To casual visitors, the colonial town of Cuenca in Ecuador looks like life in the past. With its cobbled streets, soaring cathedrals and bustling markets and has a lazy, old world charm effect.
But Cuenca is also on the cutting edge of a very modern trend: providing a safe haven for U.S. retirees who have found themselves unwilling — or unable — to live out their golden years at home.
The growing wave of ex-pat seniors and even not so senior folks is not only attracting notions about retirement in the hemisphere but reshaping the face of communities throughout the Americas. And the trend is expected to grow as waves of baby boomers exit the workforce ill-prepared for retirement.
There’s no accurate way to measure this, but the Social Security Administration was sending payments to 380,000 retired U.S. workers living abroad in 2014 — up 50 percent from a decade ago.
Best known for the Galapagos and providing asylum in its London embassy to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Ecuador is home to 2,850 retirees receiving benefits, according to the U.S. government. But that number doesn’t tell the full picture. The city of Cuenca recently conducted a census that found its municipality alone was home to almost 10,000 foreign retirees, most of them from North America.
In Cuenca, a city of about 350,000 people, there is a robust public transportation, an extensive museum network, solid healthcare and markets bursting with fresh fruits and produce. It’s a place where a two-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath apartment costs less than $400 a month. For about $1,500 a month, a couple can live a solidly upper-class lifestyle, dining out frequently and traveling. You can’t accomplish this in the United States.
Countries across the hemisphere are trying to woo U.S. retirees — and their pensions. Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, among others, try to make it as easy as possible to set up shop.
But city officials say Cuenca is something of an accidental hotspot.
“Cuenca never wanted to attract retirees,” said Ana Paulina Crespo, the director of international relations for the municipality. “In fact, we’re facing lots of problems over how to deal with a phenomenon that we aren’t responsible for creating.”
The city is trying to combat local fears that the retirees are both driving up land prices and bleeding the public healthcare system, she said. And the language barrier has become a source of local irritation. Some restaurants and even neighborhoods seem like English-only spaces.
“Cuencanos are feeling like strangers in their own city,” she said.
Starting in about 2009, Cuenca became a viral sensation on retirement websites. International Living, an influential publication, ranked it the top ex-pat retirement site several years running. As newly arrived retirees began blogging, there was a snowball effect.
“The internet has changed everything,” said Dan Prescher, a senior editor at International Living who recently moved from Ecuador to Mexico to be closer to his family in the United States. “Now you can talk to ex-pats who are living the life in real time. It has lowered the research bar for those who are thinking about it.”
A full 73 percent of the retirees in Cuenca, according to the city’s survey, said they found out about the city via “best of” rankings online.