5 Reasons Cuenca Remains A Top Retire Overseas Choice
Cuenca, Ecuador. You have heard so much about it. The experts recommend Cuenca, Ecuador, as a fabulous choice for living abroad. The country is mentioned time and again on all the short lists of places to ponder, with Cuenca being the customary crown jewel choice both for retirees and anybody at any age just hoping to escape to a fresh start.
It sounds so exciting, but is it right for you?
Here’s your opportunity to hear about what Cuenca has to offer from somebody just like you, rather than another seasoned expert.
I still live in the United States, and, like you, I have been doing research trying to decide if I want to move abroad…and, assuming I do, to where?
Ecuador is currently the top contender on my list, so last month I traveled to Cuenca with one of my daughters and her husband for an initial reconnaissance expedition. My husband and other adult children did not join us; we three were the family’s boots-on-the-ground scouts. If we liked what we saw, plans would move forward. If not, it would be back to the drawing board. And the verdict?
We loved it!
So what is so great about Ecuador, Cuenca in particular?
Why Cuenca Reason #1: Eye Candy
This city is just plain beautiful. Perhaps some people are content to hang their hats anywhere and attractive surroundings don’t rate much attention, but I am a beauty snob. Ecuador has stunning Pacific coast beaches, craggy majestic mountains, and exotic tropical rain forest, all conveniently squashed into a country roughly the size of Wyoming.
The city of Cuenca may be a half-million people, but it doesn’t feel big when you are meandering down the cobblestone streets in El Centro. The UNESCO World Heritage city center is charming with block after block of modestly scaled Spanish-colonial architecture and lush, green parks. It’s easy to find your way around as the streets are well marked, and, with sidewalks everywhere and perpetually perfect weather, it’s pleasant to navigate Cuenca on foot.
Why Cuenca Reason #2: Budget Friendly Basics
Cuenca is easy on the pocketbook. We rented a small, centrally located, furnished two-bedroom apartment for a week for US$300, which was less expensive than two rooms at a nice hotel, and we enjoyed the bonus of having a living room and a kitchen. You could find something even more affordable if you rent for a longer stint. Prices at the SuperMaxi grocery store were not much less than in supermarkets back home for many items, but keep in mind that we live in South Carolina. If you live in California or New York, you may see a larger price gap.
Here are a few sample prices:
Bread: US$1.17 per loaf
Eggs: US$1.85 per dozen
Strawberries: US$1.72 per kilo
Oreos: US$2.92 for the big package
Brahma beer: US$3.41 for a 6 pack
Some of the import liquor was expensive, like Bailey’s Irish Cream, which was double or more what we pay back home, but we bought premixed pina coladas for about half what a comparable bottle costs here. Although we didn’t stock up at a mercado, we did peruse one of the local markets. Prices on produce were a real bargain, and all of it was local, fresh, and presumably organic.
Why Cuenca Reason #3: Excellent Dining On A Shoestring
You have many options for dining in Cuenca, some places catering to both expats and Cuencanos. The best bargains are fixed-price lunches at almuerzo cafes. We tried several. In each case, the total tab, including taxes and tip, ran from US$6–US$9 for three full plates of food and soft drinks.
We ate at two restaurants catering to expats: The Wind Horse Café on Calle Larga was US$16 for brunch for three people, and the Café Eucalyptus on Gran Colombia set us back US$51 for a luxurious dinner for three, including cocktails, entrées (no appetizers), desserts (try the Bananas Foster), and fruit smoothies. Our other restaurant splurge was Tres Estrellas on Calle Larga. It’s the restaurant famous for cuy, and, while we didn’t indulge in the grilled guinea pig on this visit (next time?), we did make pigs of ourselves to the tune of a US$45 tariff for three (including two pitchers of their lemonade—it was that good).
The only lousy meal we had was giving the local McDonald’s a try. The prices were comparable to those in the States in exchange for too salty burgers and not salty enough limp fries. If you need an American fast-food fix, we had better luck at the food court at the Multicines movie complex at Millennium Plaza. Both Burger King and Subway tasted like home.
By the way, catching the 7 p.m. movie in English cost only US$5.50 per person.
Why Cuenca Reason #4: Appealing Culture
We loved, loved, loved the lifestyle and culture in Cuenca. What’s not to like about a perfect spring climate and no bugs? Nothing like being comfortable, not too hot and not too cold, to improve one’s outlook on life. But there’s more to it than that.
Like you, I have read that being in Cuenca is like stepping back into the 1950s. What does that mean exactly, and is it something you will embrace…or will it drive you nuts? We saw children everywhere. There were wee ones out with their mothers or their fathers or their grandparents. We saw school-aged kids in their uniforms visiting the local confectioner to stock up on after-school snacks (try the sweets shop on Simon Bolivar adjacent to the cathedral—yum!).
The people seem friendly, happy, and helpful. There are dozens of spectacular churches sprinkled throughout the city, and if you poke a nose in the door any day of the week, you find dozens of people quietly lighting candles and praying. Cuenca is faith and family oriented, and Sundays especially are set aside for church and time spent with loved ones. The Catholic Masses are packed in the morning, as are the parks in the afternoon.
Keep in mind that not much is open on Sunday, but you can still get a tasty meal in town at Chicago Pizza on Gran Colombia, conveniently just across the plaza from the church of Santo Domingo for those who want to kill two birds with one stone.
If we had to identify something specific that we didn’t care for, it would be graffiti. I assume this is the handiwork of select misdirected youth, but there’s lots of it, which is a shame to see in such an otherwise lovely place. To their credit, city employees were out with brushes and pails of soapy water scrubbing away.
Why Cuenca Reason #5: Family-Friendly Visa
In keeping with the strong family orientation we witnessed in Cuenca, Ecuador’s pensionado visa is one of the most generous toward families. If you are a single person or an unencumbered couple, this probably won’t be of interest for you, but our family dynamic isn’t quite so simple. If you, like we, are considering moving abroad with some or all of an extended family, Ecuador should be on your radar.
In many Latin American countries, the best bang for the buck, if you qualify, is a pensionado visa. Ecuador’s requires that the pensioner show a monthly income from a pension or Social Security of at least US$800, and then add to that US$100 for each dependent (spouse, child, etc.). Other countries offer similar pensionado visas but usually with restrictions on who qualifies as a dependent. A husband or wife is fine, but only minor children qualify, or, if older than 18, there is an age cap (from 23 to 25, depending on the country) and the grown child must be a full-time college student. What if you have adult kids who would like to join you in your overseas adventure, but they are older than 25 and/or not in college? Either each single or couple must qualify for a different type of visa on their own (expensive, if they can qualify at all), or you need to look seriously at Ecuador or Nicaragua, which has a pensionado program similar to Ecuador’s (US$600 per month for the pensioner and US$100 for each dependent, without small print as to whom you can include as your dependent).
One of the issues many face when they retire abroad is being so far away from the rest of the family. In Ecuador you may not have to make that sacrifice. If everyone wants to go, and if everyone establishes a portable career to pay their bills once in their new home country, the residency visa is comparatively simple and inexpensive in Ecuador…for the whole family.
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