I traveled to Ecuador for the first time nearly 20 years ago and lived in the country—in Cuenca and in Vilcabamba—for 6 years. It’s one of my favorite places in the world, still one of the world’s best places to think about living or retiring overseas, especially if you’ll be making the move on a modest budget.
However, Ecuador is not for everyone.
Here are 10 insights into life in this beautiful country, my top tips for the would-be Ecuador expat or retiree…
Tip #1: Always start with “buenos días” (good morning).
People in this part of the world don’t jump right into the issue when addressing each other. So, when you get into a taxi, for example, you don’t start with, “Take me to _____.” You start with “Good morning.” When entering a store, smile at everyone you pass and say good morning or how are you. Then say, “Do you have any ____?”
In more personal settings, handshakes and kisses when coming and going are important. Your days of leaving a party by walking out the door saying “See you all later” are over. When leaving a party, you go around, shake everyone’s hand and kiss all the women on the cheek. It’s the same thing when arriving somewhere.
I used to go to the gym every morning. First thing I’d do when I got there was go around and shake hands with everyone else working out. Everyone knew everyone.
That greeting is something you don’t want to bypass, because if you arrive or leave a place without saying hello and goodbye to someone, the assumption is that you’re mad at the person.
Tip #2: Don’t show up to parties on time.
The first time I was invited to a party in this country, my hostess told me to “Come at 7 o’clock”… so I came at 7 o’clock.
The husband was running down the steps, buckling his pants, and his wife was still in the shower. I realized that 7 o’clock meant 9 o’clock.
The second time this couple invited me over, they said, “Come at 9.”
“Does that mean I come at 11?” I asked.
“No, we will tell you the real time,” they told me. “Everyone else knows better.”
Many people in this part of the world can’t keep commitments. You will learn quick who can and who can’t, and you’ll learn to work with the people who meet your expectations. Many, you’ll find, will give you their word for an appointment then simply go somewhere else instead, to another scheduled appointment or to do something that came up or something they just preferred to do instead.
Until you adapt to this, you will lose time sitting at home waiting for people who don’t show.
Tip #3: Be courteous.
You get what you give. People who smile and approach others with courtesy get the same thing in return. In my experience, people were nicer to me than to a lot of their fellow Ecuadorians because I was nice to them.
Tip #4: Acknowledge your bad Spanish.
I’ve found that this gets you a lot of points. Unless your Spanish is legitimately fluent, begin any conversation with, “Excuse me, my Spanish is not very good, but…”
First, this makes the Spanish-speaker more attentive to what you’re saying, but it does something else, too. It lets the person on the other end of the conversation know that you’re not a cocky American who’s going to barge in and belligerently demand what he wants. It signals instead that you’re asking for help. That really puts someone in a different state of mind.
Tip #5: Pedestrians do not have the right of way, ever.
Lots of people get run over. One trick when crossing a street with a stop sign is to cross behind the lead car. Locals don’t ever cross in front because that car is watching the traffic. When there is an opening to go, they will go whether there is someone in front of the car or not. The pedestrians are just expected to scatter. It takes some getting used to, but you can’t expect crosswalks to be honored or for pedestrians ever to have the right of way.
Tip #6: You’ve got to drive aggressively.
If you’re a yield-to-the-right-of-way person, you’re going to be sitting at the first intersection you come up to until doomsday. Ecuadorians are very aggressive behind the wheel. They don’t let people in, and they don’t show courtesy, neither to pedestrians nor to other drivers. If you can’t drive like them, you’re better off not driving. I found it fun, so much more fun than driving in the States, when I got used to it.
Tip #7: Forget your ideas about personal space.
We tend to treasure a little space around us and don’t touch or rub up against each other in public. Once in this country I was taking the bus and sitting next to a 12-year-old girl on her way home from school. As we were riding along, she fell asleep on my shoulder. When we got to her stop, she woke up and got off. That’s a kind of closeness we’re not prepared for.
Tip #8: Don’t get in a taxi without agreeing the fare in advance.
One time, when I was living in Cuenca, I arrived at the Cuenca airport and asked a driver, “How much to downtown?”
He said, “Six dollars.”
I said, “I don’t think so. I live here!”
He said, “Two dollars.”
Tip #9: Don’t wait to be seated and other restaurant etiquette.
In the United States, when entering a restaurant, we wait to be seated, but here you seat yourself. Also, in our culture, a waiter is designated to certain tables, and you only ask your waiter for more water, etc. That doesn’t happen here. All the waiters are happy to help. If you need something, don’t worry about who took your order, just grab the next guy you see.
Also, you need to ask for the check. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen folks angrily waiting for their checks while the restaurant has wanted to close 20 minutes ago. All the waiters stand shoulder-to-shoulder by the kitchen wishing the people would just ask for the check so they can go home. It’s a standoff that happens all the time. It would be rude for a waiter to bring the check before you ask for it. By asking for it, they know you’re done. You can say, “La cuenta, por favor.”
Restaurant bills here include a 10% tip. If you want to leave something extra, that is fine but not expected. If I know the restaurant owner doesn’t distribute tips to the wait staff, I leave cash on the table.
Tip #10: Bring patience with you.
Know that nothing will be as efficient as where you’re from. Be patient.
You’re gonna love life in Ecuador if you learn to appreciate the differences.