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

Bringing in Goods through Ecuador’s Airports Tax Free

As you make your travel plans to Ecuador, it’s important to be aware of current laws regarding what is allowed to be brought in duty-free to avoid paying hefty import taxes.

Below is a synopsis of duty-free items that can be brought in through airport customs. More information is available on Ecuador’s Customs website page for international airport travelers.

Ecuador customs

Summary of tax-free items that can brought into Ecuador, some with restrictions

 

If you bring in merchandise that is not considered to be a personal item and its commercial value is greater than $500, you will be required to pay import taxes at Customs in the airport.  The amount due is calculated based on the commercial value of the good plus the cost of freight (equivalent to  $ 1.50 per kilogram) plus the insurance value (calculated as 1% of the commercial value).

We recently learned about paying import taxes at the airport firsthand when Tom brought in a drone he had purchased in the US so we could capture aerial footage of Ecuador’s coast, properties and construction projects.

Airport customs officials determined that the drone was valued at over $5o0 and would not consider it to be a personal item despite Tom’s initial attempts at friendly persuasion. They asked Tom if he possessed a certified letter demonstrating that he was a professional who required use of a drone. He didn’t so they proceeded to move him over to an adjacent office to calculate the import tax due. They looked up the retail value of the drone from the internet. Their value nearly coincided with what he actually paid.

Here’s the breakdown of what was charged: the base import tariff (“arancel advalorem”) was determined to be $573.80. Plus, there were two separate taxes charged: The first tax was $14.35 to FONDINFA, a fund supporting infant development. The second tax was the IVA (Ecuador’s standard value-added tax) which came to $414.86. The grand total due was $1,003 or a whopping 35% of the retail value (ouch!). They gladly accept cash or credit cards.

Some insights gleaned from the experience: In this case, the value estimated by customs was pretty close to what we actually paid, but to be safe, it would be wise to bring in your own receipts to avoid being overcharged. Tom could have tried to fight their conclusion that the the drone was not for personal use and he could have filed an official complaint to try to avoid paying the tax. However, this would have required him to leave the drone in the Customs official’s care until the case was resolved. Never, ever a good idea! So, take your chances! In retrospect, Tom could have bought the same model here in  Ecuador for about $600 more than what he paid in the US. However, he was banking on the drone being considered a personal item in a similar manner that high-end digital cameras would be considered personal regardless of their cost.

Monday photo: San Clemente Beach on a Sunday Afternoon

Just a quick post. Yesterday, we went for a short hike through the hills above San Clemente and then looped back home along the beach. A beautiful and relaxing way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

View overlooking the northern end of San Clemente

View overlooking the northern end of San Clemente

 

During the week, the beaches here in San Clemente are typically empty with only a handful of people walking or playing in the water in addition to the occasional group of fishermen bringing in their catch. The beaches on weekends, while rarely ever crowded except for major holidays, are nevertheless full of activity. Families visit the beach from nearby inland towns and spend the day together jumping in the waves, making sand castles, and playing the requisite game of soccer.

Our dog Coco with the view of Punta Bikini

Our beach bum canine Coco with a spectacular view of Punta Bikini as the backdrop on a “busy” Sunday afternoon. On the right, fishermen and locals crowd about a fishing boat to inspect the catch.

 

Tom

Tom with more of our crew

 

Landscaping Your New Home in Ecuador

The year-round warm climate here on the coast makes for great opportunities for creating beautiful tropical gardens. However, there’s not exactly a plant nursery section in a big box store here in this part of Ecuador’s coast. There’s really not even a big box store, with the minor exception of Mi Comisariato at the El Paseo shopping center in Portoviejo. So, where can you buy palms, fruit trees, and flowers for your new home?

The place to go is the small town of Sosote, just outside of Portoviejo. Sosote is better known as the source of tagua jewelry for this part of Ecuador. Here as you pass through the town, bisected by the new four-lane highway to Portoviejo, you’ll see a dozen or more road-side stores selling tagua jewelry in addition to clay pots of all sizes, coconuts and  ropes of blood sausage. I should mention that the latter is not recommended. Poor Tom learned the hard way a few years back and still recoils at even the mention of sausage from Sosote.

In the midst of these numerous roadside establishments, you will to come a row of flowers, fruit trees and palms along with a sign saying “Vivero,” meaning nursery.

Plant nursery in coastal Ecuador

The plant nursery in Sosote offers a tremendous variety of plants for incredibly affordable prices.

 

Here you can find ornamental plants that you’ll no doubt recognize from back home. The only difference perhaps is the price where most flower varieties run between $0.50-$2.00 each.

sosote nursery (1)

sosote nursery (3)

sosote nursery (4)

sosote nursery (5)

 

I was treated to some fresh coconut water to sip as I wended by way through the maze of color during my plant shopping spree .

sosote nursery (10)

 

You will also have many varieties of palms to choose from, from coconuts to sago palms. I bought one of the papyrus plants on the right below for $8.

sosote nursery (2)

 

And of course fruit trees abound, many already bearing oranges, limes, etc.

sosote nursery (6)

 

And here’s a mango tree line-up for all you mango fans.

sosote nursery (8)

 

A final view of the nursery from the road to Portoviejo.

sosote nursery (9)

 

The nursery also sells large bags of mulch for $5 each and even will come do custom landscape work your property. I loaded up both the back seat and the bed of the truck with 4 bags of soil and LOTS and lots of plants and the bill came to $100. I also bought four large clay pots for $25 each (they wouldn’t budge below that price, even with buying four). So my final cost for the day was $200.

sosote nursery (11)

 

Ecuador’s Halftime Super Bowl Ad

Ecuador saw a 14% increase in international tourism between the years 2013 and 2014 and are hedging their bets that an expensive ad during the Super Bowl on February 1 will have big payoffs for even greater numbers of visitors in 2015.

Ecuador is the first foreign country to buy an advertising spot during the Super Bowl to promote tourism. According to Ecuador’s Ministry of Tourism, the 30 second Super Bowl ad that boasts, “All You Need is Ecuador,” cost $3.8 million (earlier news stories reporting lower amounts did not include taxes).

Ecuador's Super Bowl commercial boasts that "All You Need is Ecuador"

Ecuador’s ambitious Super Bowl halftime commercial boasts that “All You Need is Ecuador”

 

The Super Bowl advertisement will be featured during half time and will be aired in 13 major markets, including New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle, L.A., San Francisco, Dallas, Houston, Denver, Atlanta and Miami. There will be an additional 8 commercials that will run during NBC’s “Today Show” leading up to the Super Bowl.

The focus of this bold campaign is to highlight Ecuador’s four unique tourist destinations: Galapagos, Coast, Andes and Amazon. Truly, this small country has a lot to be proud of!

The "All You Need is Ecuador" campaign highlights

The “All You Need is Ecuador” commercial is to be aired during the Super Bowl and highlights Ecuador’s four distinct regions

 

Inspired by The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” tune, the first phase of the “All You Need is Ecuador” campaign was launched in April 2014 and was featured in 19 major cities throughout the world including NYC, Paris, Madrid, London, Berlin, and Amsterdam to name a few. The $19 million campaign lasted 10 days and consisted of displaying one giant letter in a major plaza of each participating city. Together the letters formed the words “All You Need is Ecuador.”  Each letter was covered with iconic images that show off Ecuador’s tremendous beauty and diversity, including giant tortoises, rare birds and orchids, colonial buildings and cathedrals, and spectacular natural landscapes.

Unique campaign strategy

The Ministry of Tourism’s unique campaign of placing giant letters from their slogan in key cities around the world.

 

In conjunction with the theme of “All You Need is Ecuador,” the government of Ecuador has adopted the slogan of Ecuador: Ama la Vida which can now be seen on buses, sides of government buildings, and even Ecuadorian product packaging. This upbeat reference to savoring life is reminiscent to me of Costa Rica’s famous “Pura Vida!

Ecuador's new slogan

Ecuador’s new upbeat slogan

 

While the first phase of the “All You Need” campaign focused on highlighting the richness and diversity that Ecuador has to offer, the airing of Ecuador’s Super Bowl commercial presents the second phase which aims to emphasize how all of these incredible experiences are concentrated into one tiny country. “One Country. Like Nowhere Else, All in One Place, So Close” is the motto.

Only the size of the state of Nevada, Ecuador offers much to explore.

Merely the size of the U.S. state of Nevada, Ecuador is a rich play land ready for exploration. A 30-minute domestic flight west from the snow capped Andean volcanoes transports you to the beautiful, warm Pacific coast. Thirty minutes to the east and you’ve arrived to one of the most biodiverse rainforests on the globe. Where else in the world is that possible?

 

Ecuador’s government increasingly recognizes the economic potential of tourism saying that it is the future of Ecuador. Last year, approximately $600 million dollars was generated by the tourist sector. The goal of Ecuador’s Super Bowl ad is to make the estimated 120 million spectators fall in love with this little known place and come visit.  Of the 1.5+ million tourists to Ecuador in 2014, twenty-one percent visited from the U.S. Officials say that  a 1% increase in U.S. visitors to Ecuador in 2015 will cover the money invested on the Super Bowl ad.

To wrap up this post, below is a playlist of eight promotional videos from the Ministry of Tourism that are definitely worth the watch.

 

It is no doubt an exciting time to be here in Ecuador watching a myriad of transformations taking place.  When we bought a house on the coast in 2006 we never could have imagined how quickly Ecuador would become a global destination for both tourists and expats alike.

 

**UPDATE (Feb 5): Here is the final advertisement that was run at halftime.

 

Annual Mango Festival

Yesterday was the city of Portoviejo’s 5th annual mango festival. The festival was hosted by the Universidad Técnica de Manabí, at the jardín botánico (botanical gardens), a beautiful and enjoyable place to visit in its own right.

Mango Festival poster

Poster for the Mango Festival, held at the botanical gardens in Portoviejo

 

The gardens, created in 1993, boast 10 hectares of tropical flora to explore and even includes a surprisingly challenging maze formed from tall hibiscus hedges. Other features include a nursery with plants for sale, food pavilion, open park area (see photo below) and a host of natural fauna that call the gardens and the surrounding 35 hectares of hillside reserve their home, including large iguanas, turtles, and many tropical birds (mot-mots, oropendula, and parrotlets to name just a few).

View towards the stage and food vendors

 

We are pretty serious about mangoes in our household, often consuming multiple mangoes in a single sitting, especially during mango season (Nov-Feb). During this season, mangoes are ridiculously plentiful and very inexpensive. Tom recently purchased a giant bag of  big, juicy mangoes for $15. The price per mango came to roughly $12 cents each. So far we’ve eaten about half of them, chopped and froze another quarter (mango smoothies, mango daiquiris!) and we still have so many left!

Remaining mangos

The remains of our disappearing bag of mangoes

 

We’ve even gone so far as to request a custom mango painting for our kitchen from our artist friend Kerri (the same artist who created our beautiful ceibo painting that we featured on our ceibo blog post).

mangoes

Mango painting made locally by our friend Kerri (feel free to contact us if you’d like to get in touch with the artist to see more of her artwork for sale)

 

So with this background it comes as no surprise to find our crew at the mango festival. There we enjoyed mango cupcakes, a meal of grilled chicken smothered in a mango sauce, and even sipped on a couple of mango mojitos.

Mango cupcakes and ice cream

Mango cupcakes and ice cream

 

There are a surprising variety of mangoes grown in Ecuador. At one booth they had 16 different kinds on display. Our favorite mango thus far is the “Reina” mango, a giant yellow-skinned mango that is pure juicy pulp with no stringy fibers that get stuck in between your teeth.

Many types of mangoes are grown in Ecuador

Many varieties of mangoes are grown in Ecuador

 

The festival also had the requisite, WAY-too-loud music which may be found at any public event in Ecuador but we actually enjoyed the live music and dance performances. There were also locally made goods for  sale, products for which the province of Manabí are known, such as hand-woven straw hats and bags,

Hats woven from straw

Hats and headbands woven from paja toquilla straw and banana leaves

 

tagua jewelry and bamboo knick knacks,

Hand crafted products made from bamboo and tagua

Hand crafted products made from bamboo and tagua

 

Plus fruits jams, chocolates, and assortments of ají (hot sauces) flavored with mango and other fruits.

Assortment of products from Manabi

Assortment of products from Manabi

 

While Kai got his face painted, adoring women took turns cuddling and taking photographs of Aiden.

babies

Aiden being treated like a local celebrity

 

Bellies full of mangoes we ventured back home to San Clemente and spent the remainder of our Sunday afternoon playing with on the beach…after which we came back in and somehow managed to eat MORE mango!

 

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.

 

 

Fried Green Bananas

Trucks regularly rumble through town, laden with giant green bananas. Usually there are a couple of guys perched at the very top of the heap calling out, “Verde, Verde!

plantains are often sold from the back of trucks

Plantains are often sold from the back of trucks (photo credit)

 

For a dollar you get about 10 or more of these green plantains or plátanos verdes. While  I quickly got used to seeing plantains for sale everywhere,  it took me a while to appreciate the extent to which they are a part of the local diet and even longer to learn how to cook with them myself.

boys selling plantains

 

Plantains are eaten more like a potato than their sweet counterpart, the banana. They are hard, starchy and require cooking before being eaten. When ripe, they yellow, become slightly sweet and are called maduros (“matures”).

Typical coastal Ecuadorian foods using plantain include empanadas, corviche, bolones de verde, bolones de maduro con queso, patacones, chifles, maduros con queso, maduros asados con sal prieta, torta de plátano, gato encerrado, and the list goes on and on.

PATACONES: smashed and fried green plantains that are typically served in seafood dishes

PATACONES: smashed and fried green plantains that are typically served in seafood dishes (photo credit and recipe)

 

Today, I’ll showcase the simple process of making empanadas de verde using photos I snapped while learning how to make them from some friends the other day.

 

Step 1: Boil green plantains in salted water for 30 min until soft

boiling plantains to make empanadas

Each plantain yields roughly two empanadas

 

Step 2: Mash and roll out the plantain “dough”

mashing the cooked plantain to make dough

Once mashed,  the plantain dough was balled into a log from which they cut off pieces to roll out.

The 1/2 inch PVC pipe make a surprisingly effective rolling pin!

The 1/2 inch PVC pipe makes for a surprisingly effective rolling pin!

 

Step 3: Cut out a circle and add your filling 

Using a small bowl to cut the dough into a circle

Using a small bowl to cut the dough into a circle

(shredded cheese or make a mixture of shredded chicken with mashed plantain)

Two filling options: shredded cheese (right) or a delicious mixture of shredded chicken with mashed plantain (center)

 

Step 4: Fold your circle in half and crimp the edges with a fork

Using a fork to close up the empanada

Using a fork to close up the empanada

 

Step 5: Fry ’em up

Fry until golden brown

Fry on each side until golden brown

 

Step 6: Enjoy with some fresh a (pronounced “Ah-HEE”, a hot sauce usually made with pickled veggies) and a cup of coffee.

Many lovely cooks in the kitchen (plus a hungry Batman)

Many lovely cooks in the kitchen (plus a hungry Batman)

 

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.

Last Day of “Summer”

School along Ecuador’s coast starts tomorrow (May 5) after a two month vacation which began March 1.

Interestingly, children in the Sierra, i.e. in Ecuador’s mountain region, have a different school calendar, one which more closely coincides with those in the US and elsewhere. This situation lends itself well to supporting the coastal tourism industry. Hotels, restaurants, tour operators, etc. in effect thus have two distinct “high seasons” when families on vacation head to the beach. The first tourist season of the year is derived from the coastal families (March-May) and then second from the mountain folks ( June-August).

Since today was Kai’s last day of  “summer”  and the day was absolutely gorgeous, we had no choice but to go to the beach.  However, with Kai’s newly fractured arm, we went for a walk instead of our usual play in the sand and water.

Aiden and Kai enjoying a stroll along San Clemente’s beautiful beach.

 

The good news of course is that living on the beach in Ecuador means that every day is summer!