Cumbayá–Beautiful, Idyllic, Peaceful Alternative to Quito…and One of Ecuador's Hottest Real Estate Markets to Boot
by Dan Prescher and Suzan Haskins
Quito is a surprise the first time you see it. The hub of political, economic, and cultural activity in Ecuador, it is not the backwater you might imagine but a sprawling city of glass and steel skyscrapers, high-rise hotels, and U.S.-like shopping malls. Unlike in most other cities, even capital cities, in this part of the world, you don't have to go far to find a good restaurant. And there are concert halls, theaters, museums, and other cultural venues that rival any in the world.
There are also traffic jams, long lines, and pollution. In Quito, you can shop and dine, enjoy a night at the symphony or an afternoon at an artist's opening, but, for many, those advantages don't make up for the day-to-day challenges of living in a crowded city shrouded many days in a fog of diesel fumes.
In the past few years, Ecuador's population has shifted from 80% rural/20% urban to an even 50/50 split. Quito now has a population of 1.3 million, and its infrastructure is groaning under the weight of thousands of new people coming to the city seeking opportunities. Since dollarization, Ecuador's economy has been growing fast. Inflation is down, and the soon-to-be-completed oil pipeline will double the country's oil revenues, which already account for nearly half its domestic economy. Money is moving in Ecuador, and people are following it to Quito, bringing increased urban congestion with them.
The ideal would be to live close enough to Quito to take advantage of all it has to offer, yet far enough away to escape the noise, crunching rush-hour traffic, and growing pollution. The Quito area offers several excellent options that fit the bill for suburban living, and one of the best is Cumbayá.
Quito occupies a long north-south valley between two Andean ridges. Stand at the corner of Av. 12 de Octubre and Gonzalez Suarez or look out the back windows of the Hotel Quito, and you can gaze through a break in the eastern ridge straight down into the valley of Cumbayá, spread like a green carpet below. Just a 20-minute drive from the heart of downtown Quito, the valley of Cumbayá feels like a quiet and expansive world away. And because it's several hundred feet lower than Quito, Cumbayá is warmer and dryer to boot.
Cumbayá has become the location of choice for a growing number of English, German, American, and other expats who want good quality of life yet need to be close to Quito for business or access to services. Because of this, construction is booming and prices are rising, meaning Cumbayá is not only one of the area's most desirable places to live, but an excellent area to invest in real estate as well.
Guápulo–gateway to Cumbayá
Cumbayá is connected by excellent roads to Quito, the nearby valleys of Tumbaco and Los Chillos, and to the Pan-American Highway. But by far the most enjoyable way to reach the valley is through Guápulo, an ancient settlement turned artist community clinging to the steep slopes outside Quito's eastern valley wall. The Guápulo road starts just north of Hotel Quito, and as soon as you make the turn, the road begins to snake down the valley wall in a series of twists and switchbacks, lined with small, tidy private homes, restaurants, and shops of painters, sculptors, and other artists who have taken up living on the precipitous hillsides.
At the most acute turn in the road is the famous church of Guápulo, four centuries old and the site of many weddings of well-to-do Quiteños. The church and its former convent was the founding site of the School of Quito, and works of many of Ecuador's best-known 17th-century artists can still be seen here. The turn at the church is so sharp that there is often someone standing at the corner trying to make a few cents by directing traffic, waving cars through with a rag or handkerchief when there is enough room.
Farther down, outside the village proper, the road is lined with gated communities or conjuntos, where condos have been built into the hillsides to take advantage of the breathtaking views into the valley. We found an extraordinary apartment in one such conjunto.
An amazing condo for $97,000
A tiny entrance and parking area off the driveway led into an amazing condo, all windows on the valley side. Each of the four levels had a balcony on the valley side as well, making the front of the apartment a four-story high atrium. The conjuntos featured a swimming pool and clubhouse too. The asking price was a negotiable $97,000.
Cumbayá, old and new
Farther down the valley the road crosses the Machángara River and leads into the new section of the town of Cumbayá. It's here that you're stuck by the influence of the many expats living in the area. The road becomes a large, divided boulevard with landscaped center islands. Both sides of the boulevard are lined for blocks with names any American would recognize–Ace Hardware, One-Hour Martenizing, McDonald's, Radio Shack, Pizza Hut. Even the local businesses cater to North American ways…SuperMaxi has one of its largest and best-stocked grocery stores in the country here, and the Fybeca pharmacy is open 24 hours.
This is not the place to look for open-air fruit markets, traditional lunches, or tiny corner tiendas. You'll have to travel half a mile down the road for that, past the roundabout the locals call Las Banistas after the large cement sculpture of bathing women in its center. Here, you'll find Old Cumbayá, a small, traditional Ecuadorian town with everything you'd need including restaurants where the locals spend their long lunch hours getting filled to the brim for just a few dollars. We had lunch in one picked at random and spent $2.50 for a plate of fritada (succulent fried pork), choclo (corn on the cob), avocados, plantains, steamed yucca, and boiled potatoes that could have easily fed three people–or one person eating for two hours…the usual Ecuadorian style of lunch.
One of the hottest real estate markets
Construction of high-quality housing proceeds at an ever-increasing pace. Not only are expats choosing Cumbayá as a suburban alternative to Quito–many moneyed Ecuadorians are moving here as well, making it one of the hottest real estate markets around. And, incidentally, one of the safest and best-maintained areas of the country.
Just west of Cumbayá's large park-like reservoir is Hacaranda, a large, gated urbanización of beautiful homes. We saw a magnificent home, built in modern rustic style, with three bedrooms, a family room with a fireplace and a wet bar, downstairs study, skylights, a fully landscaped yard, and a balcony with a stunning view of the mountains for $220,000.
The small secondary roads that wind throughout the area lead to dozens of such urbanización. Each one has its distinctive character. Some feature town homes, some million-dollar homes on huge lots. One extraordinary place we visited looked like something out of Beverly Hills–a secluded, gated development with a sophisticated 4,000-square-foot home sitting on 1/3 acre of landscaped property. An elegant, modern swimming pool and an indoor handball court is shared by only five homes in this development. The asking price, always negotiable, was $280,000. The same home in a similar development in any large American city would fetch half a million dollars.
Not all caviar and champagne
However, it's not all caviar and champagne–you can find steak and potatoes as well. Down another winding road a bit farther out of town, we found a fenced acre of beautiful land next to a stream with a four-year-old 2,370-square-foot house and a small guesthouse for only $125,000.
It was out here in the valleys that we saw our favorite homes of all–not in a development, but on the grounds of the Fausto family hacienda. This family of architects runs a company called Barro Viejo. We've talked about them before. They'll build all-natural homes that combine the best of modern conveniences with traditional Ecuadorian style and craftsmanship. Constructed with a cement-straw building system, the design details are slick and inviting: recessed lights in the walls, rounded breezeways, natural stone showers and fireplaces, lots of exposed wooden beams for warmth and strength, and cozy, step-down chiminéa areas where the family can all meet around a warm fire.
The building cost (including the design) is less than $30 per square foot. They'll build anywhere in Ecuador, but one of these Barro Viejo beauties on a big lot near Cumbayá would be something to dream about. Land close to town is at a premium, and most of it is long spoken for by developers, but just a bit farther out, you can still find deals.
For information about Barro Viejo “earth homes,” contact Barro Viejo (Acosta Fausto), tel. (593)2-2- 374-258 or (593)2-2-372-888. These architects do beautiful work, but they speak little English so you may need an interpreter.
If you are looking for a real estate agent in the Quito/Cumbayá area, we highly recommend Angie de La Paz. Angie speaks fluent English and she has experience with English-speaking clients, especially Americans. Angie has helped many U.S. Embassy employees, stationed in Quito, find homes. Contact Angie de La Paz, tel. (593)2-260-264; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other recommended real estate agents in Quito include:
- Margarita Perez, tel. (593)09-843-523; e-mail: email@example.com. Margarita speaks very good English.
- Frave Real Estate Company (Gonzalo Vela or Manuel Iturrey), Avenue Coruña 1609; tel. (593)2-2-504-156 or (593)2-2-563-346; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; website: www.ecuainternet.com. Gonzalo's English is not great but someone in his office will certainly be able to help.
It's true, the days of pennies-on-the-dollar real estate in and around Quito are gone. The country is simply doing too well. Cumbayá is living, thriving proof of Ecuador's burgeoning success. The next commercial project for the area isn't just another SuperMaxi–it's a MegaMaxi! And we've just learned that a hospital to rival the best medical centers in Quito is breaking ground soon just outside town.
But we believe this is just a prelude–the boom is still on the upswing. It's taken a long time for Ecuador to climb back to its current point…basically level ground. It looks like she'll keep right on climbing from here for at least the next three to five years. Business is picking up. The banks are much more secure. The pipeline is coming. We think that makes an investment in quality real estate, especially in the red-hot Cumbayá area, a good bet for significant appreciation. It's not the cheapest real estate in the world, but it's certainly some of the most desirable in this market for the foreseeable future. The time is right for Cumbayá.
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