Cuenca, Ecuador is lovely this time of year. In fact, the climate there is moderate no matter what the season. This colonial city has an average daily temperature of about 58 degrees Fahrenheit.

The wonderful weather is just one of many reasons Cuenca, Ecuador may well be one of the best permanent getaways for American retirees. The city has a vibrant history, and today it is fully developed with an excellent transportation system, fantastic health care, a good standard of living at a low price, and plenty of free cultural attractions.  You can study Spanish and mingle with the locals, or you can get involved with Cuenca's thriving expat community.

U.S. News just called Cuenca the best place to retire overseas on a budget. Since Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar, there's no need to worry about an exchange rate. You can get a meal for just couple bucks, or stop by fruit stands to pick up fresh produce for pennies. A furnished apartment can go for just $400 a month, and you can get a bus ride across the city for just a quarter.

Sound too good to be true? The fact is, Cuenca is not the cheapest locale in Ecuador. But in terms of value, it's hard to beat. Here are some important things to know if you're considering a move to this South American haven.

A Rich History

Cuenca began as a city built by the Incas, called Tomebamba. But by the time the Spaniards arrived in 1547, the ancient city was falling apart and the European conquerors made the area their own. Today, you can still find cobblestone streets, old churches, whitewashed buildings and colonial architecture, although much of the 18th century buildings were somewhat modernized during the 19th century. In 1999, UNESCO included the city on its World Heritage List.


An annual religious celebration. REUTERS/Guillermo Granja

Things To Do

Ecuador boasts art galleries, history museums, intimate bars, international restaurants and more. Highlights include the Museo de las Conceptas, a museum built into a former convent, which exhibits religious pieces including sculptures, paintings and artifacts. For restaurants, try the famous Villa Rosa, which offers local cuisine in a European atmosphere. Want to dance? Try the Tal Cual, a bar that attracts locals with live salsa and merengue music. And for art, swing by the Larrazabal Gallery, which exhibits the work of local artists.


A woman visits the local church. REUTERS/Guillermo Granja

Current Politics

Ecuador is a democratic republic with an elected president; Rafael Correa currently heads the government. The country is stable, and the United Nations has praised Ecuador for its generosity in keeping its borders open to displaced Columbians who have moved there to escape violence in their home country. But not everything is smooth sailing; there have been allegations of widespread Ecuadorian discrimination against Columbian refugees.

Furthermore, Correa has been criticized for restricting the freedom of the Ecuadorian media. He presided over a change to electoral laws in February; now, journalists who cover the upcoming presidential election are prohibited from supporting any one candidate or measure. Media cannot be political actors, he explained during a TV broadcast. Still, the president's approval ratings are high due to a range of successful social programs implanted during his tenure.


Political demonstrations in the street. REUTERS/David Mercado

How To Get There

If you're flying, you'll probably have to stop at Quito's Mariscal Sucre International Airport (UIO) before catching a puddle-jumper to Cuenca's Mariscal Lamar Airport (CUE), which happens to be just over a mile from the city.

Or you could fly to Quito and then grab a bus, which leaves every hour. You can get a ride for about $10, but be prepared to weather the 11-hour trip.

If you're a United States citizen planning a visit to Ecuador, a passport is necessary. You don't need a visa as long as your visit does not exceed 90 days. But exercise caution; if you go beyond that limit, you could be deported or barred future entry.

To move to Cuenca permanently, you'll need a resident visa. Rules for application are subject to change, so it's best to consult the Ministry of Foreign Relations website, or ask directly by calling the Quito office at 593-2-299-3200, preceded by your country's exit code (in the United States, that's 011).


A woman passes a local restaurant. REUTERS / Guillermo Granja

What To Bring

Nights get chilly, so pack a jacket -- no need for a heavy coat. A quality umbrella is useful, especially during the rainy season from December through May. You'll want to carry one around, since sudden showers can swoop in and out quickly and without warning. One that's strong yet compact is your best bet. Sunscreen is a must; even though it doesn't feel hot, the altitude in Cuenca makes sun exposure especially dangerous. And try to find a Spanish-English dictionary small enough to fit in your pocket; it'll come in very handy.

For more information about traveling to Ecuador, the U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs offers this comprehensive guide to safety, insurance, health care, and more.

Buena suerte!