Influx of younger expats to Cuenca accelerates as more remote online workers arrive in the city
By Sylvan Hardy
They’re coming in from all over the world. That’s what Australian Kendall Barnes says about other recent arrivals to Cuenca.
“I’ve met people from Belgium, Israel, China, Russia, Argentina, Portugal, the U.S. and England since I moved here last year,” Barnes says. “Most of them are doing some sort of online work but others are teaching English to Ecuadorians or just hanging out.”
A notable feature of most of the newcomers, says 37-year-old Barnes, is most of them are young, which he describes as being under 40 “Since the craziness about the pandemic has died out, there seems to be a rush of people coming in. Most of them were thinking about living abroad before Covid but they were stuck with all the restrictions. Now they’re free to travel.”
According to Barnes and other recent arrivals, Cuenca ranks high among Latin American cities as an attractive remote work location. “On almost every list I’ve seen, it ranks in the top five for young expats and the so-called digital nomads,” he says. “Quito, Arequipa [Peru], Mendoza [Argentina] and Medellin are other popular landing spots but, for a lot of us, Cuenca is a comfortable fit. I was in Medellin for several months but it was too big for my tastes. There’s also too much crime.”
For Stephanie Lawson, a Canadian technical writer, Cuenca is also a good fit. She and her husband and three-year-old son arrived in September 2021, renting an apartment three blocks from Parque Calderon. “It’s a good place for doing my work and during my free time my family and I love to walk the streets of El Centro,” she says. “The feel of the place is important to me and I feel comfortable here.”
Lawson visited other Ecuadorian and Colombian cities and says her choice of Cuenca was a “stroke of luck” since it offered advantages critical for her work and personal life. “I need reliable utilities, especially fast internet, I like being close to the parks, decent restaurants and the tram, which runs right past our apartment.”
Being near an airport was another important consideration for Lawson. “My biggest client is in Miami and I can get there within seven or eight hours if I need to,” she says. “Best of all, the tram drops me at the front door of the terminal.”
Cuenca real estate and rental agents are busy accommodating the rush of younger expats. “Almost all of my 60 units are rented and I have to turn people away,” says Graciela Quinde, owner of Cuenca Rentals and Sales. “Even before the pandemic, there wasn’t this much demand. It’s crazy.”
Quinde has noticed a demographic shift among expat arrivals. “A few years ago, almost all of them were older people, mostly retirees from the U.S. Today, at least half of them are younger and many of them have families. Another change is that they’re coming from different countries, like the Netherlands, Spain, Israel and New Zealand and even China.”
According to Quinde, almost all the younger expats are looking for rentals. “They prefer something turn-key, totally furnished with the utilities included.” She adds that a fast internet connection is always a requirement.
Although most of the new arrivals work alone, others are teaming up with others to provide internet-based services and work space. Barnes has partnered with Argentinian Luis Guzmán to establish an international call center a block from Parque Calderon that serves corporate clients — including two airlines — from Spain, Ecuador and the U.S. Created in early 2021, the center has 17 bilingual employees, including five expats from the Netherlands, Scotland and the U.K.
Barnes and Guzmán keep a room adjacent to the call center facilities for locals and expats to work on private projects and to socialize. “This is basically a public space where our callers can work in their off hours but we also ask them to invite their friends,” says Barnes. “It’s a place where people can share information about new projects and simply relax.”
Barnes, Lawson and Guzmán say remote workers need to interact personally. “We need to talk to each other to find work and to solve technical problems,” says Lawson. “One of the ironies of this kind of work is that although we spend a lot of time alone, interacting with machines and networks, we also need to be around flesh and blood people. High tech is great but so is being a human being.”
Quinde says that the younger newcomers to Cuenca will not replace older expats. “There are still a lot of older people coming, mostly from the U.S. and Canada, and this will keep happening. Cuenca is a great place for retirees. What will change, I believe, is the mix of people in the expat community. It is getting younger.”
She adds: “But I’m sure there will be room for everybody.”