So, you’re considering living abroad in Ecuador? That’s a big decision!
You’ll be leaving your family, your friends and the life you’ve always known. And THAT can be terrifying! But it can also be exciting, adventurous and life changing!
According to a study conducted by Rice University in 2018, living abroad in one place for an extended period of time “increases self-concept clarity.”
Exposure to a new culture and a new way of doing things may lead you to question your long held beliefs and help you discover who you really are and what really matters to YOU apart from familial and societal pressures and traditions.
Living abroad can also significantly reduce your cost of living. To be honest, we didn’t move abroad because we wanted more self-clarity. We moved abroad because we couldn’t afford medical coverage or healthcare back in Denver, Colorado.
The self-clarity we’ve obtained after nearly 3 years of living abroad in Ecuador has just been an added benefit for us, and may be due to our lower financial stresses and clearer heads.
If you’re still on the fence about living abroad or you’re trying to decide between Ecuador and another popular expat destination, the criteria we used and the reasons that led us to choose Ecuador may help you make this tough decision.
This is Part 1 in our series about living abroad in Ecuador. If you would like to read the other articles, you can view all of them on our Start Here page.
Criteria To Help You Decide Where to Live Abroad
We researched a lot of popular expat destinations before choosing Ecuador. On the list of potential new homes abroad was: Mexico, Puerto Rico (not technically abroad, but definitely away), Belize, Costa Rica, Panama, Peru, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Portugal, Australia and New Zealand.
With so many popular places to choose from, we needed some sort of selection criteria to narrow down the options. Here is the list of criteria we used:
- Low Cost of Living
- High Quality & Affordable Healthcare
- Low Crime Rate
- Stable Government
- Stable Economy
- Stable Weather
- Stable Food Supply & Quality Food
- Easy to Get to/from the United States
- Similar Time Zone as the United States
- Expat Friendly
- Drinkable Tap Water
Applying this criteria to each expat destination helped us determine that Ecuador was the best fit for us.
Why Live Abroad in Ecuador?
Why should you live abroad in Ecuador? Why Not Panama or Colombia or some other popular expat destination?
There are so many amazing options for your new life abroad that it can be hard to decide which one is best for you. Here is the list of reasons that helped us decide to live abroad in Ecuador instead of any other expat destination:
Ecuador Is On the US Dollar
This was a big surprise to us. We didn’t realize any country other than the United States was on the US dollar until we started researching popular expat destinations and learned that Ecuador switched to the US Dollar in 2000 to increase economic stability.
Being on the dollar also made our expat transition easier because we don’t have to do currency conversions in our head and our American-earned dollars go a lot further in Ecuador due to the low cost of living.
In addition, the value of the currency doesn’t fluctuate like it does in other expat destinations. For years, the Mexican peso held steady around 10 pesos to $1 USD. As of March 17, 2020, the exchange rate is 23 pesos to $1 USD. If you have a local bank account in your expat country, your purchasing power changes as the exchange rate changes. And you have to constantly change the math in your head when buying things.
However, dollar coins are much more common and you’ll rarely see a dollar bill in Ecuador. The ATM machines dispense $20 bills, but businesses often don’t have change to break them. When you visit from the States, bring plenty of $1’s, $5’s and $10’s so vendors don’t have to run around looking for change.
You may also want to bring a few $2 bills. They’re considered lucky in Ecuador and they’ll make taxi drivers and vendors smile.
In addition to Ecuador, these countries are also on the dollar: East Timor, El Salvador, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and Zimbabwe.
Ecuador Has a Low Cost of Living
This was #1 on our list of criteria for living abroad so Ecuador’s low cost of living compared to the United States was very appealing to us.
Like so many Americans, we simply weren’t earning enough money to make ends meet as our cost of living outpaced our income.
Numbeo.com is a descent source of unscientific data on cost of living around the world. Since the data is self-reported by expats-on-the-ground, it’s not always reliable, but we found it to be mostly accurate based on our own experiences.
There are lots of countries that are less expensive than the US and Europe, and many of them are in South America.
The cost of cars and electronics are quite a bit higher here so you’ll pay more for anything with a motor or a plug, and the selection is much lower.
However, the cost of food, housing and other life essentials are about 1/3rd compared to the United States, while healthcare and medication are about 1/10th.
The cost of things may be high, but the cost of living is low.
Ecuador Has Excellent & Affordable Healthcare
Ecuador has a reputation for affordable and high quality healthcare. Bloomberg rated Ecuador 20th in the world for most efficient healthcare system among advanced economies while the United States was ranked 46th.
Following my two spinal surgeries, my insurance company dropped me. When I applied for a new plan, I was told it would cost $1,200/month plus a $12,000 deductible and 40% out of pocket with no maximum out of pocket.
That was not only unaffordable for us following a year of rehab and virtually no income from me, it was also a recipe for financial ruin if I ever do need another surgery. I simply wasn’t willing to put Amelia or myself in the position of filing for bankruptcy so late in life.
The thought of starting over financially in our 40’s or 50’s because of medical expenses was reason enough to leave the United States, but we also wanted to choose a country with high quality, as well as affordable, healthcare.
After living in Ecuador for nearly 3 years, we can confirm that not only is the cost far lower, but the quality of healthcare in Ecuador is actually higher than the United States. They have all the modern equipment you would expect to see in a doctor’s office or hospital. Some of it has actually been new to us!
My doctors and physical therapist all trained in the US or Europe, and they work together. They call each other to discuss my health and my progress in therapy to make sure I’m getting complete care.
When we need an appointment, we can usually see the doctor (not a physician’s assistant) the same day or the next day. We don’t need to wait weeks or months for an appointment.
Our dentist and eye doctor have state-of-the-art facilities, they’re more efficient and they provide better service than their counterparts back in Denver.
If healthcare is important to you, Ecuador is a great place to live abroad.
Ecuador Has a (Mostly) Stable Government
The United States government may be divided and our elected officials may not get much done, but American’s aren’t under constant threat of the government being overthrown.
However, that’s a daily reality in a lot of countries around the world, especially in Latin America where governments seem to change hands (sometimes violently) every few years.
In October 2019, we experienced our first taste of political turmoil in a Latin American country. The people joined together to protest the IMF austerity measures put in place by President Moreno, and the people won (at least for now). We filmed the protests for our lifestyle channel and were impressed with how unified and peaceful everyone was.
We wanted to live abroad in a country that has a history of government stability and a Republic that holds Democratic elections.
Ecuador Has a Stable Economy and Low Inflation
With an unstable government, you’ll often get an unstable economy. Venezuela used to be a popular expat destination because of its natural beauty, amazing beaches and low cost of living, but most expats fled Venezuela years ago due to its political and economic instability.
Venezuelan money now has such low purchasing power that it has more value as an art supply.
We wanted to live abroad in a country with a history of low inflation and a stable economy.
For the past several years, Ecuador’s inflation rate has been one of the lowest in the world, ranging from a little below to a little above 0%. That means the cost of most things hasn’t increased much over the past several years.
In 2018, a massive import tax was repealed, which lowered the cost of electronics and cars. However, we’ve seen a modest increase in rental costs for American-style housing geared toward expats and wealthy Ecuadorians as the demand for those properties outpaces the supply.
Ecuador Has a Low Crime Rate
Ecuador has a low crime rate compared to most Latin American countries and most major cities in the US, and crime has been on a steady decline since 2010.
The crime rate in the United States can’t really be considered “low” anymore, especially in bigger cities like Denver. We often felt unsafe walking home from dinner in Uptown.
However, we also didn’t want to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire. We wanted to choose a safe city in a safe country with a low crime rate.
Heading back to Numbeo.com for their analysis of crime in major cities around the world, Cuenca, Ecuador (as of 2020) is one of the safest cities, ranking 245 out of 393 where 1 is the most dangerous (Caracas, Venezuela).
Denver ranks 209, which is less safe than Cuenca, Ecuador. Guayaquil, Ecuador ranks 46 and Quito, Ecuador ranks 82.
The United States is home to 10 of the top 50 most dangerous cities in the world, including Baltimore, Memphis, Detroit, Albuquerque, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Oakland, Cleveland, New Orleans and Houston. All of these cities are more dangerous than Tripoli, Libya and Guadalajara, Mexico!
Most crime in Ecuador is petty theft so you always need to be aware of your surroundings and watch out for pickpockets. The majority of violent crimes are domestic in nature.
Ecuador Has Affordable Transportation
The low cost of public transportation in Ecuador was very important to us because we didn’t plan to buy a car. Neither of us like driving and we really didn’t like the cost of car ownership (payment, tags, taxes, insurance, parking, fuel, maintenance).
In Cuenca, a bus ride costs 31 cents and the minimum taxi fare is $1.50. We usually spend around $2 for a 10 minute taxi ride.
In Guayaquil, the minimum taxi fare is $5.
We can take a taxi from Olón to Montañita for $1.50 and buses cost 50 cents per ride along this stretch of coast.
We usually take a buseta from Operazuaytur between Cuenca and Guayaquil. As of early 2020, a ticket costs $14 and the trip takes 3 to 3 1/2 hours.
We usually take the CLP Bus between Guayaquil and Montañita/Olón. A ticket costs $6 and the trip takes about 3 hours.
You can also hire a private driver to take you between Guayaquil and Cuenca ($100) and between Guayaquil and Salinas ($60) or Montañita ($80).
Ecuador is a Short Plane Ride from the United States
We return to the US two or three times per year for work and family visits so having easy access to airports with direct flights to Miami, Atlanta and Houston is very convenient.
Amelia still works for the same company back in Denver; she just works online now. However, she occasionally needs to go back to Denver for meetings.
We also have aging families with several members in poor health. If we need to head back for an emergency, we wanted to be a short plane ride away and not halfway around the world.
Cuenca’s airport claims to be international, but you’ll need fly out of Quito or Guayaquil to get back to the States. A typical direct flight takes roughly 4 hours, which is about the same time as it takes to fly from LA to Atlanta.
Ecuador Is In the Same Time Zone as the United States
Amelia attends weekly meetings online and must be available during Denver office hours. I have web design clients from Washington DC to Hawaii and also need to be available during office hours.
Countries like New Zealand, Australia, Bali, Thailand and Vietnam would require us to work at night and sleep during the day, which we didn’t want to do.
Ecuador doesn’t observe daylight savings time so the time doesn’t change twice per year like it does in the United States.
From November to February, Ecuador is in the US Eastern Time Zone and from March through October, it’s in the US Central Time Zone. That makes it easy for us to work during normal business hours back in Denver.
Here’s a handy time zone map from TimeAndDate.com:
Ecuador Has Fast & Reliable Internet
As virtual workers, this is important to us, but not really an issue in most mainland countries around the world. The most unreliable internet access we’ve had was in India, followed closely by Denver.
In Cuenca, we had 50mb up and down for $56/month through Puntonet. Here on the coast of Ecuador in Olón at our condo near the beach, we have 75mb up and down for $55/month through Netlife. Both service providers provided the equipment and neither required a contract.
Ecuador Has Stable Weather
We were seriously considering Puerto Rico because a friend moved there from Denver, but as the oceans warm and hurricane intensity increases, we decided the weather was too unstable there.
Shortly after my friend moved to Puerto Rico, it was hit by Hurricane’s Irma and Marie, which left them without water and electricity for weeks. It has been several years and the island still hasn’t fully recovered.
We decided hurricanes were sufficient reason to rule out anyplace in the Caribbean, including Belize.
It has been cooler and rainier than normal in Ecuador since 2018, but the the weather is still more stable than other parts of the world.
On the coast (Guayaquil, Salinas, Montañita and Manta), temperatures are in the 60’s and 70’s (15 to 26 C) at night and the 70’s and 80’s (21 to 32 C) during the day with an occasional day in the low 90’s (32 to 35 C).
There has been a lot more rain than normal over the past few years, which has caused some flooding in low-lying areas, but Ecuador seems to be pretty well-equipped to handle water flow.
While the weather in Ecuador has been changing over the past few years, we don’t have to worry about tornadoes, hurricanes, ice storms or blizzards.
Ecuador Has Food Independence & Doesn’t Allow GMOs
Countries with a cold winter climate like the United States must ship a significant amount of their food from far away places and store it in refrigerated warehouses during the winter months. Most of the food for island countries must be brought via container ships, which can’t operate during hurricanes.
We wanted to live in a country that grew most of its own food year round and wasn’t dependent on foreign sources of food.
Nearly all of the fruits and vegetables we eat in Ecuador are grown by local farmers near to where we live. Beans and rice come from further away, but still inside Ecuador. That means we not only have food independence, but we also have a much smaller carbon footprint and lower overall environmental impact.
Ecuador imports things like vehicles, medicinal products, telecommunications equipment and electricity, but as much as 95% of the fruit grown in Ecuador is exported to countries in the northern hemisphere like the US and Russia. Most of the “food” imported into Ecuador is fed to livestock and not directly eaten by humans.
GMO crops, more accurately called genetically engineered (GE) crops, are banned in Ecuador. If a product is imported that contains GE ingredients, it must be clearly labeled. Since farmers are allowed to save their own seeds for use in future growing seasons, the price of food has remained low and small farms are still common.
Typical Ecuadorian vegetables would not sell very well in the US because they’re often very dirty, contain bugs, or have a plethora of bug bites taken out of them. They also aren’t very pretty or uniform in size, shape or color. They may not win a beauty contest, but they taste great just like they did when we were kids back in the States.
Ecuador Is Very Expat Friendly
This criteria wasn’t nearly as important to us as the others, but it was a consideration. We didn’t want to blaze a trail to a new expat destination that lacked English speaking service providers (like doctors) and expat-oriented services (like visa agents).
You’ll need a tourist visa to visit Ecuador for up to 90 days, which is issued at the airport upon your arrival. If you want to move to Ecuador, you’ll need to apply for a temporary resident visa, but they have a variety of different types to choose from so one is sure to fit your situation.
Since the laws are always changing and the visa process relies heavily on personal relationships with government employees, we recommend working with a visa agent like GringoVisas.com. They aren’t cheap, but they take the mystery out of the process and make sure things get done.
HINT: It’s easier if you start the visa process before you leave home in case you need to go to government or university offices in person to get all the necessary paperwork (like we did).
NOTE: The word “gringo” may be considered rude in some parts of the world, but it’s a term of endearment here in Ecuador. They don’t have a word for expat and the closest Spanish word is “extrañjero,” which translates to stranger or foreigner. We prefer gringo over stranger (danger) and often use it to refer to ourselves.
Expats (aka expatriates or immigrants) from places like the US, Canada and Europe bring a lot of money into Ecuador so the government has made it relatively easy to move here.
It is estimated that 100,000 Americans and 30,000 Europeans live in Ecuador spending roughly $1.5 billion per year on housing, food, tourism, restaurants, Spanish school, sales tax, etc.
While older and/or unhealthy expats have caused some strain on the healthcare system, many expats use very little in the way of public services and most are retired or work online so they don’t compete for jobs with Ecuadorians. It’s a win-win situation for Ecuador and for expats.
Cuenca may be the most expat-friendly city in Ecuador because of the large number of English-speaking Ecuadorians. Many of the doctors and other service providers speak English, making the transition easier and less scary. There are also a lot of expat-owned businesses and local businesses that cater to the large expat population in Cuenca.
During all of our travels throughout Ecuador, we have found the Ecuadorian people to be extremely friendly and welcoming. They love sharing their culture and history with us, and they seem to genuinely enjoy having us here.
Ecuador Is a Great Place to Learn Spanish
Learning Spanish is easier in Cuenca, Ecuador because people speak more slowly, have an easy to understand accent, and typically use more proper Spanish.
People in the coastal region of Ecuador have a different accent, which makes it more difficult to learn Spanish. It’s common to drop the letter “s” from words so “¿Quiere más?” (Do you want more?) sounds like “¿Quiere má?” (Do you want mom?). That can be confusing at first, but we’re getting used to it.
Cuenca Ecuador Is Very Walkable
When we sold our cars before we left home, we didn’t plan to buy another one. That meant we needed to be able to walk most places. One of the reasons we chose Cuenca, Ecuador as our landing zone was because it’s a very walkable city.
- El Centro
- San Sebas
- El Batán
- Don Bosco
- El Vergel
We lived in the neighborhood of El Vergel, which is on the south central side of the city. It took us 15 minutes to walk from our house near the Yanuncay River to Parque Calderon in El Centro. Nearly everything we needed could be found within a 20 minute walk of our house.
Gringolandia is located on the west side of Cuenca and is a popular part of the city with expats. It’s also about a 15 minute walk into El Centro or a short $2 cab ride.
The outer neighborhoods of Cuenca are also popular with expats, but it’s more convenient to have a car if you live outside the main area. It’s a $5 cab ride or a long bus ride from those areas.
- Ciudadela de los Ingenieros
- Colinas de Challuabamba
- San Joaquín
Xavier Montezuma, a native of Cuenca and owner of Apartamentos Otorongo, gave us a tour of the outer neighborhoods for our lifestyle channel. It gives you a nice overview of the city and feel for how diverse and beautiful it is.
The riverwalk trails along the 4 rivers that run through Cuenca were our favorite part of Cuenca’s walkability. The linear river parks are well maintained and full of beautiful flowers, trees and birds.
Cuenca Ecuador Has Drinkable Tap Water
This also wasn’t a top consideration for us because bottled water is available everywhere, as are filtration systems. However, we thought it would be nice to be able to drink the water or at least use it to wash our veggies.
The city water in Cuenca is chlorinated, which means it’s drinkable by Americans and Canadians. We found the taste of the water very refreshing; however, some expats choose to drink bottled water out of an abundance of caution.
The pipes in our neighborhood of El Vergel were all replaced with PVC while we lived there, but much of Cuenca still has old pipes that may not be 100% sealed.
Whether you choose to drink the tap water or not, it’s still safe to wash your produce in it, which is something we really miss now that we live on the coast. We buy 5-gallon jugs of water for drinking and boil water to wash our produce. It’s a bit of a hassle, but the beach and sunsets more than compensate!
Ecuador Is a Beautiful & Diverse Country
There aren’t many places in the world where you can hike in a rainforest, climb a snow capped mountain and lay on a sandy beach within 24 hours, all without getting on an airplane. You can do all of these things in Ecuador, plus Ecuador is home to the Galapagos Islands, the birthplace of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.
The eastern third of Ecuador is home to the western side of the Amazon Rainforest. Native tribes still live there and fiercely protect their ancestral lands. Many have embraced the tourism industry so you can take a cruise down the headwaters of the Amazon River to remote villages and stay in lodges equipped with modern conveniences (like air conditioning).
Along the central third of Ecuador from north to south lies the Andes Mountain Range. With plenty of old-world, European-style cities, museums, symphonies, national parks, active volcanoes, hot springs and peaks over 20,000 feet (6.200 meters), there’s something to keep everyone entertained.
The western third of Ecuador borders the Pacific Coast. Sadly, most of the coastal biodiversity has been destroyed to make room for livestock grazing, fish & shrimp ponds and crops like bananas, cocoa (chocolate) and palm oil.
However, the coastal region is still incredibly beautiful and Ecuador’s beaches are some of the best in South America boasting indescribable sunsets. If you enjoy surfing, Montañita and Olón have amazing waves waiting to be caught!
Hopefully the criteria we used to evaluate all of our potential expat destinations and our analysis of Ecuador will help you make this tough decision, or spark some ideas for your own list of criteria. We’re very happy with our decision to live abroad in Ecuador, and we’re happy we started in Cuenca.
In Part 2 of this series, we’re going to share 15 Reasons NOT to Live Abroad in Ecuador (or Anyplace Else)…
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