It was late in the evening…well after dark…and I had just finished up an interview in the countryside outside of Vilcabamba, Ecuador. The lodge where I was staying was also in the country, but on the opposite side of town. As I slid into the passenger seat of the taxi truck I hesitated, wondering if getting in was such a good idea. I am an adventure-loving traveler. But I’m also a product of a U.S. childhood in the ’80s.
That was a time and place that had lost its innocence and “Stranger Danger” was ingrained into all schoolchildren countrywide. Don’t speak to strangers. Don’t accept gifts from strangers. Never get into a car with a stranger.
Several decades later the lessons still stick. Sure, this guy was a licensed cabbie, but I was a woman traveling alone in an unfamiliar place.
In the end I did get into the truck remembering that I wasn’t in Kansas (or Minnesota or Idaho) anymore. Instead I was in a place with a far different vibe. What did actually transpire was that this particular driver was ultra-friendly, keen to brush up on his English skills, told me all about life in Vilcabamba, and invited me to return with my family and he would personally give us a tour of the area. And of course I made it to my destination just fine with no problems at all. In fact, I hired him on the spot to drive me to the airport two days later.
It was a great reminder of how different the people in Ecuador can be from those of my homeland. It was also a refreshing change from the cynicism I’d developed from a life of being super wary.
And this taxista was no fluke. The culture here breeds friendliness and a helpful attitude. I actually had to untrain my kids in regards to certain habits after moving to Ecuador. They are now encouraged to speak to strangers as the locals love children and want to interact with them. There’s no dark motive behind it—just that family-loving atmosphere that you find throughout Latin America.
I don’t worry when a stranger offers myself or my boys a treat either. There’s no plot to poison children, just a kind gesture. The sharing of food is often how people here express generosity.
It’s always wise to use basic caution and common sense wherever you find yourself in the world. Even in a country as friendly as Ecuador, I don’t visit shady parts of big cities and I don’t flash wads of cash around in public. And though the odds are extremely high that nothing bad would occur, I still tell my children not to accept rides from people they don’t know. It’s just beyond my personal comfort level.
But I do love living in a place where interactions with strangers are welcomed and provide for interesting experiences. I love that stories on the local news do not revolve around mass shootings in primary schools, shopping malls, or anywhere at all for that matter. And I love that my family gets to live in a place that still has an air of innocence about it.
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