Becoming Cuenca

It’s a Different Type of an American (Expat) in Cuenca

Apr 15, 2023

Lifehacker is an online how-to guide for almost anything. Owned by the digital-media giant Ziff Davis, Lifehacker recently had a piece entitled, “The 7 Deadly Sins of Being an American Tourist Overseas.”

Stephen Johnson wrote, “In the name of all that is good and holy, stop acting dumb when you visit other people’s countries. I know all American tourists don’t act like oafs overseas, but enough do to make the stereotype of the “ugly American” common and lasting.”

He was writing about a group of people that can make it bad for everyone else. It is a fear that many of my American friends in Cuenca have as we all worry about those Ugly Americans ruining it for everyone else.

This term is nothing new as people from the United States have had the reputation for decades. Rick Steves said, “The Ugly American criticize strange customs, cultural differences, and “invades a country while making no effort to communicate with the natives.”

The ugly term has depicted an American overseas as too loud, too ostentatious, or too arrogant. Even too cheap. Sometimes it is all of them.

The colloquialism has morphed from the 1958 political novel, “The Ugly American,” by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick. And it is often applied today to Americans.

Johnson said that what makes an Ugly American is expecting things to be like the United States; not trying to speak the local language a little bit; “dressing stupid,” being confrontational; and not learning basic customs.

The whole concept of the Ugly American is a bitter pill to swallow for my wife, my friends in Cuenca, and for me. For us, it’s easier to understand the reasons why some might not be so keen on befriending Americans. We have seen it firsthand overseas.

But that term seems to not apply in Cuenca.

Or should I say it applies to very few Americans living in Cuenca.

It is why I recently wrote an article for CuencaHighLife, entitled, “No ‘Ugly Americans’ here!: Cuenca expats come together to help beloved taxi driver repair his car.”

My goal was to show the world that there are good Americans in this world, and that Cuenca was a great place for compassionate and respectful U.S. citizens to live and enjoy life.

On top of that, I wanted to help my friend, German Zhina. The Ecuadorian has been a taxi driver in Cuenca for a decade… until February 13th at 1 p.m.

Many Americans in Cuenca forego a car. One reason is the cost. According to the latest research from AAA, the average yearly cost to own and operate a new vehicle in the United States in 2022 is $10,728, or $894 per month. We walk almost everywhere in Cuenca and save that money. When we need a ride, a taxi usually sets us back less than three dollars.

That is why German Zhina picked up three Americans at the Guayaquil airport. It is not unusual for a hired driver from Cuenca go 200 km. / 125 miles to Guayaquil to get their passengers.

These days, with the landslides and major detour at Km-49, it takes around four hours each way. The drive is beautiful but can be treacherous.

“I was in the middle of the Cajas, coming back from Guayaquil with my three passengers. There are always surprises on the Cajas highway, including fog and high water on the road,” German told me.

In a large curve, in the middle of the Cajas mountains, German hit some mud on the road. Recalling the horrifying moment, German told me, “The car started sliding sideways, and then the car went back and forth.”

When he started describing what happened, it reminded me of being a student at Washington State University, driving back to Pullman via Snoqualmie Pass in the middle of a blizzard. Like German, I slid and was about to go off a cliff, when I did some magic with my Subaru and its five-speed transmission.

To this day, that scene puts a chill down my spine, so I know what German went through.

“I knew I had three people in my car,” said Zhina. “They were my concern.”

Like my Cascade Mountains experience, German had to do something quickly to prevent a tragedy.

“I hit two powers poles head on,” said German. “It was either going off the cliff or hitting them with the front end of my car.”

The air bag deployed, and the taxi car started filling up with smoke. Right after safely vacating the heavily damaged taxi, an Ecuadorian driver pulled up and asked if they needed any help. Looking out for his passengers, German asked if he could take them to a hospital. They were more important than his car and wellbeing.

That crash took a toll on his car at his mechanic told German it would cost $7,000 to repair, and that did not include the $4,000 airbag for his Suzuki SX4 S-Cross.

Auto insurance?

I asked German that question, and he told me that he did not have any auto insurance as the annual premiums are $1,200. That is a lot of money to an Ecuadorian as full coverage car insurance in the U.S. costs about 67 percent more.

And Americans make almost four times as much per month than an Ecuadorian.

“Of course, we would love to help,” said Lin. She is my wife’s very good friend upstairs, who hails from Washington state. Lin and her husband, Rick, moved here in 2018.

“I want to be there for German because he has been there for me during one of the most difficult times in my life, always with a smile, a laugh, and friendship,” said Jo Ellen. I have known Jo Ellen since I moved here. The native Californian moved to Cuenca in 2013.

“I organized the fundraising event for German as I know that coming up with thousands of dollars for a local guy was not going to be easy,” said Madelaine, a native of New York, who made Cuenca her home seven years ago.

We are all retired and have a fixed income, but none of them nor my wife and I had no problem helping German out. None of us gave it a second thought.

“We know German through L&S Artisan Meats. We are absolutely thrilled that we could participate in supporting German,” Lin told me.

That is how Joanna and I met German. We buy a good portion of our meats from L&S Artisan Meats, in northern Ecuador. We make the purchase online, and the meats are bused overnight to Cuenca. At the bus station, German picks up everyone’s meat and delivers it to their homes.

Joanna and I live on a one-way street. About two years ago, the city changed the direction of the street without any announcement. No one knew, including German. When he approached our street to go down it, German found a solution: Back up it.

After doing this several times for our meat orders, I went onto the street one time and pretended to be an aircraft marshaller. They are the ones who lead aircrafts to their parking stands or to the taxiway. As German got close, I crossed my arms for him to stop. And he did… just inches from me.

Another time I saw German at the end of the street. I whipped out my smartphone and recorded him backing up for a half-block. He laughed as he went by, and we had a great laugh together after he got out of his car.

For the record, what German was doing on our street is legal in Ecuador. He told me that in his required six months of professional driving school to be a taxi driver, he was told one can back up a one-way street if one is careful. I guarantee you that German is always careful on our neighborhood street.

German told me a story one time about two Ugly Americans. He picked up two women and drove them to their destination. His meter read $1.46 for the very short trip. The two women gave German $1.50 and he pocketed the money as it is standard and appropriate to pay a minimum fare of $1.50 for your ride.

Joanna and I always add at least 50 cents so we would have given German or any other taxi driver in the city two dollars.

Not these two Ugly Americans! The two women demanded that German give them four cents. Of course, German obliged the request from the Ugly Americans.

The very next time German delivered our meats, I gave him our usual tip, though it is not required. We feel that is the right thing to do. After pocketing our tip, I exclaimed, “Where’s my four cents?!?”

Both of us had a huge belly laugh.

And I did not get four cents back as German knew I am not one of those Ugly Americans.

This story is being mentioned to say there are some bad apples, but most expats in Cuenca are people you want to be around. We are not hated by the Cuencanos, nor do they wish we would go home.

This is not true of all places. In May 2022, the Los Angeles Times ran a lengthy article entitled, “Portugal, the New Expat Haven. Californians, Please Go Home.” Many Americans have flocked to Portugal as the newest and hip place to retire and live.

The type of American going to Portugal appears to be different than the one who heads to three degrees south. I can read between the lines, and you certainly can, too. The Ugly American has made Portugal their new home.

How successful was the lunch fundraiser for German at Black Angus Bistro restaurant?

“The event netted German $2,500, which included a $1,000 donation from a friend who prefers to remain anonymous,” said Madelaine. A total of 37 American expats had lunch with another 30 expats just donating money.

Jo Ellen and two of her American friends in Cuenca tried GoFundMe, a for-profit crowdfunding platform that allows people to raise money. Unfortunately, new security measures on GoFundMe prevented them from opening an account from Ecuador.

They ended up using one person’s PayPal account and Jo Ellen volunteered her contact information to collect money. She said, “We love German, and we will ensure the money goes where the need is greatest. Thanks to everyone who can help, even a little.”

My CuencaHighLife article helped get the word out. It was by far my most popular article of the 55 I had written for the online English-speaking newspaper. Apparently, it touched many expats in Cuenca.

After reading my article, an American expat said, “Many hands make light loads. It is a pleasure to contribute to someone who has given so much to us. Thanks, German.”

As expected, an Ugly American reared his ugly head: “So, expats can’t criticize dysfunctional elements of a culture? Even locals are doing that!”

He had missed the point of my article and just wanted to justify his negativity.

But an American expat did not. She quickly responded to the Ugly American: “It’s not so much the criticism as the way in which it is presented… being said in an ugly manner.”

Radio silence from the Ugly American.

This is a firsthand account of what the expat community is like in Cuenca. For the most part, it is a compassionate and caring one. True compassion means not only feeling another’s pain, but also being moved to help relieve it.

I can truly say that is what happens all of the time at three degrees south.

Jo Ellen may have said it best for all of us: “Now it’s German’s needs that must be met so he can get back to work full time to support his family and the community that needs him.

A lot more information on life in Cuenca can be found in my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life.” Some say it is the most thorough book out there concerning moving to and living in this beautiful city.

You may want to sign up to be notified when I post new information and photos. By doing this, you will get the latest as soon as it goes online.

Salud, mi amigos.


If you would like to make a much-needed contribution to help German get back on his feet and driving his taxi, you can contribute through PayPal to:

Or if you would like to make a bank deposit or drop off some cash, please e-mail:

“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.” ~Maya Angelou


Una Nueva Vida – A New Life

- by Stephen Vargha

There are over 80 professional-quality photos shot by me to give you a clear ‘picture’ about life in this historic mountain city.