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Classes at the Cuenca College for Expats; how newcomers pick friends and acquaintances based on cohort traits

By Deke Castleman and David Morrill

The large influx of foreigners to Cuenca has turned this small Andean city into a world-class laboratory experiment for a major “amenities migration” during the past decade.

Expats on the bus.

Expats on the bus.

In the early years, it was overwhelmingly retirees from the U.S. and Canada arriving in town. While the gringos continue to predominate, today we are seeing a demographic shift toward younger, more European newcomers.

A notable phenomenon of the influx, no matter the timing, is how the successive waves of immigrants display certain cohort characteristics.

In some ways, the expatriation movement to Cuenca can be compared to college classes. A “class” in this case constitutes a group of expats who arrive about the same time, face similar challenges together, and form a cohort group that tends to stick together, to the exclusion of classes that came before or arrive later.

Expats arriving in Cuenca 10 or 15 years ago discovered that only a handful of world travelers and adventurers had preceded them. Though newcomers were a fairly tight-knit group by necessity, they could hardly be called a class (although the bar tenders at Ruby Red’s, Eucalyptus and Cafecito would probalby beg to differ). Their circumstances and timing were too random to aggregate into a cohort.

Expats serve lunch at a charity event.

Expats serve lunch at a charity event.

Then came what could be called the Class of 2007-2008, following the first wave of Cuenca media attention. Though also somewhat small, this group had a few things in common (and pardon the following generalizations, which might or might not reflect accurately on individual expats). They arrived around the same time. They were fed up with the failing economy in North America, the threat of inflation, the political circus of the U.S. presidential election (yes, history does repeat itself), and the erosion of personal liberties. They were also looking for something more out of life although the goal was vague. This class included more investors and was more inclined to buy their housing than to rent it, unlike later classes.

The Class of 2010-2011, by contrast, consisted more of stra­tegic defaulters, bailing on their mortgages and credit-card debt, shipping down their possessions, and setting up in up­scale apartments and condos. Although these expats tended to buy as often as they rented, they did, to a generalized extent, establish a trend of expatriating for economic reasons.

Again, there are plenty of exceptions, but the Class of 2012-2013 was more a wave of econom­ic refugees. Many left their home countries with a small nest egg, if any, and were focused on renting and living inexpensively. This class, as the Cuenca expat movement matured, also contained a few more hucksters, snake-oil salesmen, and con men than usual — all part of the fun and color of expat life, it should be added.

As we said, the most recent Classes of 2014 to 2016 are younger, often with children, and include more Europeans. Its members have most of their lives ahead of them and do not see Cuenca as a final destination, although they are open to staying. They tend to be more entrepreneurial than earlier classes, to seek out night life and adventure sports.

After a few years, the cohort classes tend to break apart. Some people leave Cuenca for new expat destinations or return to the home country. Others integrate more fully into the broader expat community. Some forsake the gringos in favor of Ecuadorians, especially single men and women who hook up with locals (and assimilate into their families and networks). Original friends have a longer and deeper connection, of course, but most peo­ple’s horizons widen to include earlier and later classes and Ecuadorians.

Again, these are general observations that seemed to gel into a (somewhat) coherent comparison over time. The reasons for expatriating are rarely quite so cut and dried and can, in addition to those cited above, include: work, quality of life, ability to retire, cultural exchange, climate, marriage (to an Ecuadorian), volun­teering, a jumping-off point for further travel and expat experiences, learning Spanish, teaching English, affordable health care, friendly people, the ability to get along without a car, Christian ministry, God’s call, healthier food, and a healthier lifestyle.

What’s your reason? And do you think this “college-classes-of-expats” theory is accurate?


This article is revised from the book, Life in Cuenca.


About the Author

A California native who spent most of his life in north Florida, David
Morrill has been a newspaper and magazine editor, columnist, and book
and art reviewer. He was also a public relations agency owner and
university administrator. He has lived in Cuenca since 2004.

  • I think you have accurately described the expat community here. What I have found interesting is how threatened many expats become when another decides to leave, especially for another non-western country.

  • Lyle

    I believe you hit the nail right on the mark, I have met many expats and feel the same way that there are a lot of PH D types coming to Ecuador where nobody knows you! You have to wonder what they are running from and what effect they will have on the peace full culture of the Ecuador.
    I have seen a lot of people come in go or some that are here and do not feel they can go back to North America because they can”t afford it or they have everything invested in Ecuador and that to me is a scary situation.It makes these people bitter towards others and treat locals like it is there fault there in this predicament. Why can”t people just get along and enbrass Ecuador for all its wonder,do not try to change this country to what you are trying to run away from . Keep smiling cheersLyle

  • Contrarian

    Gentlemen: Again, a thought provoking essay from you two. Thank you. Since my research was a decade long, I see some of me in each cohort. But my baseline remains, “I didn’t leave my country (USA); it left me.” and for the ex-pats who lament their lot in Ecuador, I suggest: take a deep breath, exhale, step back and look around or out the window and recall Dorothy’s line from the Wizard of Oz, “Toto, I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore.” And, for those ex-pats who are struggling with their status or place, I suggest, as Dorothy found, the solution to your perceived problem may be at the bottom of your legs.

  • Anonymous

    My husband and I came because he and I and had a limited amount of time left to live. We wanted his last months/years to be as healthful, and full of quality that we could! It was! He also felt that my life here, alone, after his death, would be a better QOL. He was correct! My life as a new widow is very much enhanced by what Ecuador has to offer! I can afford to live more comfortably as long as I make sensible choices which include “simplicity” and embracing things “Ecuadorean”. My hubby is “here” with me. He always will be. Why would I want to go anywhere else?

  • James Novak

    When push comes to shove, most ex pats in Ecuador come here as economic refugees. Many as indicated in their posts show disdain that America has a black president. Many disdain the loss of liberty in America, but Ecuador is rapidly moving towards an executive who is authoritarian and socialistic. More a country increasingly in economic crisis. More interesting Malcolm Redding just posted recently that of those who get visas, they remain in Ecuador about 2 years. As most of these ex pats are older , they soon come to need Medicare for chronic illnesses.I estimate 5 years. Many never learn to be fluent in Spanish and rarely cultural meld-having Ecuadorian friends who become their “best friends.”

  • Lawrence Hamilton

    An interesting, creative way of looking at the the situation. It accurately describes my “class”, 2011 to 2012, with some wiggle room. It also stands the test of time very well. It’s one of those things that don’t come to mind, but then you read it and ask yourself, “Jeez, why didn’t I think of that?” Good job, gentlemen.

  • Leslie

    My husband and I came in 2013 but reflect the reason you give for 2007 and 2008. We don’t have any connection to any gringo group and live in a totally Ecuadorian neighborhood. Reasons may be similar for coming to Ecuador but once here your personality dictates how you live. My hubsnad and I are not typically group oriented people.

  • Ron Parkinson

    I thought – with the reservations that you (David and Deke) noted – your classification theory quite interesting and helpful. But we need a second phase of your theorizing: how have the various cohort’s histories played out? If successful (by whatever standards) or not, why? What have they – or have you – considered most important in success or failure? [We would have listed language fluency (ours indifferent) and understanding cultural differences (we usually don’t and they’re substantial). There are lotsa gringos here, but Ecuadorians still outnumber us, LOL].

  • Judy

    I’m sorry to hear that so many North Americans have migrated to Cuenca. When I lived there (2002-2006) there were very few North American or European expats and it was a wonderful place to become part of a new culture and new language. I’m sorry to hear that perhaps that;s impossible now. My main comment when I lived in Cuenca was to keep it a secret so that large numbers of expats would not arrive.

  • Perceptions are shaped by prior experience. I first came across Cuenca in the 70s. I returned, by chance, in 1992. It was very pretty both times but still more of an adventure than a place most northerners would settle in. (For example, one can brag about squatting in Nepal and roaming the streets of Delhi in 1968, but they were as fine as living places as sleeping in the mud at Woodstock the following year.) Poor communications, no transport worthy of the name, dirt, poverty and far worse.

    We spent a lot of time in Europe after 2002, and we looked for a place to call home. We made a check list. After a decade of this, we were about to make an offer on a property in southern France when a friend told us that Ecuador was changing. So we flew down again in 2012. We were delighted! Elegant dining, a savvy art scene, happy natives, decent accommodation of all types, fabulous shopping, broadband! We bought within a week.

    Yes. There are different types of expats. Many of the Americans are here because they think it is cheap and the hope it will stay that way. There also those here a mere 5-10 years considers themselves “old timers” and pointedly bemoan the past to any who will listen. But there are those here for the current indigenous assets, its charm, its esprit and what it is becoming…namely a world class destination.

    Who will remain after the dust settles?

  • Bill

    For me, your write-up is accurate. I’m here in Cuenca, Ecuador for economic reasons. I come from Texas (Dallas-Fort Worth).

  • Lee

    Very interesting. As a visitor to Cuenca for two years now, three lengthy visits, I have run across all the cohorts, in all their varieties. Some nice, some not so nice (as in my last visit). I was dismayed at what I saw… Drunk Gringos, rude, tacky, impolite, completely unaware of their effect on a nuanced, polite culture. Breeding tells. Class tells. Courtesy (or lack thereof) tells. Those, I would avoid like the plague…And they seem to be increasing in number.

    I have had to think carefully about this place as retirement destination. I have found the Ecuadorians I met have been gracious and helpful. Of course, friends of mine have found very much the opposite, with landlords taking advantage at every turn.

    It’s a mixed bag, requiring thoughtfulness and adaptation. My antique Spanish is improving, and humility goes a long way. We will see.

  • Paul

    This was an intriguing article, and it’s interesting to read the comments! I can see that the variety of expats reflects the variety of people in general. My wife and I are visiting and considering retirement in Cuenca, and we have friends who are native to Cuenca. As part of what will be the next class or expats, I can’t help but wonder what will characterize us! My experience in living in many locales tells me that curiosity, honesty, emotional intelligence, and a respectful willingness to learn the language and culture will go a long way toward making a positive contribution and succeeding.


  • Hi, I think this is a really interesting article and I believe your logic makes sense. We aren’t there yet, but are planning to move there when our son graduates high school in 2 years. In the meantime we are planning trips to ascertain where in Ecuador we want to live. (we are looking at the coast) I wonder if you can use your methods to predict the motivations for folks who are not there yet? Or do you need the world events to unfold before you can do that?

    For us our motivation is part politics, the economy, affordable healthcare, and the desire to take a left turn in our destiny and assimilate into another culture, an adventure. I have always lived in the U.S. but both my dad and husband have lived abroad and they both really enjoyed it.

    Your thoughts?