Why This Seasoned Latin America Expat Rates This City #1 For Retirees

March 12, 2012, Cuenca, Ecuador: Latin America Correspondent Lee Harrison rates Cuenca, Ecuador, as the top retirement haven in the Americas and one of the world’s cheapest places to live a comfortable retirement lifestyle.

Dear Live and Invest Overseas Reader,

"The colonial city of Cuenca, Ecuador, has long been one of the world's top places to retire abroad," writes Latin America Correspondent and one-time resident of Cuenca Lee Harrison.

"This former Inca capital, former Spanish capital, and current UNESCO World Heritage Site is the intellectual heart of Ecuador and one of the world's real treasures.

"Today, it's also home to about 1,500 full-time residents from North America. This is not a large number compared with some Mexican destinations, but Cuenca clearly qualifies today as an expat-friendly city, offering one of the most interesting retirement lifestyles you'll find anywhere.

"Cuenca is most attractive for those seeking a captivating experience on a small budget. The cost of both living and of real estate in Cuenca have been for some time and remain the lowest I've found in any attractive city anywhere in Latin America.

"The cobblestone streets and colonial architecture in the city's historic center showcase the influence of the Spanish, who came to town in the 1500s. The big, colorful indigenous markets and still-prevalent indigenous population remind you that the Spanish were not the first ones to occupy this city.

"The Spanish history and the indigenous presence provide a backdrop for modern Cuenca, with its theater, orchestra, shows, restaurants, and other big-city amenities. All supported by broadband Internet service, reliable electricity and telephone, and drinkable tap water.

"I lived in Cuenca for over five years as a full-time resident, and I return frequently to visit. Over the past few years, I've been amazed by the continued evolution of the city. Today it's cleaner, better-kept, and has loads of new, affordable housing options, as well as many new cafes, chic bars, fine dining establishments, and casual restaurants. Cuenca has come into its own and is a more comfortable place to live than ever.

"I'm not typically surprised when visiting Cuenca anymore. My expectations are high, based on years of experience, and the city never disappoints. However, on my most recent visit, I discovered another reason to believe that this city constitutes one of the best budget-friendly retirement choices in the Americas. In fact, I had three surprises.

"The first was that Cuenca has finally recognized its own potential in the area of health care and is offering city-sponsored programs promoting Cuenca as a medical tourism destination. The city's five top hospitals have joined together to offer a package deal. They give the medical tourist an ID card that entitles you to a package of exams and standard prices, at the facility of your choice.

"You sign up for a bundle of medical services that best suits your needs. Prices range from US$66 to US$401 for the entire suite. Breaking down the individual items that make up the package, here are a few examples:

  • Mammogram: US$40
  • Chest X-ray: US$25
  • PSA test: US$15
  • Cholesterol workup (Cholesterol, HDL, LDL, and triglycerides): US$8
  • EKG: US$25
  • EEG: US$60
  • Hearing test: US$15

"One big advantage of medical care in Ecuador is that the results and records belong to the patient. The doctor delivers them to you, along with any recommendation, and you can do as you please, easily going somewhere else for follow-up or treatment if you like.

"In addition, your medical tourist card entitles you to hotel and travel discounts throughout the city...including for things like hot springs and massages. If you'd like to see the city--while getting a great checkup at a low price--this is a good way to do it...while, at the same time, having an introduction to Cuenca's health care system.

"Even if you don't sign up for this packaged program, your costs of health care in Cuenca will be very low. A hospital stay in a semi-private room is still just US$30. A private room with an extra bed for family members is US$50, while a private suite is US$75.

"The second surprise this most recent visit was in the area of nursing care, a nagging issue for retirees who retire abroad. On this visit I was able to tour a new nursing facility, meet the doctors and nurses, and speak to the family members of two patients.

"The facility was clean, the staff was professional, and the residents were well-dressed and well-cared-for. When I arrived (unannounced) I found a group of perhaps 15 residents enjoying the sun in the interior courtyard, while others were exercising with staff members or visiting family.

"The total cost is US$450 per month, which includes 24-hour doctor and nurse attendance, food, laundry, personal care, and occupational/rehabilitative therapy. Personal hygiene items (like toothpaste, hairbrushes, etc.) are supplied by the family.

"The third surprise came from a personal experience. My dermatologist in Cuenca is the best I've had in my 30-year experience with dermatologists. In fact--even though I have insurance in the United States--I still return to Cuenca (when I can) for his care.

"During a recent visit, I had a small, non-threatening skin cancer removed. The total cost was US$90, which included the operation, office visit, local anesthesia, and supplies. In addition, I paid US$20 for associated lab work, meaning the total bill was US$110.

"By coincidence, I'd had the same thing done last time I was in Arizona in 2011. The total cost there was US$5,190. Even after insurance, my portion was still US$347.11.

"To put this into perspective, it cost 300% more to be insured in the United States than it cost to be uninsured in Ecuador...something I found mostly true during all my years there.

"What's more, the care I got in Cuenca was noticeably better than that in the United States--better attention, more personalized care, and fewer mistakes. The only time I'd feel the need at this point to go to the United States for care would be for specialized procedures that are available only in the United States...things needing the latest technology.

"Since I moved there in 2001, there's been no doubt in my mind that Cuenca deserves to be the #1 retirement spot. My visits to almost every other country in Latin America have only confirmed this.

"Now, Cuenca has come to the forefront in an important area for the potential retiree: health care. You can get excellent preventative care at a reasonable cost, inexpensive hospital care, and even low-cost, quality nursing care.

"That's why people of all ages are coming to Cuenca today, in record numbers."

Kathleen Peddicord

Editor's note: Lee's complete report on retirement in Cuenca, which he is finalizing as you read this, will appear in the April Issue of the Overseas Retirement Letter. It will include a comprehensive review of the current property market, of the cost of living, of the health care options, and of the lifestyle available to retirees in this city that Lee rates as Latin America's top retirement haven. Follow the link here for more information.Continuing Reading:

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Kathleen Peddicord

Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 25 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter.

Her book, How To Retire Overseas—Everything You Need To Know To Live Well Abroad For Less, was recently released by Penguin Books.

Read more here.

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