Cuenca Ecuador Pros & Cons for Expats
Cuenca Ecuador has been near the top of the “best expat cities” list for over a decade and a lot of expats live in Cuenca because of its international renown.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site offers a modern city with old world charm, affordable living, and a variety of amenities. However, like any place, it also has its drawbacks.
In this article, we’ll explore the pros and cons of living in Cuenca Ecuador to help you decide if it’s the right expat city for you.
Is Cuenca the Best Expat City in Ecuador?
Before we share the main drawbacks, and the reasons why we ended up leaving Cuenca, let’s take a look at all the wonderful things that Cuenca has to offer.
Cuenca Is a Modern, Developed City with Old World Charm
Cuenca has all the modern amenities of a developed city like hospitals, malls and car dealerships, but it still maintains an old world charm with its beautiful, Spanish colonial architecture.
The iconic blue domes of the New Cathedral can be seen from most vantage points in the city and make for amazing pictures to share with your friends and family.
Cuenca is so beautiful and picturesque that we often just walked around the city so I could take pictures!
Ecuador Is On the Dollar
Knowing the currency saves us a lot of time and money. We don’t have to constantly do conversions in our head or wonder if we’re getting gringoed (price gouged).
Being on the US Dollar (the exact same currency) was one of the main reasons we chose Ecuador.
Dollar bills aren’t very common, though. Instead, dollar coins and 50 cent coins (cinquenta centavo) are much more common.
Cuenca Has Reliable Internet
Our house in Cuenca had fiber to the curb with Puntonet. We’ve heard Etapa is also a good provider, but we don’t have any experience with them.
We had one short outage in more than 2 years living there. Compared to weekly outages and constantly slow service from Comcast in downtown Denver for $120/month, we were extremely happy with our Internet service there.
Cuenca Has Drinkable Water
Along with the dollar, being able to drink the tap water was another main reason we wanted to move to Cuenca. We hate using plastic water bottles so it was nice to avoid that in Cuenca.
Some people still choose to have water delivery and/or install reverse osmosis filtration systems, but the replacement filters are hard to find and very expensive. It’s just nice that we didn’t have to worry about it.
Cuenca Has an Airport
One of the amenities that makes Cuenca so appealing to expats is the airport located just a short cab ride from the heart of the city.
While the airport claims to be international, nearly all flights go to Quito with an occasional flight to Guayaquil. You’ll also need to walk downstairs upon exiting the plane since there are no gangways.
The airport itself is very nice with a small food court on the second level and a tasty coffee shop on the first level by the ticketing counter.
The flight to Quito only takes 45 minutes so it’s much easier than making the 8+ hour drive to Quito, or the 3+ hour drive to the Guayaquil international airport.
You Don’t Need a Car in Cuenca
Cuenca’s new Tranvia will take you from the airport through El Centro and out to the Don Bosco neighborhood on the southwest side of town.
The expansive bus system will take you anywhere inside or outside Cuenca. Taxi rides are very affordable and most fares cost between $2 and $3 with a $1.50 minimum.
Cars are much more expensive in Ecuador than in countries like the United States. The interest rates on car loans are very high, so luckily the wide variety of inexpensive transportation options means you don’t need a car in Cuenca.
Very Few Bugs in Cuenca Ecuador
Cuenca is over 8,000 feet in elevation so we didn’t see a lot of bugs there. We saw flies and fruit flies, and a few mosquitoes, but nothing like the lower elevations along the coast.
While spiders aren’t bugs, we did have some of those, including a tarantula that crawled in under our kitchen door. I shooed him out of the kitchen with a broom and he never came back.
Cuenca Has LOTS of English-Speaking Ecuadorians
Most Cuencanos who are under 30 years old speak English, and many older Ecuadorians who lived in the US or Europe when they were younger also speak English. That means it’s a really easy place to start your life abroad if you’re not yet fluent in Spanish.
With language apps widely available, speaking Spanish isn’t a requirement anywhere in Ecuador, but being able to communicate in English makes the transition to a new city and culture much smoother.
Cuenca Has LOTS of Spanish Schools & Teachers
If your goal is to learn Spanish, Cuenca is a great place to study the language. There are a variety of Spanish schools, teachers and language exchanges to help you learn and practice.
Cuenca Has a Large Expat Community
While many adventurous expats move to a foreign country to spend time with locals and experience a new culture, others move abroad mainly to live a more affordable, higher quality of life.
If this describes you, then you’ll appreciate having other like-minded, English-speaking people to talk to and to provide social support.
Cuenca has one of the largest expat communities in South America with thousands of immigrants from the US, Canada and Europe, making it an ideal place to start a new life abroad.
Low Crime Rate in Cuenca Ecuador
Cuenca has a very low crime rate compared to other parts of Ecuador like Guayaquil.
However, following the pandemic, crime has increased throughout Ecuador so the government decided in April 2023 to legalize the civilian use of guns for self-defense.
Here are the requirements to legally buy and possess a gun in Ecuador:
- Be 25 years old.
- Pass a psychological test and get a certificate issued by the Ministry of Public Health.
- Take a gun safety class and get a certificate of skill in the handling and use of the weapon issued by the Ministry of National Defense.
- No criminal record.
- No history of domestic violence.
- Pass a drug test and obtain a certificate issued by the Ministry of Public Health.
- Only firearms with a caliber of 9 millimeters or .38 caliber and smaller are allowed.
- Assault weapons and automatic guns are illegal.
Compared to the United States, the gun laws are still very strict in Ecuador.
Pepper spray was also legalized (it was illegal and impossible to buy in Ecuador) and self-defense has been decriminalized. Before this change, if you harmed a criminal while defending yourself or your family, there was a very good chance that you would be arrested and convicted alongside the perp.
Most crime in Ecuador is petty theft, especially pickpockets. However, over the past few years, Cuenca has installed cameras in popular pickpocket spots, which has cut down on crime in those area.
There is also a strong police presence on the streets and walking trails around Cuenca, and they’re very friendly. We felt completely comfortable asking them for directions and they often help people cross the street safely.
Cuenca Has a Variety of Modern, Upscale Housing
Your friends and family may think you’ll be living in a dirt-floor house with no indoor plumbing
when you move to Ecuador, but that couldn’t be further from the truth!
While building standards aren’t quite the same as in the US and other developed countries, Cuenca has a large selection of modern, upscale housing to choose from.
Whether you want a freestanding home, a row home or a high-rise condo, you’re sure to find something that will make you feel right at home for a fraction of the cost compared to similar housing in the US.
Small Businesses in Cuenca Ecuador
Ecuador has a form of regulated capitalism. It’s considered a social republic with a democratically elected government. That means big corporations don’t rule the country, which levels the playing field so small businesses can compete.
While there are some large stores here like Coral, Supermaxi, Kywi and Sukasa, they’re usually the same price as small vendors, and sometimes more expensive. For example, the small vendors at the mercados are much less expensive for fruits and veggies than Supermaxi.
It can be challenging sometimes to find the things you’re looking for, and a single item may require several trips to different areas of town, but we like supporting small businesses and don’t mind the extra walking.
Cuenca Flower Markets in Cuenca Ecuador
You can buy beautiful and inexpensive flowers throughout Ecuador, but there’s nothing quite like Cuenca’s world-famous Flower Market.
It was included in National Geographic’s list of Top 10 Outdoor Flower Markets for good reason. It’s incredibly stunning and we enjoyed walking down there on the weekends to buy fresh flowers.
Cuenca Has LOTS of Fun & Entertaining Things To Do
If you’re an activity-oriented person, Cuenca will NOT disappoint! There are tons of things to do in Cuenca!
You’ll find lots of museums to visit, like the Inca ruins at Pumapungo and the Museum of Modern Art in San Sebas. Cuenca has great walking tours, river walks, restaurants, social gatherings, music events, and more.
Plus, a short 20 minute cab ride will deliver you to the hot springs in Baños Azuay southwest of Cuenca for a relaxing day of soaking in the therapeutic waters and pampering in the spas.
There are LOTS of Amazing Day Trips Around Cuenca
Cuenca is centrally located near several of Ecuador’s incredible natural and historical sites like El Cajas National Park with its herds of photogenic llamas.
You might also enjoy the waterfalls of Girón, the handmade guitar makers in San Bartolomé, the filigree jewelry in Chordeleg, the orchid farm in Gualaceo, the indigenous market in Cañar, the church built into the side of a mountain in Biblión, or the Inca & Cañari ruins in Ingapirca.
And if you’re really brave, you’ll love mountain climbing at Cojitambo in Azogues! All of these attractions and more can be enjoyed on day trips from Cuenca!
Affordable, High-Quality Medical Care & English-Speaking Doctors
Healthcare was one of the main driving factors for our move from the US to Ecuador. We simply couldn’t afford health insurance or healthcare following my spine surgeries back in the States.
Another spine surgery back in the US would bankrupt us, and I’m not willing to do that to myself, and especially not to Amelia, at our age.
Medical and dental tourism in Cuenca is rapidly growing in popularity due to the availability of high-quality care at a very affordable price.
Many medical practitioners speak fluent English and most trained in the US, Europe, Argentina or Chile so they’re well-educated and knowledgeable about the current science and procedures.
Most private hospitals and newer public hospitals also have the same modern equipment that you would see anywhere in the US.
If you have chronic health conditions or you’re just getting older, you may appreciate having Cuenca’s high-quality medical care at your fingertips.
Cuenca Has a Large Variety of Delicious Restaurants & Cuisines
Dining out at restaurants in Cuenca is not only delicious, but varied and affordable.
You can find most cuisines, such as Indian, Italian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, American, Gourmet, Vegetarian, Vegan, and plenty of Ecuadorian.
In addition to serving food that tastes amazing, you’ll also often find yourself taking pictures of the artistic creations put down in front of you because aesthetics are just as important as flavor to many chefs in Cuenca.
You can buy an Ecuadorian lunch, called El Almuerzo, for $1.50 to $3 while most popular expat dinners will cost around $7 to $10 per person.
Coffee & Chocolate in Cuenca Ecuador
Coffee and chocolate are two of Ecuador’s primary exports. Due to its tropical climate near the equator, Ecuador is ideal for growing both of the beans used to make these food products. They also don’t need to be hyper processed and shipped around the world, so we get extra fresh versions of both and you can taste the difference. Yum!
Cuenca Has Great Coffee Shops
Ecuador grows some of the best coffee in the world, and now they’re FINALLY opening coffee shops to serve it.
Gourmet coffee shops are growing in popularity, especially in Cuenca. Goza Espresso Bar is Ecuador’s version of Starbucks and they have several locations in Cuenca with both indoor and outdoor seating.
Café Ñucallacta and Yaw Ecuadorian Café are also tasty coffee shops with good atmospheres and outdoor seating.
If you’re a Starbucks addict, you might be disappointed to learn that it hasn’t made its way to Ecuador, yet. However, you’re sure to enjoy the rich flavors and varied menus at Cuenca’s numerous coffee shops.
No GMO’s in Ecuador
GMO (actually, Genetically Engineered) crops are banned in Ecuador, despite heavy pressure from the US to allow them. In fact, GMO’s are specifically prohibited in Ecuador’s constitution!
They are allowed to import GMO products like soy sauce and textured vegetable protein (TVP), but they must be clearly labeled.
We would hate to see the same thing happen here in Ecuador, that is happening in India and other developing countries that made the mistake of allowing GMO crops.
Panaderías (Bakeries) in Cuenca Ecuador
Cuenca has a lot of bakeries and bread shops selling everything from simple water bread to delicious sourdough.
Tosta is one of our FAVORITE panaderías in Cuenca. All of their bread has a sourdough base and most of it is whole grain.
It’s Easy to Eat 100% Plant-Based in Cuenca
The mercados are like candy stores for vegans and plant-based eaters! The produce is top quality and delicious, while being extremely affordable.
Cuenca also hosts several vegan and vegetarian restaurants, with most other restaurants having a vegan or vegetarian section on the menu.
Our favorite vegan/vegetarian restaurants are Fratello Vegan, Café Libre, Zatua Miski and Funky Sauce.
Our favorite non-vegan restaurants with vegan options are Paradise Indian Restaurant, Namaste India, Origami Japanese Kitchen and Noe Sushi Bar.
As 100% plant-based eaters, we love the affordable, high quality, non-GMO, delicious fruits and veggies that we get at the mercados in Ecuador. We spend about $20/week on produce here, but back in the states, it was closer to $200/week for lower quality fruits and veggies.
Cuenca Has Several Speciality & Organic Shops
Holistic living is very popular among Ecuadorians, who appreciate the value of non-pharmaceutical options for healthcare needs.
You’ll find plenty of speciality and organic shops in Cuenca selling everything from fair trade chocolate to gluten free flour to CBD oil to cruelty free shampoo.
Cuenca Has Numerous Visa Agents
If you plan to stay in Ecuador past your 90 tourist visa, you’ll likely need to enlist the help of a qualified visa agent.
While it is possible to get a visa on your own without help, the process has become much more complicated over the years and very nuanced.
The rules and regulations are not clearly defined, so you may get different answers from different government representatives and the success of your application often comes down to the relationships your visa agent has cultivated.
Since Cuenca has one of the largest expat populations in Ecuador, there are also a lot of visa agents to help you navigate the confusing process of getting a temporary resident visa.
For more information about Ecuador visas, check out our article: Ecuador Temporary Resident Visas.
Walkability of Cuenca Ecuador
We don’t have a car and we don’t plan to get one because we walk everywhere.
Cuenca is very walkable and we typically logged at least 10,000 steps per day. When we needed to go a little further, or it was raining, cabs rides were less than $3 to get most places in El Centro from where we lived in El Vergel.
Walkability is certainly one of the Top 10 Things We LOVE About Cuenca Ecuador!
Cuenca Has Excellent Pet Care
If you’re planning to take your fur babies with you when you move abroad, Cuenca has a number of English-speaking veterinarians and pet care providers.
You’ll find pet supply stores in most neighborhoods and malls, and you can even take your dog to daycare for a playdate.
Your dog will also enjoy long walks along the linear river parks and in Parque Paraíso. And there are plenty of opportunities to adopt dogs and cats from several different animal rescues in Cuenca.
Check out our recent article, Ecuador Pet Care, Pet Sitting & Pet Food for more on this topic.
The Cost of Living in Cuenca Ecuador
We lived a comfortable, upper-middle-class, gentle-minimalist lifestyle in Cuenca for less than 1/3 of our cost of living back in Denver, CO. The savings allowed us to pay off $60K of debt in three years of living in Ecuador!
Check out our video, Cost of Living in Cuenca Ecuador + Rental House Tour, for more info on our cost of living while we lived there.
The Weather in Cuenca Ecuador
Eight months out of the year, the weather in Cuenca is absolutely beautiful. It’s sunny and 70’s (21°C) most of the day with an occasional brief rain shower. It seems to rain more during the night than during the day for those 8 months.
The other 4 months are called the wet season, so it rains a lot more from February through May.
Check this article for more: Weather In Ecuador & Best Time to Visit.
Cuenca Is Tranquilo
Living in Cuenca felt like we were on island time!
Friends and family come first in Ecuador. Most people aren’t in a big hurry. And they work to live, they don’t live to work.
It’s a breath of fresh air compared to our former frantic lifestyle back in the States.
Natural Beauty & Diversity in Cuenca Ecuador
Cuenca, and the entire country of Ecuador, is home to some of the most beautiful places on this planet.
From deserts to rainforests, and from beaches to mountains, this country has it all.
It’s hard to describe or even show the level of beauty in pictures or videos. You really have to see it for yourself!
The Blue Crew, Now the Green Team
Cuenca is one of the cleanest cities we’ve ever seen, and that’s almost entirely due to the blue crew: Cuenca’s street cleaners.
Last time we visited Cuenca, we noticed they are now wearing green uniforms so I guess we should call them the Green Team now.
They work from before sunup to after sundown, 7 days per week to keep the city spotless and we couldn’t be more thankful for them.
Friendly People in Cuenca Ecuador
Everyone is so welcoming and friendly, which makes this number one on our Cuenca Ecuador Pros and Cons list.
The Ecuadorians are very proud of their beautiful country and they’re happy to share it with us gringos.
We also have friends from Venezuela, Chile, Germany, Austria, England, Russia, Ukraine and Italy. This is a melting pot and almost everyone seems very happy to be here and commingle.
The friendly man in this picture stopped us on the street to talk to us. He was so proud of his country and told us, “Mi país es su país.” That means my country is your country. We LOVE the people here! They are so nice!
Now let’s move on to the things we don’t like so much…
Major Drawbacks of Living In Cuenca Ecuador
While Cuenca is quite possibly the best expat city in Ecuador, if not the world, it does have a few major drawbacks that may impact your decision to move there.
Altitude Sickness in Cuenca Ecuador
Cuenca sits at 8,400 feet (2.560 meters), which is well over a mile and a half above sea level. That means the air is very thin and the sun is very hot.
After an initial adjustment period of a few days to a week, most people have no long-term effects from the elevation, but others aren’t as fortunate.
Common symptoms of altitude sickness (more aptly named elevation sickness) are dizziness, shortness of breath, skin flushing, nausea, vomiting, dehydration, headaches, forgetfulness, difficulty walking, drowsiness, and/or sleeplessness.
If you have spent time in high-elevation cities without these symptoms, you will likely be just fine in Cuenca.
However, if you’ve never spent time at a high elevation before, you won’t know if it affects you until you get there. If your body doesn’t adjust after a week, you may want to search for a lower-elevation city.
Lack of Punctuality
Time is a fluid, non-binding construct here in Ecuador and throughout Latin America. Their culture just doesn’t think of time the same way as we Americans and Northern Europeans do.
Most things rarely start on time or end on time. It has required us to learn patience and lower our expectations, which aren’t bad things for us rigid gringos.
Sidewalk Hazards in Cuenca Ecuador
The sidewalks throughout Ecuador are hazardous! There’s no better way to put it.
From gaping holes to cut-off post stumps to trash racks to slippery terracotta tiles on a steep decline, you’re literally taking your life into your own hands simply by walking on the sidewalk.
It requires your constant, diligent attention!
Although we occasionally saw people in wheelchairs, the city is not very handicap accessible. That’s something to consider before moving there if you’re physically challenged.
Cool, Cloudy Weather in Cuenca Ecuador
While Cuenca is beautiful 8 months out of the year, the other 4 months are dreary and damp.
Cuenca sits just to the west of the Amazon jungle so all the moisture that evaporates on the eastern side of Ecuador is condensed into clouds when it hits the high Andes mountain range. Combine that with the high elevation in Cuenca and it’s a recipe for lots of cool, cloudy days.
During the cold/dry season from June through November, you’ll rarely see the sun for more than a few minutes at a time, and often not for days or weeks at a time. During the warmer/wet season from December through May, you’ll ironically get more sun between the rains, but it’s still very cloudy most of the time.
Cuenca is called the land of eternal spring, which elicits images of sunny days and green grass and blooming flowers, but it’s also cool and cloudy during spring, which is a more accurate interpretation of the term.
During the cold months, temperatures can dip below 40°F (4.5°C) at night and rarely go above 70°F (21°C) during the day. Central heating is very rare in Ecuador, so you might need space heaters and warm blankets to stay warm.
During the warm months, daytime temperatures are typically near 80°F (26.5°C) and rarely reach 90°F (32°C). If you’re a fair weather fan, the constant Seattle-like cool, cloudy weather in Cuenca may not be your cup of…coffee.
Too Easy to Speak English (If You Want to Learn Spanish)
While the large number of English-speaking Ecuadorians in Cuenca makes the transition to a new country and culture easier, it can also make it difficult to learn Spanish.
It’s simply too easy to speak English in Cuenca, so you may not feel enough pressure to learn the native language, and many expats don’t.
If your goal is to become fluent in Spanish, you might prefer one of the other popular expat destinations in Ecuador where English is not as common.
Check out our article, Best Cities to Live in Ecuador for Expats to see where other expats choose to live.
The Drivers in Cuenca Ecuador
Most of the time, Ecuadorians are the happiest, most tranquilo people you’ll ever meet. But put them behind the wheel of a car and they turn into Freddy Krueger.
You literally take your life into your own hands every time you cross a street. Pedestrians do NOT have the right of way here, not even at crosswalks or with green walk signs.
You have to be a very defensive walker!
The Noise in Cuenca Ecuador
As I was writing this sentence, the neighbors car alarm went off just outside our gate. The woman was sitting in the car while the alarm is going off… She finally disarmed it after at least 30 seconds of horn honking and sirens.
The Ecuadorians and Latin Americans in general don’t seem to have the same issues with noise as we do. We’ve actually seen them standing in front of their car having a conversation while the alarm was blasting!
House alarms are also a constant. Loud buses, gas trucks, church bells, fireworks, parties, roosters, barking dogs…you name it, can be heard at all hours of the day and night.
We’ve gotten used to most of it, but the car alarms still grate on our nerves. Everyone has one, but no one pays any attention to them.
Blue Puffer Buses in Cuenca Ecuador
These have mostly been phased out and replaced with low-emission diesel red-and-white buses so they aren’t a big issue anymore.
However, they still exist and the worst part is getting stuck on a narrow street when one of them drives by. It’s impossible to breathe!
Homeless and Underfed Dogs in Ecuador
We take this for granted in the US because we have so few stray dogs or unleashed dogs on the streets, but here it’s a totally different environment.
People (mainly macho men) refuse to get their dogs neutered so they procreate like crazy and it’s nearly impossible to keep their population controlled.
Ecuadorians also have a cultural preference for small dogs under 10 pounds, especially under 5 pounds like our little Alicia. That means they love their puppies, but once the puppy grows up, it’s common to kick them out to the street or dump them somewhere else.
The dog rescues like Los Amigos de Manolo are full of big dogs that no one wants; the little ones get adopted almost immediately.
Most of the dogs in Cuenca look healthy, but just outside Cuenca in the surrounding areas, as well as in Quito and on the coast, the dogs look very malnourished. We were told that there’s a common ailment here that causes the dogs to be very skinny. It requires expensive antibiotics to cure, which most people can’t afford.
Lack of Organization and Communication
In Ecuador, signs are rarely used and people can rarely be found who know anything about what’s going on.
Combined with the lack of punctuality, we’re commonly left wandering around lost, and often going home without finding the venue for the events we’re looking for.
Cuenca replaced the water lines in our neighborhood so the water was off quite often in our house. Unfortunately, they didn’t communicate the outage schedule so we had no idea when it was going to be off and were unable to make plans for it.
The lack of organization and communication can be very exasperating!
The Drive Through Cajas to Get to Guayaquil
If you fly into Guayaquil on your way to Cuenca, or if you visit the coast from Cuenca, you’ll need to drive through El Cajas National Park.
On your first trip, you’ll be awestruck by the natural beauty. You might even appreciate some new angles and scenery on your second trip. But by the third time driving on the winding mountain two-lane highway and down through the cloud forest with zero visibility heading toward Guayaquil and the coastal region, you’ll be firmly over the 3+ hour commute.
You can fly from Cuenca to Guayaquil, but the flights usually go through Quito so it will take much longer than driving. Plus, flying costs 10 times more than a buseta with Operazuatur, and 20 times more than an interprovincial bus.
There simply is no easy way to get from Cuenca to Guayaquil or the southern Ecuadorian coast without driving through the nausea-inducing Cajas.
This isn’t a deal breaker for most expats, but it is an inconvenience that does get tiresome.
Public Urination in Ecuador
Yes. That’s a thing in Cuenca. And a common one. We rarely went anywhere without seeing someone peeing behind a telephone pole or tree.
We even saw women squatting in plain sight of passersby!
For us overly hygienic Americans, it’s a bit gross and uncomfortable to make eye contact with someone who is peeing in public!
Is Cuenca Ecuador the BEST Expat City?
All things considered, if you don’t have issues with the elevation or the cool, cloudy weather, Cuenca is still the best expat city in Ecuador, especially for new expats.
Cuenca’s modern conveniences, housing, healthcare and services make it an extremely easy place to land and get your feet wet if you’ve never lived abroad before.
After living in Cuenca for over 2 years, we decided to move to the coast, primarily because of my worsening altitude sickness and Amelia’s lack of appreciation for the dreary weather. If Cuenca was 4,000 feet (1.200 meters) lower in elevation and a bit warmer and sunnier, we may have never left.
We have no regrets about living there and we still feel like it is the best expat city in Ecuador, and maybe all of South America.
Watch Our Video About Why Expats LOVE Cuenca Ecuador
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Hola todos! Welcome to my author bio page! Let's see. Where to begin... I grew up in the country on a lake outside a small Kansas farm town. As soon as I could, I got the hell outta there! Since then, I've lived and/or worked in Kansas City, Washington D.C., Denver, San Francisco, and Ecuador. I started and sold a dotcom, wrote a book about it, started a YouTube channel, and now I write a lot. Amelia and I have embraced the Unconventional Life and we want to help you do it, too!
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