By Deke Castleman and David Morrill
The large influx of foreigners to Cuenca in the past decade has turned this Andean city into a world-class laboratory experiment for what immigration experts call “amenities migration.”
In the early years, it was overwhelmingly retirees from the U.S. and Canada arriving in town. While the gringos continue to predominate, today we are seeing a demographic shift toward younger, more European newcomers.
A notable phenomenon of the influx, no matter the timing, is how the successive waves of immigrants display certain cohort characteristics.
In some ways, the expatriation movement to Cuenca can be compared to college classes. A “class” in this case constitutes a group of expats who arrive about the same time, face similar challenges together, and form a cohort group that tends to stick together, to the exclusion of classes that came before or arrive later. The members share broad cultural concerns due to their time of arrival as well as procedural and bureaucratic interests, such visa requirements.
Expats arriving in Cuenca 10 or 15 years ago discovered that only a handful of world travelers and adventurers had preceded them. Though newcomers were a fairly tight-knit group by necessity, they could hardly be called a class (although the bar tenders at Ruby Red’s, Wunderbar, Eucalyptus and Cafecito would probably beg to differ). Their circumstances and timing were too random to aggregate into a cohort.
Then came what could be called the Class of 2007-2009, following the first wave of Cuenca media attention. Though also somewhat small, this group had a few things in common (and pardon the following generalizations, which might or might not reflect accurately on individual expats). They arrived around the same time. They were fed up with the sputtering economy in North America, the political circus of the U.S. presidential election (yes, history does repeat itself), and the erosion of personal liberties. They were also looking for something more out of life although the goal was vague. This class included more investors and was more inclined to buy their housing than to rent it, unlike later classes.
The Class of 2010-2012, by contrast, consisted more of strategic defaulters, bailing on their mortgages and credit-card debt, shipping down their possessions, and setting up in upscale apartments and condos. Although these expats tended to buy as often as they rented, they did, to a generalized extent, establish a trend of expatriating for economic reasons.
The Class of 2012-2014 represented a wave of what many considered to be economic refugees. Many left their home countries with a small nest egg, if any, and were focused on renting and living inexpensively. This class, as the Cuenca expat movement matured, also contained more hucksters, snake-oil salesmen, and con men than earlier. A few came with money, hell-bent on making more, and were bamboozled by pitchmen peddling banks offering 13 percent interest rates and “can’t-miss” gold mine investments. Some lost lots of money.
As we said, the most recent Classes of 2015 to 2018 are younger, often with children, and include more Europeans. Its members have most of their lives ahead of them and do not necessarily see Cuenca as a final destination, although they are open to staying. They tend to be more entrepreneurial than earlier classes, to seek out night life and adventure sports.
After a few years, the cohort classes tend to break apart. Some people leave Cuenca for new expat destinations or return to the home country. Others integrate more fully into the broader expat community. Some forsake the gringos in favor of Ecuadorians, especially single men and women who hook up with locals and assimilate into their families and networks.
Again, these are general observations that seemed to gel into a somewhat coherent pattern over time. The reasons for expatriating are rarely quite so cut and dried and can, in addition to those cited above, include: work, quality of life, ability to retire, cultural exchange, climate, marriage (to an Ecuadorian), volunteering, a jumping-off point for further travel and expat experiences, learning Spanish, teaching English, affordable health care, friendly people, the ability to get along without a car, Christian ministry, God’s call, healthier food, and a healthier lifestyle.
This article is revised from the book, Life in Cuenca.