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.
It is famous for its colorful festivals, distinctive food and breath-taking 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. On the other hand Cuenca has developed rapidly since then and today has a strong infrastructure and efficient transportation system.
Cuenca’s growing expat community appreciates the city’s history as well as its modern side. The fastest growing city in Ecuador since 2000, the city boasts plenty of supermarkets and malls, great restaurants, handsome condominium projects, and comfortable suburbs.
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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.
My wife and I have lived in Cuenca, Ecuador for years and continue to be amazed at how far we can stretch our dollars while enjoying a high quality of life. Let’s break down some of those costs so you can compare your current budget with what you might expect to pay in Cuenca, beginning with activities that are free. How much does it cost to attend the symphony and museums where you live? Guess what—there is no charge for either in Cuenca. How about your gym membership? The city offers free Zumba classes in parks all over town several times each week.
“This is the best thing I ever did—in so many ways,” Jim Evans says. He’s talking about moving to Ecuador and opening a business. His small shop in the historic downtown district of Cuenca, Ecuador is close to the Concepcion Convent, an institution that traces its roots back to 1599. The rhythm of life surrounding the convent is simple, unhurried, and low-stress—exactly what Jim was looking for when he relocated in December 2009.
A little distance away from Ecuador’s famed colonial city of Cuenca lies a small city that you might never have heard of…but which is rapidly becoming a retiree favorite. Just about an hour away from Cuenca, you’ll find Paute, a destination with a population of about 30,000 people—a tenth of Cuenca’s population. It’s fast becoming known as “Little Cuenca” as more “Norte Americanos” are finding their way to the outskirts of the city with its laidback lifestyle. Randy and Karen Kimbler are just two of the expats who are enjoying the slower pace of life in Paute.
I’ll be honest; Cuenca, Ecuador was not my number one retirement destination—it was Italy. My husband, Mark, and I lived there for six years in our 20s and 30s, our older son was born there, and it was the birthplace of Mark’s grandparents. Yes, I married into one big, loud, happy Italian family. It was the best of times—la dolce vita—a life of pleasure and simple luxuries. And what a life we had there…living in a villa on the Mediterranean…enjoying fresh fish and pasta every day…taking walks along the “lungomare” (seafront)…and watching spectacular sunsets from our terrazza every evening. I desperately wanted it all back when we retired at 55. But then we discovered Cuenca, Ecuador while doing an Internet search for the best places in the world to retire. Mark made his first exploratory trip in February of 2010 without me.
Ecuador takes top spot in this year’s Annual Global Retirement Index. Every year, International Living releases this Index after months of research. With the assistance of dozens of expats and experts around the world…data is collated and numbers are crunched…to identify the very best retirement destinations in the world in 2015. Using input from our team of correspondents on the ground all over the world, we combine real-world insights about climate, health care, cost of living, and much more to draw up a comprehensive list of the best bang-for-your-buck retirement destinations on the planet. Twenty-five countries made it on to the list this year, and Ecuador gets the highest score.
When people think about fine international cuisine, places like Paris, Rome, and Tokyo are usually what come to mind. If you’re looking for something with a spicy kick, head to Mexico. Want something healthy and delicious? Check out the Mediterranean. Rarely though do people equate the small South American country of Ecuador with great food, and in failing to do so they’re missing out on a whole range of tasty treats. It’s true that Ecuador does not have the gourmet culture that many other countries enjoy, but that doesn’t mean it should be completely dismissed. Take a look at a few of the regional palate pleasers that can be found throughout the country.
It’s that time of year again, when International Living calls on its extensive and ever-growing network of correspondents the world over to help us assemble our Annual Global Retirement Index. This is the most comprehensive list of retirement havens around the world. These are places where the weather’s good, the costs are low, and the life you’ll have is comfortable and full of adventure. Each year we require more and more information from our editors and contributors in order to put together these rankings. We draw on data from across the world, we plunder the stats of international organizations, and we bring it all together to crunch and mull over in-house.
Not everyone who comes to Cuenca, Ecuador, has an idea to start a business. Sometimes new surroundings, a change of pace, and a fresh perspective align to bring long-held passions to light. That was the case for expats Juan Carlos Morales and David Korkoian, who together discovered a niche market and filled it. Juan was convinced that Cuenca was the ideal spot to escape the rat race in the States. “The moment I stepped foot in Cuenca, I knew I wanted to live here,” he says. “It reminded me of when I backpacked through southern Europe in the 1980s.”
This year’s winner of our Global Retirement Index has it all. Ecuador is fringed by miles and miles of Pacific beaches. You’ll find the high mountains of the Andes, vibrant cities and quaint colonial towns. Explore fertile lowlands and see the splendid rainforests of the Amazon. All this for a fraction of the cost of living in the U.S. With its year-round perfect weather and political stability, it’s not difficult to see why growing numbers of expats are discovering the retirement of their dreams in Ecuador.
While most New Yorkers are busy trying to make a living and not a life, Diane and Jim Shanley are enjoying the fun life in sunny Cuenca, Ecuador. There was a lot to draw the couple to this city. Cuenca, the “pearl” of Ecuador nestled high in the Andes Mountains at 8,314 feet, boasts spring-like temperatures in the 50s to high 70s all year long. It’s the cultural capital of Ecuador with free concerts, an international film festival, and plentiful gourmet restaurants. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site with stunning colonial architecture, which attracts tourists from around the world.
The expat community was much smaller when my wife Cynthia and I arrived in Cuenca in 2010. Back then, there were maybe only 500 or so, and a lot of those were old Peace Corps folks who had been here quite a while and faded into the landscape. As part of the first big wave of gringos to hit town, all of us were pioneers who truly needed each other for assistance and support in our new adventure. Cynthia and I would introduce ourselves to every North American we saw (on the street, in a restaurant—it didn’t matter) and exchange contact information. It was actually a good way to get to know people; problem was, we really had no place to get together.
Like so many baby boomers, Suzy Giles felt she was destined to continue working full-time in the U.S. She wasn’t working a bad gig—conducting wine tours in Napa Valley, California—but it didn’t leave much time to pursue her passion for painting. So she began to explore her options overseas for a location affordable enough to allow her to retire…and discovered Cuenca, Ecuador. After visiting the colonial city twice, Suzy took the leap. That was almost two years ago and the decision has proven to be a good one. “I wanted an adventure,” says Suzy. “I needed to stay out of life’s ruts and to get out of my comfort zone.”
In their 30 years of marriage, John and Vickie Kendall had often talked of living abroad. But their work as nurses in the Pacific Northwest kept them occupied and tied to the U.S. They began formulating a plan to retire and then move overseas in the summer of 2013. “We had been to Thailand and were looking at that as a possibility. And we were looking at Panama, Uruguay, and then Ecuador came up, so we were considering all different places,” says John. “But when we got down to it, we realized we wanted to be in the Western Hemisphere so that we weren’t too far away from home.”
If you’re planning a trip to Ecuador, my advice is simple: Bring the biggest suitcase you can find…two if your airline will allow it. Get on the Andean Craft Trail in the Sierra region along the Avenue of the Volcanoes that cuts north to south through Ecuador. It is full of artisan treasures that you won’t be able to resist. Cotacachi, the village where I live, has a main street lined with leather shops selling jackets, boots, and shoes as well as beautiful handbags and luggage. You can even have things custom-made in a few days. And everything is so much cheaper than you would pay for it in a high-end store—either in the U.S. or in Ecuador. You’ll adore Cotacachi.
Every morning, my husband, Mark, and I wake up to a view of Cuenca’s Old-World charm…majestic cathedral spires rising before us. Then we take our morning walk along the Yununcay River where cultured gardens line the bike and walking trails. Ecuador reminds me of Italy. We spent time in Europe as a young couple and planned to retire to Italy…until we discovered Ecuador. We fell in love with the cobblestone streets, terracotta-roofed brick buildings, colonial churches, plazas, outdoor cafés, and wrought-iron balconies draped in bougainvillea. Mark and I retired to Cuenca, Ecuador, four years ago on a pensioner’s visa which we live on. Our monthly budget is $1,317 a month—my husband’s pension from UPS—but we earn that much or more on our new incomes.
Punta Blanca is a beautiful, exclusive area on Ecuador’s southern Pacific coast. Only about a four-hour drive from colonial Cuenca, where I live, Punta Blanca has a super-convenient location 30 minutes north of Salinas, the country’s most developed resort area, and 30 minutes south of the always happening party town of Montanita. Because Punta Blanca is residential, you need a vehicle to get there and to get around, as there are no stores or restaurants within walking distance. Rentals are available, and visitors are treated to a gorgeous and isolated beachfront experience with lots of activities and amenities nearby.
2008 was a very tough year for my wife and me. At the time, we were living the good life in Las Vegas—big home, high-paying jobs, investments that were propelling us toward our retirement goals. Then what I refer to as the “Economic Tsunami” hit, and we were among the many casualties of that global financial meltdown. When we both found ourselves downsized, we naively thought, “No problem. With our skillsets we’ll have no trouble finding another great job.”
A view, good-value real estate, low cost of living, friendly locals…they’re all important as you search for a new community to settle in abroad. But if you have a green thumb, you may have some special requirements for your dream home. You’ll need good soil and the right light. Maybe you want multiple growing seasons, which is possible in some tropical areas.
Better weather and a low cost of living makes Ecuador a great option for retirement, and recent improvements to the immigration process now makes it even easier to gain residence in Ecuador. Ecuadorian lawyer Santiago Andrade says: “President Correa’s administration has improved many of the bureaucratic processes, and business and immigration is not the exemption to this change. I have seen an improvement in the timing of the residence visa process. In the past a visa took around 30 to 45 days to be approved; now it takes two to three weeks.”
Before my wife, Cynthia, and I relocated to Cuenca, Ecuador from the U.S, we made an exploratory trip. Even though only a few years previously, we had never even heard of Cuenca, we were pleasantly surprised by what we found. The city more than lived up to its UNESCO World Heritage designation with carefully preserved colonial architecture throughout the historic district. Plus while there we were thrilled to attend a free outdoor symphony concert. That’s right—free!
Expats have flocked to Cuenca, Ecuador in recent years for its great weather, low cost of living, and excellent health care. But most people aren’t aware until they arrive here that my hometown boasts five universities. And because Cuencanos speak what is recognized as the purest Spanish outside of Spain, we also have many Spanish language schools attracting study abroad students from all over the world. Great university towns are known as cultural hubs and artistic centers with a fun, vibrant atmosphere, and Cuenca is no exception. No, you won’t find wild tailgating parties happening during the fall—they play that “other kind” of football here.
The colonial city of Cuenca, Ecuador, draws vacationers from all over the world…and it has a tendency to turn visitors into permanent residents. That’s what happened to me four years ago. My three-month visit turned into a six-month stay…Then a year passed and I still hadn’t left. Cuenca has become home. I’ve been to some great places in the world and have loved them—places like Spain, Italy, or even Argentina. So why do I stay in Cuenca when there are so many other great places I could be living? Well, there are three big reasons I keep staying (and staying and staying).
“How much does it cost to live in Ecuador?” That’s a question I hear a lot from readers. From masses of anecdotal evidence and my own experience of living here, I can safely say that a typical couple will most likely spend somewhere between $1,600 and $2,400 a month to live in Ecuador. But what you will spend depends very much on your own needs and wants.
Cuenca is Ecuador’s most popular retirement haven, but it’s not the only one you’ll find in the Andean country. Thousands of expats have chosen from locations all over the country…Pacific coast beach towns, vibrant culture-filled cities, highland farm towns, and more. Ecuador harbors huge variety and whether you’re in search of adventure, planning to start a business, or just want to relax and watch the world go by, it’s got something to offer you.
In Ecuador, you’ll not only be in the middle of the world, but you could be on top of it. That’s because thanks to its location on the equatorial “bulge,” the peak of the country’s 20,564-foot Mt. Chimborazo is the point on the Earth’s surface that’s the farthest from the Earth’s core and closest to the sun. There truly is something for everyone here. Mountains, beaches, rainforests, cities, and small towns…all with a price tag nearly anyone can afford. By the way, Ecuador’s currency is the U.S. dollar—no currency conversions necessary.
The couple explored Peru, Ecuador, Mexico, and Nicaragua. As their trips were part of a search for a new home, it made sense to stay awhile and get beneath the surface of a place. Ellen explains, “Extended stays make sense financially, giving us time between trips to recoup the cost of moving about.” But after three years of having no permanent base, they realized that it was actually this roving retirement lifestyle that suited them.
I’d wanted to visit Ecuador for almost 12 years before I finally set foot there. At the time, I didn’t realize it was going to be my new home. I thought I was just visiting… But when you’ve got a portable income, vacations go on forever. Money wasn’t an issue and I could easily afford to stay in Ecuador. I picked up a new apartment…a weekly cleaning lady…and lots of new friends. I had both the funds and the flexibility to be as social as I wanted. And I settled into a new kind of life in the colonial city of Cuenca—one that I truly, truly love.
The smell of fresh paint is just one sign things are changing in our Cuenca apartment these days… There’s new furniture. New towels, linens, and dishware. From top to bottom, this place is in the middle of getting a post-wedding makeover as I settle into the married life.
For years, Richard and Amy Griffin ran successful businesses in the southeastern United States. Amy’s focus was interior design, while Richard was a food distributor for restaurants, hotels, and country clubs. Things were going well until the economic downturn hit in 2008. “Charlotte is a banking community and all my customers were pretty much bankers, so they pulled the plug immediately, because they had no clue what was going to happen,” says Amy.
I’m sitting on the patio of the Villa Nova Inn in Cuenca, Ecuador enjoying a few beers. I’m watching the sun go down, looking out over the manicured grassy banks of the Tomebamba river. I can hear the laughter of children in the new Parque de Madre just across the river.
I’ve always loved to explore the areas in which I live. Whether I was bushwhacking through wild Alaskan terrain or driving down dusty country roads in Minnesota farm country, I relished the thrill of seeing what’s around the next bend. It could be a fantastic little family-owned apple orchard or a mama moose with newborn twins.
Moving abroad can be the start of the most exciting and fulfilling chapter of your life. I arrived in Ecuador over four years ago and I’ve never been happier. Stress has vanished; I choose how to spend my time; and I’ve never had so many wonderful friends.
Travelers flock to Ecuador each year to enjoy the country’s diverse regions, exotic wildlife, and of course the famed Galapagos Islands. Some visitors become so enthralled with Ecuador that their vacation becomes a permanent stay. But whether you’re a passer through or a smitten expat, don’t miss out on Ecuador’s vast cultural options.
I go to Spain whenever I get the opportunity; this is my third vacation there in the past five years. This time I’ll head to the North of Spain…to the little-known but very affordable region of Galicia. Previously, I’ve visited artistic Barcelona, historic Seville, and sun-soaked Malaga…three cities with their own distinctive characteristics, appeals, and benefits—and I’m anxious to follow up this vacation with another soon, to picture-perfect Valencia, the bull-running city of Pamplona, and the traditionally preserved hillside towns of Cuenca and Ronda.
Until a few days ago my knowledge of coffee was as follows: buy a bag at the store once in a while and drink a couple of cups to get me going each day. I’ve just returned from an extremely interesting tour, organized by the owner of a local coffee shop here in Cuenca, Ecuador, with a new-found appreciation for my morning beverage.