When it came to retirement, we had the world at our feet. We could pick and choose our destination with some simple parameters: safety, affordability, sustainability but not over-crowded and not a big city. We did extensive research and we decided to start our retirement in Ecuador.
We had been to the country on our honeymoon. We had explored much of the country in the few weeks we were there and felt it satisfied our needs. Once that was decided, we began looking for a place to rent that would accept our pug, Niele. After looking at a lot of possibilities we managed to find a place for rent in Cotacachi.
Next came immigration and what seemed to be a difficult process. After reading several tales of the difficulties dealing with the laws in Ecuador, we decided to hire a lawyer that specialized in expatriates immigrating to Ecuador. Her prices were reasonable by American standards and we were impressed with her prompt responses and thorough instructions.
The amount of paperwork was exhausting. We needed fingerprints and criminal records from the local police, criminal background checks from the FBI, a current marriage certificate, birth certificates and a social security letter verifying retirement income. All documents needed to be official originals, signed, sealed, notarized, apostilled or some combination of each. The Ecuadorian immigration requirements changed shortly before we were due to be in the country, and we barely managed to mail the newly notarized and apostilled marriage license the second time just before boarding the plane to leave for Ecuador.
Our lawyer also recommended a moving company that could transport our household from Hawaii to our home in Cotacachi door to door. They provided detailed instructions on how to pack, what we could and could not bring, the documentation needed and made all the arrangements for a container. We knew a highly reputable company to pack our belongings in Hawaii and they did a tremendous job. A word of caution, it is critically important that the inventory list be extremely accurate and exactly match the labeled items in your container. Any deviations can be cause for problems and delays, which you will get charged for on a daily basis. Another cautionary note is to double check the import laws thoroughly before deciding what to bring.
There are many items that are not allowed to be imported and doing so will cause you a lot of money and time (and pain). If you are considering whether or not to your household with you, it is good to note that you can buy everything you need for your household in Ecuador. Some items are more expensive, some are less. And some of the creature comforts that North Americans are accustomed to are hard to find such as certain brand names, or super plush sofas, or high end computers (that don’t cost a fortune). But for the most part (except for a few items), you can get all you need for a comfortable, functional and beautiful home in Ecuador.
Once we were ready to go, house sold, cars sold and all documents ready, we packed as much as we could carry and headed for the airport. We were able to have our luggage checked all the way through to Quito with the help of an outstanding young gentleman working for Hawaiian Airlines in Kona. If it is at all possible, when you fly to Ecuador from the U.S., avoid any stops in other countries in Central America, otherwise you will need to have your bags inspected at those stops as well.
Since we were traveling with our dog, who is a registered service animal, we wanted to avoid any unnecessary stop or inspections. Traveling with a dog, or any animal internationally, requires additional paperwork and preparations. There are vaccinations required, health records, agricultural forms, inspections and approvals that have to be done and signed just before you leave, even for service dogs. Airlines have many restrictions on pets and regulations are constantly changing. We did an enormous amount of research and chose our airlines and airports carefully, making sure we notified all of the airlines in advance and had numerous copies of all the required documents for each airline and airport security stop. We also booked First or Business class whenever possible to allow enough room for our service dog to fit at our feet and under the seat so he would be comfortable on the very long flights. Our best memory was on the leg from Houston to Quito when we were disembarking the plane and the flight attendant remarked “there was a dog on the flight?”!
Our flight arrived in the early morning, just after midnight. With all of our luggage and a dog in tow, we hired a porter to get our bags through customs and inspection. He handled our paperwork and escorted us through customs without incident. I highly recommend hiring a porter to help with this, it seems to be much easier to get through the process. Our lawyer had recommended we make sure we hire a local taxi with a green stripe to ensure safety and good prices. Then we encountered what happens when you drive to the airport in Hawaii with a pickup truck full of luggage then try to shoehorn the same amount into a subcompact in Ecuador. I was amazed it all fit. The new airport in Quito was built on the outskirts of the city and the long winding drive through the backstreets to get to the Hilton in the wee hours of the morning was quite an adventure. We had picked the Hilton because they are dog friendly, and, once we had extricated ourselves from the tiny taxi, check-in went smoothly. I had worked for Hilton and found the room, restaurants and staff up to standards.
We spent the next few days enjoying and exploring the capitol of our new home. Our rental house wouldn’t be ready for a couple of days so we had some time to spend in Quito. We especially enjoyed the large parks and scenic streets where we could walk Niele and sightsee. On Sunday, a few streets were pedestrian only and even more fun for the three of us to take a stroll. On check-out day we booked a driver with a minivan to take us to Cotacachi and our new home.
One thing to note, drivers in Quito may know how to get you to Otavalo where the largest open market in South America is located, but they might not be as familiar with Cotacachi and they may need help. Our driver got lost and after asking directions from several people, including a cop, we finally got directions to our new home. I had to laugh because “directions” in Ecuador are like in Hawaii “go to the gas station on the highway and turn towards the hill, then go up the hill until you see a driveway on the right, can’t miss it”. We found the driveway, then had to drive across a field because the main entry was on the other side. But we got a nice view of the compound as we did.
The house was a nice enough place and we made friends with our new neighbors quickly and settled in for our first year in the country. We are now on our third rental and have some experiences to share and recommendations. Not all landlords and rentals are created equal. Most landlords will ask for a security deposit, usually one month’s rent, along with or before the first month’s rent. Some landlord’s will want you to sign a rental contract, some may not. After the fact, our lawyer informed us that for our protection, if we sign a rental contract we should insist on having it notarized. Also, make sure you do a thorough initial walk-through with photos and/or video and a written description of the condition of the property submitted within three to five days of moving in, and keep copies. Ensure you understand the rental contract, even if it’s in Spanish, including the procedure for eviction, notification of moving out, and the procedure for obtaining your security deposit.
Additional recommendations if you will be renting include: ask lots of questions. Often, rental ads in Ecuador state unfurnished, however this usually means no appliances as well (no refrigerator, stove, oven, dishwasher, nothing). Make sure you are clear exactly what is included in the rental property. What is meant by unfurnished or furnished, what utilities (exactly) are included, exactly what type of internet (and what company and how many kilobytes you will be getting – if you need reliable internet), if the property is secure and what exactly that means, and, if you need it, if parking is available, close, and included. The difference between renting in Ecuador and renting in the U.S. is striking. We also recommend checking out the property before signing anything. In your checkout, test the water pressure, the electricity, the fireplace (if possible), the appliances if they are included, and, if possible, checkout the internet.
We looked at possibly buying a house in Ecuador since the market is very attractive. There are homes for sale at very reasonable prices and you can buy land and build a custom home for less than you’d pay in the U.S. Once again, get a lawyer to help you navigate through the paperwork, there are horror stories of expats buying land from one person only to find someone else holds the title. Same old rule, let the buyer beware.
Ecuador has universal healthcare and you have the option of public healthcare, IESS, or using private companies. The prices vary greatly as does the coverage. We recommend comparing and contrasting the benefits and drawbacks of the IESS system against several different private companies so you obtain the best insurance for your situation. The health care in Ecuador is quite a bit less expensive than in the U.S. So for many things, such as prescription medicines and minor doctor visits, it’s less expensive to just pay out of pocket. For many drugs, a prescription is not required, and the generic equivalents of some drugs are very inexpensive. Word of caution: most pharmacies will not ask if you want the generic for the prescription, and will provide you the brand name which will be considerably more expensive than the generic alternative.
When we planned our moved, our research showed that Ecuador had really good public transportation, including buses, taxis, and trains. We decided that we would “go with the flow” and use public transportation and had not planned on purchasing a vehicle. However, we are explorers and travelers by nature and soon found the public transportation limiting, restrictive, and untimely. For every day escapades into town, we usually just walk, but for exploring the countryside and all the natural beauty, we found ourselves longing for a vehicle, specifically a 4x4 vehicle.
Vehicles in Ecuador are not priced that much higher than vehicles in Hawai’i. But if you are from a state on the mainland, or another country, where vehicles are much cheaper then Hawai’i, you might get sticker shock. The good news is the price includes all the taxes, license and registration for the first year. Very cool! The bad news is the price is high for what you get. There are plenty of car dealerships for new and used cars everywhere. There are even car shows where you can get a slight discount. But shop carefully, and ask a ton of questions.
Driving meant driver’s licenses. And, since we hadn’t planned on obtaining them, the additional paperwork required presented more frustrations and challenges. We hired a local law firm to assist, since the same constantly changing requirements we witnessed getting our visas also applied to getting our driver’s licenses. Our word of caution is to plan on getting a driver’s license and obtain all the necessary paperwork needed while preparing to obtain your visa, even if you don’t think you will be driving. The extra work is worth it, if you do decide to obtain your licenses so that you don’t have to try to obtain documents, notarizations and apostilles from your country of origin while in Ecuador – quite difficult without flying back.
We also strongly recommend that if you are looking to settle abroad, find a local lawyer to help. It will save you time, effort, money and frustration in the long run. An additional plus to our visa lawyer was that she had an office in the U.S. so they could handle documents, notarizations and apostilles for us as well.
As we mentioned before, we love exploring. We’ve explored all around Cotacachi, driven around Imbabura, explored Intag, Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve to Laguna Piñan and up Mojanda to the scenic lake at the summit. We’ve also made the drive to the west coast to play at the beaches. While we love to drive, and take the dog, there are numerous options for traveling in and around Ecuador. These include buses, taxis, tourist transport (usually nice vans and buses with guides), and flights. All of the transport options available are much less expensive than we have experience with from Hawai’i, and most are less expensive than the mainland U.S. also. And all are fairly comfortable and accommodating. Plus, there are numerous tour companies based in Cotacachi that offer super fun part-day, full day, and multiple day tours at amazing prices.
Cotacachi also has its own thriving arts and cultural scene. There is the festival de la Jora, which has been celebrated every September for over four millennia, as has the seed festival, where farmers trade seeds for crops just before planting season. The annual music festival is a huge happening with concert venues throughout the city. As Cotacachi is famous for its leathercraft, fashion shows accompany many of the cultural events. Everything that can be made with leather can be found here, and they can make it to order for far less than you can buy “off the rack” in the U.S. Inti Raymi is an ancient cultural festival celebrated by the local indigenous neighborhoods and Cotacachi is no exception. The city is striving to become a music capital, with its Ruta de Musica, plaques and statues honoring artists and cultural icons and rich musical history. Simon and Garfunkel’s performance of “El Condor Pasa” on one their albums is derived from one of the folk songs commonly played in concerts here.
While farmers markets are becoming popular in the U.S., they have been common in Ecuador for centuries. Cotacachi has its Mercado, a warehouse filled with vendors selling all types of fresh vegetables, fruit, meat and seafood. There are small stores around the Mercado selling a variety of products from electronics, to kitchenware, to children’s items. Bordering the Mercado on one side is the bus terminal, with buses going all across the countryside, from Otavalo to Ibarra, Quito to the Columbian border and all points in between. Another side has taxis and trucks for hire, depending on just how much you have to take home. There is also a food court and a new section has been added with small restaurant-type kiosks that open in the evenings. There is a small “Gringo market” open each Thursday morning that has become a gathering place for expats to meet and shop, a new attraction has been freshly made sushi from a local restaurant that is excellent…and this Hawaii couple knows sushi.
Shoppers that prefer malls can find a couple in Ibarra, with large chain grocery stores, pharmacy’s, hardware stores, movie theaters and several specialty stores. The malls are also where you can find familiar names like KFC and Pizza Hut, but also a number of South American franchises that give them a run for their money.
We have found Cotacachi has a thriving restaurant scene with a wide range of cuisines. You can get a big juicy burger with fries for around $4 or a gourmet filet for up to $15. Pizza, salads, regional cuisine, coffee shops and cafés - half the fun is walking around looking for a place to eat and working up your appetite. There are several Facebook groups that use social media to keep the community informed and many of the businesses have their own Facebook page to provide information so you can keep up to date on events and new menu items or other news around town.
Finally, the greatest thing about Cotacachi is it’s “off the beaten path” feel. It’s just a few kilometers away from the Pan-American Highway but feels tucked away all by itself. It’s an artisan city surrounded by a pastoral landscape, on the shoulder of a volcano the locals call “Mama Cotacachi”. You can easily get to the shopping, hustle and bustle of Otavalo’s open market or Ibarra’s malls but also take a Sunday stroll to the park and enjoy a concert by a Cotacachi band. At any time there may be a parade by the schools, a wedding celebration outside the church or a concert at one of the local bars. If you’re not busy doing something in Cotacachi, well, you just don’t get out much. And that’s OK too….