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Expat Life

Ecuador and Cuenca again named world’s top retirement destinations; some say the ‘live cheap’ distinction attracts the wrong kind of expats

Ecuador finds itself in a familiar position in International Living’s 2015 Global Retirement Index, released on Friday. The index rates it the world’s number one retirement country for the fourth time in seven years.chl cuenca

International Living’s index rates countries based on eight categories including cost of living, real estate and rental  prices, climate, infrastructure, health care, and transportation. It also considers special benefits for expats, such as travel discounts and tax deductions.

According to the index, other countries that follow Ecuador at the top of the rankings are Panama, Mexico, Malaysia, Costa Rica and Spain.

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In addition to Ecuador’s country honor, International Living continues to promote Cuenca as one of the world’s top retirement cities. In fact, in recent years, Cuenca has received far more PR than the rest of  Ecuador as an expat hotspot, attracting prime time coverage from all three major U.S. television networks, CNN, Fox, BBC and Al Jazeera, as well as in dozens of magazines, newspapers and websites.

Do Ecuador and Cuenca really deserve top international billing? And, does their reputation as the best place to live on a budget attract expats who are unprepared and uninterested in living in a foreign culture?

“My wife and I lived in Panama, Spain and Portugal before we came to Cuenca and, speaking only for ourselves, it’s definitely the most comfortable place for us,” says Roy Adamson. “I’m not a big fan of International Living but, in this case, I think they got it right.”

Adamson adds that services like International Living, Gary Scott and Live and Invest Overseas, are commercial enterprises and should be seen as such. “They’re out to sell books and seminars and they don’t deny it, and these best-places-to-live lists get a lot of publicity, which is exactly what they want. Frankly, I’ve never had much sympathy for people who say they were deceived by International Living into to moving overseas. Wake up people! Quit scapegoating your ignorance and naivete.”

Karen McGuffy, retired high school principal from Kentucky and a Cuenca resident since 2011, says that the city’s popularity speaks for itself. “People wouldn’t keep flooding in if it wasn’t a good place to live,” she says. “I don’t know how you decide what city or what country is absolutely the best, but I don’t think you can go wrong saying good things about Ecuador, especially when you consider the options.”

SENDING OUT THE WRONG SIGNAL?

Some expats disagree with International Living’s emphasis on Ecuador’s and Cuenca’s low cost of living.

“The message seems to be, if you’re broke and down on your luck, come to Cuenca and things will okay,” says expat Ben Smith, a former furniture manufacturer from North Carolina. “I hate that. Why can’t they talk about the expats who travel around South America, who belong to the country club and who can afford to go to nice restaurants? Cuenca’s a good place for anyone to live, not just poor people, and it’s great for all of us that the dollar goes a long way.”

Cuenca's festivals are a major attraction for expats, according to live-overseas services.
Cuenca’s festivals are a major attraction for expats, according to live-overseas services.

Another Cuenca expat, bookstore owner and retired Spanish professor Lee Dubs, says the emphasis on low cost of living attracts too many expats who are focused solely on living cheaply and are unsuited for life in a new country. He sent a message to International Living following the release of their latest retirement index.

“Will someone please recommend retirement areas abroad on a basis other than cost?” Dubs asks. “My wife and I have lived in Ecuador for 12 years, and we continue to see North Americans move here for no other reason than having read that it is cheap. They are too often unprepared for the huge cultural changes they have to face — especially language — and they are quickly disenchanted, miserable, and often rude to the locals. Now we see them leaving this country as fast, if not faster, than they are arriving.”

Dubs, who first visited Cuenca in the 1960s while he was serving in the Peace Corps added: “There’s more to life than what it costs, folks. Try telling the whole story for a change.”

THE GOOD PRESS KEEPS ‘EM COMING

It’s hard to deny that the publicity from International Living and other live-overseas advocates, as well as from international media outlets, keeps interest in Ecuador and Cuenca at a high pitch.

A year-end press release from Ecuador’s Interior Ministry, the agency that handles immigration and issues visas to foreign visitors and residents, reported that the number of visa applications from English-speakers had increased in the second half of 2014.

On a recent visit to Cuenca’s immigration office on Av. Manuel Calle, McGuffy said she was amazed at the number of North Americans in the waiting room. “At least half the seats were filled by gringos,” she said. “I asked the lady at the counter about it and she said she’s never seen so many applying for visas.”

She added: “I guess the beat goes on.”

See related story: Why do expats go home?