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Cuenca, A Great Retirement Choice

Why This #1 Overseas Retirement Haven Keeps Getting Better And Better

As far back as 2001, I considered Cuenca, Ecuador, to be the #1 place to retire overseas. In fact, I retired to Cuenca myself when I was just 49 and lived there full-time for almost six years.

Since first settling in Ecuador, I’ve explored just about every country in Latin America. I’ve seen the best of what the region has to offer, and I’d say that, the more I’ve experienced, the more I’ve come to appreciate Cuenca.

Ringed by dramatic Andean peaks, this UNESCO World Heritage site has been a showplace of colonial architecture for hundreds of years. Wandering the streets, you feel like you’ve been transported to another time. And the colorful Andean culture leaves no doubt that you’re in the middle of a brand-new and exciting life experience. As a resident, you’ll continue to marvel at your city for years to come. I know I did.

Cuenca beats out its competitors for a few reasons, including great weather (no need for heat or air conditioning); a very low cost of real estate; one of the continent’s lowest costs of living; inexpensive, world-class healthcare; and one of the most fascinating and well-preserved Spanish-colonial settings you’ll find anywhere.

And, while, living here, you may feel like you’ve traveled back in time 200 years, you’ll also be enjoying all the comforts of the 21st century, including drinkable water, reliable electric and phone service, and modern, high-speed internet.

Returning to the city recently, I was struck by the fact that, as good a retirement choice as Cuenca is, it just keeps getting better. With each return visit, I continue to be amazed by the new upgrades and innovations.

These days, scores of inviting restaurants, many owned by expats, serve food from around the world. You can enjoy casual or fine dining or spend the afternoon at a pleasant sidewalk cafe.

Cuenca’s downtown airport has again been improved and is now one of the most modern and convenient airports in the region. It’s only a few minutes from the center of town, and flights around the country are cheap and efficient on new, modern aircraft.

Cuenca’s colonial historic district is clean, well-preserved, and well-maintained. On my most recent visit, I noticed that, even since my last visit last year, many of the sidewalks have been widened and resurfaced, making the downtown even more walkable.

I also noted that most of the downtown crosswalks now have pedestrian Walk/Don’t Walk signals, making things just a bit safer. Don’t get me wrong; it’s still fairly easy to get hit by a car in this city, but I’m sure the survival rate for pedestrians is higher than it was a few years ago.

Meantime, while there are always new and interesting additions to Cuenca, it’s good to see that the best of the town’s old mainstays continue to thrive. For example, the Villa Rosa restaurant, an elegant venue of Cuenca’s elite before all the newcomers came along, is still serving its delicious cuisine. It’s hard to spend more than US$8 on an entree, and they’re still charging only US$18 for a bottle of Chilean Chardonnay. Likewise, the Eucalyptus Cafe, Cuenca’s first expat-owned restaurant, is still alive and well, serving great dishes from around the world.

While almost all of downtown Cuenca’s indigenous markets have been overhauled and modernized, you can still find one old-fashioned, run-down market where you can experience the feeling of years gone by.

The real estate market in Cuenca continues strong. Values have appreciated about 10% per year on average over the past eight years or so, and the furnished rentals market is active.

Progress and prosperity have their downsides, and one in Cuenca right now is the traffic. A pedestrian navigating the historic center will make better time than a car much of the day, which makes a good case for walking, rather than driving, in this very walkable city.

Another consequence of the tremendously expanded popularity of Cuenca is the presence here today of thousands of North American expats and retirees, most of whom have arrived on the scene in the past few years. This is, in itself, neither a good nor a bad thing. It depends on your perspective and the kind of retirement lifestyle you’re looking for.

If you want to feel like a pioneer, out on your own, in a place where you’re one of just a few foreigners on the scene, then Cuenca is not going to be what you’re looking for. On the other hand, if you’re interested in a thriving, active expat community, and the support and comradeship that it brings, then Cuenca will be a good choice for you, one of the best.

Something else struck me on my most recent visit to Cuenca. It’s not just this city that’s improving; it’s the entire country. As I traveled around Ecuador, I noticed great improvements to the infrastructure. Whether you’re on the coast or driving at 13,000 feet along the continental divide, you’ll now enjoy new bridges and solid, well-marked roads…roads that were pot-holed nightmares just a few years ago.

Markedly reduced corruption means that Ecuador’s wealth is coming back to her, being invested in infrastructure, rather than going into someone’s pocket.

If you thought Ecuador was a good choice for retirement before, you’ll find it’s an even better choice now. And if you thought it was too rough around the edges a few years ago, it’s time for another look.

Lee Harrison

P.S. I think I’ve found the most overlooked hotel deal in Cuenca, a city where hotel prices have jumped markedly over the past few years. The hotel is the Cofradí­a del Monje, located at the San Francisco market about a block from the cathedral and town square. Situated in a restored colonial house, the hotel has wide plank floors and floor-to-ceiling windows opening out to the market. The private rooms are built around a courtyard cafe. It’s not what you’d call luxurious, but the rooms are spacious and comfortable and will make you feel like you’re back in the 1800s. Rates are just US$29 per night for one person, US$48 for two, including breakfast.

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