By David Morrill
Although cost and location are probably the biggest considerations when looking for property in the countryside near Cuenca, there are other factors that deserve serious attention, some of which are easily overlooked.
What elevation are you comfortable with? What weather do you like? If you plan to garden, what crops do you want to grow? If you choose a remote area, how comfortable are you living with country folks, or campesinos? What’s your security plan? Can you handle insects and snakes? Do you prefer overnight low temperatures in the 40s or the high 60s?
What follows is an overview of issues the potential buyer should be aware of. Each is a long conversation in itself. Consider it a starting point.
Living at altitude, high or low
Within an hour’s drive of Cuenca, you’ll find land that gets overnight frost and occasional snow flurries, or where temperatures climb to the mid-90s in the afternoon. In Azuay Province, where Cuenca is located, elevations range from less than 1,000 feet to over 15,000, which is higher than the highest point in the continental U.S. You’ll find areas with abundant insect life, and others with almost none; where there are dozens of varieties of snakes, including poisonous ones or none at all; where annual rainfall averages 100 inches a year, and where it is less than eight.
Your preferences are personal and those looking for property should not let the opinions of others influence their decision of where to buy. Some people gladly accept living with insects in exchange for a warm subtropical climate, similar to South Florida’s. Others prefer cooler temperatures, even the option of sitting in front of a roaring fire at night. In fact, there are expats who live happily at 11,000 feet, and others who are content at sea level.
Talkin’ about the weather
Although elevation is the primary determinant of weather in Ecuador, particularly for temperatures, there are other factors as well.
Everyone understands that Ecuador, being on the equator, doesn’t have traditional seasons like those in the high and low latitudes of the northern and southern hemispheres. But the equatorial location brings its own weather vagaries. Since Ecuador is in what is called the equatorial convergence zone, sometimes referred to as the doldrums, there are seldom large weather systems that sweep across the country. It makes weather forecasting difficult — ever wonder why it’s only news and sports, not news, sports and weather on the news at 6 and 11? The equatorial location also allows the conditions that create Ecuador’s famous micro-climates (more on this in a minute).
Temperatures. The rule of thumb is that you lose about 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit (two degrees Centigrade) for every 1,000 feet you climb. This is why temperatures are, on average, 10 to 11 degrees warmer in the Yunguilla Valley, southwest of Cuenca, with elevations averaging 5,000 feet, than in Cuenca, at 8,200 feet. In general, temperatures are four to five degrees Fahrenheit cooler than average from June to August in the southern sierra. The warmest temperatures are in December and January.
Rainfall and other weather factors. When you’re choosing an area in which to live, gather as much information as possible about the local weather — and not just at the time of your visit, but for all times of the year. Things like rainfall and its distribution, cloud cover, fog, and wind should be considered. Getting information about the weather in popular areas, such as Yunguilla and Paute, is obviously easier than in places off the beaten path. Keep in mind that property owners and real estate agents will often offer an unrealistically rosy weather forecast.
Most areas west of the South American continental divide, which is 17 miles west of Cuenca and runs along highway E35 between Cuenca and Loja, have distinct wet and dry seasons, whereas wet and dry periods are less defined to the east.
There are enormous variations in annual rainfall as a result of the micro-climates. If you plan to garden or have trouble with exceptionally high or low humidity, this could be an important consideration. You can choose a lush landscape that receives 60 to 70 inches of rainfall a year, or a desert that receives less than 10. For dryer areas, look south of Cuenca. The valley surrounding Oña, about 50 miles to the south, averages less than 20 inches of rainfall annually, and appears desert-like for much of the year.
The rainiest months in southern Ecuador are April and May, but this varies by year, usually depending on water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean.
You’ll find one of the most dramatic examples of micro-climates in Ecuador just south of Yunguilla, in what is commonly known as the Desierto de Jubones, or Jubones Desert. Typically, it receives six to eight inches of rain annually while the area less than two miles to the north gets 20. Continuing to the southwest, on the highway to Machala, the desert gives way, in the space of about 15 miles, to lush tropical vegetation and banana farms in an area that receives 30 to 50 inches of rain a year. The Jubones Desert definitely looks like a desert: it’s a desolate moon-scape with virtually no vegetation.
Fog is another important consideration for choosing country property. Some areas experience four or five hours of fog a day during the wet season, usually February to May. Others, such as northern Cañar and southern Chimborozo Provinces, have some fog almost year-round. It is worth noting that some areas that receive fog during the wet season have Ecuador’s driest and sunniest weather from May to December.
Need-less-to-say, elevation and rainfall are critical factors for gardening. Don’t buy country land with a preconceived idea of what you will grow; let the land and local weather conditions make the determination for you.
Within an hour-and-a-half drive from Cuenca, you’ll find production of pineapples and oranges, but you’ll also find cherries and apples. You’ll find commercial crops of cabbage and broccoli, as well as sugar cane, tomatoes and beans.
Talk to the locals about what grows best in the area you’re interested in. Both the University of Azuay and University of Cuenca maintain agricultural research stations outside of Cuenca with personnel knowledgeable about crops and growing conditions; they can also recommend professional agronomists. The gardening experience of other expats is also a valuable resource.
Would-be gardeners should also perform soil tests. While soil quality is generally good in Ecuador, some areas have been over-grazed and others have been damaged by monocropping and poor stewardship.
One of the most overlooked issues of those looking to buy land in the country, particularly for foreigners, is security. Theft happens in rural areas just as it is in cities. Talk to locals, get to know the community, keep up with the local scuttlebutt, and develop a plan to protect your property.
Most important: don’t make yourself a target. Understand that large, ostentatious houses and farm structures attract attention and not always by your friends and neighbors. Live smart. Live simply.
Are you a survivalist?
If you are one of those who’s expecting an an international financial meltdown or natural disaster and want a place to escape the ensuing social upheaval, you’re in luck in the Ecuadorian countryside. With relatively consistent year-round temperatures, fertile soil, abundant water, including tens-of-thousands of mountain springs, the Andes are a survivalist’s paradise.
Best of all, you will be surrounded by other survivalists. The campesinos have been surviving off the land for centuries and have learned how to deal with whatever calamity comes their way. They can teach foreigners, even the most paranoid, a thing or two. In many remote areas, they still use a barter system for many of their transactions, and most of them still get around on foot or horseback.
Once you’ve located your great escape, get to know the locals, become involved in their activities, participate in community work days. Most important, tap into their knowledge of the area.
Rural Ecuador is no place for a bunker mentality and “prepper” types.