So, what does a month in Ecuador cost anyway?

$3636.35

That title question was posed by a blog reader and, since I obsessively track expenses anyway and my guess is if you’re a reader of jlcollinsnh you’d be curious, it suggested a fun and easy post topic.  Since I was actually there only 27 days, that’s $134.83 per day.  But you could do it a lot less expensively and below I’ll point out how.  Of course, you could spend much, much more too.  But you don’t need my help for that.

But before we get into the specifies, I want to share this cool story with you.

If you’ve seen the movie “Romancing the Stone” you might remember this scene:

Kathleen Turner (Joan Wilder) and Michael Douglas (Jack) find themselves in a small Columbian village and at the door of the local drug lord seeking transportation.  It’s looking grim as the drug lord sticks a huge pistol in their faces and his armed and sinister looking compadres are closing in.

Jack:  “OK, Joan Wilder, write us out of this one.”

Drug lord:  “Joan Wilder?  The Joan Wilder?!  I read your books!  I read all your books!!”

I’ve never personally met one of my blog readers.  Of course I know those friends and family who read it.  And I’ve had coffee with two other bloggers who read mine as I read theirs.  But I’d never met a person who’d independently found the blog and started reading it with no prior connection to me.

After a long day of bus rides and planes I landed at the Quito, Ecuador International Airport around 9 pm.  Since this ain’t my first rodeo and I knew I’d be dragging, I had arranged for someone from The Travellers Inn where I was staying to meet me.

The Travellers Inn

Sure enough there was a young man waiting for me as I emerged from Customs holding up a sign with my name on it.  Shamefully, especially since he didn’t stick a pistol in my face, I have forgotten his name.  But, as I said, I was dog tired at the time.

He put up graciously with my bad and broken Spanish on the walk to the car before switching to his own perfect English.

“I read your blog,” he said.  “I read all your posts!”

Airfares:  $1046

American Airlines flew me Boston – Miami – Quito and back for $812.

Lan Airlines flew me from Quito to Cuenca for $80.

Aero Gal from Cuenca back thru Quito and onto the coast at Manta, then Manta to Quito for the flight home, $154.

Lan and Aero Gal are both Ecuadorian airlines and are absolutely first rate.  The planes were new and, unlike American airline companies, they haven’t jammed every possible seat into the cabins.  I actually had comfortable leg room and was served a tasty empanada snack and drink (even though all of these in country flights were less than an hour) by flight attendants who were bright, friendly and gracious.  Not because it’s in their job description but just because they are bright, friendly and gracious people.  It was like what flying in the USA used to be like in the 1960s.

Hotels:  $1137.65

Not much you can do about the airfares we didn’t already do, but if you wanted to take this trip for less than I spent, cheaper hotels and hostals would be a place to start.  The hotels I stayed at were mid-range or better.  You could easily shave $5-600 off here.  Of course, you could also spend lots and lots more.

My night at the Travellers was $47 and included an excellent breakfast.  The room was clean, simple and in an old converted house.  Private bathroom and a good shower with plenty of hot water, which is not always the case in South America.

Cheryl’s farm house

The next several nights were spent with Cheryl at her farm.  By way of thanks for her hospitality, I took her and her boyfriend Rich out to eat a couple of times for a total cost of $27.50 (accounted for in the restaurant category) which made this the bargain of the trip.

Her EcuaTruck.

Been rolled once by the farmhand’s son and so now has serious character ground in.  Fortunately with no one in the bed.  It is the local custom to stop when you see someone on the side of the road and offer a ride.  They hop up and tap on the roof when they want to be left off.

Her place is about 2.5 hours out of Quito near the tiny town of Santa Elena, far up a very rough rock and dirt road. We had a great time and laid out plans for the Retreat.  I can report now that this will almost certainly happen. Date: September 7-14, 2013.  In addition to Cheryl and myself, two additional presenters will be on board.  Both are seriously interesting guys I look forward to hanging out with and I bet you will, too.  We’re still massaging the details and when the time comes I share them with you in a post right here.

I stayed here.  Join us for the Retreat and you will too.

As part of my relentless dedication to you, my readers, I then spent two nights at the El Encanto Resort.  We plan to hold the Retreat here and I wanted to be sure the rooms, service and food were up to par.  Work, work, work.  They were.  One example:  The resort is built into the side of a ridge and it is about a 45 minute hike down to the river and waterfall.  It is a bit steep and a somewhat tough climb back out.  When I made my way back to the top, Veronica the resort chef was waiting for me at the trail head with big smile and a glass of fresh lemonade.

Two nights and three meals a day: $124.

From there I made my way back to Quito and flew on down to Cuenca for a couple of weeks.  This was the longest stop of my trip and for good reason.  Check it out:

Cuenca

Photo by:  Dario Endara

Home in Cuenca for 16 days was Apartmentos Otorongo at a cost of $500.  I had a small apartment with a kitchen so I had a place to stock and prepare food for the rare occasions I felt like staying in.

Otorongo

My apartment was the door on the far left in the back of the photo, second floor.

There is a lesson here:  The longer you settle in to a place the less expensive per day the accommodations become. Otorongo is run by Xavier y Samara Montezuma, their family and staff.  Just wonderful people and within a day or two it felt like home.  Sara and Angelica took especially good care of me and they put up with my broken Spanish.  

Bahia

The last five nights were spent on the coast in the town of Bahia.  Patricio Tamariz was my host at his Hotel Casa Grande, which is exactly like it sounds like:  A grand home converted into a hotel.  It is located near the tip of the peninsula shown in the photo above.  Easily the most luxurious place of my trip it was also the priciest at $466.65 or $93.33 per night.  But as is frequently the case, you get what you pay for.  This is a first class place.

Each morning began with a unique and tasty breakfast served poolside by the genuinely friendly, caring staff. Ecuadorians are remarkably hospitable.  I am impressed enough that it is high on my list as a destination for Retreat II.

Oh, and if you go try to spend some time over coffee with Patricio.  Fascinating guy who, among other things, served as the Executive Director, Ecuador Tourist Authority.  He’s traveled all over the world presenting the charms of his country.  He has endless great stories well told he’ll share in flawless Spanish or English, your choice.

Inside Casa Grande

Patricio also owns and operates Chiriji (Chee-Ree-Hay), an ecolodge/archeological site with bungalows on a pristine Pacific Coast beach.  I’ve not been to it, but I’ve met people who have.  Those conversations have convinced me I need to go.  These pictures, too:

Food and water:  $44.   

This covers the bottles of water bought during the trip and the groceries with which I stocked my Cuenca apartment. Milk, cereal, cheese, sausage, yogurt and such.  Also, stunningly good freshly baked croissants for a dime each.

Restaurants:  $479.

I took most of my meals in restaurants.  The most expensive meal was in a first class Cuenca restaurant with two other expats I’d met.  We all had filet mignon and downed a couple of bottles of pretty good wine.  Shared a dessert, too. My share was $30, fully $10 more than the next most expensive meal.

The least expensive meals were “platos del dia” in local Ecuadorian joints.  Juice, soup, meat (or chicken or fish), rice, vegetables and most often a dessert.  A banana or scoop of ice cream is typical.  $2.50.  If you focused on these places you could cut my restaurant tab by 2/3rds or better.

Tours:  $515.

As regular readers know, I am not a fan of tours.  But I took two on this journey and only one was a mistake.  The $500 one.

Visting Refugio Paz de las Aves was definitely not a mistake.  This bird reserve is run by Cheryl’s pal Angel Paz and his family.  His story and that of the reserve is seriously cool and well worth checking out by clicking the link.  For $15 you get to show up at dawn and hike down the trail to various viewing stations where you’ll get to see cool birds like these:

Cock of the Rock

Photo by Crijnfotin

I don’t know what this one is, but I saw it.

We also saw several others, including about a dozen different types of hummingbirds.  In addition to the birds, we sighted four French birders armed with cameras and three foot lens.  These, it seems, are also common in the Reserve.

Back at the house, a great breakfast is included.  We had strong coffee and Bolons, balls of mashed plantains with meat and cheese in the center.  Yum!  Since I was a friend of Cheryl’s it took more than a little effort to get the Paz family to accept my $15.

The remaining $500 was the price for a three day real estate tour I signed up for.  From the moment I found it I had serious misgivings.  It was offered in an e-newsletter on Ecuador I subscribe to.  This thing is filled with relentless self promotion and sales pitches by the author, normally a red flag.  When I emailed for more information, getting my questions answered was like pulling teeth.  Even then, the answers were frequently vague and unclear.  More red flags.

I stepped away from it for several weeks, but ultimately pulled the trigger.  Since I had only a few days on the coast and wanted to see some property while I was there, the concept perfectly fit my needs.  The email stating the hotel would be discounted to $65 per night sealed the deal.  Of course, that turned out not to be true.  I remain unsure if the promoter was simply clueless or just lied outright.

I landed at Manta airport figuring there was a maybe 50% chance that someone would be there to meet me and working on my plan “B”.  Over the next three days I heard even more bitter complaints from the other people on the tour.  None of us knew precisely what our $500 covered.  Some thought hotels.  Some thought meals.  Nope.  Not even, for instance and as it happened, the return trip to Manta airport after it was done.

For all these reasons, I’ll not be naming this tour operator here.

The irony is, the tour itself turned out great.  This is due to Xavier Gutierrez Salazar, the Bahia local who actually took us around.  Xavier is an extremely knowledgeable guy, especially concerning the ecology of Ecuador, his main passion.  In addition to running the occasional tour, he is a real estate broker, operates a shrimp farm, is an environmental activist and launched Green Global Solutions to promote environmentally friendly and sustainable projects.  Oh, and he is developing just such a beach house community on the shore a bit north of Bahia.

When I stepped out of the Manta airport, Xavier called my name.  I guess picking out a big ugly solo gringo isn’t that tough.  He was there with his cousin Jorge and his drop-dead gorgeous wife, and mother of his four beautiful little girls, Maria.

We had great fun together running up and down the coast all day and eating lunch at little beach side shacks with beer and seafood.  Each evening he took us to small, friendly, inexpensive and tasty local places for dinner.  He’s one of those guys who knows everybody, local and gringo alike.  Often we’d stop to meet and chat with them.  One night after dinner we approached a small house.  Music and singing could be heard a block away.  Knocking on the locked door, Xavier called out whatever needed to be called out.  Inside was a small group — Ecuadorians, Americans, a Nicaraguan and an Australian — singing, playing music, talking in English, Spanish and the odd mix of both.   We had dessert.  Someone brought out a bottle of the local liquor.  Clear as water and clearly with the kick of a mule.  Never has my Spanish been better.

My advice, should you go:  Skip the irritating $500 middlemen.  Contact Xavier directly:  nxcoastal@gmail.com  Tell him I sent you.

Ground Transportation:  $255

The big expenses here were the $45 taxi each way for the 2.5 hour trip from Quito to the farm, $30 taxi from Bahia back to the Manta airport, $18 bus from New Hampshire to Logan Airport going out and $100 for a car to take me from Logan back home on my return.  I splurged on this last because I knew by the time I landed I would have been up for 36 hours and flying all night.  The balance was taxi fares around Cuenca which are mostly $2 a ride.  I also tried the city bus but that was only a quarter.

Odds and Ends:

Chocolate.  Ecuador produces what is likely the finest, purest chocolate in the world.  But it ain’t cheap.  The two bars I brought home cost $18.

ATM fees:  $4.50.  For one withdrawal. Yikes!  But cash is king in Ecuador.  Credit cards are only accepted in the more expensive places and then with a premium of 3-4% to cover what the cards charge the merchant.  Makes better sense than, as the USA merchants do, building the fee into the price and charging it whether you use a card or not.

By the way, Ecuador uses the US Dollar as their official currency.  If you’ve ever wondered what happened to all these coins…

Sacagawea Dollar

..they’re in wide and popular circulation in Ecuador and you’ll hardly ever see a dollar bill down there.  So unpopular are they in the USA, that last year when I tried to spend the leftovers I brought back the sales clerks didn’t know what they were.  Took some convincing that they really are US money.

Laundry:  $7.20.  Dropped off and picked up.  Done twice.

Book:  $10.  Madrigal’s Magic Key to Spanish by Margarita Madrigal.  This book came highly recommended by an expat I met in Cuenca and now I highly recommend it to you.  If you are interested in picking up Spanish.

Tips:  $20.  

Charity:  $100.  Cheryl has the habit of helping her frequently very poor neighbors.  Since there is no charitable organization pulling expense money off the top, every cent goes to helping.  Plus, these are people she knows and she can see the impact up close.  While I believe in more formal giving, I prefer this up close and personal approach when it presents itself.  BTW, we’ll also be giving at least 10% of any retreat profits in this fashion.

Want to do it for less?

Were I traveling as I did in my 20s, I’d go the hostel route and shave about $600 off the hotel bills.  The restaurant costs could easily be cut in half, saving $240 and with more use of buses ground transportation would drop by $130. Skipping the real estate tour, chocolate and book saves another $528.  Total saved $1498, cutting the trip cost to about $2138 and you’re still tipping and giving away some money to help others.

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