Becoming Cuenca

The Great Escape

May 28, 2022

Many may remember “The Great Escape” as the 1963 epic adventure suspense World War II movie starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Richard Attenborough. Who remembers USAAF Captain Virgil Hilts (McQueen) on what is supposed to be a German BMW R75 motorcycle, being chased through the beautiful Bavarian meadows, and finally jumping a barbed wire fence into Switzerland?

Fifty-nine years later, “The Great Escape” is not on the big screen, but on social media. Posts have been predictable about the slaughter in Uvalde, Texas. But a new approach to the violent environment in the U.S. has appeared online: “Move to Another Country.”

In other words, “The Great Escape.”

I do not think it is a reaction solely to the 21 murdered at the Uvalde elementary school.

Nor do I think it is a knee jerk reaction.

For many Americans, it is the fact that nothing has been done by Congress since 26 people were killed in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Most Americans thought that so many innocent children being shot down in cold blood would sway Congress to finally do something.

But it didn’t.

Since Sandy Hook, 49 people were killed in Orlando (2016), 60 people killed in Las Vegas (2017), 17 killed at a school in Parkland, Florida (2018), and 11 killed at a Pittsburgh synagogue (2018). Twelve were killed in Thousand Oaks, California (2018) and Virginia Beach (2019). At a Walmart in El Paso in 2019, 23 were slaughtered by gunfire. Both Boulder, Colorado (2021) and Buffalo (2022) had 10 perish by automatic gunfire. These are only the biggest mass murders in the last ten years in the United States.

So, after the Uvalde mass murders, a father in San Antonio posted on Facebook, “One of my biggest fears is that my family and I will have to leave Texas as refugees. Every day, it feels like we inch closer to that reality.”

His Facebook friend in Oregon replied, “I’ve had same thought!”

Meanwhile a Facebook meme from a documentary producer and diver in North Carolina said, “I want to live in a country that loves its children more than it loves guns.”

That brought the response, “Canada.”

Moving up north was followed by, “I truly think Americans will have to look elsewhere.”

The day after the school killings in Texas, a friend sent me a direct message on Facebook. The friend, who lives in Washington state, asked, “Could you tell me how difficult it is to acquire a Retirement Visa for Ecuador? Can it be done from here?” She added, “Do you feel generally safe there, as an expat?”

Her questions were prompted by Uvalde, and she is by far not the only American looking to a better life outside of the United States.

It is difficult to know how many Americans have already moved overseas to flee the violence. What is known is around 10 million Americans are living outside the U.S., and that number keeps growing.

InterNations is a forum, an expats marketplace to exchange ideas and thoughts. Its 2015 survey of expats from around the world found 38 percent to “have thoughts about the cost of living” before moving abroad. The survey added, “Personal safety and crime (32%) were at the top of the list of many expatriates. Nearly three in 10 expats (29%) say they considered the weather in their future host country.”

That survey was taken before the six mass shootings in the U.S. in 2016, the 11 in 2017, 12 in 2018, 10 in 2019, two in 2020, six in 2021, and three in 2002 as of this writing.

In my just-released book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life,” I wrote, “Believe it or not, the murder rate in Ecuador is higher than the United States. Ecuador is in the middle of the road compared to other South American countries, including Brazil, Peru, and Venezuela.”

I went on to say, “You cannot paint with a broad brush when talking about specifics, such as violent crime in Cuenca. This is especially true as Guayaquil is by far Ecuador’s most dangerous city. Because Ecuador has a rather small population, and because Guayaquil’s population is 17 percent of the country’s total number, it skews the national statistics a lot more than the three most dangerous cities in the United States combined. In 2021, Detroit, St. Louis, and Memphis had the highest crime rates. Together those three cities only represent a half of one percent of the U.S. population.”

The other way to look at violent crime statistics is it is not fair to lump Virginia Beach and San Diego in with the U.S. violent crime rates. These two large cities are considered the safest in the United States. Cuenca is like these two American cities.

This journalist of four decades believes in having at least two sources for his information. It is a key facet of journalism.

That is why I said in my book, “The globally respected Instituto de Seguridad, Justicia y Paz (Institute for Security, Justice, and Peace) has a yearly study on the 50 most violent cities in the world.  The Mexican institution is fair with its rankings as seven of the eight worst in its 2020 rankings are Mexican cities. The only other city in the worst eight is St. Louis.”

I emphasized in the book no Ecuador cities appear on its dubious list while the United States had five.  Despite its dubious reputation, Guayaquil is not considered one of the fifty most dangerous cities.

To help you get a better idea of the crime rate in Ecuador compared to the United States, I pointed out some of the highlights from 2020 statistics:

  • Assaults: The U.S. is 3 times more than Ecuador.
  • Assaults, Serious: The U.S. is 10 times more than Ecuador.
  • Auto Theft: The U.S. is 7 times more than Ecuador.
  • Burglaries: Ecuador is 3 times more than the U.S.
  • Rape: The U.S. is 16 times more than Ecuador.

Many expats will concur that Cuenca is safe. Cuencanos have told me their city is a safe place to be. It is why I wrote, “Being pickpocketed is by far the most reported crime by expats on social media, but you never hear about Cuenca being a place for visitors to fear having something lifted from their pockets or handbags. The same holds true for Barcelona, Spain. In 2021, Barcelona had become the Pickpocket Capital of Europe with over 300 thefts being reported every single day. Despite that notoriety, discouraging words about Barcelona are far and few between.”

While the United States may be the catalyst to “The Great Escape,” there has to be a reason or reasons to visit another city, especially outside of the country. Online travel surveys show that the number-one reason is the local attractions. Historical landmarks and places are usually a strong second, followed by the cultural offerings of the city. Of course, visitors love parks and public spaces as well as local festivals. Rounding out the reasons include the people and architecture.

Cuenca has all of that going for it. Going to TripAdvisor, a website and mobile app with user-generated content (reviews) concerning travel, it shows so much to enjoy such as La Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepcion “New Cathedral”), Mirador de Turi, Museo Pumapungo and the adjacent archeological park, and Parque Abdón Calderón.

A nearby attraction is Parque Nacional Cajas, situated about 20 miles / 32 km. west of Cuenca. The mountains range from 10,370-14,600 feet / 3,160-4,450 meters in altitude and are reminiscent of the rugged Scottish Highlands. The odds are good you’ll see llamas and wild horses that were reintroduced to the national park in the 1990s. It has been said there are 157 species of birds, including condors and the beloved hummingbird. The Cañaris, who inhabited the area before the Incas invaded used it as a passage between this part of the world and the coastal region of Ecuador.

In the opposite direction from Cuenca is Ecuagenera Orquideas Del Ecuador. If you want orchids, Ecuagenera is the place to go. The company offers 1,938 species of orchids, 411 hybrids, and 601 varieties of tropical plants.


Ecuagenera’s origin dates back to the 1950s, when Angel Andreetta arrived in Bomboiza, in the Amazonian province Morona Santiago (just east of us). Andreetta began the process of research, selection, and collection of some orchid species. Since then, he has become a pioneer in Ecuador. And, he has won international awards, including one at Shanghai Chenshan Botanical Garden’s International Orchid Show.

Cultural offerings abound, but what may be the favorite of expats is La Orquesta Sinfónica de Cuenca, otherwise known as the Cuenca Symphony Orchestra. Later this year, the symphony will be celebrating its 50th anniversary. Currently, it is led by Maestro Augusto Carrión Rodas, a native of Loja, Ecuador. Greatly restricted during the Coronavirus pandemic, the symphony performed almost weekly online for its residents to enjoy. During that time period, they recorded an opera that was performed on the grounds of the Pumapungo ruins.

If you are truly looking to have the “Great Escape,” the key to scouting a new city is acting like you already live there.  Do this after you get the tourist destinations out of your system. Your new life in a new city will involve mainly not hitting another tourist destination.

Keeping the theme of “Everyday Life” as you explore Cuenca will give yourself as close to an actual living experience as possible. Plan normal activities to get a good feel.

That may sound boring, but your goal is to experience everyday life in Cuenca. Try to keep your exploratory trip as normal as possible. What is life truly like? That is your goal. The key is to be completely honest with yourself about day-to-day routines. Do not sugar coat anything or whitewash what you see. Tinted glasses are not what you want.

It is important to gauge your new environment. You are making a huge decision, and you want to have the most accurate information possible. Just remember that what initially got you excited may become a bit boring after being in Cuenca for a while.

While you soak up the ambiance on your scouting mission at the local coffee shop, do not forget to interact. Talk to the barista. Most likely, he or she will be the owner. Many of them can speak English.

Strike up a conversation with a customer nearby. There is a decent chance they can speak English, too. Numerous expats love to hang out at coffee shops so there is a good chance you will be conversing with a few of them.

Having done it, I can truly say firsthand research is the key to figuring out if Cuenca is the place to be. There is nothing better than experiencing it yourself.

This post is a quick insight into what “The Great Escape” could entail. A lot more information on the city and what you need to do to succeed like Captain Hilts can be found in my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life.”

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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.