Becoming Cuenca

Portugal v. Cuenca

Jun 16, 2023

Flash In the Pan: Something that happened only once or for a short time and was not repeated.

Merriam-Webster describes it as, “a sudden spasmodic effort that accomplishes nothing.”

Macmillan Dictionary states it is “something that is successful for short time.”

The Cambridge Dictionary uses this example: “Sadly, their success was just a flash in the pan.”



A week ago, Bloomberg tweeted about Portugal and expats. The country at the western tip of the Iberian Peninsulas had been the talk of prospective expats for the last few years.

Bloomberg exclaimed, “For many Americans, a love affair with Portugal blossomed over the last three years: The Iberian nation offered cheap real estate, miles of beautiful coastline and a reprieve from divisive U.S. politics at a time when remote work was flourishing. Now, reality has settled in — and the honeymoon is over.”

The media outlet that delivers business and markets news as well as analysis stated some expats say that life in Portugal has not met their expectations. The headline certainly makes it sound like a lot more than “some.” Otherwise, why write the article?

Expats in Portugal blame the language barriers (It has been said Portuguese is the most difficult Romance language to learn), bureaucratic challenges, and higher housing costs.

Three years.

That’s it!

A flash in the pan.

Everyone has heard the phrase, “Don’t be a lemming.” It means, “Don’t just go where others are going. Have a good reason.”

It is what happened with Portugal. It became the place to go as it was something new. It was where everyone else was going. When the gates were opened for Americans to go to Portugal, many followed.

I had several people tell me via Facebook and via this blog that Portugal was their choice. They thanked me, but the allure of something relatively new and many “lemmings” (my word) going to Portugal tipped the scales for them.

Cuenca is definitely not a flash in the pan.

In 2008, International Living exclaimed Cuenca was the place to move to in the entire world. Cuenca was a city I had never heard of despite my very good knowledge of geography.

Looking back at things, what International Living did was a first as the Internet was just starting to expand exponentially. Cuenca was the first city in the world to be recognized by the Internet.

Though Americans and Canadians had already moved to Cuenca, this journalist did a huge amount of research. Of course, I used the Internet, but I contacted several Americans and got their thoughts.

Finally in 2011, I visited Cuenca and talked to several North Americans about their thoughts. I went to their homes to see what the real estate was like. And I walked around part of the city on foot to get a good feel.

International Living’s index rates countries based on eight categories including cost of living, real estate and rental prices, climate, infrastructure, healthcare, and transportation. Special benefits for expats, such as travel discounts and tax deductions, are factored in, too.

The publication’s 2015 Global Retirement Index rated Ecuador the world’s number one retirement country. It was the fourth time in seven years Ecuador had come out on top.

All that publicity attracted news coverage from ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox, BBC News, and Al Jazeera. That does not include the dozens of magazines, newspapers and websites espousing Cuenca.

Remember: That was eight years ago. From 2008 through 2014, Ecuador was always near the top. And four times, it was the top-dog.

Fast forward to 2023. Cuenca remains in the Top-Three for best places in the world to retire to. Ecuador is still considered one of the best places in the world for retirement and quality of life.

Meanwhile, the sun is fading on the western portion of the Iberian Peninsula.

After only three years.

Cuenca is still a beacon for many and still getting a lot of praise 15 years later. That time period is nearly FIVE times as long as Portugal has been the darling of Americans looking to move overseas.

This longevity is good proof Cuenca is more than a flash in the pan. It is why there has been a steady flow of foreigners to Cuenca, especially in the last five years.

Two months ago, CNBC, the world leader in business news and real-time financial market coverage, posted online an article with the headline, “The top 3 countries where it’s easy to settle into a new life abroad, according to expats.”

The photo under the headline was the Pearl Monument, in Bahrain. It was appropriate as the 2022 InterNations survey of nearly 12,000 expats around the world said Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Singapore were the top three places where it’s relatively easy to settle in.

You are probably shaking your head in disbelief like me.

But I looked further into the article as I am definitely not a headline reader. And to me, it was an article that does not apply to Americans, Canadians, and even Europeans.

This is an excellent example of why I constantly state to look at more sources. One source is never enough. And that includes me.

Bahrain, the island country in the Persian Gulf and connected to Saudi Arabia by a long causeway, is ranked No. 1, according to InterNations. With over 4.7 million members in 420 cities worldwide, InterNations claims it is the “largest global community for people who live and work abroad.”

Newcomers at InterNations said it’s easy to get a visa, find housing, access government services online, and get around without speaking the local language in these Top-10 countries:


United Arab Emirates





Saudi Arabia




Now, it is time to dig further. Many expats moving to Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Singapore are coming from India, not the United States and Canada.

India is a lot closer to the top-three countries and is the most populated country in the world. It has four times more people than the U.S. and 37 times more people than Canada. That really skews the results.

InterNations said many Indians are moving for work-related reasons. There is a lot of money to be made in the Middle East. That is why half of the Top-Ten is the Middle East. Singapore is the leading financial center in the Asia-Pacific thus many Indians go there, too.

Take a look at those countries again. InterNations told CNBC those countries aren’t big spots for retirees.

And I can quickly figure out why.

The number-one reason has to be the treatment of women. The United Nations says gender equality is a fundamental human right and a much-needed foundation for a peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable world.

Bahrain may be the best in the world to settle into a new life, but it is the sixth worst for gender equality. Oman is ranked seventh worst in the world for gender equality. Saudia Arabia is the third worst, behind the United Arab Emirates at number-two, with Qatar being the worst in the world.

If that is not enough to disregard these countries that InterNations ranks so highly, #1 Bahrain has an average yearly temperature of 82.8°F / 28.2°C, making it the hottest country in the Middle East. I can’t imagine what global warming will do to that average.

Qatar is another Gulf state that has ridiculously high temperatures. The average yearly temperature in Qatar is 82.4°F / 28.0°C. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have reached temperatures of 122°F / 50°C!

Let’s go back to the reasons expats in Portugal want to leave that country.

They blame the language barriers. Portuguese is the ninth most spoken language in the world with 257.7 million speakers. There are more Russian speakers than Portuguese thus the odds are that an American has not been around too many people who speak that language.

On the other hand, Spanish is spoken in Cuenca, Ecuador, and most of Latin America. It is the fourth most spoken language in the world (Behind English, Mandarin, and Hindi) with 548.3 million people speaking it as their first language.

Spanish is the second most spoken language in the United States. There are about 41.7 million people speaking Spanish as a first language (about 12.5 percent of the U.S. population). And that number continues to grow. That all means an American probably knows some Spanish words and phrases.

Though Cuenca does not have a high percentage of people who can speak English, that number is getting larger due to five universities in the city. It is a highly educated city.

And Cuencanos want to be as welcoming as possible. That is why we have said, “Buenos días,” on the street and they reply, “Good morning!”

Americans in Portugal cite “bureaucratic challenges” as one reason they want to leave. My friends in Cuenca are laughing at this one.

It is a subject matter that comes up quite frequently. We just go with the flow, even if the rules and laws change while we are in the middle of the stream. One is not going to beat bureaucracy.

There is no proof of my theory, but I truly think the type of person that moved to Portugal is different than one who moved to Cuenca. This is a generalization.

I say this as most Americans who return to the U.S. from Cuenca are not citing bureaucracy as the reason. Most people who moved to Cuenca knew what the ground rules with the government are.

After saying all that, this is not to say bureaucracy is bad in Ecuador. I really do not think it is an Ecuadorian issue or a Portuguese issue.

My youngest son, a laid-back Millennial, can verify this. Eight years ago, he called me from Besançon, France. This even keeled, unruffled young man was exasperated due to dealing with the French government to renew his student visa.

The conversation was quick:

Son: Dad, I know what the national sport of France is.

Dad: What is it, son? (Thinking he would say fútbol.)


He is right. When he got to Bordeaux to do everything in person, my son had to get an appointment to make an appointment so he could get an appointment time for renewing his visa.

Oh… You read that right! Ecuador and Portugal do not have exclusivity.

Or even the worst bureaucracy.

It appears that Americans are spot on about higher housing costs in Portugal. According to data by the Instituto Nacional de Estatistica (the government office for national statistics of Portugal), the median price of dwellings in Portugal in 2022 surged 13.92 percent to $1,570 per square meter (10.76 square feet).

Property prices in Portugal have been rising since 2014, but they started to rise quickly in 2019 (11.7 percent) and 11.2 percent in 2021.

The Portuguese blame the Americans for driving up the prices, especially in Algarve. That is why a year ago, the Los Angeles Times did an article on frustrated and angry Portuguese. The headline said, “Welcome to Portugal, the new expat haven. Californians, please go home.”

You would be right to ask if Americans are driving up real estate prices in Cuenca. The quick answer is that they aren’t.

A professor at Universidad de Azuay (UDA) crunched the data and found out that a vast majority of the real estate purchases are Cuencanos flushed with cash from being overseas. Expats make up about 1.5 percent of Cuenca’s population, so they cannot be behind the rise in prices.

To compare apples to apples between Cuenca and Portugal, I will use Numbeo. I have mentioned this excellent resource several times, so I won’t rehash their qualifications.

Numbeo says that to buy an apartment in El Centro is $122 per square foot. That is fantastic compared to U.S. real estate prices. To compare it to Portugal, real estate prices are about $2,667 per square meter today. Divide that figure by 10.76 and you get $248 per square foot in Portugal. You can save 50 percent by buying in Cuenca.

Zora Neale Hurston said, “Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” Take those articles and dig into them. Many times, it is not what the headline states. And quite frequently, what is presented is misleading and not helpful for you to find that right place to live.

As Marston Bates said, “Research is the process of going up alleys to see if they are blind.”

And Neil Armstrong wants you to remember: “Research is creating new knowledge.”

So, please do not follow the lemmings.


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 amigos.


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.