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Ecuador Expat Profile – Lisa Cho, Cuenca Ecuador

Posted in: Cuenca Ecuador, Expats in Ecuador, Living in Ecuador

This is part of our Ecuador Expats Series. Do you live in Ecuador? Share your Story here

Ecuador Expat Profile – Lisa Cho, Cuenca Ecuador

The Expat: Lisa Cho 



Where are your currently living?

I have been living in Cuenca, Ecuador for 11 months.

Check out more Ecuador expat stories

What’s Your Story?

I’m originally from a 8,000 person town in the south of California – Ojai – a haven for hippies in the hills north of Los Angeles. I spent 17 years in Ojai, 4 years in San Diego, and another 7 years in the San Francisco bay area (moving between 6 cities total! – Menlo Park, San Jose, Berkeley, Emeryville, El Cerrito, and finally downtown San Francisco). My grandparents and great-grandparents are from China and Japan, places I have visited but never lived.

I’m currently in limbo – I used to work as a product manager in biotech and medical devices. This past year in Cuenca, I just worked a couple hours a week teaching salsa dancing, and devoting some time to learning other skills like ballet (does that count as a skill?) web development and SEO.

When and where did you get the idea of living in Ecuador?

I think I’d always wanted to live in another country. I lost my job at a startup last year, and I was actually interviewing at a bunch of other companies when I took a day at the hippie hotsprings resort.

Somewhere between yoga class and the thermal pools I suddenly realized it was time. The timing was perfect – being young, without a mortgage, without a boyfriend, and without a job.

For maximum adventure, I picked one of the three continents I’d never set foot on (the others being too cold – Antarctica – or too much like the US – Australia). Within South America, I talked to friends who had traveled, read travel blogs, and did research online. I was looking for a mid-sized city with a nice climate, lots of cultural activities, somewhat cosmopolitan but not San Francisco again, low cost of living, reasonably safe, accessible to a beach, where I could speak Spanish.

I  arrived in Cuenca by buseta with a single suitcase. A good friend of mine jokes that I met her after a week in Cuenca, and I told her I was thinking of staying a month. After a month, we went out to coffee again and I told her I was thinking of staying a couple months. Here I am 10 months later with a residency visa and no plane ticket home (though no definite plans to stay in Ecuador the rest of my life either).

How’s your Spanish?

My Spanish was pretty good when I got to Cuenca. I had studied 4 years in high-school, taken Spanish literature in undergrad, Spanish cooking classes in grad school, and done a month-long intensive in Spain. I found some Mexican roommates to live with in Emeryville for a while, and I purposely told them not to speak to me in English.

Read more about the best way to learn Spanish.

I thought the language really made it easier to adapt. I was able to make friends with the locals and expats from Spain, Chile, and Argentina (not just the US and Canada). When I first arrived in Cuenca, I avoided other gringos like the plague, because I wanted to immerse myself in the culture and become fully bilingual. Now that I’ve been here for a while, I have some gringo friends, and I even went to “gringo night” once. Everyone who lives in Cuenca should learn Spanish – it has helped me so much, and I can’t imagine speaking in English and expecting the locals to understand all the time.

What Do You Do?

I teach salsa classes, but that is spectacularly unprofitable when the local going rate for classes is pretty cheap and studio overhead is not. This year, the stock market went up and I lived frugally like a hippie, and so I didn’t need to work a 40-hr normal job.  Ask me again when the stock market crashes, haha.

Plan B is to do website dev/SEO either preferably for myself (oh no! not another wannabe pro-blogger!!!). Or…Plan C, to do website dev/SEO on a contract basis.

How’s The Cost of Living in Ecuador?

The cost of living is about what I expected because I’m a huge nerd for internet research.

I still find myself shocked when I get a fresh carrot/alfalfa/papaya juice from the market for $1. Or people are shocked when I tell them my rent is $100 all inclusive (just for a room, not an apartment).

But then I go to Cafe Eucalyptus, pay $3 for a cup of tea, and I might as well be back in the US.

What do you love about Ecuador?

Ecuador is really relaxed. I like that people’s grand ambitions here usually involve opening a chill new restaurant or bar where they can hang out with their friends, listen to live music, and share their culture. In contrast, in San Francisco, everyone’s grand ambitions involves creating an iPhone app, starting a website or web 2.0 company, getting venture capital funding, working 100+ hours a week until some big future payday when the company that they are now CEO/founder/president goes public.

The colonial center of Cuenca, Ecuador is beautiful – all the old architecture – but parts are certainly run-down, with big holes in the sidewalks and graffiti. The river is absolutely amazing, and Cuenca is full of cultural activities, clubs, classes, and music.

I feel pretty safe, but I’m careful. I take taxis when it’s late at night, and I don’t carry much cash on me. Although once I was in an internet cafe, and I turned around and someone had stolen the bag of groceries I put on the floor next to my chair (i.e. eggs, cheese, and apples)!!! And another time, this dude tried to “hold up” my friends and I with a black cell phone that sorta looked like a gun, but not really, because the antenna was sticking out. And then when we pointed out that the “gun” was just a black cell phone, he asked if we could give him a ride home.

There are some beautiful houses and apartments. At the budget end (where you cite people saving a lot of money) you have to have somewhat low expectations – sometimes the floors tilt on one side, some have exposed pipes or old plumbing, low water pressure, really ugly tiling, low ceilings, loud street noise, no insulation from the cold, leak stains on the ceilings, you name it.

My tips: Learn Spanish!!! If you can, jump into the deep end and don’t spend all your time in gringolandia speaking English.


Any questions for Lisa? Want to learn what it’s like for a single woman in Cuenca? Ask your questions in the comments below…

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Meet the Author

Bryan Haines is co-editor of GringosAbroad - Ecuador's largest blog for expats and travelers. He is a travel blogger and content marketer. He is also co-founder of ClickLikeThis (GoPro tutorial blog) and Storyteller Media (content marketing for travel brands). Work with GringosAbroad.

47 comments… add one
  • Andrea Lucio Aug 20, 2019, 9:40 am

    Hi Everyone , Lisa,

    I just finished reading your Moon Guide to the Galápagos Island! I really loved your writings and how you described my beautiful country! Really appreciate it and I am declared fan of yours! Wondering where I can find your blog and social media accounts to stay in touch!



  • vilma Jun 3, 2019, 11:07 am

    Hi Lisa.
    Are you still working in SEO and CEO?
    I need your help for my website.
    hope hear from you.

  • Robin Aug 23, 2018, 7:28 pm

    Hello Lisa,
    Really enjoyed reading your interview and I am wondering if you are still here? My husband and I live in Cuenca and are interested in taking some Salsa lessons, are you still teaching?
    Just to warn you we are retired and maybe a challenge but always up for a good time and learning something new!

    Looking forward to your response…Loving Cuenca

  • Erin May 19, 2016, 1:19 am

    Do you still offer classes? If so, when, where, and how much?

  • Raul Calderon Jr May 5, 2015, 10:09 am


    I’m visiting Ecuador for the first time next month. Flying into Quito and want to check out various locations in Ecuador (coast, interior, mountains) where I can find lots of adventure sports. Any suggestions?

    Also, what is the best way to get around the country? What kind of options are available and how much?



  • Mithun Gopinath Feb 26, 2015, 5:39 am

    Hai Lisa,
    I am an Indian having an Indian passport. I love to relocate to Ecuador. So, I have some queries –
    1. Is it possible for an Indian to get to Ecuador without visa. (Is visa on arrival possible).
    2. Is it possible to get a job by coming there through tourist visa.
    3. Is it possible to change the visa from Ecuador itself.

    I hope you will reply me soon.

    Mithun Gopinath

    • Stewart Mar 1, 2015, 6:50 pm

      Hello Mithun,

      I have a little information for you. Ecuador has a government similar to USA. By that I mean it has a big government with the idea that the government in general will provide. The reality is something else except for the lucky few.

      President Correa likes wearing indian shirts and I think considers himself a friend of the indians. Maybe you could get a job in 1 of his many ministries, but you would have to learn spanish at least and cechua (Ecuadorian indian language) would be a plus.

      Tourist visas are 3 to 6 months I believe. You would most likely apply for a work visa if you get a job to start.

      Good luck and best regards,


  • Jane Oct 12, 2014, 2:44 pm

    Hi Lisa,

    Great post! Reading you blog as well. But, as a professional development consultant, and a former professor, I do worry about you. A couple of years for travel in LA is a wonderful break and can do wonders for your personal and professional development . But to retire at the age of 30+? To try to reestablish your career, after a long play break ?
    Would be glad to discuss those issues, if you so wish.

  • Bill woods Sep 24, 2014, 9:47 pm

    Lisa. Solid Intel thanks. Will be heading down in late fall to check out Cuenca. Hoes the vino?

  • Zahir Ahmed Aug 9, 2014, 6:35 pm

    Hello lisa!

    My name is Zahir and i am from Canada and currently in Quito. i have two question, 1) how do go about getting a student or visitor visa extension. 2) what are some recommendation to help me learn and improve my spanish fast. (its almost at the level of non-existent)


  • Amy May 27, 2014, 8:28 pm

    Hi Lisa!

    Where/when are you offering salsa classes? I am in Cuenca and I love to dance salsa. Thanks!

    • Lisa Sep 1, 2014, 11:19 am

      Hi Amy,

      I actually got really busy with blogging and travelling and stopped teaching. You can find classes at Cachumbambe -the teacher is a friend of mine.


  • Mystery Girl May 16, 2014, 9:57 pm

    I like to read your comments. I live in N.Y. But I am planning to go back to by country and go visit my house. After so many years in N.Y. it’s time to go back to Ecuador. welcome to my country my friend.

  • Fabrizzio Feb 12, 2014, 5:30 pm

    I’m an American-Ecuadorean moving back to Cuenca, and I would like to get in touch with my fellow American expats to get some feedback on what we can improve in Cuenca to make a better place to live and you can enjoy it even more, please feel free to e-mail or call me at my cell: 0958918520

  • Donald W. Bell Oct 1, 2013, 10:21 pm

    Moving to Cuenca October 26 and would appreciate translation assistance in locating a 2 bed, 2 bath rental accommodation in the 4-$500 mthly range—Your advise is needed

    • Gary Sisk Oct 2, 2013, 8:50 am

      I have been here two years and have an Ecuadorian friend who lived in the states and drives gringos and translates for them. He is trustworthy and charges $10 an hour.

      Orlando Siguenza
      Also check out and for rentals.


  • Jim Sep 12, 2013, 4:38 pm

    HI LISA:
    In the photo: Are you jumping for joy…or on the edge?

    • Lisa Sep 1, 2014, 11:21 am

      I am usually jumping due to perpetual sugar high from all the delicious fresh juice here. Carrot and papaya is awesome!

      • Jim Oct 13, 2014, 6:56 pm

        HI LISA: As to my earlier “jumping for joy” comment, after reading your comments on here it is very evident that you have both feet on the ground. As for the retirement at 30 (or 35), keep in mind it has not so much to do with age. Rather, whereabouts and presence of mind are the most important facets to examine prior to the decision. Of course it’s good to have your ducks in a row which is the fiscal facet of it all.

  • Jo Anna Sep 9, 2013, 9:48 pm

    On another note, I am curious about personal banking in Cuenca. How do you you choose a bank or financial institution? What is important to know? I still don’t understand about what happened at the Cooperativa that stopped paying for awhile. How does one manage her money? What about pensions …how are they handled? Thanks.

    • Lisa Sep 10, 2013, 2:39 pm

      I keep my money in the US, not Ecuador. I got a debit card which refunds ATM fees globally (Charles Schwab), and a credit card with no international fees (which normally run 3%).

      I would not put money in any of the cooperatives here, I just do not trust them although I know some gringos who do.

      • Janice Oct 5, 2016, 1:22 pm

        Lisa, what do you plan to do when the US banks fail? Are all your eggs in one basket?

    • Melita Vega Oct 2, 2013, 10:05 am

      The upper management at Coopera (president) were basically accused of money laundering as they were unable to justify large amounts of money being funnelled into the co-op’s coffers, hence so many people taking their money out of their accounts and the place going out of business.

      As an hybrid-expat myself (lived in Cuenca throughout my teens and early 20s and recently returned to live after a 10-year absence) I’d say stay away from most co-ops except for those with triple A ratings. A safe bet is to open an account in a long-standing bank like Banco Pichincha (among the very few that survived the banking crisis of the late 1990’s) and only transfer small amounts on an as-needed basis while you’re living here.

      • Bryan Haines Oct 2, 2013, 11:16 am

        I think you are generally correct about the fall of Coopera – but they didn’t go out of business. I believe that the government shut them down. It is an important distinction. In the news last week, they said that the best case scenario is that half of the $65 million due to investors will be returned. An Ecuadorian friend lost $300,000 and he was told that he would get none of it. To add insult to injury, they are still collecting on outstanding debts – they sold the debts to another financial group. So some investors who lost huge sums of money now still have to finish paying off their truck loan…

        • Gary Sisk Oct 2, 2013, 11:47 am

          I did read that out of 116,000 depositors 116 of them had 60% of the money. People with over $30,000 deposited and are over 65 with health issues are getting $30,000 of their deposits back.
          Correas said that Government money cannot be used for such things as paying the depositors back but did offer scholarships for the children of the depositors who are not getting their money back. He also said as of last year all these cooperetives must carry Government insurance.
          Also with the stores and restaurants still open they might be treated like creditors and could receive payments.
          That 10.5% – 12% interest sure way good while it lasted.

  • Stewart Sep 8, 2013, 9:56 am

    Hello Lisa,

    Great story! Really another great story shared by Bryan and Dena! Obviously you’re enjoying Cuenca life.
    Us expats are enjoying Cumbaya life and we’re planning to visit Cuenca in October.

  • Gary Sisk Sep 4, 2013, 7:56 pm

    I just had a couple from Ojai visit me, friends of a friend. Their rent in Ojai is $3400 a month! Ojai is high in nowadays. I also have a blog: AAA Living in Cuenca!
    We need to have coffee.

    • Lisa Sep 5, 2013, 1:39 pm

      Of course, shoot me an email through the contact form on my blog and we will get coffee.

  • Tim Sep 4, 2013, 5:34 pm

    Hi Lisa
    Where did you get your College degree Apostille from?

    • Lisa Sep 5, 2013, 1:41 pm

      I got it appostilled at the secretary if state office, check out my article on the professional residency visa, it’s ridiculously long and more detailed than I care to comment here.

  • Rebeca Sep 4, 2013, 8:56 am

    Hi Lisa,
    I spent this past winter in Cuenca. I was very glad to scape the harsh cold of the northeast winter. I loved Cuenca, so I am very much looking forward to going back. Glad that you choose Cuenca for you adventure, and maybe we can meet for coffee on my next trip there.

  • Gary and Marisol Snow Sep 4, 2013, 8:52 am

    Lisa or any reader,
    can you send me a rental contact person for an apartment? I can contact them by email or in person on arrival,

  • Gary and Marisol Snow Sep 4, 2013, 2:14 am

    My wife and I would like to rent a room in Cuenca from October to March. We are Peace Corps Community Economic Development advisors, leaving for post-Russia in April. Our apartment in Palm Beach Florida is rented as of October and we would like to go abroad before our P.C. assignment.
    I was a former Peace Corps (1991) Small Business Advisor in Santiago, Chile, S.A.
    My Spanish is rusty but my wife is bilingual, native of Medellin, Colombia, S.A.
    We both were owners of a tutoring company employing 31 teachers, tutoring 150 Grade 3 and 4 students in 20 Palm Beach schools. Our 6 year contract ended June 30 with the government, “No Child Left Behind”.
    We are physically active, Marisol is running a 5K marathon next week. I am a walker/swimmer. I am 77, she is 56, we have no children.
    We travel a lot, tent/camp along the ocean and would love to hear from you!

    • Lisa Sep 4, 2013, 12:04 pm

      Wow, a two time Peace Corps volunteer! Post Russia sounds like a crazy adventure. Cuenca will be a nice place to rest up before that.

    • Jane Oct 12, 2014, 2:33 pm

      Hi Gary and Marisol,

      Once upon a time I lived in Russia (born there), then I lived in the USA for 35 years, and then in Cuenca, for nearly 4.
      Would love to meet you in Cuenca. And, if you do not mind, would appreciate your info about becoming a Peace Corp Community Economic Development advisors In Russia and elsewhere 🙂

      Are you in Cuenca yet?

  • Jo Anna Sep 3, 2013, 9:36 pm

    Lisa, I loved your story! So glad you are enjoying beautiful Cuenca. Would you mind elaborating on your comment and tell why you love the river. Which river? I am a water person and hope to hear good things about it. How deep? Is it swimmable? Rowable….with kayaks or sculling? Fishing?? Thanks much.
    We plan to be there next summer, late June. Would love to catch up with you.

    • Lisa Sep 4, 2013, 12:01 pm

      I like the Tomebamba and the Yanuncay for walking paths, but it is not deep enough for kayaking or swimming, plus it’s way too cold! People go fishing in Cajas national park, an hour away.

  • William Herbert Sep 3, 2013, 3:11 pm

    I enjoyed your comments, all the more so because I, too, once lived in Ojai–in another life before moving to Portland, teaching for 21 years and retiring. After my wife retires, a visit to Ecuador will be in store.

    • Lisa Sep 4, 2013, 11:58 am

      Haha, you, me and Gary Sisk are going to have to form the Ojai-Cuenca Expats club!

  • Laura Lee Carter aka the Midlife Crisis Queen Sep 3, 2013, 1:16 pm

    Thanks for sharing your experiences here… I’m going to Cuenca next week just to check it out.

  • Yasandr Sep 3, 2013, 12:29 pm

    Thanks for sharing your insights into Cuenca, Lisa. My question is: what type of residency visa did you apply for? Thanks!

    • Lisa Sep 4, 2013, 11:57 am

      Professional visa, 9-V, since it requires a university degree but doesn’t require investment or a pension.

  • Gary Sisk Sep 3, 2013, 12:01 pm

    Lisa I am also from Ojai! Graduated from Nordhoff in 66′ when Ojai was just 5000!

    • Lisa Sep 4, 2013, 11:54 am

      No way!!! That is such a small world. I know someone else who lived in Santa Barbara too. Although people tend to like Ojai for the tranquilidad also (especially before all the LA tourists started piling in) so maybe not such a stretch.

      • Frances Wortham Oct 1, 2013, 6:03 pm

        Im also from Ojai ,coming to check ECUADOR FOR RETIREMENT.

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