Is Cuenca Ecuador safe for expats? There are lots of stories and opinions shared online and over coffee at gringo hangouts. In this post, we'll share what we've learned. And tips to help avoid being a victim of crime. This post was written by an American and a Canadian expat – with a combined 20 years living in Ecuador.
A gentleman who is contemplating moving to Ecuador with his family was surprised to learn that many houses here have burglar bars over the windows and doors.
Such security measures raise the question:
Is Cuenca Ecuador Dangerous for Expats?
This next section was written by an American expat, a father of two.
Cuenca is known as the most “tranquilo” or peaceful city in Ecuador.
However, the locals, while loudly touting the peacefulness of Cuenca, will quickly tell you that things are not like they used to be. Crime does exist in Cuenca and it seems to be steadily increasing.
The same can be said for practically any growing metropolitan area, no matter where you live. When contemplating a move or visit to Ecuador, one must realistically consider the issue of personal safety, especially if you have children as we do.
One could be lulled by the beauty and apparent tranquility of Cuenca and forget the importance of being vigilant regarding personal safety.
U.S. Department of State has a website that offers travel tips to U.S. citizens who travel abroad. The website (http://travel.state.gov) has extensive information regarding crime and safety issues for U.S. citizens in Ecuador.
When I visited this website I was shocked by the opening line of the section that deals with crime in Ecuador. It says something to the effect that crime against U.S. citizens is a major problem in Ecuador and that the country has a high crime rate.
The website goes on to detail some of the recent crimes committed against foreign visitors in Ecuador and gives advice on how to avoid being a victim.
It specifically mentions certain areas of Guayaquil and Quito that one would be wise to avoid. The general information on the U.S. Dept. of State website regarding crime and safety in Ecuador is very sobering and one would be wise to heed the advice given while traveling in the country, especially when visiting Guayaquil and Quito.
Interestingly, the above-mentioned website does not mention any of the areas of Cuenca that expats or travelers should avoid. Does this mean that Cuenca is a crime-free zone?
What can be said regarding crime in Cuenca? There is a criminal element operating in Cuenca and it is wise to be careful and to take certain precautions.
Having said that, I can tell you that in almost 4 years of living in Cuenca we have never been assaulted or robbed.
We have never felt unsafe in our neighborhood nor have we witnessed any violent crimes.
We have, however, had a couple of attempted petty thefts which we were able to thwart. For example, an innocent-looking middle-aged woman once attempted to open my daughter’s purse while we were in a crowded open-air market.
Lesson 1: Watch Your Belongings
Be vigilant and keep an eye on your personal possessions, especially when visiting crowded places. Criminals are not always the stereotypical masked bandit.
On another occasion, a thief attempted to rob us of our propane gas tanks that were stored behind our house.
Apparently, the thief was a construction worker who had been spying on our house from a new home construction next door.
He noticed that the gringos had 4 gas tanks (a $200.00 value) unguarded on the back porch. He returned at night with a ladder and entered our back porch with the intention of robbing us of our gas tanks.
My wife was at home during the attempted burglary and when she heard the noise of gas tanks being moved, she opened the door to see what was up and the thief ran off.
Lesson 2: Keep Valuables Out of Sight
Chain up gas tanks and don’t leave anything of value visible to potential thieves. Also, we have tried to avoid living next door to new construction or vacant lots where thieves can easily access the backyard.
A few months ago my daughter and a group of female friends were walking along a street around 10:30 a.m. when a drunken man approached them and became aggressive.
The drunk started cursing them, in English and came very close to my daughter. My daughter was scared and sensing that the drunk was about to grab her, she reached into her purse and pulled out some homemade pepper spray, and let him have it in the face.
The drunk apparently was not expecting such a reaction from an innocent-looking teenage girl and after receiving his pepper spray treatment, he shut up his cursing and retreated to his house to nurse his burning eyes.
The man lives along a street that we sometimes frequent and the next time he saw my daughter, he nicely said “hello” and kept walking.
Apparently, he now knows better to mess with the “gringa” armed with pepper spray. I advised my daughter that in the future it would be better to run away from drunks instead of spraying them in the face with pepper spray.
But in this case, the preemptive use of pepper spray worked out okay and the rude drunk got what he deserved for his obscene language and conduct.
Lesson 3: Pepper Spray Might Help
We have decided that it is not a bad idea to carry some nonlethal form of personal protection, such as pepper spray. You never know when it will come in handy.
We make our own pepper spray from vinegar and concentrated pepper sauce. Just mix the two together and put the spicy mix in a small travel-size spray bottle and you have a cheap, potent, and effective personal protection device. It also works wonders on aggressive dogs as well as drunks.
Since my son has been bitten twice by dogs, we now make sure that at least one member of the family is armed with our homemade pepper spray brew just in case we encounter aggressive stray dogs.
Other than the few incidents mentioned above, we have not had any problems with crime or personal safety in the particular area of Cuenca we live in. That does not mean that one should be passive regarding crime in Cuenca.
More reading: 16 Best Anti-Theft Backpacks and Locks
Where Are the Dangerous Areas in Cuenca, Ecuador?
Well, I guess I should start off and explain that we haven't had many problems here in Cuenca. But it would be naive to think that crime isn't a problem here. It is a problem in every city. Being smart about where you are and at what time of day is important in almost every part of the world.
Update (June 8, 2014): We were robbed the same day this post published. We published a post discussing it today.
5 Dangerous Areas in Cuenca Ecuador
Here are the five worst areas, as identified by the National Police:
- La Merced (just down from Luis Cordero on Calle Larga) La Merced is identified as selling the highest volume of narcotics in Cuenca.
- Bus Station (Terminal Terrestre) located out by the airport
- Cayambe (north of Avenida de las Americas, known in the papers as “la zona de tolerancia”)
- Market Nueve de Octubre (mercado Nueve de Octubre)
- Feria Libre (Cuencas largest open market, located on Avenida de las Americas)
Recently, there have been a number of murders in Cayambe. The chief of police here in Cuenca, Germán Cevallos, has identified those deaths as revenge murders between two groups trying to take control of the drug market.
Would I want to live in any of these areas? No, I don't think so – because we know that it's dangerous at night.
What Drugs are Being Sold in Cuenca?
The article identifies cocaine derivatives and marijuana as the most common drugs being sold. Lenin Bolaños, Azuay Police Commander (comandante de Policía del Azuay), noted that eradication, as discussed by some politicians, is not very reasonable.
But through joint police, government, and community efforts this problem can be controlled.
So, Is Cuenca Ecuador Dangerous?
So all of this begs the question: Is Cuenca Safe for Expats? Well, I guess that depends.
- Time of day is important. We've been in all of these places during the day, except Cayambe, and never had any trouble. La Merced is beautiful in the daytime and actually a bit of a hangout for many expats. Nighttime is a different story.
- Are you planning on selling drugs? If this is on your list of possible income sources in Cuenca then you might find yourself at risk. Okay, probably not likely. But lifestyle does play a significant role in safety. A person could become a victim in the safest city in the world just as easily as someone else could have no problems at all in one of the most dangerous ones. Safety depends so much on what you are doing in those places.
- The answer really depends on what you are used to. Your comfort level can affect your perception of safety. If you aren't used to hearing about drug dealers killing each other, then you might not want to live in Cuenca. Although it is uncommon, it does happen. This isn't like in parts of Mexico or the US where this is everyday stuff. These crimes make front-page news here – that alone should tell you that it is rare.
7 Ways Not to Get Robbed in South America
By following these suggestions, we have been able to avoid being victimized by criminals and we feel relatively safe living here. While visiting Cuenca many tourists comment that they actually feel safer here than they do in their home countries.
We also feel safer here than we did when we lived in the States. We rarely hear of violent crimes involving guns here and we do not see drug dealers or gangs hanging out on every corner.
We have taken the following common-sense measures to reduce our risk of being victimized by criminals:
1. Avoid walking the streets at night
We avoid walking the streets at night and we especially avoid the center of town after dark. According to reports in the local papers, the majority of assaults occur in certain parts of the center and near the airport and bus terminal.
We know many expats who frequent the center of town at night to enjoy public events such as free concerts and they have never reported to us any problems with crime, but we prefer to stay indoors at night, for the most part, just to be on the safe side.
If we do decide to go out at night we call a radio taxi company and avoid hailing a random taxi on the street. We do not take buses after dark.
2. Use ATMs inside banks
When we visit the center of town during the day, we always try to be aware of anyone suspicious who may be following us and we never use ATMs located on the street.
It is safer to use banks and ATMs located in malls or shopping centers where one can easily get lost in a store for a while after taking out money.
3. We try to avoid being easy targets for criminals.
For example, we do not wear expensive jewelry and we keep our wallets in our front pockets and the females in our family keep their purses clutched close to their bodies and in sight at all times.
We do not carry large amounts of cash and have even resorted to carrying “mug money” in a separate wallet. I carry my debit card and cash in a travel wallet that fits inside my pants so that it is impossible for a pickpocket to rob me. A pickpocket would have to undress me to get to my wallet and I think that I’d notice that. Some think that it is extreme to wear a hidden wallet, but I’ve never lost my important documents or bank cards using that method.
The U.S. Embassy website advises visitors to carry copies of their passports and to store the originals in a safe place. I cringe when I see foreign visitors with their passports or wallets protruding from their back pockets.
4. Don't use expensive electronics in public places.
We use inexpensive cell phones that do not attract attention. We also keep our phones tucked safely in an interior coat pocket or in a front pant pocket.
5. Be cautious when approched by strangers
We are cautious if someone approaches us on the street asking for directions or to borrow a pen.
Thieves often work in teams and try to distract an unsuspecting person while the accomplice approaches to snatch valuables.
6. Rent Homes With Security Features
We have tried to rent houses equipped with security measures such as burglar bars and alarm systems. Also, living on a well-lit street is never a bad idea. We sometimes leave lights on in certain rooms when we have to leave the house at night to give the impression that someone is home. We also try to get to know our neighbors.
A watchful neighbor is sometimes the best defense against break-ins. We hide our valuables, such as computers and important documents, in hard-to-reach places in the house just in case someone is successful in breaking in.
If someone does enter our house we are not going to make it easy for them to rob us. The presence of an attentive, barking dog also can serve to dissuade a potential burglar.
7. Learn Spanish and integrate with the community
We have made an effort to learn Spanish and develop friendships with native Ecuadorians.
This has served us well as a security measure because in comparison with the expats, the native Cuencanos are much more aware of where the crime-prone areas of town are and are happy to share that information with you, provided you can understand Spanish.
If you plan on living in Ecuador, it is good to get out of the “expat bubble” and try to cultivate friendships with natives. I have heard that some expats feel that it is not that important to learn Spanish, but if you want to be more fully integrated into the community and be able to keep up with current criminal trends, being able to read and speak Spanish proficiently is a big help. Being able to converse fluently in Spanish has helped us not feel isolated and helpless.
We know that should the need arise, we can pick up the phone and call the police, ambulance or close friends who can come to our aid in the event of an emergency.
There is no paradise in this world and there are criminals regardless of where you choose to live. Every country has its problems and Ecuador is no exception.
What I can tell you is that right now, the incidence of crime in Cuenca seems to be less in comparison with other major cities in Ecuador.
When we read the reports of violent crimes committed on a regular basis in the States, we often comment that we are glad to be living in Ecuador and not in the U.S.
Of course, when we lived in the U.S. and heard daily news reports of violent crimes and murders, we became used to it and were not affected that much. We never considered leaving the States or moving to another area to avoid crime. We just took all the necessary safety precautions and went about with our daily routine.
We do the same here and are able to lead a relatively safe and calm life. I think that is about the best we can expect regardless of where we live in this world.
This is a post by an American expat living in Cuenca since 2007.