Since Chantal and I retired to Ecuador last January 2019 – nearly eight full months ago, as of this writing – we’ve procured a ’79 Ford Bronco, a new Yamaha FZ 25, and a new Renault Sandero Stepway Intens. I think we have a certain perspective on how to buy motor vehicles in this country.
I won’t go into too many details about the Bronco. It was a private cash sale that involved one notary, six orders of government official, and a payment to the Calceta fire department for reasons that still aren’t clear to me. In the end, we learned that owning a forty-year-old American truck with no parts source isn’t as much fun as you might think. I’ll write about that shitshow some other time.
My Yamaha purchase was a hoot and totally straight-forward. I asked the sales manager if he accepted cash on hand. He said he did. So I produced a seven-inch-thick stack of twenties, which is the only denomination bank machines here seem to excrete. The guy’s eyes bugged out of his head. He practically locked up his concesionario for half an hour to count and then recount the money. But we had a deal.
All else it took was my cedula (government-issued photo identification) and contact info. Three days later I had my matricula (registration) and a temporary plate. (I’m still waiting for my permanent placa. At the time, it would take only three months. These days, I’m told it may never arrive. Such is life in El ombligo del mundo.)
Our Renault acquisition, on the other hand, was an entirely different experience. We did everything wrong. It still came out perfectly. Which means we’re too stupid, or too lucky, to screw up a cash sale of this size. Probably both.
Rule #1: Don’t bring a wad of hundred-dollar bills to the dealership.
Apparently, our strategy was shock and awe. There’s no other way to describe what we thought was a perfectly sane thing to do, in a country where nobody has ever seen seventeen-thousand United States dollars in one place. Don’t ask me how we arrived at this ludicrous decision.
All I know is this: We didn’t have a bank account in Ecuador, and Banco Pichincha extracts a handsome fee for every ATM withdrawal from a foreign source. (I say Banco Pichincha because, at that time, we knew their machines worked with our TD cross-border banking account.) So, we sold two investments in our Canadian TFSAs, converted them into US dollars, and each brought eighty-five hundred in cash into Ecuador without first declaring it. Because that’s what responsible adults do. Right?
It’s difficult to describe the look of sheer incredulity, and then deepening alarm, on our salesman’s face when we told him we had cash on hand for the transaction. I suspect he was sizing us up for the fools that we are.
“We can’t accept any cash payment over five thousand dollars,” Oswaldo informed us, perhaps too patiently, in Spanish. “Anti-money-laundering laws. You must show us how this cash arrived in Ecuador. The government requires official bank statements with your name on them, and a detailed description of how you came to possess this amount that you have here today. You took it out by cash machine, right? You’ll need to deposit this money back into your bank account and then transfer it into our bank account.”
“Cash machine?” I mused. “Uh…”
Which brings me to –
Rule #2: Don’t buy a new car without an Ecuadorian bank account.
Fortunately, the general manager was within listening distance when I told Oswaldo we didn’t have an Ecuadorian bank account.
With a magnanimously Latin sweep of his arm, he stepped forward to introduce himself as El gerente general, and then to volunteer his hapless finance manager to assist us in the opening of said account. At Banco Guayaquil, which we have read is notoriously hard on extranjeros.
She drove us to the Centro Comercial Paseo Shopping, which is across the street from the Renault dealership on Avenida 4 de Noviembre. I mean, it’s literally across the street. We could have walked faster than it took to negotiate traffic and find a parking spot. I pointed this out, and it was explained to me in no uncertain terms that driving is better. Probably because we were carrying an absurd sum of money in our shorts.
All kisses with our finance manager’s friend at the banco, and we sat down while they guided us through the formal paperwork: applications, testimonials, copies of utility bills, photo identification, and the initial deposit, which was our price for the car plus an extra ten bucks to cover the cost of my debit card. Seventeen thousand eight hundred sixty-eight, in total.
When I pulled out my wad of hundreds, the bank teller handed our clearly-unamused finance manager a piece of paper and asked her to write down the serial number of every bill we had in our possession. Anti-money-laundering laws, and all that.
We felt terrible. Our finance manager kept a brave face. One hundred seventy-eight bills later, her hand had cramped into a kind of raptor claw. The counting and documenting had also attracted a small crowd of curious onlookers. I kept my eye on the armed guard at the door.
The bank transfer, we were told, would take place in 24 hours from the opening of our account. And by 24 hours, I mean 72 hours. Each day necessitating a trip to Manta on my motorcycle, and a two-hour wait at the bank to learn that my signature and photo were still unavailable for confirmation in the Paseo branch’s computer system. Regresa mañana.
By Day Three, Oswaldo and I successfully initiated the transfer. We returned very cheerfully to the dealership to wrap up my paperwork. Just three more signatures, a couple hundred bucks for the car registration, and the most Byzantine financial accounting process known to humanity.
Rule #3: Don’t forget your paper trail!
When a dealership emails you a proforma – that is to say, a quotation in response to the form you filled out online – it includes a list of required documentos for any cash sale: cedula or passport, voting record (voting in Ecuador is compulsory for adult citizens who can read and write), and a utility bill with your name on it.
Extranjeros, naturally, do not have voting records. But they don’t tell you what to do in that case. They also don’t tell you that your cash money is no good until you can prove it isn’t the proceeds from a crime. I wish I were kidding.
In perhaps the most personally invasive stage of our transaction, Chantal and I had to produce detailed statements for our various bank accounts, including the retirement savings and investment accounts where our money originated. We documented every step that cash took to arrive in Renault’s pockets. We showed everything. We had to.
Don’t ask me who else saw how much we’re worth, or where those records found themselves when the dust settled. We’re still a little creeped out. But that, I suppose, is the price of admission in places like Ecuador. Governments of former narco-states have every right to police large sums of money that cross their boundaries. And rich northerners demand assurances that Latin American countries are taking crime seriously.
Well, here you go. Serious enough for you?
Would we do it again?
Sure. We live in a remote rural area. Buses are cheap but unpredictable, and they take a certain sport in delivering gringos to the wrong city. So we drive, everywhere.
I learned in downtown Montreal. I’ve driven in New York City, Paris, and Istanbul. I can handle South American traffic.
Besides, I freakin’ love that new car smell.