Recognize that our experiences in Cuenca are relatively short at this time and may refine with the passing of time. Other's living experiences may differ, and certainly no two areas are alike. Our life at the coast in Bahia de Caraquez was a wonderful chapter in our life's adventure.
The obvious differences between sea level and the altitude of 8,400 ft the weather is somewhat cooler with more precipitation, creating a lush green environment with different vegetation. While the air is thinner ( 25 % less oxygen ) it seems much cleaner and easier to breathe, even given the large population of an urban centre.
The rich black fertile volcanic soil is excellent for all tropical plants, fruits and vegetables. The coast is arid and desert like with extremely poor clay like soil. We learned a lot about many different cacti. There we struggled to maintain a hobby farm with flower gardens, fruit trees, and animals with the lack of water and poor soil. The soil here in Cuenca is like the English Fairy Tale " Jack and the Beanstalk " where any seed sprouts and grows instantaneously. Cuenca has significantly more annual hours of sunshine than Bahia which is very often overcast and grey. Mid day temperatures are mid-twenties Celsius with it cooling off in the evening into the teens. Bahia's temperatures were consistent in the mid to high twenties throughout the entire day and night with a high level of humidity and salt brine in the air. The warm waters of the Pacific Ocean or the Chone River Estuary were available for swimming or water sports.
The high altitude provides a " bug free " living environment. This is one thing we will not miss about the coast where we personally learned about more snakes & insects than we could ever imagine and their annual life cycles. A word of caution the more brilliantly colored the insect or snake is, the more dangerous or toxic the poison ie higher level of caution !
It is no secret that maintenance and upkeep for homes, vehicles, or anything is significantly higher on the coast.
Cost of living in Bahia de Caraquez is well known as one of the highest in Ecuador with Cuenca being significantly less expensive. Bahia's new shopping mall may well have enhanced their access to consumer goods somewhat but it still cannot compare with the many alternatives available in a larger centre.
The coastal fishermen have a very laid back approach to life, and are known as " lazy " by their more industrious indigenous neighbours in the Sierra. At first this was an endearing quality coming from a " driven North American " environment, but watching things erode, inaction, and the constant party atmosphere becomes wearing and more difficult to accept over time.
An endless variety of restaurants with diverse ethnic cuisines available in Cuenca.
With a new light rapid transit system, high speed internet, modern educational institutions, University's participation in community administration, modern manufacturing facilities, and strong tourism in Cuenca it no longer feels like you are deprived of basic amenities in a developing country.
Health care services are modern and readily available in Cuenca.
While this is improving slowly, access to a higher quality of education at all levels is available in Cuenca. The educational year in the Sierra is similar to North America's September to June while the coastal school year is from April to January with February & March as vacation.
Traveling & Discovery has always been important to us, and we were finding that without access to an airport in Bahia the extra two days required to get to and from an airport in Guayaquil or Quito and the logistics of overnight accommodation was becoming a strain. Currently we are 15 minutes from the airport in Cuenca in a condominium where we can simply lock the door and go ! In addition Cuenca is only several hours from the Amazon, the mighty Pacific Ocean, and many of Ecuador's most popular attractions - many new exploration adventures for us.
More subtle differences include :
Interesting enough community involvement - while there are opportunities available we and one other couple were the only expats to engage, and volunteer in the local community. In Cuenca many expats have availed themselves of the opportunities available to engage with the community.
Cooking & baking at high altitude is more complicated and requires adaption of many recipes and experience.
Bahia is a sleepy coastal village that's population literally exploded during holidays and vacations. People from the Sierra vacationing on the coast. Cuenca ( in the Sierra ) is a thriving modern urban metropolis that becomes a " ghost town " during holidays and vacations. The difference is absolutely remarkable, and these extremes would not be seen in any North American city !
And one of the most significant subtle differences is crime. The coastal court system is corrupt and despite the best efforts of the federal government to implement change, it has not been successful. Due to this lack of punishment or justice, criminal activity is significantly higher. Actually almost without fail when Cuencanos learn we lived on the coast for six years they exclaim " how did you manage to survive amongst all the thieves ." We experienced several significant robberies, know of dozens of friends home invasions, and were " swindled " out of thousands of dollars in dealings with four different expat families during our time on the coast. Justice was not achieved in a single one of these situations. Now having said that, we left behind, and miss, many good local families that were friends. They remain very frustrated with the effect crime is having on their community, tourism, and themselves.
A new study shows Ecuador expats in rural areas are more vulnerable to crime. "Conspicuousness" is one reason why.
A graduate school research project indicates that expats living in small towns and rural areas are more vulnerable to serious crime than those living in cities.
The research, by University of Edinburgh doctoral student Kelly Fowler, focuses on expats in Ecuador, Costa Rica, Panama and Spain.
"What we are finding is that foreigners living in cities, among the local population, are far less conspicuous than those living in the countryside and are less vulnerable to crime. This is true in Ecuador as well as in other major expat destinations." Fowler says. "City expats suffer far fewer cases of crimes such as home invasions, kidnappings, physical attacks and household break-ins."
In Ecuador, Fowler's work looked at crime against expats in Cuenca, Vilcabamba, Cotacachi, Quito as well as several small coastal communities. She was assisted in the project by former criminology professor and part-time Cuenca expat Martin Simmons.
Fowler and Simmons interviewed more than 100 Ecuador expats, most of them from the U.S., Canada and the UK. "One thing we found was that a surprising number of crimes against expats go unreported and this is true in Ecuador as well as other countries." She reports that out of six serious crimes against foreigners she studied in Vilcabamba, only three were reported. In the Cotacachi area, it was two of five and in five coastal areas, it was six of 12.
"Victims tell us that they don't report crimes because the perpetrators tell them they will take revenge if they do," Fowler says.
Fowler and Simmons also say that some of the non-reporting is due to the fact that expats don't want to attract attention to the themselves. "In some cases, the expat victims are involved in illegal activities themselves or are in violation of their visas," Simmons says. "Sometimes, the bad guys are aware of this and know the victims will not make a report. It's like crimes among drug dealers."
One of the more surprising findings of Fowler's research is the involvement of other expats in crimes. "We went into the project thinking that almost all the perpetrators would be locals but found that other foreigners were often involved," she says. "In cases that were not reported, victims often suspected other foreigners of being part of the plot."
Simmons says that expats in small communities often make themselves vulnerable to crime for two major reasons.
"First, they are highly visible, which means that they make themselves targets. In Cotacachi and Vilcabamba, it's hard to miss the big 'look-at-me' gringo houses perched on the hills around town," he says. "If you live in a community of mostly poor people and make a point of advertising your wealth, you make yourself vulnerable."
"Second, we found that many expats in small communities make very little effort to get to know the locals. They prefer to be segregated with other expats and many of them told us they have no intention of learning Spanish," Simmons says. "Expats we talked to in Quito and Cuenca make more of an effort to become involved in the community."
Although Fowler has not completed her research, she says that, so far, she is "amazed" at the the discrepancy in serious crime against expats in the country in contrast to that in cities. "There are about 4,000 foreign residents in Cuenca but there have been only two reported home invasions involving foreigners in the past five years," she says. "By contrast, in Vilcabamba, with only 300 foreign residents, we found three reported cases. Statistically, that's a huge difference."
Fowler's research shows that the most dangerous area in Ecuador for expats is the coast. "This isn't a surprise since the coast has the highest crime rate in general," she says. "Manta, Esmeraldas and Guayaquil have the highest crime rates in Ecuador."
If there is good news about living in the country, Fowler says, it's that petty crime is far less common than than in cities. "Small crime against foreigners, like pick-pocketing and theft of bags and other belongings on the street, is higher in the cities but it is in line with crime against tourists in general."
Fowler said that the overall crime picture in Ecuador is better than in the other countries she is studying and that the trend is positive. "Compared with Spain, Panama and Costa Rica, expats in Ecuador suffer fewer crimes. Crime is increasing in Spain and Panama and is holding steady in Costa Rica, but it is dropping in Ecuador," she says. She and Simmons credit the decline to government spending on crime prevention, including the hiring of more police, the installation of surveillance cameras in urban areas and a new nationwide 911 monitoring program.
Simmons says that no matter where expats live, they can control their vulnerability. "The bottom line is that we are all responsible for our level of vulnerability," he says. "Be smart. Be safe."
This article's findings are consistent and reaffirms our observations, writing, and experiences here in both a small coastal community in Ecuador, and Cuenca.
As always we welcome your experiences, thoughts and observations.