It’s time once again to take off the rose-colored glasses. South of Zero is pleased to introduce a new article written by Dr. Lee Dubs. Today, in in Part I of “What Aren’t You Being Told about Moving to Ecuador?” he expresses his concerns for future expats who are being sold on Ecuador as the “perfect place to retire” not realizing the gross understatements about the cost of living comfortably and the difficulties of getting visas. In Part II, which we will publish on Friday, Dr. Dubs addresses the need to know some Spanish, the overpriced seminars that push overpriced real estate, why to rent and not rush to buy property, and other scams.
What Aren’t You Being Told About Moving to Ecuador? – Part I
By Dr. Lee Dubs
When a slumping economy, a troubled housing market, and slipping savings and investments created a “perfect economic storm” a few years ago, many retiring Baby Boomers were faced with a serious dilemma. Large numbers of the retirees had to rethink and revise long-held plans. Many faced a choice of either downsizing their goals or else finding a cheaper location in which to live their autumn years in the style which they had planned.
As a result, several organizations and entrepreneurs saw an opportunity to cash in, and soon there were articles, seminars, and overseas tours offered to bewildered and sometimes frantic retirees, urging them to move to other countries where they could enjoy the fruits of retirement at low cost. Magazines and online writers that were once objective turned their attention to urging and even pushing retirees toward specific destinations where those very organizations and entrepreneurs often had property to sell, especially in Latin America.
By 2009 there was already less property to sell in Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panama, and the barrage of articles and blogs turned to Ecuador: Retire in Ecuador. Buy real estate in Ecuador. Invest in Ecuador. Make money in Ecuador. Life is cheap and wonderful in Ecuador. While exuding their aura of professionalism, many started telling retirees anything that would get them to buy into their seminars, tours, and real estate deals. Often innocent and confused retirees, eager to find utopia on a budget, started to heed the siren song of such pitches, hurrying to enjoy what they were led to believe would be a near-perfect life on the cheap. The less experienced even believed that life would be just like in their home country, except more affordable. A surge of what some have called “economic refugees” began heading to Ecuador, only to discover that the picture that was painted for them was often overly rosy, incomplete, and even inaccurate.
Let’s take a deeper look at what is going on, especially at what some promoters are not telling folks. The following is based on the personal experiences of this writer who has known Cuenca and Ecuador for over two decades, as well as from the experiences of other expats who have lived here long enough to be reliable sources of factual information. Frankly, we are tiring of watching so many innocent and hopeful retirees being misled and ending up frustrated.
Why all the articles pushing Ecuador? The first question to ask yourself when reading or hearing pitches for living in Ecuador (or anywhere else) should be, “What is the writer or speaker getting out of this?” Is it the satisfaction of helping you or are they looking to make a buck (or a killing) off of you? In most cases, the motive is profit, not good will. Writers and speakers are usually either paid directly or else they have something to sell, sometimes both. It is wise to look for the articles by and comments from people who have lived in Ecuador for at least a few years and who are trying to help you, not profit off of you. There are even expats who used to complain about life in Ecuador and belittled the culture, but who suddenly turned into promoters of the country as soon as they started getting paid for it. Simply stated, there is some shameless hypocrisy and outright deceit out there. There are also truly helpful folks, but you have to spot the difference. Just because an article appears on a “respected” website or in a well-known magazine or journal, or because some business advertises heavily, does not always mean that their information is objective and reliable.
Not only are there some organizations and individuals who are willing to use distortion to persuade you to head for Ecuador, there are also those who wait for your arrival in order to offer services that are never performed or are performed poorly. One U.S. couple paid for an advertised service that promised to “start the process” of obtaining resident visas; after five months of no action, they discovered that the American woman who took their money had left the country and no process had been started. The U.S. government has included the following delicately-worded warning in its travel advisory:
“Retiring In Ecuador: In recent years, Ecuador has become a top overseas destination for retiring U.S. citizens. Bear in mind that organizations promoting Ecuador or any other place as a retirement destination may have a financial incentive to attract retirees, and may not always present a balanced picture. Consider multiple sources before choosing a destination.
Remain vigilant when contracting professional services for assistance with Ecuadorian visas, real estate transactions, or customs brokering for imported household effects. U.S. citizen retirees regularly complain about unethical practices by lawyers, real estate agents, and others who have taken advantage of their lack of knowledge about local language, laws, and culture, resulting in costly losses and little hope for a remedy through the local judicial system.”
Simon Black, the senior editor of Sovereign Man, writes the following about what he has seen happen when foreigners move to a new country, in this case Chile: “Three years of constantly writing about the virtues this place has certainly had an effect. The word is out, and people are starting to jump on the bandwagon. The downside of this is that it brings out all sorts of snake oil salesmen preying on inexperienced foreigners. I saw the same thing happen in Panama years ago as that country became the booming expat destination; scam artists showed up in droves, defrauding foreigners in shady real estate and financial deals.” (The bold print belongs to the writer).
Is Ecuador really a good place to live? For most expats, yes, it is great. The writers and speakers are correct when they speak positively of the weather, the quality of medical services, the food, the lower cost of living (compared to North America and Europe), the friendliness of the people, and other benefits. However, moving to someone else’s country requires adjustments, which some make easily, while others either cannot or will not make; and starting out with false expectations does not help. Those who want to separate you from your money do not usually mention the difficulty of transition for many. Immigrants who do not adjust remain unhappy. Newcomers very quickly meet the malcontents, those who complain about a culture which they consider inferior to their own. Some talk of how much they disliked life in the U.S., yet they want to create a Little America in their new location and associate only with fellow countrymen. Yes, Ecuador is a good place to live – if you accept it as it is. If the sole reason you want to change countries is economic, you may be in for a hard time.
Can a couple really live on $600 a month, or whatever similar figures are being tossed about? That depends on how and where you choose to reside. Do you want to “live” or just “exist?” In urban areas, costs are higher, and Cuenca is known as the most expensive city in the country. One honest writer recently cited $1,200 as a minimum figure for a couple to live in Cuenca, while another said $1,600 to live comfortably. Those are reasonable figures. Many factors must be taken into account, of course, but no objective residents will tell expats they can “live” well on $600 or $700 a month in an urban area. Again, evaluate closely those who urge you to move down here. Using exaggerated economic figures is their bait of choice. Far too many gullible expats have arrived, only to realize they had believed fudged figures. Those resident writers whose articles include their monthly budget analyses frequently exaggerate exactly how they live or just how rural and isolated their paid-for home is. Keep in mind that most are paid to write those articles, where even hints of a downside almost never appear. It’s as if there are no cons to go with all those pros.
Is it possible to live on the low figures that are usually touted? Sure, but do you want to enjoy life or just survive? One expat until recently existed on $450 a month, but he had no social life, never ate out, sold used clothing, had no TV, and kept his lights off most of the time. He “existed.” Increasing numbers of recent immigrants not only have insufficient income to live a comfortable life in Ecuador, but some of the disillusioned cannot afford to return to their home country. Those writers and speakers who selfishly mislead people about the cost of residing here do not see some of the unfortunate results of their exaggerations. Many expat residents regularly express concern for those compatriots who are struggling to scrape by.
Is it easy to get a visa? A temporary tourist visa, yes. However, getting a resident visa can be like a chapter from a surrealist novel by Franz Kafka. It seems that Immigration officials have reported so many cases of dealing with obnoxious foreign applicants – one official bluntly told an American researcher, “We don’t like gringos” – that there are now so many new and changing hoops, hurdles, and obstacles that it has become a Darwinian survival of those who can clench their teeth and hold their tongue. “Lost” applications and return trips to the capital or even back to one’s home country for yet more “properly officialized” documents are reported by applicants. One British couple got their resident visas only after 15 months of trips, frustration, and sleep loss. Among the ever-changing rules, a new regulation required single people to prove they have never been married. This was modified only after the U.S. Consulate and Embassy convinced Ecuadorian officials that there is no such document.
Another example of a Catch-22 is submitting the police report and, while waiting for action months later, being told that the police report is invalid after 30 days and a new one is necessary. Also, temporary visas can expire while applicants wait for a permanent visa, and leaving the country after a visa has expired means paying a hefty fine and not being allowed back into the country for six months or more. One’s passport may still be with the application documents, so trying to leave the country becomes an experience in frustration. Many expats have pulled their hair out while ensnared in the bureaucratic morass. Here is what the U.S. government says in its travel advisory to Ecuador:
“As in any country, Ecuadorian rules governing visas and customs are subject to change with little notice. The Ministry of Foreign Relations and other Ecuadorian government agencies publish little information in English, increasing foreigners’ reliance on lawyers or other facilitators, some of whom have distorted the true cost or requirements for obtaining Ecuadorian visas. Staff members at the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Consulate General are not in a position to give detailed advice about Ecuadorian immigration law.”
Want to shorten the process? Come prepared! One couple got all their resident documents in less than a month. How? Before they left their home country, they spent months communicating with a good lawyer in Cuenca who made sure they had every document that was necessary when they got to Ecuador. Showing up and asking, “What do I need?” is the worst way to start a new life here.
A new Immigration office has opened in Cuenca, and recent applicants report generally friendly service and assistance in English without the need for a lawyer. Multiple trips are still the norm, however, and a commonly heard exclamation from those leaving the building is, “Nobody told me I needed that!” Different officials commonly give contradictory answers to the same question.
Thankfully, there has been some reduction in the number of documents required after one has a resident visa. Expats no longer are required to have a military identification card (for males), a registration card exclusively for foreign residents (censo), or a travel permit every time they leave the country. The elimination of such requirements has been helpful.
To be continued… Part II
Lee Dubs first visited Cuenca in the early 1960s and has been a full-time resident for the past nine years. A retired language professor from North Carolina, he and his wife, Carol, are the owners of Carolina Bookstore on Calle Hermano Miguel at Calle Larga. Lee can be reached by email at email@example.com.