Cuenca is an UNESCO World Heritage city, the cultural capital of Ecuador and is filled with picturesque views of the Cajas Mountains with pleasant weather, but it’s not without its flaws to those expats who have fled. The cost of living is certainly a big draw for many expats in search of the next retirement haven, but as one expat explained, “You have to love the way of life and not just come here for the cost of living.” Those who have left Cuenca in search of the next utopia cite three main reasons: culture shock, pollution and too much rain!
Culture Shock and Stress
The expat community in Cuenca ranges from age 55 to 85, with the average being around 65 years of age. Many expats are well traveled and others have never set foot in a foreign country until they retire in Cuenca. Although there is an expat friendly environment in Cuenca, it doesn’t take away from the fact that Ecuador is a developing country and doesn’t run as smoothly as some North Americans would like.
The language barrier is the first hurdle that must be crossed and it often proves to be too much and expats create their own “ghetto” by secluding themselves in expat-friend cafes instead of integrating into the culture. The combination of a new culture, new language and a new way of life often proves to be too much stress and the individual leaves the country.
Some early warning signs that stress may be too overwhelming include: mental sluggishness, inability to sleep, fatigue, high blood pressure and sometimes heart problems. After the honeymoon period has worn off and the daily life in a foreign country starts to sink in, that’s when you see the “flight” syndrome. In essence, culture shock is the inability of an individual or couple to adapt to cultural stress and unfortunately many marriages don’t survive.
Pollution and Diesel Fumes
Cuenca has an excellent transportation system with a fleet of blue buses that emit a constant stream of diesel fumes. A study on air pollution conducted by a student at Lewis and Clark University in Oregon states that “85 percent of air pollution in Cuenca is caused by vehicle emissions.” Although Cuenca is working on an effective solution to the problem, it often proves to be the fatal flaw for some expats. Those with upper respiratory problems, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, are at the highest risk for returning to the States or to a less polluted area. The high altitude of Cuenca (8,300 feet) is also a problem for those who have less than optimal lung function.
Diesel fumes are more prevalent in El Centro (the historic part of the city) where the narrow cobblestone streets cannot accommodate the large diesel buses and vehicle congestion. David Marshall, an expat in Cuenca, cited pollution as one of the major decisions for him to leave the city. He states, “El Centro is worse than other areas of Cuenca because of the diesel buses. We have decided to live where the air is cleaner.” David and his wife are now living in Vilcabamba in the southern part of Ecuador.
Eternal Springtime or Eternal Rain?
Cuenca has been called the city of “eternal springtime” with average temperatures ranging in the 40′s and 50′s at night with 60′s to 70′s in the daytime. Because of Cuenca’s high altitude, nestled in the Andes Mountains and its proximity to the equator, the temperatures remain mild and certainly no snow to shovel.
There are basically two seasons in Cuenca (wet and dry), but for some reason the weather pattern has shifted in recent years and the wet season now extends throughout most of the year. Ecuadorians admit that the weather is not what it was like 20 years ago with constant sunshine and scattered showers. The month of April appropriately named the month of a “thousand waters” (mil aguas) is traditionally the wettest month of the year, but it’s not unusual for December, January and February (summer) to be filled with cloudy skies and rain.
Many expats are moving to sunnier parts of Ecuador (Vilcabamba or theYunguilla Valley), where the weather is subtropical and the days are filled with sunshine. John, an expat who relocated to Cuenca two years ago, moved to the Yunguilla Valley, citing the weather as the major reason for his decision. In a recent interview, he explained, “I certainly wasn’t expecting ‘Seattle in Cuenca.’” It’s safe to say that if you suffer from seasonal affective disorder, Cuenca may not be the right choice for you.
If you’re looking for a retirement destination that has it all, Cuenca, Ecuador is about as good as it gets, but it’s not without its flaws as some expats have found out. You can’t believe everything you read in the glossy-print magazines; you have to experience it yourself. Two years in any country is a good determiner of whether it’s a good fit or not. Before you sell all your worldly possessions and head for “latitude zero,” make sure you’ve done your homework so you won’t become another expat casualty.
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