Is CUENCA Ecuador the BEST Expat City?
Cuenca has been near the top of “best expat cities” list for nearly a decade, and a lot of expats live in Cuenca because of its international renown. However, if you’re still in the planning stages of your move abroad, you may be wondering, is Cuenca Ecuador the best expat city for me?
In this article, we explore all the things that make Cuenca an amazing place to start your new life in a foreign country, and we share a few reasons that may make you continue your search for a new expat home.
Is Cuenca the Best Expat City in Ecuador?
Before we share the main drawbacks that led us to leave Cuenca for one of Ecuador’s beautiful, rustic beach towns, let’s take a look at all the wonderful things that Cuenca has to offer expats.
Cuenca Is a Modern, Developed City with Old World Charm
Cuenca has all the modern amenities of a developed city like hospitals, malls and car dealerships, but it still maintains an old world charm with its beautiful, Spanish colonial architecture. The iconic blue domes of the New Cathedral can be seen from most vantage points in the city and make for amazing pictures to share with your friends and family. You’ll find a new, irresistible photo op around every corner in Cuenca.
Cuenca Has an Airport
One of the amenities that makes Cuenca so appealing to expats is the airport located just a short cab ride from the heart of the city. While the airport claims to be international, nearly all flights go to Quito with an occasional flight to Guayaquil. You’ll also need to walk down stairs upon exiting the plane since there are no gangways, but the airport itself is very nice with a small food court on the second level and a tasty coffee shop on the first level by the ticketing counter. The flight to Quito only takes 45 minutes so it’s much easier than making the 8+ hour drive to Quito, or the 3+ hour drive to the Guayaquil international airport.
You Don’t Need a Car in Cuenca
Cuenca’s new Tranvia will take you from the airport through El Centro and out to the Don Bosco neighborhood on the southwest side of town. The expansive bus system will take you anywhere inside or outside Cuenca. Taxi rides are very affordable and most fares cost between $2 and $3 with a $1.50 minimum. Cars are much more expensive in Ecuador than in countries like the United States, and interest rates on car loans are very high, so luckily the wide variety of inexpensive transportation options mean you don’t need a car in Cuenca.
Cuenca Has LOTS of English-Speaking Ecuadorians
Most Cuencanos who are under 30 years old speak English, and many older Ecuadorians who lived in the US or Europe when they were younger also speak English. That means it’s a really easy place to start your life abroad if you’re not yet fluent in Spanish. With language apps widely available, speaking Spanish isn’t a requirement anywhere in Ecuador, but being able to communicate in English makes the transition to a new city and culture much smoother.
Cuenca Has LOTS of Spanish Schools & Teachers
If your goal is to learn Spanish, Cuenca is a great place to study the language. There are a variety of Spanish schools, teachers and language exchanges to help you learn and practice. We HIGHLY recommend Christina with Walking Spanish Lessons, whom we’ve featured in this video on our YouTube Channel: Cuenca Ecuador Walking Spanish Lessons.
Cuenca Has a Large Expat Community
While many adventurous expats move to a foreign country to spend time with locals and experience a new culture, others move abroad mainly to live a more affordable, higher quality of life. These types of expats appreciate having other like-minded, English-speaking people to talk to and to provide social support. Cuenca has one of the largest expat communities in South America with thousands of immigrants from the US, Canada and Europe, making it an ideal place to start a new life abroad.
Cuenca Has a Variety of Modern, Upscale Housing
Your friends and family may think you’ll be living in a dirt floor house with no indoor plumbing when you move to Ecuador, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. While building standards aren’t quite the same as in the US and other developed countries, Cuenca has a large selection of modern, upscale housing to choose from. Whether you want a freestanding home, a row home or a high rise condo, you’re sure to find something that will make you feel right at home for a fraction of the cost compared to similar housing in the US.
Cuenca Has Excellent Pet Care
If you’re planning to take your fur babies with you when you move abroad, Cuenca has a number of English-speaking veterinarians and pet care providers. You’ll find pet supply stores in most neighborhoods and malls, and you can even take your dog to daycare for a playdate. Your dog will also enjoy long walks along the linear river parks and in Parque Paraíso. And there are plenty of opportunities to adopt dogs and cats from several different animal rescues in Cuenca. Check out our recent article, Ecuador Pet Care, Pet Sitting & Pet Food for more on this topic.
Cuenca Has LOTS of Fun & Entertaining Things To Do
If you’re an activity-oriented person, Cuenca will NOT disappoint! There are tons of things to do in Cuenca! You’ll find lots of museums to visit, like the Inca ruins at Pumapungo and the Museum of Modern Art in San Sebas. Cuenca has great walking tours, river walks, restaurants, social gatherings, music events, and more. Plus, a short 2o minute cab ride will deliver you to the hot springs in Baños Azuay southwest of Cuenca for a relaxing day of soaking in the therapeutic waters and pampering in the spas.
There are LOTS of Amazing Day Trips Around Cuenca
Cuenca is centrally located near several of Ecuador’s incredible natural and historical sights like El Cajas National Park with its herds of photogenic llamas. You might also enjoy the waterfalls of Girón, the handmade guitar makers in San Bartolomé, the filigree jewelry in Chordeleg, the orchid farm in Gualaceo, the indigenous market in Cañar, the church built into the side of a mountain in Biblión, or the Inca & Cañari ruins in Ingapirca. And if you’re really brave, you’ll love mountain climbing at Cojitambo in Azogues! All of these attractions and more can be enjoyed on day trips from Cuenca!
Cuenca Has High Quality Medical Care & English-Speaking Doctors
Medical and dental tourism in Cuenca is rapidly growing in popularity due to the availability of high quality care at a very affordable price. Many medical practitioners speak fluent English and most trained in the US, Europe, Argentina or Chile so they’re well educated and knowledgeable about the current science and procedures. Most private hospitals and newer public hospitals also have the same modern equipment that you would see anywhere in the US. If you have chronic health conditions or you’re just getting older, you may appreciate having Cuenca’s high quality medical care at your fingertips.
Cuenca Has a Large Variety of Delicious Restaurants & Cuisines
Dining out at restaurants in Cuenca is not only delicious, but varied and affordable. You can find most cuisines, such as Indian, Italian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, American, Gourmet, Vegetarian, Vegan, and plenty of Ecuadorian. In addition to serving food that tastes amazing, you’ll also often find yourself taking pictures of the artistic creations put down in front of you because aesthetics are just as important as flavor to many chefs in Cuenca. You can buy an Ecuadorian lunch, called El Almuerzo, for $1.50 to $3 while most popular expat dinners will cost around $7 to $10 per person.
Cuenca Has Great Coffee Shops
Ecuador grows some of the best coffee in the world, and now they’re FINALLY opening coffee shops to serve it. Gourmet coffee shops are growing in popularity, especially in Cuenca. Goza Espresso Bar is Ecuador’s version of Starbucks and they have several locations in Cuenca with both indoor and outdoor seating. Café Ñucallacta and Yaw Ecuadorian Café are also tasty coffee shops with good atmospheres and outdoor seating. If you’re a Starbucks addict, you might be disappointed to learn that it hasn’t made its way to Ecuador, yet. However, you’re sure to enjoy the rich flavors and varied menus at Cuenca’s numerous coffee shops.
Cuenca Has Modern Grocery Stores & Several Large Mercados
If you want high quality, low cost fruits and vegetables, Cuenca’s large, rustic mercados are the best option. But if you’re looking for packaged and/or refrigerated items, or you prefer shopping in modern grocery stores, you’ll find plenty of those, too. The renovated Supermaxi in El Vergel is now like a Whole Foods in the US, and there are several other Supermaxi’s in Cuenca. Other modern grocery store chains in Cuenca are Akí and Coral Hipermercados, which is like a Super Walmart.
Cuenca Has Several Speciality & Organic Shops
Holistic living is very popular among Ecuadorians, who appreciate the value of non-pharmaceutical options to healthcare needs. You’ll find plenty of speciality and organic shops in Cuenca selling everything from fair trade chocolate to gluten free flour to CBD oil to cruelty free shampoo. Semilla Tienda Saludable (healthy seed shop) is one of our favorite stores and a great place to start your search for specialty items in Cuenca.
Cuenca Has Numerous Visa Agents
If you plan to stay in Ecuador past your 90 tourist visa, you’ll likely need to enlist the help of a qualified visa agent. While it is possible to get a visa on your own without help, the process has become much more complicated over the years and very nuanced. The rules and regulations are not clearly defined, so you may get different answers from different government representatives and the success of your application often comes down to the relationships your visa agent has cultivated. Since Cuenca has one of the largest expat populations in Ecuador, there are also a lot of visa agents to help you navigate the confusing process of getting a temporary resident visa. For more information about Ecuador visas, check out our article: Ecuador Temporary Resident Visas.
Major Drawbacks of Living In Cuenca
While Cuenca is quite possibly the best expat city in Ecuador, if not the world, it does have a few major drawbacks that may impact your decision to move there.
Cuenca sits at 8,400 feet (2.560 meters), which is well over a mile and a half above sea level. That means the air is very thin and the sun is very hot (when it makes a rare appearance). After an initial adjustment period of a few days to a week, most people have no long term effects from the elevation, but others aren’t as fortunate.
Common symptoms of altitude sickness (more aptly named elevation sickness) are dizziness, shortness of breath, skin flushing, nausea, vomiting, dehydration, headaches, forgetfulness, difficulty walking, drowsiness, and/or sleeplessness.
If you have spent time in high elevation cities without these symptoms, you will likely be just fine in Cuenca. However, if you’ve never spent time at a high elevation before, you won’t know if it affects you until you get there. If your body doesn’t adjust after a week, you may want to search for a lower elevation city.
Cool, Cloudy Weather
Cuenca sits just to the west of the Amazon jungle so all the moisture that evaporates on the eastern side of Ecuador is condensed into clouds when it hits the high Andes mountain range. Combine that with the high elevation in Cuenca and it’s a recipe for lots of cool, cloudy days.
During the cold/dry season from June through November, you’ll rarely see the sun for more than a few minutes at a time, and often not for days or weeks at a time. During the warmer/wet season from December through May, you’ll ironically get more sun between the rains, but it’s still very cloudy most of the time.
Cuenca is called the land of eternal spring, which elicits images of sunny days and green grass and blooming flowers, but it’s also cool and cloudy during spring, which is a more accurate interpretation of the term.
During the cold months, temperatures can dip below 40°F (4.5°C) at night and rarely go above 70°F (21°C) during the day. Central heating is very rare in Ecuador, so you might need space heaters and warm blankets to stay warm.
During the warm months, daytime temperatures are typically near 80°F (26.5°C) and rarely reach 90°F (32°C). If you’re a fair weather fan, the constant Seattle-like cool, cloudy weather in Cuenca may not be your cup of…coffee.
Too Easy to Speak English (If You Want to Learn Spanish)
While the large number of English-speaking Ecuadorians in Cuenca makes the transition to a new country and culture easier, it can also make it difficult to learn Spanish. It’s simply too easy to speak English in Cuenca so you may not feel enough pressure to learn the native language, and many expats don’t.
If your goal is to become fluent in Spanish, you might prefer one of the other popular expat destinations in Ecuador where English is not as common. Check out our article, Best Cities to Live in Ecuador for Expats to see where other expats choose to live.
The Drive Through Cajas to Get to Guayaquil
If you fly into Guayaquil on your way to Cuenca, or if you visit the coast from Cuenca, you’ll need to drive through El Cajas National Park.
On your first trip, you’ll be awestruck by the natural beauty. You might even appreciate some new angles and scenery on your second trip. But by the third time driving on the winding mountain two-lane highway and down through the cloud forest with zero visibility heading toward Guayaquil and the coastal region, you’ll be firmly over the 3 plus hour commute.
You can fly from Cuenca to Guayaquil, but the flights go through Quito so it will take much longer than driving and cost 10 times more than a buseta with Operazuatur and 20 times more than an interprovincial bus.
There simply is no easy way to get from Cuenca to Guayaquil or the southern Ecuadorian coast without driving through the nausea-inducing Cajas.
This isn’t a deal breaker for most expats, but it is an inconvenience that does get tiresome.
Is Cuenca Ecuador the BEST Expat City?
All things considered, if you don’t have issues with the elevation or the cool, cloudy weather, Cuenca is still the best expat city in Ecuador, especially for new expats. Cuenca’s modern conveniences, housing, healthcare and services make it an extremely easy place to land and get your feet wet if you’ve never lived abroad before.
After living in Cuenca for over 2 years, we decided to move to the coast, primarily because of my worsening altitude sickness and Amelia’s lack of appreciation for the dreary weather. If Cuenca was 4,000 feet (1.200 meters) lower in elevation and a bit warmer and sunnier, we may have never left.
We have no regrets about living there and we still feel like it is the best expat city in Ecuador, and maybe all of South America.
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