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I’m constantly amazed by the ability to turn automation into something manual here. Usually I welcome technology as a harbinger  of efficiency, a time-saver in many cases, something that might reduce friction a bit in a business transaction and make one’s life a little easier.

In Ecuador, it doesn’t always work out that way. I’ve probably discussed more than once how even the Internet has been turned into something that adds another layer of bureaucracy and friction to getting things done here. Or getting access to the Internet for banking or other services may be even more difficult than using the service itself, requiring reams of paper and signatures before being handed maybe a USB token or series of passwords, in an office somewhere out of the way, that you have to visit in person.

This must contribute to the high costs of so many things here in Ecuador. Because in so many cases, instead of just having a person do what a person could do alone, they add a machine to do it, then add a person to run that machine.

In this photo, we’re looking at a ticket line at Movistar, one of Ecuador’s main cell phone service companies.

They’ve installed an automated kiosk, with a touch screen for several options depending on the type of service you need.

However, instead of letting the public actually use the touch screen, they’ve hired someone to touch the touch screen for you, and then also write down the nature of your inquiry by hand into a notebook! At which point you are then delivered a slip of paper with your number on it, which will eventually show up on one of the flat-screen panels throughout the office when your turn comes up.

Perhaps they had too many problems initially with people not being able to use the automated kiosk-this wouldn’t surprise me as human interaction is the norm, not the exception in Ecuador, and most people just aren’t used to having a machine handle their requests. But hey, what can I do? It is what it is.

The last two months have been full of serious contemplation about what comes next. It’s not the first time since we’ve been here that we have considered returning to the US. Almost every year, we go through the same routine of evaluating the business and committing to staying here another year – or not.

I just got back from spending six weeks in the US. I spent a lot of time looking at basic cost of living items. This is also influenced my thinking. It was interesting to note that food and produce is generally not a whole lot higher and what it costs here in Ecuador. The two main costs are higher in the US are housing and health insurance. Other than that, I was pretty surprised to find that I could probably have a better standard of living in the US while only having to make not a lot more money than I make here.

If you’ve been a regular reader of the blog, you will know the last year in Ecuador has been fraught with more difficulty than ever before, not just specifically related to our business, but also related to our kids’ education, and the future outlook for Ecuador. We hear from people in all types of businesses about the difficulties they’re having, and the new challenges they are facing with doing business. We see the increase in crime and insecurity here in Quito. We deal with increasingly bad traffic. Exporting has gotten more and more bureaucratic and time-consuming.

With all of these negatives on top, there must be a few positives. First, I’ve seen a growing interest in Ecuadorian chocolate and cocoa products from abroad. This is brought us some opportunities for export. Second, within Ecuador I see a growing impetus in the cocoa and chocolate sector with increased efforts to reach out abroad. Third, I had strengthened several partnerships with local professionals and manufacturers in the cocoa sector, allowing me to provide an increasing range and sophistication of products for export.

So there’s both good and bad going on. But, we’re not sure we want to wait around and see just how difficult to do business and live here in Ecuador. The writing is on the wall for a business – either invest several tens of thousands of dollars over the next few years to comply with new government regulations, or close up. At this point, I’m more inclined to head back home. It doesn’t matter where I am as far as doing business with Ecuador; I have the contacts, the networks and the relationships established. We will be deciding in the next 4 to 6 months what comes next.

The last major news out of Ecuador was about Correas’ victory in the presidential elections. Correa is Ecuador’s left-leaning populist president, friend and ally of Venezuela’s former Hugo Chavez, and setting Ecuador on an increasingly unknown path. At least for those of us who live here.

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of close coverage on the ground about what is actually happening in the country first hand, and how his policies are affecting people.

As my readers know, we’ve been struggling with compliance issues for our chocolate business. When we  first went to get our Ministry of Health operating permit renewed this year, and read the list of new requirements, I was already sure the writing was on the wall. But as a few weeks and months passed, the requirements didn’t seem so insurmountable, and I had a faint hope we might be able to continue operating without too much concern. We did everything we could within reason and reasonable expense to comply.

One of the requirements was to implement a system of good manufacturing practices, which we did within reasonable cost and effort. Like many small businesses here in Ecuador, we operate in what was once an older building, and obviously many of the construction standards do not fit within good manufacturing practices criteria. The cost in time and money to retrofit the building is beyond our budget, and would be beyond most small business’ ability to do. We thought maybe the inspector might be pragmatic and flexible.

She came this morning, and wouldn’t bend an inch. Typical of bureaucrats, both here and probably everywhere else, she was utterly by the book and unwilling to be accommodating.  Inflexible and narrowminded, maybe without even the slightest idea that by adamantly and overzealously enforcing regulations that don’t fit with the reality of the country, she’s going to close businesses and put people out of work.While I understand the government’s effort to professionalize the production of goods and services in Ecuador, there’s also a need for pragmatism and flexibility.

This would mean that bureaucrats would be given the leeway to interpret regulations in such a way that most of the time it would benefit most of the people. However, and this is an idiosyncrasy commonly found in Ecuador, most of the time there is little flexibility and individuals are unwilling to do anything that might put at risk their job or position. And, they are also willing and able to subject you to arbitrary whims, as it’s almost impossible to go to a higher up or someone else who might hold them accountable for their decisions.

Therefore, no one rocks the boat, no one is willing to take a chance, no one is willing to help you out if it means it might jeopardize their position, challenge their knowledge, or otherwise put them in a position where a superior might question their judgement. Of course, that means looking at the bigger picture is out of the question-it would never cross someone’s mind to say “Well, I decided we could be flexible on that, otherwise we’d have to shut them down.” Nope, just doesn’t happen, and probably never will.

While it’s bad enough that we see our business being squeezed, what makes it worse is that we see this happening with other business owners we know in a variety of sectors. Also, we are seeing our childrens’ school being squeezed by the Ministry of Education, and it’s looking like things are heading in a downward spiral towards mediocrity. I’ll cover that topic in another post.

Travelers are often surprised at how expensive Ecuador is. You can easily pay $1.50 to $2.50 for a cup of coffee. Cheap accommodations can run you as little as $15 a night or as high as $30 a night. Bus fares to most parts of the country can cost anywhere from a few dollars to maybe as high as 15 or $20. Cheap meal can be $2 or $10. So a lot of what is “cheap” depends not only on your perspective, but on the quality of services you are comfortable with.

You can drink a cup of instant coffee or poorly made coffee for under a dollar at a lot of places. Or you can have a pretty decent, well-made cup of coffee, cappuccino, or other fancy coffee drink for a $1.50 to $2.50 at a fancy coffee bar. You can sleep in cheap accommodations, where no ways, bedbugs, and lack of security may be the norm. If you’re comfortable doing this, you can save a lot of money. Traveling by bus can be very cheap, but it all depends on your risk tolerance. Every year, there are numerous serious bus accidents in Ecuador, often with fatalities. If you’re okay with that, travel can be really cheap. If you’re not, expect to pay from $60 a day and up for a private taxi and driver, and similar rates for a rental car.

Just because it’s a developing country doesn’t mean it’s cheap.  If you want to travel safely, comfortably, and eat well,consider the following. Because the general standards of quality, safety, and comfort here are often below what we are used to in the United States or other modernized countries, you will pay extra to maintain the standards you are used to. However, there are some ways to save money.

You’ll find that if you do eat at very cheap places, where you can get a lunch say for $2.50, you might find yourself with stomach problems or worse. This will cost you a trip to the doctor and pharmacy, which will run you at least $30-$50. If you’re willing to spend a little more, and eat at slightly better places, you may avoid a lot of stomach troubles. Without going to the very best spots, you can easily have a decent lunch for anywhere from $7.50 to $10, or, better yet, head to the supermarket and pick up a baguette, some cheese, some fresh fruit, and whatever else you like on the cheap and eat well. Spending a little more for meals can save you time and money, and help you keep your health intact.

If you’re planning on staying for the long term, or a couple of weeks in a couple of different spots, use a service like AirBnB.com to find rentals in the area. This can be a lot cheaper than staying in hostels or hotels.

If you’re out shopping for handicrafts at one of the local artisan markets, just assume that the price you’re offered upon your first glance an item is at least double what you should pay. So, even if you don’t speak much Spanish, start the bargaining game. Bargaining is a friendly, regular part of doing business for Ecuadorians, so don’t be intimidated and don’t take anything personally. Offer a price that is at least Of the initial price, if not a third of it, and work your way up from there. Don’t feel guilty about paying less – Ecuadorians like to bargain and you may be pleasantly surprised how much fun it can be. And you’re saving yourself some money while learning to interact with the locals.

While Ecuador can be surprisingly expensive, by following a few simple rules like eating well and bargaining with the locals, you’ll save money while making your trip more enjoyable.

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Many people ask me the safest way to travel in Ecuador. First, it depends on what you mean by “safe.” Are you willing to travel at night? On a bus? Do you have the budget you need for renting a car or hiring a taxi?

Safety standards for public transportation are not what most people would expect if you grew up in the modern world. Nor are they greatly enforced. Public accommodations on buses are often crowded and uncomfortable. Consider these factors when choosing your means of transportation.

You’d  like to visit several places, and do it cheaply, safely, and efficiently. Buses are a cheap way to get around, and one quick rule of thumb is that you’ll pay about a dollar for each hour of travel. So, for example, a bus from Quito to Esmeraldas is about a 6 hour trip, and the fare should be somewhere in the $6 range. And while buses do travel fast, they often stop frequently, making your trip longer than necessary at times. The one major caveat with buses is that there are several crashes, frequently with fatalities, each year in Ecuador. Night buses are even riskier than day buses, so consider your risk tolerance carefully. Buses are not well regulated for safety and speed limits are usually not enforced in Ecuador. Drivers’ sense of caution may seem to be non-existent. Whenever travelling by bus, keep your belongings at arms’ length-do not allow them to be placed in the storage areas under the bus. If you do, be sure to get off immediately at every stop to make sure they are not stolen. Preferably, keep your belongings with you and in your sight at all times.

Another way to travel, which is a bit more expensive but can result in a more stress-free, comfortable trip, with the opportunity to stop along the way where you’d like, say for a scenic photo, is to hire a cab and driver. You’ll pay anywhere from $60 to $90 a day. On top of that, you need to include meals for the driver, and if you’re taking him overnight, his accommodations. Of course, you don’t have to put him up in an expensive place if that’s where you’re staying. If you’re departing from Quito or Guayaquil, the best way to find a good driver is through your hotel or personal contacts.

Finally, there is car rental. Car rental is not cheap, but affords you the opportunity to go where you please whenever you like. Once outside Quito or Guayaquil, driving is not quite as harrying as in the city. Gas is cheap-currently premium fuel is about $2 a gallon, and regular around $1.40. For even cheaper fuel, rent a diesel if you can. Diesel is $1 a gallon. There are decent maps for Ecuador and the road system is fairly simple. If you speak basic Spanish, you can usually get directions at gas stations or restaurants along your route.

My tips for safe travel here cover the main forms of transportation available for long distances. I’ll discuss travel tips for when you’re in the city and out and about on foot in a later post. Check back soon for more useful information on living and travelling in Ecuador.

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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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