Big-City Living For Just $1,503 a Month in Cuenca, Ecuador

Even though my wife Susan and I live in the midst of a historic, colonial city, at night we are lulled to sleep by the sounds of the river flowing just across the street.

It’s just one of the many things I’ve grown to love about Cuenca, Ecuador—the highland city of around 500,000 we now call home.

Yesterday I got up before the sun rose and marveled as the day unfolded before me. The star-filled sky gradually turned a brilliant blue, with only a handful of puffy white clouds marring its surface.

The only scheduled item on our calendars was lunch with some expat friends. We walked a couple of blocks from our apartment, spent 20 minutes visiting with a Canadian expat couple we know, and set a date to get together later in the week for dinner and cards.

We arrived at the Mayu Smokehouse and Bakery, were greeted warmly by our server, and spent more than three hours chatting over sandwiches, salads, soft drinks, and beers. The total bill for the four of us, including tax and tip, was $36.

On the 25-minute walk back to our apartment along the river, we stopped to talk with yet another couple we know. We wondered aloud how, in a city of half-a-million people, we could encounter so many familiar faces in such a short period of time. But that’s just part of the daily rhythm of our lives here. In fact, since moving to Cuenca, we’ve had to cut back on our social activities, as we found we had to schedule time just to be with each other.

Most wannabe expats have the same criteria: an affordable cost of living, moderate climate, access to quality healthcare, and an abundance of fresh food. You’ll find all that here in Cuenca. But what most captivated us on our first visit in 2010 is that it has all the amenities of a large city but feels like a series of neighborhoods, interspersed with greenery from the four rivers running through it.

Living in this city reminds me of when I was growing up in the 1950s. It’s safe for children to walk to school and play outdoors. People are friendly, smile a lot, and greet you with “buenos días” or “hola” as you walk down the street.

We no longer worry if we can cover our bills. Even on fixed incomes, we have money left over each month to do things we would have had trouble affording back home. Last month, our living expenses came to $1,503, and they rarely go higher than this. Back in the U.S., that barely covered our house payment and utilities. We still live in the two-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bathroom apartment we found within two weeks of our permanent arrival, in January 2015.

Our monthly rent is $380, including water, trash, and a condo fee. Food costs us $205 and eating out, which we do frequently, is $246. Our health insurance premium is less than $80. Our total medical expenses average $140, but this will drop now that we have insurance.

It’s an incredible city for walking, thanks to the beautiful colonial architecture, cobblestone sidewalks, and colorful, mural-covered walls. Because we’re seniors, a bus ride costs us 12 cents for most anywhere we want to go. A taxi is $2.50 or less. This is the first time in my adult life that I have not owned a car, and I don’t miss it nearly as much as I thought I would.

Did we have concerns about moving overseas? Of course we did, especially at our ages: I was 74 and Susan was 69 when we moved last year. But what we’ve found here has surpassed our wildest expectations.

Friends back home constantly ask us if we will stay in Cuenca forever. Who knows? Forever is a long time. For now, Susan and I both feel like we’ve found our pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

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