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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.