My beautiful 27 year old daughter said to me,” I feel so abandoned. You didn’t even tell me and now you moved to Costa Rica?” (she lives in a certain Northeast corridor city.)
Lesson 1: I need to step up my game. She obviously is so bored by my conversations that she forgot that I told her and forgot where we were moving.
Lesson 2: Nobody knows about Ecuador. Ecuador? Yes, it’s on the equator. Oh, that makes sense, almost sounds the same. Why are you moving to Ecuador? Isn’t it dangerous? Do they have WiFi?
Let me examine this question according to our experience, from the general issues to the specific delicious fruits that grow in our valley.
Oddly, Ecuador was put on the map for many people by Julian Assange of Wikileaks. He stayed in their London embassy for a while. Rafael Correa, who was president when I sat down to write this, may have done this for the local political capital he would get by thumbing his nose at the U.S. and striking a blow for freedom. He likes to make anti-U.S./globalist statements and pretends not to be compliant to US policy. He likes to get photographed with indigenous folks, whom he dwarfs. Che Guevara and all that. However, we here in Ecuador notice that laws are changing here to ape the U.S. We are not fooled. Correa attended Indiana University B-school, owns two black labradors, and wears a Rolex.
However one likes to mock the general transparent hypocrisy of politicians, I am not really inclined to snark. Ecuador is very U.S. friendly. They even use U.S. currency, despite the occasional declaration by some political candidate that they will go back to the sucre. Unlike what we saw in Peru, and despite all appearances, Ecuador basically works. Banks are open, buses run, people are involved with their local government, protests are allowed, and there are lots of traffic cops.
We were initially attracted to Ecuador because it is billed by many expat groups as safe, affordable, and gringo friendly. Once we started reading about it, we realized it was also interesting and beautiful, so the next time we went to Peru, we also went to Ecuador. We found out, of course, that travel between Latin American countries is not like travel between North American states. Taking an airplane is the only way to avoid days on the bus, and that isn’t cheap. However, the bus is no longer the bumpy, smelly, dusty ride with chickens stereotyped in the movies. Ecuadorian buses are at least as nice as in the U.S. Big, clean, often with movies and WiFi, they leave often and on time, and work out to a little over a dollar an hour. Our local bus to nearby Loja leaves every half hour and has WiFi, all for 1.25, and half that for my husband who is over 65. Luxury buses have seats that recline all the way and you get dinner. In Peru they have the same great buses, but the bus companies are not centralized as they are in Ecuador. Security is also tighter because of higher crime in Peru. The trick is to take buses overnight and wake up where you want to be, but during the day the view is fantastic. On the other hand, local buses , as in between villages, come and go as they please, or not. Chickens not allowed any more, or at least only in boxes in the underneath compartment.
Ecuador is about the size of Colorado, but has a huge variety of climates. From the Pacific coast, to the Andes mountain range, to the Amazon jungle, you can find almost any climate you would like. We decided to explore for a month. We could have rented a car, but felt we could learn more taking the bus. It does take a lot longer to get around than you would think. From Loja in the south to Quito, the capital city, which is a bit north of central Ecuador, is a 12 hour bus ride. People do it all the time. We took buses everywhere, looking out the windows, sleeping, and reading our Kindles. We visited people I had met on Facebook on pages for expats living in Ecuador, and did side trips up mountains, out to tiny coastal towns, and down to jungle villages. We rented bikes, hiked, and took buses and trucks up to Andean market towns. We rode a train along the Devil’s Nostrils from Alausi. I took a thousand photos. It was lovely absolutely everywhere.
The Rough Guide and Lonely Planet were pretty useful in giving us an idea of places to visit, although the hotels they recommended were clearly a young backpacker’s idea of fun. My Spanish got a lot better, but I still had to reprimand noisy young Frenchmen for courting and drinking after 2 am, until we figured out that it was better to ask a taxista to recommend a medium priced hotel. This is where Ecuadorians go. We would be taken to a clean, quiet, marble tiled place that was ten dollars less than the funky backpacker dump, the only drawback being instant coffee. Backpacker dumps have the best coffee.
In the end, though, we got sucked into Vilcabamba. I was leery, because Lonely Planet said it was full of old hippies, so I thought it would be too gringada, but since my husband has a harder time with languages than I do, we went, and disappeared with a sucking sound and a pop. The first thing that happened was that I bumped into an old friend. We walked into the Vilcabamba Juice Factory, where, as promised, old hippies sat in the shade sipping cold smoothies. I looked at the man behind the counter. “Dennis?” We had been in an orchid society together 25 years before during my time in North Jersey, and had worked on an orchid show at the Javits Center. Next we spent a night at the idyllic Izhcayluma hotel and spa, which is run by Germans. Somebody asked why I spoke such good German- I wouldn’t say that; it turned out they just liked my accent, which I learned from my mother, who is from Hamburg, as were they. After a few minutes chatting we discovered that my grandfather had been his pediatrician, and that his wife had attended the same nursing school and clinic as my mother, and knew many of the people my mother had told me about. Meanwhile my husband was meeting people who were friends of friends of his in Sedona, Arizona, and was happily ranting with fellow tin hats about various alternative theories he espouses. This happens all the time in Vilcabamba.
To me the most wonderful things about Vilcabamba are the perfect climate and the produce. It stays between 65-85 F all year, and is usually dry and breezy. During the rainy season it rarely stays overcast all day. I look out my window at 6 am and see clouds in the mountaintops, but they clear to a brilliant blue sky. Sometimes it rains in the afternoon, especially if it gets to feeling too warm. Up in those misty hills people are growing fantastic fresh vegetables, and down here in the Valley of Longevity, as they call it, tropical fruits are ripening. It isn’t quite hot enough for coconuts to bear, except for a few outliers in Malacatos, so trucks com in from the Coast selling green coconuts to drink from. People sell coconut water, coconut kefir, and coconut yoghurt, which the foreigners drink by the bucketful. Local mangoes ripen December through March, but there is always something. Strawberries, blackberries, and black raspberries are pretty constant. I think they just come from a climate where day length changes, but here it doesn’t, so they will just fruit until it does. We have every kind of citrus. There are fruits we had never heard of, like pepinos dulces, uvillas, and pitayas. There are pineapples which are small and white, and sweeter than any I ever tasted. I get raw milk in the morning from a lady who brings it down from a dairy in Mollepamba, and make a drained yoghurt which is great with fruit salad. The criollo eggs are aurucana; pale pastel colors and medium sized, with deep orange yolks. On Saturday we have a small organic market, where I sell sauerkraut and kim chee, made from the fantastic local cabbages, and on Sunday we have the big market, where many Saraguro vendors bring vegetables down from the cooler mountains.
I suppose there are a thousand reasons why we picked Ecuador, and there are moments when I could happily curse the place and hop on a plane, but that is enough to get started.