With the decision finalized, the project of moving internationally took on a different flavor. The number of details to be arranged was overwhelming. Everything must be done at once, in this phase.
We realized that impeccable organization would be the only way to survive. We set up file folders for different aspects of the planning process, and put to- do lists within the folders. Gary made lists on his computer. I had stacks of legal pads, each with notes on a different topic.
The main work of the moment was to begin application for temporary residence visas. After having read about how expensive visa lawyers are, we decided to do all the work ourselves. That silly decision didn’t stand long!
What did it take for us to begin making this a reality?
Some of you are wondering about retiring to Ecuador, yourselves. You’ve asked about what it took to make this decision and how we made the choices and how specifically the move came about. So I’m posting an amended compilation of some of the blog posts that I wrote for a travel company as we went along. Now you can benefit from our experience! ——————————————————————
PHASE 1 – Considering The Idea of Retiring in Ecuador
In the second month after our return from Ecuador, Gary and I started talking seriously with each other and with a few friends about the pros and cons of leaving our beloved home country and having an adventure in a place where we would be perpetual foreigners. (Retired, debt-free, relaxed foreigners.) Do we really want to live in South America for several years? The idea is thrilling to both of us! After decades of hard work, we love the idea of having an adventure that’s totally different! We love the U.S. but we want to see more of the world too.
In the evening of April 6, 2019, we arrived at our new home in Cuenca, Ecuador. Traveling for 9 solid days had sapped all our strength and enthusiasm. Relief flooded our beings as we stepped onto the grass of our Ecuadorian house’s lawn. Home at last! This house had been posted on Facebook, so we had never seen it in person. it was far bigger and prettier than it seemed online. It had a big yard with flowers, fruit trees and veggie garden. The whole lot was perched on a steep hillside, overlooking the city and a range of mountains. The animals sniffed and explored every inch of the place. It felt like an oasis we could replenish within.
The view of the sunrise from our hilltop house was stunning! It was the first time of many many many future times that we photographed the sunrise over the landscape. Mountains filled our living room’s wall of windows. El Cajas is the wilderness park covering the mountains. Morning mists gave way to dramatic cloud sculptures that gradually thinned, leaving us with a sky of deep blue.
The owners were away for a vacation. They had invited us to stay in the house when we arrived, and we would all share the house for a week when they returned from their trip. It was good to have a couple days to rest and unwind from the arduous journey. When they returned, it went beautifully. We’d never met before, yet a nice friendship quickly developed. We discovered much in common. They took us to their Buddhist meditation gathering, and showed us hiking spots and the best mercados. Apparently we had slid right into the place where we were meant to be.
Our first week was spent largely resting, with the animals always at our sides. At an altitude of 8,500 feet, our bodies required a lot of adjusting. The dog and cat too. At first we napped twice every day. Any exertion required an immediate nap. We knew to drink a lot more water than usual. Still, it was a few weeks before we could get by on just one nap per day.
Our wondrous, helpful facilitator, Tina, helped us complete the process of getting our cédulas. This required three more days of cab rides and visits to multiple offices. First we took the papers we got in Quito to an office in Cuenca. They told us we had to go to another office in the town of Azogues, which was a 45 minute drive away. We hired a recommended local driver, Nestor, and were so glad we did. He was knowledgeable, familiar with both cities and was a safe driver. He spoke English very well, so he was a big help with translating. In Azogues, we waited and waited and met with people who told us to walk to their bank and deposit $10 into their account and return with the receipt. There were a few hitches in the process, so we had to return the next day with Nestor. Thankfully, he was available to drive us again. When that was complete, he drove us back to Cuenca to another office. After much waiting, we had our photos taken at last received our cédulas! By that time Gary and I, Tina and Nestor were all starving and drained.
In the course of doing all of this, we caught the usual stomach bugs. Our digestive systems are not accustomed to the microorganisms that live in the water here. It’s best to avoid local food and water for a little while, while our systems adjust. Gary and I spent the next two weeks struggling with digestive distress off and on. We brought with us a powerful herbal tincture for digestion, which helped. We explored the city and explored the countryside near our rural house during the next weeks. But our digestive troubles necessitated short excursions.
Thus passed our first month: in a whirlwind of activity and illness, punctuated by naps and long hours spent wandering in the heavenly beautiful garden to ground ourselves into our new locale.
The moment we’d been aiming towards for a year finally arrived. Clusters of city lights emerged from the darkness as our plane sank lower, skimming over the nighttime Andes mountains towards our new home in Ecuador.Our airline changed our flight from a daytime one to a much later flight. We had to accept a midnight arrival. As the plane touched down, I could hear Star, our Australian Shepherd dog, begin howling in the baggage compartment, right beneath our feet. Our cat Maya was surely huddling wide-eyed in her kennel next to Star’s, letting the howling speak for her.
When we filed in the Customs area, I had to switch my brain from English to Spanish.The Customs agents were swift. They briefly reviewed our Temporary Residency Visas and cheerfully welcomed us to Quito.
Within minutes, the animals’ kennels rolled out on the conveyor belt. Had we sent them via cargo, there would have been a wait of many hours, while all the cargo was checked in by the Agriculture department. We were so thankful for our facilitator, who advised shipping them as baggage. According to her, American Airlines has the best record for taking animals safely as baggage.
Cristian (our facilitator’s assistant and our driver) met us shortly after we stepped out of the Customs area. The first order of business was to take Star and Maya outside for some relief from their kennels. They were so well behaved! We expected some misbehavior after their ordeal, but there was none.Maya, in her harness, explored the bushes. Star bounded around licking everyone in sight.
We stuffed our 4 duffels, 2 backpacks, 2 carry-ons, and 2 kennels into the driver’s truck. He drove an hour to the historic Hotel Vieja Cuba in metropolitan Quito. Bleary-eyed, we met the equally bleary-eyed hotel staff at 3 am. We carried everything up three flights of carved wood stairs to our room.
The next two days were spent beginning the process of obtaining our national ID cards, called cédulas.Good thing we had an expert driver who knew the city and knew the routine for applying for cédulas. Lots of driving and lots of walking were required.
It was our first exposure to some unexpected Ecuadorian methods of doing business. We went to one agency and stood in a long line. When we got to the window, they began the paperwork, then told us to go pay a fee of $5 each at their bank. Cristian led us to their bank a few blocks away.We stood in line there (noticing many of the same people who were in the first agency) and eventually paid our $10 into the agency’s account.With the receipt of deposit in hand, we returned to the agency and stood in line again to prove that we’d paid. Then they issued the first set of papers indicating that we were immigrating (temporarily).This whole process was repeated a few times at different offices, to get varying levels of proof that we had visas and qualified for a cédula.
This whole process plus the altitude plus the exhaustion from travel wore Gary and myself down. When we were done, Cristian took us to a big lovely park to soothe our exhausted brains and bodies. It was a spacious expanse of woods and meadows, with an old adobe barn. Star raced along the paths. After a week in a car and hotels, then a day in a plane and more hotels, she was ecstatic to stretch her legs. We all lay in the grass, gazing at the deep blue sky filled with huge fluffy clouds. I chatted with a woman doing Kundalini yoga under a blossoming tree. Star trotted with a dog pal. I wondered if the dogs had any language barrier.
In our down time, we explored the city of Quito a bit. Between modern skyscrapers and city parks, there were little tiendas (stores) selling a specific product such as bread, or pastries, or batteries or toys. Gary and I ate most of our meals in the hotel, but had a couple excellent lunches at nearby cafes. We loved seeing some of Quito, the capitol city that we aren’t likely to visit often. Within a few blocks radius we found great food and met interesting locals.
On our last day, we we checked out of the Hotel Vieja Cuba, we bumped into a friend from our first visit. Fabiano was the charming and knowledgeable tour guide that you probably read about, in our previous story about our visit to the volcanic crater, Lake Cuicocha, near Cotacachi. He remembered us, and gave us his number to stay in touch. We will surely hire him for some future adventure tours.
DRIVING ACROSS ECUADOR
Gary and I had the choice to take a short flight from Quito to our destination of Cuenca, or drive it. Driving meant navigating ten hours of sometimes winding roads through the Andes Mountains. We chose to have Cristian drive us, so we could see the countryside at close range. Thankfully, he’s a safe and careful driver. We’ve since learned that many are not… many drive way too fast and text while they do it.
Cristian loaded us into his SUV with the kennels strapped to the top. There was room for the dog and cat to move around a little bit between suitcases, and see out the windows.
What a good decision it was, to drive! Ecuador is filled with every kind of scenery imaginable. No cookie-cutter chain store malls were visible on this drive. Cristian was a good tour guide, letting us know what we were passing when it was of interest.He even knew the names of the various volcanoes, and whether or not they were active. We shared a lot of interests with Cristian – an architectural engineer as well as part-time driver – so our lively discussions helped the hours pass quickly.
The scenery endlessly changed, kaleidoscopically. Cristian drove us past small farms with families tending their corn fields and farm animals.Llamas wandered around the yards of shacks with tin roofs.Cattle roamed loose as children played around them. Quechua women in colorful wool dresses led goats along the roadside. Always there were loose dogs guarding the animals and people.
Sprawling haciendas sat on immense rolling hills, surrounded by tidy symmetrical flower gardens. Their well-tended acreage showed the ripples, terracing and furrows of the mountainous terrain. Shadows of the ever-present “cloud forest” clouds slid across the fields of grass.
There was variation in the terrain, in the altitude, in the animals we passed, and in the wealth of the populace.Towns displayed fascinating architecture of differing styles, built in different centuries. Tiny shops lined narrow streets in the cities and in the smaller pueblos. Pretty gardened neighborhoods showed typical Ecuadorian housing styles. Ice cream (“helado”) shops were everywhere that there was civilization.
In a high mountain pass, we were engulfed by the cloud forest! Cristian had to drive slowly through the thick mist. I peeked over the edge of a cliff as we drove, looked down and saw the tops of other mountains below me!Looking down a mountaintop was a highly unusual experience. We parked at a restaurant on that mountaintop, to get some lunch with “chocolaté caliente”.All three of us took photos of the valleys with villages far below, wreathed by clouds. Even more memorable than the scenery was the delicious hot chocolate. Ecuador is where chocolate comes from, and it is beyond heavenly.
Heading towards Cuenca, the towns evolved into small cities, with all the amenities. A sign advertised ancient Incan ruins to visit. Businesspeople in suits zoomed to and fro on the sidewalks, passing indigenous women in velvet skirts and panama hats selling fruits out of baskets. The typical Ecuadorian contrasts are always in view. These cities are anything but boring…. colorful, active, full of life.
Just as we entered the outskirts of Cuenca, the clouds opened to release a huge beam of golden sunlight that shone down onto the city and the University. It perfectly it the city streets that wound around and up and over the many hills. What a perfect welcome to our new home! With this first view, I already felt at home.
“Do you have indoor bathrooms in Ecuador?” This was a question that I was asked when I told someone we were moving to Ecuador. And this person is not poorly educated.
That’s not the only odd comment we heard from people in the USA when Ecuador was mentioned.
Here are a few good ones:
When Bonnie told one person that Ecuador was in South America she said, “oh, so its considered part of our country”.It’s South, not North America.She was thinking it was part of the US.
From a person in another state when I was visiting:“Isn’t that somewhere up by Russia?” I was hoping he was kidding, but I don’t think so.
Others, like my dad, are pretty sure we are either going to be thrown in jail for something or killed by drug runners. This comes from watching too many movies.
So the answer is yes, Ecuador does have indoor bathrooms. In our rental house in Cuenca, we have three, complete with flush toilets.We also have indoor cooking facilities, a nice big kitchen, washers, and dryers.Not everyone has all these amenities, but there are some pretty fancy houses down here.
Ecuador is part of South America, the American continent that is farthest south.Not the same continent as Mexico.We are still Americans (South Americans) down here, just not North Americans.
The truth is, we live in a beautiful custom built house on a hillside, overlooking a beautiful mountain above and a large river below, that is one of two that flow through the city we live in.The city, Cuenca, is a **UNESCO world heritage site**, and home to many people from all over the world.It has a modern public transport system, bike paths, public bicycles, towering apartment complexes, large super markets, spas, car dealerships, great restaurants and all the other amenities of a modern city.
We don’t own a car here because the public transportation is very effective.We walk, and take buses and taxis everywhere.If we have to go somewhere far, we have specific drivers that we use who are very affordable.It’s much cheaper than owning a car in the US.Granted, there are limitations not having a car handy at all times, but the trade offs are worth it and you get used to it.It’s kind of nice having someone else do all the driving!
If your looking for big box stores, there aren’t any familiar ones down here.No Home Depots, Best Buys, Bed, Bath and Beyonds, etc.There are local versions but they are not the overflowing adult candy stores like those in the US.I do miss that sometimes, but not enough to long for them.They are replaced by many small to medium size mom and pop stores.Entrepreneurship is very prevalent here.
The bottom line is, Cuenca, where we live in Ecuador is beautiful, safe, clean, and has everything we need.We live an almost US city lifestyle, except it costs a lot less to do so.And, the weather and sky is awesome.Now if you will excuse me, I have to go use my indoor bathroom!
Street dogs are uncommon in downtown (El Centro) Cuenca but become more prevalent as you get into the outlying areas.Still, there are not as many as we encountered in Cotacachi, Ecuador, until you get to the outer areas of Cuenca.In our area of Cuenca, Rio Amarillo, it seems like everyone has a dog, either running loose on the street, or captive behind a fenced or gated yard.
Rio Amarillo is a barrio about two miles west of El Centro.There is a mix of really nice houses and some plain ones.It’s a very mixed income neighborhood, but a very nice one.There are lots of dogs here.
Many people in Cuenca seem to own dogs for one reason…property protection. For a majority, they are not pets, companions, or “furry friends” here.Some live on the street or sidewalk in front of businesses, some wander the street in front of their homes, and others are kept behind fenced in areas.Yet others are staked or chained near the property they are there to protect.The neighbor behind us has a dog on a two foot rope, with a doghouse, near their guinea pig pens.Since there are stray cats in the area, we assume his sole purpose is to protect the guinea pigs from the cats.The guinea pigs here are food for the household.That dog has no freedom.
It’s unusual to see an Ecuadorian walking a dog on a leash but we have seen a few.When we walk ours down the streets, the street dogs and the ones behind the gates go berserk barking and growling.When we take a walk without our dog, the other dogs don’t bother us. I’m guessing it’s a territorial thing.
Many of the dogs we’ve encountered, both on the street and behind fences, look like they could use a bath.I’ve heard that most people never bathe their dogs in their lives. Some of them are downright mean, while others try to look mean, but you know they are just posing.I learned not to reach out to pet any of them, especially the raggedy poodles.Dirty, mean little nippers they are – most that we’ve seen. Again, most of the dogs seem unbothered by us, unless we have our dog with us.
It is painful to see how badly many dogs are treated around here. A dog can be a wonderful friend and companion if treated properly, and can and will still protect property if needed.Some locals don’t see this.They show little to no compassion for dogs and because the dogs are taught to be mean and aggressive, many are afraid of dogs.
We have a loving, very friendly dog who likes to meet people.When we walk her here, people avoid us out of fear they will be bitten.Many are surprised and pleased that Star, our dog, is so loving and friendly.Many Ecuadorians are amazed at how well trained and behaved she is.At our hostel in Quito, the staff fell in love with her, and even all had their pictures taken with her before we left.Star was a star to them.
As more gringos move in with their dogs and more locals see that there is another way to live with them, things should change for the better.I acknowledge that the reason many dogs go uncared for is because it takes every penny for many locals to just feed their families, and pets need to be low on the priority list.I also will note that many of the dogs on the street are very friendly and street smart.Most dogs brought from the US would never survive the way these savvy dogs do, after years of cushy treatment.
There is a reason for the way things are done in every culture and we acknowledge, that while we may not like the way some of these dogs are treated, this is the native culture and it is not our place to judge.We will continue to treat our own dog and the friendly dogs we meet with love and compassion and maybe that example will be seen and followed by others.
Last night, we had the pleasure of dining at one of the highest rated restaurants in Cuenca, Ecuador, La Petit Jardin, which happens to be in our neighborhood.Our friends, hosts, and landlords, introduced us to this restaurant and are friends with the owners and chef.We walked, almost a mile, uphill to the restaurant, through what many North Americans would consider a shady neighborhood, passing abandoned buildings, street dogs, and vacant lots.Undeveloped areas like this are common in Ecuador, and not to be feared.Eventually we turn onto a dirt road offering the same but with one beautiful huge house (casa) behind a fence.One more turn onto another single lane dirt road, and we reach La Petit Jardin, situated in a beautiful house with gardens and a llama hanging out in the field nearby.It is in the most unlikely location you would ever expect such a fine restaurant to be in, but it works.
We arrive, the front door opens, and we are greeted by one of the owners.The restaurant is empty and it looks like we are the first guests for the evening.They only open Saturday and Sunday.The rest of the week, the chef and owner, Giovanni, is shopping for ingredients for the next week, and spending time with his family.Their residence is next door.
We are seated,given our menus, which offer a limited but delectable looking selection of Entrees, Appetizers, and drinks.After polishing off two appetizers, we order four different meals between us.Trout, short ribs, a shrimp dish, and a chicken dish.Wow!They were all beautifully presented, and perfectly cooked.I had the short ribs, which melted in my mouth.Our friend Lucy had the trout and offered me a taste.I think it was the best trout I have ever tasted.I didn’ttry the chicken or shrimp but was told they were exquisite also.We finished the meals with a bowl of ice cream, called helados here.The ice cream was home made with local fruit.DELICIOUS!
Then, the big shock, the bill!Four entrees, two appetizers, two Mojitas with Cuban Havana rum, one craft beer, and one desert.$54.00.We just had the most incredible dinner for four, for $54.00.My jaw nearly dropped.No where in the United States would you find a meal of this quality for that low of a price.My kudos to Giovanni for being able to offer such a fine meal for so affordable a price.That makes it easy to go out to a fine restaurant more often.
We pay our bill, and say goodbye to Giovanni and his wife.As we are leaving he says to me, “we are neighbors now, so we will see you again.”He was exactly right, he will.
The decision was made by both of us to move to Cuenca, Ecuador for a year or two as soon as we can get everything done that needs to be done before we can leave. And that is the problem.
It is no easy task to move to another country. We have an established life with a house, a dog, a cat, and lots of stuff accumulated over the years. Moving to another house or across country is hard enough, but it’s a heck of lot easier than moving to Ecuador. In country, you just take your stuff, put it in a truck, and move it to the next location. Not so much with an international move. Not only is it too expensive to ship our possessions to Ecuador, but we don’t want to have all of them there. The whole idea is to lighten our load and be nearly possessions-free. The free feeling that alone will give us may be worth all the effort.
We decided to rent out our house and sell most of its contents…furniture, tools, cookware, cars, kayaks, and a whole lot of other sh%*. This takes, as we are finding out, a lot of time and energy, not to mention the emotional toll of getting rid of personal treasures accumulated over a lifetime. The timing has to be right for renting the house, selling the cars, and making plane reservations; otherwise we may be stuck in limbo with no home or vehicles for a period of time.
We’ll also be taking the dog and cat. They are much-loved family members. The logistics for getting them there is challenging. They need a full series of vaccines and shots from a USDA certified vet. They need special kennels to travel in. Arrangements have to be made with the airlines to accommodate pets. The cat will probably go on board, under the seat, the dog with check-in luggage. I can’t wait to see our smart dog’s reaction when she’s stuck in a kennel, gliding on a conveyor belt into a hole in the wall as we slowly disappear from her sight. I can hear her yelps of protest already!
And then there’s the required visa paperwork which includes: FBI reports, state police reports, marriage license, birth certificates, and more all needing to be apostilled by different agencies in different states. Then, they all have to be translated into Spanish, perfectly. Ecuador is a Hague convention country, and has lots of hoops to jump through for a temporary residence visa. My understanding is that getting a US visa is a lot harder. Glad I’m not going that direction!
It’s December and we have been at this for about 3 months now. So far, even though we’ve sold a lot of stuff, bought a kennel for the dog to travel in, and received our apostilled FBI reports back, there is still tons to do.
One of the hardest things about this is keeping our heads in the game and keeping the momentum going. We live in a beautiful place, great town, super friends, and lots of amenities. Still, we want to have this adventure in our senior years. It’s hard to leave what we have. But when we look at what is ahead of us – freedom, simplicity, learning new things, trying new foods, and visiting new places – we get motivated. Ecuador is beautiful and friendly to foreigners. We have friends there too. Life will be simpler, less expensive, more challenging in some ways, less in others.
We have decided to hire a facilitator to help us with this whole process. It’s an expense but since talking with her we already feel so much better. She will handle translating all our documents into Spanish, and getting them notarized in Ecuador. She will help us with the pets, booking the tickets, arranging for transport and arrival in Quito. What a relief!
We figure we have about three more months before we get on the plane. We’re preparing the animals by sending them mental pictures of what’s going to happen. I hope it works and makes their trip easier. We are making sure to book a direct, nonstop flight to Quito to ease the pain. From there we will take one more short flight to Cuenca. We’ll spend a couple of days in Quito and get our cedula (identification card) before heading to Cuenca.
Moving to Ecuador is not easy, especially with pets, but we are really looking forward to the adventure and the change. Good times are ahead in South America. We can feel it!
My 3 weeks spent scouting Cuenca, Ecuador was enough to give me a feel for the city and enough information was gathered to make some major decisions about living there. In 3 weeks time, I walked close to 200 miles within a 2-mile radius of where we were staying in our AirBnB.
We spent part of the 4th of July taking a car tour of Cuenca neighborhoods with Jeff.Jeff is an expat married to an Ecuadorian woman.He has been in Cuenca for about 4.5 years, speaks decent Spanish, and unlike many gringos, has a van, and drives.
We were joined by Stephen, from Atlanta, who was also down here on an exploratory tour to determine if he and his wife want to live here.
We started the tour by driving to the top of a mountain to a lookout point with an overview of the neighborhoods.From there we had a spectacular view of all of Cuenca.Jeff pointed out the different areas and the good and bad points of each one.We drove back down and started our neighborhood tour.
There are eight main neighborhoods that we toured in Cuenca and here’s what I remember.