Becoming Cuenca

Moving to Another Country (Specifically: Ecuador)

May 20, 2022

“You’re crazy.”

“You’re nuts!”

“Where’s Cuenca?”

“Is Ecuador on the equator?”

“Isn’t Ecuador a Third World Nation?”

I cannot count the times I heard those refrains when I announced my intentions to move to Cuenca, Ecuador.

At that time, I was only 61 years old. I was planning to retire in about nine more years to maximize my Social Security payments and to get one more anniversary brass statue from The Walt Disney Company. I had already collected from my employer Simba (20 Years), Tinker Bell (25 Years), Jimmy the Cricket (30 Years), and Pinocchio (35 Years).

What brought on all of these responses was that many thought I was mad, insane, and even deranged to be leaving the television news business and North Carolina for a life in another country.

They may have thought I was a lunatic for going somewhere like France, but choosing Ecuador was beyond the pale for a high percentage of them. Frankly, a good portion had no clue where Ecuador is located, let alone Cuenca.

I don’t blame them for their ignorance nor provincialism.

Americans are taught very little in school about anything outside the borders of the United States. Whatever the reasons are for this lack of education, it has made many Americans ignorant about the world we live in.

Add to that, a 2021 Economist/YouGov poll showed only 37 percent of American adults have a valid and unexpired U.S. passport. One in five Americans have an expired or invalid passport. This means three out of five Americans are not venturing outside the country’s borders. That includes their next-door neighbors: Canada and Mexico!

As a kid, I was definitely different. Instead of comic books, I would look at atlases and dream about what it was like to be in the spot on the map I was looking at. As a teenager, I bought a 1939 edition of Rand McNally’s “Ready-Reference Atlas of the World.” I still have that historic edition.

For most of my childhood, I read and reread every page of Richard Scarry’s “Busy Busy World.” Published in 1965, this classic was marketed for kids in Preschool through second grade. Even as a senior in high school, I was reading the 33 stories about London, Paris, New York, Tokyo, Australia, Brazil, Egypt, Holland, and more. I wanted to experience the world, even if it was only in a child’s book form.

Once I had my own wheels, I was always the one who said, “Let’s jump in the car and go somewhere.” Many times, I did not have a plan; I just wanted to go see new places and experience new things. Other times I did. When I was sophomore in college, I convinced three of my fellow schoolmates to jump in my car and drive from eastern Washington to northwestern Montana to experience a solar eclipse.

As soon as I joined AAA, this map geek obtained his first copy of a United States roadmap. The green highlighting pen was used to trace everywhere I had driven in the country. My newest map definitely shows where I used to live and the 47 states, I had driven through that are south of the 49th parallel. Now to somehow get to North Dakota…

My curiosity has taken me to 25 countries, which is just a small fraction of the world. The most northern city I have visited is Reykjavik. I live in the most southern one. It is my goal to add most of South America to my list. And next year, I am taking my wife, Joanna, to parts of Europe she has never been to as well as some for me. While I am there, I plan to make it to little ol’ Liechtenstein. Why not? I went two hours out of my way to visit the small country of Luxembourg in 2014.

I tell you all of this to encourage to be brave and dream about living away from where you grew up or are living right now.

You may be wondering if there is something in common that has brought expats to Cuenca. My experiences and reading say that everyone has a unique story. Many stories may be similar as they want a better life than where they were living.

The biggest reasons I have seen for moving to Cuenca are: 1- Cost-of-Living; 2 – Healthcare; and 3 – Quality of Life.  These are general terms that I will quickly explain.

The cost of living in Cuenca is a lot better than most developed countries. Mladen Adamovic is the Founder/CEO of Numbeo. It is a numbers crunching, data gathering company. Numbeo says consumer prices are 61 percent lower than San Francisco, 53 percent less than Boston; 43 percent less than Raleigh; and 38 percent less than Lexington, Kentucky.

Healthcare is tied into cost of living. It was huge factor my wife, Joanna, and I moved to Cuenca. I was too young for Medicare, so I went to the Affordable Care Act’s website for insurance for the two of us for West Jefferson, North Carolina. This mountain town’s cost of living was 80 percent of the national average and was about five percent below the state’s average so I thought we could get health insurance at a decent price.


ACA’s website was quoting $1,935 per month for us. It does not take someone with a math degree to figure out that by the time I was 65 years of age, we would have shelled out over $77,000 for just the insurance. Joanna is five years younger so let’s estimate it would be $65,000 for her ACA insurance until she was eligible for Medicare.

Why so much?

Comparing health spending in the U.S. to other countries is complicated. The general consensus is that every American spends $11,945 on healthcare. The United States is a kick butt number-one in the world as #2 Switzerland is $7,138 per person. The worldwide average in 2020 was $5,736. This means every American is spending twice the amount of the average person in the world.

Quality of Life can be rather subjective, but most North Americans in Cuenca feel their lives are better than here. For many Americans, they are thrilled to be away from the vileness and hatred being spewed back in the United States. For other Americans, they feel safe to be away from the insane number of mass gun shootings. Owning a gun is a very difficult thing to accomplish in Ecuador.

Other North Americans are thrilled to be living in better weather. That includes our next-door neighbors who hail from Edmonton, Alberta. I do not think they miss those 3°F / -16°C January mornings.

For others, it is not having to own a car. This is a cost-of-living issue as well as a fitness and health concern. Most Americans do not own a car so a couple in Cuenca is saving around $19,122 per year. According to AAA, that is based on two vehicles being driven 15,000 miles a year. The figure includes depreciation, loan interest, fuel, insurance, maintenance, and various tolls and fees.

Not having a car means most of us walk in this very walkable city. If we have to go all the way across the city, we can catch a cab that will set us back five dollars at the most, including the driver’s tip. City buses are aplenty, and they will cost you just thirty cents. That certainly beats $2.75 in New York City and Dallas, $2.55 in Toronto (converted to U.S. dollars), and $2.25 in Seattle.

It is my goal for this blog to enlighten you and to encourage you to serious look at what Cuenca, Ecuador offers the world.

My just-released book “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life” will be an excellent resource for you to have. Available at Amazon as a paperback and in digital form, the 488-page book covers the gamut from Social Environment to Housing, Health and Healthcare, Transportation, Green Spaces, The Arts, Food, Consumer Goods and Services, Finances, and Moving to Cuenca.

In my book, I continually encourage one to look beyond what I say and have written. More than one source is needed to get a better picture and to verify things. It is why Chapter 16 is dedicated to Fellow Expats. Chapter 17 is something I am really proud of: Cuencanos Point of View. As far as I know, no other book or publication has given a voice to the natives of Cuenca. Their voice is needed as you will be guests in their land.

Because I know you will want to live in Cuenca, my final chapter is: Dreaming and Going For It.

As I told my family and friends on Facebook the other day, “For those who can move, I hope you get the opportunity to read my book before deciding on your future home. Even if my book does not convince you to move to three degrees south, it will help you figure out the road you desire and the one you need to take.”


To reply to the refrains:

1 – Yes; I have been called crazy throughout my life. It is more for my humor than anything else. Just ask my two sons. The youngest one always tells me, “You, sir, are HI.lar.ious.” And please note I shall continue to tell my fine jokes.

2 – “Nuts” is all relative. That word and “crazy” are overused adjectives for describing anything that feels indescribable or beyond explanation. My actions to move to Cuenca are very logical and easy to understand. It is why I am writing this blog.

3 – To be exact: 2.90° South and 79.01° West. If you went straight south from Durham, North Carolina, you would end up in Cuenca.

4 – The name Ecuador is Spanish for equator. This country, that is close to the size of Colorado, straddles the equator, from about 1.50° North to 5.00° South.

5 – Calling Ecuador a “Third World Nation” is a pet peeve of mine. It is used quite frequently in a derogatory way, and many Americans have no clue what it truly means. The quick explanation is that after World War II, a First World Nation was any country aligned with the United States. A Second World Nation was any country which was friends with the Soviet Union. Ecuador is technically a Third World Nation as these countries were not allies of either super world power.

I look forward to you reading my future posts about this great mountain city at three degrees south. It is why I am calling this blog, “Becoming Cuenca: Life at Three Degrees South.”

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.