When Ellen and I sit down to list our values, travel always makes our respective lists. Before we met, we both studied abroad in college. When we finally crossed paths at age 23, we met in Mexico where we were both spending several months to further our Spanish fluency.
During our first few months together in Mexico, we generally adhered to the standard safety precautions—travel in groups, don’t flash expensive items or large sums of money—but neither of us felt particularly unsafe there.
That last precaution was particularly easy since we didn’t really have large sums of money and Ellen’s camera was the only expensive item between the two of us.
Perhaps we were just naïve. At 23, I was still mostly immortal and can’t say I put much effort into researching crime risk. For example, Ellen and I slept on the beach in Playa del Carmen one night and the only precaution we took was tucking Ellen’s camera under a nearby stack of lawn chairs. I remember police officers waking us up a couple times that night telling us it wasn’t a good idea for us to be sleeping there.
However, when Ellen and I decided to start traveling with our young children, crime, along with pollution, became paramount considerations.
Somewhere in my research, I encountered the site The Earth Awaits. First, let me say this: what an amazing website name! The name alone provokes a burst of child-like joy inside me. I feel like Carl Fredricksen from the Pixar movie ‘Up’, in an exclusive adventure club with my very own Ellie.
Adventure is out there!
The Earth Awaits aggregates crime, pollution, and cost of living data from cities around the world for comparative research. Ultimately, The Earth Awaits is putting a slick modern interface on data it sources from Numbeo.com, another site for researching international travel destinations.
What Numbeo lacks in polish, it makes up for with additional bells and whistles. There’s more information available on Numbeo and more ways to filter and review it.
An important note is that Numbeo’s data are primarily crowd-sourced. As such, I didn’t think it should be our only source of information. Still, I found the sites above to be terrific resources for quickly narrowing down an entire planet to a few destinations to research further.
The CIA World Factbook and the CDC’s Traveler’s Health pages are certainly worth reviewing as well. Once we had narrowed our research down to a few cities, we also found it useful to spend some time reading through local online resources for the cities we were considering.
In the case of Cuenca, Ecuador, we found the site Gringo Post useful for getting a better feel for life here.
We ultimately traveled to Cuenca, Ecuador for 3 months last winter with a 2 year old and a 9 month old. Living in Cuenca worked well enough for our family that we’ve recently traveled back here to spend another winter in Ecuador while our home is rented out to a nice retired couple back in Colorado.
Living Abroad Allows You To Experience Other Cultural Traditions
This winter, we tried to arrive in time to witness the country’s infamous new year’s traditions like the burning of effigies in the streets.
However, our first flight was delayed by over 2 hours so we missed our scheduled connection. We were rescheduled onto a later flight which ended up also being delayed by over 2 hours.
I thought we’d be able to put our kids to bed in time to enjoy some wine and fireworks together while we watched for burning effigies in the streets from our hotel. Instead, our family counted down to the new year together from the baggage claim in Quito.
On the drive to our hotel, there were still a few spontaneous fireworks displays and we saw the remnants of several effigies still burning in the streets—pretty surreal!
Did we increase our family’s risk by arriving in time for city-wide amateur fireworks displays and thousands of makeshift structure fires in the streets?
Perhaps. But trivially and we got to (partially) witness a uniquely Ecuadorian tradition.
Wouldn’t We Be Safer If We Stayed At Home?
Perhaps. But risk is everywhere. I don’t subscribe to the commonly held assumption that a place is safer because you spend most of your time there, or that a place is more dangerous because you don’t.
We certainly don’t take it lightly that our children depend on us to keep them safe. At the same time, we’d like to share with them our appreciation for the world beyond our country’s borders (or for that matter, our state’s borders and our city’s borders).
Here’s how crime in Cuenca, Ecuador compares to two metropolitan areas in the U.S: Denver and Dallas.
I realize that Cuenca’s metropolitan area has a population of approximately 700,000 while Denver and Dallas’ metropolitan areas number in the millions, but a comparison like this still gives me the confidence that we aren’t taking unnecessary risks with our family’s safety.
According to Numbeo, Cuenca’s crime index of 38.82 compares favorably to Dallas’ crime index of 45.24 and comparably to Denver’s crime index of 37.78.
Here’s how pollution in Cuenca compares with Denver and Dallas:
Living Abroad Is A Great Way To Learn Languages
Last winter, our son spent 2 of our 3 months in an Ecuadorian preschool where he was the only person in the school that wasn’t a native Spanish speaker. A couple of his ‘tias’ at the school spoke English and could give him instructions in English if necessary.
Granted, he was two years old. But through this exposure to both languages, he did pick up some Spanish. He said “rio” before “river” and “ciao” before “bye,” for example.
Additionally, we noticed several breakthroughs in his English. It was as if throwing him into this environment with both languages made him pay a lot more attention to language in general.
This winter, we’ve enrolled both of our kids in the same preschool. They won’t become fluent speakers through consecutive winters of Spanish immersion, but I expect they’ll pick up quite a bit.
This kind of immersive Spanish education would be difficult to recreate in our home town and prohibitively expensive for us even if we could. Here in Ecuador, we’re paying $268 per month to have both of our kids enrolled in preschool five days a week.
Adventure Is Right There!
Spending our last two winters in Cuenca, Ecuador has been a good fit for our family, not least because it lets us see our lives at home with fresh eyes.
Simply put, living abroad gives us a deeper appreciation for living at home.
While I disagree with the commonly held idea that elsewhere is more dangerous than here, there’s another travel fallacy I’d like to quickly address as well.
If you don’t have the opportunity (or desire) to travel abroad, this spirit of adventure can be applied to your own backyard with a little more conscious effort. Just consider that your everyday environment would be someone else’s grand adventure.
An Ecuadorian plopped down in the middle of a Michigan winter might say something like this:
“Snow! I’ve never seen snow! Living in a temperate climate with seasons is amazing! Let’s go play in the snow! I want to try ice skating.”
How many of your area’s “tourist destinations” have you not got around to visiting yet? Hike, explore, volunteer. Dig deeper in your own surroundings with a visitor’s eyes. See if you can provoke some of that child-like wonder without the need to travel 4,000 miles and let us know how it goes.