EXPAT ADVENTURE: ECUADOR, ALMOST HEAVEN

by missfootloose on October 23, 2010 · 28 comments

in adventure, Culture and Customs, Ecuador, Expat life

Have you heard? Ecuador is the world’s most affordable expat haven, a dorado of cool-weather mountains, tropical beaches and steamy jungles. There’s something for everyone: magnificent geography, fascinating culture, beautiful Spanish colonial architecture, and the cheapest real estate in South America. All this according to International Living. And you thought there was no heaven on earth?

So my man and I decided to have a look last month and explore heaven on earth. We spent two weeks, mostly in the old colonial town of Cuenca, a UN World Heritage site. It’s located south of Quito high in the spectacular Andes Mountains.

It’s a lovely town indeed, and I couldn’t get enough of the pretty buildings as you can see on the photos below.

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Walking around Cuenca, eating in a restaurant, and buying something in a shop, you’ll discover one thing immediately: The Ecuadorian people are warm, friendly, and easy going. As of course you expect in heaven.

Another thing we noticed right away was how clean the town was. No garbage anywhere. Garbage receptacles in the streets were used but never overflowing, and in the morning men in bright colored jumpsuits were picking up trash and sweeping parks and streets. Unfortunately the diesel fumes spewing forth from trucks and buses are not to be swept away, and didn’t charm me even a little bit. So, not quite heaven after all.

Cuenca is known as the cultural capital of Ecuador. Art exhibits, concerts, theater productions and other artistic events abound, often free to the public. Churches and museums are everywhere in the colonial center of town.

Cuenca also sports lots of restaurants, and we ate well and cheaply. What charmed me most, food-wise, was that all the fruits and vegetables God ever created were available – as they should be in (almost) heaven – some of which I’d never encountered before, and, as my loyal readers know, Miss Footloose has been around.

Tamarillos (tomatos de arbol, tree tomatoes)

The juice made from the tamarillos is delicious.

The markets are a joy for a foodie’s eye, each fruit section a symphony of color, shape and texture. Because of the many micro climates, from steamy tropical to high-mountain cool, you’ll find pineapples sitting next to strawberries all year around, and nothing has been schlepped across an entire continent to get to the markets. There’s even a market for organic produce, open Saturday mornings.

The Feria Libre market is huge and I could spend hours there looking at all the fascinating produce, meats, household articles, and vendors (not for sale). It is organized, spacious, and clean – not a fly in sight. I mean it. (I even looked for them and they were not there.) I love the steamy, malodorous Makola market in Ghana, West Africa, but these two are not cousins.

Finding the expat tribe was not difficult. Many members will gather for a drink on Friday nights at their present watering hole at Zoe’s. We were there twice and met some fun people. On Thursday and Sunday mornings you’ll find a gang having breakfast at a great little café, the Kookaburra, run by Aussies Chris and Jenny, who also have a few lovely rooms for rent. The food is good, the atmosphere congenial and you’ll make instant connections.

Cuenca is home to several universities, Spanish language schools, and modern hospitals. These hospitals are excellent, so I read. Fortunately we had no need to personally research this. However, others we spoke to had availed themselves of the hospital (and dental) services and the healthcare is said to be first class. As it should be in (almost) heaven. So, I have no horror stories to report and I apologize. I know how much we all enjoy those.

I loved strolling around the town and sitting in the parks, watching the people. Mostly people are, well, a bit short. As far as clothes go, the adults look smart, as the Brits would say. The business types are attired in well-tailored suits and proper ties. The teens look much like they do anywhere else sporting jeans and sneakers, unless they’re in their school uniforms, which I am sure are loathed with a passion, especially by the teenage girls.

School uniforms, not the latest fashion.

Most Ecuadorians are of mixed Indigenous and European heritage, but a significant percentage of the country’s population is pure Indigenous, and I enjoyed watching the women in their colorful clothes walking the streets, babies tied on their backs, and panama hats or baseball caps on their heads. Especially the bright traditional skirts were a feast for the eye. Heavy gathering at the waist creates abundant loose folds that swing jauntily back and forth around the knees as the women move. I found the baseball caps a nice touch of modernity.

Although located on the equator, the high elevation gives Cuenca a climate that is spring-like all year. This means it’s cold when you get up in the morning and you need your woollies and a space heater. By ten it’s beginning to be quite lovely and the afternoons are heavenly with temps in the 70’s F / low 20’s C. Unfortunately it starts cooling down early and it’s dark by 6. You need your jeans and a jacket again. There’s no romantic sitting outside on a balmy evening savoring a glass of wine or eating a leisurely meal in anticipation of a bit of sensual dallying later on. (Sorry, I’m a romance writer. It just slipped through).

We made a trip into the countryside, which was stunningly beautiful with its majestic mountains and verdant farmland. (I know my writing is cliché-ish, but words often fail me when I’m emotionally incapacitated by the grandeur of nature. I hope you’ll forgive me.) Fascinating also was our short hike into a damp, lush cloud forest where a waterfall just left me gobsmacked with wonder.

So, what do I think of Ecuador? Really, you should ask an expat who actually lives there, has bought a dwelling place, set up house, dealt with repairmen, and so on. Clearly, my two weeks in Cuenca only gave me the smallest of glimpses of life there, so my opinion is of no consequence. However, it’s all I have so I’ll give it to you anyway:

I loved it. I’d like to explore more of the country, see the tropical coast, go to the Galapagos Islands. I’d love to live in Cuenca for a few months and try it out: take Spanish classes, join the dance club, learn cooking the regional cuisine at the house of real-life local resident. Stuff like that.  One thing is certain:  There is no reason to ever be bored in Ecuador.

The negatives? Well, these are always subjective and personal, and in my case no doubt trivial, irrational and shallow, but what can you expect after only two weeks? But if you really want to know, here they are: The mentioned diesel fumes from buses and trucks were hard to take, especially when breathing in. Also, I’m a bit shaky about the threat of earthquakes. And, sigh, my European heart just craves a sidewalk-café culture, and sadly it’s not there in Cuenca. Maybe on the coast!

NOTE: Interested in checking out Ecuador?  Here’s an excellent site with lots of practical info by expat Dixie:  Retire In Ecuador

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Where would you like to live if you had a choice? What’s your paradise? What sort of lifestyle appeals to you?

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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Laura in Cancun October 23, 2010 at 11:08 am

GORGEOUS pictures!!! I love the waterfall :) I’m surprised to hear about the lack of sidewalk cafes… they have the perfect setting for it!

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Alan April 22, 2013 at 3:54 pm

The streets in Cuenca are tight and narrow, as they have made every attempt to maintain the colonial heritage. This is a part of what has made the city a Treasure to Mankind as certified by UNESCO. As such, narrown streets barely allow for sidewalks of any width, much less to sport sidewalk cafes.

However, one such exception would be the Coffee Tree Cafe, located on the corner of Borrero and Larga, two of the main streets of Cuenca. It’s a great hangout, and has a great number of tables PLUS air heaters outside to help take some of the chill from the evening air. You can read a little more info at my site so check it out.

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Madame DeFarge October 23, 2010 at 12:54 pm

Looks fabulous, even with the threat of earthquakes. Love the buildings.

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GutsyWriter October 24, 2010 at 10:59 am

I am so happy to hear your positive story on Cuenca. It does look very clean and the people look happy and not poor. I would prefer to live in a warmer climate though. Having the “perfect” Danish summer day, all year, is not warm enough for me. The view of the jungle and waterfall, is more what I would like from my house. Perhaps, I’m no longer a city person. I like to get away to the quiet areas. Enough city in the suburbs of LA. Great account. Are you home now?

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Alan April 22, 2013 at 3:58 pm

You may want to check out Banos, as it is at the enterance of what is known as, the Doorway to Amazonia and not far from Puyo. Banos has some amazing waterfalls and thermal pools. As an added attraction and excitement, there is also the volcano Tungurahua which just erupted again in March. Feel free to check out many of the cities in Ecuador on my website.

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Nancy Atkinson October 24, 2010 at 11:19 am

This place sounds wonderful – if you can stay apart from the diesel fumes. We are seriously considering an ex-pat lifestyle, at least for a while, after my husband retires, so I’m enjoying your blog very much. Thanks!

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maria altobelli October 24, 2010 at 10:56 pm

Great photos and account of your visit. Ecuador has always been an option for us if we get tired of Mexico and decide to go further south rather than across the pond to Latvia and Southern Italy.

I believe that just a few days after you left, Miss Footloose, Ecuador erupted in a police riot where the President was basically held prisoner in a hospital. It was believed in many sources that the riot was provoked by anti-government forces.

Political instability can add a certain sense of purgatory or even hell to ex-pat living.

Another aspect of a country with a reputed 38% of its population living below the poverty line is that foreigners tend to congregate with other foreigners or highly paid people in gated communities where rents are not cheap. We’ve know of several expats who were paying over a thousand bucks a month for an apartment. Companies routinely shell out over two thou for their foreign employees.

Not to put a damper on anyone’s dreams—hey, we still consider Ecuador as an option—but one should always look to the other side of heaven if choosing a place to relocate to before burning bridges.

One thing I love in your account is the absence of garbage in Cuenca. Yeah, exhaust fumes are the pits but clean streets are a nice fantasy for me.

Enjoyed the article a great deal.

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Alan April 22, 2013 at 4:15 pm

Just for the record, I was in Quito when this so called “kidnapping” took place. Let me say with no hesitation, this was as good of a performance as any. The ensuing “pitched battle” to regain the so called freedom of the President, was one fought with rubber bullets, appearing for all intents and effect as though it were the real deal. It was not.

It was telecast only on government controled T.V. until protesters managed to break in and allow input as to what was really going on. This did not make International News. All these protesters were jailed or forced to flee the country.

That’s just to set the record somewhat straighter.

As a previous resident for ten years, and returning to live in 2014, having made successive visits yearly since leaving in 1984, I can say that there is life to be lived in Ecuador. There is a good reason it has been nominated as the #1 place to retire to for four years in a row! That just means you don’t have to take my word for it.

As for housing, living in Quito can be expensive, as residents have gotten used to foreign companies paying exhorbiant prices for rentals. There are even better opportunities once one is in country and has the chance to begin looking. The real estate business in Ecuador is not remotely like anything in the U.S., which baffels most expats.

Everything is relative in Ecuador. If you want to become part of the warp and fabric of the country, then you will look for ways to do that. Yes, there are those who want to do exactly what is abhored in the U.S., where the cliques develop into their nown communities, with little desire to “do in Rome…” To each their own. It seems like if someone is going to make a drastic change, they should be willing to start a new book, not just turn the page.

These are just thoughts, not even opinions.

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Lady Fi October 24, 2010 at 11:49 pm

What wonderful shots – it looks very pretty indeed! I’ve always wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands!

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MartyrMom October 25, 2010 at 12:23 am

I SOOOO want to go there!!

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missfootloose October 25, 2010 at 2:28 am

@ Laura in Cancun: Yes, I kept wondering why there weren’t any sidewalk cafes, at least for the lunch and afternoon hours. It’s just not part of the culture, I guess.

@ Madame DeFarge: The buildings are very old and apparently have not suffered from earthquakes, but it’s that kind of area, and there are volcanoes too, so being from flat Holland, I’m a bit queasy about it.

@ Gutsy Writer: I agree about the weather, actually, a perfect Danish summer day being much like a perfect Dutch summer day — on the cool side. Also, I would prefer living in a quiet country setting, however the drawback is that it’s hard to make connections and get a social life if you arrive without knowing anyone.

@ Nancy Atkinson: I hope you’ll find your perfect place! Glad you like my stories.

@ Maria Altobelli: The reason we checked out Cuenca is that most of the expats live among the locals, not in gated communities. Even the nice new apartment building called Expatlandia is occupied mostly by Ecuadorians. Costa Rica is now known as “Miami South.” Some of the expat towns look very American with strip malls and Pizza Huts and every other American fast food joint you can think of. Along the coasts huge expat communities have sprung up or are in the process of being developed, all gated, with all sorts of amenities, all purely expat. On the coast in Ecuador some of these gated expat developments are also appearing, but our preference is to live within a local community, and enjoy learning about it.

We were already gone when the political upheaval occurred, but from what we heard from the people in Cuenca we contacted, was that it was highly blown up in the media. As usual. Whenever we are overseas and something happens, we are surprised what the media often makes of it.

@ LadyFi: If you ever get to the Galapagos Islands, you’ll do great things with your camera!

@ MartyrMom: I hope you make it some day! Of course there are lots of other great places as well . . .

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maria altobelli October 27, 2010 at 10:04 pm

“from what we heard from the people in Cuenca we contacted, was that it was highly blown up in the media. As usual.”

Can’t agree with that comment more. Living in Mexico, we see that happening all the time, with a crippling effect on the economy—much of which is based on tourism.

I didn’t know that about Cuena—that most of the expats live among the locals. That intrigues me a great deal since it has always been the way we like to live as well.

Hmmm. Maria hustles off to ponder the next trip.

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MaryWitzl October 25, 2010 at 3:37 pm

Where might I want to live next? After reading this account, Ecuador has suddenly jumped way up on the list. Earthquakes seem like a small price to pay for the privilege of living in a place with waterfalls like that!

Having no sidewalk cafes would be rough, but you ought to try Scotland, where they actually put tables out even when the chance of people being able to use them without getting frostbite is close to nil. A ringing-wet, whipping, punishing wind scouring the streets takes all the fun out of sitting outside.

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Miss Footloose October 27, 2010 at 8:54 am

Sitting outside does require a certain temperature and a bit of sunshine for me. Holland is much like Scotland about setting out tables. People will sit outside in their winter coats sometimes, even when it’s warm inside. Some larger terraces now will have wind-screens and huge heaters, just so people will be able to sit outside. That’s culture too ;)

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guyana gyal October 28, 2010 at 4:01 pm

I was thinking…BLISS. Then I read about the exhaust fumes. When, oh when oh when, will we clean up that stuff? For asthmatic people [like myself], that spells [smells like] trouble.

I want to live on a mountaintop, with the sea at the foot of the mountain, somewhere far, where there are not many cars, trucks, SUVs. Is there such a place? Ooh, yes, there’s Portland, Jamaica…okay, in the town, you’ll find traffic, but there are places at the top of the hills that spell pure bliss.

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missfootloose November 11, 2010 at 6:24 pm

Portland Jamaica? Oh, I have to look into that place. Actually, I am beginning to think I want something in a coastal area, but again, not too busy, and . . . sometimes we want too much!

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Nova Walsh November 2, 2010 at 5:39 am

Beautiful post! I’m jealous – I’ve been wanting to go to Central/South America for years but haven’t made it yet. Ecuador looks fantastic – if I had a choice for a place to live long term I might seriously consider this based on your descriptions and photos (which were amazing by the way). Loved the market pictures and description too – there’s nothing like going to a food market to get to know a place!

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missfootloose November 11, 2010 at 6:26 pm

I love markets, especially food markets, and they really do give a picture of the local culture. I hope you make it to South America some time!

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Alan April 22, 2013 at 4:19 pm

Please checkout my website for some amazing places in Ecuador to visit.

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Welshcakes Limoncello November 6, 2010 at 6:25 pm

It does look, and sound, tempting!

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FutureExpat November 11, 2010 at 3:38 pm

You’ve given us a wonderful glimpse of Cuenca. I love the photo of the market — foodie heaven indeed! I’m with you on the cafe culture, though. It’s high on my list of requirements for my expat destination. As is lack of diesel fumes. :-)

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missfootloose November 11, 2010 at 6:30 pm

We may go back and check out the coastal area, which has a tropical climate, I’ve read, and maybe there’s a cafe culture there. I’ll let you know ;) I’ve lived in the tropics before, and am not so fond of the sticky humidity, so I have no great hopes. I am just too picky for my own good! I’ll look forward to hearing where you will decide to go!

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Pam February 22, 2011 at 6:59 am

I am on the verge of liquidating our assets, quitting my perfect nursing job at age 55 and moving to Ecuador with my already retired husband.
Is it true that we can survive on 16,000$ per year? We would go with just backpacks, find short term rental, explore country, then decided where to root. Definity live amongst locals and avoid gated communities. We would go for a few weeks before we actually signed our house away in order to establish connection for rentals and truly check out cost of living. What else should I be thinking about?

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missfootloose February 22, 2011 at 12:48 pm

I spent two weeks in Ecuador on vacation. I am definitely not the person to ask! There are blogs and yahoo groups by/with people who actually live in Ecuador who might offer good advice. I do know there is a lot of hype about how cheap and easy it is to live in Ecuador, so it sounds to me that you need to do more research before making the leap. Good luck!

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Anne May 15, 2012 at 10:05 pm

My kids moved there last October have a local hospital horror story (also, do not eat fresh pineapple from street vendors) AND have found a sidewalk tapas/pastry cafe they love – so you can find it all in Cuenca! :) They have great coffee, but many restaurants serve only instant coffee, and things like good chocolate, cheese, & refrigerated milk can be found with some searching. We are visiting & bringing cranberry sauce for their next Thanksgiving.

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Lee Eisenstein October 6, 2012 at 8:42 pm

Where in coastal Latin America, can one find street cafe culture?

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missfootloose October 13, 2012 at 12:36 pm

Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay . . . and I expect many others.

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Alan April 22, 2013 at 4:21 pm

Salinas, Montanita, and many other costal cities in Ecuador. For that matter you can find a multitude of such places in Quito, obviously not on the coast, but just for the record.

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