I know a little thing or two about being a Digital Nomad. My remote work lifestyle started back in 2014, back when the movement was just starting to get traction and there was a sudden collective awakening that ‘Huh, I guess I don’t need to stay in my own country anymore’.
Since then, I’ve dragged my laptop around 40 countries, and spent extended periods as a ‘slowmad’ in Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Thailand, Peru, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Ecuador. I’ve made multiple trips to my favorite DN hubs like Barcelona, Budapest, Tarifa, Vienna, Chiang Mai, Siem Reap, and Prague. Along the way, I also uncovered some untapped gems that could be future Digital Nomad hotspots, such as Brno, Skopje, Prishtina, and Plovdiv, as well as my current favorite, Cuenca.
You may have seen my recent documentary, ‘Co-Working in Cuenca’, if not, it’s embedded below.
In the documentary, Jason and Ayngelina are asked to compare Cuenca to Medellin, Colombia. For me, I’m comparing Cuenca mentally with 20+ other cities, and it wins in so many categories. The air quality, cost of living, being a pedestrian, proximity to nature and understandable dialect (I could not understand Peruvians for the life of me) are just a few reasons I love it here.
With all the positives, there are a few
negatives challenges to overcome. Whilst you may not encounter or face any of these issues, it’s beneficial to be aware of them. Remember, the obstacle is the way, and it’s the difficulties of travel that make it exciting. What is easy is not rewarding, and what is rewarding is not easy.
Wi-fi Outside the Main Cities
I’ve worked from Cuenca and Guayaquil without issue, but I’ve never taken my laptop to a small town or village and tried to connect to the internet. Many Digital Nomads who come to Ecuador express that the Wi-Fi along the coast is incredibly patchy and in some places non-existent. So, if you’re looking for a quiet beach town to escape from the world, surf some waves, and enjoy your own peace and quiet, you might want to ask whether the Wi-Fi will allow you to get your work done too…
Finding Affordable Short-Term Accommodation
Landlords in the cities here are much like anywhere else. The longer you rent from them, the cheaper it averages out. Staying in Airbnbs for just a few days at a time can quickly rack up a heavy bill. I took a look on Airbnb to see what sort of prices you’re looking at as a solo DN or as a couple of DNs exploring together.
A private room in a hostel can be found for less than $20 a night, a suite in a pension or b&b can be around $40, and if you’re looking for something more private, like a whole apartment, the budget varies. Latin America is pretty good for creating mini departamentos, which are squashed little studios that are perfect for a cheap couple of nights of privacy but are very uncomfortable long term. Places with enough space to work, have natural light and are comfortable, go from $40 upwards. The ‘Comfortable and conveniently located suite’ in the image above is a great example of a budget apartment you can find on Airbnb.
If you’re accustomed to having your own apartment in Chiang Mai for $180 a month or staying in a $5 a night hostel, you won’t find it here (I actually paid $1.85 per night in Chiang Mai for a whole month in a dorm).
Selina Hotel has 5 co-living spaces in Ecuador, with the one in Cuenca offering private rooms for $450 per month with coworking included. This, for me, is as good as it gets as a DN.
If you’re looking for a longer-term rental (say 1 year or more), then you can find apartments for rent here on Yapatree.
Travel Within the Country
Guayaquil and Quito are well-connected airports, but the others are not. Cuenca only goes to Quito. The Galapagos Islands have two airports and they are connected to both Quito and Guayaquil. There are mini airports in Manta, Latacunga, Esmeraldas, Salinas, and a few others, but they just connect to the main cities too.
In reality, this is a country of long bus journeys. For many Digital Nomads, that’s absolutely fine. We are used to it. You might not be used to the driving style here though. Drivers are constantly looking to overtake, often on corners, and accidents are very frequent. 90% of accidents are the direct responsibilities of careless driving, working long hours, and taking unnecessary risks. Guayaquil has a reputation for chaotic driving.
This is a country where a straight road between cities is an anomaly. There are hills, mountains, valleys, and other naturally existing things that force roads to be winding and dangerous (albeit incredibly scenic). The road between Cuenca and Guayaquil, and the road between Cuenca and Loja have both collapsed since I have been in Ecuador. Other routes exist and can take twice as long. You might have to put up with this.
The short story is that Cuenca needs international flights, especially considering the large expat community.
Not Speaking Spanish
In some countries, language isn’t an issue, but here, it can be. For any legal or immigration stuff you do, you’ll often need a translator if you don’t speak Spanish. However, for the most part, like in restaurants and cafés, you’ll get by with English and pointing. Most places have an English version of their menu with at least one person on hand who can speak a little bit of English.
Don’t expect English speakers in abundance though, they are definitely a minority.
Lack of Postal Service and Shipping Options
Your precious headphones break and you want new ones! Well, good luck ordering online. There’s not really a postal service here, so anything you buy online should be sent, at a premium, to a delivery office, like DHL. This is frustrating, and leads to a system of ‘Mules’.
Mules are simply people who regularly visit the US and offer to purchase stuff for their friends or clients for a small fee. You give them the money and they go buy what you want. Considering the enormous technology import taxes and lack of availability of legit gadgets (more on this later), finding a mule can save you a lot of money.
Too Much Fun, Not Enough Time!
I’m not saying Cuenca is as fun as Budapest, Bangkok, or Barcelona (my favourite Bs), but it does have plenty to do, especially if you are a fan of nature. There are loads of hiking, running, cycling, and climbing clubs to join. Boardgame nights, language exchanges, and adventurism events too. Mix that in with concerts, exhibitions, and cultural events like Carnaval, and you’ll be plenty busy (trust me, I need a few more hours in the day).
Take all of that, and try to maintain a solid workload, and it becomes an impressive juggling act. This is the classic issue for Digital Nomads and applies almost anywhere. For me, only Bangkok was a harder place to juggle my time, but at least here everything is close so you don’t have to factor in large commute times.
Traffic Noise & Barking Dogs
Two of the most-complained about things in expat Facebook groups (is it called Meta yet? I have no idea), are dogs and cars. There is a bit of a habit here of buying the loudest, most obnoxious car (or motorbike) you can, beeping your horn as much as you like, and idling a bit too often. There are also a lot of street dogs and guard dogs, my neighbor has 9 Rottweilers, for example. At first their woofing was annoying, but now I don’t really hear it, and it makes me feel kinda safe knowing my neighbors on both sides have guard dogs.
Packing for All Seasons and Microclimates
My mom isn’t a Digital Nomad, but she does support my lifestyle and thinks it’s pretty groovy. I’ve invited her to Ecuador for a 2-week backpacking trip, and as she started researching what she needs for this beautiful country, her clothing pile grew to an unconscionable size.
I’m a minimalist and see it this way. Jeans when it’s cold, shorts when it’s hot. Always carry a raincoat, a packable one ideally. I’ve not been anywhere cold enough to need a woolly hat, not anywhere hot enough for flip flops and vests. The weather here changes fast though, so you need to be prepared with a day bag containing sun cream, a sun hat, and a coat.
The thing is, Ecuador has it all. Snowy mountains, dry sierra, humid jungle, and a long coastline of beaches. If you’re gonna try and see it all, you do need all different types of clothing. In this case, I recommend shelling out for higher-quality outdoor clothing from brands like Patagonia, Colombia, and North Face and buying these before you arrive.
BRING A GOOD HAT! The Andes is one of the most UV-exposed places in the world and you will burn if you don’t protect your skin.
Finding other Digital Nomads
Jason is the founder of the Digital Nomads Ecuador Facebook group, which is a great place to find other DNs in Ecuador, but right now there aren’t a lot of us here. It also seems that the ones who are here, aren’t looking very hard for their tribe. It’s fair enough, each to their own.
The best place to look, like always, is in coworking spaces. In Cuenca, I’d say Selina Hotel is probably the best place to start. In Quito, it’s one of the four IMPAQTO buildings. Along the coast, you can find some quality nomad options like Punta La Barca in Santa Marianita (20 minutes from Manta).
Knockoff Gadgets & Gear!
“Oh look, a great pair of Nike trainers for just $30!” you think to yourself, and as you’re looking, a shop assistant comes over to bombard you with information. The only thing you need to ask is “Triple A?”, but with the dialect, it’s said, “Triplay ah?”. Triple A is the highest quality knock-offs you can get, and they’re very common here. If the seller says the shoes are from Colombia, they’re usually the better quality fakes.
The same can be said for all gadgets. You can find knockoff laptops, AirPods, mobile phones, and more. Be careful you don’t get scammed by a clever copy.
Try to find a mule to bring your tech into the country, it is much easier.
Crypto Adoption is Minimal
I’m not saying Europe is some crypto-mecca where you can pay everything with Bitcoin, but it’s certainly trying. At least in Europe, it’s easy to join exchanges, perform trades, and withdraw your funds. Here, crypto exists in a grey area and I’m not even sure what the rules are. I have seen a few brokerages around Cuenca where you can buy/sell crypto for cash, but businesses are not allowed to accept it as legal tender. That’s quite different from Mexico, where I paid my dentist in Ethereum.
I think the lack of support and adoption of crypto is rooted in the failed project of the Digital Sucre a few years ago. The government took a big hit and is still licking its wounds. In a country where transferencias (bank transfers) are a very common way to pay for almost everything, it shouldn’t be too difficult to integrate some of the more well-known coins. I’d love to see some of the banks & cooperativas, like JEP, offer cryptocurrency investment for their clients.
It’s not all plain sailing, but for the most part, living here or staying here as a Digital Nomad is a breeze. There are way more upsides than downsides, which is why seasoned DNs like Jason, myself, Ayngelina, and a few others I know here, see Cuenca as South America’s best place to live and work. Come and see for yourself!