A former high school classmate and cherished old friend when reconnecting with Roger through Facebook quoted the old saying: "When God closes a door, he opens a window." The years have seen a number of life changes for us that make that adage ring true. After being blessed with good fortune, a wonderful son and great experiences, we decided to look out that window and prepare for more of what this wonderful life has to offer. We hope through our blog to share our journey from this point forward with family, with friends and with many others. Hopefully we'll make some new friends along the way. We hope you find our tales of some interest, even amusement and perhaps an inspiration for you to treat each and every day as an opportunity and an adventure to share with those who are an important part of your life.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

San Miguel de Allende and Cuenca: making a choice between the two!

We are overdue for responding to a regular longtime reader who inquired back in July as to why we finally chose Cuenca, Ecuador for retirement over San Miguel Allende, Mexico.    Those of you who have been readers from the first, or who have discovered our entry on San Miguel in the archives, know that we originally planned on retiring to this community in the central highlands of Mexico.

Residential suburbs of Cuenca, Ecuador
Residential suburbs of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
 That reader wrote and inquired as to what tipped the scale in Ecuador's favor?  We thought it was a good and a fair question, so we promised to explore the reasons more fully in a blog.  (At this point, if you haven't read:  "A Look At San Miguel de Allende " originally posted on April 21, 2011, it may be of benefit to do so before going further on this blog.)

Street scene in historico centro Cuenca

Street scene in historico centro
San Miguel de Allende

Both cities have some desirable attributes in common.  Both have historic central districts that are designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  Both have beautiful centrally located plazas that are  anchors for many community activities and resources.  Both have an abundance of colorful colonial architecture.  Both are blessed with an abundance of beautiful churches and cathedrals.  Both have active city administrations that support art and cultural activities for the benefit of their citizenry.  Both have established ex-patriate residents that have integrated well through many parts of the city. Both represent well their heritage and culture. Both have generally moderate climates year around. These were among the attributes that were important to us as we sought an appropriate locale for ex-patriate retirement living and both cities appeared to have much to offer us as future ex-patriates.

Parroquia San Miguel in San Miguel de Allende

Iglesia San Francisco in Cuenca
So what were the differences?  And what among these differences finally led us to choose Cuenca after having invested several exploration trips to Mexico?  Here were some of the key factors that tipped the scale in Cuenca's favor:

Residency status:   The process of applying for and obtaining residency status in Mexico appears to be simpler and less intensive than it is here in Ecuador (Our best advice on both: you really need to DO your complete homework BEFORE you come!).   However, once residency status is granted, there is some advantage to a residency in Ecuador.  That lies in the simple fact that permanent foreign residents of Ecuador are granted the same protections as Ecuadorian citizens under the Ecuadorian constitution.  In Ecuador, as permanent residents, we can, (with some conditions and limitations) work at most occupations, apply for special benefits and enjoy the same usage of public facilities as citizens.  That is not so in Mexico, which is much more legally restrictive as to the rights, privileges and opportunities granted to permanent foreign residents. 

Health care:    Health care in Mexico is highly variable by locale and while excellent in some locales (such as metropolitan Guadalajara), it is often limited and more costly in semi-rural areas such as San Miguel.  In Cuenca, there are numerous facilities, a plethora of accessible well-trained physicians and it is generally more affordable.

Superstructure and public transportation:   Cuenca is significantly larger than San Miguel (500,000+ metro versus less than 100,000) so it has a larger tax base and has some developed amenities and superstructure not found in San Miguel.  The area outlying the historico centro has modern amenities in dining, culture, shopping, health care facilities, etc.  Cuenca's tax base supports a more thoroughly developed and better maintained street system, public mass transit.  There are plans for developing light rail.  It is not readily apparent but the presence of several universities in Cuenca add significantly to the the activities and resources available to residents of the community.

Currency:  Ecuador's official currency is the U.S. dollar. While that creates some economic challenges for the country as a whole, it is a superb convenience to us ex-patriates not to have worry about currency exchange and conversion. It really does simplify every day living and budgeting as well transferring funds.

Acceptance and welcome:   While San Miguel de Allende has a long history of having an ex-patriate presence (there has been significant migration to San Miguel since the late 40's) and while there is some superb integration and acceptance of ex-pats into its social structure and community organizations, Mexico, as a nation, still has an undercurrent of tension with its neighbors to the north.  While there is less of that in the state of Guanajuato than anyplace else in Mexico, we found the genuine welcome and acceptance of Cuencanos to our arrival and efforts toward residency far in excess of anything we had ever experienced in Mexico.  Moreover, the welcome and acceptance by fellow ex-patriates who had preceded us contained more good affinity here in Ecuador than what was evident anywhere in Mexico.

Greater affordability:   Some select everyday living expenses were cheaper for us in Mexico and despite San Miguel's much smaller size as a city, there was more availability of products and brands "from back home" than we find here in Cuenca.  However, real estate and housing were a much different story.  Housing costs in outlying neighborhoods in San Miguel were only fractionally lower than back in Arizona. In the historico centro, those costs far exceeded the costs of a typical suburban Phoenix home.   Overall, Cuenca offered a "bigger bang for our buck" despite being one of the more costly areas in Ecuador and despite Ecuador's high tariffs on imports.  It will, however, require some adjustment in lifestyle choices and purchase decisions.

Potential for Violence:   The central highlands of Mexico have not been beset with the much publicized drug cartel violence you hear about in the states.  However, over the past four years, that violence, while not having extended itself yet to the San Miguel-Guanajuato area has appeared in other places where it was previously not in evidence (such as the Chapala area).  The ongoing struggle between the government and the cartels and among the the cartels themselves are destabilizing Mexican society as a whole.  Ecuador, on the other hand has recently emerged from an extended period of economic and political instability and seems to be entering a period in which social stability and growth seem to on the upswing and headed for a steadily progressing trend.   Cuenca, in particular, appears to be trending toward a growing, emerging middle class and has become a magnet not just for ex-patriates but also for returning, upwardly mobile Ecuadorians in search of a better life and economic opportunity.  Both areas share common challenges on petty social crime, as do most developing countries with a broad economic disparity. That, unfortunately, is an issue an ex-patriate must be prepared to face and willing to address wherever he chooses to reside.

A rainbow in the Cajas mountains as seen from our house.
Environmental Diversity:  Both areas are beautiful in their own ways.  Ecuador, however, packs more geological and biological diversity into every square mile than any other country on Earth.  There simply aren't enough words to adequately describe the myriad opportunities, all within a few hours commute, to enjoy the spectacular beauty of this country.  Ecuador is roughly the size of the state of Nevada but presents more geological terrains and venues and offers more species of flora and fauna than all of North America put together.  It offers us more opportunities to enjoy new adventures right in our own backyard than almost anyplace else we could have chosen to retire to.

Cuenca, Ecuador's Historico Centro

Central location:  We resided in Phoenix and our grown son resides in Atlanta.  It was about a four hour plane ride apart.   Atlanta to Ecuador falls within the four and a half to five hour range, almost virtually the same.   In addition, we are less than six hours access, not only to most of the US, Central America and Carribean, but to nearly all of the places we hope to visit in South America, as well.  One of our goals was affordable living that would allow us to continue to enjoy vacations of travel and exploration in our retirement.  Ecuador's easy access to so many destinations (including direct flights to Spain) and the discount fares available to a "tercera edad" resident of Ecuador make that goal readily attainable.

Roger & Suzanne in Cuenca
Hopefully, our answer to one reader's inquiry provided the answers they were seeking and provided some helpful insight to others, as well.  We do still have a fond spot in our hearts for central Mexico as a wonderful place to visit and/or reside.  It may well be the right choice for many and would not have been an undesirable choice for us.  It will, most certainly, be a city we will look forward to making repeat visits to.  Fortunately, it will be easy to so from our chosen home here in Cuenca.  We look forward to a lot of adventures originating from our new home and we feel both fortunate and blessed as we continue ever onward, "juntos en el camino de la vida"!


  1. Thank you for an insightful comparison. Although I am not considering Mexico to relocate, it was interesting to see your perspective of life in each location as I plan to relocate to Cuenca very soon.

  2. I'd like to add my thanks, as well. I've gone back and forth between considering Cuenca or San Miguel, and you have discussed some issues I'd wondered about. Gracias y que les vaya bien.

    Tay (in Texas)

  3. Although I'm still relatively young (40s) I've been thinking of how it could be to retire in Cuenca, Ecuador. I'm a software quality engineer, I was born in Mexico and moved to Phoenix 5 years ago :) I sure would like to visit Cuenca someday specially after watching "Que tan Lejos"