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.
Get Your Free Ecuador Report Now
Learn more about Ecuador and other countries in our daily postcard e-letter.
Simply enter your email address below and we'll send you a FREE REPORT - Ecuador: Live Like Royalty on Your Social Security.
Get Your Free Report Here
“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.
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.