Cuenca expat population holds steady despite pandemic and drug crime, shows recent growth

Aug 26, 2023 | 0 comments

By Liam Higgins

An immigration researcher says that Cuenca’s population of North American and European foreign residents is holding steady – and may actually be growing — despite the Covid-19 pandemic and concerns about drug-related violence in Ecuador.

Immigration researcher Joaquin Vivanco says Cuenca offers infrastructure and culture not available in other South American cities of comparable size.

“There was drop in expat numbers of about 10% during the Covid pandemic but those loses were recovered in late 2021 and 2022,” says Joaquin Vivanco, who provides immigration data to several government and non-governmental agencies. “The information suggests that expat numbers are growing again, but more slowly than they did during the boom years after 2010. Currently, I estimate there are 9,000 foreign residents of North American and Western European origin in the city.”

Vivanco, whose primary focus is Latin American immigration, began tracking North American immigrants in 2012, after Cuenca was recommended as an expat destination by a number of news and live-overseas publications and websites. “In a five-year period, beginning in 2009 or 2010, the number of expats, mostly U.S. and Canadian citizens, grew from a few hundred to about 6,000,” he says. “It was an amazing phenomenon, and it received a lot of attention internationally.”

According to Vivanco, who is an adjunct professor at universities in Quito and Santiago, Chile, the expat profile has changed dramatically over the last decade. “The first wave was mostly elderly North Americans, most of them retired but, more recently, the newcomers are younger and much more European,” he says. “There are also some Asians and Africans moving here.”

Separating the Europeans and North American immigrants from those from Latin American countries has become more difficult in recent years, Vivanco says. “There are 30,000 Venezuelans in Cuenca and 8,000 Colombians, not to mention significant communities of Cubans, Argentinians and Peruvians, so it can be hard coming up with good estimates. And then, there are at least 3,000 or 4,000 Cuencanos who also hold U.S. or Canadian citizenship.”

It’s obvious why Cuenca is popular with foreigners, Vivanco says. “It has cultural and infrastructure attributes and a level of sophistication that make it a good place to live. It stands out among South American cities of comparable size. My wife and I have an apartment in Santiago but in the last two years we are spending most of our time in Cuenca. She is a concert violinist and has performed with the Cuenca orchestra.”

Vivanco says news reports about Ecuador’s rising murder rate are keeping some expats away. “There is no doubt about it,” he says. “The media reports are really alarming and it’s a terrible problem, but I find that most newcomers to Cuenca do their research and understand that the drug violence is on the coast. They get reports from the people already living here and know about the situation on the ground.”

He adds that surprisingly few expats living on the coast have left the country. “Foreigners in places like Manta and Salinas tell me that the violence is concentrated in certain neighborhoods that they avoid,” he says. “They say that although they take more precautions than before, their daily routines have not significantly changed and they feel safe where they live.”

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