Cuenca, Ecuador’s third-largest city and the economic center of the southern sierra, has long been known for a rich intellectual, artistic, and philosophical tradition that matches its colonial architecture. The city is famous for its colorful festivals, distinct food and breathtaking scenery. Because of its history and state of preservation, Cuenca is one of Ecuador’s three UNESCO World Heritage Trust sites (the others are Quito and the Galapagos Islands).
Founded in 1557, Cuenca was not connected to the rest of Ecuador with a paved road until the early 1960s, a fact that helped preserve both its architecture and heritage. Since then, Cuenca has developed rapidly and today has a strong infrastructure and efficient transportation system.
Cuenca means “basin” in Spanish, and the city sits on a plateau surrounded by mountains. Four rivers are found in the Cuenca basin and one, the Tomebamba, runs right through the center of town.
Although near the equator, Cuenca sits high in the southern Andes at an altitude of 8300 feet and its residents enjoy year round spring-like weather. Temperatures rarely go beyond highs in the 70s F and lows in the 50s F, so a sweater or light jacket is sufficient all year long. Rainfall averages around three inches per month.
Cuenca’s two “seasons” are rainy and dry. The rainy season, roughly from January through May, features warm sunny mornings and frequent afternoon showers. During the middle of the dry season (June through December), expect long periods of chilly weather and overcast skies.
Cuenca is the fastest growing city in Ecuador since 2000 and now boasts a population of 580,000. Over 75% of residents live outside the historic center in what is called New Town. New Town features a mixture of the city’s first suburbs plus many modern mid-rise condominiums. It also has four malls, numerous hospitals, grocery stores, cinemas, plus scores of restaurants serving a wide variety of international cuisines.
In spite of its size, Cuenca is a pedestrian-friendly city. Most expats forego vehicle ownership in favor of walking, taxis, and buses. The average taxi fare is $2.00-2.50, and bus fare is only 25 cents (12 ½ cents for seniors). A rapid rail system is currently under construction that, when completed in 2016, will eliminate many of the polluting diesel buses from El Centro. Plans are being considered to convert a large area of downtown streets to pedestrian-only.
Major infrastructure improvements are a constant throughout Cuenca. You’ll find new play areas for kids and exercise equipment for all ages throughout Cuenca. As cobblestone streets are repaired construction crews take the opportunity to bury utility lines and upgrade the sewer system. Sidewalks are being widened and if you like to cycle, you’re in luck, new bike lanes are showing up all over town.
Cuenca is the artistic mecca of southern Ecuador. Artisans produce fine leather goods, custom made guitars, filigree jewelry, ceramics, and an array of other high quality products. And of course the famous Panama hats (which originated in this country, not Panama).
Cuenca’s growing expat community is currently estimated to be around 5,000. As the number of foreign residents has expanded so have goods and services catering to North American tastes. Expats run restaurants, offer hair, massage and aesthetician services, do computer repairs, and sell real estate.
With an affordable cost of living, ideal climate, quality healthcare, a close proximity to the U.S., plus cultural amenities and modern conveniences, Cuenca’s many accolades as an ideal retirement destination are well-deserved.
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My wife, Suzan, and I were in the U.S. for a conference when Ecuador was hit by its biggest earthquake in decades. We learned of it immediately from our friends and neighbors in our hometown of Cotacachi in the Andes Mountains in northern Ecuador, where the quake was felt but caused no extensive damage. The story was different on Ecuador’s northern Pacific coast. Entire towns have been flattened. Hundreds… perhaps thousands… of people have died, and thousands more have been injured or left homeless.
That’s the usual reaction my wife Cynthia and I get when we tell attendees at International Living conferences that we haven’t owned a vehicle since we moved to Cuenca, Ecuador, six years ago.
When we were considering the notion of relocating abroad, part of our strategy was to find some special place in the world where as many of the negatives as possible could be eliminated from our lives. That included having to climb into a vehicle every time we left our home. After too many years on the suburbia merry-go-round, we were more than ready for a change.
Life is a balancing act, but Dave and Sherry Johnson have found what they’ve been looking for in Cuenca, Ecuador. Before his first exploratory trip, Dave imagined a Third World country with old, worn-out buses, chickens and cargo hanging from every inch, and people riding on the roof. What he found instead when he arrived in Cuenca a year-and-a-half ago was a charming colonial city with cobblestone streets, wrought-iron balconies, majestic churches, and friendly people. And Dave’s first bus ride wasn’t at all like he had imagined; it was a Mercedes bus that he says was more lavish than most airplanes he has been on.
Just a few short decades ago, Ecuador was off the map for most North American retirees. All that has changed dramatically in recent years, though, as intrepid North American expats began trickling into this small South American country. What they found was a country with pretty colonial towns and cities; miles of golden-sand beaches; an equatorial climate tempered by offshore ocean currents and the mountain terrain to make it spring-like year-round;
You read it here first—I’ve discovered the Fountain of Youth. Funny thing is, turns out it’s not a fountain at all. Nor is it located in just one place. In fact, it can be found in many places if you know where to look. Confused? Let me explain. I celebrated a birthday recently and it was a weird feeling. No, not that I’m getting older: actually, just the opposite. Since we moved to Ecuador almost six years ago, I know I feel younger than when we arrived, and I believe I have aged less than the number of years marked by the calendar (the same is true for my wife, Cynthia).
Deciding to move abroad requires a lot of courage, more than most people can muster. The next step, choosing specifically where on our vast planet to live, takes meticulous research and brutally honest soul searching. When the circumstances of the economic recession of 2008 led us to the conclusion that retiring early outside the U.S. was our best option, we didn’t simply put on a blindfold and throw a dart at a map. To the contrary, we had many conversations centered around the question, “What do we want?”
“What do you do to stay busy?” It’s a question I am asked frequently about life in Ecuador. There seems to be a fear that once you arrive, get settled in, and explore a bit, you’ll run out of things to do and soul-sucking boredom will set in. But I don’t know a single expat who struggles to fill their time and here’s why. Aside from the day-to-day activities of life—grocery shopping, household chores, and paying bills—the country holds a myriad of ways to fuel your interests and keep you occupied.
Dining out is perhaps the favorite activity of gringos. (That’s what expats are called by locals, and it’s not a derogatory term here as it is in other parts of the world.) That goes for Cynthia and me, too. So I’m excited to take you on an all-day culinary tour of Cuenca to highlight some of our favorite places to eat.
It’s that time of year again—the birds are singing, love is in the air, and hopeless husbands are trawling gas stations for that last bunch of flowers. It must be Valentine’s Day—that special day when you spoil the one you love, devote your attention to one another, and escape momentarily from the humdrum of everyday routine. It can be a wonderful time, no matter where you are, but it’s undeniable that some locations have a certain je ne sais quoi that adds that something special to the occasion.
At least once a week, I receive an email with the words “you’re so brave.” I chuckle to myself because everyone back in the States thinks my husband, Mark, and I are so courageous. In reality, I think exactly the opposite… What’s brave about retiring at age 55 to one of the world’s top retirement destinations—Cuenca, Ecuador—with spring-like temperatures all year long (lows in the 50’s and high 70’s) and not having to work unless I absolutely want to (I’m a freelance writer).
Brian Gary quit the U.S. after the downturn and is delighted with the new life he has created in Ecuador.
“I had developed a very successful real estate business,” Brian says. “All was going great until life went sideways with the economic meltdown in 2008, and we decided it was time for a change.”
“I’ve been fortunate to travel all over the world for a large part of my adult life, and I thought it was important for my family (wife Chelsea and three kids) to experience other cultures,” Brian says. “But since we’re not retired we needed to find a place where we could earn an income.”
“Can you meet me at Puro Cafe at noon?” asks my husband, Mark. The times and locations of our rendezvous may change, but my response is always the same—yes! Who can say no to meeting for coffee at one of the quaint sidewalk cafes in picturesque Cuenca, Ecuador with its cobblestone streets, majestic churches, and irresistible Old World charm?
Ecuador’s colonial cities of Quito and Cuenca have captured the hearts of many expats looking for a more relaxed style of life. But I’ve discovered a city, often overlooked, that is one of Ecuador’s hidden gems and is perfect for my active lifestyle. Guayaquil is a port and the country’s largest city. It’s got a reputation for business and industry…but that’s not the place that I have come to know and love over the past few years.
Our daughter in New Jersey hasn’t seen her yard for months because it’s covered with snow. Our son in North Carolina finished raking leaves a while back just in time to get out the overcoats in preparation for the frigid weather ahead. My wife Cynthia and I, we’re weather junkies, who, like Goldilocks, want our weather “just right”…not too hot and not too cold…
“We love the fact that our retirement income goes so much further here,” says Leanne Crawley of her and her husband’s retirement in the mountain city of Cuenca, Ecuador. “Our quality of life is so much better than it was in the States, when we were both working too hard. We’re thankful for the friendships we’ve made with people from all over the world. Living in Cuenca, we experience a sense of peace and joy that we’ve never known. We are truly blessed.”
For years our hometown of Cuenca, Ecuador, has been crowned one of the world’s top retirement destinations. From my home, a short walk from the historic center of this colonial gem, it’s easy to see why. The low cost of living, the temperate climate, and the excellent medical facilities make for a comfortable life, and you’ll find plenty to do. I must admit, though, that when my wife Cynthia and I first arrived in Cuenca over five years ago, the culinary scene left a lot to be desired. But there has been an amazing transformation in Cuenca’s dining options.
When I’m corresponding with one of my International Living editors on Friday’s, he always ends his emails with “Have a great weekend!” I invariably chuckle at this because for me as an expat in Cuenca, Ecuador, every day is the weekend. Not by usual time measurements, of course. Expats don’t have special calendars filled with only Saturday’s and Sunday’s. It just feels that way.
My journey to Cuenca, Ecuador began with a discussion with friends in their home by the beach in Panama. We were all disenchanted with the U.S.—the regulations, the taxes… We concluded that there’s no American dream anymore.
“Hey, where do you want to go eat tonight?” was not a question we asked each other much when we moved to Cuenca, Ecuador five-and-a-half years ago. It wasn’t that we weren’t hungry. You see, while our hometown had other outstanding attributes you’ve possibly read about—great weather, low cost of living, excellent medical care—interesting dining options were few and far between.
As the savage North American winter begins to bite and the snow and ice pile up, many of us ﬁnd ourselves yearning for warmer climates elsewhere. Imagine a place that’s never too hot or too cold—just perfect. Outside, the birds are chirping, while gardens and wildﬂowers bloom in multicolored glory. You can walk around in a light tee-shirt at any time of year. Throw out your coat and boots. Forget about heating and air-conditioning bills and suffering through sweltering heat and humidity.
“Are you still working?” is a question I get asked a lot these days. Instead of working a steady 40-hour work-week with just a few weeks’ vacation, I’m routinely taking up a third of the year off…while still making a full-time income. I live in Cuenca, Ecuador, where my costs are a fraction of what they would be back home in Nebraska. I can dine out regularly in top-rated restaurants and afford to have a cleaning lady once a week.
In Ecuador, nature is ever-present. And you can enjoy it fully in the city of Cuenca, where those rivers trail amid mountain surrounds. The colonial churches, grand mansions, shady parks, and fountain-anchored plazas have earned Cuenca world-wide recognition for its beauty. A mild climate makes for comfortable living year-round. Average daily temperatures reach into the 70s F, and the nights are cool and fresh.
Donna McNichol says that moving to Cuenca, Ecuador, has been a grand adventure. But the truth is, the move to Ecuador is just the latest in a series of adventures… “After being widowed at age 58,” Donna says, “I spent part of a year traveling the U.S. on my motorcycle, covering 42 states and riding 27,000 miles alone. In another two years I sold everything I owned, bought a used Class C motorhome and started traveling full-time.”
During a recent visit with family in the States I was playing with one of my granddaughters who is just learning to talk. We had several activities going at once in the playroom and I told her we were multitasking. She replied, “Yes, we are monkey-tasking.” This malapropism stuck with me because it so innocently describes how our “monkey brain” works away when we have a lot going on.
David and Sandy Kraft were living in a cabin in the small town of Hayesville, NC when one evening David asked, “What do you think about retiring overseas?” Sandy replied, “I’d love it. Where…France…Italy?” “Ecuador.”
I love my life in Cuenca, Ecuador. I start the morning with a coffee on my terrace, watching the hummingbirds flit around the feeders that I put up and just enjoying the view. A walk to el centro takes me to the little tienda (store) that sells a pound of Loja coffee (really delicious) for only $3.50, then lunch with friends, and maybe a walk along the Rio Tomebamba or an ice cream cone in the picturesque Parque Calderon.
You have probably heard of Cuenca. It’s Ecuador’s most popular retirement haven, home to thousands of contented expats, colonial architecture, verdant parks, galleries, museums, and plenty of bars and restaurants. But that’s just the city itself. Since arriving, my work with a local tour company has helped me uncover some of the best day trips:
Ever since the internet caught on, people have been figuring out how to use a laptop to connect with money-making opportunities all over the world. As a result, there’s now between 3.3 million and 8 million completely untethered workers roaming the globe. I’m thrilled to be one of them.
“My husband and I were happily living in Arizona in a retirement community when, in 2008, everything changed,” says Patty Grimm. The financial crisis dealt the couple a heavy blow, and they no longer felt they could live the same quality of life on their retirement income. “We knew that if we wanted to keep our nest egg, we’d have to look outside of the U.S. to live.” Six years later, the Grimms are in the high Andes and enjoying an affordable and high-quality retirement in one of the world’s foremost retirement destinations—Cuenca, Ecuador.
They say the best way to make a living—if you can—is to monetize your hobby. Sometimes that can be easier said than done. But if you can do it, it can lead to a far more enjoyable and fulfilling vocation. This has been the case for me in the Ecuadorian mountain city of Cuenca. Its beautiful colonial architecture and friendly, colorful locals have enabled me to supplement my retirement income through photography.
My husband and I were happily living in Arizona in a retirement community when, in 2008, everything changed,” says Patty Grimm. The ﬁnancial crisis dealt the couple a heavy blow, and they no longer felt they could live the same quality of life on their retirement income. “We knew that if we wanted to keep our nest egg, we’d have to look outside of the U.S. to live.”
Cuenca is a cultural hub, with no shortage of things to do. And as entertainment is modestly priced, you’ll have plenty of money in your pocket to afford it. A thriving expat community guarantees you’ll ﬁnd plenty of like-minded people in the city and have no trouble making friends.
My wife, Cynthia, and I moved to Cuenca, Ecuador, almost five years ago with no plans other than to have fun and look for interesting opportunities. Retirement had kind of taken us by surprise. The “Economic Tsunami of 2008” slapped us pretty hard, so that retirement had arrived sooner than expected. Still, we had for years been envisioning what it would look like: a life where we were free to pursue the activities and interests we wanted to and not be held hostage by busy careers and hectic schedules.
Our daughter in New Jersey hasn’t seen her yard for months because it’s covered with snow. Our son in North Carolina finished raking leaves a while back just in time to get out the overcoats in preparation for the frigid weather ahead. My wife Cynthia and I, we’re weather junkies, who like the climate to be perfect…not too hot and not too cold… The thermometer was already getting close to 100 degrees when we left Las Vegas for Cuenca, Ecuador almost five years ago. We’d had enough of that scorching heat—as well as the humidity and chilly winters in the southeast where we previously lived…
I moved to Cuenca 17 months ago from Canada on a pensioner’s visa and in that time, my life has changed so much…for the better. Twenty-three months before I made the move, I made a conscious decision to change my lifestyle, and to get away from the rat race, the pursuit of the almighty dollar, and its attendant stress levels. I needed to find a place, somewhere on the planet, where I could live a happy, un-politicized and uncomplicated life.
Every year, more than a million visitors travel to Ecuador for a taste of what this small South American country offers. The Galapagos Islands are undoubtedly Ecuador’s biggest attraction, but those who choose to explore the mainland itself are in for a cultural treat. This equatorial country is soaked in tradition—some of which originated in the times of the Incas, or even earlier. I’ve lived in Ecuador for three years and the longer I’m here, the more I learn and experience. And because the locals are so friendly and welcoming, I’m often included in their traditions—if you spend more than a few days in one place here, you will be too.
Once upon a time there was a girl named Goldilocks who wanted to move abroad. Now Goldilocks was very particular—she wanted everything to be “just right.” One day Goldilocks was reading her International Living magazine and learned about a city in Ecuador called Cuenca. The more she read, the more excited she became. Goldilocks thought, “Wow, this place seems perfect!” Being very particular, she decided to visit Cuenca to see for herself.
Each morning Tennessee natives Bobby and Becca Vines are greeted by views of two stunning volcanoes. Small-town life in Cotacachi, Ecuador, is never dull, and the couple spends their days viewing international films, enjoying live music, and visiting with the locals. Bobby and Becca spent much of their lives devoted to educating Tennessee schoolchildren. But as retirement neared, the couple knew their teachers’ pensions wouldn’t be enough to allow them to continue living comfortably just outside Nashville.
The other day my wife and I went out for lunch. We live in a small craft village in the northern Andes of Ecuador, and one of our options is a place called El Convento. It’s in the tidy little tiled and terraced courtyard of a former convent in back of the large church at the center of town. The menu is fixed and changes daily. When we stopped in, our menu started with locro de haba, a lightly creamed soup of fava beans, potatoes, cabbage, and chicken stock with a short pork rib thrown in for good measure. Like most locros served in Ecuador, it came with a side of popcorn and aji, the local hot sauce. Popcorn is a snack and also a garnish here, and the hot sauces are homemade…
Though we moved to picturesque colonial city of Cuenca, Ecuador in 2010, we left again two years ago. That’s right…we left our retirement paradise to try out life on the Central Coast of California in San Luis Obispo where we spent our honeymoon 40 years ago. We were 20 minutes from the Pacific Ocean with its spectacular fireball sunsets and enjoyed some of California’s best beaches, including Pismo, Morro Bay, and Avila. It was our good fortune, to find a 1,200-square-foot apartment on Craigslist—fully furnished—for $895 a month (with utilities and internet it came to $960). It was a bargain.