Expat Retirement Communities in Ecuador
Many retirees are moving to expat retirement communities outside the United States and Europe to enjoy what they hope will be the best years of their lives. People are finding that their pension does not go as far as it did in the past.
For most individuals in the U.S., a $2000/month pension covers the bare necessities, with little or no money left for leisure, or tragically, emergencies. However, the same amount of money in Ecuador will cover all your living expenses and health care coverage, with about $1000 a month left for travel, entertainment and whatever you want or need. Naturally, a couple would need a lot more than $2000/month for living expenses in the U.S., but in Ecuador that amount would cover a couple’s living and health care expenses plus be able to provide a few frills on the side.
Many retirees also consider the move an escape from the long, cold winters of North America and Europe. By moving to a location on the Equator, retirees can benefit from consistent weather patterns, 12 hours of daylight every day, and mild temperatures all year round.
By some estimates, more than 100 people a day are now moving to Ecuador to experience its amazingly varied climate, unique cuisine, vibrant culture and comfortable cost of living.
Currently the three most popular cities in Ecuador for expat retirement are Cuenca (a high-elevation city in the Andes), Quito (the capital), and Vilcabamba (in the spring-like “Valley of Longevity” to the south). Other attractive locations include Cotacachi, Bahia de Caraquez and Loja.
The city of Cuenca oozes Old World charm with its cobblestone streets, colonial-era churches and stately mansions with wrought-iron balconies. Colorful flags and pastel-painted murals adorn the many markets where residents shop for locally grown vegetables, coffee and other household goods. Cuenca has a very “European” feel in its architecture and culture, and the city attracts a steady stream of homebuyers from that part of the world.
At 2,560 meters (8,400 ft.), the weather in Cuenca is somewhat cool due to the high altitude, and you may see more rain here than other areas of Ecuador. However, the dry season from June to December is an absolute delight, with temperatures averaging 50° F (10° C) at night and 70° F (21° C) during the day.
Cuenca is the cultural heart of the country. In this center of art and literature, you can attend the orchestra, a play, a tango performance, or an art opening, and these activities are usually free. There are many historical attractions like the Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes, which houses thousands of Incan artifacts dating as far back as 500 B.C., or the Museo del Banco Central, a massive museum complex with everything from colonial art to exhibits on Ecuadorian currency to botanical gardens. The Ingaprica — the largest Incan ruins in Ecuador — is also nearby.
Retirees here enjoy strolling through this very walk-able city or grabbing a coffee near the tree-lined Parque Abdon Calderon (the central square). The festive open-air markets, which sell locally made crafts (the Panama hat is primarily made in Cuenca), and food attract residents from nearby towns, and the flower market off Parque Calderon is a favorite for locals and tourists alike. Expats and tourists who like the nightlife enjoy Calle Larga, a more sedate version of New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, with its many bars, discotecas and internationally inspired restaurants.
More athletic folks can hike in the nearby Cajas National Park — something you can do nearly year round due to the mild weather. The entire El Cajas region, which includes the park, was recently named a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. Cajas is a perfect example of Nature’s masterful design, where the wind-swept paramos and over 200 lakes (lagunas) unite to create a natural temple. If you are bird watcher, fishermen or avid hiker, this is the place for you.
Cuenca is sometimes called the “Athens of the Andes” because it is a mecca for people who love culturally significant places, the arts, and learning. UNESCO named the historic district of Cuenca a World Heritage Site in 1999. Cuenca is also a great place to learn Spanish as the Spanish spoken here is clear and precise, and the costs to study the language are among the lowest in South America.
But while Cuenca is best known for its cultural contributions to Ecuador, the city also has plenty of modern conveniences, including 18 hospitals, four universities that attract students from all over the world, and a large indoor shopping mall (Mall del Rio) complete with Burger King, Pizza Hut and many other American fast food joints. The nearest international airport with flights to the U.S. and Europe is in Guayaquil, about 243 kilometers away (four hours by bus).
Although the city has many modern attractions, expats find the pace of life in Cuenca less hectic than in cities like Quito or Guayaquil. Cuenca is also affordable: most retirees can live for well under $2,000 per month. You can rent a furnished apartment for as little as $400 per month, an unfurnished apartment from $300 per month, or buy a small condo outright for less than $40,000. Thanks to the comfortable year-round climate in Cuenca, you won’t have to worry about heat or air conditioning, which is another important reason why retirement in this city is as affordable as it is.
To be able to enjoy all that the city has to offer, plan on a budget of $1,500 a month per couple if you’re renting and $1,100 per month if you own your home. You could certainly live here for less, but these estimates will allow you to make the most of your new life in Cuenca.
Quito, named the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, is a beautiful, sophisticated city supported by a modern international airport and world-class restaurants, museums and shopping. The Spanish influence is everywhere, especially in the colonial architecture and cathedrals.
While just 22 kilometers from the equatorial line, Quito has a climate that is often compared to an English springtime, with temperatures averaging 50° F (10° C) at night and 70° F (21° C) during the day. You can expect afternoon rainfall from October to May.
Quito is roughly divided into three sectors: El Centro (or colonial Old Town) is at the center; North Quito (or New Town) is adjacent to Old Town and is the hip, modern section of Quito; and South Quito, the work-a-day residential district. The greatest concentration of attractions for expats is in the Old Town and New Town sections of Quito.
Like most bustling cities, Quito is crowded, but it is easy to find what you want or need. Public transportation is cheap and readily accessible. Just take it easy until you become acclimated to the high altitude – 9,300 feet takes some getting used to.
Quito offers perhaps the best health care available in Ecuador, with outstanding hospitals, the most modern equipment and technologies, and top-notch doctors and specialists, many of who have been trained in the United States.
The healthy lifestyle, amazing year-round weather, plentiful organic food production and clean, abundant mountain water are just some of the reasons so many expats are enjoying their “golden years” in this lush valley in southern Ecuador. It is said that many residents here live to be 100 years old or more, so the region is often referred to as the “Valley of Longevity.” Residents of the area attribute this longevity to low-stress living in a near-perfect climate.
Vilcabamba is situated about 40 minutes from the colonial town of Loja, another popular expat retirement community. At an elevation of 5,000 feet, this area has average daily temperatures between 65° F (18° C) at night and 82° F (28° C) during the day. There are plenty of local activities that allow expats to enjoy the fine weather. Horseback riding and bicycle tours are popular and fun. And the nearby Podocarpus National Forest is a bird watcher’s and nature photographer’s paradise.
The number of permanent foreign residents, as well as part-timers, keeps growing. As a result of Vilcabamba’s growing popularity, some costs have increased in recent years. Still, it ranks as one of the least expensive retirement havens in the world.
One couple that owns their home says they live comfortably on less than $800 a month, even though costs in Vilcabamba have risen in the last five years. They don’t go out often, and they do much of their own vehicle maintenance and home repairs. However, if they need help, the going rate for a common laborer is just $10 a day.
Rents are often higher due to a shortage of affordable housing. However, current residents report paying less than $1.25 a month for gas for cooking and hot water; monthly water bills are just $1.70. Electricity adds another $30 per month. Thanks to the temperate climate, there’s no need for heating or air conditioning. Gasoline in Ecuador costs less than $1.50 a gallon, so even if you must drive to Loja for shopping, it is still affordable.
About an hour and a half from Quito, the little town of Cotacachi, with a population of about 9,000, is attracting expats who are seeking a gentle, less stressful life. With its friendly people, incredible mountain and valley views, Cotacachi offers low-cost living and most of the comforts you are accustomed to at home.
Due to its 8,000 ft. elevation, and being tucked away between two volcanoes, the city’s temperatures tend to stay between 50° F (10° C) and 70° F (21° C), much like Quito. When the sun is shining, which it usually is, Cotacachi is a springtime paradise – warm and inviting – all year round. When the sun does slip behind the clouds, the weather cools, so it is wise to carry a jacket and hat.
Retirees report that a new apartment can be purchased for less than $80,000, and that a couple can live comfortably on less than $1,500 per month for all the basics, including money for travel and dining out regularly. Expats can visit the local market with $5 to spend and return with more produce than you can carry. If one needs modern appliances and gadgets, larger stores are in Ibarra, about 20 minutes away by bus.
Owning a car isn’t necessary – taxis cost only a few dollars and buses travel to many other cities. Cotacachi has a medical clinic; however, most people go to the nearby towns of Otavolo or Ibarra for anything other than minor treatment, or to Quito for major procedures.
Cotacachi is known for its handcrafted leather goods and local markets. The town also offers unique immersion into a different culture: Cotacachi is a community hub for the indigenous Quichua people, many of whom wear their brightly colored traditional garb daily, engage in traditional healing practices, and speak their own language.
The nearby lakes and hot springs are major benefits for retirees, and the incredible scenery is beyond compare. Expats and tourists alike can enjoy a hike to the top of the Cotacachi Volcano in the Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve, or explore the reserve’s 750,000 acres of protected forests. One can walk along the shores of Lake San Pablo, the largest lake in Ecuador, or Lake Cuicocha, which to this day Quichua shamans use for ritual cleansing. Guided four-hour hikes around the perimeter of the lake make for a great way to spend a morning.
There are also delightful hot springs located less than an hour from Cotacachi where, for around $4 a person, you can soak away the hours in thermal pools and enjoy a eucalyptus sauna.
Cotacachi is known nationally for it’s parades and festivals, such as Inti Raymi, a celebration of the sun, yet it’s off the major tourist routes, which allows it to stay a place of serenity – perfect for retirees who simply want to relax and enjoy the natural beauty that surrounds them.
Bahia de Caraquez
Situated on a sandy peninsula in the Manabi province on Ecuador’s Pacific coast, Bahia de Caraquez is drawing retirees from around the world.
Bahia, as the locals call it, is a sleepy little beach town that is a popular vacation spot for wealthier Quito families. This clean, relatively safe town was once a thriving seaport, but the harbor suffered major erosion, and some of the shipping industry moved elsewhere. Today you will find lovely homes with manicured gardens and many top-notch restaurants and resorts, including the world-class Casa Ceibo Boutique Hotel & Spa.
The local population of 30,000 enjoys year-round warm weather. Shorts and light shirts are the “dress of the day” most of the time. A long sleeved shirt and a pair of jeans would be sufficient for even the coolest evenings.
Earthquakes devastated Bahia de Caraquez in the late 1990s. Since then, residents have rebuilt and improved the town, calling it an “eco-city,” with modern recycling and conservation programs, and bicycle taxis being a popular means of getting around town. Today the city enjoys the reputation of being the cleanest city on the coast of Ecuador.
Bahia de Caraquez seems focused on sustainable growth and development. The city now has a hospital, and the roads are being resurfaced and rebuilt; residents are able to get to the Manta airport in about an hour for flights to Quito and Guayaquil. A new bridge connects Bahia to San Vicente, another beach town.
Expats can enjoy plentiful outdoor recreation, and its location on the coast makes Bahía one of the main tourist centers of the province of Manabi. Of course, there’s the beach, with Bellaca and Playa del Pajonal beaches being favorites with local residents. Retirees and visitors will also enjoy hiking through the Cerro Seco, a tropical forest that surrounds Bahia. Bird watching is a popular activity in Isla Corazon, a mangrove-shaded island across the bay that’s home to birds like the snowy egret, striated heron and white ibis. Plus, Bahia is within relatively easy driving distance of charming small fishing towns like Canoa, San Clemente, San Vicente and Jamal.
Bahia also has a rich cultural tradition. The Bahia de Caraquez Museum was built to showcase the region’s Incan history and archeological findings dating back many centuries. Cabanas Chirje, a rustic resort on a secluded strip of beach that is only accessible by car at low-tide, also has an on-site museum displaying ancient artifacts dating back centuries.
Expats who are looking to buy beachfront retirement property at a bargain will find Bahia de Caraquez a sure bet. This area of the Ecuadorian coast boasts some of the cheapest beachfront property for sale in the world. There are plenty of homes available for under $100,000, as well as condos for less than $50,000.
Until recently, Loja has been largely overlooked by expats. But Loja is no backwater. Situated in Ecuador’s southern Sierra region with a population of about 200,000 people, Loja offers all the modern big-city services while, at the same time, offering a cultural richness that makes it unique in Ecuador.
In some ways the local expat community enjoys Loja’s small-town anonymity. It’s their little secret and they like it that way. But now the secret is getting out. As Canadian expat Steve Chorney, who retired to Cuenca, puts it, “If I were to plan my retirement to this country today, Loja is where I’d live.” All things considered, Loja is a perfect choice for retirement.
First off, the weather is ideal. The average high temperature in Loja is 73° F (23° C), with a seasonal variation of only one degree. Nights are always cool, with an average low of 45° F (7° C). So you don’t need heat, you don’t need air conditioning and you can put away your winter clothes and your snow shovel for good.
The people of Loja are friendly and welcoming, and it’s easy to become a part of the community. The town has a small but growing expat community, meaning that a foreign retiree here is still accepted into the local community on his or her own merits, rather than being stereotyped as part of the American enclave.
Loja is a safe city, with less crime than you’ll find in Ecuador’s bigger cities of Quito, Guayaquil or Cuenca. If you use your common sense, strolling the downtown streets during the evening hours is practical and safe. Still, no matter where you are in Ecuador it is always advisable to walk in groups at night.
The countryside surrounding Loja is dramatic and beautiful, with green mountain peaks, idyllic valleys and rushing rivers. There are a number of attractive areas for owning a larger tract of land or a farm. The nearby towns of Malacatos and Vilcabamba are popular vacation spots, with warm climates, charming villages and a pleasant rural atmosphere.
The city of Loja itself is completely walkable, and anyone who can walk a couple of blocks will not need a car for day-to-day life. When you need a taxi, you’ll find them plentiful and cheap. Most rides around town cost a dollar.
For travel between provinces, there is a modern but cheap bus system with routes connecting to the rest of Ecuador, and into Peru. Loja is served by Camilo Ponce Enriquez airport in Catamayo, 30 kilometers (30 min) distant. From there, it is possible to fly to Quito or Guayaquil.
Loja is built around a number of attractive town squares, which serve as the classic city social centers that the Spanish intended them to be. They are great places to relax, meet up with new friends, and people-watch. You can also enjoy a $2 three-course lunch, or just sip locally grown coffee as the crowds drift by your table.
Music plays a big part in Lojano culture, and Loja is, in fact, the undisputed music capital of Ecuador. Many of the country’s best musicians and composers came from Loja, and the city currently boasts two orchestras and a noted music conservatory.
Loja is also a great place to enjoy a healthy lifestyle. Fresh tropical fruits and vegetables are always available in the markets at very low prices. It’s easy to make fresh-squeezed fruit juices so rich and wholesome that you’ll never again be happy with the canned or bottled juices you find almost everywhere else. And there are even a few well-equipped gyms throughout the city, at prices that even the tightest budget can afford.