Is Cuenca A Better Retire Overseas Choice Than Medellin?

“If you like Cuenca, Ecuador, so much, why did you ever leave?”

That’s the question I hear most frequently when I give a presentation on Ecuador or when I discuss it among expats. I get the question because I continue to recommend Cuenca very highly to potential retirees overseas. At the same time, it’s true that, while Cuenca was the first place I moved when I decided to retire overseas, I no longer live there.

In fact, after almost six years in Cuenca, I’ve since lived in Uruguay, Brazil, and now, Medellin, Colombia. I loved each of these places, for different reasons. My motive for moving from Cuenca had nothing to do with dissatisfaction. It was more of a gradual evolution–a migration–from one phase of my retirement to the next.
Nonetheless, I speak with many expats who are considering both Medellin and Cuenca, trying to choose between the two, and so I am asked often to compare these cities. As these are two of my favorite cities in Latin America, it’s an interesting and fun comparison to make, and Medellin and Cuenca are surprisingly similar in a number of ways.

Both cities enjoy great weather, with no bugs, all year. I didn’t use heat or air conditioning in Cuenca, and I don’t use them here in Medellin.

But the weather is not the same. Medellin is warmer, with daily highs averaging around 81°F (27°C), lows in the 60s, and 1°C of seasonal variation. In Cuenca, monthly average highs vary from 65° to 71° depending on the time of year, and nightly lows are also correspondingly lower.

Rainfall is higher in Medellin (66 inches versus 35 inches in Cuenca). Nonetheless, Medellin sees more sunny days, on average, annually, than Cuenca.

Does either of those descriptions qualify as “perfect weather” for you? As with all retire overseas factors, it’s a matter of your own tastes.

Residency is fairly easy to establish in both Colombia and Ecuador, with low thresholds for visa qualification in both countries. In Colombia, the pensioner’s visa requires an income of just under US$1,000 per year, while in Ecuador the level is even lower, at US$800 per year. For an investor-type visa, Colombia’s options start at around US$34,000, while Ecuador requires but US$25,000.

Colombia’s visa, however, is quicker and easier to obtain, with fewer documents required. Also, Ecuador imposes some restrictions on your travel during your first two years of residency in that country, while Colombia imposes no such restrictions at any time.

The cultural scene in Medellin is remarkably similar to that in Cuenca. This is surprising because Cuenca has around 600,000 people in its metro area, while Medellin has about 4 million. In both cities, you can enjoy orchestra, theater, art openings, museums, and a generally sophisticated cultural scene. You’ll pay a modest fee for most of these things in Medellin, while in Cuenca they’re usually free.

The infrastructure is good in both cities. You’ll enjoy drinkable water, reliable broadband internet, and dependable electricity, water, and phone service.

Also, both cities are very walkable, and both boast excellent and cheap public transit systems. And if you decide to drive, you’ll find traffic jams equally maddening in both cities.

Real estate prices are cheap in both cities by South American standards. I did a recent survey that compared real estate values in Medellin, Montevideo (Uruguay), Fortaleza (Brazil), and Panama City. Apples to apples insofar as that’s possible (that is, comparing comparable properties in comparable regions of each city), Medellin’s El Poblado is the winner.

That said, note that prices in Cuenca can be lower. A nice, two-bedroom apartment in Cuenca might cost around US$80,000…while that same apartment in a top-end neighborhood of Medellin might cost more than US$120,000. You can find Cuenca-level pricing in Medellin, but it won’t be in the best neighborhoods.

For the lifestyle you’ll enjoy in Medellin, the real estate is a tremendous bargain. The same is true in Cuenca–for the lifestyle it offers, it, too, is a tremendous bargain.

However, the lifestyle in one is nothing like the lifestyle in the other, which brings us to the ways these cities differ. (As Medellin is such a big and diverse city, I’ll confine my comparisons to its upscale neighborhood of El Poblado.)

To start, Medellin’s El Poblado offers a modern, upscale ambiance. It has elegant shopping, spotless infrastructure, glistening new buildings, and more fine dining that you can imagine. New, brick, luxury high-rises look down from lush, wooded hillsides. Tall trees line the well-maintained streets. And El Poblado is only one of many such desirable areas in this city.

On the other hand, Cuenca is one of the Americas’ premier Spanish-colonial cities and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The old Cathedral was built in 1557, the architecture is well-preserved Spanish colonial, and the streets are cobblestoned. You’ll even see evidence of the Inca occupation from the early 1500s. Yet just outside the historic center, Cuenca also offers new, modern high-rises. So you can live in a modern home, yet have the historic center just a short distance away.

El Poblado is a First World environment; you’ll be hard-pressed to find a U.S. city that can beat it.

On the other hand, Cuenca is part of a developing country, where you see evidence of the Third World…things like sidewalks in poor repair and unmaintained structures.

Access to the United States is easier from Medellin than from Cuenca. You can fly direct to Medellin from Miami (flights are available daily), whereas you’ll need to connect (and probably spend the night) in Guayaquil or Quito when traveling to Cuenca. This adds a day to the trip coming and going, as well as the cost of lodging and taxis.

The expat community is far smaller in Medellin than in Cuenca. I can find expats in Medellin–at a local coffee shop or the Irish pub–if I look for them. And a couple of Americans are signed up at my gym. But you won’t normally see your fellows around.

In Cuenca, the expat community has grown dramatically since I lived there. Today’s estimates put between 4,000 and 5,000 expats and foreign retirees in this city. They are making a cultural imprint. Most of their impact is positive, in my opinion, but whether an expat community of that size is a positive or a negative for you overall is a matter of choice.

The cost of living is higher in El Poblado than in Cuenca, due in part to currency exchange rates. Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar, so dollar-holders don’t feel the pinch of a weakening currency in this country. Meantime, Colombia has a strengthening Colombian peso. The stronger it gets, the more dollars you need to maintain the same standard of living. Bottom line, your living costs in Medellin would be noticeably higher than in Cuenca.

The basics in Medellin cost me about US$1,750 per month (food, entertainment, utilities, public transit, taxes, and HOA fees). I believe in Cuenca this total right now would be about US$1,250. Neither city is expensive, but Cuenca is definitely more affordable.

And the winner is?

There is no winner. Neither city is “better.” Manhattan is not inherently better or worse than New Orleans, say, but it’s certainly different. The same goes for Medellin and Cuenca.

I see Cuenca as an adventure, a cultural adventure. It offers a lifestyle that’s as different as you can get from the United States or Canada without leaving the world’s European-based cultures. When I retired to Cuenca at age 49, I shunned places like Chile and Uruguay, because they were too much like the United States. I wanted something as different and exciting as I could get, and Cuenca fit the bill.

Today, I think of Medellin as a reward to myself. It’s a treat to be here, a chance to enjoy perfect weather and an elegant lifestyle that I couldn’t afford in the United States. When I bought my place in Medellin 10 years later at the age of 59, it was, like Cuenca had been a decade earlier, also exactly what I was looking for. I wanted an elegant, luxury lifestyle at an affordable price, and Medellin fit the bill.

That’s the real reason that Medellin is now my “ideal retirement spot,” when it used to be Cuenca…or Punta del Este…or Montevideo…or Itamaracá, Brazil.

You’ve heard a dozen times that the “perfect retirement location” is different for everyone.

But there’s more to it than that.

That “perfect spot” is not only different for everyone, but it changes for everyone, too, as your tastes, your age, and your experience level at living abroad change.

As it does, you’ll find that the adventure and excitement of discovery need never stop.

Lee Harrison

Editor’s Note: We’ll continue this comparative analysis, considering the pluses and minuses of Colombia as a retirement and investment haven relative to other places you may be considering spending your time and your money, when we convene in Medellin in May for our Live and Invest in Colombia Conference.

The VIP places for this event are filling very quickly. More details are here.