Enjoying a locally-grown coffee on my sunny terrace in Cuenca, Ecuador, with my husband Ken and our little rescue dog, Sally, I’m wondering what my family and friends are up to in England. I’m smiling because the dream of living in South America finally came true, almost 15 years after the seed was planted.
Ken and I are content with our new life here but finding our perfect corner of paradise took a while…
Back in 2005, I set off solo on an open-ended trip to South America. My plan had been to seduce and marry a tall, suave Latino and live the rest of my life in a vibrant culture, far from my native homeland.
I’d long been enamored with the alluring music of Brazil and Colombia, and the second I set foot in South America, I knew it was where I was meant to be. What I hadn’t foreseen was a chance encounter with a slightly sunburned U.S. Coast Guard officer, on a hiking trail near Machu Picchu.
After accepting that ‘the one’ was not the dashing Latino I’d envisioned, but a shortish, scruffy American who could barely string together a sentence in Spanish, life eventually displaced me from my beloved South America to the mountains of North Carolina, where we married in 2010.
Ken was by then 15 years into his military career so it seemed smart to stick it out to the ‘magic 20’, when he’d be able to retire with full pension and healthcare benefits.
My time in South America had nurtured a deep appreciation and love of the people, culture, and landscapes of the continent, so early on in our marriage we started talking about relocating there as soon as he could retire. It was where I continually yearned to be, and happily my dear husband was amenable to the idea…after some gentle persuading.
We made yearly exploratory trips to Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile, and soon realized that the countries we enjoyed traveling in were not necessarily ones that we would want to settle in permanently.
Factors that we rarely considered when traveling became important in our search for a place to call home: Access to good healthcare; stable local currency; ease of everyday activities (e.g., would we have to line up for 30 minutes to buy a jug of milk or withdraw cash?); access to outdoor adventure activities like hiking/mountain biking; and ease of travel back to the U.S. and the U.K.
Although these countries had afforded us fantastic travel experiences, we hadn’t really found a place that ticked all the boxes for relocation. A little frustrated, in 2017 we decided to visit some new countries, this time overlanding in our campervan.
We spent 18 months driving through Mexico, Colombia, and Ecuador, exploring various regions in depth. While Mexico and Colombia had much to offer, and we were tempted by both, it was Ecuador that was the greatest surprise.
The smallest of any of the countries we’d visited, it crams in a variety of incredible landscapes, but also seemed to offer us the best overall quality of living.
Driving down the central sierras, we stopped in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Cuenca, and knew immediately that this beautiful colonial city would be our new home.
With the rugged Cajas National Park just a 35-minute drive away, and both the Amazon jungle and stunning Pacific beaches about five hours by car, the outdoor opportunities here are near-endless; the climate offers year-round, spring temperatures; the city is large enough to have amenities such as international restaurants, cafés and bars, but retains an appealing, small-town feel; the tap water is safe to drink; healthcare is generally excellent (I’ve had personal experience with this); the currency is the U.S. dollar; crime is relatively low; the local people have warmly embraced the robust expat population; and Miami is just a four-hour flight away!
Within a few months, we returned to the U.S., obtained all the required immigration documents and flew to Ecuador in October 2019 to begin our residency application.
We’ve now been living in Cuenca for 20 months and after all those years of searching, we’ve made the right choice.
We’re able to live well off a pension that would be considered very modest in the States, and our monthly costs run at about $2,000. We rent a comfortable, two-bedroom apartment in a desirable neighborhood close to the beautiful Tomebamba river for $700 a month, which includes high-speed internet and all utilities.
We enjoy regular hikes in the Andean páramo, often climbing to above 13,000 feet. We eat healthier than we’ve ever done before, since local produce is so abundant, fresh, and cheap.
Ken has opened a small, furniture-building business, and I enjoy teaching English and writing for publications like IL. Life is generally enjoyable and low-stress, and we work because we want to, not because we have to.
And although I didn’t end up with that debonair Latino, I’m perfectly happy with my plucky American— his Spanish is pretty decent these days too!