By Doug Hansen
A few years back some influential magazines published complimentary articles about the relatively undiscovered Ecuadorian town of Cuenca that set off an explosion of foreigners moving there. Choosing a city rather than a country for the first time ever, International Living rated Cuenca as the world's No. 1 retirement destination. Germany's influential Stern magazine rated Cuenca as the top city in South America for foreign expats, while National Geographic included it in their list of the world's top 50 historical cities. Not to be outdone, Lonely Planet's "Best in Travel Guide" included Cuenca among its top 10 "must-see" cities. But does the city live up to its larger-than-life reputation? My wife and I spent a month there to find out for ourselves.
The glowing hype we had read about Cuenca's "visually stunning, European-style charm" didn't match what we observed. Our first impressions were shaped by the heavy volume of traffic on the main streets, including a steady stream of black-smoke-belching buses, yellow taxis, cars and trucks honking their horns. Many buildings, even in the vaunted U.N. World Heritage historic center of town, looked worn and in need of painting, patching and graffiti removal.
After a month of walking around this town of 350,000 inhabitants, talking to locals and touring the popular places surrounding Cuenca, however, we reached a more balanced view of why Cuenca deserves to be considered as an overseas retirement destination.
Cuenca has many attractive features: plant-filled plazas, four cascading rivers, 52 churches, a scattered assortment of architecturally compelling buildings and a ring of green, frequently cloud-draped mountains framing the town in almost every direction.
Even more important is the most attractive feature of all: the Ecuadorian people. It would be hard to find a group of folks more friendly, kind and welcoming. Wherever we went, from crowded markets to upscale areas, we always felt completely comfortable mixing with the Ecuadorians around us.
On the list of positive features that attract expats to Cuenca the low cost of living is the main consideration. A taxi ride across town costs less than $2, while a new condo with a mountain view, fully furnished, rents for well under $800 per month, and $2.50 buys a full meal. U.S. retirees generally can afford to live here with an above-average standard of living on just their Social Security income. In addition, the city is remarkably clean, the quality and quantity of restaurants will satisfy almost any palate, the climate is mild, and medical care is inexpensive, high quality and readily available.
Another factor in drawing expats here is the strong social scene: One study ranked Ecuador as the No. 1 place in the world for expats to make friends with locals and other foreigners, and this would be especially true in Cuenca. Although no one knows the exact number of expats living here, the best guess is around 5,000, up from just a few hundred 10 years ago. There is a dizzying array of activities for expats to get involved in, ranging from yoga, fitness classes and hiking clubs to writers groups, church meetings and live music venues. We savored a free symphony concert in the central plaza's oldest church and attended high-caliber performances at the elegant Jazz Society Cafe downtown.
So given the many attractive features offered by a life in Cuenca, why do expats live there only 3.5 years on average?
"Cuenca is a great starter city for expats moving overseas for the first time," said Neil Mailer at the Gringo Tree information center. "After getting adjusted to life overseas and figuring out what they like and don't like, some people move on to other places that sound appealing."
Many expats can't handle the language barrier, the cultural differences or the altitude that averages well over 8,000 feet. Others get pulled back home by grandkids, homesickness or boredom.
"Anyone considering moving here should first come to visit and spend a few weeks, preferably a couple of months before making a final decision," said David Morrill at CuencaHighLife."
Doing plenty of preliminary research is important, but nothing takes the place of experiencing a new place first-hand. Cuenca offers an attractive option for good-quality, low-cost living. It's hard to say if it is the world's top retirement place, but it's definitely worthy of consideration.
WHEN YOU GO
My complete report about Cuenca pros and cons is at www.hansentravel.org.; www.gringotree.com has a wide variety of expat articles, resource directories and current events. Also check out www.cuencahighlife.com; www.gringopost.com (classified ads).
Doug Hansen is a travel writer and photographer. See more photos and articles at www.hansentravel.org or Instagram @doug6636. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.