Comparing different retirement or investment destinations head-to-head is not only necessary, but fun and interesting, as well.
It’s the key to narrowing down your preferences among all of the world’s choices. Both seasoned overseas buyers and novices benefit from this exercise.
Long on our lists of top choices for living and owning property overseas in the “super cheap” category are two of my favorite colonial cities.
I’m talking about Cuenca, Ecuador, and Granada, Nicaragua.
I lived in Cuenca for years, owned property in Granada, and have remained connected to both of these historic cities. Based on this experience, I can’t help but draw comparisons.
Similarities Between Cuenca And Granada
These cities line up naturally with one another, so, when comparing them, it’s easiest to begin by looking at their similarities.
Both Cuenca and Granada are beautiful and authentic Spanish-colonial cities founded in the 1500s. In both cases the cost of living is about as low as you’ll find anywhere. You can get by frugally on less than US$1,000 per month or live a comfortable lifestyle by North American standards for around US$1,500 a month or so.
Real estate in both cities is remarkably inexpensive, for properties meeting North American standards. In Granada, the average cost per square meter is less than US$500 (US$46 per square foot), while in Cuenca the average price is US$1,285 per meter, or US$119 per square foot.
Transaction costs in both are low, as well.
Around the world today, anything under US$1,500 per meter is a major bargain. Compare Santiago, Chile, at US$3,300 per meter… or Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, at US$4,500.
Both cities are in Third World countries, with all of the attendant institutional inefficiencies, corruption, and less-than-perfect infrastructure maintenance. But they also have low levels of government intrusion, low taxes, and few rules and regulations.
Both Cuenca and Granada are home to sizeable, thriving expat communities of North Americans. There are far more expats in Cuenca than in smaller Granada, but I’d guess that the ratio of expats to locals is comparable in both places.
Access to the United States is not bad from either city, although Granada has the edge. Cuenca has a convenient airport right in town, but virtually all flights to the United States connect through Quito or Guayaquil. Both these cities offer good connections to U.S. hubs, and flight time to Miami is just under four hours.
Granada is served by the Managua airport, about one hour away, which also has good U.S. connections. Flight time from Managua to Miami is about two hours.
Finally, residency is easy to establish in both countries, with low income and investment requirements.
But that’s where the similarities end.
Differences Between Cuenca And Granada
Cuenca is a large city of more than 400,000 people; more than four times the size of Granada. So Cuenca has the edge for big-city amenities, like theater, nightlife, and restaurants. It also has a new, upscale shopping mall and lots of modern health care facilities.
Granada, by comparison, has more of a small-town, close-knit feel, where everyone seems to know everyone.
Cuenca is located high in the Andes, at 8,200 feet above sea level (2,500 meters). So it offers spring-like weather, with highs rarely above the mid-70s and little seasonal variation. In five years of living in Cuenca, I can recall seeing 90° only once… an all-time record that still stands today. Granada, on the other hand, is warm all the time, with highs in the 80s to low 90s year-round.
Granada is on the shores of one of the world’s largest lakes, meaning swimming and boating opportunities close at hand. You can even purchase your own private lake island. Nicaragua’s Pacific beaches are less than two hours away.
In Cuenca, the nearest beaches are almost three hours away, in Machala, and the nearest nice beach is over four hours away in Playas or Salinas.
Shopping for real estate is a pleasure in both Cuenca and Granada, with lots of terrific homes available at reasonable prices. However, in my experience, each has its strengths when it comes to real estate.
Granada is best for its amazing inventory of low-cost Spanish colonial homes. Their center courtyards are typically open-air and often contain swimming pools, something very unusual in Latin America. Also, the colonials in Granada tend to be fairly small, so they’re great for one or two people, or a small family. To me, there’s no better place to shop for this type of property.
Cuenca has colonials, too, but they tend to be larger and expensive. Many are old homes for large families, 700 square meters or more… a lot for a retired single or couple to take on. On the other hand, Cuenca excels with its newer construction, offering a huge selection of modern condos at reasonable prices. So you can enjoy the Old World character of the historic center but live in a modern house or condo in First World comfort as near as a few blocks away.
Comparing Cuenca and Granada, there’s really no winner, as is the case with many city-pairs. The key is to understand your own priorities.
I’d favor Granada to enjoy a traditional Spanish colonial home, in a smaller town with warm weather. I’d head to Cuenca for big-city amenities, cool, spring-like weather, and hundreds of modern housing choices.
Either way, you’re enjoying one of the finest colonial cities that Spanish America has to offer.
Senior Latin America Correspondent