Ecuador’s New Immigration Law: Snowbirding Just Got Easier

Ecuador’s National Assembly voted unanimously on January 5, 2017 to pass a new immigration law called “La Ley Orgánica de Movilidad Humana.” The law (number 60 of  the 2013-2017 legislative period) has not yet been published in the official registry so we haven’t yet been able to access the full 90 page version. This post will summarize what information we have been able to gather until the law is officially published.

Ecuador National Assembly

Ecuador’s National Assembly passed the new immigration law on January 5, 2017. Photo from El Telegrafo

Some broad-sweeping points of this new law (as translated from the opening arguments from the head of the Committee who helped draft  the new law) are that it will recognize the equality of rights between Ecuadorians and foreigners and emphasizes that no human being can be qualified as illegal in Ecuador because of their migratory status. The new law largely addresses Ecuadorians living abroad, Ecuadorians returning home after living abroad, and refugees, stateless persons, and victims of trafficking.

However, there are also changes that will affect foreign residents in Ecuador, either as tourists or permanent residents.

My in-laws have been enjoying their Ecuadorian residency since 2012.

My in-laws have been enjoying their Ecuadorian residency since 2012.

A notable change that has implications for foreigners is the extension of a tourist visa from the previous 90 days to 180 days. This “tourist visa” is simply the stamp you receive in your passport upon entering the country. This extension for up to 6 months is great news for folks who want to split their time between living in Ecuador and their home country (grandparents, snowbirds, and many others will no doubt celebrate this change!). Previously, acquisition of another visa was required to extend one’s time in Ecuador beyond 90 days (for example a 12-IX visa which is fairly costly and can be time-consuming). There is apparently the option now to also obtain a special tourist visa that would be good for up to 1 year (but which will be limited to using once every 5 years).

And for foreign residents of Ecuador who are excited about exploring other regions of South America, they will now be able to do so as part of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) by only presenting their Ecuador ID card (“cédula”) instead of being required to show both their passport and cédula.

Another significant change is that proof of health care insurance will be required for tourists entering Ecuador. It will be interesting to see how this rule is actually enforced and applied; however, this change will NOT apply to foreigners who are permanent residents in Ecuador.

Once we have access to the public record of this new immigration law, we will add the link here.

Information Sources:

New Ecuador “Capital Gains Tax” Explained

The Ecuadorian government just passed a new law titled “Tax on Speculation on the Value of Land” (“El Impuesto a la Especulación sobre el Valor de las Tierras”) which takes effect now in the new year (2017).  This law has been referred to as “The New Capital Gains Tax” or the “Ley de Plusvalia”.  The concept behind the creation of this law is to prevent a future speculative bubble in real estate prices (which many of us from the US can attest might be useful).

For retirees who plan to live here for 3+ years, investors who plan to own and rent over a 3+ year period, or for those who buy land and build a home, this new law will generally save them quite a bit of money as fairly substantial gains can be realized tax-free.  Even those purchasing relatively inexpensive lots in the $39,000 range and flipping the land in less than a year can receive up to a 22% return on investment before they would have to pay a single cent of Capital Gains or Appreciation Tax under the new law.

For those planning to buy large pieces of land to flip over a short time period without making improvements… this tax is meant to make you think twice and advice from a lawyer on how best to structure your purchase and sale is recommended.  Creative short term investors will still find solutions such as buying and selling “purchase options” on a property, transferring their rights via a “promise of sale agreement”, or by creating development partnerships with project developers to be paid upon completion and final sale of the developed property.

Whether or not this new law will actually stick after the presidential elections in February remains to be seen but, not surprisingly, various interpretations of the law are being spun by different parties for their own interests.  This is especially the case as election day nears in Ecuador.

The purpose of this post is to provide you with a detailed, cut and dry summary taken directly from the government website and includes a translation of their sample calculation.  This is the scoop on the new tax law minus the sensationalism.

capital-gains

The “sensational talking point” of the new law is that sellers will be taxed 75% on their “illegitimate” capital gains. What the whaaat?!?  That was our initial response as well. But let’s take a closer look.

If you purchased your Ecuador property prior to 2017 when the law goes into effect, this new capital gains law will not apply to you when you sell.

For properties purchased in 2017 and beyond (assuming the law remains in place), here are some standards used for determining the basis for the new capital gains tax:

  1. There is a standard allowance of $8,784 of profit that is not taxable on any purchase and sale over any time frame.
  2. There is an allowance of 7.52% compounding annual appreciation that is not taxable and that appreciates on the total of your purchase value PLUS improvements.

Let’s take a look at the example provided by the government website (see our translated image below). For this example, a property is purchased for $85,000 in 2017 and sold for $135,000 in 2020.  Property tax (“Plusvalia”) due at the time of sale would only be $1,437.72, not 75% of the total difference in purchase and sale price. In fact, the capital gains tax for this example is actually less expensive than what it would have been based on the previous law ($2,975 versus $1,437).

Let’s find out the specifics for how this new capital gains tax gets calculated.

  • Purchase Price in 2017 of $85,000
  • Sum of renovations, improvement costs, etc. = $15,000
  • Initial investment ($100,000) plus interest compounded at 7.25% over 3 years = $124,299
  • Plus a set profit allowance of $8,784 brings us to a total NON-TAXABLE property value of $133,183.
  • Sales price in 2020 is $135,000
  • Difference between the sales price of $135,000 minus the non-taxable property value of $133,183 is $1,917.
  • 75% of $1,917 is $1,437.72.

plusvalia

The government provides a capital gains calculator here. It should be noted that the property value used for calculating capital gains is the amount shown on the property title (“escritura”).  In many cases, the property value on the title is the municipal value, which tends to be significantly lower than the actual purchase or sale price.  It’s worth discussing options with your accountant or lawyer prior to sale to make sure that you are making the best decision for your given situation.

So will this new law affect foreign investments in Ecuador?

capital-gain

The new law will discourage those looking to do relatively large, short-term (less than 1 year) flips with no investment in improvements and who seek to earn significantly more than the standard tax-free profit allowance of $8,784.

The new law will actually tend to benefit most others, in particular, those who own their property for any length of time.  Property value plus money spent on improvements can appreciate at a rate of 7.52%, compounded annually, tax-free.  The accumulated compounded appreciation is above and beyond the automatic $8,784 of allowable tax-free appreciation.  Based on the 7.52% compounding interest rate, the property can double in value over 10 years and the owner would pay ZERO in capital gains tax or “Plusvalia” upon sale.

The new law also does not apply to the first sale of a property. In other words,  those who build their own homes (either as individuals or companies), or develop their properties will be completely exempt from paying capital gains tax when they sell their homes.  That means that if you purchase a beachfront lot at a great price and build a home, you will pay zero capital gains tax upon the sale of that property.

In addition, there are no capital gains collected on the transfer of a property as a result of an inheritance, prize winnings, or donations. There is also a statement in the new law that foreign institutions and international organizations are exempt from paying capital gains, something warranting further investigation.

Overall, the law allows for solid tax-free gains via property appreciation and should help to limit the speculative appreciation of prices.  While this new law may temper gains from short-term, high-value property flips, it should also prevent the formation of a real estate bubble that would leave buyers underwater.

Tom Shares Our Story and Some Insider Tips: An Interview with Expat Kingdom

Learn more about our story and get some insider tips about living and buying real estate in this two-part interview with Lain Livingston from “Expat Kingdom.”

Tom’s face is shadowed throughout the interview so here’s a little family photo so you can actually see what he looks like!

Tom and Lynn Saunders Ecuador

Part I: “Expats Building Dreams and Finding Freedom in San Clemente, Ecuador”

Tom Saunders Ecuador

 

Part II:  “Exploring in Ecuador Before Buying in Ecuador”

Tom Saunders Ecuador Real Estate Interview

Wherever You Go…There You Are

The U.S. News & World Report ran an article on August 26, 2015 reporting that according to a survey of 14,000 expats in 64 countries, Ecuador topped the list of best countries to live in as an expat. This is the 2nd year that Ecuador made the number 1 spot. Click HERE to read the article.

August 26, 2015 Article in U.S. News & World Report

August 26, 2015 Article in U.S. News & World Report

 

The survey was conducted by InterNations, a social network for expats with over two million online members around the world. Ecuador received the highest scores for the following subcategories: “personal happiness,” “feeling welcome,” “personal finance,” and “cost of living.”

As full time expats first coming to Ecuador in 2005 and then running a business and raising a family here since 2010, Tom and I have a pretty well-rounded perspective of life here on the coast of Ecuador. We can attest that, in our  own experiences, Ecuador deserves high marks for these subcategories. We have witnessed many clients who arrive here in fairly poor health and often stretched to the limit with stress, that, a year or so later, are hardly recognizable to their former selves, having lost a considerable amount of weight and donning flip flops, a golden tan, and a relaxed smile.

The caveat? Ecuador may well score high on these kinds of surveys, but there is absolutely no guarantee that relocating to Ecuador be will be the solution to your problems. We have seen firsthand that this is especially true for those expats who come here strictly seeking a lower cost of living.

“Wherever you go, there you are.” ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn

If you tend to be more of an optimist you will see the smiling, welcoming faces as you wave. You will see families laughing and playing volleyball or soccer together at the end of the day. You will notice the lack of beggars (at least here on the coast) despite there being evident poverty. You will see a gorgeous coastline with warm water and breathtaking sunsets. You will quickly make friends who welcome you, arms wide open, to dinner in their home at a moment’s notice.

If you tend to be more of a pessimist, you can be in the exact same time and space and experience an entirely different reality. You will see what you perceive as poor people lounging about in hammocks in front of their unfinished shack-like homes. You will see trash. You will see countless dogs roaming the streets and notice with alarm men walking around town with machetes in hand. If you do not tend to trust people, you will be suspicious, questioning people’s motives for being friendly to you. You will focus on the lack of efficiency, how “they” do “everything” here backwards compared to where you are from.

Speaking of which, an article came out yesterday in Cuenca High Life that provoked considerable commentary from its readers, entitled “The Arrogant Expat: Let me tell you how we do things in the USA.”  Important Note: If you come to Ecuador and attempt to change what you perceive to be wrong with it, you will drive yourself crazy.

A couple of related insider tips and insights:

  • In the U.S. there is a culture of becoming snide, loud, and even threatening towards employees in an attempt to get them to affect whatever it is that you want/need done. In Ecuador, this approach will not work. It will back-fire and they will simply move on to the next person in line (believe me, I ashamedly admit that I learned this early on firsthand). Instead, try to befriend and empower people whose assistance you are seeking. Ask calmly and with a [genuine] smile if there’s anything they might possibly be able to do to assist with the situation. While not foolproof, it’s amazing the difference it can make.
  • When facing a frustrating, mind-numbingly “illogical” situation (and there will be many!), instead of  banging your head against a brick wall, try your best to reflect upon the experience as an opportunity to strengthen your patience “muscle.” (Think how strong you’ll get to be after a year or so-Yay!).  Our friend  Kris used to refer to our province of Manabí as “mañana-bí.” And there is the famous saying here that mañana doesn’t necessarily mean tomorrow (or even next week, for that matter). Always try to find the humor in the situation and with yourself. It just makes life easier that way.
  • Consider the possibility that there might actually be logic behind what you perceive as illogical or a faulty way of doing something. A classic example we often use to illustrate this point is getting the bill at a restaurant. Newbies to Ecuador are quick to complain that the server never brings them the check. They are unaware that it is considered rude here to “rush” clientele out of the restaurant. When you are ready to leave, you simply request the bill.  (And even then, it might take a while to get the check. And then they might not have change for your $20 so they’ll have to send their 10 year old son out to go find you change). Remember, you’re building your patience muscle!
  • Pick up a copy of the book CultureShock Ecuador: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette  by Nicholas Crowder

 

While some of our clients have thrived as coastal Ecuador expats, there are others for whom Ecuador simply wasn’t a good match, high expat survey scores notwithstanding. Some arrived here and immediately did an about-face because their Ecuador experience did not match their expectations.

Then there are others who, like most of us, first delighted in Ecuador (the “honeymoon phase” of the widely accepted “stages of cultural adaptation“).

Proposed stages of cultural adaptation (taken from xx)

Four proposed stages of cultural adaptation (image taken from this site). I would venture to say that the realistic length of time for adapting is more like a year or two for most Ecuador expats.

 

During the honeymoon phase, newcomers appreciate and even celebrate the myriad differences in culture, food, and can find the humor in not being about to communicate well in the local language, at waking up at 4am to the crowing of a rooster in the city, or not being able to find products they were used to having back home.

However, as time passes, the honeymoon inevitably comes to a crashing halt and a new stage begins. Now the focus becomes disproportionately on what is wrong, instead of what is good and new. For some, this so-called “hostility stage” is but a passing phase as they continue to move through the ups and downs of adapting to a new culture and life. Those who eventually adapt arrive at a middle of the road experience where they generally accept and enjoy their new life. That is not to say there are no longer challenges, delays, or frustrations. But by now they have learned to better navigate the obstacles and move on.

There are others, however, who may stay stuck in the “hostility” phase. Their negative perception of their reality can become further compounded if they have already sold or moved everything they previously owned, cannot afford to return, and now feel trapped in a place where they are just as unhappy (or more so) than they were before relocating.

So if you have been considering becoming an expat in Ecuador:

(1) Do your due diligence and visit/rent first to make sure Ecuador will be a good match for you before you make the official leap;

(2) Come with an open mind and an open heart. Don’t assume you know better than the “locals.” There is a good chance that your perceived “solution” does not fit with the context in the same way it would back in your home country. Often, there actually is some semblance of logic where many new expats assume there to be none;

(3) Expect that, like anywhere in the world, you will face many unexpected challenges, especially as you are adapt culturally. Try your best to embrace the inevitable hurdles as they arrive and view them as opportunities for growth.

(4) Ecuador is no panacea for one’s problems. If you were unhappy in your home country, chances are you will find reasons to be unhappy here as well.  “Wherever you go, there you are. You take yourself with you.”

places you'll go

Notable Hand Gestures in Ecuador

Cultural differences manifest in many forms; the most obvious ones are language, dress, and food.  Hand gestures can be a subtle facet of cultural identity, yet should not be overlooked as insignificant.  Here are a few hand signals you might come across or ones you had best avoid while visiting or living in Ecuador.

 

Come Here

In the US and many parts of the world, we typically signal for someone to come over to talk to us in one of two ways. The first is to wag/flap your hand, palm up, in a direction towards you. The second is to extend your index finger and curl it towards yourself. The former looks a bit silly to an Ecuadorian and the latter does indeed signify “c’mere” but in a sexual advancement kind of way.

A seductive invite to come closer

A seductive invite to come closer

 

Speaking of which, NEVER use the above single finger gesture with your hand palm down unless you intend to send a very sexually explicit message to the recipient.

This gesture is very offensive

A very offensive gesture to a woman

 

The proper way to ask someone to come towards you is to extend out your hand, palm down and wag your fingers towards your palm. This same gesture is also used for hailing a taxi or bus.

Proper form of signalling someone over

Proper form of signalling someone over to you

 

Sorry-No Can Do!

Typical Scenario 1: You are at the fish market and you ask a man for shrimp. The man looks up at you and simply shakes his open hand but says nothing. You think, huh, perhaps he didn’t understand me and you ask again (maybe a bit a louder in typical expat fashion).  Looking slightly exasperated now, the man shakes his hand a bit more more emphatically and as you continue to stand there perplexed, he adds, “No hay” (pronounced “no EYE”).

Typical Scenario 2: You have been waiting alongside the hot, dusty road for a taxi and now, finally see one approaching. As you hail the taxi with great hope, the driver casually sticks his hand out of the half open window and shakes it at you as he drives past. What!? How rude!, you think to yourself.

The open hand, palm down, shaken from up to down is a widely used gesture that is often overlooked or misunderstood by Ecuador newbies.  As in the shrimp case above, the gesture was used to indicate that there were no shrimp available (“no hay”). The same gesture can also mean “no hay como,” which means that something’s not possible [at the moment]. In the case of the taxi driver, the gesture indicated that the taxi was not available for hire.

no hay

An open palm shaken from up to down indicates that something (or someone) is not there or available

 

How Tall is Your Pony?

If you are ever asked how tall someone is,  you would indicate their height by holding out the side of your hand, pinkie side facing down.  If you indicated your spouse’s head height using your palm facing down, you might illicit laughter as this gesture is used exclusively for measuring the height of animals, typically livestock.

use hand to measure the height

Proper way to indicate the height of a person, with the top of their head being the bottom edge of your hand

measure

Incorrect way to indicate height for a person; it is used strictly for animals

 

Hook ‘Em Horns

A head’s up to all the Texas Longhorn fans out there who are thinking of coming to Ecuador. Flashing the hand sign of your beloved team indicates to the recipient that their spouse is cheating on them; i.e. they are “cachudo” (wife cheating on him) or “cachuda” (husband cheating on her). A side note here that the hand-horns sign IS widely used in rock ‘n’ roll concerts as a cross-over from North American/European culture.

hook em horns

Not the gesture of a Texas sports fan in Ecuador!

 

A-[Not]-Okay

The A-OK sign is a vulgar sexual reference that is best to avoid. A better option to indicate your satisfaction or well-being is to offer a “thumbs up” sign instead. While in some other parts of the world, this too is a vulgar gesture, “thumbs up” here is commonly used.

All is not well with this signal

All is not well with this hand signal which is generally regarded as an extremely offensive, sexual gesture

 

Navigating the Wrist Shake

So this last one is not so much a gesture but instead is here for etiquette purposes. Typical scenario: You are introduced to someone who has been hard at work (landscaping, chopping fish, painting, etc.). You go to shake their hand yet instead of offering out their hand in return, they ball up their fist and offer you their wrist. Don’t be shy–just briefly shake their wrist. You have been offered their wrist not as an insult of any kind but simply because they are concerned that their hands are too dirty from work to offer to you.

hands

Shaking someone’s wrist because they don’t want to insult you by extending a dirty hand

 

Hopefully the hand gestures provided here will help, if ever so slightly, with the process of familiarizing yourself with some cultural nuances. The process takes a long time no matter what but fortunately, people here tend to have great compassion and appreciation for those who genuinely attempt to immerse themselves into Ecuadorian culture.

 

 

Ecuador’s Advances its Capacity for Dealing with Emergencies

Over the last couple of years, Ecuador has significantly advanced security measures to prevent and to better respond to crimes and other emergency situations.

As of October 2013, Ecuador has operated a nationwide 911 emergency call and response system, referred to as SIS-ECU 911.

An advanced, nationwide 911 emergency response system has been in operation since October 2013.

 

As in the US and elsewhere, all 911 calls are free. There are eight call centers throughout Ecuador, representing different regions of the country, with the closest to us in the nearby city of Portoviejo (40 minutes from San Clemente).

The ECU 911 service integrates a host of institutions including the national police, the armed forces, local fire departments, the National Transit System, Ministry of Health, Ecuador’s institute for social security, the Secretary of Risk Management, and the Red Cross as well as other local organizations.

The modern ECU 911 call center in Portoviejo

 

An integral component of the ECU 911 system is the “Transporte Seguro” (“Safe Transit”) program. This program was created in coordination with the National Transit System to reduce the number of road-related emergencies through monitoring and control of commercial transportation services. Part of this program was to install “Kits de Seguridad” (Security Kits) in all public buses and registered taxis in major cities across Ecuador.

Each of these security kits contains two video recording and infrared surveillance cameras and a panic button equipped with a GPS tracking device that immediately notifies 911 responders with the exact location of the vehicle. The system has a battery pack as a back up source of power. Buses are also equipped with sensors to remotely open and close the doors.

So far,  over 17,000 buses and 38,000 taxis have had security kits installed throughout Ecuador.

Schematic of the “Transporte Segura” program designed in part to reduce incidence of crime in public transportation.

 

Another innovative component of the ECU 911 system is a free smartphone app to quickly report emergencies utilizing a smartphone’s geo-referencing capabilities.  The app is called ECU 911 and is available for iPhones, Androids and Blackberries.

I discovered this app when doing research for this post and just installed it on Tom’s and my phone.  It can be programmed in English or Spanish. You do not have to be an Ecuadorian resident or citizen to use it so I would highly recommend visitors to set it up in advance of their trip.  To set it up, I had to input my name, passport or Ecuador cedula number, cell number, emergency contact name and number, select my blood type from a pull-down menu, and list any physical disabilities or allergies.  This app is an excellent option for residents and visitors who are not fluent in Spanish.

View of the new smartphone app to report categorized emergencies to ECU 911. The app is free, easy to use, and immediately sends your exact location to the appropriate emergency responders.

 

And another interesting security advancement I recently learned about was the programming of a panic button on any kind of cell phone. To do this, you take your phone into the nearest police station where they register your phone and your specific home address (well, as specific as possible, anyways). In the event of an emergency at or near where you live, you press a single digit on your phone and it immediately notifies the local police. The cost is a mere $0.05. A recent newspaper article reported an average response time of 3 minutes in Quito! So, in a small town like San Clemente, we should expect a rapid response time as well.

Police station located in San Jacinto with jurisdiction over the towns of San Jacinto and San Clemete.

 

Like in so many other sectors of Ecuador,  technological advances are being made rapidly. As Tom was saying today, some of these changes are taking place so quickly we don’t even find out about them until a few months after the fact! It truly has been fascinating to watch the development that’s taken place inEcuador since we first came in 2006 and we look forward to all that is surely still to come.

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

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.

 

Cultural Peculiarities about Babies

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

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

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!