Cuenca, Ecuador, our charming colonial hometown, was already being touted by online publications as one of the top expat destinations in the world when we arrived in 2010.
We’re happy to report that none of the attributes which earned such a lofty designation back then have diminished. In truth, Cuenca keeps getting better and better!
Here are 12 reasons why we’ve loved living in Cuenca, Ecuador.
1. Low Cost Of Living
Our careers and most of our investments were swept away by the Great Recession of 2008. Seeking a lower cost of living led us to retire early, take the savings we had left, and move to Ecuador.
Turns out it was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. Our financial nightmares disappeared, and we’ve enjoyed an upscale lifestyle on a Social Security budget ever since.
For over a decade, we lived in a spacious two-story penthouse apartment in one of the city’s best neighborhoods. Our lifestyle included a weekly housekeeper, yoga studio and gym memberships, spa treatments, fresh flowers, and eating out whenever we wanted.
All on a budget of less than $2,000 a month.
We decided to start traveling full-time a year and a half ago but still consider Cuenca to be our home. In fact, after a recent adventure in Europe, we’re here right now!
Pro Tip: Ecuador’s official currency is the U.S. dollar. What a joy to know exactly how much everything costs without trying to do conversions in your head or worrying about exchange rates at an ATM.
2. Temperate Climate
Guess you could call us “Goldilocks people” when it comes to climate. We like it not too hot and not too cold.
So Cuenca’s description as the “land of eternal Spring” was very appealing. The temps generally range from the low 70s in the day to mid-50s at night all year long.
The grass is always green and flowers are constantly blooming. And being right at the equator, the sun rises and sets at the same time every day.
You may be wondering how a city so near the equator can have such mild weather. It’s because Cuenca sits at 8,400 feet (something to take into consideration if you have respiratory issues).
Pro Tip: Other benefits of the high altitude are low humidity and no mosquitoes or snakes. Yay!
3. Quality Healthcare
Expats have three choices of how to access Ecuador’s medical services: 1) pay out-of-pocket, 2) join the country’s national health care plan, 3) purchase private coverage.
We belong to IESS, the national plan. We have 100 percent coverage with a $0 deductible and no restrictions for age or preexisting conditions. Our total monthly premium? Less than $90.
With IESS you cannot choose your doctor, and wait times for specialists can sometimes be lengthy. So we pay out-of-pocket for specialists like our dentist, dermatologist, and ophthalmologist.
Appointments with them are often on the same day, and having our doctors’ personal cell phone numbers can come in handy.
At dinner last week a veneer on one of Cynthia’s front teeth unexpectedly broke off. We immediately contacted our dentist for help. By the end of the next afternoon, Cynthia’s smile was as good as new. Cost: $350 (porcelain veneers average $1,500 in the States).
4. Perfect Size
We like living in cities, so relocating to a rural village was not an option. But adjusting to life in a huge metropolis on top of tackling a new culture and language seemed too intimidating.
Cuenca, with a population of about 600,000, felt just right (Goldilocks strikes again!). Even though that may seem like a lot of people, the city has more of a small-town feel.
In a taxi it only takes about 15 minutes to get from one side of town to the other. And when you’re out and about it’s quite common to bump into someone you know.
5. Proximity To The U.S.
With four young grandchildren, we wanted the flexibility to visit our family easily and often. While Cuenca doesn’t have an international airport, connections to both Quito, the country’s capital, and Guayaquil make trips to the U.S. convenient and surprisingly affordable.
Another plus is that Cuenca is in the Eastern Time Zone (or Central during daylight saving time — no need for that on the equator). This makes it easier to stay in touch with family and friends between visits.
Pretty much everything we need for daily life is less than a 20-minute walk away, so we haven’t owned a vehicle for the past 12 years.
Our pedestrian lifestyle is not just a health benefit (friends of ours have lost 20+ pounds with this activity alone). It’s also an opportunity to slow down and really get in touch with your surroundings instead of rushing from one place to another in a car.
Carrying groceries home or simply too tired to keep walking? A taxi ride is usually $2 or less.
Pro Tip: According to Numbeo, Cuenca is the safest city in Ecuador and statistically much safer than the U.S.
7. Cultural Activities
Cuenca has always been the cultural center of Ecuador. Artisans in nearby villages specialize in products ranging from guitars to filigree silver to Panama hats. Yes, that famous straw headgear originates in Ecuador.
Art galleries are dotted throughout the historic district. The massive Pumapungo Museum and Archaeological Park (admission free) is filled with exhibits tracing Ecuador’s history from prehistoric times to the present.
It seems like there’s a holiday taking place every month. Major festivals like Corpus Cristi and Cuenca Independence Day last over long weekends and draw tourists from all around the country.
Live music options and venues abound, from the Jazz Society Cafe to rock groups at Common Grounds.
Pro Tip: Love live symphony music but balk at the high prices? A fabulous perk of living in Cuenca is enjoying free performances by the Cuenca Symphony Orchestra.
8. Exploding Food Scene
When we first arrived the restaurant scene honestly wasn’t wonderful. Of course, Ecuadorian food was in ample supply, but beyond a handful of unremarkable pizza joints and Italian restaurants, there wasn’t a lot to choose from.
Recently, though, the culinary world has absolutely exploded! It seems like a new dining spot opens every week, with cuisine ranging from Argentinian to Asian to French to you name it. We’ve given up even trying to keep track.
In those early days, food choices in the supermarket weren’t much better. We remember the excitement when rotisserie chickens first appeared. There was no deciding between different mustards — you were often on a treasure hunt trying to find the one brand that may or may not be in stock.
Now the shelves are filled with microgreens, Greek yogurt, artisanal beer, wasabi, and organic goods galore!
Pro Tip: No need to budget for bottled water. Cuenca’s tap water has been rated as some of the best in South America.
9. Modern Conveniences
Anyone thinking they’re going to duplicate their North American experience by moving abroad will be sorely disappointed.
Different cultures view the world, well, differently. And specific name-brand products you enjoy may very well be absent from store shelves.
That being said, there are certain creature comforts most people just can’t live without. And Cuenca has you covered.
Our first internet service was a shared 5-Mbps line that buffered more than it connected. What a nightmare.
Now streaming movies, YouTube, and live TV is seamless. Fiber-optic high-speed internet is readily available at a cost of $27.99/month for 180 Mbps. Mucho mejor!
Enjoy going to the movies? First-run releases in English with Spanish subtitles are shown at cinemas around town. What a great opportunity to enjoy the flick and work on your Spanish at the same time.
Pro Tip: On Tuesdays, ticket prices start at just $2.
If you like to shop, Cuenca has two major malls and several smaller ones. Check out the indigenous market at San Francisco Plaza downtown for a dizzying array of alpaca-woven goods from the world-renowned artisans of Otavalo. Be sure to bargain for the best price — it’s expected!
Feel like being pampered? You’ll find facials for $30, 90-minute massages for $45, and manicures priced at only $5. Visit Piedra de Agua spa to relax in thermal pools and Turkish baths, or detox your skin with red or blue volcanic mud.
Pro Tip: Take advantage of two-for-one admission on Mondays and Fridays.
10. Established Expat Community
When we arrived in 2010, Cuenca’s expats numbered maybe 500. Since then, the community has grown to over 5,000.
With that influx of new foreign residents has come increased opportunities for enrichment and camaraderie.
From our initial weekly “Gringo Happy Hour” at a local bar, groups formed for fly-fishing, bird-watching, hiking, horseback riding, cooking, knitting, bridge, and pickleball.
If you can’t find a special interest group that appeals to you, start one yourself. You’re bound to attract some like-minded members.
11. Fluency Not Required
Full disclosure: We showed up in Cuenca with Taco Bell-level Spanish and feared we would perish. Obviously that didn’t happen, and over the years our language skills have improved to what we would generously label “functional.”
Turns out English instruction is mandatory in schools here, so many locals speak (although they are often shy about it) at least some English. And they are extremely patient with any attempt you make to communicate in Spanish.
Learn as much as you can, especially common words for greetings, foods, expressing your needs, and asking for help. Fluency can be your goal, but it definitely isn’t a requirement.
Pro Tip: Duolingo is a great free online language tool that’s fun and effective. Be sure to install Google Translate on your smartphone as a backup.
12. Beautiful Architecture And Surroundings
Cuenca is a UNESCO World Heritage city with stunning architecture and cobblestone streets. Wandering through El Centro is a delight. Friends walk arm in arm laughing. The enticing aroma of bakeries beckons. There’s a palpable energy in the air.
The entire city is surrounded by mountains, and the Tomebamba River separates the historic center from modern Cuenca, or “New Town.” Impossibly green countryside, only a short drive away, is breathtaking.
Venture a bit farther to the Cajas mountains to hike or fish for trout in one of 270 lakes, and immerse yourself in a landscape that looks absolutely otherworldly.
Pro Tip: Although Ecuador is a seismic country, Cuenca has never experienced a serious earthquake. Its location in the southern Andes also keeps it free from other natural disasters.