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.
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?