Although it has been called the "Gringo invasion" in newspaper and web articles, Cuenca's influx of foreign residents hardly represents the action of conquering hordes. There is, however, no denying the city's growing popularity among foreigners looking for a new home.
Cuenca's status as a world-class expat destination can be dated to September 2009 when International Living, a magazine and Internet-based service for North Americans considering moving overseas, named Cuenca the world's number-one retirement destination. The story was quickly picked up by other publications and websites, including MSN, Yahoo, U.S. News and World Report and USA Today.
By the end of 2009, National Geographic, Lonely Planet, and Condé Nast Traveler had also run stories about Cuenca, promoting its UNESCO World Heritage Site charm.
Cuenca's good press continued in 2010 when Kathleen Peddicord, former publisher of International Living and current publisher of Live and Invest Overseas, named Cuenca the top pick as the world's most affordable expat city in her book How to Retire Overseas.
The rush was on. Since fall 2009, Cuenca's English-speaking expat population has mushroomed
"It's almost impossible to put an exact figure on the number of expats living in Cuenca. People move from town to town and foreign residents are not required to sign out if they decide to go back to their home countries," says Sonia Gonzalez, a graduate student at the University of Cuenca who is researching immigration trends for her dissertation. She adds: "You also have to remember that Cuenca is not just popular with gringos and that there are several thousand non-Ecuadorian Hispanic residents living here too."
For the record, immigration authorities estimated that Cuenca had 900 to 1,000 permanent foreign residents from English-speaking countries as of March 2011, with as many as 1,000 more here on a variety of other long-term visas, such as students, teachers, and missionaries. Add to this another 500 tourists and language students in town at any given time and you have as many as 2,500 English-speaking foreigners in the city.
Gonzalez's research shows there were only about 200 foreign residents in Cuenca in 2008. "We've seen a 400% to 500% increase in less than two years. That's pretty impressive," she says, adding that the immigration office expects between 300 and 350 more to arrive in 2011.
Not surprisingly, Gonzalez says that Cuenca is the most popular destination in Ecuador for new English-speaking residents. "Quito and Guayaquil get quite a few North Americans and Brits coming in on work visas. But when people come here to live permanently, they choose Cuenca."
So what's the attraction?
The answer is simple, according to former British journalist and part-time Cuenca resident Sylvan Hardy. "This is a great place to live." Hardy says that the claims made by International Living are mostly true.
"The cost of living is twenty-five to fifty percent what it is in the U.S. and U.K. The weather is pleasant. The culture and history are rich. The infrastructure, transportation and medical care are good." He adds: "Cuenca is large enough to have some of the conveniences we had back home, such as malls, quality supermarkets and good restaurants."
Another draw is that Cuenca is not your typical expat community.
"The foreigners here haven't changed the city's sense of identity," says Sonya Sommers, a California native who lived in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and Boquete, Panama, before moving to Cuenca. "I've seen places where the gringos have transformed the town and have tried to make themselves the focal point. In Cuenca, there are no gated gringo-only subdivisions and there are very few American fast-food joints."
Hardy and Sommers attribute much of Cuenca's attractiveness to it's size. "This is a town of a half-million, so it can easily absorb a couple thousand gringos, and probably quite a few more, before there's a dramatic affect on the local culture,"says Hardy.
Sommers says that the size of the city makes it easier to get involved in local activities. I attend a few gringo events, but mostly I take advantage of what the larger community offers, such as symphony performances, crafts shows, art exhibits and indigenous festivals. This week, for example, there are two international film festivals in town."
According to Sommers, expats have been welcomed at local service clubs, gyms, churches and other civic groups. Expat artists and musicians have been invited to exhibit and perform in public galleries and theaters. “We don´t have the barriers that I found where I used to live,” Sommers says.
Making friends with locals is also easy, Sommers says. “In Panama and Mexico, almost all of the locals we knew were service workers. In Cuenca, my Ecuadorian friends are architects, artists, professors and lawyers.” She adds: ”Since I´m still struggling with my Spanish, it helps that most of them speak English.
According to Hardy, Cuenca´s ability to comfortably absorb the foreign population means relations between expats and locals are good. "Here, we dont have the tension and resentment you find in smaller communities. We're not changing the way of life. We dont drive up real estate prices. Most expats in Cuenca, I think, would agree that we're treated as honored guests."
For their part, Cuencanos say they're happy that the expats are here. Diego Placencia, owner of Art Gym in Cuenca's Todo Santos neighborhood, says he's made many new gringo friends.
"Several expats have joined my gym and I hope to sign up more. They bring new ideas and new points of view and I consider them a great addition to the city."
Like many locals, Placencia has lived in the U.S., working as a personal fitness trainer and flower arrangement designer in New York City in the 1990s.
Despite integrating into the local life, gringos also have their own meeting places and activities. "We can't deny our heritage and it's nice to get together occasionally with folks from the old country," says Hardy.
A growing number of expat-owned businesses provide a social network for foreign residents.
Although expat-owned bars and restaurants cater to a mixed crowd of Ecuadorians and gringos, most host special gringo events. On June 3, California Kitchen, at the corner of Sangarimo and Borrero, hosted a meeting with U.S. consulate representatives that was attended by almost 100 Americans. Other expat-owned restaurants include Eucalyptus Café, Kookaburro Café, Café Austria, and Inca Lounge and Bistro.
The Carolina Bookstore on Calle Hermano Miguel, owned by former North Carolina residents Lee and Carol Dubs, serves as a de facto community center for foreign residents. A retired language professor, Lee Dubs discovered Cuenca in the 1960s when he served in the U.S. Peace Corps, and returned eight years ago to live.
Wood designer and sculptor Ed Konderla also welcomes expats, as well as locals, to his Arte de la Madera gallery in La Esquina de las Artes on Av. 12 de Abril. "A big part of the fun in this business is meeting people," he says. Like Lee Dubs, Konderla once worked in Ecuador; in the 1990s, he was an oil-company automation engineer. He returned two years ago to live.
Cuenca expats also stay connected through organizations such as language and writers groups, book and fly-fishing clubs and a quality-of-life discussion group. GringoTree, a subscription-based email service, connects 2,300 subscribers to news of events and serves as a trading post for those with items to sell and apartments to rent. In addition, Cuenca expats author nearly 20 blogs, including CuencaHighLife.com, which serves as an on-line English-language newspaper.
Are there downsides to the expat surge?
"Of course," says Hardy. "You'll always have a few folks who have heard that Cuenca is the place to be and come down to make a fast buck. It's the usual gang of hucksters and snake-oil merchants you find in any expat community. Fortunately, most of them don't hang around too long."
Some thinking of starting businesses may be attracted by bad information about the size of Cuenca's expat population, says Gonzalez. "I have heard claims that there are five thousand, seven thousand, and even ten thousand North Americans living in Cuenca. Unfortunately, some of the numbers come from seemingly reliable people who have not done their homework. Someone coming here to do business based on inflated numbers will probably be disappointed."
Both Gonzalez and Hardy say that Cuenca's low cost of living is often overstated. "I´ve seen claims that you can live in Cuenca for six hundred dollars, even five hundred dollars a month and that you can rent luxury furnished condos, all utilities included, for three hundred a month," says Hardy. "Yes, Cuenca is inexpensive compared to other places, but it´s not that cheap."
Hardy says he discourages people from coming to Cuenca for strictly economic reasons. "You need to come here because you like it, not because of the low cost of living."
Reposted from the Miami Herald International Edition, June 15, 2011; photo caption: Cuenca expats listen to a representative of the U.S. Consulate explain Social Security benefit.