How did Cuenca turn into the world’s greatest expat-lifestyle laboratory? A brief history of Ecuador’s and Cuenca’s expat boom

Feb 4, 2016 | 4 comments

By Deke Castleman and David Morrill

We’re all Gary’s children.

Gringos lived and worked in Ecuador long before Gary and Merri Scott showed up around 1995, but the Scotts, almost single-handedly, put Ecuador on the radar screens of thousands of pilgrims to the Middle of the World. Almost all of us Cuenca expats can trace our knowledge of Ecuador as an expat destination back to Gary and Merri, even if we don’t realize it (or don’t want to admit it).

In the very early 2000s, Gary was the first Ecuador correspondent for International Living, the magazine and Internet-based information service for North Americans considering moving overseas.

Gary and Merri Scott

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The Scotts are extraordinary although sometimes controversial marketers who, based on their travels and expat experiences, identified a growing trend of internationalism among the North American middle class. Gary, especially, experienced expat life in Hong Kong in the 1960s and London in the 1970s; he was a founding contributor to International Living way back in 1988.

When Gary and Merri arrived in Ecuador in the mid-’90s, they knew they’d discovered the opportunity of a lifetime. They’ve certainly capitalized on it, not only through real-estate investments, but also via the website EcuadorLiving has been up and running since May 2007; there are more than 1,000 articles in the Archive. (A lot of it is marketing and ad pitches, but you can find plenty of content needles in the sales haystack.)

They’ve also sponsored real-estate tours around Ecuador and shamanic tours into the rainforest, and held import-export and learn-Spanish-in-four-days seminars (and put on health and wealth retreats at their homes in Florida and North Carolina).

The Scotts banged the Ecuador drum for so long that by 2002 and 2003, the first wave of major media washed up on the country’s shores.

The Rush to Ecuador

A handful of North Americans gravitated to Ecuador, especially Cuenca, in the early 2000s. In February 2004, when CuencaHighLife founder David Morrill moved here (he’d originally visited on a bird-watching tour, then returned on a Gary Scott real-estate tour), he found that a couple dozen expats from North American and Europe had preceded him, including Lee Harrison who succeeded Gary Scott as the Ecuador correspondent for International Living.

By 2007, an estimated 300 to 400 resident expats had settled in Cuenca, many of them having married into Ecuadorian families.

prospective expats tour Cuenca

Prospective expats tour Cuenca

Then, in 2008 Stern, Germany’s version of Newsweek magazine, rated Cuenca the best place to live in Latin American for foreigners, and National Geographic included Cuenca in its list of the world’s top 50 historic cities.

But Cuenca’s status as a world-class expat hot spot dates specifically to September 2009, when International Living, which had added a popular website to its print publications, named Cuenca the world’s number-one retirement destination. It was the first time International Living had bestowed the honor on a single city and not a country.

Morrill and former Cuenca resident Lee Harrison were writing for International Living at the time and probably played the biggest role in the number one ranking. Neither, however, thought they were playing a rankings game. “Our point was that Cuenca was a very good place to live,” Morrill said. “We weren’t saying that it was the best and didn’t know about IL’s plan to name a champion. We’ve been blamed, or credited, however you look at it, for bringing thousands of gringos to Cuenca and that was never our intention,” he says.

The Cuenca story was quickly picked up by other publications and websites, including U.S. News and World Report, The Guardian, Conde Nast Traveler and USA Today, as well as most of the major television networks. In its 2010 Best in Travel guidebook, Lonely Planet named Cuenca one of the 10 top cities for travelers.

Also in 2010, Kathleen Peddicord, founding publisher of International Living and current publisher of Live and Invest Overseas, named Cuenca the world’s most affordable expat city in her popular book How to Retire Overseas.

Kathleen Peddicord of Live & Invest Overseas

Kathleen Peddicord of Live & Invest Overseas

The extensive worldwide coverage propelled a gaggle of gringos to Ecuador and especially Cuenca. Since fall 2009, Cuenca’s English-speaking expat population has mushroomed by roughly 800%. To the closest guesstimate as of early 2016, 4,500 to 6,000 permanent English-speaking, mostly North American expats, live in Cuenca.

Although the growth of the North American expat community has slowed considerably since 2013, other expat groups have started to arrive according to government immigration sources.

The number of Europeans, including Germans, French, Spaniards and Scandinavians, has tripled since 2013, according to former University of Cuenca demographer José Miller. Another trend, he says, is the rapid increase in the number of younger North Americans and Europeans, many of them with families. “My estimate is that 7,000 North Americans and Europeans currently live permanently in Cuenca,” Miller says. The city of Cuenca’s foreign affairs office puts the number at 8,000, but they say their estimate is based on sources sunch as Miller.

Why do they come?

So what’s the attraction? Why do so many “first-generation” expats gravitate to Cuenca? What are the factors that prompt them to make the big move here, then make a new life for themselves?

The answer is complicated, say Harrison and Morrill. “I tell people that it’s simply one of the best overseas destinations available,” says Harrision. “The infrastructure is good and getting better, the weather and culture are excellent and it’s easy to get to, especially from the U.S.” He adds: “The city is also the perfect size for a lot of people; large enough to have big city advantages but small enough to have a comfortable, homey feel.”

An expat gathering.

An expat gathering in 2010.

Morrill agrees, and says the improvements roads, law enforcement and other basic services in the past 10 years has been impressive.

Of special interest to him, is the way the expat community grew in Cuenca. “It’s the first  Internet expatriation experiment,” he says. “Most of the other recent expat booms in Latin America were fueled, at least at the beginning, through print media information.” He includes San Migel de Allende and Ajijic, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Boquete, Panama in that group. “Cuenca’s foreign community was built almost entirely after the Internet had developed and that’s where the arriving foreigners got most of their information,” he says, suggesting that several academic studies are in the works on the issue.

There’s a downside to the on-line information that draws many expats, Morrill believes. “Because it’s so easy to get from the web, and because there’s so much of it, it leads to sloppy research,” says. “In the old days, prospective expats had to hunt down magazine articles and books to learn about places they were interested in. In many cases, they even went to the library, which today seems kind of quaint and archaic.”

The on-line information is not only much easier to obtain, Morrill says, but can also be much less reliable. “Some of it is high quality but a lot of it is not, and a lot of it is just flat wrong,” he says.

“One of the results of the easy-to-get information is that many people come to Cuenca and other expat communities unprepared to live in a different country,” he says. “That explains the spinning turnstile of expat comings and goings we see today.”

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