Here are 7 BIG expat mistakes to avoid when you move from the United States to Ecuador. Being prepared for these cultural differences will improve your experience and help you make a smooth transition to your new life abroad.
#1 Don’t Believe The Negative Stereotypes
Movies, TV shows and the news media in the United States do not portray Latin America in the best light. The entire region south of the border is often the butt of jokes or used to draw a contrast between the “civilized” north and the “UNcivilized” south.
When the news media features Latin America, it’s usually about national protests or an attempted coup by some ruthless dictator. Rarely do we see what normal, daily life is like for the millions of people who live and work here.
We’re taught from very early that Latin America is dangerous. Lawless. Run by drug lords and corrupt dictators. Why? It’s financially beneficial to foster a fear of the unknown: If we’re too afraid to leave home, we won’t spend our money elsewhere.
However, very few of the negative stereotypes are actually true, and those that are true, are often exaggerated. While there are dangerous places in Latin America, just like there are dangerous places in the United States, most places are very safe. And Ecuador is one of the safest countries in Latin America.
You may also be concerned about the quality of Internet access outside the United States. Internet access in Ecuador’s major cities and along the coast is very fast and reliable. In fact, our service with NetLife is twice as fast for 1/3 the cost compared to our Comcast service back in Denver. We pay $45/month for 75Mbps up and down.
Our Claro mobile phone service is also very fast and reliable. The more populated areas in Ecuador have 4G coverage while the less populated areas have 3G. We were visiting Salinas last year during a planned power outage for maintenance and Amelia was able to run her Zoom conference call over the mobile hotspot without any lag or technical issues.
Our belief in the negative stereotypes perpetuated by the media kept us from moving abroad sooner, but after more than 3 years of living in Ecuador, we realize that it’s not much different than the United States.
It’s civilized and has all the modern technological necessities. The vast majority of people are really nice, they spend time with friends and family, and they work hard to put food on the table, just like the rest of us.
#2 Be Patient
When we first arrived in Ecuador, we stayed at a short-term apartment hotel in Cuenca called Apartamentos Otorongo. For one monthly rate, they take care of everything (Internet, utilities, daily housekeeping) so our time was freed up to find a rental house, setup our Ecuador mobile phone, work on our temporary resident visas, sightsee, etc.
We were thankful to have the freedom and flexibility that provided because we needed all the patience we could muster to get everything setup in our new home abroad.
In Ecuador, as in most Latin American countries, there is a concept called “mañana.” This word literally translates to “tomorrow,” but in reality, it means, “not today.” It might mean tomorrow, next week, next year or maybe never. It took us awhile to learn this cultural difference and it still tries our patience after 3 years.
Our first experience with “mañana” came soon after our arrival in Ecuador when we rented our house in Cuenca. We looked at several houses before we found one that we liked, and Amelia wanted it before we even saw the second floor!
We told the landlord that we wanted to rent his house and asked about putting down a deposit and signing the lease. He said he would be in touch “mañana” to discuss next steps.
Several days went by, but we had not heard from him so we sent a WhatsApp message reiterating our desire to rent the house as soon as the current renters moved out (in less than 2 weeks). He responded immediately and told us the house was ours and he would be in touch “mañana” about signing the lease.
Several more days went by without a peep so we messaged him again. This time, we were able to set a date to go sign the lease and put down the deposit. We moved into the house a couple days later. Cutting it so close to the move-in date caused us a lot of stress, but didn’t seem to concern him at all.
Another cultural aspect that is different in Latin America compared to the United States, is the concept of 3’s. It takes at least 3 times to do anything, such as sign a lease, get a mobile phone, repair the washing machine, open a bank account, pay the utilities, etc. Rarely is a job done right the first time, and according to our Ecuadorian Spanish teacher, this is not limited to expats; it happens to everyone.
Living in Ecuador or any Latin American country requires a level of patience that you may not be used to.
#3 Ask a LOT of Questions
As a general rule, Ecuadorians do NOT volunteer information. If you don’t ask a specific question, they won’t volunteer the answer even if you think, or later find out, it’s a critical detail.
That means it’s really important to ask a LOT of questions when you’re engaging with Ecuadorians about the services they provide. Don’t make any assumptions based on the lack of communication, other than to assume they’re omitting something that you might think is very important.
Also, follow up regularly via email, WhatsApp, text message or phone, whichever is their preferred method of contact. And don’t be afraid to ask for a regular status update.
#4 Don’t Have a Scarcity Mentality
A lot of people struggle with the scarcity mentality. It’s easy to become trapped by the mindset that you’ll never find anything as good as this, whatever “this” is. And it’s even easier to fall into this trap when you move abroad to a new country due to the constant uncertainty.
We looked at 10 different houses before we found one we liked in Cuenca. Two different rental agents showed us houses and condos, but we either didn’t like them or they didn’t allow dogs.
Each time we looked at (and ruled out) a potential rental, our scarcity mentality gained a little more control over us. We became convinced that if we did find someplace we liked, we needed to jump on it immediately or risk losing it!
It wasn’t until several months later that we realized there are LOTS of different places to rent in Cuenca and throughout Ecuador that would work just fine for us. Several of our friends rented houses or condos that were equally as nice, or nicer than ours. And they allowed dogs!
For some reason, the two rental agents who showed us rentals did not show us anything that would work for us. Perhaps this ties back to the last mistake to avoid: Ask a LOT of Questions! They didn’t seem to understand what we wanted even though they both spoke fluent English.
We were also concerned that we wouldn’t be able to find the speciality items that we wanted or needed. The United States is a very consumer-minded country, so it’s easy to find even the most obscure items at nearby stores, or have them delivered to your door by Amazon.
However, shopping in Ecuador is quite a bit different. Home delivery isn’t a thing here, and it often takes several trips to multiple different stores to find something that’s close enough to work, but may not be ideal.
We’ve learned to embrace the scavenger hunt and accept that we might have to go without some things.
#5 Don’t Make These Timing Mistakes
If you’re selling a house or car, or bringing your pets to Ecuador, be sure to give yourself enough time to get everything done. Things always take longer than you anticipate, so build a nice buffer into your plan.
Our house was in a highly desirable suburb of Denver in the best school district in Colorado so we assumed it would sell very quickly. Even though it was a seller’s market at the time, it still took 5 months to close. We hired an estate sale company to sell nearly everything in the house, but that took more than 2 months to schedule, prepare and execute.
We sold my car several months before we moved to Ecuador, but we needed Amelia’s car until closer to our departure date. That meant we only had a couple of weeks to list it and sell it outright. In the end, we sold it to the Audi dealership for significantly less than we would have made by selling it to a private buyer.
If you’re bringing your dogs or cats to Ecuador, there are a lot of rigid timelines to follow for exams and shots. We made a timing mistake with one of the booster shots for Alicia and had to reschedule our trip.
If you make a timing mistake with your pets, the airline won’t allow them on the plane so it’s really important to work with an APHIS accredited veterinarian and create a calendar so you don’t miss any important dates.
Since Daisy is not a service dog and she’s too big to fit under the seat in-cabin, she had to fly in the temperature and pressure controlled cargo area.
However, the outdoor temperature must be within a certain range that’s not too hot and not too cold for the airlines to check a dog into cargo.
We moved to Ecuador at the end of September, but it was too hot to fly her then so we made plans to go back in November to get her. She stayed at grandma and grandpa’s house in the Atlanta area while we got settled into our new home in Ecuador.
Upon our return, the Atlanta area had a freak blizzard and the temperature plummeted to record lows. Instead of being too hot, it was too COLD to fly her out of the Atlanta airport, so we rented a car and drove to Miami. We had to change our flights and pay for an expensive one-way car rental.
It’s impossible to plan for every contingency, but there are a few timing mistakes that you should be able to avoid with sufficient awareness and planning.
#6 Don’t Make This Banking Mistake
Ecuador is a cash society. Only big stores and nicer restaurants accept credit cards so you’ll need to regularly withdraw money from the ATM to fund your living expenses.
We made a huge mistake by not planning ahead to minimize our ATM fees. Our Colorado-based banks charge a 5% international ATM withdrawal fee, and most of the local banks in Ecuador also charge a fee ranging from $1.50 to $5 per transaction with $300 to $500 withdrawal limits.
Including our $800/month rent in Cuenca and our $800+/month living expenses, we were spending more than $80/month just on ATM fees!
After complaining to some expat friends, they told us about Charles Schwab, which doesn’t charge international ATM fees and refunds all fees charged by the dispensing bank.
We attempted to open our account remotely from Ecuador, but they required us to visit a branch in the United States to show proof of ID so we couldn’t finish the setup process until our next trip back to the US.
If you would like to setup an account with Charles Schwab, here’s our affiliate link, which will give us a credit on our account and helps fund these types of articles and videos. Note that you will need to setup a brokerage account first, but you don’t need to use it. Once the brokerage account is funded, you can open a checking account, which comes with an ATM card.
You can also open an Ecuadorian bank or coop account and fund it with a wire transfer for a one-time fee in the $30 to $50 range. While most Ecuadorian banks charge an ATM fee, it is still less than most US banks charge for international transaction fees. You can also pay some of your bills online if you have an Ecuadorian bank account.
We paid several hundred dollars in ATM fees by moving to Ecuador without a Charles Schwab account, making this one of the BIG expat mistakes to avoid.
#7 Study Spanish. A LOT of Spanish!
According to the 2020 English Proficiency Index for Latin America released by Education First, Ecuador ranks dead last for English proficiency among the Latin American countries they studied. You won’t find a lot of English-speaking Ecuadorians, which means at least some Spanish proficiency will greatly improve your quality of life in Ecuador.
We both took Spanish classes in high school and college, but that was a long time ago so we used language apps like Duolingo and Fluenz as a refresher before we moved abroad to Ecuador. We studied a LOT using those apps, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
If we had it to do over, we would take official Spanish classes and attended language exchanges to practice conversational Spanish in the year leading up to our move to Ecuador.
Drop us a note through our contact form if you would like us to connect you with our Spanish teacher in Cuenca. Christina started Walking Spanish Lessons before the pandemic, but now she offers remote learning via Zoom. She is a native Cuencana with a linguistics degree from La Universidad de Cuenca so you’ll learn both proper Spanish and some of the unique phrases you’ll hear in Cuenca and elsewhere in Ecuador.
While Spanish fluency is not a necessity, your quality of life will be greatly improved and your stress level significantly reduced with at least some Spanish proficiency.
These are the 7 BIG expat mistakes to avoid when you move from the United States to Ecuador. By preparing ahead of time and knowing the pitfalls to avoid, your transition to life in a new culture will be smoother, less stressful, and more enjoyable.
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