy baby drinking formula mixed with canal water! It’d be a true shame to have this seven month preemie survive birth and then get dysentery. Or worse. They’ll return it when the battery dies.
    Several babies die here every year from bad water. Breast feeding normally protects the youngest, but mixing powdered formula with even boiled water isn’t as effective as my SteriPen.

    • Bryan Haines Sep 29, 2014, 10:47 am

      Great to hear how the SteriPEN is being used here in Ecuador!

  • M. Martin Sep 19, 2014, 8:05 pm

    LOve to know Cuenca’s water is relative safe.
    I heard that coastal towns has some issues about where they get water from. So, Im just drinking bottle juices or colas and Im fed up of them
    I will love to have my own warm killer and start enjoining the nice juices that I see everywhere.

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