The More I Got to Know Cuenca, Ecuador, the More I Fell in Love

It was Christmas vacation 2009. I turned on my computer and clicked on Yahoo where a headline caught my attention: “The Top 10 Places in the World to Retire.”

I had never heard of the number one city listed, Cuenca, Ecuador. But as I perused the other nine cities, I found something wrong with each of them. They were too hot or too cold, or hot in the summer and cold in the winter, which was just what I wanted to leave behind in Chicago; or they were too far from the U.S.

I looked again at Cuenca, and, intrigued, decided to research why it was chosen as the number one city for retirement. The more I researched, the more I fell in love with it.

At the age of 63, retirement was on my mind. I didn’t want to work until I was 70 to max out my Social Security and pension, but I wasn’t sitting on large cash reserves. I found Cuenca offered me the opportunity to have the kind of lifestyle I had in Chicago on a salary—but on a retirement income.

I was blessed with good Social Security and a good pension—I could live nicely in Cuenca on one–third of my income, with money left over for travel and savings. Rentals were a fraction of what they would cost in New York City, Chicago, or San Francisco. From a financial prospect, moving to Cuenca was a no–brainer.

Because Cuenca’s a city, I knew I wouldn’t have to sacrifice modern conveniences; Cuenca has thousands of family–owned stores and single–owned artisan factories, and numerous shopping malls.

I decided to visit from mid–July until mid–August in 2010. I found a nice furnished apartment, and attempted to live in Cuenca as I would if I lived there permanently.

I was already in love with the city before I arrived. I worried that Cuenca couldn’t live up to the hype, and to what I had built up in my mind from my research. I needn’t have worried. When the time came for me to leave, I didn’t want to go.

I retired in January of 2011, and moved to Cuenca in March of 2011. I love the city now more than ever—so much so that I’ve been keeping a blog about it, “Cuenca Perspectives by Jim,” to help other retirees learn more about it.

So, what do I love about Cuenca besides the lower cost of living?

I really like the very friendly, respectful, and helpful Cuencano people, who take a great deal of pride in their city. Cuenca is “tranquilo” (tranquil) and its people relaxed. The pace of life is not hectic.

I also love how Cuenca blends modernity and tradition. It’s a city of professionals on one hand and various indigenous groups on the other, who earn their living by farming and agricultural marketing in the mercados, or by selling their produce from wheelbarrows as they make their way down the city streets of El Centro.

I live in a luxury high rise surrounded by modern upper–middle class homes, and just below me there are open lots where I can sit and watch the indigenous people—in traditional dress—bring their cows, sheep, and goats to pasture.

Traditional 16th century colonial structures are contrasted with new high rises and modern housing. The city is beautiful, from the UNESCO–sited historical section of El Centro, to the beauty along the three rivers that run through Cuenca, to the fact that the city is nestled in a basin surrounded by awe–inspiring mountains and low–lying cloud formations.

And, though it’s a big city, it has a small town feel. Getting to know people is very easy. I love socializing, and get to meet new people all the time.

The weather is spring–like year round. I had my fill of freezing cold temperatures and snow and ice; and as I am older, I no longer relish hot or humid weather either.

The city has the cleanest drinking water in all of South America, and is rated among the best in the world as well.

The health care is very inexpensive by American standards. The quality of care is excellent and the time the doctors take with patients is rarely experienced in the States.

Of course, Cuenca, as with anywhere, is not for everybody. My best advice is, if you seriously consider Cuenca as a place to retire, visit for a month. Don’t rush to buy when you arrive or before you arrive. Get to know the city, the neighborhoods, and the real estate market before you purchase. Take the time to make the decision that’s right for you.

You might find you love Cuenca as much as I do.

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