The key to expat contentment in Cuenca? You have to adapt to the Ecuadorian way of doing things
By Silvia Ascarelli
Bill and Dean Keyes and Chase and Saralee Squires separately say they have found the same retirement spot with perfect weather — temperatures in the upper 60s and low 70s year-round during the day and in the upper 40s at night during the winter (in this case, August and September).
Their dream spot is Cuenca, Ecuador, a Unesco World Heritage site. Although its elevation is around 8,500 feet above sea level, you’ll find palm trees and parrots in the country’s third largest city because it’s only about 200 miles south of the equator.
“If the place you live in doesn’t delight and amaze you every day, you’re doing it wrong. And that’s how I feel about Cuenca,” says Saralee Squires, 61, who retired after working in advertising and later in benefits management.
The Squireses were still in their 50s when they left downtown Denver after a search for their international retirement spot that included Costa Rica, Spain, Panama, Belize and Colombia as well as Ecuador.
They settled on Cuenca, where they say they spend about $3,000 a month but add that it’s possible to live there on about half that — a figure the Keyeses agree with. “We don’t spare ourselves anything, and we pay for convenience,” said Chase Squires, 56, who had a career in reporting and, later, marketing.
The Keyeses, meanwhile, moved to Cuenca from Tucson, Ariz., a dozen years ago, leaving daughters and grandchildren in the U.S. They estimate they spend about $2,000 a month.
“Our cost of living is probably less than half of what it would be in the U.S.,” says Bill Keyes, an 81-year-old retired civil engineer.
Adds his wife, Dean, a 75-year-old retired schoolteacher and community banker: “We will never go back to the States. We will die here, and they can throw my ashes into the Galapagos.”
The two couples, whose lives don’t overlap among Cuenca’s estimated 7,000 to 10,000 expats, discussed their experiences in separate interviews. Both pairs emphasized that, to be happy, those considering a move must be willing to adapt to Ecuador’s ways of doing things.
“The best piece of advice I got is any time you get frustrated and think they’re not doing it right, repeat these three words: ‘This is Ecuador,’ ” says Chase Squires. “Nobody cares how you did it up north. They’re not changing for you.”
Those curious about retirement life in this South American country, which is about the size of Colorado, should test it out, whether on a short vacation or for up to three months (no visa required), they say. Chase and Saralee Squires held on to their Denver apartment for two years as a safety net, just in case.
If you want to keep up with what’s going on in Cuenca, check out the online expat newspaper CuencaHighLife or the Facebook pages that offer advice and information.
Spanish skills aren’t a must; all four say their language skills aren’t great and point to Google Translate, used by Americans and Ecuadoreans alike to communicate across language divides. Facilitators — essentially translators — can be hired for medical visits and other situations.
What’s Cuenca like?
Cuenca, in a word, is walkable. Both couples mentioned that most Americans lose weight after moving here because people walk everywhere.
The pace of life is also much slower than in the U.S., they say.
You’ll find Netflix as well as access to American sports channels via streaming. There are big supermarkets just as in the U.S., as well as smaller outdoor markets.
And, yes, it’s safe to drink the water. And to walk at night.
Of course, there are some differences from the U.S. A big one is that there’s no mail service — which makes deliveries of online orders from the U.S. using FedEx or DHL expensive. All four say you’ll need to do your ordering when you’re about to travel to the U.S. or ask friends who are visiting to bring your package. It also means thinking ahead about how to replace a credit card that’s about to expire.
If you want to find reading material in English, the Squireses recommend joining your local library before you leave the U.S. so you can download books.
As for the weather, there’s more rain than in Tucson, Bill Keyes says, but it’s a “gentle” rain, not a “pounding monsoon that wants to beat you into the ground.”
Each couple has found their own groups. Bill Keyes’s passion is music; he plays rhythm guitar and keyboards in a classic-rock band with one American, two Ecuadoreans and one Venezuelan
“It’s a lot like summer camp, hanging out with your friends,” says Chase Squires. He and his wife join a regular group walk on Tuesdays that ends at a tavern or restaurant. Then there’s Friday happy hour, the bar where they watch NFL games and other sports, and other gatherings. Good seats to cheer on the local soccer team are $12 apiece. They find out what’s happening locally through an English-language website, CuencaHighLife.
What do things cost?
Bill and Dean Keyes rent a 3,000-square-foot apartment with four bedrooms and four bathrooms about five miles from downtown for $700 a month. The Squireses have a two-bedroom furnished apartment in the center of town that costs $550 a month and includes all utilities, even internet.
Given the mild temperatures, apartments don’t come with central heating or air conditioning.
Neither couple owns a car; they say it’s not needed. A bus ride is just 15 cents for seniors and 30 cents for others, says Bill Keyes. “There are lots of discounts for ‘tercera edad,’ or over 65,” he adds.
A cab ride starts at $1.50, and he recalls a $5 fare for a half-hour ride to the hospital. Overall, he estimates he spends about $125 a month on cabs.
A four- or five-hour bus trip to another Ecuadorean city usually costs $10 or less, and hotels are $20 to $25 a night, Chase Squires says.
The U.S. dollar is the de facto currency. ATMs spit out $20 bills. Most business is done in cash; those gold-colored Sacagawea dollar coins that generally go unused in the U.S. are popular in Ecuador, as are quarters.
A local lunch could cost $3 to $5; filet mignon at an upscale restaurant could run $18.
Dean Keyes enjoys regular massages and acupuncture treatments; “it’s my treat for having worked for 40 years.” she says. That costs $35 for both in Cuenca, compared with $70 just for acupuncture and another $50 for a massage in Tucson.
Internet, with upload and download speeds of 150 megabytes per second, costs the Keyeses $49 a month. Cellphone service costs $7 a month, and people typically use WhatsApp to call friends and businesses for free.
What about healthcare?
Health insurance, says Chase Squires, is what drove him and his wife to leave the U.S.
“Our biggest driver for working in the U.S. is to have health insurance,” he says. “When it became obvious we could do it a different way, we realized we could quit working.”
Instead of paying $1,200 a month in the U.S. for a policy with a $6,000 deductible, they have coverage from a private insurer for $110 a month in Ecuador with a $5,000 deductible. That’s $110 for both of them. He recently spent $40 to see a doctor at a private medical center over what turned out to be strep throat; the follow-up visit was free.
Bill Keyes says he and his wife pay $100 a month for insurance that covers his quarterly checkups and all of his medications. Before that, the couple opted to self-insure. When he woke up with terrible chest pains in 2013, he recalls, he hailed a cab to get to a hospital in Cuenca, where he was told he needed a stent. It was inserted through his arm, and he spent a few nights in the hospital. It cost him $7,800.
When he later needed a triple bypass, a friend told him to get on the public insurance system that provides free care. He spent nine days in the hospital, and the only cost was $110 for food.
His current insurance comes through the hospital system associated with Ecuador’s version of Social Security, called IESS. Workers and businesses pay into it, but you can also join the system as a “volunteer,” he says.
How do you get a visa to live in Ecuador?
There are several ways to qualify for residency. The caveat is that rules change, so check for the latest information. While the couples have different visas, they both used Ecuadorean lawyers to help with the process.
The Keyeses were eligible for a retirement visa, which requires proof of enough monthly income to live. When they moved in 2010, that was $1,200 a month.
The Squireses were too young for the retiree visa but qualified for professional visas. They began gathering paperwork for two-year temporary visas in November 2019, arrived in Ecuador in February 2020, then had their visas by early May and national ID cards in June. In November 2021, it was time to start the process for permanent visas. They were in hand by March 2022.
Ecuador also offers an investor visa, which involves either depositing $42,500 in a bank or buying property for that amount, and one for digital nomads.
Credit: Market Watch