Cuenca Versus Medellin—Two Top City Choices Compared
“If you liked Cuenca, Ecuador, so well, why did you ever leave?”
I get that question a lot. I understand, because I recommend Cuenca very highly to potential expats…yet, at the same time, it’s true that, while I lived in that city for almost six years, I chose to move on.
In fact, since living in Cuenca, I’ve also lived in Uruguay, Brazil, and now Medellin, Colombia. I’ve loved each location for different reasons.
And my motive for moving from Cuenca had nothing to do with dissatisfaction. It was more a gradual evolution…a migration from one phase of my retirement to another.
Thinking more objectively, how would I compare these two cities? They are surprisingly similar in a number of ways.
Both Medellin and Cuenca enjoy great weather, with virtually no bugs, year-round. I didn’t use heat or air conditioning in Cuenca, and I don’t use them here in Medellin.
But the weather is not the same. Medellin is warmer, with daily highs averaging around 81°F (27°C), with lows in the 60s, and one degree of seasonal variation. In Cuenca, monthly average highs vary from 65°F to 71°F, depending on the time of year, and nightly lows are also correspondingly lower. I never broke a sweat in Cuenca, and I wore a long-sleeved shirt with no jacket almost every day of the year.
Rainfall is great in Medellin (66 inches versus 35 inches in Cuenca), but the average sunny day is just a bit higher in Medellin.
The city with the “perfect weather” for you will be a matter of your own taste.
Establishing residency is fairly easy in both Colombia and Ecuador, with low thresholds for visa qualification in both countries. In Colombia, the pensioner’s visa requires an income of a little less than US$1,000 per month, while in Ecuador the level is even lower, at US$800 monthly. For an investor-type visa, Colombia’s options start at around US$34,000 for a one-year temporary visa, while Ecuador requires US$25,000 for full, permanent residency.
So Ecuador has lower thresholds for permanent residency, both for the investor and the retiree.
Colombia’s visa, however, is quicker and easier to obtain, with fewer required documents. Also, Ecuador imposes restrictions on being out of the country during your first two years of residency, while Colombia has no such restrictions.
The cultural scene in Medellin is remarkably similar to that in Cuenca. This is surprising because Cuenca has around 600,000 people in its metro area, while Medellin has about 4 million. In both cities, you can enjoy orchestra, theater, art openings, museums, and a generally sophisticated cultural scene. You’ll pay a fee for most of these in Medellin, while in Cuenca they’re usually free.
The infrastructure is good in both cities. You’ll enjoy drinkable water, reliable broadband Internet, and dependable electricity, water, and phone service.
Also, both cities are very walkable, and both have excellent and cheap public transit systems. If you decide to drive, you’ll find traffic jams equally maddening in both cities.
Real estate costs are cheap in both cities by Latin American standards. I prepared a survey recently that compared costs in Medellin, Montevideo (Uruguay), Fortaleza (Brazil), and Panama City. For comparable properties and areas, prices in Medellin’s El Poblado are the lowest on a per-square-meter basis.
But Cuenca’s prices are lower.
A nice, two-bedroom apartment in Cuenca might cost around US$80,000…while that same apartment in a comparable neighborhood of Medellin would cost more than US$120,000. You can find Cuenca-style pricing in Medellin but not in the best neighborhoods.
For the lifestyle you’ll enjoy in Medellin, the real estate is a tremendous bargain. And the same is true in Cuenca; for the lifestyle it offers, it, too, is a tremendous bargain.
But the lifestyle in one is nothing like the lifestyle in the other, which brings us to the ways these cities differ. (As Medellin is such a large and diverse city, I’ll focus on its El Poblado neighborhood for my comparisons.)
Medellin’s El Poblado offers a modern, upscale ambiance. It has elegant shopping, spotless infrastructure, glistening new buildings, and more fine-dining that you can imagine. New luxury brick high-rises look down from lush, wooded hillsides. Tall trees line the well-maintained streets. And El Poblado is only one of many desirable areas in this city.
On the other hand, Cuenca is one of the Americas’ premier Spanish-colonial cities and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The old cathedral was built in 1557, the historic architecture is well preserved, and the streets are cobblestoned. You’ll even see evidence of the Inca occupation from the early 1500s. Yet just outside the historic center, Cuenca also offers new, modern high-rises. So you could live in a modern home, yet have the historic center within walking distance.
El Poblado is a First World environment; you’ll be hard-pressed to find a U.S. city that can beat it. Cuenca is part of a developing country with some Third World characteristics like poor sidewalk and building maintenance.
Access to the States is easier from Medellin than from Cuenca. Medellin has daily nonstops to Miami, while you’ll need to connect (and possibly spend the night) in Guayaquil or Quito when traveling to and from Cuenca. This adds a day to the trip, as well as the cost of lodging and taxis.
The expat community is far smaller in Medellin than in Cuenca. I can find expats in Medellin—at a local coffee shop or the Irish pub—if I look for them, and a couple of Americans are signed up at my gym. Otherwise, I don’t see them around.
In Cuenca, the expat community is big, estimated between 4,000 and 5,000 people. These folks are making a cultural imprint on the city. I’d say that impact is positive. Since the infusion of North Americans to this city, there’s been an explosion in the number of nice cafes, restaurants, and book shops, as well as other expat-owned services and businesses. Today in Cuenca, you can find most anything you might be looking for and, normally, an English-speaker to deal with in the process.
But whether an expat community of that size is a positive or a negative for you is a matter of choice.
The cost of living is higher in El Poblado than in Cuenca, due in part to the exchange rates. Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar, so dollar-holders don’t feel the pinch of a weakening currency. Colombia has a strengthening Colombian peso.
The basics in Medellin (food, entertainment, utilities, public transit, taxes, and HOA fees) cost me about US$1,850 per month. I believe in Cuenca the total cost would be about US$1,250 for the same lifestyle. Many people live for less than that in Cuenca, but I’m using an apples-to-apples comparison from my own experience.
Bottom line, neither city is expensive, but Cuenca is definitely less expensive than Medellin.
Which is the better retire-overseas choice?
Impossible to say. Manhattan is not inherently better or worse than New Orleans, after all…but it’s a lot different. And the same goes for Medellin and Cuenca.
I see Ecuador as a cultural adventure where life is as different as you can get from the United States or Canada, short of moving to Asia. When I retired to Cuenca at age 49, I shunned places like Medellin, Chile, and Uruguay, because they were too much like the States. I wanted something as different, enriching, and exciting as I could get, and Cuenca fit the bill.
Today, I think of Medellin as a way to reward myself. It’s a treat to be here. Medellin is a way to enjoy perfect weather and an elegant lifestyle that I couldn’t afford in the United States. When I bought my place in Medellin 10 years after I’d left the States, at the age of 59, it was exactly what I was looking for at that stage. I wanted an elegant, luxury lifestyle at an affordable price, and Medellin fit the bill.
And that’s the real reason that Medellin is now my “ideal retirement spot”…when it used to be Cuenca.
You’ve heard a dozen times that the “perfect retirement location” is different for everyone. But there’s more to it than that.
Your “perfect spot” can also change with your taste, your age, and your experience living abroad. And that’s really part of the fun.
This living overseas thing is an adventure and a journey of discovery that need never stop.
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