Cotacachi Or Cuenca? Which Is The Best For You?

February, 2019

Cotacachi Versus Cuenca,Where Will You Feel At Home?

I have lived in Cuenca and Cotacachi.  Like me, many residents of Cotacachi started out in Cuenca, realized it wasn’t for them and found their way to Cotacachi as an alternative.  I thought it might be helpful to share my opinion and experience of both places to help you decide what might be a good fit for you.  I have lived in a lot of different places all over the US and four different communities in Ecuador.  That journey has taught me that there are emotional, social and physical factors that help me feel at home in a community.  In the end, it is a process of filtering out what is most important for my overall comfort and what harmonizes with my nature which creates my sense of well-being.  While some practical factors have changed over the course of my life what has remained constant is my need to be connected to natural beauty and a sense of quiet solitude.  So, here I am now living contently in Cotacachi.

My observation is that expats who tend to stay in Cotacachi like the small town atmosphere with a slower pace of life and do not have the need for a lot of sophisticated cultural activities.  People who have decided to remain in Cotacachi long term say that they just had a sense of this being the right place when they first explored life here.  They appreciate the natural beauty of the surrounding area.  Cotacachi seems to attract people who are somewhat spiritually minded and who enjoy the feeling of community.  The sense of community comes from seeing familiar people as you move about town as well as having opportunities for volunteering, or teaching, or creating art, or joining discussion groups, or just supporting the local merchants.

Expats who enjoy Cuenca prefer a city atmosphere with ample choices for social and cultural activities.

Cotacachi is a small town with a population of about 8,500 residents (2010 census) to maybe around 10,000 residents currently, with an expat community of somewhere around 300 to 400.

Cuenca on the other hand is a much larger city and it has the common traits of any urban setting.  A recent article in Cuenca High Life  stated, “According to projections by Ecuador’s Institute of Statistics and Census (INEC), Cuenca’s population will increase to 740,000 by 2030, up from 600,000 today, while the metropolitan population will top 1.1 million.  The growing population will need more resources, such as clean water, and the planning to provide these must begin now.”  The number of expats in Cuenca is estimated to be from about 4,000 to 5,000 residents from all over the world.

Do you like to know where your food comes from?

Food is growing all around you in Cotacachi.  There are lots in town where people are growing vegetables and raising cows.  The surrounding area is full of farms of all types and in the Intag valley there are many coffee and fruit farms.  A wide range of crops can be grown in this region such as tropical fruits, coffee, cacao, corn, beans , potatoes, tree tomatoes, sugar cane, bananas and naranjillas. 

Animal husbandry includes raising cows, pigs, chickens and guinea pigs.

A concern with the rampant growth around Cuenca is the threat to agricultural land around the city.  This concern was mentioned in the same article mentioned above  “According to United Nations urban growth expert Augusto Pintos, ‘First, there is the need to maintain the agricultural traditions of Cuenca but, just as important, is insuring a nearby food supply.’  In Europe and North America, Pintos says, development has relocated agricultural production hundreds and even thousands of miles from large towns and cities. ‘It is well known that many cities would face food shortages within a matter of days in the case of natural disasters or civil disturbances. Cuenca is lucky to have so much of its food grown nearby. This is a blessing and it’s important to take measures to protect this resource.’”

Many blogs about Cotacachi and Cuenca mention spring like weather all year.  What does that mean?

The overall climate is similar in both locations.  It tends to rain in the afternoon and evening when it does rain.  The temperature range during the day results in cool mornings and evenings and warm afternoons from about noon until 4 PM.  The weather can change quickly and the wind can also be a cooling factor.

Cotacachi is located at approximately 2453 meters / 8047.9 feet, it is very close to the equator at latitude 0.303518 N.  Cotacachi is roughly 300 ft. lower in elevation than Cuenca. Temperatures in Cotacachi range from in the mid 60’s to the upper 70’s F during the day, and from about 54 F to 60 F at night.  The average annual temperature is 59 F (15.0 C). February, March, April, May and October, November, December are the wet months. Rainfall annually is 35.6 inches or 906 mm. Statistically April is the warmest month  July is the coldest.

Cuenca is located at approximately 2550 meters / 8366.14 feet, it is just south of the equator at 2.896008 S latitude. Cuenca temperatures range from 46 F at night to 71 F during the day. The most rain falls in February, March, April, and October.  Average annual rainfall is 31 inches, or 789 mm. The average annual temperature is 58.46 F or 14.7 C.  The warmest month is February, the coolest month is July. You can check out this weather website and   this one  to see more details about the weather.

Have you lived in a city in the past and found it to be your preference to small town living?

Cuenca has historic charm, lots of cultural and social activities, it definitely feels foreign; the downside is that it is busy, noisy, and it has poor air quality.  Life in Cuenca is definitely an urban lifestyle. This is the most common reason that current residents prefer Cotacachi to Cuenca.  Comparing Cotacachi and Cuenca, stated briefly it feels safe, tranquil, slow paced and has an innocent small town feeling.  Cotacachi has fresh air and natural beauty.  It has a small selection of historic buildings and a large population of Indigenous people so every day there is an awareness of living in a different country with a different culture but it does not have the dramatic historic charm that Cuenca has.

Do you need to find a job or can you create your own income?

Cotacachi has a very small economy with no major employers.  There are very few job opportunities here.  If you work online or have your own source of income then you can live here comfortably.  Cuenca on the other hand may offer more opportunities for employment and has a larger market for those who may start businesses delivering services or products to expats or residents of Cuenca.  Because there is only a small population of expats in Cotacachi (no exact figure is available, but conservatively it is only around 300) it has been difficult for people to have a extremely lucrative businesses here.  Many expat entrepreneurs have businesses such as restaurants, bakeries, and growing food.

Do you like to live in a quiet slow paced location?

We started out in Cuenca because we thought it would be exciting and a great introduction into a different culture and lifestyle than we were accustomed to, and we were right.  It delivered exactly that.  Cuenca is a very busy place and offers a wide variety of activities and social options.  We met interesting people from all over the world and made good friends.

However, what we discovered was that we actually liked our former lifestyle of life in a smaller community that we share with like minded friends.  We prefer to live in a quiet place in a natural setting with lots of plants surrounding us.  We could not find that in Cuenca.  So, when we finally found our way to Cotacachi we took a sigh of relief and we have no plans to leave.

Do you need specialized medical care or do you have a chronic health condition that may require frequent emergency care?

There are many medical facilities in Cuenca both allopathic and holistic.  Several North American medical practitioners have relocated in Cuenca.  Cotacachi has a fewer number of options but care is still of good quality read more here.  There are also English speaking practitioners in Cotacachi, just far fewer than in Cuenca.

However, an important consideration is that there are not emergency medical facilities in Cotacachi.  Most specialized care is provided in either Ibarra (40 minutes away by car) or in Quito (2 hours away by car).  So, if you have a serious medical condition with complications that could require frequent visits to a specialist or to the hospital, you might want to find out more about what is available in the Cotacachi area that would meet your needs.  There are far more options for medical care in Cuenca.

Can I walk to stores and social activities and does it feel safe?

One of the first things people say when I ask them what they like about living in Cotacachi is “I feel safe.” That was not the first response I got in Cuenca.  I feel very comfortable walking around Cotacachi by myself, in Cuenca, I felt much more cautious.  Most people still do not walk around in Cotacachi alone late at night.  In Cuenca there are more people out and about at night, so depending on where you are walking you might feel safe in some areas at night.

It is very easy to walk around Cotacachi because there are very few cars and there are sidewalks all through town.   We found it difficult to walk around in Cuenca because of the volume of vehicular traffic and the fact that vehicles do not yield to pedestrians.  It was often necessary to literally run across the street.  This is not a great thing for aging people. The car issue plus the smog issue were big negatives for us in Cuenca.

The downside for both Cotacachi and Cuenca is that the sidewalks often have holes or other obstructions that make walking a bit hazardous if you are not watching where you are going.  My husband and I made a rule that if we wanted to look at a site along the way; we had to stop to look around so we would not trip on something.  There is also a problem of dog excrement on the sidewalks from the street dogs.  Both cities are working on this problem.

Do you enjoy having a nightlife with lots of entertainment choices?

One complaint expats have about Cotacachi is that there is not much to do in the evenings.  There are local venues that feature live music on occasion and there are special events with live music.  There is a local bar that has regular game nights and there are a couple of sports bars where you can watch sports on TV.  Cuenca has much more nightlife and a variety of venues to choose from.

Cotacachi does have visiting artists from Quito and international locations who offer concerts and some dance performances such as ballet and other cultural offerings.  Cuenca has a symphony and many other cultural offerings so in this category Cuenca definitely has a lot more to offer.  However, Cotacachi residents can and do travel to Quito for cultural activities such as plays, symphonies, dance, art museums, etc. or even just to enjoy a few days of sampling international restaurants.

Expats buying organic food from local farmers and shopping for handmade crafts from artisans.

Do you enjoy being around a lot people most of the time?

Cotacachi is small and quiet most of the time.  You can certainly meet friends walking down the street or in the local restaurants.  It is rare for restaurants to be full.  The streets are not full of activity all of the time in Cotacachi.  The opposite is true in Cuenca.

Are you attracted to living in a place with a large international community?

Cotacachi does have expats from all over the world; for example, Canada, the US, France, Germany, Netherlands, South Africa, Australia, Switzerland, and others.  However, since the expat community is much smaller than in Cuenca, it does not have the same feeling of international mingling as Cuenca does.  There are more international restaurants and cultural offerings in Cuenca.

Do you need to be close to an international airport?

Cotacachi does not have an airport.  You can get to the airport in Quito on excellent new highways in about an hour and forty minutes.  You can take a cab, or take the bus to Quito and transfer to a bus that goes directly to the airport.

Cuenca has a domestic airport and from there you can fly to Guayaquil or to Quito to get international flights.  The flight from Cuenca to either airport is about 50 minutes.

Do you prefer to be surrounded by a natural environment or by a cityscape?

Everywhere you look around Cotacachi you will see open spaces and farmland.  The surrounding mountains of Imbabura and Cotacachi are very dramatic and give me a sense of grounding.  According to Wikipedia the ecosystems of the area and the native flora and fauna make this canton one of the ecologically richest zones in South America.  In 2000 the canton of Cotacachi was declared the first ecological county of South America. The Intag Valley is also world renowned as an ecological treasure

Cotacachi and Cuenca are both located in the Andes Mountains that surround them with spectacular scenery.  The sense of openness and expansiveness in Cotacachi is greater because the town is much smaller and the giant volcanoes that embrace the town are dominant in the landscape.  A short distance outside of the city center one finds rolling farm lands and open fields.  The air quality in Cotacachi is good because there are very few cars and the town is small.

When we were in Cuenca the city was dominant because I was surrounded by buildings and lots of people, the hills and mountains are there but further in the distance.  There are nice parks, but even in the parks I was aware of cars and lots of people.  So, Cuenca has natural beauty to be sure, but not enough for my liking.

Does noise bother you?

When I think of Cuenca I think of car horns, car alarms, car engines, car and truck doors slamming, roaring motorcycles, bus engines, trucks roaring by with clanging cargo, dogs barking, roosters crowing, and loud music.  The people I have talked to say that noise was one of the reasons they did not like Cuenca.  For people who are accustomed to city noises, this is may not be an issue.  Cotacachi also has dogs barking, rooster crowing, loud music during parties or celebrations, and some bus and truck sounds, but traffic is mostly limited to the main streets and again because of the much smaller population the amount of noise is far less than in Cuenca.

For example, where we live in Cotacachi we wake up to the sounds of birds.  In Cuenca, I woke up to traffic sounds.

Does it bother you to walk around in exhaust fumes?

Cotacachi is a small quiet town

Quiet Cotacachi Street

Another reason that we chose to leave Cuenca was the exhaust fumes from diesel buses, cars, trucks and motorcycles.  Any of the main streets are full of vehicles that emit obnoxious fumes.  You will see people walking down the street with scarves over their months.  Since there are very few vehicles in Cotacachi, this is not the case.

Are you looking for volunteer activities?

Both Cuenca and Cotacachi have many volunteer organizations.  In fact, in Cotacachi it is possible to be personally involved with local volunteer activities and because there is a small number of expats, it is possible to feel like you are making a difference as an individual.  Both Cuenca and Cotacachi have volunteers who work to get the street dogs spayed and neutered and cared for as well as adopted out.  Cotacachi and Cuenca have a large group of volunteers who help to feed the homeless.  Here are some additional listings of volunteer activities in Cotacachi.

What kinds of amenities are available?

In Cotacachi you will find a couple of gyms, there are exercise groups, yoga and tai chi classes, meditation groups, discussion groups, writing groups and more.  Of course, in Cuenca you will find these and much more choices.

Do you prefer to live in a single family home with a yard and space for outdoor living?

One advantage that Cotacachi has over Cuenca is the fact that there are several gated and non-gated residential areas where you can live in a house with a yard within walking distance to town.  We found it very hard to find anything like what is offered in Cotacachi anywhere in Cuenca.  Most of the single family home developments are further outside of town and require the use of a car or a bus or taxi ride.  They are also more expensive than what is available in Cotacachi.  Below are some links to real estate sites if you would like to see examples.

Do you prefer to be surrounded by people living very simply or do you like signs of wealth and glamor?

People in Cotacachi live very simply, it feels casual; there is not a lot of conspicuous wealth apparent here.  The buildings are mostly older and many are in need of paint, etc.  You will not find high rise condo buildings here. There are very nice homes and people who are prospering, but there is not a sense of showing it off.  You don’t see a lot of cars, especially not BMW’s, Mercedes and the like.  The Kichwa people mostly dress in their beautiful traditional costumes.

Cuenca, on the other hand has many signs of glamor and wealth.  There are a LOT of expensive cars, such as BMWs, Porsches, etc.  There are very modern and elegant high rise condo buildings.  Many people on the streets are very well dressed and there are upscale restaurants and hotels in town.

So in the end it is about lifestyle preferences.

I hope this helps you identify some of what seems most important to you and has given you a little closer glimpse of Cotacachi and Cuenca. I encourage you to visit both places and to stay for a while so you can really get the vibe of each place.  Happy explorations!