Update (June 8, 2014): Bryan and I were robbed in Cuenca. Here is our experience – and what you can do to avoid it.
This is a guest post by an American expat living in Cuenca since 2007.
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 following common sense measures to reduce our risk of being victimized by criminals:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 pick pocket 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 web site 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.
- We 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.