"If you told me ten years ago that I would live in Ecuador one day, I would have told you that you were crazy," says Sharon Monroe, a 64-year-old grandmother and retired restaurateur from Redwood City, California. "At that point in my life, I couldn't imagine living anywhere else but in the United States."
Monroe was in Quito earlier this month to attend International Living's Live and Invest in Ecuador conference and, like the other attendees, mostly from North America, she is seriously considering relocating to South America.
Monroe is motivated by financial considerations. In 1996, she and husband sold a chain of California restaurants. "We did well with the sale and thought we were all set for retirement," she says. "Unfortunately, our savings were decimated by the recession and, almost out of desperation, we started looking around for countries with a low cost of living and good quality of life." After visiting Mexico, Belize and Panama, they focused on Ecuador.
Another factor for Monroe and others attending the Ecuador conference was a fear of political and economic instability in the U.S. "I hope I'm wrong, but I think the United States is headed for bad times. I believe we're losing many of our civil liberties," she says. "I also think the financial crisis will get worse."
Whatever the reason, Ecuador's popularity with potential expats is growing. The numbers tell the story: This month's International Living Ecuador conference drew 240 attendees, while the last conference, in 2006, had 25.
Donna DeRemigis, International Living events coordinator, says that she has seen rapid growth in the interest of North Americans moving overseas since she joined the organization in 2008. "The increase in attendance at our seminars has been phenomenal," she says. In addition to Ecuador, International Living also hosts country seminars in Panama, Costa Rica and Mexico. "Right now, Ecuador is hot," DeRemigis adds.
Ireland-based International Living has been a driving force behind Ecuador's popularity with foreigners. The company, which hosts conferences, publishes country reports and boasts a circulation of 350,000 for its daily e-letter, has named Ecuador the top choice in its Global Retirement Index for three years running. Results of the index, which rate countries on such factors as cost of living, safety, infrastructure and culture, have been widely reported by the media. In addition to Ecuador's number-one ranking, International Living has singled out Cuenca as the world's best destination for retirees.
It is difficult to get exact numbers of English-speaking foreigners living in Ecuador. In 2002, the U.S. State Department estimated that there were 27,000 U.S. citizens in Ecuador, but this included everyone from travelers to residents. According to a spokesman, the State Department no longer compiles such estimates. "They were just educated guesses anyway, and because they included temporary workers, students and teachers, as well as permanent residents, we decided that they didn't really serve a useful purpose."
Ecuadorian immigration and census numbers offer more detailed information. But because of the difficulty of sorting the various types of visas and the nationalities of visa and residency holders, exact numbers are impossible to come by. An employee in the Quito immigration office, who asked not to be identified, says that 5,000 to 7,000 North Americans have been granted residency since 2010. "Five years ago, there were less than 1,000 a year, so the numbers are definitely heading up," he said.
Although current expats say the low cost of living is important, they warn that it should not be the only consideration for moving to Ecuador. "It's great that my costs are thirty percent of what they were back home and that I don't have to spend time worrying about paying my bills, but this country has so much more to offer than that," says Mike Sager, a resident of the southern coastal town of Playas. "The most important thing is that this is a great place to live," he says. "It's a land of opportunity, like the U.S. was fifty years ago."
Lee Harrision, a speaker at the International Living conference, agrees. "Your main purpose for coming to Ecuador might be to live cheaply. But you also have to embrace the culture to really appreciate it." Like others, Harrison points out the benefits of healthy living. "The stress level is low, the food is fresh and locally grown, and the weather is great. These are things that might not be readily available back home."
Although expats live all over Ecuador, they tend to concentrate in five areas.
With its designation as the top retirement city in the world, Cuenca is far and away the most popular destination for expats. Drawn by the city's colonial history and architecture, rich culture, quality health care and good infrastructure, Cuenca has seen the number of expats increase from approximately 200 in 2008 to more than 1,400 today. Add long-term visa holders, such as students, teachers and missionaries, and the total of English-speakers approaches 2,500. Fortunately, the growing number of foreigners has not had a serious impact on the city's character; with a metropolitan population of 500,000, Cuenca has comfortably absorbed the influx.
Vilcabamba, just north of Ecuador's border with Peru, has the highest per capita concentration of expats in the country, with an estimated 200 residents and long-term visa holders in a population of about 2,000. The idyllic village, at 5,000 feet elevation, boasts what many claim to be the perfect climate. Local expats, many with a decidedly counter-culture bent, enjoy a laid-back life style, breathtaking scenery, opportunities for outdoor activities such as hiking and horseback riding, and hanging out in the cafés surrounding the picturesque village square.
Located two hours north of Quito, Cotacachi has claimed a top spot on the list of expat towns in recent years. Known as a center for leather goods, the town's main street is lined with dozens of shops selling jackets, vests, purses, wallets, and belts. In addition, Cotacachi is notable for its proximity to Otavalo, Ecuador's largest crafts market. Immigration officials estimate that 150 permanent residents, and dozens more part-timers, live in the area. Cotacachi is one of the few locations in Ecuador with primarily gringo housing developments.
The southern coast, including the resorts of Salinas and Playas and the beach towns of Montañita, Olon and Puerto Lopez, has proven a strong draw for beach lovers. Often referred to as the "Little Miami Beach' for its phalanx of high-rise condos ringing the town harbor, Salinas attracts both full- and part-time foreigners and offers a vibrant resort atmosphere with good restaurants and nightlife. An hour north of Salinas, Montañita has earned the reputation as Ecuador's surfer capital and offers a vibrant international youth culture. Another hour's drive to the north, Puerto Lopez is a bustling fishing town best known for humpback whale watching May through October.
The north-central coast, dominated by the growing port city of Manta, is another hot spot for expats. With a population of more than a quarter-million, Manta's modern infrastructure, fine dining and shopping options have attracted many foreigners. Expats prefer to live in beach condos just outside of the city. North of Manta, Bahia de Caraquez, Crucita, Jama and Canoa also boast a growing expat population, mostly drawn by the casual Margaritaville beachcomber atmosphere. Road and bridge-expansion projects in the area have made the area increasingly accessible to both Ecuadorians and foreigners.
Wherever they decide to settle, Ecuador's newcomers arrive with high expectations. "I'm looking for a new adventure," says Monroe.