Feb. 17, 2013, San Antonio de Ibarra, Ecuador: The artisan villages north of Quito, Ecuador, are one of the leading sources in the world for high-quality, low-cost, handmade items perfect for import-export.
Also This Week: Cuenca Versus Medellin--Which Is The Better Retire Overseas Choice?...Three Things To Remember As You Plan Your New Life In Ecuador (Or Anywhere)... At Least He Wasn't Wearing A Speedo...An Ideal Place To Weather The Storm...
Dear Overseas Opportunity Letter Reader,
It's presidential Election Day in Ecuador, and, if you're an Ecuadorean living in the country, you've got to vote. It's mandatory. Further, you've got to vote in the place of your birth.
So, yesterday, the highways of this country were jammed with vehicles of all descriptions as folks made their way to the city, town, or village where they'd been born. This morning, they're all waking up and casting their ballots to determine who will run Ecuador for the next four years.
"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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