Cuenca is a transitional community for expats. In this episode, we discuss the 12 most common reasons why expats leave Cuenca Ecuador.
#1 Culture Shock
As an undergraduate at The University of Kansas, I minored in Intercultural Communications. The focus of the program was on preparing corporate executives for transfers to divisions in other countries.
Without adequate preparation, many executives can’t handle the culture shock of moving to and living in a different country, so they either quit their job or must return home within the first year.
The same is true for non-job related expats. For some people, the culture shock of a new country and a different culture is simply too much to bear. It can cause depression, anxiety and severe homesickness. We know several expats who have moved back to the states, likely due to culture shock combined with one or more of the following reasons.
As American expats, some aspects of Ecuador’s culture are quite challenging. We’re used to things being done a certain way and on a certain timeline, but many of those things are drastically different here.
For example, communication about businesses and events is very poor. Most businesses don’t have a website, and those that have a Facebook page rarely update it. That means you can show up to a restaurant or other business expecting it to be open, but they’re closed. This happens to us on a weekly basis.
We’re often invited to events, but the invitations frequently lack specific details, like the time and location. Word-of-mouth is the primary way to find out about what’s going on, as well as when and where the event is taking place, but since we’re not fluent in Spanish, we’re often the last to know.
Then, when we arrive at events, there are rarely any signs or people around to point us in the right direction. We often wander around for awhile and then leave without ever finding the event.
Another cultural difference is the concept of “tomorrow.” In Ecuador and most of Latin America, this is a word used to mean sometime in the future, or maybe never.
In the US, when we say we’ll do something tomorrow, we mean tomorrow, as in the day after today. If we say, “I’ll get around to that someday,” that means we may do it sometime or never. In Ecuador, “tomorrow” means “I’ll get around to it someday.”
Punctuality is also not a concern here. Most people are very tranquilo, so they simply don’t worry about being places on time. It’s common for restaurants and businesses to open 15 to 30 minutes late. It’s also common for Ecuadorians to show up for events 15 to 30 minutes late. As punctual Americans raised to believe early is on time, ontime is late and if you’re late you shouldn’t go, Latin lateness can be very irritating.
These cultural differences in behavior and language, among many others, can bring on a severe case of culture shock. For some expats in Cuenca, it’s too much to handle and they either head back home or move someplace else.
#2 Language Barrier
We’re studying Spanish, but we’re not fluent yet. That’s not much of an issue in Cuenca because so many people speak English, but it’s challenging when we visit other parts of Ecuador.
We’ve also noticed that most cab drivers, bank tellers and people who work at the pharmacies don’t speak English. That makes it difficult to communicate about some pretty important things.
Learning a new language later in life is really difficult, so some expats leave Cuenca and Ecuador because of the language barrier.
The third reason why expats leave Cuenca is due to boredom. We know several people who said they just didn’t have enough things to keep them busy and entertained here.
This seems odd to us because there are SO many things to do. I tell everyone that Cuenca is like a cruise ship because there are so many activities and the food is fantastic. Most people aren’t bored on a cruise ship or in Cuenca. It really depends on how social and active you want to be.
We’re not very involved in any of the gringo activities in Cuenca because we both work two jobs (our regular jobs plus our YouTube channel and this blog). However, we know other gringos who are busy every day of the week with a different activity.
There are knitting clubs, language clubs, book clubs, museum clubs, acting clubs, music clubs, travel clubs, photography clubs, hiking clubs, dining clubs, fitness clubs, card games, pool games, meditation groups, and the list goes on and on. We even host a monthly event for the Unconventionals in Cuenca.
If you can’t find something that you want to do, you can start your own club and I guarantee people will show up for it.
Boredom is a choice, but it might require stepping outside your comfort zone.
#4 Want a Job or Purpose
We’re not retired so this isn’t an issue for us. We have more than enough work to keep us busy and fulfilled.
However, a lot of expats who move to Cuenca are newly retired and haven’t quite adjusted to all the free time that retirement provides. It’s common to feel aimless and unfulfilled after a lifetime of working a J-O-B, which can cause boredom and depression.
There are lots of volunteer opportunities here in Cuenca. You can help at orphanages, dog shelters, or any of the other charities. You can also teach English to children.
It’s difficult to get a paying job here unless you speak fluent Spanish. That’s a requirement for most jobs in Cuenca and Ecuador. Plus, the jobs pay FAR less here than comparable jobs back in the States so you might think working for $5 or $10/hour isn’t worth it.
There are ways to fill the void that retirement brings, but some expats leave Cuenca because they really miss having a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
#5 Homesick for Friends & Family
We haven’t felt much homesickness, mainly because our families are geographically dispersed so we didn’t see them very often before we left the States. We got over missing them decades ago.
However, many expats are retired empty nesters with grandchildren. Being so far away with visa travel limitations, they aren’t able to spend much time with their grandkids. For some, that’s a big reason for moving back home.
Back in Denver, our friends were mostly work-related. We saw them at work events and occasionally went out for drinks where we talked about, well, work. Here in Cuenca, our friends are purely social, and we like that.
However, some expats have a big social circle back home or have lived close to family for their entire lives. It can be difficult to leave them all behind and start over making new friends, especially later in life.
While we have found it easy to make friends here, some expats leave Cuenca because they’re homesick for their friends and family back home.
#6 Miss Conveniences
The US and other developed countries are nothing if not convenient. Everything is at your fingertips.
Amazon carries everything on the planet and delivers next day. Walmart is typically a short drive away and has just about everything you could ever need. You could say we’re pretty spoiled.
We miss some of those conveniences here in Cuenca. We can find most things with some effort, but it’s often not convenient and requires multiple trips to multiple stores. Some things are also a lot more expensive here, like beauty products or anything with a plug.
Specialty items are often impossible to find in Cuenca so we bring them back with us from the States. Some people also mule things back for other expats.
Hard to find or overly expensive items in Cuenca:
- Allergy meds (Alegra, Zyrtec, Flonase)
- Nutritional Yeast
- Indian/Asian Spices
- Apple Products
- Beauty Products (Makeup, Lotions, etc.)
- Cruelty-Free Products
- Vegan Packaged Foods (Impossible Burger, Beyond Burger, Greggs, etc.)
Delivery isn’t really an option here. It’s expensive and it’s common for things to “get lost” in transit. We’re going to test delivery by ordering something from Amazon and mailing something back home to Amelia’s parents. We’ll let you know how that goes in a future video.
A lot of expats leave Cuenca because they miss the consumer conveniences of living in a more developed country.
#7 Family Issues or Illness
Some expats who move to Cuenca are newly retired so they’re in the age group that has elder parents in their 80’s or 90’s. When their parents become ill due to age, many expats move back home to help take care of them.
While many expats are orphans, they have children and grandchildren of their own back home. If someone in the family falls ill or needs help because of divorce or another life circumstance, some expats leave Cuenca to return home and provide support.
We’ve been very happy with our healthcare here in Cuenca. It’s far lower cost with far more personal attention.
However, the facilities aren’t the medical Taj Mahal’s we’re used to back in the States. While the doctors are well-educated and the equipment is modern, the buildings are often in need of repair. For some people, that doesn’t instill confidence in the quality of care.
Also, private insurance companies in Ecuador have a 2 year waiting period for pre-existing conditions. Some expats leave Cuenca because they develop a health issue relating to a pre-existing condition that isn’t covered by insurance here in Cuenca, but is covered by Medicare back in the States (or universal care in Canada).
#9 Visa Problems
We have a friend who was here on a work visa, but the company that sponsored her visa went out of business, which invalidated her visa. In order to stay in Ecuador, she needed to get another type of visa or find another company to sponsor her work visa, but neither was an option for her so she had to leave.
Amelia has a dependent visa that’s tied to my professional visa. If I die or she leaves me for a hot Latin lover, she’ll need to get her own non-dependent visa.
If you have an investor visa and need to withdraw your investment for any reason, you’ll need to get a different type of visa.
Unfortunately, a different type of temporary resident visa isn’t an option for some expats. The investor visa requires a $40,000 investment in a long-term CD or physical property. The pensioner visa requires consistent monthly income from social security or a pension. The professional visa requires a degree from an approved university plus a consistent monthly income.
If you’re in Ecuador and your circumstances change invalidating your visa, you might not qualify for another type of visa, which is why some expats leave Cuenca.
#10 Altitude Sickness
Cuenca sits at roughly 8,500 feet above sea level so the air is quite thin. This gives a lot of people altitude sickness, which may include headaches, vomiting, tiredness, trouble sleeping, and dizziness.
If you’ve never been at altitude, you may get altitude sickness or you may not. It doesn’t affect everyone and it affects some people more than others. The major downside is that you won’t know until you get here and then you can’t quickly return to a lower altitude. It’s a 3 hour drive from Cuenca to get back to sea level.
You can manage the symptoms by resting and drinking lots of water. Doctors here also prescribe Mate de Coca tea for altitude sickness, which we have found to be very helpful. However, mate is made from the same plant that cocaine comes from, so it’s illegal in the States and can cause you to fail a drug test. If you’re here on vacation and are required to take drug tests for your job back home, keep that in mind.
Some expats leave Cuenca because their altitude sickness never improves. They either return home or move to a lower altitude in Ecuador.
#11 The Weather
We love the weather in Cuenca for 8 months of the year. It’s sunny, warm and beautiful from September through most of April.
From May through August, the weather is not great. It rains a lot in May and June, but the coolness and clouds are what make it very difficult for many expats, including Amelia and me.
Most houses aren’t heated or insulated in Cuenca so it can get very cold, especially at night. But the months of gray skies are what really get to us. I call it “Star Trek gray” because the sky is completely monotone just like the stage backgrounds in the original Star Trek series. Sometimes it never gets light enough to know what time of day it is!
We had an old Irish family friend who passed away years ago. During the cold, gloomy Kansas winters, she would say, “These are the types of days they hide the ropes in Ireland.” Well, we have 4 months of those days and lots of expats leave Cuenca because of them.
#12 Experience Other Places
Cuenca is a great launchpad for expats moving to Ecuador because it’s a modern city with lots of English speakers and easy access to visa services.
However, we know several expats who started in Cuenca but then moved to other parts of Ecuador, such as Vilcabamba or the coast, for warmer weather, a lower altitude or a more immersive cultural experience.
Ecuador’s beaches are quite beautiful, less developed and more affordable than American beaches so many expats choose to leave Cuenca for sand and sun. We’ll be doing more tours of Ecuador’s Coast in future videos.
We also know some expats who left Cuenca to move to Panama, Portugal, Columbia and Costa Rica. There’s a whole world out there and some expats leave Cuenca to explore it.
If you left Cuenca for a different reason, please let us know in the comments below.
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