How do Cuenca and Quito compare? It's a question in the minds of many foreigners considering relocating to Ecuador.  The short –and probably the best-- response is, ‘come down and see for yourself.’ There are, however, similarities and differences that the prospective expat should know about before putting boots on the ground in Ecuador.

According to Ecuadorian immigration officials, the two cities are easily the two most popular landing spots for new expats in Ecuador. Although Quito has attracted more newcomers in recent years, Cuenca is catching up fast and demographic studies predict that it will be the most popular expat community over the next 25 years. 

There are other similarities between the cities. Both offer a cosmopolitan lifestyle with rich culture, good infrastructure and cool mountain weather. Both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, listed among Latin America’s top ten colonial cities. They are also the top two city destinations for foreign tourists. 

A popular travel guide calls Cuenca a “distillation of Quito,” and this is not far from the truth. The primary difference between the two cities is size, with Quito’s 2 million-plus population easily outsizing Cuenca’s 500,000. 

Here's a quick fact-check comparison of the two cities. 

Altitude: Officially, Quito is 9,300 feet above sea level while Cuenca is 8,200 feet. 

Weather: Similar. Quito is slightly cooler, with annual temperatures averaging 3 degrees Fahrenheit lower (based on a 40-year average) than Cuenca’s. Quito is also a little wetter, with annual rainfall averaging 48 inches compared to Cuenca’s 29. 

Crime: On a per capita basis, Quito has more serious crime (murder, assualt, etc.) than Cuenca, according to Interpol and Ecuador National Police statistics. Cuenca and Loja, 150 miles to the south, are rated lowest in the category for Ecuadorian cities with populations over 100,000. On the other hand, Quito’s crime rate is low by world standards, and lower than any U.S. city of comparable size. Both cities have similar rates of petty and property crime, which, unfortunately, tend to be higher in areas frequented by tourists. A strong caution: hold onto your stuff. 

Pollution: For their size, both cities rank high among Latin American cities for air quality, although Quito’s air, because it has several factories, is dirtier. The major problem in both cities is bus and truck diesel exhaust and the central areas can cause breathing problems for some. In Cuenca, the fumes are concentrated in El Centro whereas in Quito, the problem is more general. 

Infrastucture: Both have good, public transportation and decent roads. Electric and phone service are reliable, as are Internet and satellite television service. 

Healthcare: Quito and Cuenca have the best medical services in Ecuador. 

Transportation: Quito gets the definite edge here since it has one of Ecuador’s two major international airports. It’s easy to get in and out of Cuenca, however: the city has eight to ten daily flights to Quito and Guayaquil and plans are in the works to begin regional international service (to Peru and Colombia) in late 2009. Public transportation is good in both cities. Bus fares are 25 cents in town and taxis are plentiful and inexpensive. 

Culture: Excellent in both cities. In terms of the sheer number of things to do, Quito offers more.  

Sophistication: Being larger and a national capital, Quito gets the nod.  

Comfort: Cuenca gets the edge for its compact size, charm and walkability (most Cuenca expats don’t have cars) and the slower pace of life.

Photo caption: Quito by night, Cuenca by day