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The Opposite Side of the World



Back in December I wrote about why I don't plan to return to Thailand any time soon (My Old Flame), and in it I mentioned that I was planning a trip to Ecuador instead. My wife and I returned from three weeks in Ecuador in late March, so here is a brief trip report, just in case there are people reading this site who are looking for alternatives to Thailand that have not already been extensively covered. Ecuador certainly is not part of South East Asia, and in fact, it is almost exactly on the opposite side of the world, being on the equator twelve time zones away.

This is not an exhaustive report, as we stayed up in the Andes mountains, and in three weeks it is not possible to see but a small fraction of a country in any case. However, I will try to distinguish between what what I saw for myself, and what I heard from others.

Geography and climate

Ecuador sits on the equator [Ecuador means equator in Spanish] on the west coast of South America, and is divided generally into three regions. There is the Pacific coast and the coastal plain, the Andes mountains that run north to south through the country, and the headwaters of the Amazon basin on the east side where there is jungle and everything you would associate with it. In traveling north to south from Otavalo to Loja, we were rarely below 2400 meters elevation, and never below 2000 meters. As a consequence, we found the climate in the mountains to be rather cool, with temperatures ranging from 10-27 degrees C [50-80 F] year round. We were warned to bring light coats, and if we had not, we would have bought them there. On sunny days it is quite pleasant out, but at nights, or when a cloud covers the sun, it can become quite cool. At night, we always slept under a blanket, and before morning we often pulled up a second one. People who are really adapted to the heat in Thailand would probably NOT like living in the mountains here.

The elevation also poses a problem for many people who are adapted to life at sea-level. I talked to several people visiting Ecuador who complained that they always felt short of breath, to the point that they often had trouble sleeping at night or climbing a flight of stairs. For me, however, the elevation and climate in the mountains is ideal. For those who do not like it, though, the coast is several hundred miles long, with many stretches of beach, some of which are still undeveloped. The Humboldt current flows northward along the coast of South America, and even on the coast it doesn't get too hot, usually not above 33 C [91F], although if you go inland a few miles it gets hotter. And I really don't know much about the Amazon rain forest / jungle. It looks like an interesting place to visit, but I can't see myself living there.

Compared to Thailand, Ecuador has half the surface area and about a fourth as much population, and the largest city, Guayaquil, is about a quarter the size of Bangkok. The expat population also tends to be scattered more evenly around the country, rather than concentrated in a few havens / tourist destinations.

Culture and language

The imprint of the Spaniards is very clear in Ecuador, as it is through most of South America [except Brazil]. It is mostly Catholic, with churches as prevalent, even in small towns, as wats are in Thailand. And as a consequence, the primary language of Ecuador is Spanish. There are natives whose first language is Quichua or other native tongues, but virtually all of them speak Spanish. However, there are not very many who speak English, and those who do don't usually speak it well. I found it far easier to get around in Korat, Khon Kaen, etc., not to mention Bangkok, Pattaya, or the more touristy areas, with minimal Thai than it would be to get around in Ecuador with minimal Spanish. In the areas where lots of tourists pass through, there will usually be at least a few people who have some English, but outside those areas, forget it! I have read on the Internet where people promoting Ecuador [primarily trying to sell real estate] say that you don't need to speak Spanish to get along there, but that was not my impression.

The currency in use in Ecuador is the US Dollar, and has been since about 2001, when the local politicians blew up their own currency. I'm not sure how this may work out with the US politicians trying to blow up the dollar, but at least it makes it easy for travelers from the US, and indeed from all over the world, as most people are accustomed to converting to and from the USD. There is a problem there with counterfeit bills, and whenever you offer a bill in payment, it will usually be scrutinized closely. I carried $100 bills in a money belt for our expenses, and the only place I could change them was at a bank, and not even all the banks would make change. They wouldn't even look at the bills. They just declined to serve anyone who didn't have an account there.

One evening near the end of our trip I entered a restaurant to purchase some chicken and fried potatoes [both staples in restaurants there], and the man in front of me was attempting to pay for a similar meal with a $50 bill. The proprietress asked if I could change it, and I checked to see if I could. I had two twenties and a ten, but before making the exchange I felt his bill, and then felt mine. Mine were stiffer and heavier paper, and even though his looked OK, I declined to make the change. I wasn't sure whether it was good or not, but I didn't want to be stuck. And for a native to be attempting to pay for a $3 meal with a $50 bill was quite suspicious in and of itself.

Food

We enjoyed the food in Ecuador, and I even saw a couple of Thai restaurants in passing, although we didn't eat at them. We did eat at several Chinese restaurants, though, some quite good, and others so-so. The native cuisine tends to be heavy on potatoes, beans, rice, chicken, seafood, beef, etc. Given the variety of climates found at various elevations, they grow almost anything that can be grown anywhere in the world. Fruits available while we were there included papayas, avocados, pineapple, mangos, bananas, kiwi-fruit, coconuts, oranges, lemons, limes, strawberries, blackberries, grapes, apples, pears, peaches, nectarines, plums, and a lot more, many of which I can't even name. Fish, both saltwater and freshwater, are common. There were over twenty kinds of potatoes available in the markets, most of which I did not have a chance to sample. And the cost of all this is very cheap. Pineapples are typically 50 cents each. Eggs I priced at 11 cents each. Avocados were 4 for a dollar. I bought 20 bananas for 50 cents. Meals in restaurants ranged from $2 to $20.

Our total cost for food for the three weeks we were there was a little less than $300, and we ate well enough. We are not inclined to patronize expensive places, but neither did we eat street food, and part of the time we took advantage of cooking facilities to prepare our own food, purchased in the markets. Regardless, food is not expensive. And while I am not a beer drinker, I did visit with a Brit at our hostel in Cuenca while he was downing a beer, and asked him about it. He looked like someone with a lot of experience with beer, and he said that it was a locally brewed Pilsner and was quite good. He noted that it was much better than the major brands of beer available in the US. The cost for a 22-oz beer [640 ml] was a dollar at the hostel, or 80 cents if purchased at a grocery. I don't know what they might charge in a bar.

Lodging

We searched the Internet ahead of our trip for lodging options, and wound up staying in both hostels and hotels, the difference being primarily the age of the facility. We were on a budget, and avoided the more expensive places. Our rooms ranged in cost from $20-49 per night, and almost always included breakfast. With the exception of the $20 place, to which I would not return, we were comfortable and felt safe and secure. We had access to cooking facilities, either in our room or shared, 15 of our 21 nights in Ecuador. Given that my wife prefers to prepare her own food [to control the ingredients], this was a really nice bonus.

Transportation

Buses travel everywhere throughout Ecuador, and the cost in most cases is about a dollar per hour for each passenger. That is, a seven-hour bus ride will cost around $7-8. An exception is between Cuenca and Guayaquil, where a four-hour bus ride is $8-9. Apparently, according to what an expat there told me, the prime minister's son has a monopoly on bus traffic on that particular route, and is taking advantage of it. I have no idea how true that is, but it is an indication that, like Thailand, those in positions of power have ways of taking advantage. There are also flights between major cities in Ecuador. We flew from Loja in the south back to Quito, trading 40 minutes on a plane at a fare of $84, for 15 hours on buses, at $15 or so.

Within cities and towns there are usually a lot of buses and trams, and the times we rode them the standard fare was 25 cents, to anywhere up to the end of the line. There are also taxis everywhere, virtually all yellow, and outside of Quito the standard fare appears to be $1-2 for rides up to 10-15 minutes, which is usually anywhere in town.

Medical care

Fortunately, my wife and I had little need for medical care. My wife did pick up a stomach bug toward the end of the trip, and I went to a pharmacy to get some Immodium. The girl there opened a sealed package, and got out ten pills on one card, sealed in individual bubbles, for which she charged me 50 cents. This was on a rainy evening after most other stores in the area had already closed.

However, while we were in Cuenca, one of the other guests at the hostel, an American I will call Paul, started feeling sick on a Thursday evening, and finally went to a doctor on Saturday morning. When I saw him back at the hostel on Sunday afternoon, I found out that he had had appendicitis. When he got to the doctor, it was diagnosed almost immediately, and as it had not yet burst, they were able to go in laparoscopically and remove it through tiny incisions, such that he was released the next day. I asked his opinion of the medical facilities, and he said that they were top-notch, fully equivalent to anything he had experienced in the US. The doctor spoke excellent English, and the hospital was clean and modern. And for the doctor visit, the surgery, and a follow-up night in the hospital, the total bill was about $1,400. It probably would have been ten times that in the US.

Safety and security

I never felt personally at risk, and what I heard from expats there is that violent crime against foreigners is not common. We did have an occasion on our first bus ride where I placed my laptop computer on the overhead shelf, and apparently the man behind me attempted to slide it back to a position over his seat where he could then take it, but the other people behind both of us raised a fuss, which concluded with him being taken off the bus by the police. After that, I would leave the shoulder strap hanging down over my seat where I could instantly verify that it was still there.

On the bus ride from Ambato to Cuenca, we arrived at the bus station early and checked our three bags, for which I was given only two baggage claim slips. When we arrived at our destination several hours later, our bags were not on the bus. I used my little Spanish very assertively, and the bus "helper" called back to Ambato. They went and checked, and said that our bags were still there, and we were promised that they would be put on the next bus, and catch up with us by 8:00 the next morning. And they did. The bags arrived as promised, and all our belongings were intact.

On the other hand, we met a father / son duo traveling through South America and the son was mugged in Quito. As I heard the story, he had gone out for the evening in Quito, while his dad stayed at the hotel. I don't know where he went, but I would assume bar-hopping. In any case, he said that three men suddenly pressed him up against a wall, pulled out his wallet, grabbed the cash, dropped the wallet, and ran, all so quickly that it was over before he had a chance to react. He was not hurt, but they did get all the cash in his wallet, although they left his credit cards and other stuff. Draw from this whatever lessons you will.

The hotels and hostels in which we stayed appeared to have good security, with a locked front gate / door where you rang a bell and only authorized guests or service people were admitted. We were still cautious, and tried to keep valuables locked up or out of sight, but this is simply our habit wherever we travel. I never felt that our persons or possessions were at risk in our lodgings.

Visas

Ecuador provides a 90-day tourist visa to anyone who arrives from outside the country, as long as they don't abuse the privilege, or appear on some list of undesirable persons. Individuals are allowed to stay in Ecuador for up to 180 days per year on tourist visas, but if you exceed this, they will mark your passport and add you to a list prohibiting your return for one year. In addition, they provide work visas and pensioners visas, among others, although these have to be obtained before arriving in country. The pensioners visa requires that you demonstrate a regular pension or other retirement income of at least $1000 per month, plus $100 for each dependent. I don't clearly recall the stipulations for a work visa, but we met an American woman working at a university there who didn't seem to feel that the visa was too hard to get.

Property and Real Estate

Foreigners are allowed to purchase and own property in Ecuador on an equal basis with Ecuadorian citizens. There are cautions and caveats about buying property, just as there are in all countries, but there are no legal restrictions. And property prices are very low, with small beachfront condos advertised for less than $50,000 on the Internet. Where we traveled, there were a lot of properties with the "Se Vende" sign out front, indicating that they were for sale, but I didn't inquire for details.

Nightlife

I am not into the P4P scene, or even bars and the entertainment that is found there, but from all I have read, plus what I saw while there, Ecuador does not appear to have anything like Thailand's freewheeling sex scene. The alcohol is certainly cheap enough, but the rest of it is simply an unknown quantity as far as I am concerned. There is probably more such activity down in the beach areas, but even there it may be more a matter of foreigners meeting other foreigners, rather than native young women trying to make their fortunes on their backs. Having said that, I suspect that there are plenty of young women who would jump at the chance to marry a foreigner, who they would assume to be rich, but that is supposition on my part. I have not found anything like Stickman's site for Ecuador, and I would guess that such a site does not exist.

Conclusion

We really enjoyed our trip, and we are planning for a longer return trip, probably in December-February, where we plan to rent an apartment and live as residents rather than tourists, to see how that goes. I find Spanish much easier to learn and understand than Thai, and Ecuador is much closer to family and friends than Thailand. I like the climate better, at least in the mountains, and the cost is comparable to living upcountry in Thailand. I like the freedom to purchase property, and although I will never qualify as a native in either Ecuador or Thailand, Ecuador feels more comfortable, in a cultural and social sense.

Having said all this, I will reiterate that bars, prostitutes, nightlife, etc. are not an attraction for me, but for those who seek such, Thailand or other parts of SEA would be a far more favorable destination, based on what I saw or heard. Also, for anyone considering relocating from Thailand to Ecuador, the distance would certainly be a factor, as it is literally halfway around the world. On the other hand, visitors from Europe will find that the two countries are almost equidistant, while from the US, Ecuador is much closer. Residents of Australia and New Zealand can look at a globe and do the math.

Stickman's thoughts:

Excellent report. Ecuador might not be on the radar for many of us but covering all the main points and comparing it to Thailand as you did makes it a more than worthwhile read.