Cuenca, Ecuador’s Downfall – The One Reason to Skip This City On Your Next Trip

Posted By Jeremy in South America | 22 comments


Overlooking Cuenca from the Inca RuinsWithin moments of arriving in Cuenca, Ecuador, we felt an odd familiarity.  The city seemed eerily similar to one we had visited a few months prior, down to just about every detail.   The buildings looked identical, the public squares just as pristine, and many of the people wore the same traditional style clothes as we saw during our stay in Sucre, Bolivia.

With our excitement at the highest levels, since Sucre has earned a spot in our Top 10 Favorite Cities anywhere in the world, we were thoroughly prepared to start throwing around the same distinction for Cuenca.

But there was one key difference which brought our whole experience down several notches.

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The city is overflowing with expats, and the ones we encountered were all quite rude.

Cuenca is a Gorgeous City

Cuenca on the left, Sucre on the Right

Like Sucre in Bolivia, Cuenca in Ecuador is truly a stunning place.   All of the buildings in old town appear to be kept in great shape, the cathedrals and churches restored with great care, and the river walk area at the divide between old town and new town is always good for a stroll on a sunny day.

It would be easy for any visitor to spend days wandering around the narrow streets taking photos of the architecture and visiting the many local markets to enjoy cheap fruit and our favorite snack, hornado (roasted pork).

If this description sounds familiar to you, don’t be surprised!  We said the same exact thing on social media about Sucre during our visit there as these are the same reasons we fell in love with that city, too (minus the hornado, which Sucre is sadly lacking).

But Cuenca has expats, and, unlike our stay in Bolivia which was relatively foreigner free, in this city they are almost impossible to avoid.

Rude Expats Abound in This Ecuadorian Gem

Cuenca on the left, Sucre on the Right

We had a feeling that we were going to head into thick expat territory well before our arrival to Ecuador.   During our stay in Valparaiso, Chile, many months earlier we met a retired expat who was living in Cuenca who went on a long anti-American tirade while boasting how excited he was to get Ecuadorian citizenship to give up his US citizenship for good.

We did have to chuckle at the irony of this one person’s claims, as he was leaving one country with a set of complaints while heading into another which embodies his hated philosophies even more (and not to mention, exchanging a wonderful passport for one that is rated quite poorly).

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Although we hoped that this one person was an anomaly, it didn’t take long after our arrival into Cuenca to understand just how misguided our hopes were.

Other than being surrounded by more foreigners than just about any city in South America, we had the misfortune of being in Cuenca during the USA matches in the World Cup.  Without giving it a second thought, we went to a few bars to watch our team play and were up to our ears with expats in every case.

Somewhere between not understanding the Spanish announcers, to yelling at others (us included) for having non-football conversations because they were trying to pay attention (again, go back to the not speaking Spanish part), we really felt like we were transported to a place far, far away from anything having to do with Ecuador and hated every minute of it.

Unfortunately, this situation was entirely our fault.  

We picked a restaurant/bar that was famous for being expat friendly to be around other Americans for the game, but we never took a moment to consider just how bad that term could truly be  So while we thought we were going to have fun celebrating our World Cup games with other supporters, instead we were reminded just how rude others from our country can truly be.

Ways to Avoid This Issue

Cuenca on the left, Sucre on the Right

The good news for those who are worried about the expat population in Cuenca is that it easy to avoid as long as you follow one simple rule: avoid the gringo restaurants like the plague.

That is it!

During our entire week in Cuenca we saw absolutely zero foreigners in any of the local Ecuadorian restaurants, zero foreigners in the amazing public markets, and only ever encountered them in the gringo restaurants that are featured in guidebooks like Lonely Planet.   In fact, these particular spots were so overloaded with foreigners that we never saw any Ecuadorians in them either!

While it may be impossible to avoid all of the expats in your daily wanderings around town, by skipping this one facet of Cuenca your experience with the hoards of rude foreigners will be greatly minimized.

Looking Back at Our Beloved Sucre

Since visiting Cuenca, our conversations involving the city have been a bit one-sided.   Yes, we go on about how much we loved the city, but we can’t help but slip in the fact that our hearts were left in Sucre.

The similarities these two cities share are near endless, yet the foreigner population in Sucre is incredibly low.  We never would have thought that this one point would be enough to knock a great city down in our minds, but Cuenca’s expat population did just that even though it was something we could have probably avoided if we tried hard enough.

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But as much as we loved Sucre, we do have one fear:  when the expats discover this gem, the city will end up going the way of Cuenca.

Luckily for you, this may be many years off.

Bolivia does not have a high reputation as an expat destination and most cities in the country are only minimally visited by backpackers.  So if you are wanting to explore a country with a rich heritage that is off the radar of many travelers, head to Bolivia as soon as possible.  Just be sure to give Sucre a significant amount of time while you are there.

You won’t regret it.

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Have you ever traveled to a popular destination only to be turned off by the expat community that lives there?  Sound off about it in the comments below!

Looking for more things to do in Ecuador? Check out the many things to do in Banos, Ecuador, or head enjoy some of the unique snacks to try in Quito!

Looking for a good camera to use in your travels? Check out our Sony a6000 review and find our why this mirrorless camera is one of the best we’ve ever owned! And, while you’re at it, be sure to pick up some wide angle prime lenses or other camera accessories to take the best photos on your next trip!

Jeremy

Jeremy founded Living the Dream in 2008 to chronicle his long-term trip around Asia. Since then he has been on two long-term trips, visited 68 countries, and is just getting started. He is now on a Lifestyle Design quest to build businesses to pursue a life of travel.

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22 Comments

  1. The city looks amazing. I would love to visit Ecuador.
    Reading this made me think of two things: I’m sorry to say, but Americans are often obnoxious and very, very loud. I don’t really understand why most of them talk so loudly.
    The other thing was that I don’t really understand entirely why you are so against meeting and being among other foreigners. You are foreigners as well and I’m sure to many locals you belong to the same category as the others. Don’t get me wrong, I often get frustrated when seeing expats behaving like duchebags, but really…I don’t think that’s fair to just think that you’re better than others.

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    • You lost me on your comment here. On one hand you talk bad about Americans, and then suggest that I should go seek them out when visiting a destination that is thousands of miles away from America. If I wanted to do that, I’d just stay home. I visited Cuenca to experience the city and Ecuador, and got a flood of Americans and American culture in the process. This is why it is worth noting.

      I’m sure there are people in all countries that view visitors and expats on the same page, but at the end of the day the visitors leave and the expats stay. Those expats I complain about in this post still live in Cuenca, and every single person who visits the city- Ecuadorian or otherwise, will have to deal with that.

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    • My rule of thumb is to be kind to everyone you meet. Avoid and leave if you must any business which exudes. Negativity. The few expats I interact with are kind in turn.
      There are establishments in the states I would never patronize for the very same reason as above.

      Unfortunately, some folks from the USA are rude, loud, overbearing boorish . The good news you can see them coming a mile away. Smile and walk the other direction

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  2. Well it appears that any of these foreign cities that become overrun with expats is not what it once was. Whether they’re kind or rude is just a detail.

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    • I think two different arguments could be made from it, depending on your perspective.

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  3. I’m Ecuadorian and moved to Cuenca from Guayaquil a year ago. Cuenca is indeed filled with expats of all ages, I have no doubt that among them there are kind and wonderful people like the ones described in many comments here. But my experience overall has been negative. I will try to sum this up with one anecdote. One night, I went to the Jazz Society Cafe in el Centro with my husband and some friends. Each of us payed $10 dollars to see the show, a jazz band from New York was performing that night. The place was packed with gringos, mostly seniors. We got a large table right next to the entrance of the hall where the concert was taking place. We would have had a nice view of the concert if it hadn’t been for this huge gringa with an ass as wide as a truck who carelessly blocked the view for us all as she decided to stand right between us and the musicians to film and take pictures. We complained with the hostess and the waiter, as we all payed to enjoy a show and not to stare at some old lady’s ass for 2 hours. When they approached her to let her know she was ruining the night for a table of almost 10 people, she dismissed them with a wave of her hand like if they were 2 little pieces of shit, she couldn’t care less for the customers brhind her. This arrogant, derogatory attitude towards others is something that I see a lot from the expat community here. Hey, we are welcoming you in our country and the least we expect from you is to treat us with respect. You are not that friendly and accommodating as we Ecuadorians are when it’s us Latin Americans the ones trying to move to the USA. Thar’s all I have to say.

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  4. I’ve made it a rule to keep my expat friends to as few as possible, and to intentionally make as many Ecuador friends as I can! Learning Spanish is imperitave, but so is riding buses, talking to Ecuadoreans every chance I get in parks and my neighborhood! I avoid Gringo restaurants, and the supermaxi’s like the plague!

    The fewer the gringo friends…the less drama, and negativism!

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  5. Just to point out for clarity – this is a blog post not a city guide.

    I’ve been accused of not providing a well-rounded view of Cuenca in this article and I have no intention of listing off all of the interesting things we saw just to balance my point to appease the expats I offended.

    There is enough information in the post to show that we thought Cuenca was a cool city and there is no need to focus on it more. Just because I put emphasis on the expat scene (it is the article’s title and backbone after all), doesn’t mean that I should highlight all of the cool sides of a city to make the article balanced. Again, this is a blog, not a guidebook.

    Everything we write is from our perspective, whether it is true for others or not, and is in no way a guarantee that others will have the exact experience. The fact that I have to explicitly write this is beyond troubling to me (again- this is a blog).

    The short version is this for those who are still confused or upset:

    1) We thought Cuenca was cool and reminded us of one of our favorite cities in South America (Sucre, Bolivia).
    2) We went to expat hangouts on our own free will and were offended by their attitude (which was not expected).
    3) If you want to miss the bulk of the expat scene, avoid popular gringo restaurants and you’ll probably be just fine.
    4) If you are still worried about the expat scene being too large even with the previous comments (it is indeed an expat hot spot even if it can be somewhat avoided), skip Cuenca and go to Sucre, Bolivia instead.
    5) If you’re at all confused on my stance, re-read #3.

    Overall, I tend to let the comments section tell me if I’m wrong on a topic or just had a very unfortunate coincidence, but considering the overwhelming response has been expats who live in Cuenca, I stand firm on my opinion and am not going to alter it. I am glad; however, that a few non-expat travelers said they had a great time, so maybe it is just us overall on this one!

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  6. My wife and I are just passing through Cuenca for only a few months (coming from Italy and on our way to Peru, Spain, Columbia, and Paris in the next year), so we have no particular axe to grind or allegiance to Cuenca.

    Perhaps we we’re just luckier than you were, but for us the delightful Americans we have met here is one of the highlights of Cuenca. They are kind, well traveled, caring, interesting, polite, friendly and often deeply involved in the local community in one way or another. One is the only foreigner in the Cuenca symphony. Others are teaching in the local schools. Another is helping an Ecuadorian family develop their fly fishing resort in the mountains. And on and on. There are too many to mention. One great person leads us to another. We have met very few “rude” gringos, although I’m sure there are plenty of them, too.

    We walk the streets of Cuenca everyday without running into any Americans at all. So as I think you said yourself in the article, if you want a more pure Ecuadorian experience, it’s very easy to come by in Cuenca. Even if there are several thousand Americans here, the city is 400,000. So it’s not like they are overwhelming the place.

    Base on our experience, I would say your article is at best one-sided and highly misleading. I don’t doubt your experience or sincerity, but your article is not an accurate impression overall of Cuenca.

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    • I’m glad you had a great time in Cuenca! I did think it was a gorgeous city and I think most of my experience was my fault in somewhat seeking it out and not getting the best side of it. I still stand by my statement that Cuenca is an expat haven and it may get the better of you if you’re not expecting it. I’m just glad to hear that others had better experiences than I did.

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  7. I agree with Ken March, and want to add–there are very few expats compared to the total population in Cuenca (I’ve heard estimates of 5,000 in a population guessed to be 500,000). If you ran into expats, you must have been in very specific areas at very specific times. And, there are many mercados. Just because there were no expats at the one you went to, and at the time you chose, does not mean we expats don’t go to mercados.

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    • I’m certain that expats go to mercados there. If they didn’t I’d be very disappointed as it is one of the best parts of the city! My point was just that if you’re not seeking the expat scene out, especially by going to gringo restaurants, you probably wont notice the expat scene as much as we did. The whole intention of my article was that our experience in Cuenca was knocked down because we sought out the expat scene and were met with rude people rather than what we hoped for yet at the same time by going to local places and markets, we didn’t notice it at all. So someone could have a bad time due to run-ins with rude expats (like us) or have a great time by missing it altogether through a few simple choices.

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  8. A Zero on Attitude!

    All expats are rude! My attitude is maybe if I were friendlier to expats and Ecuadorians FIRST, they may be friendly in return. Has anyone heard of like attracts like? Jeremy, were you rude first or did you maybe present an air of arrogance to the gringos? This is a big “turn off” for gringos, and Ecuadorians!

    We had the same non-beneficial attitude when first moving to Ecuador. Our thoughts were that we moved to a foreign country so why would we move to a foreign country to relate to gringos? Unfortunately, this attitude can be found among some gringos moving to Ecuador. So we immersed ourselves with Ecuadorians. I would not recommend this to most gringos moving to Ecuador. A healthy balance of relating to gringos and Ecuadorians is the best way to go as far as I am concerned. Enjoy both places where gringos hang-out and also places where Ecuadorians hang-out. Living in Ecuador for five years, I have not visited any restaurants where one would consider “hang-out for gringos”, without having some Ecuadorians there also. There may be some restaurants where it is just gringos and I have just not been to any. Although I have visited restaurants with just Ecuadorians and went there to enjoy a good meal, not to judge the people.

    Let’s face it, being rude and/or arrogance and judgmental are not behaviors that are only expressed by gringos! I believe these are human behaviors.

    Jeremy, I hope you enjoy your travels and places to visit may be limited if you prefer places where there is a limited amount of gringos, or NONE!

    Buen viaje!

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    • I do my best not to come off as arrogant when traveling. I can safely say that in all of the places I’ve been to, including other expat havens, I’ve never seen it as bad as in Cuenca. Although as others have commented, apparently Chiang Mai is up there in scale now too. But considering the backlash this article is getting now (even though it is over a year old), I think I’ve stirred up the hornets nest just because my experience was not the same as others.

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  9. Interesting observations Jeremy, except for your sweeping comments using: Every, All, Never, Zero, Only Ever etc. This blog does not give Cuenca the balanced review it deserves. If your goal is to completely avoid all US citizens, obviously you & Angie will never find any happiness in Cuenca.

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    • Normally I don’t publish ridiculous comments like these, but I am making an exception for this one because you clearly did not read the post at all. You must be an American expat in Cuenca (see, now I’m using those words you accuse me of using although I really didn’t in the article), and are showing to the world the point I made perfectly.

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  10. Clearly I’m going to have a smidge to say about your observation of my new foreign home, Jeremy. 😉 Just three simple comments:

    1. Ditto Anonymous above – apparently you’ve not been to Chiang Mai lately.

    2. “…the ones we encountered were all quite rude.”

    Uh… “ALL” Jeremy? Perhaps I’m delusional, but… we did spend more than a few hours together during your visit (eating local almuerzos, the local 9 Octobre market – ‘cuz this is one Cuenca expat that likewise abhors the gringo restaurants, not to mention BOTH of us running hell-bent out of that hornets nest of rude expats at DC’s, in favor of watching the overtime game on my own flat screen, no?) In short…

    3. I agree with you completely on everything you said, save that “ALL” word. 😉

    Indeed, as you say, the expat scene here is easily avoidable, and there’s much (like Sucre?) to love. And trust me, it’s a far cry from the farang infestation in Chiang Mai.

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    • Haha, well, I use that “all” term under the assumption that I really don’t consider you an expat in that sense. You may be living there, but you’re also clearly avoiding almost everything that has to do with the expat scene that those who fall into the rude category thrive on.

      I’m a bit afraid to go back to Chiang Mai now. It has been 4 years since I’ve been there, and I can only imagine it got even more popular since then. When I went it was right before the blogger explosion of 2011.

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    • I don’t know… I visited Chiang Mai mid-2011 and it was terrible (in the sense of ex-pats everywhere).

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  11. Yowza. Yeah, that’s rough. It’s funny how you at first think you’ll get along with other Americans abroad, but for me it turns out to be about the same percentage as at home. Now, former Dayton Flyers on the other hand …

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