Two of the most popular destinations for expats considering a new life in Ecuador are Cuenca and Manta. Cuenca has traditionally been the favorite city for aspiring expats. But Manta is going through a period of high growth and is closing the gap.
This article gives you an understanding of why expats tend to choose one city over the other. We are fortunate to have input from YouTuber Don Shader, a Manta resident for 14 months. I am on the other side of the table with a deeper knowledge of Cuenca, as a resident for 3+ years.
The aim of this article is to celebrate the differences between Manta and Cuenca. They are very different cities with unique offerings for expats. You will likely enjoy one city more than the other, but we’d certainly encourage you to visit both cities before taking the plunge and living in either.
Beach vs Mountains
The starting point for comparing the two cities is whether you have a general preference to live on the coast or in the mountains. Manta is a coastal city with a long, proud history of being a fishing mecca. Cuenca sits towards the southern end of the Andes mountain range that runs through Ecuador.
The weather in Manta is very different from Cuenca and most expats generally come to Ecuador with some kind of weather preference.
These weather graphs (from Weatherspark) show the clear differences between the two cities.
Some key takeaways:
- Cuenca is generally 20℉ – 25℉ colder than Manta
- Humidity (ie “Muggy Conditions”) is much higher in Manta
- Chance of Clearer Skies peak in July / August for both cities. Manta has a slightly better chance of clearer skies in the other months.
- Apart from Jan-Mar, it’s generally 10-15% more likely to rain in Cuenca on any given day.
Don had higher expectations for the amount of clear, sun-filled days he’d be experiencing in Manta:
“When I started researching coming here, a lot of people talked about Manta and about all the sunshine. Don’t believe it. There’s not that much sunshine here.”
“We very seldom do we get a solid sun-up to sun-down day. Very seldom. It’s rare. You know, it kind of reminds me of San Diego in California with clouds in the morning, clouds in the evenings, and at midday, the sun comes out. That’s kind of the way it is in Manta.”
Don confirms some of the general trends in the charts above.
“The heat is not a lie. But that’s in the so-called summer months here, which is like from December to May. The humidity bothers me more than the heat. The heat seems to dissipate as the sun goes down and you have cooler temperatures at night. But the humidity is brutal.”
Cuenca is the opposite, with cooler weather and rain being one of the main gripes you’ll likely hear from expats.
There is too much subjectivity to say one is more suited to expats than the other. It’s really down to personal preference.
Beach vs Mountains Winner = Draw
If you’ve watched some of Don Shader’s videos, you’ll probably already know he hates noise:
“Noise is a real sore spot for me. The big problem here is loud music. We have cars that drive around with dual, 15-inch subs in the back and they open the trunk and leave it open. There’s only one volume control; wide open with extra bass. And they drive around all weekend.
Then there are the parties. There’s a neighborhood right behind me here where they had parties once in a while and it’s unbearable for me. It’s easy to deal with because I close my door and I can block it all out. If I want to watch TV and there’s a big party going on at the hotel across the street, I put noise-canceling headphones on. I watch TV and I don’t even hear them. So you had to figure out a way to deal with it because you can’t get rid of it.”
Certain neighborhoods in both cities can be prone to noise pollution. Manta noise pollution tends to focus on speakers from parties blaring long into the morning.
Cuenca has some of this, but it doesn’t seem to be as concentrated or persistent. The main noise issues to be aware of in Cuenca include traffic such as early morning garbage trucks & gas trucks, dogs, organized early morning dance classes & church activities.
The party noise in Manta is something that happens every weekend. This is the type of noise that you feel in your whole body because of the bass. It’s very hard to escape and asking your neighbor to turn down the music is not likely to help – you won’t change the behavior of a party. Either join in or deal with it.
Don’s Ecuadorian girlfriend summarizes it like this, “You can talk to the neighbor whose alarm goes off and ask them to turn off their alarm. But when you hear loud music, you have to get up and dance.”
The noise in Manta is an issue for many expats and for this reason we’re giving the win to Cuenca for this category.
Noise Winner = Cuenca
The altitude difference can be the ultimate decider for some expats. The higher altitude of Cuenca can exacerbate existing medical conditions.
This was the case for Don:
“The main reason why I went to Cuenca was to see if I could handle the climate and the altitude. I have a medical condition (COPD) so I need to be careful what I do with my activities and so forth. I hit the ground running in Cuenca and within 3 days I had to call an ambulance. I thought I had COVID, but turns out it was altitude sickness.”
Don does go on to mention that there is medication available and if he really wanted to, he could probably live in Cuenca whilst on the medication.
I would say Don is certainly in the minority, but the problem with altitude sickness is it’s hard to know if you will be affected until you just put yourself in that environment and see how your body reacts. Don did have an inkling that he may be affected thanks to his previous time spent in Denver, Colorado. But, even so, he wasn’t sure how it would play out in Cuenca until he spent time here as it’s also considerably higher (Denver is 5280 ft, Cuenca is 8400 ft).
The coast doesn’t have this issue. Indeed, one of the advantages of living and acclimatizing to Cuenca is when I do go for a run at sea-level, it feels incredible. I can run for days (okay it’s still only minutes) without getting tired.
Overall, we do suggest giving Cuenca a try and see if you can adjust. But, try not to be too hard on yourself if you find that your body doesn’t want to live at this altitude. Given Manta doesn’t have these altitude issues, Manta wins this category.
Altitude Winner = Manta
This is a hard one for Don and me to compare. We know the hospital options and level of care to expect from our respective cities, but we don’t really have the required depth of practical experience with the other city.
Don has this to say about healthcare in Manta:
“From my own personal experience, I’ve had to deal with a primary care physician, dentist, cardiologist & orthopedic surgeon – I broke a toe after I got here. I felt like the level of care I received was very high.”
Do you need to leave Manta to access healthcare?
Don doesn’t believe so, “For general healthcare, I don’t think there’s anything that you can’t get done in Manta.”
He goes on to praise the healthcare service levels received in Ecuador:
“Healthcare in Ecuador, in my opinion, is good as, if not better than what we had in the United States. I think one of the reasons why I feel that way is because it’s more on a personal level. Healthcare is more one-to-one here. You receive personal healthcare from your doctor. You talk to the doctor, and not some secretary or an insurance agent or a facilitator or deal with a robot call like we did in the United States.
So here in Manta, as well as in Cuenca, you have doctors that will come to you, or you can go to them and save yourself a few bucks. You pay a little extra to get that house call, but it’s available. You don’t get that in the United States.”
However, Don also mentions that he knows of at least one example where a friend needed to visit Guayaquil to receive specialist end-of-life treatment. I also know of several people that have needed to leave Manta and head to either Quito or Guayaquil for specialist treatment.
So, I think whilst it’s clear that Manta does have high quality healthcare with high levels of personal care, there may be rare instances where you do need to visit a larger city to find certain specialists.
Cuenca has more than double the population compared to Manta, so it’s reasonable to also expect more hospitals and a greater variety of specialists in Cuenca. Whilst Cuenca is renowned for its quality private & public healthcare, it’s another step to say that it’s substantially better than Manta and I don’t have the data to say that is the case. So, we’ll call this one a draw too.
Healthcare Winner = Draw
Both cities have “International Airports”, but each requires you to change flights at Quito or Guayaquil. Both cities really do need direct international flights. This is one of the biggest inhibitors of growth.
There are rumors circulating for both cities that involve the commencement of direct international flights, but so far there is nothing solid to suggest this will happen any time soon.
Don does believe there has been an increase in air traffic overhead in 2022 compared to 2021, but this hasn’t been accompanied by direct international flight options.
Cuenca does now have direct flights to Guayaquil via LATAM. This is a very welcome step in the right direction as the visually stunning bus trip through the Cajas is a notoriously dangerous road prone to landslides and closure (which adds another 3-4 hours onto the journey).
Winner = Draw (Neither Have Direct International Flights)
We’re measuring food across two dimensions:
- Typical food found in the area &
- The quality and variety available in each city
Seafood dominates the food scene in Manta, but this is starting to change with an influx of restaurants offering other cuisines opening up in Manta.
The most widely celebrated traditional food in Cuenca is roasted pork or “horneado”. So, the battle for the best typical food generally comes down to whether you prefer seafood or pork.
But, the biggest difference between the two cities is the quality & variety of food on offer.
In Don’s words, “There is not the variety of restaurants in Manta as there is in Cuenco. But that’s changing and it’s changing as we’re sitting here.”
There have been some noteworthy inclusions to Manta’s food scene, including the popular Italian restaurant La Briciola. This has been a favorite restaurant amongst Quiteños for years and opening up a Manta branch adds some higher-end flair to the city.
Across the road is the new Latitud Cero gastropub. Cuenca folk will likely recognize this restaurant too as the beer is brewed in Cuenca (thanks to the quality water). This is another higher-end option that has decided to expand to Manta. This is a common theme, with Manta seen as an attractive city for established brands to expand to.
As quickly as Manta is expanding its culinary scene, it is still a fair way behind Cuenca. Particularly so when it comes to international foods. Perhaps this is best evidenced by Don’s breakfast experiences. In Manta, he routinely eats at one of the better chain cafes called Dulce y Cremoso. But in Cuenca, his favorite breakfast spot was Sunrise Cafe:
“The reason why I liked it is because they didn’t serve their breakfast on plates. They served them on platters and you get a lot to eat. You might pay a couple of bucks more, but you get more than you can eat. We don’t have that here [in Manta]. I’ve had a hard time finding something like that here.”
This is perhaps more of a reflection of the size of the expat populations in the two cities. Cuenca has had an established expat presence for many years, which has meant businesses have had more time to cater to our needs. Perhaps in a few years, we’ll see some Sunrise Cafe equivalents pop up in Manta too. Let’s hope so!
The bottom line is that Manta is better for seafood, but for variety and quality, Cuenca is the winner.
Food Winner = Cuenca
This is a touchy subject and I’d argue it’s currently the elephant in the room. Particularly so for those living in Manta with the drug wars having a significant impact on the community.
One month before Don arrived in Ecuador, there was a very public shooting in the main mall of Manta which “depending on who you talk to, is what started the gang wars here.” It’s safe to say it’s been downhill since. Whilst I wish there were signs of improvement, it seems that violent deaths have continued to escalate.
This hasn’t affected Don’s day-to-day life, “If you’re not buying drugs, you’re not a user, then you don’t have anything to worry about. They have their battlegrounds and they’re usually not where we are.”
I have a slightly more pessimistic view. Particularly with the latest murder of the Manta Journalist Gerardo Delgado (which happened after I spoke with Don). It’s early days in the investigation, but I think it’s pretty clear Mr. Delgado wasn’t a narco. He was a professional journalist that appears to be the victim of a murder-for-hire scenario as one of the suspects confessed to being paid $2K to carry out the killing. This comes one week after a female jewelry store owner was shot in La Cuadra – a very public, upscale shopping village.
I’m not sure where this violence goes from here. It’s certainly something to consider, but it’s difficult for newer expats to get a good read on the situation as it’s not a topic expats generally want to talk about. It destroys their own picture of the life they’ve built in Ecuador.
Cuenca doesn’t have the same narco pressures. There is no international port where drugs are shipped through. That isn’t to say Cuenca is completely free from violent crime and there does seem to be an increase in robberies & other crimes too. But, it’s certainly a magnitude lower than Manta.
Petty crime is a persistent threat in both locations. But, the recent spree of killings in Manta gift the win to Cuenca for this category.
Safety Winner = Cuenca
Activities & Events
What is there to do in each city? The activities and events on offer are very different.
Cuenca is known as one of the cultural capitals of Latin America and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This has a flow-on effect with many artisans calling Cuenca home, and many cultural, music, food and other events on offer.
Manta has a unique culture and atmosphere, but it does not have the same bubbling arts and culture scene that Cuenca has. You can generally find events in Manta throughout the public holidays, but you may struggle to find events at other times of the year. As Don puts it:
“Manta is a working city. They have soccer games here, but you just don’t hear about events unless it’s a national holiday. And they do that big time here because when this place decides to party, they party.”
Manta does have some regular expat meetups that tend to be focused on meeting for food or hanging at the beach. But, Manta just doesn’t have the depth of events that Cuenca has. I have a very good lens on this because I help maintain the YapaTree events calendar for Cuenca. This Cuenca calendar generally has 30+ events on it and we send these in our Thursday events newsletter. It’s a popular feature of our site.
But, when we tried to replicate this in Manta we had to discontinue it because there just weren’t enough events to warrant a calendar. I was spending hours each week trying to find events that were non-existent, poorly published, or just generally difficult to find.
So for organized events, Cuenca is the clear winner.
But, it’s much more even when we start talking about activities or fun that you create yourself. Don explains:
“You can’t come to Manta and expect Manta to create your life for you. I find things to do here. I’m a photographer and I like to go out and shoot pictures, look at the architecture and hang out at the fish market. There’s a big wooden boat yard down there. The craftsmanship is amazing, you can spend half a day there just watching these guys work with chainsaws and you see a lot of old-world stuff going on.”
Most of Manta’s popular activities involve the water or beach. These include swimming, surfing, soccer, bike riding, running or just walking. 15 minutes from Manta is Santa Marianita, a beach famous for kitesurfing. 20 minutes in another direction is the Montecristi Gold Course & Resort. This is one of only a few of Ecuador’s public golf courses. The 18 hole public golf course costs around $70 for a round, including cart & hire clubs.
Cuenca also has a golf course, but it’s more of a private country club aimed at the elite with a buy-in of over $20K. And, even then it’s only a 9 hole course. Manta is the easy winner if you’re a golfer.
Cuenca also has a lot of self-exploration activities, but they are obviously different as they revolve around mountains and rivers. These include hiking, mountain climbing, bike riding (mountain & street), trout fishing, horse riding & hot springs.
Overall, the difference in the quality & quantity of organized events gives Cuenca the clear edge in this category.
Activities & Events Winner = Cuenca
“In Manta we use taxis, bicycles, motorcycles, and sometimes buses.” Once you move a little outside of Manta, say Santa Marianita, then you do start to see more expats with cars.
Don has a preference for the buses in Cuenca over those in Manta mainly due to the Cuenca buses using a prepaid card system that avoids the requirement to have exact change on hand. Similarly, Don prefers taxis in Cuenca because they use a meter and in Manta you always need to negotiate the fare beforehand to make up for the lack of meters.
Traveling from Manta to closeby towns such as San Mateo, San Lorenzo or Santa Marianita is generally done in the back of a pickup truck, or camioneta. This can be a fun way to strike up a conversation with locals and is very cheap ($1-$3). Cuenca doesn’t use camionetas in the same way – these types of trips would be made on a regular bus.
The other advantage Cuenca has is the tram, or tranvia. This also uses a prepaid card system (annoying that it is different from the bus system) and is a popular way for tourists & locals to get to key parts of the city. It should be noted that the tranvia also has its issues and is limited to a single line, but it’s an important piece of infrastructure that doesn’t exist in Manta.
Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of Cuenca is general highway access. The geography of the surrounding area means that if the main highways are closed, then residents can effectively be cut off from outside supplies. This was very evident during the nationwide strikes in 2022 & 2019. Cuenca was one of the cities most affected because of the limited road access. But, how much weight you should factor into the possibility of nationwide strikes is hard to gauge. I’d suggest it doesn’t have a big impact on the overall scheme.
Who wins this category? Don and I are in agreement; the variety of options and convenience of not having to carry cash or coins to catch public transport make Cuenca the winner.
Transport Winner = Cuenca
Another area that exposes very different preferences is the housing and accommodation available in each city.
Expats in Manta tend to focus on high-rise apartment living with a focus on sea views. But, as Don puts it:
“A lot of expats come to Manta with expectations that are a little bit too high. They come here with the expectation that they can get an apartment in a good area with a sea view for $450 a month. And folks that’s not gonna happen. You know, this place is probably one of the more expensive places to live on the coast in Ecuador. Maybe even be one of the more expensive places to live in Ecuador. For an ocean view expect to pay at least $700 per month.”
I can concur with this expectation mismatch. We’ve revamped YapaTree’s property platform and it’s now one of the best sites to find property for rent or sale in Cuenca. We’ve recently started selling & renting property in Manta too, so we do have a good overview of the differences between the two locations.
Cuenca’s property market tends to be more varied with expats spread throughout the city & beyond. Perhaps the Cuenca neighborhood that is closest to the high-rise apartment-style living is Ordonez Lasso (or Gringolandia). This area features American-style condos with views of the rivers & mountains.
However, most of the other neighborhoods popular with Cuenca renters and buyers don’t feature the same style of high-rise living. Furnished apartments do tend to be the most popular with renters, but you also find quite a few families looking for homes with green space.
Affordability can be a key criterion for expats deciding to move to Ecuador. In Cuenca, 2 bedroom, expat-quality apartments in desirable areas can be found between $500 – $800. Whereas the same apartments with sea views in Manta would generally rent between $700 – $1000.
This category is laden with subjectivity, making it difficult to choose a clear winner. If your preference is a high-rise apartment with ocean views, then Manta will be your winner. Just know that you will certainly pay a premium for the ocean view.
Given the variety of housing available and increased affordability, we’re giving Cuenca the win for this category.
Housing Winner = Cuenca
Manta has one very nice mall (Mall del Pacifico) which I think is better than any of Cuenca’s 3 or 4 main shopping malls. But, it can get pretty repetitive shopping at the same mall over and over.
Manta also has a Megamaxi & Megakiwi. Cuenca has 4 Supermaxis, a Superkiwi, and is currently building a Megamaxi. “Mega” is bigger than “Super” so you can find a wider variety of products in these Manta stores.
Cuenca has around 6-7 Coral Hypermercados, which are more in line with Megamaxi’s product offerings but generally target the cheaper end of the market. Manta has 1 regular Coral and an express.
Manta’s flea market ‘Nuevo Tarqui’ is a popular option to find pretty much anything you’re after. Manta also has a good central market to buy fruits and vegetables. However, Cuenca has several which are bigger and with more variety.
Overall, given Cuenca’s substantially larger population and artisanal roots, there is a wider variety of products available in Cuenca so I’m giving the win to Cuenca.
Shopping Winner = Cuenca
Wrapping Up – And the Winner is…
I’m calling it a draw. The core idea isn’t to have a winner and loser, but to celebrate the differences between these two popular expat destinations. Our family lives in Cuenca and we are very happy here. But, we also choose to spend our holidays on the coast, sometimes very close to Manta. This works very well for our family precisely because they are so different.
What works best for you? There’s only one way to find out – spending enough time in each to form an educated opinion.
If you’ve spent a few months in each city, we’d love to hear why you prefer one over the other in the comments below or in our Cuenca Yapas & Friends Facebook Group.
Thanks once again to Don Shader for his input and overall awesomeness as a human being. You can subscribe to Don’s YouTube channel here – he appreciates every subscriber.