Dateline: Cuenca, Ecuador

“Expats, a phenomenon that goes on and on.”

This comment appeared on the website belonging to Salcora Inmobliaria, a real estate agent in Cuenca, Ecuador. The writer notes that the expat phenomenon gained momentum in 2007 and that an estimated 3,500 United States expats have formed a “vibrant colony” in Cuenca.

The “colony factor” contributes to the momentum. There is even a neighborhood called “Gringolandia,” where high-rise buildings are “a thing.” Relocating to Cuenca, Ecuador has become a trend.

Is it a trend worth following? Read on.

Expat support system in Cuenca, Ecuador

“The expats down here have strong ties of solidarity with their countrymen, and are quickly welcomed and clothed from the day they arrive by the remaining members of the American community.” — Salcora Inmobliaria

Combined with the fact that Ecuador uses the US dollar as its monetary system, Cuenca might offer a comfortable environment for the US expat, especially for those who wish to be “clothed from the day they arrive by the remaining members of the American expat community.”

The folks at Internations, an organization that hosts expat events in different countries, would probably agree. Ranking Ecuador as the top expat destination of 2014, they note that 82 percent of expats “find it easy to settle down and feel at home in Ecuador.”

In Cuenca, the local Chamber of Commerce seems to bend over backward for its expats. There’s even a branch of the chamber, called Cuenca for Expats, which assists in all matters pertaining to daily living and immigration. It even hosts a special Expat Day celebration.

While support systems are nice, what is it that draws expats to Cuenca in the first place?

An International Living superstar

Where International Living leads, expats follow. This year, Ecuador is Numero Uno on International Living’s 2015 Global Retirement Index. Their choice was based on:

  • Cost of living
  • Real Estate and rental prices
  • Climate
  • Infrastructure
  • Health Care
  • Transportation
  • Benefits for seniors, including special discounts

With rentals priced as low as $250 a month, the cost of living is low. For those who choose to buy, the Ecuador real estate market has some excellent buys. However, it’s not just cheap living that brings people to Cuenca.

Living in Cuenca

Often called the “Athens of the Andes,” Cuenca is known and adored for its incredible architecture, its spring-like climate and its friendly people. Some people say that Cuenca’s Spanish Colonial architecture evokes images of a classic, European city.

Meander through El Centro, and you can’t help but marvel at the quaint, flower-filled wrought-iron balconies and the red-tiled rooftops. Sip coffee at a cafe along the tree-lined Parque Abdon Caldero, or spend an afternoon at an open-air market.

Yes, this could easily be Europe.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site

As if that was not enough, the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Site status proves that boredom is conspicuous by its absence in Cuenca. Its fine selection of museums and historic attractions includes:

  • The Museo del Sombrero, where you can learn how to make your own Panama hat. (Panama hats are actually made in Ecuador, not Panama!)
  • Museo del Monasterio de las Conceptas, a cloistered convent erected in 1599
  • Museo Pumapungo, which displays traditional costumes of Ecuador’s indigenous cultures
  • The Museo del Banco Central, where you’ll discover everything from colonial art to Ecuadorean currency to botanical gardens
  • The Ingaprica—the largest Incan ruins in Ecuador, is a short drive from town

Clean living in Cuenca

Then, there’s the cleanliness. Expats Clarke and Brenda note: “Cuenca has literally brigades of street sweepers, and that is who the blue coverall people are. Sometimes it is orange coveralls or green. I don’t know the difference. But there are always people cleaning the city. And it shows.”

An active recycling program and drinkable tap water add to the appeal.

Conveniences are plentiful in Cuenca. The city boasts 18 hospitals, four universities that attract an international student body, a major supermarket and a gigantic shopping mall. As a walkable city with an excellent public transportation system, it’s possible to live car-free in Cuenca.

Altitude: The Cuenca Caveat

Cuenca, Ecuador enjoys a prime location in the Andes mountains, at an elevation of 8,200 feet. Let’s stop right here. For some, this is akin to a heavenly environment. For others, it’s a deadly destination.

High altitude living can trigger serious health risks in certain individuals. If you have any history of heart disease or other respiratory issues, you might not find Nirvana in Cuenca.

Cuenca, Ecuador real estate

An article in the New York Times notes that the housing market in Ecuador has been “supercharged for the last five years, with home prices appreciating annually by 10 to 12 percent.”

However, home prices are anywhere from 50 to 100 percent cheaper than what you might pay in other parts of South and Central America. Also, the government has put new regulations in place that will stabilize prices for the next few years.

While there are no restrictions on foreign homebuyers in Ecuador, bank mortgages are almost impossible to obtain. It’s a cash market, so you will need to have your financing in place before you even think about buying.

Lawyers are not mandatory in the home-buying process, but if you don’t speak Spanish, it’s best to hire a bilingual attorney.

Legal fees for real estate transactions typically cost $850. Brokers who were interviewed for the Times article advise that way foreign homebuyers can protect their investment by limiting their purchases to properties that can be registered at the Real Estate Public Registry.

Closing costs range from about 1.5 to 2.5 percent of the purchase price. In Cuenca, the seller pays the broker’s fees.

The high rise boom

In dramatic contrast to the quaint colonialism of Cuenca, a high rise boom is spreading in certain parts of the city. These buildings have a doorman and 24-hour security, fitness centers, movie rooms and the type of services you would expect to find in a luxury condo on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

The Cuenca Real Estate Market Report notes that “Costs for new two-bedroom apartments with nice tile and wood finishings, average between $80,000 and $105,000. A new 3-bedroom, 2-bath unit, with spectacular views of the city and mountains, ranges from $95,000 to $130,000.”

You could not buy a closet for that amount in New York City… or any other falling US market!

Smart investors might might want to look at the growing expat influx to Cuenca, Ecuador, and take advantage of this potential market.

Lisa Mercer
Last updated: Aug 19, 2021 at 8:12AM