Although it's been called the "Gringo invasion” in newspaper, magazine and website articles, Cuenca´s influx of English-speaking 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. That´s 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 Live and Invest Overseas, MSN, Yahoo, U.S. News and World Report and USA Today.
"The growth of North Americans in Cuenca has been amazing in the last four years,” says Sonia Gonzalez, a graduate student researcher at the University of Cuenca. “My studies show there were only 250 or 300 in 2008, so we’ve seen more than a ten-fold increase.”
For the record, immigration authorities estimate that 4,200 native English speaking foreigners live in Cuenca. The number includes both permanent residents, which number about 2,200, and those on long-term visas, mostly students, teachers, volunteers, missionaries and those in town to check out the city as a place to relocate.
What's the attraction?
The answer is simple, according to former British journalist and part-time Cuenca resident Sylvan Hardy. “This is a good place to live.”
Hardy says that the claims made by International Living, despite some exaggeration, are mostly true. “The cost of living is half of 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, supermarkets and good restaurants.”
Another draw is that Cuenca is not your typical expat community.
“The foreigners here have not changed the town's sense of identity,” says Sonya Sommers, a California native who had lived in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and Boquete, Panama before moving to Cuenca. “I have seen places where the gringos have transformed the town and have tried to make themselves the focal point. In Cuenca, there are no gringo-only subdivisions and there are very few American fast food joints.”
Hardy and Sommers attribute much of Cuenca´s attractiveness to its size. “This is a town of half a million so it can easily absorb a couple thousands 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 also 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, whether it's symphony performances, crafts shows, art exhibits or indigenous festivals.”
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.”
Despite integrating into the local life, expats 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 the gringo bars and restaurants cater to a mixed crowd of Ecuadorians and expats, most host special gringo events.
California Kitchen, DiBacco, and Nectar are three restaurants that make space available for special events. Other popular expat-owned restaurants and cafes include Eucalyptus Café, Kookaburra Café, Café Austria, Inca Lounge and Bistro, La Viña, Café San Sebas and Windhorse Café.
The Carlolina 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 discovered Cuenca in the 1960s when he served in the U.S. Peace Corps, and returned nine years ago to live.
Are there downsides to the expat surge? "Of course," says Hardy. "You will always have a few folk 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."
He adds: "We also have a gaggle of chronic complainers but you'll find miserable people everywhere."
Another problem, says Gonzalez, is that the Internet-generated hype has put too much emphasis on the low cost of living in Cuenca. "We see many North Americans here mostly because they think it is cheap, not because they are particularly interested in the city or the culture. Unfortunately, we are seeing more poor gringos and a lot of them are disappointed when they find out that Cuenca is not as cheap as advertised."
One example, she says, is the cost real estate. "International Living keeps pushing the story that you can buy luxury condos for $40,000 and this is simply not the case anymore. They are doing a lousy job of fact checking. Prices have been appreciating at 10% to 12% a year for five years and if you combine this with the depreciation in the U.S., prices are 70% to 80% higher than a few years ago."
Gonzalez adds that most expats have realistic expectations. "If you come here with an open mind and a genuine sense of adventure, I think you will be rewarded."
Photo captions: Cuenca's cathedral; a meeting of expats at a local restaurant.
Reposted from the Miami Herald International Edition, August 17, 2012, http://www.todayinecuador.com
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