I offer aspiring Ecuador expats plenty of learned advice in this blog. The cynical reader will notice that I follow none of it myself. The acute observer will say this is how I learned it, in the first place.
Trial and error are my retirement credo – with a mighty emphasis on error. If you want to quickly adapt to the magnificent mess that is Ecuador, you won’t do it by ragging your puck. Often, you have to slap the everliving shit out of it. Sometimes you score. Sometimes you hit a spectator in the face.
On the pre-pandemic anniversary of our first year in Ecuador, I wrote: “If I were to do this again, I’d choose differently. Rent, move around, find the right spot and then settle in.” I was referring to the fact that Chantal and I built our retirement home among other Canadian expats, many of whom turned out to be, shall we say, unfamiliar with social norms. We did this because it seemed at the time a safer bet than total immersion in a foreign culture. We ragged our puck.
This month marks our third year as retirees in Ecuador. In that time, we’ve experienced a three-week blackout and extortion attempt; a military-enforced lockdown that required dodgy diplomatic transit papers to escape; emergency repatriation flights to Canada; homelessness; nasty bouts of COVID; compulsory return flights to Ecuador, to salvage our residency visas; a lawsuit against the developer of our resort community; schoolyard bullying from said developer and her idiot hangers-on; and finally bugger it I’m done.
There comes a moment, after such bizarre circumstances, when you take a knee, weigh the evidence, and acknowledge that your retirement plan still has some bugs in it. Perhaps total immersion is the better bet, after all. Rent, move around, find the right spot. In other words, follow my own damn advice.
Chantal and I put our home up for sale and became nomads. So began our Retirement 2.0.
I wrote in November about the finca. It sits on a delightfully secluded plot of land halfway between San Clemente and Bahía de Caráquez. We came upon our first nomadic living situation quite by chance. Our friends Laurie-Ann and Denis at Mirador San Jose house-sat the property for several months in 20whatever, and they introduced us to its owners, Don and Donna Woodbury. The Woodburys keep a small collection of ritzy Airbnb condos in Bahía de Caráquez, and the finca 15 minutes to the south. They are exquisite hosts.
In exchange for pestering the hired hand with my tortured Spanish and Don’s occasional work orders, Chantal and I could live for as long as it suited us in a comfy casita below the main house and across from some neurotic chickens, assorted waterbirds, and two snooty peacocks. There was also a single Guineafowl who thinks he’s a duck and sounds like a rusty bicycle wheel. After four days, I was hunting online for Guineafowl recipes.
The finca was an exceptional opportunity, I thought. Outside its major cities, Ecuador is primarily agricultural and people live traditionally, off the land. Or, in the case of coastal Ecuador, from the sea. As Don put it to me, it’s rustic.
I didn’t find that to be the case. We had Internet, for the most part. There was electrical service, also for the most part. There were fruit trees – mango, mandarin, pomelo – and fragrant passionfruit on the vine. Toward the end of our stay, the hired hand, Walter, offered up a skeletal chicken for our dinner. The thing was shy of meat but made a nice broth. Chantal and I were grateful for the gift. Neither did I mind having one fewer voice in the Sunrise Poultry Choir.
I was perfectly happy to stay. But the Internet and electricity situation had other plans. Chantal’s work with Strategic Joint Staff at National Defence requires a certain standard of comms reliability that rural Ecuador cannot provide, and there is no cell signal. After three significant Internet outages and one twelve-hour power failure, in only 10 days, we were forced to move on.
Chantal informed the Woodburys of our decision. Without a moment’s delay, bless them both, they volunteered their uninhabited penthouse apartment in Bahia. For two weeks only, until their new renter arrived, but that would give us time to make other arrangements. We gladly accepted.
Bahía de Caráquez
Bahía de Caráquez, known to everyone, simply, as Bahia, is two small cities in one. They couldn’t be farther apart in character. There’s the frenzied commercial sector to the south, with its crowded barrios, savoury-smelling rotisserie chicken restaurants (asaderos), bus station, and forever-under-construction hospital. Then there’s the impossibly scenic, luxury condo-studded peninsula to the north. This is where gringos, real estate investors, and affluent vacationing Sierrans converge for weekends and holidays. Otherwise, the joint is virtually empty.
I am told that Bahia’s peninsula was once the trendy international tourist destination for coastal Ecuador. Then came the 7.8, el paro, and, coup de grâce, the pandemic.
Today, Bahians are far from reeling from such consequential disasters. Those severely damaged and abandoned towers that didn’t collapse in the big quake are propped upright by enormous steel braces, and squatters live precariously in the underground parking bunkers. Glorious new edifices gaze serenely out to sea from the palm-lined Avenida 3 de Noviembre. Tiny wooden kiosks along the malecon serve up some of the best food in the region. Mercados thrum with commerce. Life continues anew. But these people often wonder when their glory days will return.
None of it damps their spirit, though. Once every few days, while we were there, some Bahian would mistake us for tourists, hail us with grand sweeps of the arm, and shout, in English: “Welcome to Bahia! Isn’t it beautiful?”
To which we would heartily agree. You can’t argue with joie de vivre like that.
Like Bahia, and the finca before, our stay in San Clemente was a fluke. Don and Donna’s charmingly introverted property manager, Michaela of EcuaAssist in Bahia, knew we needed a flop, pronto. She put us in touch with Andrew at Ecuador Beachfront Property. Andrew hooked us up with a three-month lease on a townhome in Vistazul, San Clemente.
I wasn’t immediately taken with the place. Bahia, with its wide sandy beaches and quirky cafes, seemed much more my speed. But our problem was one of availability: we were looking for accommodations at Christmas, and there was nothing left but the bleakest of HGTV’s fixer uppers. Or is that fixers upper?
There’s not much to San Clemente. You’d be forgiven for missing it entirely on the E15 to more exciting destinations. Two thousand inhabitants: no bigger than Vankleek Hill, our home village in Canada. One main drag, paved, with a sprinkling of tiendas, farmacias, seafood restaurants, and a guy on the corner who sells almost everything (casi todo). He doesn’t sell coffee filters.
There are four liquor stores. That should have been my first clue. There’s Pablo, the streetside shawarma vendor. He should have been my second. And then there’s Meier’s. We didn’t find this legendary beach bar until later.
San Clemente is a slow burn. There’s something undeniably chill about this tiny beach community. But it insinuates itself and you never notice until you are a part of it, or it’s part of you. You come to it wondering how the hell you’re going to occupy yourself for the next ninety days. Six weeks later, when you realize you’re one of the weirdos who lives here, you can’t imagine leaving.
So, we are not leaving. Earlier this week, we put in an offer on a two-bedroom seaside condo at Punta Bikini, San Clemente’s northern point and most popular beach. We take possession in March.
I hear you should never buy immediately when you retire to Ecuador. Rent, move around, find the right spot, and settle in.
That’s great advice. Glad I listened. This time.