An expat explains how low costs and a high quality of life brought him to Ecuador
By Jim Santos
Just four years ago, taking an early retirement on a Pacific beach in South America was not part of my plans. Yet here I am, 58 years old, retired and living happily with my wife, Rita, on the southern coast of Ecuador.
We are living healthier lifestyles at a fraction of our previous expenses, and best of all — our retirement nest eggs remain untouched.
When we first started looking at Ecuador, it was mostly as a place to escape East Coast winters. We were based in Maryland at the time but could work anywhere that had internet and cellphone service, so we traveled a lot. Every place we went — Hawaii, the Caribbean, Italy — we played the “could we live here” game. But there was always something that just did not fit.
Ecuador began to grow on us practically from the moment we arrived, on an exploratory trip in February 2013. We were drawn to Salinas, a coastal resort city on the Santa Elena peninsula. The climate here is moderate year round. The Humboldt current brings cool breezes and an abundance of sea life. Temperatures rarely exceed 90 degrees, or drop below 70.
Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar for currency, and the constitution guarantees foreigners the same property rights as citizens. We also liked that it is in the same time zone as the Eastern U.S., which, at the time, made it easy to conduct business remotely.
The clincher came when we started looking at property prices. Good-quality beachfront condos with three or four bedrooms in Salinas were available for less than $250,000. Single-family homes of the same size just a block or two from the Pacific Ocean were listed between $175,000 and $200,000.
By the second month after our arrival, we had purchased a four-bedroom, four-bath condo in a modern oceanfront high-rise with great amenities, security and 24/7 staff for just $220,000. And within weeks, we had stopped thinking of Salinas as a winter getaway and started considering it our new home.
Living here has brought some profound changes. After a year and a half, our expenses had dropped so much that there was no reason for me to continue in my job as a computer/network professional. Our living expenses averaged $1,500 a month, compared with $6,000 when we lived in the U.S.
I support myself now as a freelance writer, not because we need the income, but because I enjoy doing it. We have no car, no mortgage and pay less than $300 a year in property taxes. We earn some income from a house we continue to own in the U.S. But not only are we not touching my 401(K) or our IRAs — we can still afford to contribute to them.
We walk to the bank, market, restaurants and convenience stores. In fact, we spend most of our lives in the fresh air, as restaurants have outdoor seating, our mercados (fresh produce, fish and meat markets) are open-air, and shops tend to set their merchandise out on the sidewalks as well. For longer trips, an excellent bus system will get us anywhere in the peninsula for 30 cents (15 cents for those over 65 years old), and cabs charge $2 or $3 to most of the places we need to reach.
In addition to fresh seafood, we are blessed with a year-round growing season. Our local mercado daily features a bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables priced so low that between the two of us, we cannot carry home more than $20 worth of groceries. Fresh eggs, dairy products, chicken, pork and beef (all raised without steroids) are also to be found there.
Evenings, we enjoy getting together in small groups with our expat and Ecuadorean friends for dinner and conversation. There is an active and growing expat community in Salinas and the neighboring towns. There are expat bars and restaurants, poker nights, book clubs, groups that do charity work, and so on. Rita and I are part of a small subset that try to live more like the locals.
So far we’ve been very pleased with the health-care system. If your health is generally good, fees for most services are so low you may opt — as we have — to pay for health care on an as-needed basis. A visit to the doctor’s office runs between $20 and $60. Last year, I had arthroscopic shoulder surgery in nearby Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, at the Hospital Clínica Kennedy, a fully equipped, modern hospital — one of the best in Ecuador. My total costs for the procedure, which included consultations and follow-up visits, sonogram, MRI, X-rays, cardiogram, fees for two surgeons, an anesthesiologist and an overnight hospital stay: $6,000.
A state-sponsored health plan available to Ecuadorians and expats alike costs less than $80 a month for a married couple. Under this plan, care is free if you use the state-sponsored hospitals and clinics. But this can mean longer waits for an appointment, little choice in doctors, and less-modern facilities. Private health-insurance plans offer more flexibility for $200 to $500 a month for a married couple. But if you are over 65, most of these private insurers will not cover you.
Nothing is perfect, and Ecuador is no exception. Expats usually must stick to bottled water, and we wash our produce and meats in antibacterial wash before eating. You also don’t have to travel far to get to villages where you will see pigs and goats looking for food along the mostly dirt roads.
Be willing to learn some Spanish, and to roll with the differences in lifestyles. We have found that Ecuadorians generally are not too concerned with punctuality, for example. Working with the local utility companies can be time-consuming and frustrating, as any change involves a personal visit or three.But our impression is that many people here love to celebrate life, and do so loudly. During high season in Salinas it is not uncommon to hear music and parties all night long.
For us, the best part of living here is the adventure of travel. We have taken several road trips, armed only with shaky GPS maps and our even shakier Spanish. Everywhere we go, from the fish markets of Manta on the coast to the capital city of Quito, high in the Andes, the people are friendly.
Soon, we will be adding the Galápagos Islands to our list of great Ecuadorean destinations. There is more of South America we want to see as well. We are walking 50 miles or more a week to get in shape for a trip next year to Cusco, Peru. There we will hike the Inca Trail to the fabled ancient ruins of Machu Picchu, considered by many to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Jim Santos is a writer and expat blogger who lives in Salinas. This article is reposted from the Wall Street Journal.