SHEL’S AND FRANK’S EXCELLENT ECUADOR ADVENTURECuenca — the dream is real: A place for us in Cuenca?

May 5, 2010

Editor’s note: This is the eighth installment of a multi-part series chronicling the adventures of Shel and Frank Drake on their first visit to Ecuador. Frank is a travel writer and Shel is a professional travel photographer.

 In 2008 Stern, Germany’s version of Newsweek magazine, rated Cuenca the best place to live in Latin American for foreigners, while National Geographic included Cuenca in its list of the world's top 50 historic cities. Lonely Planet named Cuenca one of the 10 top cities for travelers in its 2010 Best in Travel guide. And Cuenca was declared the world’s top retirement haven for 2009 by International Living, the only time IL has ever bestowed the honor on a single city and not an entire country. Given the recent worldwide coverage, Cuenca has become a prominent pilgrimage destination for aspiring retiring expats like Shel and I. As such, lots of Norte Americanos congregate here.

According to David Morrill, a core community of American expats numbers, perhaps, 700. That’s not overwhelming, slightly more than a tenth of one percent of the population. Yet, most live right downtown and, with Boomer pilgrims visiting en masse, there’s a fairly thick concentration of gringos in El Centro.

In addition, plenty of hippie-trail travelers carrying Lonely Planet guidebooks occupy the hostels and eat almuerzos and ride the buses. With four major universities, Cuenca also attracts exchange students and professors. Various volunteers — language, environmental, church, and the like — round out the ranks of non-Ecuadorians.

A handful of gringos live in modern high-rise condominiums on the west side of Cuenca and we met some Americans who lived in scattered places outside of downtown, but most of them converge in colonial Cuenca. And by extension, over the next four days as we expanded out from Cuenca centro in concentric circles, we rarely ran across any other Americans or Europeans.

Thus, there seemed to be enough expats so we weren’t entirely on our own, like in Ibarra, though without overrunning the place, like in Cotacachi.

David talked about the real-estate boom, gave us some restaurant recommendations, told us a little of his personal history, and shared his vision for CuencaHighLife.com. I’d tooled around his website at Casa Sol after meeting him at the conference and got a strong flavor of Cuenca from its features, news stories, reviews, coverage of events and services, expat blogs, and links to his real estate site. As he described how he hoped to expand CuencaHighLife, I started to see a place for Shel and me there, a site that could host our impressions and images as we chronicled Frank and Shel’s excellent travel, immigration, residency, and naturalization adventures, a sort of if-we-can-do-it-you-can-too and here’re-a-few-hints-how guide.

Plenty of people before us have expatriated to Ecuador. Some were no doubt in the process as we ate American bacon-and-egg breakfasts in an Australian coffeehouse in southcentral Ecuador. And plenty of people have produced travel and expatriation media about the place as well.

But it seemed to me that we were in a unique position. On the one hand, we were among the growing number of Americans looking to retire from the circus the U.S. was turning into to a country that was appearing more and more like the Promised Land — to me anyway, if not, so far, to my wife.

On the other hand, we weren’t just a couple of typical Boomers on the loose. I’m a veteran travel writer and Shel is a long-time photographer. And here we were, on an initial exploratory trip, already capturing what we were seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling with my digital voice recorder and Shel’s digital camera. When we came back to live, we could write about Ecuador’s people, economy, culture, politics, history, markets, food, festivals; its highest volcanoes and deepest rainforests, overflowing cities and wild coastlines, village huts and cruiseship staterooms. We could also cover the Cuenca high (and low) life, tell the tales of other expats and locals, perfect our Spanish — writing up and illustrating all the impressions that were filling our heads and touching our hearts.

And God only knew how much content we could produce and post. In my career, I’ve written millions of words, generating tens of thousands of pages of print for newspapers, magazines, newsletters, books, and especially insatiable websites, and from where I sat that Thursday morning at the Kookabura, I was glimpsing a fine future of providing accurate and detailed information about the process of expatriating to Ecuador — having a blast, living my dream doing so, and passing it along to people who might want to do the same.

After less than 24 hours there, I’d already determined that I could live in Cuenca — happily, and maybe even ever after. And getting to know the guy who might have a place for us, I was also seeing opportunity in Cuenca — and beyond.

In the end, since you’re reading this on CuencaHighLife.com, you know that David Morrill saw the same fine future and here we all are.

Photo captions: along a back road of Ecuador; construction Ecuador-style; ornate colonial architecture in central Cuenca; two views from the staircase in Mercado 9 de Octubre

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