Well, where to begin. Vilcabamba and Loja are very different. First Vilcabamba.
Vilcabamba (the town) is very small and most people live in the surrounding valley. It is teaming with expats from North America, Europe, and Australia. Because most expats bring in money, the place reminds me of small towns around military bases overseas. The town basically lives off the foreigners and, as such, everything is way overpriced. Land, food, everything is much more than the average Ecuadorian costs. Keep in mind that about 60% of Ecuadorians live under the poverty level. So, people do not have money to support a lot of business. Yet, you have expats piled into Vilcabamba all trying to make enough money to live on. Naturally, they are trying to make money off each other because, first, they are the ones with money, and second, most speak English. I chose to live in Ecuador because of the Ecuadorian culture and people. That is not the norm in Vilcabama, and therefore it is not a place I would live. I am being very frank here, and apologize to those who think I may have intended to insult them, I have no such intentions, but nor do I wish to sugar-coat anything.
The most positive aspect of Vilcabama is the weather. Again, keep in mind that, generally speaking, there is no heating or cooling in Ecuadorian homes. So, it is very nice that the days in Vilcabamba are often in the high 70s (Fahrenheit) so the home says very comfortable yea round. Vilcabamba is about 45 minutes from Loja, and vans and cabs that make regular trips are easy to find. A lot of people come to Loja for shopping since shopping in Vilcabama is quite limited.
Loja is the quintessential Ecuadorian Andean town. Its elevation is about 7000 feet and the population is about 110 thousand. But, physically, it is not that large. Like most Andean towns, it is located in a valley. I can walk long end (N to S) in about an hour, and the narrow width (E to W) in about 15 minutes if you just count the valley floor. But houses do spread up the mountainside, and that takes a lot of walking. But, getting around is very easy. Cabs are a dollar to any part of the city, and busses are 25 cents.
There are few foreigners here. As I mention, most are just visiting from Vilcabamba, or passing through as they head to other parts of Ecuador. Loja has no malls, but it does have a movie theatre, and a SuperMaxi (a American style grocery store that most foreigners frequent). Very few people speak English in Loja. The weather here is nice (low 70s day, 50s at night), but about three weeks of the year, I wish there were heating. Surprisingly, costs here are higher than the larger cities, but Cuenca is only three hours from here. A van is about $12 and the bus about $6. So, it is easy to go to Cuenca for the day to buy more expensive items at a lower cost. Stores will deliver larger items (like a stove) to your home in Loja for a reasonable price.
Apartments here are typically 1-bedroom, or 3 or more. But, with a little looking, you can get a 2-bedroom for about $200 to $220, more or less depending on location. Apartments do not supply stoves, refrigerators, or washing machines; you have to buy your own. That will run about $1100 up. Homes and apartments here are hard to define. Every city block is solidly built with everything sharing walls. Usually, there are no yards. I suppose a house comprises all the floors in a structure and an apartment is only some of the floors. Within Loja, houses start about $50 K and in the center of town, extend beyond $400K. Of course, location, size, and condition affect price. Most homes only have hot water in the bathrooms for showers, and, as mentioned, no heating or cooling. Electricity is about $30 per month, water $20, phone $10, Internet $20 to 40. Stoves are bottled gas only, and gas cost about $4 per month. As always, prices vary with consumption.
Snakes are not common here. If fact, there are few pests of any type. I rarely see bugs in the house. But, occasionally, I pick up fleas somewhere, and have to wash all my linens and towels and clean the room. No rugs here, all tile or concrete. A little cleaning usually fixes everything. The City is safe, but you do have to be carefully crossing the streets. A elderly couple was killed a few weeks ago and I was glad to see crosswalks with green and red lights and countdown timers showing up for the first time on some major streets. Ecuador is very good at addressing problems when thet occur. The Government often shows real interest in the welfare of the people.
I havenít made the trip to the coast, but the bus terminal has busses to everywhere and the cost is very low. Busses are generally safe. Since most people travel by bus, they have evolved very good manors on busses and I find most bus trips pleasant. However, the 12-hour bus ride to Quito is quite tiring. Still, it is amazing how people handle it. The bus leaves at 8 pm and arrives in Quito about 8 am. Most people pretty much sleep through the ride and seem well conditioned to stay in their seat the whole time. I am up at least twice to use the bathroom. The cost of the Quito bus is $22.
Also, you may want to look at Cuenca. It is very lovely, but a bit too cold and rainy for my tastes. But, there is a large expat community there with regular meetings, so there is lots of help available.
If you want more information, give me a way to contact you and we can communicate. I donít spend a lot of time on this blog because once you post showing you have information, you get thousands of questions. I just donít have the time for that. But, if you are serious about coming to Loja, I can certainly help you before you arrive and after. (I will also post that information on this blog for others to read.) There arenít a lot of people here in Loja to help you.
Like any major change in life, there are a few things you need to do before you actually come here and apply for a visa. The requirements change all the time, but I can point you to the right agencies to get the latest information. It really isnít cheaper to live here in terms of the cost of things. In fact, some things are very expensive here. The cost savings mostly comes from three areas. Basic necessities (housing and basic foods) are less. There is no need for a car and all itís expenses. There are no heating or cooling costs. You must have at least $800 a month (last I checked) income to apply for permanent residency for retirees, but I think you really need about $1000 to live comfortably, $1,500 to live well. Please take into account that what I have written is strictly my opinion and others will have other opinions. I miss many of the conveniences of the U.S., but the people and culture here are worth the sacrifices. People are easy-going, happy and smiling. I love that there children everywhere and people actually are out and about walking. In America, the sidewalks are usually empty and the streets congested with cars. Lots of luck on your future adventure.