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What is Your Address? About receiving mail and packages in Ecuador

15 Mar

We are occasionally asked for the address of property listings so that the area, etc. can be explored online using Google Earth. However, especially in the small coastal towns where we work,  there are no specific addresses. The streets do in fact have names (although you usually wouldn’t know it due to the lack of street signs) but there are no street numbers. Instead, locations are generally referenced using cross-streets and landmarks.

For instance, we are currently located along the main road in San Clemente, called Avenida Quito, two properties north of Hotel Palmazul. That’s our functional street address.

Hotel Palmazul’s address in their promotional brochure translates as: “Quito Avenue, no street number, and smaller cross street, 500 meters from the main highway. along the road towards Punta Bikini.” (Punta Bikini is one of the names for the scenic beachfront cliffs at the northern end of San Clemente).

 

And just FYI, the main road into and out of most towns is often called Avenida (or Calle) Quito, “calle” meaning street and pronounced “KAI-yay.”

When we bought a house in Crucita almost eight years ago, there was a giant, partially completed wooden fishing vessel on the beach one property in front of us. So our highly descriptive, yet totally functional address at the time translated to, “the thatched roof house behind the big boat, along the southern waterfront, below the paragliding hill(!)”

Southern end of Crucita in 2006 when the partially built fishing vessel was a Crucita landmark. The boat was finally completed at the end 2008.

 

So, without specific addresses (and no mail boxes), how does one receive mail? To be honest, we did not know the answer to this for years. All of our US bills were sent to us online and any other mail we had sent to my parent’s address in Texas–most of it junk mail anyways. For receiving packages, we often have people who are visiting bring us items that we’ve purchased online and had sent to their home address.

However, after many years of being asked this question, we FINALLY have some comprehensive answers.

 

INTERNATIONAL MAIL

There are basically four options for receiving international mail depending on your circumstances:

1.     If you plan to receive letters and packages regularly, one option is to rent a PO Box (“apartado postal”) at the post office in a nearby city. The national postal service is called Correos del Ecuador. For those of us living in San Jacinto/San Clemente we might choose either the post office in Bahia or Portoviejo. Rates for a standard sized P.O. box is $25/year.

PO Boxes are available for $25/year.

 

2.     To receive an occasional letter or package,  you can have it sent general delivery to the nearest post office where they will hold onto it until you come to claim it. The sender would address it in the following manner:

LAST NAME, First Name
Lista de Correos
Correo Central
City, ECUADOR

3.    If it’s an important document; e.g. containing powers-of-attorney, official birth certificates for getting your visa, etc. you should use an international courier service such as DHL which has offices in Manta and Portoviejo. There are no FedEx offices in this region–the closest is located in Guayaquil. These services are of course pricey (around $100 to send a couple of pages) but reliable.

4. Finally, if you live in a condo complex or a gated community, you can usually have mail sent to you directly since the location itself is a prominent landmark . The on-site guard/caretaker can receive the letter from the postman and then bring it to you. My in-laws who live in a Crucita condo have received mail on a number of occasions this way and say it typically takes 2 weeks from the US. Tom recently received a package at his parent’s address with prescription glasses and it took about a month to arrive from the time he ordered them. Mail sent in this manner would be addressed in the following way:

Recipient name
Condo number (if applicable)
Name of condo complex/gated community
Address using cross streets (and/or landmarks)
City, Province
ECUADOR

 

POSTAL CODES?

The other day I heard Tom exclaim, “Look at that! We actually have a postal code!” Sure enough, there is a website through Correos del Ecuador that enables you to look up your postal code (and actually has fairly detailed maps with street names when you zoom in). While postal codes technically exist, they don’t appear to be necessary or even used regularly. Not yet anyways.

Our location using the post office’s postal code finder. We discovered the names of the surrounding streets during this process and now know that we’re located between Streets H and I.

 

ADVANCES TO ECUADOR’S POSTAL SYSTEM

The national postal service has advanced significantly over the last several years. For example, the number of post office locations nearly doubled between 2006 and 2011 (today there are 412 offices in all 24 provinces), and now offer a variety of services including tracking, expedited mail service,  certified mail, and even Western Union.

Photos of postal delivery vehicles in 2006 (left) and in 2011 (right).

 

RELOCATION = LIFE WITHOUT AMAZON.COM?

Another service offered through the national postal service is Club Correos which  simplifies the process of receiving online purchases while living in Ecuador. In other words, you can still shop online from Ecuador.

Club Correos is an inexpensive service that handles your online purchases so that you can receive them in Ecuador with minimal hassle.

 

When you sign up for Club Correos, you are assigned a Miami-based mailing address that you use for your shipping address. Club Correos receives your online purchases at this address in Miami, takes care of any customs forms, and then ships your package to your Ecuador address (most reliably to a P.O. Box). As long as your package is valued at less than $400 and weighs less than 4 kg (8.8 lbs), they are duty free. There are some restrictions, now including all cell phones.  

The fee to join Club Correos is 11.20 per year. The website has a shipping calculator to determine your shipping price based on weight and value. For example, a 4 lb package valued at $100 would cost $23.21 in shipping.  In our experience thus far, it takes around 2 weeks to receive your purchases from the time they arrive to Miami.

Logistical Note: When you sign up for Club Correos they request a 10 digit identification number (US passports are 9 digits). Just add a zero and then enter your passport number.

Another note: I learned the hard way that it’s important to have all of your items shipped in a single package. Amazon often ships things separately so they arrive quicker. Instead of paying around $36 for my three items as I had expected, I paid almost $100 because each item was mailed separately. Ouch.

Here is nice summary about mail in Ecuador which also discusses sending mail (with some specifics pertaining to Quito). The ins and outs of sending and receiving domestic mail is a topic in and of itself that I’ll have to save for another time.

 

 

Ecuador Elections

03 Feb

February 23rd is election day throughout the country (referred to as “Elecciones Seccionales“).

Each of Ecuador’s 24 provinces will hold elections for the following political positions:

  • provincial governors and vice-governors (“prefectos y vice-prefectos”), 
  • mayors (“alcaldes”), 
  • aldermen (“consejales“), and
  • parish boards (“juntas parroquiales“). 

 

All are elected for 4-year terms without term restrictions.

Ecuador, with a geographic area equivalent to the US state of Colorado, has 24 provinces.

 

Each province is comprised of cantones (cantons) which are further subdivided into parroquias (parishes) that are classified as either urban or rural.

In our case, we live in the town of San Clemente, which is affiliated with the rural parish of Charapotó, located in the Cantón of Sucre, in the Province of Manabí. The county seat of Sucre is the city of Bahia de Caráquez. The provincial capital of Manabí is the city of Portoviejo.

The coastal province of Manabi is subdivided into 22 cantons.

 

In Manabí, there are nine candidates running for prefect (and thus nine political parties represented). The current prefect, Mariano Zambrano has been in office since 2005 and is up for re-election. In our canton of Sucre, there are six mayoral candidates, two of which are female.

Here is the breakdown for the number of candidates elected for each political position in the Province of Manabí:

  • 1 Prefect
  • 1 Vice-Prefect
  • 22 Mayors (1 per canton)
  • 100 Aldermen (urban)
  • 36 Aldermen (rural)
  • 53 Parish board presidents
  • 265 Parish board members

 

There are a LOT of political parties. There are 11 parties with seats in Parliament and 24 non-parliamentary parties. Each political party has a number and color scheme associated with it. For example, President Correa is affiliated with the Alianza PAIS party, with number 35 and its colors are lime green and dark blue.

The name, number and color scheme for President Correa´s political party.

 

Political campaigning is restricted to a total of 6 weeks (January 7- February 20) and consists of an onslaught of tv and radio commercials, posters and flags on vehicles, homes, and businesses, parades of honking vehicles with blaring music, as well as wide scale painting of public and private walls with candidates’ names and their party numbers. 

Walls are a primary way of political campaigning in Ecuador. This wall is located in San Clemente.

 

Voting is mandatory for Ecuadorian citizens between the ages of 18 and 65 residing in country. There is a monetary fine for not voting equivalent to 10% of the monthly minimum wage. After placing your vote you receive a “certificado de votación” or voting voucher that you are required to present for most kinds of applications such as opening a bank account, applying for marriage, etc.

Voting is optional for those aged 16 to 18 and over 65, for those serving in active military duty, for illiterate or disabled citizens, and for foreigners with legal residency.

Election results for the prefect and mayoral candidates will be determined the day of the election.

Also noteworthy is the fact that the sale and consumption of alcohol is prohibited 36 hours before the elections and 12 hours afterwards (starting at midnight on Feb 21 and ending at midnight on Feb 24). This law is called the “Ley Seca” or the Dry Law and is a real bummer to unsuspecting tourists and expats! …Sorry, Tom, guess we´ll be celebrating your birthday (Feb 22) this year at home! 

 

Fish Soup: It’s What’s for Breakfast

20 Jan

Highly acclaimed as a cure for hangovers, encebollados are one of coastal Ecuador’s popular seafood dishes. While it can be found served throughout the day, encebollados are generally considered a breakfast food.

Albacore soup with pickled onions is a surprisingly tasty way to start the day.

 

Encebollado literally translates to onioned soup and is typically made with pickled onions, albacore tuna, yuca (cassava root), tomatoes, and topped with cilantro. It is served with a bowlful of chifles (fried plaintain chips) which you crumble on top–yum, one of my favorite parts!

Make your own encebollado using the recipe from Laylita’s great cooking website. She is a native born Ecuadorian who currently resides in the US. Her site is full of authentic Ecuadorian recipes.

 

When ordering encebollado, you are also given a selection of other ingredients to modify your soup to satisfy your tastes: fresh squeezed lime juice, oil, mustard, ketchup, and hot sauce (aji, pronounced Ah-HEE). Restaurants often offer both a store bought variety of aji plus their homemade version that usually contains hot peppers,  lime, shredded and pickled carrots and onions.

Chifles and other ingredients are provided to personalize your soup. Also, note the instant coffee–it’s uncommon to find drip coffee in your average restaurant. The green labeled bottle contained the homemade aji which was FULL of tiny little pepper bombs. Tasty but potent!

 

Encebollados can be found on the menu in your average coastal restaurant but the AM die-hards go to the make-shift tent restaurants that are set up curbside around 7:30am and taken down by about 10am.  It is not surprising to have to wait around for a chair to squeeze in alongside others who are hungrily hunched over their steaming bowl of soup. 

Yesterday morning we stopped into a little nondescript place in Bahia that serves breakfast. Between the three of us  we ordered two encebollados and two balones (fried plantain balls filled with cheese and chicharron–fried pork fat–sounds gross, tastes good). Tom got an [unsatisfying] cup of instant coffee while Kai and I ordered fresh squeezed lime juice. Our bill came to $5.50.

Bolones or fried plaintain balls are another common breakfast food on Ecuador’s coast.

 

And in typical fashion, while we enjoyed our meal, the restaurant owner happily walked around with Aiden, our 5 month old baby, showing him off to other adoring clientele. For an explanation, check out an earlier blog about some of Ecuador’s cultural peculiarities around babies.  

Happy eating! or as they say here, ¡Buen provecho!

 

Ceibos and Palo Santo: Magical Trees of Coastal Ecuador

21 Nov

Without questuion, my favorite trees here on the coast are ceibos and palosanto. We’ll start this post with the ceibos since they are such a conspicuous tree and usually lead newcomers to ask, “What are THOSE??”

The province of Manabi is known for their ceibo trees

 

Ceibo trees (pronounced “SAY-bo”) are a striking feature of the coastal Ecuadorian landscape. Straight from a Tim Burton film or a page out of Dr. Seuss, these large trees feature bright green bulbous trunks, prominent buttresses and a disarray of heavy limbs extending in all directions.

Ceibo located on the hillside overlooking San Clemente

Ceibo trees have leaves only during the rainy season (or if they’re located in a well-irrigated piece of farmland)

 

Ecuadorian ceibos (Ceiba trichistandra) are one of 10 species of tropical and neotropical trees classified as ceibas or kapoks. Kapok is the universal name given to the silky fluff  produced by the ceibo fruits.

Ceibo tree full of kapok (from Gary Scott’s website)

 

Historically, the super soft kapok fibers were collected and used to fill pillows, mattresses, stuffed dolls, etc. In addition, the waxy coating found on the fibers make the fluff resistant to water and highly buoyant; thus, kapok was used worldwide until the mid 1900s in life preservers, life vests and seat cushions. Today, there are still a couple of small communities in Manabi that collect the cotton to make pillows and mattresses for sale.

Kapok cotton (taken from a site with other interesting ceibo information and photos)

 

Here in the dry coastal forests, ceibos spend much of the year without any leaves, a condition called drought-deciduousness.  They have adapted to this stress in a colorful way by photosynthesizing through its trunk (hence the trunk’s bright green pigments).

Shrek-green colored trunk of a giant ceibo

 

The wood of the ceibo is soft, light and brittle and therefore not useful for construction, making furniture, etc.  Tom and I often mused that ceibos would make an awesome tree house for when we had kids until one day we got up close to one and were surprised to find that its trunk was covered in large, intimidating spikes. This adaptation serves to protect the soft wood of young trees; as ceibos age and become less vulnerable to threats of being eaten or toppled, their bark tends to lose its thorns.

Close up of a ceibo’s spikes

 

Owing to their undeniable charisma, many artists are inspired to feature ceibos in their artwork. Below is a custom ceibo painting created for us by our artist friend Kerri who beautifully captured the vivid, whimsical nature of these magnificent trees.

Ceibo painting by Kerri of Boca Tintina (feel free to contact us if you’d like to get in touch with the artist to see more of her work for sale)

 

Palo Santo-Aromatic Gem of the Coast

Unlike ceibos, palosanto trees are all about subtlety. Their drab appearance makes them nearly impossible to distinguish from many of the other scraggly trees and bushes found in the dry coastal forests; however, what unmistakably sets them apart is their soothing, sweet, musky scent. One of my favorite olfactory pleasures is the aroma of palosanto wafting out of the hillsides after a light rain.

Palo santo trees are not beautiful to look at but possess a very pleasing, gentle aroma

 

In the same family as myrrh and frankincense, palo santo (Bursera graveolens) literally means “holy wood” and has been used by shamans since pre-Incan times for clearing negative energies and healing.

Today, locals frequently burn dry sticks of palo santo to produce a rich, aromatic smoke to keep mosquitoes away. The sticks are also used to produce a tea to help cure symptoms related to the flu and asthma.

Incense cones and burner that we purchased from the artesanal palo santo store located in Puerto Lopez

 

Use of essential oils of palo santo is becoming increasingly popular worldwide and is said to contain many healing properties to treat a plethora of maladies including arthritis, allergies, inflammation, cold and flu symptoms, depression, and anxiety to name a few. The oils are used directly on the skin in key areas (wrist, temples, soles of feet, etc.), can be diluted with other oils such as almond to produce massage oils or spritzers, and used in aromatic diffusers.

Palo santo products we’ve bought from the store in Puerto Lopez : incense cones, essential oil, and lotion

 

Palo santo trees themselves are relatively short-lived, approximately 40 years. The oils are extracted only from fallen, dead trees so it is important to buy products from sources who collect only naturally-fallen trees and who are involved in replanting efforts. Deltatau Palosanto in Puerto Lopez is one of those sources (we don’t have any affiliation with them–we just like their products).

 

Ceibos and palo santo trees represent just two of the incredible and diverse plant species found in this region. There are countless ideas for business niches left to be filled to promote greater education and appreciation of the dry coastal forest ecosystem. Examples might include leading hiking, mountain biking and birdwatching tours, the manufacture and sale of products directly using kapok fibers, or even photo-based souvenir products such as ceibo post cards and calendars, neither of which can be found here, at least to my knowledge. Like so many things in Ecuador, the possibilities are endless.

 

 

Tagua Jewelry: The Making of Vegetable Ivory Art

24 Oct

A popular source of local jewelry and touristy trinkets is “tagua” (pronounced “TAWG-wuh”) or “vegetable ivory.” Tagua is a very hard, white nut that grows on six species of palm trees in South America, one species of which is found along Ecuador’s coast.

Tagua palm

Cluster of seed pods containing the tagua nuts

 

Tagua is referred to as vegetable ivory because once dried, it can be carved and closely resembles the ivory from an elephant’s tusks.

Sequence showing how the tagua nut can be carved and dyed into intricate pieces of art. Image taken from an interesting online article about how the production of tagua helps protect elephants and South American rainforests.

 

Because of its close similarities to ivory, tagua is now often used as a substitute for ivory in the global market, which not only protects elephants from being killed for their valuable tusks, but also provides many jobs as well as an economic incentive to protect the forests where the palms are found.

Items made from tagua can be purchased in markets across Ecuador but the source of this unique artisanry is here along the Central Coast, especially in the small village of Sosote (“so-SO-teh”), outside of Portoviejo.

The art of carving tagua was brought to Sosote in 1993 by two local cousins who had spent several years in the Province of Guayas creating tagua pieces for an Italian man who exported them to Europe. Today, there are over 60 tagua workshops  in the Sosote area.

Below are photos showing the process of transforming the tagua nut into jewelry, which in Sosote usually takes place in a single location; i.e. the workshops are typically located behind the storefront that sells the finished products.

Tagua artisan and owner of one of the tagua storefronts in Sosote

 

The process begins by collecting nuts from the palms (Phytelephas aequatorialis, which literally means “elephant plant”)

 

The nuts are polished using a tumbler with metal beads.

 

A grinder is used to shape the pieces.

 

Finer details are added using a Dremel.

 

The pieces are then dyed in large batches.

 

Now the tagua beads are ready to be turned into jewelry.

 

Women, often the wives and daughters of the tagua carvers, make necklaces, bracelets, and earrings in the store where they are sold.

 

A sampling of some tagua necklaces.

 

Prices for necklaces range from $3-$10.

 

More necklace designs.

 

Selections are quite extensive and even include tagua rosaries.

 

Tagua is also crafted into bracelets, earrings and rings.

 

Keychains for $1-$2

 

A variety of other tagua creations that make unique gifts for friends and family.

 

Tagua art and jewelry-making is an excellent example of how the purchase of local, sustainable products not only supports the creation of jobs but can also make important contributions to society and the environment. Ecuador is full of untapped niches such as these, many that are yet to be discovered.

 

Cultural Peculiarities about Babies

09 Oct

We welcomed our son, Aiden Andrew, to the world on August 23. He was born in a wonderful birthing center outside of Quito.

Proud big brother Kai with baby Aiden

 

After a few days of rest, we spent a solid week running around Quito at the Registro Civil, the Ministry of Foreign Relations passport office, and the US Embassy to process all of the paperwork required to establish Aiden’s dual citizenship. As this was our second child born in Ecuador, we navigated the ins and outs of the country’s famously convoluted system of “tramites” with far more grace this round.

Running around with an infant in arms also quickly reminded us of some of Ecuador’s rather fascinating cultural peculiarities regarding babies. I’ve compiled a list of some of these infant-related idiosyncrasies that were surprising to us as new parents, especially coming from a different culture. 

  1. Epidemiology of the Hiccup: There is a common belief that hiccups can be triggered by the baby feeling cold (see #3 below). Hiccups can be “cured” by licking a small scrap of of paper (newspaper, preferably) and sticking it to the middle of the baby’s forehead. **Side note: When looking for information online related to the origin of this practice in Ecuador, I was fascinated to see that this custom is also used to cure hiccups in other parts of the world including multiple countries in Central Africa and throughout Southeast Asia!

    Paper hiccup cure in action, taken from an blog about an expat family living in Burundi.

  2. Baths Required: Vaccinations given at government-sponsored health clinics (called “sub-centros de salud”) are free for children until they are age five. After each of Kai’s vaccinations, I was instructed to immediately bathe him in a warm bath or else he would become feverish. I was a skeptic but did it anyways to avoid any kind backlash as the unfit gringo parent in town. And you know what? The one time I didn’t bathe him after a shot, he did get a fever a few hours later.
  3. The Baby’s Always Cold: During Kai’s first few weeks, we kept receiving commentaries from very concerned “new acquaintances”  that Kai was cold. The cause for concern was obvious once we became aware of the ubiquitous blanket bundles being carried around town, sometimes even on bright, sunny days. Beneath each large blanket is a warmly dressed baby, donning hat and all. Once again, succumbing to peer pressures and with the desire to avoid public derision, we starting bundling Kai while out running errands. That is until he became covered in little red bumps that we discovered was a heat rash. Oops. But even now with Aiden, we still throw a blanket over his head when out and about for both good measure and to prevent public outcry.  We were literally shooed away from the refrigerated section in the Supermaxi grocery by parents who couldn’t believe that we would be even remotely close to a source of cold air.
  4. Growth spurts: All babies spit up. Some apparently more than others (Aiden, for example). I was bracing myself to receive more unsolicited public commentary if and when Aiden upchucks all over me in public. I was pleasantly relieved to learn that there is the common belief that the more a baby spits up, the bigger he/she will be. Thus far, Aiden’s growth supports this theory in that at week six he has morphed into a 12-lb roly poly and we’re constantly laundering blankets, towels, shirts, pants… everything.
  5. “Parece un chichobello!”  Without exaggeration, we heard this phrase daily when Kai was a baby.  Whether in passing from  giggling hordes of delighted women pointing in Kai’s direction or directly to us when introducing him for the first time, at least one person would say that looked like a chichobello.  After receiving this comment dozens of times, I finally asked, “What IS a chichobello?” Turns out it is a life-sized baby doll who is usually fair skinned, bald, with big, blue eyes. When I looked them up online I realized how right they were, baby Kai (and now Aiden) actually look very chichobello-esque.
     
  6. Strange Photography: In relation to #5 above, complete strangers do not hesitate to take photos of other people’s babies. This phenomenon reminded Tom and I of our travels in China about six years ago where there were a couple of bizarre occasions where four or five total strangers actually stood in line to take a photo with us… or snuck up behind us before we noticed while a friend quickly snapped a photo (I believe that would be known as an inverse “photobomb”)  It was very perplexing to us, especially as we wondered what they did with these random photos of strangers. Do they show them to a couple of friends and then delete them from their camera? Or did we stay on their  card and eventually end up in a photo album on someone’s computer? How does that work?? Anyways, the same thoughts occurred to me as Kai’s mug must have been snapped by friendly strangers at least a hundred times before he turned one.
  7. Birth Details: Along the same lines of having different personal boundaries than in other cultures, one of the most common questions I am asked as a new mom was whether the birth was “normal” (i.e. vaginal) or “cesarea” (C-section). I don’t know why people who have never even met me insist on knowing this private detail, except that vaginal births are becoming less common (C-sections now comprise over 30% of births in Ecuador).
  8. Restaurant Service: Another surprise for us was that upon sitting down at restaurants, often one of the staff members would come and take Kai from us to allow us to order and to eat in peace. The first time this happened we were pretty alarmed as we watched Kai get passed back and forth among various cooing restaurant employees. However, we came to quickly appreciate this custom which allowed us the rare opportunity to converse and eat without the usual interruptions. Besides, Kai was clearly okay with  all the loving attention he was receiving. This probably is one of my best examples on the difference between our cultures. In US society, this pseudo “child care” could never take place these days, due to liability, mistrust, etc.  Here, those things don’t even occur to most people. 

    Pizzaria Napoli run by Fiore provides authentic Italian food  in Crucita. Fiore is also the owner of the Alba Suites condos.

  9. First in Line: Another custom that I totally appreciate is how courteous businesses and the public are to the elderly, people with disabilities,  pregnant women and new moms. If you fall within any of these classes, you either have your own special line or are taken to the front of any existing line. Tom and I reduced our wait time by probably 90% at the Registro Civil in Quito (where the frustration level may actually exceed that of most DMVs in the States)  just because I was holding a newborn. I love that! 

    No such thing as a “quick visit” to the Registro Civil” in Quito

  10. Public Breasts: I also love how unapologetic many woman are about nursing openly in public. Sure, you might see more skin by some women wearing their regular day attire, but breastfeeding in public is still a big deal in US culture. Here, it is not uncommon for a woman to be openly feeding a baby in one arm and pushing her shopping cart with the other.  No one seems to notice or get offended and everyone just goes about their business… which is nice.

 

We’ve been surprised at the number of times our perspective has shifted as we begin to see things from another cultural vantage point.  Just as you see two distinct things if you look at a statue from the front versus the back,  a given experience can be interpreted from two different cultural viewpoints.  It’s the same statue, but what you see is completely determined by how you look at it.

For example, when we first arrived in Ecuador we sat at a restaurant, had a meal, and waited patiently for the bill.  And waited.  And waited some more.  Then finally, we hunted down the owner and, mildly flustered, requested the bill, PLEASE.  We saw “Bad Service” from our cultural viewpoint.  Then, after discussing this with an Ecuadorian friend he explained that traditionally if the owner brings you a bill before you’ve requested it, he is being rude and trying to rush you out of the restaurant.  The same experience from the owner’s vantage point was interpreted as “Being courteous and welcoming.”

In other words, things that at first make ZERO sense begin to make more sense the more you hang around.  We’ve learned to be open and enjoy our experiences here by following  a few general guidelines:  “Make fewer assumptions, ask more questions, and be open to the idea that there just might be another, equally valid, cultural viewpoint to an experience or situation.”  It makes for interesting detective work to ask, “Why might that make sense?”

 

 

Boat Ride Tour at the Boca

30 Jul

We work largely in the Portoviejo River Valley which extends along the Ecuador’s central coast from Crucita to San Clemente. The Rio Portoviejo bisects the valley and separates the far northern end of Crucita from San Jacinto at the “Boca,” or the “mouth” of the river as it drains to the ocean.

Satellite image of the Portoviejo River Valley

 

Although it is only about six miles as the crow flies between Crucita and San Jacinto, it currently takes about 25 minutes in a vehicle because there is no direct, coastal route. Instead travel between the towns is along bumpy, meandering inland farm roads. There are plans in place to build a bridge at the Boca and to improve the beachfront roads of San Jacinto and Crucita starting in the coming year which will reduce the drive time to less than 10 minutes.

The other week we had friends/clients in town for whom Tom is building a house at the Boca. They were interested in hiring a boat to take us upriver to explore the area a bit more. We traveled roughly 4.5 miles upriver and fully enjoyed the peaceful scenery.

Beginning at the Boca, the river is lined with mangroves that are teeming with pelicans and frigate birds. We also saw lots of different wading birds including several kinds of herons and ibises. A few years back, Tom and I even remember seeing a flock of flamingos shrimping at the Boca as well!

Kai standing at the mouth of the river (the “Boca”)

 

View of the mangroves, home to hundreds to birds, including pelicans, frigate birds and herons.

 

 

Perfect setting for peaceful kayaking and bird-watching.

 

As we traveled further up the river, there were fewer birds but LOTS of giant iguanas hanging out in the trees along the banks. Some of these iguanas were at least 3-4 feet in length (sorry the zoom on our camera didn’t adequately capture the impressive iguana scene)!

Tom and Kai looking for giant iguanas.

 

Kai enjoying the river ride in the fishing boat.

 

The mangroves were soon replaced with simple houses as well as farmlands growing corn, onions, peppers, bananas, rice, mangoes, and papayas using pumps to capture river water for irrigation.

Mangroves turn to small homes fringing the river bank, most with plots of farmland.

 

A few sketchy looking bridges along the way (including one that had long since collapsed).

 

Lots of coconuts, mangoes, bananas/plantains, and papayas are grown along the river banks.

 

 

Many homes along the river have their own simple boats for fishing and river transportation

 

Kai actually smiled at the camera for this one.

 

Back to the San Jacinto side of the Boca at the construction site where Tom is currently building a house.

 

Here is a summary of our track along the river showing the georeferenced locations of where some of the above photos were taken.

 

We enjoyed our morning on the river and left with a better sense for some untapped tourist activities in this area, including kayak rentals and birdwatching tours. There are still many niches like these  to be filled in Coastal Ecuador.

 

 

The Water and Wastewater Scene

22 Jul

Many people have questions regarding potable water and wastewater systems here on the coast of Ecuador so the goal of this post is to share some basic information about how water is managed in a typical residence. Tom and I both received our doctorates in fields related to water quality and water treatment so this topic of particular interest for us.

 

POTABLE WATER

For starters, residences located within town limits are generally connected to the city water system. For Manta, as well as the small fishing towns where we primarily work (Crucita, San Jacinto and San Clemente), waters from the Rio Portoviejo outside the inland town of Rocafuerte are collected and treated at Manta’s El Ceibal water treatment facility located in Rocafuerte. The treated water is stored in a large (5000 cubic meter) elevated tank and distributed via gravity once or twice a week to Manta and the above-named fishing towns.

The sporadic disbursement of water means that all residences including private homes and condo buildings have below-ground cisterns for water storage. This water is then pumped into the residence via an electric pump.

A typical underground cistern used to store city water (from one of our current listings in San Jacinto).

Typical electric water pump to deliver water to the residence from the below- ground cistern.

 

Homes that are located beyond city limits and who are not connected to city water receive water on an as-needed basis by calling a water truck (“un tanquero”). A whole “tanquero”-full (approximately 10 cubic meters) costs between $15-40 ($1.50-$4/cubic meter) depending on the location and generally lasts a good couple of weeks, depending on usage requirements, of course.

For a concrete example, the water bill for our house in Crucita amounts to $0.60/cubic meter and when we lived there we averaged about 20-25 cubic meters per month with a washing machine and garden ($12-15/mo plus nominal fees of a couple of bucks for network maintenance). In San Clemente we currently pay $0.80/cubic meter.

Water trucks filling up to deliver water to homes off the “water grid”.

 

Because this region experiences somewhat frequent power outages (particularly during the rainy season), having an electric water pump translates to not having ready access to water during outages. Aside from having a backup generator to work around this issue, many people opt to build an elevated storage tank. In this situation, the electric pump fills the elevated tank and then water is gravity fed into the home. We have this set up in our Crucita house and it is a godsend during the rare but possible all-day power outage.

You can see our raised water tank (blue tank below where it says “casa crucita”, far right in image). No, it’s not pretty but it sure is functional.

 

Returning to the notion of “treated” water coming out of water treatment facilities: This water may be referred to locally as potable but it should not be treated as so. Proposed treatment “standards” may be similar to those in developed countries, but whether those standards are enforced routinely and systematically is another question. In other words,  do not drink directly from your tap. That being said, we still use tap water for washing dishes and even for brushing our teeth. Individuals with more leery intestinal flora may wish to proceed with more caution, especially regarding the brushing of teeth.

By far the most common source of potable water are the ever-present blue, five gallon water jugs (called “bidones,” pronounced “BEE-doh-nez”). Once you’ve purchased your bidon (an initial $5 up front payment) you exchange it when empty for ~$1. These jugs are universally available, whether in a small ma and pop shop, or more conveniently, delivered directly to your home from the back of a truck, mototaxi-like contraption, etc.

Delivery of 5 gallon (20 liters) “bidones de agua.” Photo taken from a local news article describing the recent transition from relying on boiled water to bidones for providing potable water.

 

The trouble is that as the popularity of this source of “potable” water continues to grow, so of course does the competition. We were told that in the province of Manabí alone, there are over 30 different distributors, none of which are held to highly stringent water quality control regulations. Without strict oversight and accountability, it is easy to see how some companies might not adhere to suggested water quality standards. That being said, most expats we know (including us for many years) have relied on bidones as our primary source of drinking water.

Other options are whole-house treatment systems or smaller below-the-counter reverse osmosis systems. However, these systems, because they are still not very common, tend to be very expensive as compared to in the US or elsewhere. When looking into under-the-sink filtration systems last year, prices varied from $500 and upwards, with many of the better models costing around $1500 including install and a 1-year warranty. And, of course, systems requiring electricity are subject to not being available during power outages.

After doing a decent amount of research, Tom and I settled on a simple gravity-fed water filter made by Nikken (Nikken Pi-Mag Aqua Pour). We had seen these systems in several locations around Ecuador, including the birthing center where our son Kai was born. When we learned more about it we decided it was worth the high price tag ($443 although you can catch them on sale on occasion and they are about a $100 or more cheaper if you can buy from the US).

What we like about it is that it has a multiple stage filter system including a 0.2 micron filter for sediments and bacteria (as opposed to the 0.45 micron filters more common on other systems), a layer of activated carbon, a second layer of activated carbon mixed with colloidal silver and then a final layer of zeolyte. Together, this system effectively removes all sediment, bacteria and chemicals, including chlorine. And unlike other effective filter systems, the treated water sits in a container of pebbles which introduce important, essential minerals back into the water.

Our choice in water filters because it is very effective and does not require electricity.

 

*A side note here: Our bodies require trace amounts of minerals naturally found in water from nature. When we drink lots of water void of these minerals (e.g. water from a reverse osmosis treatment system), the minerals slowly become leached from our bones and can lead to deficiencies, manifesting in conditions such as osteoporosis. That’s why having those pebbles in the Nikken filter is a key element to providing healthy water.

We also like that it does not require energy to operate since the water passes through the filters via gravity. Also, the filters last a year so it is very low maintenance. Actually, when we purchased ours it came with a second set of filters included in the price so we’re set for two years.

We figured we were going through about 5 bidones per week, the equivalent of roughly $260/year so we’ll have paid off our investment before the second year and know we’ll have reliable, good quality drinking water.

If you have any  questions about this filter, especially for how they might be used or needed in Ecuador, feel free to send us an email. Bias alert: We like this product so much and recognize the strong need from them here in Ecuador that we recently became licensed to order and sell any of Nikken’s products here in Ecuador.

And now, onto the wastewater side of things…

 

WASTEWATER

More often than not, residences here on the coast are connected to septic systems. Modern wastewater treatment facilities are still a rarity in Ecuador, even in larger cities. As opposed to more managed and regulated septic systems found in the US and elsewhere in the developed world, septics are typically crude and consist of a hole in the ground with brick walls with a cement cover and an open bottom. In our latest two construction projects, we installed biodigesters to amplify water treatment. Unfortunately, these treatment systems are not common yet with local builders and cost more than the simple brick wall approach so they are rarely used.

The biodigestors we have used in the last two homes that we’ve built to provide better wastewater treatment.

Inside of the “self-cleaning” biodigestor.

 

As with many things in Ecuador, new projects are underway. For example, last year sewage pipes were installed throughout Crucita to connect to a proposed wastewater treatment plant outside of town. The municipality is awaiting another bulk of funding to move forward with the next phase of the project.  Manta is also in the final phase of completing a new potable water  treatment facility in Manta proper. So things are indeed moving forward. In the meantime, with the use of water filters and biodigestors, we can meet our needs for reliable drinking water and/or reducing the impact of our wastewater. Ecuador is not for everyone but for those of us for whom Ecuador is a good match, we totally love this place and see it for all its potential!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Birthing in Ecuador

28 Jun

Birthing has been on our minds of late as we are expecting a second baby boy at the end of August. Our son, Kai, will be turning three in August and was born in Cumbaya, just outside of Quito. We plan to have our second child at the same location.

When we discovered I was pregnant with Kai, I started investigating our birthing options. We felt strongly about him being born in Ecuador so that he would have dual citizenship. We also preferred that, if possible, he be born in a more relaxed and natural setting than most traditional hospitals afford. I discovered that Ecuador has an active La Leche League (LLL) operating out of both Quito and Guayaquil and one of the LLL leaders directed me to several natural birthing centers in Quito. We visited each and interviewed the doctors and decided to go with Clinica La Primavera.

La Primavera birthing center outside of Quito. (Photo taken from this blog.)

 

La Primavera focuses on providing a gentle, “humanized” birth. In other words, they allow the woman to walk around free and choose her own position(s) during labor (including birthing in water, which is how Kai was born). There is no pressure for drugs (unless requested), the doctor does not do routine episiotomies, they don’t take baby away from the parents after birth, etc. And in the case of emergencies, they can do cesaereans and handle most other emergency procedures there at the clinic. If something really, really went awry there is a very reputable hospital less than 5 minutes away called Hospital de los Valles. It was just what we were looking for.  

And the price is $1500 for everything including all doctor’s pre- and post-natal visits, the birth, a birth video, 2 days stay with food for me and Tom after the delivery, and 8 weeks of prenatal classes. It’s funny–our maternity insurance deductible alone is $1500. 

 The birthing center is run by Dr. Diego Alarcon and his wife, Dr. Lulita Ruales. 

It is obvious that Dr. Alarcon loves his work.

Together, they have created a beautiful setting that feels more like a home than a clinic. The birthing rooms have a warm wood decor, stained glass windows, candles, music, fresh flowers, a round birthing tub, labor bed, etc. They offer a video of the birth set to music. They also provide a doula that stays with you during your labor for up to 48 hours so you don’t have someone new every 6-8 hours. They have a studio with exercise balls to help with contractions. Across the street is a quiet park where they recommend couples walk during first stage labor.  Dr. Alarcon is also an artist and the clinic is full of his large, colorful paintings.
I never remember to take photos when I’m there so the following images of the clinic are from a very nice and informative blog post from someone who volunteered at La Primavera.

One of the birthing tubs at the clinic

 
Waiting room

 

Waiting room

Exercise studio overlooking the mountains.

 

We had a wonderful birthing experience there and can’t say enough good things about Dr. Alarcon and his staff.

My mom and her friend, Rita, waiting patiently as I labored (…looks easy, doesn’t it?).

Baby Kai finally arrived after a *long* but beautiful labor experience.

Incidentally, if you are going to have a child in Ecuador and also plan to get your residency, then you have the option of obtaining your visa based on your Ecuadorian child. It’s a much cheaper ($50!) and simpler visa option, as far as the paperwork is concerned. And, it turns out that it may be applied to two bloodlines, meaning that Tom’s parents were able to obtain their residency visas through our son as well!

 

 

Photo Tour: San Clemente to Bahia

15 May

This past Mother’s Day, Tom, Kai and I decided to take a little leisure ride along the undeveloped stretch of beach that connects San Clemente and Bahia. Tom had done the trip on his motorcycle a couple of years ago, but I’d never gone past Punto Charapoto and was interested in seeing this section of coastline.

View of Punto Charapoto (also called “Punto Bikini”) from San Clemente.

 

The trip inland between San Clemente and Bahia via the present highway cuts inland along meandering, hilly roads and takes about 25 minutes. The trip along the coast according to our odometer was 17.9 km (~10.8 miles) and is only navigable at low tide.

Map showing relative locations of San Clemente and Bahia. The beach drive between San Clemente and Bahia is about 18 kilometers (10.8 miles)

 

Fishermen often travel this stretch of coast at low tide as a short cut between San Clemente and Bahia.

Approaching Punto Charapoto from San Clemente

 

On the other side of Punto Charapoto

 

Tide pools are so much fun to explore and have many residents, including oysters and lobsters.

Fresh spiny lobster for sale! Lobsters are caught in the tide pools and typically sold for $4-7/lb.

 

Beautiful colors: Green algae covering rocks, gold iron pigments in exposed layers of rock along the cliffs, bright blue of the sky

 

Untouched beach for miles

 

Good potential for paragliding using updrafts off the cliffs

 

One of the few lightly developed sections of this stretch of coast is Chirije, an ecolodge with an impressive collection of pre-Incan artifacts collected locally.

 

A mototaxi awaits as oysters are collected from the tide pools

 

Beautiful Ecuador

 

 

Several small cave formations can be seen along the drive

 

Nothing here on the beach except for hordes of panicked crabs frantically trying to escape the oncoming wheels of our truck

 

More beautiful formations

 

Lone sea stack among the tide pools

 

 

One of the southern entrances down to the beach from Bahia

 

More cool caves

 

End of the drive looking back to the south towards San Clemente

 

That concludes our photo tour. The Correa government is considering constructing a coastal highway along this stretch of beach to significantly shorten the distance to Bahia. Plans for the specific route have yet to be released.

 
 

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