We’ve known for a long time that we wanted to live abroad for a year, but we weren’t sure where to go. We deliberated for many months before deciding on Cuenca, Ecuador (our current location). But how does one choose where in the world to spend a year? Throw a dart? I considered that, but with my throwing ability I was afraid we’d end up in Antarctica!
Instead we made a list of the criteria we wanted in a place. This article shares those criteria and then takes you on a meandering journey through the many locations we considered.
Here are the location criteria we put together.
Our Location Criteria
- Spanish-speaking country. We want our girls to learn Spanish, and we want to improve our skills.
- Affordable and safe. We need to be able to survive on passive income and work done remotely.
- Easy to get around without a car. We want to use public transportation and not have to drive a car.
- Access to green space. We need trees and grass. Mountains and water are bonuses, but we need to have a place nearby where I can feel connected to nature.
- Universities. We’ve always enjoyed the perks that universities offer a city (shout out to Clemson!)
- Activities & Cultural Events. We don’t get out a whole lot with our two young girls, but we like to go out to eat and have a drink from time to time Knowing that there are cultural events happening in the city is exciting, even if we don’t attend many.
- Colonial architecture is a big plus. We just love old buildings made of big stones and solid wood. Their charm and the history of a place are big draws for us.
- Indigenous culture is a plus. I loved learning about the Native American communities in Mexico and also visiting them in Guatemala and Peru. They add another dimension of richness to society in my limited experience.
So, how to go about finding somewhere in the world that meets all of these criteria? Surely there were many such places. The rest of this article takes you on the meandering path our minds took as we explored potential destinations for our trip abroad.
When we originally started planning this trip, we were thinking of going to Spain. I love Spanish culture and Spanish food. Paella, seafood, red wine, sangria, chorizo, and tortilla española are just a few of my favorites. I have a special place in my heart for Spain since it is where I really started speaking Spanish as an undergrad for 5 months 20 years ago. (As I write this, I just realized it’s been that long, which is very very hard to believe!)
In 2009 Chad and I traveled in Spain for 6 weeks, and we loved Madrid’s plazas, tapas, and parks. Barcelona was alluring with art and interesting architecture everywhere, but our girls might have been confused learning Spanish and Catalan (the language of the region around Barcelona). I’d always wanted to spend more time in southern Spain, and we were really excited after reading the blog of an American family who spent multiple years in Granada.
Spain sounded wonderful with so many beautiful places to choose from and visit. We couldn’t go wrong, could we? But then, we remembered our wonderful experiences South America and the many unexplored places there. Why not South America then?
South America and Argentina
After our 6 months in Spain in 2009, Chad and I traveled through Peru, Chile, and Argentina and had the time of our life together. We loved the native cultures and Incan history in Peru and the sky-scraping peaks and glacial lakes of southern Patagonia. We also had dear friends in Buenos Aires, which is a rather European city with good food and cultural events at every corner.
Ahhh, Buenos Aires! Why not go there for a year?!
But after looking at maps and talking with friends, we were concerned about the enormity of the metro Buenos Aires. 14 million people live there. It might be a shock for our little girls who have grown up in a small town of 14 thousand people. We also knew we wouldn’t be close to any mountains and might have limited contact with nature living in a big city.
So, we turned our sight to the northern lakes district of Patagonia. We didn’t get there in 2009, and I really want to see the area and go hiking among the lakes and Andean peaks. Bariloche, the primary city of that region, looked beautiful as did some of the small towns outside this snowskiing destination. But we weren’t sure how we’d adapt to the cold climate in the winter or how well we’d get around without a car. And during research we heard it can be difficult for foreigners to get a long term lease on affordable housing.
So, we looked at other areas of Argentina. We gave Mendoza and Cordoba long, hard looks because they both seemed to be wonderful cities. We would surely have lots of wine-loving visitors if we settled in Mendoza. And we had contacts and a very helpful blog in Cordoba, which would have made it easy to find our way. We just couldn’t go wrong on this trip. Everywhere was beautiful and enriching in its own way.
So, we were pretty set on Argentina for a long time. It was just a matter of where.
During a heartfelt conversation with a friend about our yet undecided destination, she asked if we’d considered Peru or Ecuador. We’d loved Peru but weren’t sure where we’d want to spend a year. Ecuador? We didn’t know much about it, and we didn’t know anyone from Ecuador. We did find it interesting that they had a Minister of Happiness (no joke!). And Chad had a friend who loved his travels to Ecuador and told him it was very affordable. So, out of curiosity when I got home from meeting with my friend, I looked at our push pin world travels map.
Apparently, at some point I don’t remember, I put a pin in Cuenca, Ecuador, as a dream destination. Hmmm… interesting, so we started researching Cuenca.
Cuenca is located in a basin in the southern highlands of the Andes mountains. Four rivers pass through the city, and there are greenways and exercise paths along the edge of each one. Green spaces, exercise, rivers, AND mountains… wow! The elevation is 8200 feet, and the average temperatures are between 50-70 degrees year round. Sounded pleasant!
Cuenca is the third-largest city in Ecuador (after Guayaquil and the capital Quito) with a population of 500,000, but it’s known for being more laid-back and safer than the two larger cities. This sounded good for our family from a small town! And, its size still allowed for plenty of public transportation options.
Cuenca is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its well-preserved Spanish colonial architecture. It was also home to four universities!
The more we read about Cuenca, the better it sounded. We also found out that there is a huge ex-pat community in Cuenca, which meant that there were lots of the comforts and perks we like, such as international and vegetarian restaurants, coffee shops, craft beer, and cultural activities. We joined an Expats in Cuenca group on Facebook, and people were really helpful answering our questions. And we researched potential schools for the girls. Everything seemed to be a good fit for us.
Having never been to the city, we knew we’d have to get on the ground to decide for sure. But the decision was finally made. Look out Cuenca, here we come!
Now that we’re in Cuenca
We have been here 3 weeks now, and we are really happy with our decision. Cuenca meets all of our criteria and has surprised us with more. It is definitely a Spanish-speaking country, and there is an indigenous presence here too. Many words from Kichwa (a local indigenous language) are incorporated into the Spanish here. The historical center of town is beautiful. I love wandering around and admiring the old buildings.
Food is tasty and affordable with many highly recommended restaurants. We’ve tried lots of fruits we’ve never seen before. Our favorite meal to eat out is lunch. You can get an almuerzo (lunch) for $2-4, which includes soup, a main dish of fish, chicken, shrimp, or beef with rice and a salad, dessert, and fresh made fruit juice. Yum!
We have found the city to be safe, but still we always try to stay alert and be careful. There are lots of activities going on. The expats have their own website with upcoming events, and there is a similar local page. I just went to a meditation group on Sunday morning in a room crowded with one Ecuadorian and many ex-pats sitting in silence together. We look forward to attending more events around town in the weeks and months to come.
Our primary activity since arrival has been hunting for schools for our girls (more on that in another article), but playing in parks and exercising have also been a priority for us. We’ve decided to live close to a park called Parque de la Madre. The girls love it because there are four swing sets, “queens’ thrones,” and a cool zipline swing. The parents love it because there are lots of people exercising every day, all day. On Saturday, we saw Tai-Chi and yoga classes. On weekday mornings and evenings, you can find free bailoterapia classes (like Zumba), sponsored by the provincial government. I’ve been having fun getting my exercise groove on dancing to Latin beats a few mornings a week. On the other mornings, we run around the track with the speed walkers or marathon training groups and use the exercise machines and pull up bars.
Still other days, we jog along the trails next to the Tomebamba River, or we run the five flights of steps up to the historical center of town. Seeing so many people exercising was a huge surprise for me, and is one more reason I’m happy we’re here in Cuenca.
We’ll have more updates to come in the near future. But for now, cheers from Cuenca!