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The Best Little Mountain Town in the Andes

The Best Little Mountain Town in the Andes

Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2008

Learn more about Ecuador in International Living Postcards —your daily escape

Dear International Living Reader,

“This may be the cleanest town I’ve ever seen in Latin America,” my husband said as we were walking back to our hotel after dinner one night.

I agree. The residents of Cotacachi keep their little town very tidy. There are no holes in the sidewalks to trip over, no vacant lots piled with litter, and the small amount of graffiti isn’t about politics or turf wars but is devoted to matters of the heart: “ Te amo, Sofia” (I love you, Sofia).

Children ride bikes around town without adult supervision, teenagers congregate in the plaza at night to chat or sing songs or nibble on ears of corn or chicken kabobs seared on a kettle grill under a streetlamp on the corner.

All of the streetlamps that line the main street work, by the way. The clock that tops the bell tower of Iglesia Matriz, the beautiful church that towers over Cotacachi’s main plaza doesn’t work. But no matter, no one care much about the time. And nearly everything else in this town does work.

This is Ecuador’s famous “leather” town, high in the Andes mountains, where artisan shops line the main street and you can buy any type of leather item, from a saddle for your horse to booties for your baby. Prices for these items are 50% to 75% less than you would pay in the U.S., I should add.

At night the artisan shops close up and only a few restaurants and small mom-and-pop shops are open. That’s all you need, really. After a day of sunshine in the 8,000-foot-altitude mountain climate, nighttime is for sleeping. The cool, crisp air smells faintly of wood smoke, roasting corn, and eucalyptus. Eucalyptus trees grow abundantly wild, as do palm trees.

Think Breckenridge without the pretension or the snow, and you’ll come close to imagining Cotacachi. It’s what those of us who came of age in the 1970s hoped life would be: easy, simple, natural.

That dream hasn’t changed much. Give us comfortable beds, hot showers, good food, and high-speed Internet. Give us something nice to look at out the window and something to keep us busy. All of this is easy to find in Cotacachi, so it is no surprise that a small-but-growing number of now-retiring expats can also be found here.

Estimates are that about 20 foreigners live here full time, and a handful more spend part of the year here. That’s not many in a community of 9,000 people. But it’s quality, and not quantity, that counts.

The expats here are outgoing and relaxed, since there’s not much to worry about. No traffic, no temperature swings, no pesky insects, and certainly no money problems. I met a couple who pays $150 a month for a modern three-bedroom apartment. Another couple pays $180 a month for a similar-sized apartment.

If you prefer to buy, you can get a really nice brand-new condo with an amazing view of the distant volcanoes. Prices start at $46,000. (Fireplaces and Jacuzzi tubs are standard.) Or you can build a custom three-bedroom adobe home on a quarter-acre lot for about $80,000… land included. The magnificent vistas are free.

If you need upscale creature comforts like a gourmet meal or (take it from me) one of the world’s best spa treatments, you’ll find both at the five-star La Mirage Hotel and Spa on the edge of town. The famous market town of Otavalo is just 15 minutes away should the shopping urge overcome you. Fresh produce can be bought there or at Cotacachi’s open-air Sunday market. Or go to the nearby city of Ibarra to the modern supermarkets, or the mega malls of Quito, one of the largest and most sophisticated cities in South America, just two hours south.

Suzan Haskins
Latin America Insider, International Living

P.S. Want to know more? I’ll tell all in this month’s issue of International Living magazine. If you are not a subscriber, you can sign up here.

Read related IL Postcards:

- Locavores Will Love It Here

- An Acre of Oceanfront in Ecuador for $40,000

- Three Bedrooms and a View of the Andes for $150 a Month

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