Every year, more than a million visitors travel to Ecuador for a taste of what this small South American country offers. The Galapagos Islands are undoubtedly Ecuador’s biggest attraction, but those who choose to explore the mainland itself are in for a cultural treat. This equatorial country is soaked in tradition—some of which originated in the times of the Incas, or even earlier. I’ve lived in Ecuador for three years and the longer I’m here, the more I learn and experience. And because the locals are so friendly and welcoming, I’m often included in their traditions—if you spend more than a few days in one place here, you will be too.
I’ve been doing a bit of travel around Ecuador recently, and in December I stumbled onto my new favorite city. Restored grand colonial buildings sport fresh bright paint. Tumbling rivers run right through the heart of the city. A growing international expat community and ridiculously friendly locals make fitting in easy and dining options range from traditional local dishes to Chinese, Mexican, Arabic, Japanese, Italian, and even good old Texan fare. By now, you might be guessing that the city I’m describing is expat-favorite Cuenca or the capital of Quito. Those would be fair guesses…but they’re wrong. The city that swept me off my feet is Loja—Cuenca’s little sister to the south.
On any given evening, you'll find Kasie Estevez serving up drinks and tasty snacks while laughing with the regulars at the bar she opened in Cotacachi, Ecuador. "I love it here," she says. "The weather's good, and you develop friendships like nowhere else. I think people have more time to invest in relationships." Plus the cost of living is low. A couple can live on as little as $1,600 a month in Cotacachi. Kasie finds that Ecuador's slow pace allows her to enjoy life more. It's a far cry from holding down a sales job as a single mother in Las Vegas.
It would be a challenge for anyone to find a more perfect picture of paradise than Vilcabamba, Ecuador. This little valley is surrounded by the majestic peaks of the Andes and is the perfect example of the "eternal spring" that the country is well known for. With warm days, dependable rain, and little change in weather year-round, it is a lush South American Eden. Dennis D'Alessandro is one of the many North Americans who have come to Vilcabamba to enjoy the climate and opportunities presented. As a third generation organic farmer from Pennsylvania he brought his skills and knowledge to Ecuador.
It's hard not to smile a lot when you live in Cotacachi, Ecuador. Take, for example, my walk through the leather-boutique-laden main street this morning. I strolled a total of five blocks and encountered more familiar faces than I could count. Alberto, a local landscaper, greeted me with a "Buenos dias, Señora Wendy" as he zipped by on his well-used bicycle. My Canadian friends Brian and Janette stopped to chat for a few minutes and catch up. As we finished our discussion I heard a shouted "Hola, Wendy." I turned to see one of my regular cab drivers, Richar, rolling by in his freshly washed yellow taxi, arm out the window and wide grin on his face.
Ecuador makes it to the top of the list for many people who are considering a move abroad. Climate, cost of living, culture, and ease of obtaining residence are some of the reasons often cited. But an often overlooked benefit is the potential for improved health due to a better diet. Most expats in Ecuador find themselves eating much more fresh produce than they did back home and the reason can be summed up in two words—variety and availability. While Ecuador does have supermarkets, every town has a centrally located farmer’s market. This is where most people prefer to shop, especially for produce. And the reason is simple. The variety of fruits and vegetables is great quality and prices are typically a fraction of what you’d pay back home. In addition, because of the climate, fresh produce is available year-round. This reduces or eliminates the need to buy frozen or canned foods.
When people think about fine international cuisine, places like Paris, Rome, and Tokyo are usually what come to mind. If you’re looking for something with a spicy kick, head to Mexico. Want something healthy and delicious? Check out the Mediterranean. Rarely though do people equate the small South American country of Ecuador with great food, and in failing to do so they’re missing out on a whole range of tasty treats. It’s true that Ecuador does not have the gourmet culture that many other countries enjoy, but that doesn’t mean it should be completely dismissed. Take a look at a few of the regional palate pleasers that can be found throughout the country.
My first stop was Las Vegas for a recent International Living conference. The conference was fabulous and I loved chatting with potential expats and helping answer all of those big questions that need to be asked before an international move. But, in my downtime I began to notice some differences in myself. To start, I found during my first nights away, that I missed seeing the stars. While the lights of the Las Vegas strip are a sight to see, it never truly gets dark in Vegas. I longed for my view from quiet Cotacachi where millions of celestial bodies are visible on a clear evening from the middle of the world. It may seem trivial, but I felt out of place surrounded by man-made replicas of world wonders, when typically I sleep right in the midst of the real thing.
My stomach is happily full after a delicious rice dish stuffed full of clams and chopped vegetables. As I sit sipping the last of my fresh lemonade under the umbrella-shaded outdoor table, a cool breeze whispers past. Families amble by, politely wishing me “buen provecho” (“enjoy your meal”) while kayakers across the street load their gear into a shiny new pickup. All the while wild birds mingle their notes with the Latin rhythms spilling from the restaurant. Where am I? I’m in the Ecuadorian jungle town of Tena…and to be honest this is not at all how I had imagined the Amazon to be.
In their 30 years of marriage, John and Vickie Kendall had often talked of living abroad. But their work as nurses in the Pacific Northwest kept them occupied and tied to the U.S. They began formulating a plan to retire and then move overseas in the summer of 2013. “We had been to Thailand and were looking at that as a possibility. And we were looking at Panama, Uruguay, and then Ecuador came up, so we were considering all different places,” says John. “But when we got down to it, we realized we wanted to be in the Western Hemisphere so that we weren’t too far away from home.”