What Life is Really Like in Ecuador

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Editor’s Note:

In the following article Nancy Levin from Finding our Paradise in Ecuador shares why she and her husband moved to Ecuador and what it is REALLY like to be an Expat. This article has gotten rave reviews on some of the blogs lately so I thought I would post it for you here. Thanks Nan for a great article!  Tim McMahon~ editor

When we decided to move Joe found me standing in the middle of our living room not knowing which way to turn, where to start was almost impossible for my brain to understand….you need to get rid of everything!!!! WHAT! I was a possession person, not that I loved my possessions over people but what would I, could I do without my STUFF!!! That is what I am taking about in the soul searching — it was so hard for my mind to grasp the thought of moving with a few suitcases and a few boxes…Now I can do anything, because I do not have all this STUFF to drag around with me…it is quite freeing or cathartic as some folks would say!

A Moving Decision

By Nancy Levin

Since our move to Ecuador a few years ago, we’ve seen lots of new faces and met many folks that moved here from their hometowns in the states and Canada. We have then seen some of those folks leave because they were unprepared for the differences between back home and Ecuador. This past week I heard of two more couples heading back to the states. Some of us had little choice in our move due to financial considerations versus quality of life and came with eyes and minds open to embrace the differences and make them work. Others came simply because they felt that they would find more happiness somewhere else… Everyone’s illusions of a place are different, some are unrealistic, some based in fact and reasonable. And a lot depends on your money situation and if you go city or country. But expectations play a big part.

I have no interest either way as to whether folks move to Ecuador or not except to maybe have them as friends.  I do not sell real estate, am not developing a condo project nor will I ever try to sell you Avon. Joe and I have lived outside of the USA for over six years. The reason we moved was totally based on need. If we had the money, a home that was paid off or near being paid off, in an area that we considered safe and health insurance we would never have left the US.  We left because we could not live there on Joe’s social security alone. To be able to maintain a simple lifestyle there I had to work a big full-time job, that job required that I be away from Joe for somewhere between 10 and 12 hours per day. This was not acceptable and that was a job that actually was paying for our insurances: medical, life, home, cars and leaving little for savings or our eventual retirement.  It was a difficult decision because back then there was little written up about moving out of the country and actually I don’t remember one blog about anyone’s adventures in a foreign country. It was a leap of faith, based on many factors but mostly it all came down to money. How much did we need to live comfortably outside the US?

There are many compelling reasons to make a move to Ecuador. All the hoopla you have heard or read about being able to live here on $500 a month, have a full-time maid and gardener and go out on the town almost every night spending pennies to eat like kings and queens, Yeah right!!! If that is the reason you are moving DON’T DO IT ! Because the above statements are false and misleading. Yes, some things in Ecuador are less expensive that is if you don’t need Jiffy Peanut Butter or Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, these items are made in the US and shipped great distances to be stocked at your local Super Maxi.  If instead, you can live out of a tienda or the public mercado you can eat well for much less than what you would pay in the US. A friend living in Northern Florida just told me a few days ago that Sea Bass is $39.99 per pound at Publix supermarkets.

In our little town (can’t speak for city living here – that would be someone else’s blog)  this is what we find. A big city – Quito, Cuenca etc. will have greater availability and different prices. As we have no interest in city living at this point in our lives, we will tell you what we know from our little town life.

Here you can buy fresh (right out of the sea fresh) corvina (sea bass) for $3 per pound. Are you going to find every fish variety you are used to? No. Will the mercado carry all the vegetables you love? No. Can you live here without white asparagus, morel mushrooms, A&W Root Beer or fresh turkey legs? If you answered Yes, you will probably be happy in small town Ecuador. If you require that your supermarket carry all your favorites everyday you will be sadly disappointed. The other big item that everyone needs to be aware of is that most tiendas have very little processed food items, there is no freezer section with TV type dinners the exception may be a small freezer for ice cream, there are very few canned or boxed goods available and what is available is high-priced. This is an area of the country that cooks from scratch. The bigger supermarket chains like Super Maxi carry many US products but the price may shock you compared to what you paid in the states and again their canned, boxed and frozen sections are very limited yet hold much more than a local tienda would, could or ever will.

It was culture shock going back to cooking from scratch. It is time-consuming, hard work and if you are not interested in cooking you will find it very difficult to survive here. Yes, for a time you will eat at the local restaurants and probably completely enjoy that freedom. In time eating fish prepared the same way at all the restaurants may bore you and your memory foods will call to you. Not a bad thing mind you,  but they will need to be made from scratch. You may not be able to find the spices or condiments that you once used. In our experience it is very difficult and expensive to ship from the US to the small towns so that was not an option for us. Making several trips a week to Guayaquil to the big supermarkets was not particularly appealing to us – 5 hours in buses plus another  half hour or so in taxis each time.  Making my own pickled jalapenos, hot pepper salads, bread & butter pickles came naturally from a desire to make our house feel like home. Preparing broths, sauces and spice blends from scratch also became a given! Today I spend much less time than I did in the beginning because I have learned how to buy, freeze, cook, pickle, more efficiently.  If you like to can things, don’t be surprised when you cannot find canning jars, lids or rings.  Need parchment paper, not in Playas! Looking for a silicone cookie sheet liner, not even found in my travels around Guayaquil.  Need an oven temperature gauge, I had my friend Joe bring it from the US on his last visit because I checked out several of the bigger stores in Guayaquil and found nothing. These things were not deal breakers for us, but to some it could dramatically effect how you handle everyday life in Ecuador or any other country that is not your native country. THIS is not the USA, what you expect to find on the store shelves is almost never the reality.

Do you need a great deal of outside stimulation?  If you answered Yes, your city choices shrink considerably because you are not going to find opera or the symphony on the beach in Salinas or Playas, nor will you find Lord & Taylor or Macy’s around the corner.  Yes, if you live in Cuenca or Quito you will find many of the activities that you have enjoyed back in the states as well as bigger stores for your shopping but most areas of this country are poor and have little of the things you take for granted in the states. No Wendy’s all night drive thru or Starbucks or Denny’s. Of course most of the time we think that’s a GOOD thing!

When we were first looking into moving out of the US we did a great deal of soul-searching, individually and collectively. First we thought about what we were looking for individually. I had this idea in my head like in the movies you see of the woman in France or maybe Italy, carrying her groceries home from the market — a fresh bread tucked under her arm and a small tote with just enough food for today’s meal. Joe saw financial peace of mind, not needing to worry about the money, having enough to enjoy a quiet, tranquil life…When we came together to discuss our collective thoughts, they boiled down to a small town, a little life, quiet walks, good food and nice weather. Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”  We were not looking for a big life, just a little quiet life and we worked hard to invent that life for ourselves. God has truly blessed us, first with the insight to see what we wanted which meant getting past all the “stuff”  and then blessing us again with that little life.

I have dear friends, well we actually have never met, but they still are dear to me. We have emailed back and forth for some time now. This couple has thought about making the move to retire in Ecuador. They made an exploratory trip back several months ago. Looked at many areas with an Ecuadorian driver who gave them a pretty good tour of the countryside. After they returned to the US they thought long and hard looking at what they had, what they would need to give up and how they would adjust to moving away from everything and everyone they knew.  I still do not think they have come to the final decision but their questions lead me to believe they may visit again but not move here permanently.  If you can live comfortably in the US, why would you move to Ecuador? That was one of my questions to them, can you afford where you are living currently, do you have a calm and peaceful existence, have you surrounded yourself with the people and things that you need to make your life fruitful, what do you require of the area where you live???  These are the deep question that take time and considerable contemplation to answer truthfully. At this point in all our lives we have a comfort level that we all require. It was a very difficult decision to give up everything material we had accumulated in our 32 year marriage. To move everything to Panama was unrealistic. The cost of transporting it was out of our budget, the time, effort and just sheer aggravation that I have witnessed from others seemed like torture and personally Joe and I could never had the patience six years ago to undergo that amount of suffering just for some stuff…

These are the things every person contemplating a big move out of their comfort zone needs to think about. These questions cannot be answered in one conversation, it requires a great deal of self-analysis to find what deep down feelings each of us may be holding back — this is not the time to hold back, this is the time to open up and dig deep to find out what will make YOU happy. It does not matter what anyone else thinks, feels or does, it is about the individual. How much change can you handle? Even though I know better my mind reverts back to “How things are done back in the states” it is unrealistic to think that you will get the same treatment/service outside of the US. Especially if your Spanish skills are not reasonably good. Most things here cannot be handled with a telephone call, in person visits to the telephone company, cable company are expected and most often anything you do requires that you have a color copy of your cedula attached to whatever you want to do. The rules are different here and just because they are foreign to you does not mean that they will change anytime soon or maybe ever! I had one acquaintance say, “they need to get their act together” he was speaking of the telephone company not getting his bill to him before they cut off his service, sorry but it is not going to happen here. The individual is responsible for knowing when his bills are due and paying them before the deadline, the phone company, cable company, electric company and the water company may or may not get you a bill on time or ever. We need to be flexible and work within THEIR system they are not going to make changes just because we are Expats…this is how things work here, get over it and learn the system, you will be much happier if you work within the system instead of trying to buck it!

This article is to help with the analysis part of your thought process. It is not to scare you out of moving, or push you to move, only to help open your mind to the entire experience. We love our little life, we would not change it for the world, if we won the lottery today we would give the money away at this point, because we have come to learn that our happiness has nothing to do with money or possessions.

Our little life is enough!



  1. Lisa Marie says:

    What a refreshing commentary on living abroad and the needed mental work that needs to get done before the big move ! I am coming to reside in Ecuador for a six month period of time beginning in October 2013. I will be in Cuenca for a time but would like to visit Loja as well. Would you be able to connect with me about ideas that I have and questions I would like to ask ? Thanks so much.

  2. Lisa Marie,

    Please contact Nancy Levin via her blog: http://nanlevin.wordpress.com/ as she is the author of the article.

  3. love the article!!!!

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