Expat Adventure: Ecuador, Almost Heaven

by Miss Footloose

Have you heard? Ecuador is one of the world’s most affordable expat havens, 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 some of the cheapest real estate in South America. And you thought there was no heaven on earth?

So when looking for a new expat home, my man and I decided to have a look 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.

Ecuador Architecture

Beautiful archtecture


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.

Ecuador market

A heavenly market


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.

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!

In the fullness of time my prince and I moved to the south of France, where there is a lively sidewalk-café culture. Terraces abound, and  we love to spend warm evenings sitting outside enjoying a drink or have dinner with friends.

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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Thanks for sharing your experience in Cuenca. Although i don’t think you will find other towns and cities as charming and clean. Our family just moved outside of Quito for 13 months. 13monthsecuador.blogspot.com. And haven’t seen the same things you have, although we do enjoy our time. We will try to make it out to Cuenca and see the sights you listed. Thanks.

Lee Eisenstein

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


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.


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.


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?

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. 🙂

It does look, and sound, tempting!

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!


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

guyana gyal

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.

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.

maria altobelli

“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.

I SOOOO want to go there!!

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

maria altobelli

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… Read more »


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… Read more »

Nancy Atkinson

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!

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?


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.

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

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


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… Read more »

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