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As a writer, I am also an avid reader of others’ blogs, among other sources of all things literary. And when it comes to travel blogs, expat blogs, and specifically living-in-Ecuador blogs (this being my specialty), I get tired of the over-romanticized, all positive blogs that lack the ugly details and hardships of life abroad, and put a sucrose-coated patina over the everyday realities. I like to tell it like it is and hard as it is to find these days, someone’s got to do it. We all like to hear the good stuff, but it’s nice to have a heads-up  once in a while as well.

As a Gemini, I have both a very positive side and another that is prone to depression and negative thinking. However, the negative side is one  that also aids in a pragmatist/realist view of things, a side that helps to not gloss things over, to see reality for what it really is. I’ve done several entries, like the one about getting a driver’s license or others about doing business in Ecuador, detailing some of the trials and tribulations you’ll face if you come to live here, and especially if you plan to do any kind of business here. I’m not making any attempt to disrespect Ecuador or deny that there are many, many positive aspects of living in Ecuador; but I am trying, as the title suggests, to not only dispel the myths inherent in the dominant discourse of so many blogs that paint a tropical paradise that is idyllic, cheap, and easy, but to illustrate that there are also a number of frustrating things you should be aware of if you plan to spend any substantial amount of time here.

Now that being said, if you come as a retiree or have some foreign-based, external source of fixed income, you’ll be able to avoid many, many hassles-hassles that you will face if you come to live here or do business here. But nonetheless, there are a lot of hoops to jump through that you’ll find entertaining, frustrating, ridiculous, silly, downright illogical, or a bit of all these things, depending on your attitude. And none of them will make your life any easier. But i Digress…back to the details.

Yes, the cost of living is relatively “low” here compared to other places. However, there are some major caveats. Most cars are priced 60 to 80% over what you’d pay in the US due to high import tariffs. There’s no haggling at the dealer. And you’re going to pay easily upwards of 10% on a 5 year note if you want to finance it. So the car you might have in the states for a $200 monthly payment would easily cost you here $400+ monthly if you’re not paying cash.

Utilities are cheap, but the cost of housing isn’t always so. If you want to live in a decent middle class part of Quito, on top of utilities you’ll probably be paying high condominium fees, as most good neighborhoods have either a caretaker or guard service. If there are common areas that need maintenance, you’ll also be paying for that. So you can easily pay $75, $100, or $200 per month in homeowner’s/condo fees in many neighborhoods.

Fruits and vegetables are cheap and abundant, but unlike the Quito (and rest of Ecuador) of ten to fifteen years ago-especially before the country’s economy was dollarized-eating out and eating well are not cheap. Sure, cheap hole-in-the-wall restaurants abound, often called “comedores,” where average every day workers eat and you can get a meal for under $3. But you might also leave with amoebic dysentery, giardia, or some other lovely bug, and end up spending on a doctor’s visit and medicine to cure the indigestion! If you want to eat out in an upper end place, long gone are the days of a grand meal for 6 people for under $150, wine included. You can now easily spend $50-$100 dining for two. Sure, the food can be excellent, but the price is no longer so cheap.

Quito and Ecuador is still relatively peaceful, but it’s not as safe as it used to be. Not only does this cost you money, but peace of mind has its own price. “Express” kidnappings have been known to occur fairly regularly nowadays in Quito and especially Guayaquil-where you’ll be whisked off into a passing vehicle (or in a taxi you innocently stepped unknowingly into, where an accomplice might jump in beside you), and then be forced to withdraw money from an ATM or relieved of whatever valuables you might have on you. It’s not uncommon to hear of people’s houses, especially in Quito, being cleaned out by thieves in broad daylight. While muggings and armed robbery on the street are not that common, they do happen regularly if you’re not careful.

Finally, doing business here may have certain benefits such as low cost of labor-but there are a lot of costly bureaucratic hurdles that eat up time when time is money. Just last week, I had to give my employee 1.5 days off so that she could spend 10 of those 12 hours waiting in line to get her occupational permit for work. This included getting blood, urine, and stool samples taken and analyzed at a laboratory, and then visiting the official Dr. from the health ministry to get her permit approved. In addition to the cost of her absence, there were all the fees involved. Imagine if you had a dozen employees! We have spent at least another 3-4 days getting our municipal permit approved, which involves going through a Kafkaesque maze of offices and forms. Fortunately, if you do live here and have family or at least a good understanding of how things work, there are people who can help you out-for a fee. Perhaps for the better, the system of paying off people to do things for you is gradually being eliminated-however, the bureaucratic maze one has to go through by oneself is just replacing one costly system for another.

Doing some reading today about the highly lauded Marañón chocolate coming out of Peru. Or more specifically, the beans are coming out of Peru and the chocolate is being made in Switzerland. As pointed out on www.thechocolatelife.com, it sounds like the beans are actually Nacional beans, of the variety originally native to Ecuador, but growing in a remote area of Peru.

Here is a video of Chocolatier Julian Rose of Moonstruck Chocolates discussing the chocolate covered cocoa beans he’s making with the chocolate. He says “these wonderful cocoa beans will be covered in its own chocolate, so this is very unique in the world. I don’t think it’s ever been done and it will be done with the best beans that have been on the market in the last 150 years.”

I’m not sure when this video was recorded, but it’s been over two years, that is as far back as 2009, when I began to make my own chocolate covered cocoa beans, made with chocolate from the very same beans. Unfortunately, as any regular reader of this blog is aware, I stopped selling my products in the US sometime over a year ago. However, for those of you lucky enough to be in Ecuador, the chocolate coated cocoa beans are available here. While our beans do not hold the claim to fame of being pure Nacional beans from original rootstock, they are Nacional variety beans grown in the Guayas River basin of Ecuador–which also makes them true Arriba beans. Arriba has been a frequently abused marketing term rendered nearly meaningless by its application to nearly every chocolate coming out of Ecuador, thus the emphasis.

It´s a good thing when someone can get first mover advantage because they have the marketing budget and clout to get the product known, even though someone may be doing or has been doing very much the same thing long before a “known” product gets to market. While I haven’t tasted this chocolate, I would be delighted to see someone do a tasting comparing some of the pure Nacional chocolate coming out of Ecuador that we use with this new chocolate.

I’m also always surprised to hear the observation that Nacional beans give a floral flavor to the chocolate. Of all the chocolates I’ve tasted coming out of Ecuador, and I mean chocolates made in Ecuador of pure Ecuadorian beans (which, by the way, are either made from pure Nacional beans, or a mix of CCN–51 and Nacional beans, or in the worst case pure CCN–51 beans, and not an “origin” chocolate whose percentage of actual Nacional beans is totally unknown and may even be on the low end of the scale), floral is not a word I would use to describe the flavor. Some might beg to differ, as Nacional beans have often been described as such.  As to this new chocolate, they also use the word “nutty” to describe the flavor, which is a descriptor I would use for chocolates made with Ecuador’s CCN–51 hybrid, but not Nacional.

Over fifteen years ago I made the trip to the Saquisilí market a few hours south of Quito. I didnt´really know what I was looking for or what I was going to buy when I got there. But like so many places you go to explore and come back with something you didn´t expect to own, or maybe didn´t even know existed, I came pack with several hand-carved wooden masks used in traditional festivals held by Ecuador´s native peoples. The masks are often used in dances that take place in small towns to celebrate certain seasonal and/or quasi-religious events. The men who wear them have often been drinking. And things sometimes get rough, very rough, even deadly. None of this ever occurred to me when I bought the masks. Nor am I strong believer in the hocus-pocus idea that maybe the masks had some kind of bad energy. So the masks have been hanging in our house, on the walls, for the last 14 years, until we moved just this February.

The idea of getting rid of them came from our friend Margara Anhalzer, the owner of one of Quito’s very high-end craft shops. Her store, called Olga Fisch, the name of the Hungarian immigrant who started the store several decades ago, carries exclusive Ecuadorian handicrafts from all over the country. Somehow, in one of our stops over there to leave off some of our chocolate products which she sells, the topic of the masks came up and she was the one who suggested they might have bad energy and we should maybe consider getting rid of them. I think we had been discussing how the business was struggling and we still weren’t sure we were going to make it.

Anyway, we gave a mask to each of the movers who helped us. I hope they didn’t really have any bad energy and that all these helpful fellows are still doing just fine. Coincidentally, though, the business is doing a lot better.

Through simple word of mouth and perhaps just coincidence, people have started to look for us more than ever. A new client, another owner of an artisan crafts store in Quito’s old city, surfaced in February and began buying chocolates, several hundred a week, and has been coming back regularly ever since. From Guayaquil, a woman who owns a pastry shop  found us on the internet, and we started business with her a little over a month ago. These are good solid wholesale accounts.

And finally, as I mentioned some time ago, our private client which owns a gourmet chocolate brand sold here in Ecuador and overseas, for whom we make filled chocolates, is having fairly brisk sales at the Duty Free Shop in the Quito Airport, and while not great sales in the Plaza Foch, it’s still money in the bank. For those of you still curious to know who it is, I’ll give you a few hints…the first part of their name starts with the spanish word for Republic-as in Banana Republic-but ends in the spanish word for Cocoa, as in Cacao.

Ceviches de la Rumiñahui-01

CBR, or Cebiches de la Rumiñahui, is one of the old standbys of Quito, one of the great institutions of ceviche, and one of the places you can go where you may not get a superb meal, but you can rest assured it´s always good and consistent. I can remember being here 15 years ago and trekking to the North of Quito when CBR used to have only a few locations. They are now all over Quito as well as in the Quito suburban valleys of Tumbaco and Sangolquí. I´m not sure the proper spelling is really Cebiche with a “b,” but since CBR is such an institution, I guess you can call it correct-though I opt to spell it with a “v.”

Of course, the main menu item is ceviche. Shrimp ceviche is the all-time classic,

Shrimp Ceviche

and then there is ceviche de conchas-basically clam ceviche; fish ceviche-no explanation needed; and mixed, which contains all three. All ceviches are traditionally served with popcorn, salty fried plantain chips, and tostado, a type of toasted corn found only in Ecuador. This is an accompaniment you will find throughout Ecuador at any traditional cevichería (restaurant specializing in ceviches). The way to eat it is to snack on these while you’re waiting for your food, but be sure to leave enough to add to your ceviche broth to soak up the tasty juices-the popcorn wilts, the plantains stay crunchy, and so does the corn. It’s a great addition to add some texture once you’ve polished off all the seafood.

Fried Plantains, Popcorn, and Toasted Corn

They also offer Empanadas de Verde, plantain flour turnovers filled with shrimp or cheese and deep-fried. Rice with Shrimp, with Clams, or Mixed Rice-a jumble of shrimp, clams, squid, and fish, is also one of the menu standards. You can’t leave off your typical fried fish-in many places it’s served with a side of lentils and rice, but here they give you rice with a dollop of ketchup, fried plantains, and a small salad made of cucumbers and diced green peppers.

Fried Fish with Plantains, Rice, Tomato, and Salad

Finally, Sopa Marinera, or seafood soup, is the highest priced item on the menu, coming in at just under 8 bucks, but definitely one of the best.

Sopa Marinera-Seafood Soup at Ceviches de la Rumiñahui

You get your choice of sides-fried yucca, plantains, or rice. I opted for the yucca, which was delicately fried and brown and crispy on the outside, and tender and airy on the inside…some of the best yucca sticks I’ve yet to taste.

Ceviches de la Rumiñahui-08

You can hardly go wrong here with any of the items on the menu, though the empanadas do tend to be a little on the oily side. For a quick and tasty meal for under $10 a person, CBR is hard to beat.

Ceviches de la Rumiñahui-Cumbayá

Ecuador’s Trade Secrets

Walking through the supermarket with my camera, I surreptitiously managed to take several shots. I say surreptitiously because management definitely would not approve. If you’ve read much of this blog before, you already know that most businesses here in Ecuador are highly protective of their information, and that includes pricing and products. Anyone seen gathering such information purposely would be highly suspicious…why, I don’t know. Do you?

Unrefrigerated Eggs?

One food handling practice that constantly pokes me in the eye is the eggs. Eggs are not refrigerated in Ecuador-not ever, not anywhere.
Eggs On The Shelf In Ecuador-No Refrigeration
Even on the coast, where temperatures average in the 80s and 90s, you’ll find eggs on the supermarket shelf without cooling, eggs in the local store, eggs in the corner market, all just sitting out. And even if you buy eggs from the big producers, who do run egg farms, they still stamp them with dates that are 30 days out! Incredible, and I say it doesn’t work. I often get eggs which have 30 days on the “use by” label, and upon cracking them, the yolks immediately break, a sure sign of an egg which is not fresh.

Alcohol-Truly, A Luxury

Wines (and liquors) are expensive here and became extremely expensive a few months back, when Correa, Ecuador’s president, implemented some draconian import duties on most everything to save the country from running out of hard currency-the dollar, that is. Ecuador was importing far more goods than it was exporting, and so of course the dollars to pay for those imports were leaving the country faster than they were coming in. Once we put this crisis behind us, duties may come down again and some items might, just might, approach reasonable again.
Wine Shelf At Supermaxi-One Of Ecuador's Largest Supermarket Chains

World’s Largest Banana Producer

On the other hand, bananas are cheap, and I mean so cheap, they’re almost giving them away. As the world’s largest exporter of bananas, it should be that way.
Bananas-About $0.45/lb, Pineapples-About $0.25/lb
And these are high end bananas-you can find them cheaper elsewhere. You can buy pineapples on the roadside for as little as 3 for $1, sometimes less in the growing zones. You’ll see bananas, the defective ones, sometimes piled high in the back of a truck or on the side of the road-they’re used to feed the cows. However, these are not the Cavendish variety that are exported.

Of course, most of the time the bananas you find are not the blemish-free, spotless, even-colored ones we are accustomed to in the US. All the perfect ones get shipped abroad. I wasn’t able to confirm the current price for the 43 pound box of bananas that are the standard for shipping to the US and Europe, of the Cavendish variety, but it seems to be around $5.25 a box, and was recently as high as $11-$12 due to heavy rains in other parts of the world that decimated banana crops.

Chocolate Dominates-Flash Without Flavor

Plenty of chocolate fills the supermarket shelves, but not a whole lot of it is world-class, nor is much of it consumed here. Caoni has now taken up the majority of shelf-space in the chocolates section, next to Nestle, a few other mass market imports, and other sweets. Caoni has first-class packaging that belies what is to be found inside. It’s produced by Tulicorp, a local processor of cacao based in Guayaquil. Hearsay has it that one of the main investors behind it is Pronaca, Ecuador’s largest poultry, pork, and general mass food processor.

The rest of the mass market chocolates are either locally produced or imported from Colombia, and most contain vegetable fats and hydrogenated oils but no real cocoa butter. As far as appreciation for chocolate goes, most Ecuadorians think chocolate is chocolate. Per cents mean nothing to most consumers, and where it comes from-who cares? As long as it comes in a pretty package, is cheap, and there’s a good amount, most local consumers are happy.
Caoni Chocolate Rules The Shelves Of Supermaxi

Instant Gratification

While there is still plenty of basic home cooking going on and the pace of life is much slower here than in the so-called industrialized world, Ecuadorians love their instant soup mixes too. And soup, being part of the daily lunchtime ritual, is a highly popular item. Nestle again dominates the market here, under its Maggi brand of soups and condiments.
Maggi (A Nestle Brand) Dominates The Instant Soup Market

Cows-Loving Grass, Not Corn

Finally, Ecuadorians are very big on cheese and dairy items. Locally made cheeses are abundant and the most popular kinds are fresh cheeses which keep only a few days after being opened and cannot be aged. There is also a Swiss contingent that has been here for decades, that produces a decent Gruyere, among other cheeses. Variety is thin, not the hundreds of regional cheeses like those found in France; there are no more than a dozen or so different types. Imported cheeses are costly as import duties are in place to protect local industry. Almost all dairy products here, especially the fresh ones, have a rich, deep flavor-probably because all the cattle here is free-roaming and grass-fed.

Cream and milk is most commonly purchased in UHT boxes; Nestle also seems to have major control over this sector. Fresh milk and cream can be spotty in quality; because Ecuador’s dairy cattle are almost purely grass fed, flavor and fat content tend to vary depending on the time of year. Also, fresh products are not homogenized so you often get fat separation.
Dairy Section Of Supermaxi

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Welcome to Destination Ecuador!

Welcome to Destination Ecuador! My family and I have been living in Ecuador for the last four and a half years. We’ve dealt with the worst kinds of red-tape, searched out or ended up making hard-to-find ingredients ourselves, imported equipment for making chocolate confections, learned the import-export business...Continue >>

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