Ecuador Culture Shock 101: Things That are Strange to Expats, but Normal to Ecuadorians

Transitioning to Ecuadorian life comes with a few surprises that may leave you scratching your head as you adjust to the Ecuador culture shock.

Here are a few things that Ecuadorians do a bit differently than Americans. Some of these Ecuadorian quirks are fascinating, some are endearing, and a few of these strange customs are downright dangerous!

Voting in Ecuador

Voting

Voting in Ecuador is mandatory for adults between 18 and 65. If you’re 16 or 17, over 65, or a permanent resident who has lived in Ecuador for at least 5 years, you are also allowed to vote, but it’s optional.

Ecuador is currently in the midst of a democratic presidential election. Initially, there were a whopping 16 different candidates on the ballot!

In order to win the election, a candidate must either get 50% of the popular vote, or 40% of the popular vote while beating all other candidates by at least 10%.

Since there was no clear winner in the first round of elections, a runoff election is set to take place between the two leading candidates in April 2021, and again, everyone must vote.

Elections are held on Sunday’s so most people are available to vote without taking time off of work. However, employers are legally required to give workers time off to vote.

Things get a little stranger when you learn that there are no alcohol sales in Ecuador during the three days leading up to the elections. Apparently, this law is in place to ensure that everyone is sober when they walk up to the ballot box, as well as to prevent candidates from using free drinks as incentives for votes!

Driving in Ecuador

Driving

If you’re accustomed to turning right-on-red, as many do in the US, you might experience some Ecuador culture shock when you start driving.

Strangely enough, right-on-red really isn’t a thing in Ecuador. Instead, expect to see people turning LEFT-on-red and into oncoming traffic while dodging pedestrians!

ALWAYS look and NEVER assume you have the right-of-way!

Banking in Ecuador

Banking

Ecuador is Cash-based

Ecuador is a mostly a cash-based society thanks to a large number of mom-and-pop shops in the country. Consequently, you won’t use debit or credit cards nearly as often as you did back home.

Big stores and chain restaurants do accept them, but you’ll need cash to get through most of your daily interactions. Only a few small stores or restaurants accept cards, so you’ll need to pay with cash most of the time.

Bank Accounts in Ecuador

Since everyone uses cash, there are often really long lines at the bank and in front of ATMs when you go to withdraw money.

Additionally, banks hire armed guards to protect their customers. It’s common to see bank customers carrying bags of money into the bank, so the extra security is a necessity, but the show of force might cause a little Ecuador culture shock on your first few visits to the bank.

Opening a bank account in Ecuador is also different. Instead of opening an account online in just a few clicks, you have to physically visit at a local bank branch. You’ll also need to provide two letters of recommendation to the bank from people who are willing to vouch for you before you can open an account in Ecuador.

Check out our article Money and Banking in Ecuador for more on this topic.

Safety Concerns in Ecuador

Safety Concerns

Expats arriving in Ecuador will be astonished at the number of blatant safety violations that regularly occur. Over time, as you get more familiar with the country and your Ecuador culture shock diminishes, you’ll find these situations less shocking.

Lack of Safety Standards in Ecuador

In Ecuador, you’re pretty much responsible for your own safety since there are very few safety standards in place for workers or for the general public.

There is no OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration like in the US) to create and enforce safety regulations to protect workers from their companies (or from themselves).

Seriously, don’t be surprised to find sidewalks that aren’t blocked off when workers are throwing chunks of cinder blocks from two stories above you. That actually happened to us in Cuenca. You’ll come across similarly dangerous situations all the time.

Keep your eyes open to keep yourself safe. Since Ecuador is a relatively non-litigious society, you don’t have much recourse if something happens. Look out for open trenches, missing manhole covers, and flying cinder blocks.

Weak Building Codes in Ecuador

Like other parts of Latin America, there are plenty of unfinished homes. Unlike in the US, where the dwelling must be inspected and certified as safe before people are allowed to occupy it, many houses in Ecuador are in varying stages of completion.

You’ll see part of the house finished with exposed rebar sticking out of the top floor, waiting for the next addition. This practice is common for several reasons.

First, we’ve heard that homeowners aren’t required to pay taxes until the home is finished so they have a financial incentive to delay completion.

Second, many homeowners build what they can afford and add on as they can afford to build more. Others choose to leave room for potential expansion to accommodate a growing Catholic family.

Finally, some land agreements require construction to begin by a certain date, but there is no requirement to end by a certain date so builders rush to start the project, but then stop once the entry gate is built and a part of the foundation is poured.

No Postal System in Ecuador!

No postal system!

Expats often experience severe Ecuador culture shock when they learn that there’s no coordinated mail delivery system in Ecuador. There are no mail trucks or mail carriers to deliver letters and packages directly to your home or office on a daily basis.

If you need to send things inside Ecuador, there is a private courier service called Servientrega that you can use if necessary. They are affordable and reliable, but we had to go meet our delivery driver in the center of town to get our package. Since exact addresses aren’t common in Ecuador, he couldn’t find our condo building.

Limited Online Shopping in Ecuador

Since there’s no postal system to make regular deliveries, online shopping hasn’t quite caught on in Ecuador. Instead, you’ll need to visit markets and malls to get what you need. This may prompt you, as it has several expats, to adopt a more sustainable, minimalist lifestyle.

Though Amazon claims to deliver to Ecuador, it often takes several weeks or months to receive a package. Even worse, on occasion, packages have been intercepted and held for ransom by customs or shipping agents who require hundreds of dollars to release them!

One friend had a package shipped to Ecuador from Poland by her mother. The shipping costs were prepaid, but when our friend went to pick up the package at the shipping center, she was told that it would cost an additional $100 to get it. If she declined to pay, they would charge her or her mother $200 to to ship it back to Poland. She paid the $100 ransom to the shipping company, which shall remain nameless.

If you’re planning an expat life in Ecuador, it’s best to leave your online shopping habits back home.

Carrying Copies of Government ID Cards

In Ecuador, everyone has a cedula, which is a government-issued ID card. Many Ecuadorians don’t drive, but they must still obtain a cedula if they’re 18 or older.

Since pickpocketing is a common occurrence in Ecuador, and since it’s annoying and costly to go through the process of getting a new cedula, most Ecuadorians leave the original at home and carry a laminated copy or a photo on their mobile phone. However, if you need to conduct legal or financial transactions, you’ll need the original.

Strange Holiday Traditions in Ecuador

Holiday traditions

Christmas in Ecuador

Ecuadorians have a few Christmas traditions that expats will find strange. For Christmas, locals buy dolls that symbolize Baby Jesus, dress them up and carry them around. And there’s even a Baby Jesus parade that takes place every year in Cuenca!

New Years Eve in Ecuador

On New Years’ Eve, Ecuadorians create papier-mâché mannequins called monigotes that look like people they love, people they hate, sports figures, politicians, cartoon characters, animals, or anything else that has personal significance. Then, they tie these dolls to their cars or display them at their houses.

At midnight, to start the new year, they set these dolls on fire and jump over them. As a result, many people are sent to the hospital with severe burns each year. While we have enjoyed this tradition for several years, it still makes us feel a little Ecuador culture shock on occasion.

Carnaval in Ecuador

Like most other South American countries, Carnaval is a huge celebration in Ecuador. The youth have a great time partying, but most of the older Ecuadorians prefer to stay home and safely out of the way.

In a uniquely Ecuadorian twist, these celebrations usually include pelting participants (or complete strangers) with water balloons, water guns, buckets of water, muddy water, eggs, foam—really anything that will make a wet mess!

And you’ll often see young people throwing these things from moving cars so always stay alert when you’re walking around during the week leading up to Carnaval in Ecuador or you risk a wet, messy bout of Ecuador culture shock!

Prostitution is LEGAL in Ecuador

Prostitution

Most expats will find it pretty shocking that prostitution is legal and regulated in Ecuador, especially since Ecuadorians are thought to be very Catholic and conservative.

While it’s still generally frowned upon, it’s not uncommon for married men to frequent some out-of-the-way motels that essentially function as brothels.

There are plenty of motels on the outskirts of town that rent rooms by the hour for this purpose. Most are hidden behind high walls for discretion, but everyone knows what you’re doing if you’re spotted turning into one of these places.

These hourly motels aren’t just for debauchery, though. Since many Ecuadorians live under the same roof as their parents and grandparents, young couples visit these motels for privacy and alone time.

Larger cities like Cuenca and Quito have dedicated red-light districts where prostitutes can easily be found. We’ve been told that the cost is shockingly low for the various services that are provided, while the women are shockingly beautiful.

Ecuador may be a largely Catholic country, but Ecuadorians are very open-minded and liberal about some things. A short walk down any of the beaches in Ecuador will reveal a plethora of dental floss thong bikinis worn by all ages and sizes of women. You may even spot the occasional topless sunbather and speedos are popular with men. You’ll also see sex stores in regular shopping malls and suburban neighborhoods.

When it comes to sex, drugs and alcohol, Ecuador is more like a Mexican soap opera than a conservative 50’s sitcom, which might cause some culture shock for more traditional, conservative expats.

Ecuador Culture Shock Is REAL

Ecuador Culture Shock 101

Expats arriving in Ecuador may do a double-take at many of the strange things Ecuadorians do, but it’s an integral part of the country’s charm. Where else can you routinely see people causally carrying machetes to chop bamboo and perform other jobs? There truly is no place like Ecuador.

Be prepared for some culture shock since there are plenty of significant differences that you’ll encounter. Driving and banking will require some initial adjustment on your part, but you’ll find that these changes are pretty essential to getting along with an Ecuadorian way of life.

Assimilating these new traditions and experiences only adds to the uniqueness of living in Ecuador and getting to know and love the Ecuadorian people.


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2 replies
  1. Todd
    Todd says:

    Strange customs I wouldn’t mind being part of! Thank you for the twitter notification 😀JP I need a link to buy those shirts you wear !!

    Reply
    • Live Abroad Now
      Live Abroad Now says:

      I bought my shirts in Montañita at a place called Montañita Sol. The shirts are made by a local family and the buttons are made out of tagwa, which is similar to ivory, but it comes from the seeds from the Tagwa tree. I can’t find a link for them.

      Reply

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