Becoming Cuenca

Journey of an Expat: Embracing Cuenca and Ecuador

Sep 1, 2023

“Ideological diversity comes from viewpoints and belief systems we develop over time as we decide what we believe and how we choose to live our lives.” ~ Rick Bowers, President of TTI Success Insights

I can’t say it enough that you need to read several sources before making the big move to Cuenca, Ecuador. Videos are nice, but this journalist who spent 39 years in the television news business knows they only scratch the surface when it comes to providing information.

To help you have a diverse source of information, I have been passing along other people’s thoughts and experiences. That is why the highly respected American expat, David Sasaki, was in a recent blog post.

And for this one, I am presenting Hugh Prather’s thoughts. Hugh moved from Charlotte, North Carolina nearly nine years ago to Cumbayá, a rural parish of the Metropolitan District of Quito in Pichincha province. He lives there as Hugh owns Ecuador USA Roses, a business that ships roses to customers in the United States and Canada.

On his Facebook page recently, Hugh posted “Journey of an American Expat: Embracing Ecuador.”

He was spot on when he said, “Moving to a new country is an adventure that brings a multitude of experiences and challenges. For an American expat considering a move to Ecuador, a South American gem with its stunning landscapes, vibrant culture, and welcoming people, the journey of adjusting to a new life can be both exciting and transformative.”

According to Hugh, there are six phases to moving to and living in Ecuador. What he considers phases from living in the U.S. and Canada to spending the rest of your life in Ecuador will be presented in this post as well as commentary by me that focuses on Cuenca.

Phase 1: Fascination and Exploration: The first phase begins with fascination and a sense of wonder. As the American expat arrives in Ecuador, they are captivated by the country’s natural beauty, from the awe-inspiring Andes Mountains to the lush Amazon rainforest and the enchanting Galapagos Islands. They immerse themselves in exploring the diverse landscapes, visiting historic cities like Quito and Cuenca, and indulging in the rich cultural heritage of Ecuador.

How true when Ecuador is the most biodiverse country on earth. It holds about 8 percent of all the species of amphibians and 16 percent of bird species, all in a country about the size of the state of Colorado. Yasuní National Park in the Amazon rainforest may have more species of life than anywhere else in the world.

In 1999, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) declared Cuenca’s historic El Centro a World Heritage Site: “The Historic Centre of Santa Ana de los Rios de Cuenca is a remarkable example of a planned inland Spanish town (entroterra) that bears witness to the interest given to the principles of Renaissance urban planning in the Americas.  Founded in 1577 according to the guidelines issued thirty years earlier by the King of Spain, Charles V, it has preserved over four centuries its original orthogonal plan.”

There is definitely a “fascination and a sense of wonder” as you walk around El Centro. That is why you will constantly see Facebook posts asking where to stay and eat in El Centro. Unfortunately for many of these prospective expats, they are basing their decision making on just a small portion of this great city.

That is why I constantly tell these people not to act like a tourist, but someone who is looking for a new place to live. Cuenca is a lot more than the fascinating and wonderful El Centro.

Phase 2: Cultural Adjustment: The initial fascination gradually transforms into the stage of cultural adjustment. The American expat begins to experience the nuances of daily life in Ecuador, adapting to the local customs, traditions, and ways of doing things. Language barriers may present a challenge, but as they embrace the Spanish language and interact with the friendly locals, a sense of belonging starts to develop.

Not everyone adjusts to the culture in Cuenca and Ecuador. It takes an open mind to live in a country that is very different than the U.S. and Canada.

For most, these differences are fascinating, refreshing, and rejuvenating. Ethnocentrism – the belief that one’s own culture is superior to all others and is the standard by which all other cultures should be measured – is not present with these expats. An open mind and a positive attitude lead to a sense of belonging that starts to develop.

It is important to embrace the Spanish language. Yes, it is intimidating if you have never taken foreign language classes. Despite taking French (a sister language of Spanish), there are times I feel challenged.

Despite Spanish and French being Romance Languages, it can cause confusion for me. I have Cuencanos laughing when I tell them the story of my confusion in my first few months in the city.

At many stores and tiendas, they will ask for your “nombre” to complete the transaction. Pronounced, NOM-bray, it means name. In French, the exact same spelling is pronounced, NOM-bruh.

No problem, right? Well, nombre in French means number. I was confused as to why they needed my number. When Cuencanos are told that, they howl. Of course, I have it down these days.

Phase 3: Navigating Practicalities: As the American expat settles in, the practical aspects of daily life become a focus. They navigate through finding suitable housing, setting up utilities, understanding local transportation, and getting acquainted with the healthcare system. Engaging with local communities, joining expat groups, and seeking guidance from fellow expats can be invaluable during this phase.

This can be a tough one. You will be leaning on your decades of experiences to find your new home, to get your utilities up and running, and finding out the best course for your healthcare.

Real estate is handled totally differently in Cuenca than in North America. A MLS (Multiple Listing Service) basically does not exist here. There is no clearinghouse for what is on the market and what is for rent.

Agents handled their own property and guard it very carefully for their own commission. It is why my wife and I recommend real estate agents like Kathy Gonzalez. She handles both properties for sale and apartments for rent.

All gas in Cuenca is propane. There is no natural gas as Cuenca does not have any underground gas lines. That means all propane gas must be trucked to your home.

For Joanna and me, it means an Austro Gas truck pulls up to the entrance of our departamento building and fills a community tank. For many others, trucks go through the neighborhoods with dozens of filled gas tanks. When you are empty, you exchange your tank for a new one from the truck. Many times, the truck driver will carry the heavy tank into your home.

Unless you are renting, electricity will have to be set up in your name. And there is a darn good chance lots of paperwork is involved. My wife, who worked for the county utilities department in Wilmington, North Carolina, says the electric company here (Centrosur) is a lot like it was in the 1980s and 1990s in the Tar Heel State.

Our original Centrosur account was set up with my old U.S. passport as we purchased our departamento (condo) prior to moving to Ecuador. Neither one of us had a cédula (a national identification card) when the account was set up.

A few months ago, I went to Centrosur to get my Tercera Edad (the senior discount and privileges). I was told the account was with my old passport.  To get the discount, I had to get rid of the passport number, add my cédula number, sign several pieces of paper and get a brand-new account number.

In the meantime, my old number was being used to make the final monthly payment. The new number we were verbally given and written down on a piece of paper was incorrect, meaning I had to deal with Centrosur again.

I am not making this up. Expect curveballs like this. Patience on my part paid off as I was able to confirm the correct number online.

Of course, going to our financial institution would involve a couple of trips.

And more paperwork.

Though we had the correct number from Centrosur, our financial institution could not see it on their computer, which meant we could not set up monthly payments. I had to wait for the first statement and print it off as proof to our financial institution. That did the trick after giving them my John Hancock several times, including for a piece of paper stating I no longer wanted to make payments on my old and closed Centrosur account.

Phase 4: Building Connections: The American expat realizes the importance of building social connections and forming a support network. They actively seek opportunities to engage with both the expat community and Ecuadorians, participating in social events, clubs, and volunteering activities. By forging relationships and friendships, they begin to feel a sense of belonging and community in their new home.

Several Americans in the United States have expressed concern to me about a support network and friends. A single woman in North Carolina said to me that she is scared of moving to another country.

Rightly so!  This is probably the biggest thing you will ever do in your life, and that includes purchasing a house.

The odds are that you will find the expat community in Cuenca to be your family. We are all in the same boat, and we all feel that as a community, we need to support each other. Yes, there are exceptions, but the vast majority of expats are here to help.

A woman in the U.S. wrote on one of the Ecuadorian Facebook group pages, “One thing that has really stood out in this group is the warm, helpful atmosphere. Much nicer than other groups I’ve encountered. We are contemplating a move and honestly, the biggest factor for me right now is how nice the people are to expats interested in relocating!  It’s crazy the amount of negativity I’ve encountered elsewhere, including Mexico and Portugal. But that is not the case here!  Your friendliness and help have impacted my thoughts on where I’d like to live!!

An older woman we have been encouraging to move to Cuenca said to us that she is worried about making new friends. She added that she did not want to be the “third wheel” with our friends.

Seriously… You will make friends here a lot easier than back in the U.S. and Canada. And the odds are great that your new friends are friends with many others.

It is a very special group of expats in Cuenca. You are not imposing if you become friends with established expats. My wife belongs to a group of women who go out twice a month for lunch. In Joanna’s three years with the group, it has added several people to be part of the camaraderie.

Your friends will truly be people you will spend a lot of quality time with. I have never taken a trip to another country with anyone else, but Joanna and I are going to Europe for a month with a wonderful couple we met in Cuenca.

Phase 5: Embracing the Ecuadorian Lifestyle: As time goes by, the American expat fully embraces the Ecuadorian lifestyle. They savor the local cuisine, indulge in the vibrant music, and dance traditions, and partake in colorful festivals. They appreciate the slower pace of life, prioritizing family, friends, and personal well-being. Whether it’s exploring the markets, hiking in the Andes, or simply enjoying a cup of traditional Ecuadorian coffee, they find joy in the small moments.  

Every expat I know has embraced and loves the Ecuadorian lifestyle. There are so many accolades that can be made that it is difficult to state them all in a limited amount of space.

The culture of Ecuador is very rich. It is colorful. It is upbeat. Life is celebrated in this country. That includes buying colorful monigotes, which represent the old year. Monigotes can be found for sale everywhere, but the location that may offer the biggest selection is at Parque Lineal Yanuncay. There are thousands of them for sale!

New Year’s Eve is one of the biggest events of the year in Ecuador. Everyone gathers together to celebrate the coming of the new year and, more importantly, saying goodbye to the old year by burning the monigotes.

I would be remised if I did not mention the excellent coffee in Ecuador. This is one of the few countries in the world where both Arabica and Robusta are cultivated. The Arabica coffee grown in Ecuador is some of the best in the world.

And on top of that, this coffee hound loves the prices, which are low because the Arabica beans are grown in our backyard. How affordable is coffee? My favorite coffee is from Loja, and it sells for $12.87 per kilogram (equivalent to $5.85 per pound) at Supermaxi, which is a large Ecuadorian grocery store chain.

Phase 6: Integration and Transformation: Finally, the American expat reaches a phase of integration and transformation. Ecuador has become their home, and they have adapted to the country’s way of life. They have gained a deeper understanding and appreciation for Ecuadorian culture, and their experiences have broadened their perspectives. They have become part of a vibrant community, contributing their unique skills and ideas while embracing the warmth and inclusiveness of their adopted country.

Touché !

Moving to Cuenca is a journey filled with diverse, challenging, and exciting phases. By embracing what Ecuador, especially Cuenca, has to offer, you will be calling this part of the world your home in no time.

And the odds are that you will never look back at what you did.

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.

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Salud, mi amigo.


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.