By Jeff Van Pelt
Are you thinking about moving to Ecuador? If so, it might be wise to ask why approximately 50% of expats who move here eventually return to their home country. After more than three years in Cuenca, I have seen many people repatriate — or move into the gray zone, staying in Ecuador only as much as their visa requires. Others can’t afford to leave but are unhappy here. And then there are those who absolutely love their lives in Ecuador. What accounts for these differences?
I haven’t seen any scientific studies but I have some thoughts on the subject. I believe there are three factors that best predict whether expats will be happy in Ecuador over the long term, or will regret having made the move.
First, do you like learning a new language and are you willing to devote a significant amount of time and effort to it? I once met an expat woman from the United States who said, “We aren’t doing the Spanish thing”; that is, she and her husband were not even trying to learn the language. They are now long gone from Ecuador.
Without a good grounding in Spanish you will often feel alone, adrift, and like a deaf-mute in the larger community. If you can’t carry on a conversation with an Ecuadorian you will be missing out on so much of what this country has to offer: new friendships, everyday encounters with friendly strangers, invitations to special events from locals, just to name a few. And then there is the frustration of going to the bank, the grocery store, a lawyer, a doctor; of dealing with problems with your Internet or plumbing or stove.
I took Spanish classes in high school and college, and despite that and my years in Ecuador I still feel the need for weekly sessions with a Spanish teacher. You can’t learn proper Spanish entirely from the Internet or books or the streets. They don’t correct your errors, so you keep making the same ones. They can’t answer the questions you couldn’t find online, or teach you vernacular that is uniquely Ecuadorian. I believe it is necessary both to study regularly on your own and take lessons from a teacher — possibly for the rest of your stay here. It helps if you have a love of languages, but a persistent mindset to learn will probably suffice. I recommend starting your studies in your home country before you make the move.
Second, how much do you know about Latin American culture? Can you love its charm and also embrace its drawbacks? You may come to Ecuador for its ubiquitous fiestas, parades, and festivals; charming colonial architecture; parks and plazas every few blocks; free museums and concerts; great weather and beautiful landscapes. But can you also endure its obtuse bureaucracy? As an example, the transfer of a vehicle registration took me more than a week in Cuenca, with visits to the SRI (same as IRS in United States), a bank, several municipal offices, three different trips to notaries public, and half a day getting it inspected and the registration transferred to my name. Can you accept barking dogs, car alarms, petty crime, really loud music at 2 a.m., and service technicians who don’t show up or do subpar work? How about having to go all over town to complete your shopping list because there are no Walmarts or Targets that carry everything you need? And either you won’t find the products you love, or they will cost far more than you were used to paying back home, because of import taxes.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Ecuador. I never want to leave. My years here have been some of the best of my life. I try to dwell on the many positives and let go of the negatives. But moving to a foreign country is not for everyone. Hence the next point.
A third factor lies within yourself. How well do you handle change, ambiguity, and frustration? There will be plenty of each. When I arrived in Ecuador, newly retired, my children having become independent adults, not owning a house or car, I felt like a load was lifted off my shoulders. I thought this is the stress-free life. But I soon learned that there is no such thing. Your new stressors are just different from the old ones. But, I will take my current stressors any day over working 8 to 5, worrying about bills, eating fast food, dividing my time between a car, office, and home in the suburbs. Someone once wrote on an Ecuador expats forum: In the United States I had convenience, comfort, security, and familiarity. In Ecuador I feel alive, energized, and joyful.
If you decide Ecuador is for you.
If, after doing all of your research and making an exploratory visit, you decide that you want to move to Ecuador, here are some suggestions for making it a success:
Don’t come expecting orderliness, punctuality, or efficiency. Don’t come only for a low cost of living, although that is certainly part of the appeal. Don’t come to escape from the bad old United States — every place has its negatives. Come for Ecuador’s joie de vivre, warm, genuine, and unpretentious people, lively celebrations, sense of community, beautiful countryside, and a year round climate that is conducive to all sorts of outdoor activities.
Once here, become active, jump in with both feet. Find where you fit. It could be hiking, biking, knitting, teaching English, saving homeless dogs, almost anything. If you don’t find what you want, start it yourself. I started a hiking group with a friend three years ago and it has become so popular that we have to turn away people. Our Saturday hikes are the highlight of my week. I also help students from elementary school to university level with English conversation. My wife is a member of a knitting group. Other expats have gotten involved in theater, arts, music, dance, and much more.
If you want to volunteer but are afraid your Spanish isn’t good enough, consider English conversation groups in universities or high schools. They don’t want you to speak Spanish. They want to speak English with you.
I believe that whether you choose the security and convenience of a high-rise apartment building in so-called Gringolandia or a house in an all-Ecuadorian neighborhood is less important for becoming integrated than how you spend your time. Take every opportunity to spend time with Ecuadorians. Invite them to your events. Go to their events. Take the time to talk to locals that you meet. It is challenging in Spanish but it is more rewarding than isolating yourself among gringos.
Resist the temptation to be a constant critic of the little things, some of which I have touched on above. You’ll just make yourself and others miserable. And people tend to avoid chronic complainers. At the same time, avoid becoming a holier-than-thou type, preaching to other expats about how they should behave as “guests” in their “host” country.
Don’t hesitate to hire a facilitator/interpreter for complex tasks if you need to; for example, opening a bank account, talking with a lawyer or doctor, buying a car. It will reduce your stress significantly. Find a few such professionals that you like. If they are also drivers, so much the better.
These are just my opinions. Others will have additional observations and recommendations, and some will disagree with mine. I simply offer them in hopes that it might help some who are trying to decide whether to move to Ecuador, and also some who have recently made the move.
Jeff Van Pelt earned his masters degree in social psychology from New York University and his doctorate in counseling from the College of William and Mary. He has worked as a psychotherapist, wellness program consultant, and health and psychology writer. Jeff and his wife are retired and have lived in Cuenca for more than three years.