"Correa will win," our driver yesterday assured us. "There's no question. He's very popular. All the people love him, because he has done many good things for this country."
Rafael Correa has been president of Ecuador since January 2007. He is able to run for another term thanks to an adjustment in the country's Constitution a few years ago.
"He says, though, he won't run again after this election," continued our driver. "His wife is Belgian, and she wants to spend time in her country."
Lief, Jackson, and I took to the new-and-improved highways of Ecuador (thanks to Correa's efforts these past six years) along with the rest of the country yesterday. However, we weren't on our way home to vote, of course. We were touring around the artisan towns north of Quito, with two agendas.
First, Lief and I were interested in shopping for santos in San Antonio de Ibarra. These hand-carved wooden statues of Catholic saints are made in this part of Ecuador as they have been made for centuries. It's a craft passed down through the generations. The wood carvers take enormous pride in their work, and some supply santos for Catholic churches around the world. Dozens of shops in San Antonio offer newly carved santos for sale. However, if you're lucky, you can find old ones, sometimes 100-years-old or older. These are increasingly hard to find and increasingly valuable. Lief and I have collected antique santos for years and wanted to see if we could find one or two to add to our collection. If you are able to find one here, at the source, you can buy it for a fraction the cost you'd pay anywhere else.
However, young Jackson had another agenda. "I'm not interested in looking at those wooden saints," Jackson told us. "I'd like to shop for inventory for my new business."
Jackson, 13, is starting an online bazaar. At his new website, TraderJacksBazaar.com (not live yet), he intends to sell products from different countries where he and we travel.
"I met someone at the conference this week," Jack explained when we told him about our plan to travel to San Antonio on Saturday, "who has a big online export business like the one I want to start. He's leading a tour to different towns in the north of Ecuador where he shops himself for things to sell on his website. He has invited me to come with him. He told me he'd help me choose products and get the best deals."
So, while the three of us toured around northern Ecuador yesterday, Lief and I traveled without Jackson, who took off separately with a small group of conference-goers from last week's event also interested in shopping for leather, textile, and other hand-crafted items in Ecuador, which has become recognized as one of the world's best places to source high-quality, low-priced inventory for export.
In San Antonio, Lief and I inquired at every shop but found only one antique santo on offer, a 100-year-old St. Francis of Assisi. The last time we shopped in Ecuador for antique santos, we paid (as we recall) US$100 to US$150, depending on the size. The relatively tall St. Francis we found yesterday was US$200. Lief bemoaned the inflation since our last santo shopping trip. I pointed out that that was more than eight years ago and that, were we to find a century-old, 18-inch-tall St. Francis carved from a single piece of wood anywhere else, it'd cost much more.
We bought a few recently carved santos, too. These you can find for as little as US$20 (for the smallest ones). We also bought three hand-carved wooden replicas of iconic Botero sculptures, including Pedro on his horse and the fat lady dancing ballet. We're big fans of this Medellin-born artist and were excited to find that some San Antonio woodworkers have expanded their product lines to include his works.
San Antonio craftsman also make furniture. Their workshops-cum-galleries overflow with small tables and chairs. If their stock doesn't suit you, you can ask them to custom-make whatever you'd like, working from a photo. As with the santos, prices are higher than we remember from years ago but still a global bargain. I think that, when the time comes to furnish the clubhouse we're building at Los Islotes, I'll plan a buying trip to this town. I could spend a week meeting with woodworkers and cabinet-makers and have all the wooden furniture I'll need made-to-order for a fraction what I'd spend on comparable quality stuff in Panama.
P.S. Jackson's shopping spree was as successful as Lief's and mine. He returned to Quito with bags of scarves, pashminas, key chains, napkin rings, animal-hide rugs, and a leather portfolio.
"The portfolio is for me," explained the 13-year-old. "I'm going to use it to file away the business cards of the people I buy my products from."
Jack reviewed each item for us, explaining the asking price and what he'd paid (after engaging in sometimes protracted negotiations) in each case. He said he was able to use his Spanish to help others in the group negotiate for things they wanted to buy, too. This morning, in our hotel room, he is photographing each item for his website.
Jack has sourced some getting-started products, and he and his sister Kaitlin are working on building the site. What about fulfillment and customer service? That's where Dad and I come in. We're making this a family project. I'll keep you posted as we sort through the logistics and the challenges associated with setting up a small, web-based import-export enterprise.
P.S. What else this week?
Which is the better "retire-overseas" choice, Cuenca or Medellin? That's a question without an answer, of course. It depends on your circumstances, your budget, and the lifestyle you're after. Here, though, are some thoughts on how these two cities are alike and how they are different, to help you decide which is the best international living choice for you...
"Quito is but one face of this country."
As friend Lee Harrison, in Quito to help host this week's event, puts it, "Ecuador is a land of mega-diversity."
The lifestyles on offer are many and dramatically varied. Quito is a big city. Cuenca is a smaller city, more manageable, more welcoming. Otavalo is a small mountain town. Salinas is a beach town. All are interesting and appealing in different ways, for different people. When it comes to deciding where to live in Ecuador, it depends on what kind of lifestyle you're looking for and, also, important, on your budget. Otavalo is more affordable than Cuenca, which is more affordable than Quito, for example.
"Where's that US$6.50 steak you wrote about the other day, Kathleen?" one attendee here asked me last night. "The steak listed on the hotel's room service menu is US$20!"...
"I'm here to take you on a tour of Ecuador's best beaches. I'm wearing way too many clothes for that."
Mike proceeded to take off his button-down shirt. Then he started to unzip his trousers.
"Don't worry. I'm not wearing a Speedo," he assured us.
Mike took off his pants and stood before the crowd in his sleeveless T-shirt and shorts.
"Now I'm ready to go to the beach," he said as everyone in the room laughed. He had our attention.
"I've been living in Ecuador for more than eight years," Mike continued, "and I've hosted a lot of other American expats and retirees shopping for a place to live in this country. What I've found is that, for many of them, Ecuador's coast is more rugged and more rustic than they're prepared for...
"At one point, I was a mail carrier. I was maybe 35-years-old at the time, but I had a lot of mail carrier friends who were older, near retirement age. One day, one of those guys, just a few months away from retiring, told me that he had gotten a part-time job. He was going to start working as a clerk in a local shop.
"'Why did you do that?' I asked him. I couldn't understand why he'd take on a new job. He had been so looking forward to his retirement.
"The guy explained that his pension from the U.S. Postal Service wasn't enough for him to live on. He needed to supplement it.
"That was a turning point for me," Mike continued. "I realized at that moment that I needed to make a big change in my life. Bottom line, I needed to take control of my life. I had no interest in going to work at Wal-Mart during my 'retirement.' This realization launched my long search for what to do instead...for a Plan B. Eventually that search led me here to Ecuador.
"Back in the States, I might be retired. I've reached that age. But now, after more than eight years living in Ecuador, I can't imagine that...
PLUS--From resident global real estate investing expert Lief Simon:
I traveled to Ecuador for the first time in 1999. This was before the country dollarized; the sucre fell from about 7,000 to the U.S. dollar to 24,000 to the U.S. dollar that year. Meantime, El Niño had devastated Ecuador's coastal regions, contributing to the economic chaos of the time.
Chaos breeds opportunity. Thus my visit.
I landed in Guayaquil late at night and went straight to the hotel and to bed. The next morning, stepping into the hotel elevator for the ride down to the restaurant for breakfast, I found myself surrounded by five or six extremely tall and extremely beautiful women. I had to wonder if I was in the right country. Aren't Ecuadoreans descendants of the Incans, I wondered to myself? That is, aren't they all short? Who were these six-foot beauties?
The elevator doors opened into the lobby, and I was greeted by dozens more tall, beautiful women. I wasn't sure what was going on, but I wasn't complaining either.
It turned out that some Miss Latin America pageant was being held in the hotel. Unfortunately, I was leaving after breakfast with my guide and driver to see what the southern coast of Ecuador had to offer. Still, the country had managed to make a nice first impression.
While waiting for my guide, I dragged myself from the lobby and the beauty pageant girls to take a look around Guayaquil. Stepping out onto the sidewalk in front of the hotel, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up...
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"We visited the artisans at their homes, where most of them do their crafts. We met people who were looming, spinning wool yarn, making Panama hats, crafting tagua jewelry, marzipan, forming bamboo flutes and musical instruments, woodworking...the list goes on and on.
"These people are amazing. Visiting their families at their 'factories' (their homes) and watching them work side-by-side, generation-to-generation, in their cinderblock houses--sometimes of only one or two rooms--was a journey I'll never forget.
"The smiles on their faces, the countryside, seeing their crafts... as well as experiencing the Otavalo market, getting it all on film, finally seeing the tops of the volcanoes on our last day was amazing. I can't wait to return!
"Now back home in California, I am pondering the logistics of an Ecuador/Andean import business of some sort. What do I do with all these beautiful and unique crafts, and how do I share them with others?
"I brought back a sampling of all their handmade crafts that I could fit into two 50-pound suitcases. Their wares are beautiful and exquisite just like the people. It was a journey of a lifetime, and I truly hope to return to work with these people. This was not only a unique experience, but a heartwarming one, as well."
The fact that Jan undertook this adventure in Ecuador was no accident; there are few better places to export from. First, Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar, so there's no currency risk. They've also got favorable export laws.
And, in Ecuador, it's easy to find your way to the warm and friendly craftsmen who are actually creating the product...eliminating a bunch of middlemen. If you work your way from San Antonio in the north to Loja in the south, you'll find dozens of villages, each with its own specialty--wood carvings, clothing, candy, sweaters, leather jackets, jewelry, guitars, even hand-crafted cellos...
Finally, prices are super on the Ecuadorian end, yet the quality products can command great prices on the retail end.
Jan, in the e-mail she sent me this week that I reference above, poses an important question, about how to follow through with the great opportunities that presented themselves during her trip to the artisan villages of Ecuador. It's a question I've heard a number of times before.
Jan has found the secrets to finding quality merchandise, getting good prices, and meeting the artists who create the products. The next step is creating a business from all this.
One thing I've found, paying attention to the import/export opportunities available in Ecuador over the years, is that one secret to making a success of this and building a profitable business is where you sell your imports.
I remember, years ago, discovering hundreds of beautiful Talavera vases for sale in a market in Puebla, Mexico. They were US$8 each. A few months later, at a Third Avenue street fair in Manhattan, I found those same vases for US$25...a good markup, but not earth-shaking.
Then, a few months later in Mystic, Connecticut, I saw the same vases again, this time for sale for US$65. I struck up a conversation, and the owner described to me how he'd personally brought them from the market in Puebla, and how much fun he had traveling the world to stock his shop.
I've had the same experience with the small, hand-woven rugs you can buy at the market in Otavalo, Ecuador, probably the largest indigenous market in South America. I've bought many of these rugs in Otavalo, paying US$8 apiece. The same rugs sell for US$20 in Queens, New York, and for more than US$100 at the Andean import store in Sacramento, California. In Scottsdale, Arizona, the very similar "Native American hand-woven rugs" are US$295 each!
As you can see, you can make a slim margin or a handsome margin, depending on the retail location you select. The best location may not be near home, so you may need to find a trusted associate, friend, or family member to manage the retail end for you.
Alternatively, you could sell your treasures as a wholesaler, to a shop or chain. Going this route, you'd be sharing a large piece of the margin to cover their costs. To be sure, you could still do well with this model, but if you can control the retail end, then more of the profit--and more of the intangible rewards of the experience--are yours.
Jan took the first step in the way most Ecuador-exporters do, by bringing things home in a suitcase, while figuring out the business bigger-picture. This is a low-risk, low-cost way to get started.
I met guy named Peter in Nicaragua who took a different approach. He jumped in with both feet. Peter and I met at an investment seminar in Managua, after which he scoured the country looking for local hand-crafted items. After a month of shopping, he shipped an entire container of clothing and handicrafts to Long Beach, where he sold them in his own, new, retail shop.
He didn't want to carry the items little-by-little, so he bought his entire inventory at once. As he shipped a container, he had to pay the duty when it arrived. However, he had done his research and knew that the duty isn't much on Native American handicrafts. For him, this expense was well worth the convenience of getting everything at once. Peter's approach can work well if you've already identified your target retail market.
That's the beauty of starting up your own import/export business. You can go big-time, or you can keep it small. You can make a good living, or simply fund your rich and rewarding travels abroad.
Either way, there are few better ways to generate an income overseas.
If you'd like more information on the export tour that Jan attended, you can check it out here.
Editor's Note: The unlimited potential of an import/export business in Ecuador is one of the many topics that we'll be covering during our Live and Invest in Ecuador Conference. Seats go on sale next Monday, Oct. 1. However, you can register your interest (and reserve your VIP status) now by signing on to our event hotlist. No obligation.Continue Reading:
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Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 25 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter.
Her book, How To Retire Overseas—Everything You Need To Know To Live Well Abroad For Less, was recently released by Penguin Books.
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