Plan B in effect

Okay, here’s the deal after a week of serious thought: Visiting Ecuador was like trying to fall in love with someone you like an awful lot.  You can rationalize all you want, but in the end the heart wants what it wants.

That being said, if you followed our trip and were planning one of your own, I would encourage you to follow through with it.  Ecuador is a beautiful country full of great people.  Our two biggest hangups–if you want me to drill down into the matter–are distance/travel issues and concerns over the needs of my 82-year-old dad.

The distance thing is pretty self-explanatory.  It’s in another hemisphere.  That would not be a problem all by itself if the travel weren’t quite so expensive (twice the cost of Honduras, for instance).  It also took four separate flights each way, which gave us way too many opportunities to miss connections.  We ended up missing a total of two; one on the way down, one on the way back. Then there were the extra customs and immigration hassles in places like Panama City, the final destination countries, and–for reasons I still don’t understand–even as we departed Ecuador.  In fact that last one was good for three full hours of standing in lines.  Had we arrived the standard two hours in advance, we would have been standing in Meaningless Zig-Zag Line Number Three about the time our plane was taking flight.  All totaled it was more than 30 hours each way.

Even if I wanted to do that every time I needed to come home to see family or meet face-to-face on a writing project, I can’t ask my dad to do it, even once.

Bottom line, we all agreed that in order to move that far away–at least initially–we needed to literally be in love with our destination.  Instead, we sure liked Ecuador a lot.  It had a great personality.

Chalk this up in the “due diligence” column.  Plan B details currently in the making.  For what it’s worth, the October target date has not moved.

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Another business idea

Sorry for the lag in posts over the past few days.  We are definitely back in the “rat race” now and there’s been almost no time to think about anything but catching up on things back home.  Still, I had what I think is a really solid business idea for anyone thinking of moving to Latin America with a little bit of start-up cash.

When we met that couple on the beach in Manta, one of the things I was surprised to hear was that rental homes and apartments almost never come with appliances.  No refrigerator, stove, washing machine, etc.  Instead, this couple–and apparently most others–were forced to purchase their own.  Add the fact that appliances tend to be one of the few expensive categories down there and the typical shoe-string expat has himself a little problem.  Not to mention the notion of having to move them every time he relocates.  Then of course, there’s always the thought in the back of a recent expat’s mind that this whole foray out of the First World may not stick in the first place. 

It seems like a no-brainer, but what about an appliance rental business?  If you were in an area that had a significant and/or growing expat community, your customer base would be ready made.  If you were handy with a wrench, you could handle repairs and maintenance yourself.  Otherwise, you’ve got a whole country full of low-cost employees who are used to keeping things running one way or another, rather than simply disposing of them American-style.

This would be a completely scalable business model, also, meaning you could start small and expand as demand and cash flow allowed.

I can’t imagine not using a business like that–at list initially–if it existed.  Which tells me there are probably many others who would do the same.  Assuming, of course, that your prices and policies weren’t completely obnoxious. 

Anyway, just a thought.  I considered keeping it to myself, then I realized there are 20 Latin American countries.  If you count Suriname.

Ecuador’s Report Card

I understand that it’s not exactly fair for a guy to visit a country for two little weeks then presume to pass judgment.  Still, the best way I can think of to convey how Coastal Ecuador performed–as compared with my own preconceptions–is to break it down into individual subjects.  So, for what it’s worth, this is my report card for the Coastal Zone of Ecuador.

People:  A+

They are patient, they are friendly and, for a relatively poor population, they are surprisingly positive.  Knowing only a little bit of Spanish would have been a huge problem had these people not been willing to play along until comprehension was achieved.  When you ask a restaurant owner where you might find a hostel, rather than pointing and blurting out something unintelligible, he calls for his son and tells him to walk us the four blocks.  Along the way, you learn that the son knows some English from watching American movies and he learns that you’re way out of your element.  So when you get to the hostel, he takes it upon himself to negotiate a $15 room for you.  What makes all this even more impressive is the fact that these people do not live on the tourist track, which means they have not been trained to kiss our lily white asses for the sake of making an extra buck.  Instead, they come by their manners and good humor naturally.  It is who they are. 

Weather: B-

This one is my fault.  I didn’t do enough research here.  I assumed, maybe the way you did, that since Ecuador is on the Equator it must be sunny and warm every day, at least on the coast.  It’s not.  This is a cooler time of year down there, and we spent plenty of time walking around in cloudy and windy conditions.  The last couple of days in Crucita and Manta were much warmer than the first week and a half.  And on those days, you’d better have your sunscreen handy.  The one thing I did appreciate, regardless of the temperature, was the low humidity.  Also, the almost constant breeze coming off the ocean made bugs and mosquitoes pretty much a non-factor.

Food: C+

Don’t get me wrong here.  It was good and the ingredients couldn’t have been fresher.  The problem for us was the lack of variety.  Seafood tastes good, and is good for you.  I get that.  But we were all three surprised at how every restaurant featured the same handful of options.  Fish, shrimp, prawns or octopus prepared as a soup, ceviche, or straight up breaded and fried.  Sides are always white rice–with or without lentils–and fried plantains.  Like the rice, the bread is always white.  The butter is not butter.  Even in the grocery store, we only found margarine.  Ordering beef was a roll of the dice.  When you get sick of seafood you go with the pollo.

Safety: A-

We never felt unsafe at any time along the trip, except when one of our taxi drivers would pass a bus on blind corner while fiddling with the radio.  In fact, had I managed to get out of a taxi without Diana’s white finger marks still embossed in my arm, Ecuador would have earned an A in this category.  We were warned about petty theft several times but experienced none of it.  Our Apple notebook computers and iPhones did earn a few extra head-turns, but we got the feeling they were more curious than anything.  In the interest of full disclosure, one expat couple did tell us they and their friends have been hit up for their cell phones and bags a time or two.  They said the best way to address it is to simply use cheap cell phones and keep ten bucks in a wallet that’s ready to hand over.  He described the encounters as surprisingly matter-of-fact and non-violent, “Almost apologetic.” 

Nightlife: D

Except for Montanita, we found very little after dark fun to be had.  This was particularly surprising in a country where the sun goes down at 6:30 every night of the year.  Dedicated bars we rare to non-existent.  Instead, we’d find ourselves having a nightcap in a restaurant.  Even if it weren’t about the drinking, a little more evening recreation would have been nice.  Like other Latin American cultures, people do tend to come out at night, but they hang out in family groups and pretty much keep to themselves.  We missed the almost nightly fiestas and community gatherings we’d gotten used to when visiting Mexico in the past.  Ecuadorian’s are very family oriented, which I respect immensely.  But I’m starting to understand why expats tend to throw a lot of potlucks behind those gates. 

Cost of Living: A-

I’ve already written plenty about this in my last post.  Still, I should add that since then, Di and I did manage to lay eyes on a 2-bedroom apartment that was available in Manta for $260.  It was not pretty.  Yes, it was just three blocks from a great beach, but it had no windows and was largely constructed of cement.  The family that owned it lived next door and were, of course, extremely nice people.  But the bottom line is I would have been hard-pressed to pay $260 for that place even in the first world.  I understand that this leaves you with more questions than answers.  I wish we had dedicated time to looking at what a $600 ocean view was like.  If anyone can shed light on this, I’d appreciate it. 

Beaches: B

Most beaches in Ecuador fell into one of three categories.  There was the long stretch of empty sand just waiting to be turned into a postcard.  There was the slightly more crowded beach along the front street of any number of small towns.  And there was popular beach in a larger area, complete with $3 cabana rentals and shave ice vendors.   Each had its plusses and minuses.  Small town beaches were, by far, the most littered.  More popular ones were super clean but, by definition, more crowded.  One other weird little observation: the sand on the beaches is so fine, it is easily picked up and churned in the waves as they come ashore.  This results in brownish, sandy water rolling in.  Not a huge problem, but a difference worth noting.

Transportation:  B+

If you’ve followed my blog the past week or two, you already know that getting around is cheap and interesting.  At times a little too interesting.  Taxi drivers are for the most part as polite as everyone else in Ecuador, but they do like to collect that fare as soon as humanly possible.  This means crazy passing maneuvers on blind uphill curves, lots of honking, and dodging in and out of traffic.  Busses are a fun and interesting way to observe some local culture.  Within larger towns, motorcycle carriages and even bicycle carriages serve as taxis for .50 cents a ride.  As far as longer distance goes, an expat told us about a luxury liner bus that will take you to Lima, Peru, for instance, for just $20.  I’m not sure why anyone would need to own a car here. 

Business Opportunies:  A

Again, I’ve written quite a bit about this already.  The bottom line here is that this country is trying very hard to pull itself out of poverty and provide some modern comforts to its people.  I believe there are an almost endless number of businesses that have already proven themselves in the First World, and would be welcomed with open arms down here. 

So what am I going to do about it?  That’s another post.  For now I’ve got a big, fat American meal hitting the table. 

The world’s dollar store

Cuantos?  It’s the biggest question of all. How much to rent an apartment, buy a car, purchase internet service, grab a taxi, drink a beer, eat dinner out, eat dinner in, etc.  The answer isn’t always a slam dunk, but with just one more day until we get back on a plane, I’m starting to get a better feel for most of it. 

Your biggest expense of all will most likely be an apartment, condo or house.  We have not been looking to buy right off the bat, so we’ve had more conversations about rental costs.  Here’s the thing to know: the prices you are seeing on the Internet are by and large the sucker price.  We’ve been so confused by the $800, $1,200 and even $2,200 rental prices on the Internet that we really didn’t bother having a closer look.  Then yesterday afternoon, we ran into an expat couple from Lake Tahoe, Nevada.   Sitting on a beautiful reproduction of Venice Beach, California, we talked for nearly an hour while locals kept us supplied with chilled coconuts and beer.   Bottom line: this 50-something couple rents “a great two-bed, two-bath apartment,” just three blocks from the beach we were sitting on for $200/month.   I shit you not.  Apparently, the three bedroom version will set you back $250.   

Given that there are no real heating or cooling costs here, their next biggest expense is Internet, which does pack a punch.  For 10 mb/second broadband they pay $110/month.  That sounds expensive until you tack it on to your monthly rent and realize that all of your fixed expenses are taken care of for a little more than $300.  And it’s good, reliable broadband.  They use it to Skype with their young adult kids as well as teach English for hours at a time, each day. 

That being said, if you just have to have oceanfront with a balcony facing the water, it’s going to set you back some.  Here in Manta, they know a couple that pays $1,500.  In Salinas we talked to an expat who said you can rent a penthouse condo facing the ocean for as low as $800/month.  If you drop down a few floors, you’re looking at more like $3-$500. 

I wish we had spent a little time physically walking through rental spaces to get a feel for the quality available, but regardless I think it’s safe to say there are deals to be had.  Here are some more costs we incurred and/or heard about, in no particular order:

24 oz. Equadorian Pilsener beer (restaurant, bar or beach service)  $1.50

12 oz. Pilsener $1.00

Continental breakfast (coffee, fresh squeezed juice, bread, butter and jam) $2.50

Typical fresh fish or shrimp lunch entrée $3

Typical fresh fish or shrimp dinner entrée $5

One expat’s “week’s worth of produce” $4.30

Taxi ride anywhere in town $1

1 hour taxi ride up the coast $20 (most likely negotiable, although we didn’t)

2-3 hour bus ride up the coast $3

Seat on express van from Manta to Guayaquil International (3 hours) $10

Chicken bus to anywhere it’s going, if you dare $1

Month of basic cell phone service $5-$10

Fresh warm pastries, cinnamon rolls, bread, etc.  .10-.20 cents

2 star fruits from a street vendor .5 cents

Fillet mignon in a nice restaurant $12

Long Island iced tea $4

Any standard mixed drink, except whiskey $3

Whiskey drink $10

Bottle of Jim Beam $99

10 Ibuprofen (prescription required, oddly enough, but we found a guy) $2.50

Now, as far as the cost of visiting/scouting/vacationing here goes, Diana and I spent an average of $100 a day.  That covers a room at anywhere from $15-40 per night, taxi or bus travel almost every day, all meals from restaurants, a few drinks in the evening, and the occasional knick-knack, late night ice cream, cabana rental, etc.   In other words, there wasn’t anything we wanted and did not buy.  All totaled, by the time we’re back on the plane tomorrow we will have spent $1,300 in 13 days (not counting airfare).  If you chose not to travel around as much as we did, you could save much more in taxi fares and, most likely, room rates.  We did not negotiate rooms because we’re on vacation and the language thing was enough to deal with.  But if I knew we were coming to stay in one place for a week or so, my guess is we could have averaged $15-$18 a night for something nice. 

So that’s the story on costs.  For the record, whenever we asked expats what brought them down here, the answer was almost always “Cost of living.”  Bottom line, if you’re thinking what I’m thinking, you’re not just dreaming.  It can be done. 

Hanging up the tie

We met a great restaurant owner here in Crucitas. He is Ecuadorian and moved here from Quito about seven months ago to hang up his tie. It is literally on display behind the bar his girls run while he enthusiastically serves customers all afternoon and evening long. His food is a step above and his drinks come equipped with “Crazy Straws.” He speaks at least Spanish and English–but I suspect several others–and he has two English menus on-hand for those occasional gringo visitors. A great success story demonstrating how a little extra attention can be all it takes in Coastal Ecuador. The restaurant is called Motumbo. If you ever go there, be sure to order the banana daiquiri. It comes complete with an extra shot of banana liquor served in a shot glass made from a banana.

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