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Interview with Jason & Michelle – a mixed expat & Ecuadorian family living in Cuenca

Updated 26 Jun 2020

Jason and Michelle run Expats Ecuador to provide expat-friendly resources on what it’s like to live as a mixed Ecuadorian and expat family. They focus on Cuenca and Quito, with travel tips covering all of Ecuador. They offer insightful and informative advice on anything from how to get a driver's licence to the cost of fruits and vegetables in the country. Follow and connect with them through their website and their Facebook page.

Those looking to relocate to Ecuador can also read more about expat life in our Expat Arrivals Ecuador guide.

About Jason and MichelleJason & Michelle

Q: Where are you originally from?
A: I (Jason) am from Australia.

Q: Where are you currently living?
A: Cuenca, Ecuador.

Q: Is this your first expat experience?
A: No, I’ve previously lived in North America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. 

Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: I moved to Ecuador alone and met my partner, Michelle, here. Michelle is from Quito, Ecuador. 

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: I originally visited Ecuador for a short vacation to kitesurf. I had no intention of staying, but I ended up loving the country and never left. I met Michelle in Quito and we decided to move to Cuenca to enjoy the tranquillity. 

Living in Cuenca

Q: What do you enjoy most about Cuenca? How would you rate the quality of life compared to Australia?
A: Cuenca, Ecuador is quite well known as an expat destination for its beautiful, old-world charm and favourable cost of living. These are certainly true, but for me, the size of the city and pace of life in Cuenca were also large contributors. Cuenca is large enough that you can find a good variety of restaurants, shops, cinemas and other amenities, but still small enough to avoid big-city issues such as excess traffic, public transport and overcrowding. 

The pace of life in Cuenca only has one gear. Slow. This can be a little frustrating at first, but after adjusting I’ve found it to be a very rewarding way of life. The overall quality of life is favourable in Cuenca. With lots of good restaurants, cafés, parks and rivers, it’s very easy to live here.

Q: Any negative experiences?
A: The two factors most commonly cited by expats for leaving Cuenca are the altitude and the colder weather. The altitude doesn’t really affect me, and we are fortunate to be able to spend time at the beach if we need a break from the colder mountain weather. 

As much as I love living a simpler life, the trade off is that there is less variety for mass-produced goods that we’ve become accustomed to. So, things such as hardware, electronics and even processed supermarket goods are more difficult to obtain and are more expensive. 

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life in Cuenca? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: The biggest challenge was learning Spanish. You can get by with just the basics, but to really form a sense of community it’s necessary to learn conversational Spanish. This takes time and commitment. 

There’s a lot of cultural nuances that can be difficult to understand unless you’ve spent a fair amount of time in Cuenca. So, learning from the experience of others (expats and locals) will save you a lot of time. Something that surprised Michelle about Cuenca was the willingness of locals to bargain much more consistently than they do in Quito. 

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? Is there anything particularly expensive or particularly cheap in Ecuador?
A: The cost of living in Cuenca is favourable. Housing, fruit and vegetables and public transport are very cheap. Imported items including processed foods and electronics are expensive. Buying a car is also expensive, but running it is cheap as gasoline and labour are affordable.

Because Ecuador uses USD, it is somewhat sheltered from the big currency swings felt in neighbouring countries. 

Q: How would you rate the public transport in Cuenca?
A: Taxis and buses in Cuenca are cheap and plentiful. But, as we live just outside of Cuenca, we prefer to have the freedom of driving. It also means we can freely explore the mountains. 

When taking buses in Cuenca, you’ll need to buy a card that you can top up as there are no cash options available anymore. 

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Cuenca? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?
A: The public hospital system is difficult to navigate, but it is very affordable. The private hospital system provides a higher quality of care and still provides good value. 

We’ve had an emergency in Cuenca and were happy with the care provided by the private hospital here – Hospital del Río. I’d recommend having private insurance that covers the hospitals that you’re likely to visit to cover any emergencies.

For non-emergencies, it pays to have a good relationship with your doctors. I’ve found that they are open to providing more attentive care than I was used to. 

Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Cuenca or Ecuador? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: I consider Ecuador to be a safe country. But petty theft is common in Quito, Guayaquil and, to a lesser extent, Cuenca. Basic, common-sense precautions like not flashing your phone around and avoiding poorly lit areas at night will go a long way to taking the target off your back. 

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Cuenca? What different options are available for expats?
A: The standard of housing ranges from low quality, basic finishes to North American standards. It depends on your budget and requirements. Many expats live in conveniently located apartments, which is especially helpful while getting used to the city. 

Q: Any areas or suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: If you’re after a house with some land for gardening or if you have kids, then I’d recommend the suburbs around 15–20 minutes’ drive from Cuenca. You can get some great deals and the weather is warmer. 

We chose a good-sized house in Challuabamba because it’s an easy 15 minutes from Cuenca on the highway, it's warmer, has a large backyard and still has easy access to a local supermarket and other shops. 

Meeting people and making friends

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there obvious discrimination against any particular groups? Have you ever experienced discrimination in Cuenca?
A: I would say that locals are tolerant of foreigners. There is a class system in Cuenca, and this is the biggest driver of discrimination I’ve seen. 

The other discrimination commonly faced by non-Cuencanos is overcharging – sometimes called the ‘gringo tax’. You’ll be overcharged for certain things, from everyday items and services such as taxis or vegetables to bigger purchases such as cars or property, until it’s clear you know what the actual price should be. Speaking Spanish will help, but the Cuencano accent is highly distinguishable. As you’re unlikely to sound like a local, you’ll always need to be vigilant on prices. 

I’d suggest expats use a local they trust for helping to source their first property rental to avoid overpaying. Michelle does all our initial negotiation of larger purchases to help combat against overcharging. 

Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: Meeting fellow expats is pretty easy as there are a few spots where you’re guaranteed to find some. There are also various Facebook groups and meetups that exist. 

Making proper Ecuadorian friends can be challenging if you don’t understand the language. Without first overcoming the language barrier, it’s generally difficult for expats to build relationships within their local community.

Cuencanos have a reputation for being polite under any circumstances. So, it can be hard to understand if they’re being nice out of politeness or they genuinely care. This is still a challenge for both Michelle and me. 

A good time for bonding with locals is during the Carnival season. There are several traditions including having a few drinks and throwing water on everyone that you can. 

Working in Cuenca

Q: Was getting a work permit or visa a relatively easy process? Did you tackle the visa process yourself, or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: Obtaining a residency visa is relatively straightforward. A professional visa is a popular option for those with a university degree. 

I went through a visa facilitator and would recommend others do similar. You can do it yourself, but you’ll need to do a lot of research and even then, you must talk to people that have done the process recently as small details do change. A good dose of patience will also be helpful. 

Q: What is the economic climate in Cuenca like? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: I would recommend some type of digital or remote work over trying to find local employment. The average local salary is low and, unless you have a skill that’s in high demand, the competition will be high. The salaries in Cuenca are generally lower than in Quito, too. So, even though many expenses are generally cheaper in Cuenca, your actual cost of living may be higher if you’re getting a local salary.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in Cuenca or Ecuador? Did you have any particularly difficult experiences adapting to local business culture?
A: Expect a lot of red tape doing any sort of business, especially starting your own. If starting your own business, make sure you understand labour laws and local accounting practices. These often trip up new expats in Ecuador. 

Family and children

Q: Did your children settle in easily? What were the biggest challenges for them during the move?
A: The biggest challenge was the kids adapting to the Cuencano accent after living in Quito for so long. 

Q: What are your favourite family attractions and activities in Cuenca?
A: We generally prefer to spend our time outdoors, especially the parks, hiking, river walks, horse-riding and bike riding. 

Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A: The easiest schools for expat kids to transition into are also the most expensive. There will be an easier language barrier transition to schools such as Alemán, Santana and Alborada. But if you are looking for something more open-minded, then it’s worthwhile looking at homeschooling and meetups in Cuenca.

Final thoughts

Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to Cuenca or Ecuador in general?
A: Be careful about buying any property in Ecuador, especially off-the-plan. I would strongly suggest renting in Ecuador first, before considering buying anything. Renting is cheap and low commitment. Buying carries many unforeseen risks that expats can easily fall victim to. 

I’d also suggest coming on an exploratory visit around Ecuador before deciding where you want to live. Ecuador is a small country, but also exceptionally diverse. You can see all the cities, beaches, mountains and jungles in a two-week visit. You’ll then be much better informed on making any potential move.

►Interviewed June 2020

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