The “secret” Cuenca Park Surrounded By Sensational Restaurants (3)

Rough Landing in Ecuador? Maybe You’re Dealing with Culture Shock!

We’ve all heard the term “culture shock,” and most of us, as expats, have experienced it to varying degrees. But what does it mean, and how does it impact us as expats in Ecuador? And what about reverse culture shock? That phenomenon is not quite as widely understood as “regular” culture shock, but most of us will eventually experience it to one degree or another. This article will focus on regular culture shock, but I’ll soon be following up with an article on reverse culture shock. Hopefully, both articles will help you come up with some effective coping strategies. They say that “knowledge is power,” and that “information is liberation,” so let’s dive right in and see what we’re dealing with.

Disclaimer: There’s no way I can do this topic justice unless I provide information that may seem to paint Ecuador and some Ecuadorians in a negative light. Likewise, some of my references to certain groups of expats here may also come across as being negative. In any case, it’s not my intention to bash anyone or any particular culture, but rather to simply prepare you for what to expect when and if you decide to move to Ecuador. No matter where you go, people are still people – we just all have a different approach to certain aspects of life than others do. I hope that this preview of those different approaches will help you.

Culture Shock – An Introduction

Cultural Shock 1

Culture shock is not just one single experience or phenomenon, but rather it refers to the collective feelings of disorientation, confusion, and anxiety that many people experience when they encounter unfamiliar cultural norms, customs, and behaviors in a new or foreign environment. Almost anything could trigger it, but this article will focus on the most common causes.

Culture shock is fairly common, but not often recognized for the degree of psychological distress we might experience when trying to adapt to a new culture. The good news is that it tends to lessen over time as individuals become more and more familiar with their new home abroad, and as they begin to develop their unique coping skills.

Square Peg Round Hole Image

And, as the image here shows, many times it feels like you’re a square peg being pounded into a round hole – some things just never quite seem to fit. But it doesn’t have to be so difficult or distressing that you can’t overcome it, so let’s look at some of the specific things people experience here as part of culture shock, and then explore some ways of preparing for and dealing with them.

The Language Barrier

In my opinion, the language barrier is a major contender as the number-one cause of culture shock for most expats, and for that reason, I’m going to go into a little more detail than I will on some of the other factors. 

Difficulty in conversing with someone in the local lingo can lead to significant frustration and feelings of isolation. To me, isolation sounds like being stranded alone on a desert island, or perhaps like when prison inmates spend time in solitary confinement. Isolation is not a pleasant thing, and it will almost certainly wear you down if you don’t find a way to break free.  Of course, you can always talk to other expats who speak your language, but if that’s all you can do, you’re going to remain extremely limited in your ability to communicate here on a larger scale and become integrated into the local culture and society.

Language Barrier 1

Many people refer to Cuenca as an “English-friendly” city, and to a certain extent, that’s true. But most of the locals I’ve met here who speak English are facilitators, random doctors, and the odd taxi driver. In that sense, Cuenca probably is more English-friendly where tourism is involved, but for long-term expats who plan to make Ecuador their new home, the language barrier takes on a whole new significance. For instance, Just going to the bank to reset your ATM PIN, or calling your internet provider because your service is out, or asking the clerk at a hardware store for a particular size of nut and bolt is going to present a significant number of challenges if you don’t speak at least a little Spanish. 

Conversely, your life will gradually become a whole lot easier and less stressful after you have learned to speak and understand at least a little Spanish. 

Many expats hire their dedicated translator, taxi driver, or some other facilitator who can help them with all of the things they need help with, but to my way of thinking, that just adds to the overall stress of not being able to communicate with the locals yourself. It also still leaves you in a situation where you remain isolated from the local populace, and it can put a strain on your budget when you have to rely on others to do what you could potentially do for yourself. As a former specialist in adult education, I promise you that you can learn a new language if you want to, regardless of your age. You don’t have to become fully conversational, but it’s always a good idea to have a certain amount of basic grammar and vocabulary under your belt. 

At a minimum, you should make a list of “survival Spanish” words and phrases that apply to your personal situation, then focus on learning and mastering those. For instance, if you were to suddenly collapse in the mall and could not tell the crowd gathering around you that the heart pills that you desperately need are in your backpack, then the consequences could be tragic! 

For that reason, I highly recommend that everyone attempt to learn at least enough Spanish to list their medical issues, your drug allergies, to ask for directions, to give directions to taxi drivers, to order meals, to pay their bills, etc. Also, memorize your address, phone number, and cédula number in Spanish – you’ll need those frequently! Finally, one way to avoid this particular aspect of culture shock is to start working on your Spanish before you ever arrive in Ecuador. Use an online app or attend some actual live classes, but do whatever you can do to avoid arriving here with zero Spanish skills.

One “lifeboat” available to both older and newer expats alike is that technological marvel that’s referred to as Artificial Intelligence (AI). Tools like “ChatGPT” can be used to write letters for you in Spanish, or to simply tell you how to say certain phrases correctly in Spanish. I’ve done some experiments, really challenging ChatGPT to see what kind of results I might get. 

Overall, I’ve been very impressed. AI may make some minor errors, but the potential benefits far outweigh the negatives, and will certainly give you far better results than you’ll ever get with Google Translate. Just as an example, let’s say your bathroom sink is leaking. Just ask ChatGPT to write a letter (in Spanish) to your landlord, telling them precisely what you want to say. Be as specific in your instructions as possible, and provide enough detail to keep your letter focused. Even then, you’ll want to plug the results into Google Translate to make sure it reads the way you want it to read in English. 

Just remember that AI will sometimes embellish your intended message, including content you didn’t necessarily want or need, so you’ll need to double-check and edit the Spanish part accordingly before sending it to your landlord. Last, but not least, AI can be a big help for those who need it, but you should avoid becoming too dependent on it because it’s still not going to be there for you in every situation. 

Social Norms and Customs 

Social Norms

It won’t take long after arriving in Ecuador before you begin to notice the differences in social etiquette, customs, and other norms. This can lead to some significant misunderstandings and/or embarrassment. For example, many Ecuadorians consider us rude because, where we come from, the “social niceties” that are so prevalent here are simply not a big deal. For instance, how many times have you exited a bank in the U.S. or Canada and said “thank you” to a shotgun-wielding security guard at the door? Never? Well, they do it here! 

The Social Niceties

When I first started seeing my soon-to-be Ecuadorian wife, I learned that you always give the appropriate greetings and goodbyes to anyone and everyone who’s in the chain of the activity in which you’re currently engaged. It’s just the way it’s done here. 

Greetings

And you never just walk up to an employee in Coral and ask, “Where can I find a quarter-inch socket wrench?” I tried that once, and the girl behind the counter held up her finger in a “shushing” manner and then looked at me, smiled, and said “Bueeenos díaaas…?” in a slow and prompting manner. She was actively performing an intervention on me due to my being culturally obtuse. I should have given her both the proper greeting for the time of day, and also said something like “disculpa” before interrupting her, which is the polite and proper thing to do here. 

In any case, it was both a cute and humbling experience, and it taught me a valuable lesson that I’ll never forget.

Additionally, when you go to a party or some other social event, you should plan on greeting pretty much everyone there. A half-hug and a fake kiss on the cheek is the routine way for a man and woman to greet or say goodbye to each other, and a weak handshake is customary between men. 

Sidenote: The average Ecuadorian style of handshake is considerably less forceful and bone-crushing than it is in the U.S., so don’t feel the need to prove your grip strength to the other guy when you shake his hand. 

Again, when you get ready to leave, plan on going through the same series of hugs and handshakes. It is expected, and it is noticed when you fail to do it. 

One essential is to learn and use the proper greetings that Ecuadorians use for a given time of day. If it’s between midnight and noon, you use “buenos días.” From noon-ish, until it gets dark, “buenas tardes” is the appropriate greeting, though you’ll often hear people shortening it to a simple “buenas.” From the time it gets dark until midnight, you use “buenas noches.”

The Key to Getting What You Need

Finally, there’s a certain ritual behavior you’ll experience here that I refer to as “the dance.” For instance, when you want to communicate with the owner of your home and need them to do something for you (for instance, to repair the water heater), you never just come out and say, “The calefón isn’t working – please send someone to repair it.” No, no, no! Never do that! What I’m going to suggest for this scenario also applies to nearly any other situation where you need an Ecuadorian to do a favor for you. The precise words and approach will vary, depending on the situation, but the process remains largely the same. 

First, you’ll want to greet them properly and professionally with the correct time-of-day greeting, then throw in a “Cómo está?” for good measure. If you’re speaking Spanish, and the person you’re dealing with is not a personal friend, you’ll want to maintain the formal “usted” form when speaking or writing to them. Jumping straight to “” is never a good idea, especially in the Sierra region. Then, if the situation is appropriate, offer up a compliment, such as, “I enjoy living in this house, and I truly appreciate all the work you’ve put into it.” (Or something similar.) Then pre-empathize with them, telling them that you hate to bother them, but that you need their help with something. Then explain the problem to them clearly and concisely, but with only the essential details. (If you get too wordy, they may shut down on you before they read the entire email.) 

Then, to improve your chances of getting a favorable response, it helps a lot to give them a good reason or two as to why you need their help. For instance, with the water heater example, you might say that you’ve been ill lately and that you’re afraid of getting worse if you have to take cold showers. That’s a very simplistic “reason,” but always give some reason as to why you need their help, as that tends to provide the essential motivation required to achieve a positive outcome. Simply making demands here will rarely ever work out well for you. (When providing your reasons, always remember that a little exaggeration can go a long way, too.) 

Cash, Credit, and Debit

Money

The cost of living in Ecuador is currently much lower than in the U.S. There are also lots of small businesses and taxi drivers who rarely carry a lot of change, and who usually cannot break larger bills for you. That being the case, you should make a habit of spending the largest bill you think a given business will accept, and then keep getting more and more change and lower-denomination bills until you have enough to use in the places that won’t accept larger bills. For that matter, only a few places in Cuenca will accept bills over $20, so avoid coming here with a stack of hundred-dollar bills, or you’ll have to take them to a specific bank to break them down.

Also, regarding cash, for safety’s sake, you should never leave the house with more money than you need for a given day. Many local folks (including a lot of expats) have gotten into the habit of paying for things by transferring money directly from their local bank account to the seller. This is generally easy, doesn’t cost much, and it limits the amount of cash you have to carry around. Just be sure you know how to use your bank’s online payment system on the fly as they’ll generally want you to make the transaction in front of them and then potentially wait for the transaction to clear.

Then there’s the whole North American predilection of using debit cards to pay for just about everything. Here in Ecuador, you’ll find that you’ll need cash in most smaller stores and shops. Many larger stores will accept credit and debit cards, but some may charge more because some do not absorb the “convenience fee” as they do in other countries.

Tipping

People do tip in Ecuador, but it’s generally less than you’d tip in the U.S. The trick is figuring out who to tip, and how much. Generally, if you go to a sit-down restaurant with hired staff, the customary tip is around ten percent. You can certainly tip more if the service is exceptional, but I wouldn’t recommend going higher than fifteen percent. But before tipping, you should look at the check and make sure you weren’t already charged a gratuity, which isn’t unusual if your party exceeds a certain number of guests. For small mom-and-pop restaurants that are family-owned, I rarely see anyone leaving a tip. But if you want to slip a small gratuity into the hand of your server, go for it. Most Ecuadorians I’ve asked do not tip taxi drivers, but will often round up to the nearest 25 or 50 cents. For the grocery store people who bag your groceries and take them out to your ride, I typically give a dollar if the purchase is between $50 and $100, and then add like amounts for purchases that exceed $100. Under $50, I typically give 50 cents. 

Over-Tipping (and over-paying)

Tipping

In short, it’s always a bad idea to over-tip. I know many ex-pats who regularly do so, with one individual telling me that that was just “how he rolled.” The thing is, this is not North America or Europe – it’s Ecuador, and if you outdo the local population by over-tipping, you’re doing two things: You’re setting expectations that all expats are going to tip as much, and you’re also putting local Ecuadorians in a bad situation, especially in smaller communities. 

The tendency of many expats to over-tip and overpay for most things has priced some local people out of the community in which they’d lived all of their lives. Suddenly, they can’t afford to rent a home in their community because the homeowners there know that the expats can and usually will pay more. Then I’ve heard accounts of taxis driving right past a resident to pick up the over-tipping expat. 

In short, you should never impose your cultural norms on the folks living here. If you’ve never seen the film “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” I highly recommend you check it out, where something as simple as a soda bottle thrown out the window of an airplane wreaked havoc on an entire culture. In a nutshell, it’s always better to blend in than to stand out.

Food and Cuisine

Adjusting to new and unfamiliar foods, flavors, and eating habits can be a significant source of culture shock, especially if one has special dietary restrictions. 

Breakfasts (desayuno) here (except in expat-focused restaurants) are typically very light and seem to be focused more on carbohydrates than proteins. If you like bacon, be sure to tell them to cook it crispy, or what you’ll receive will be rather floppy and seem half-cooked. 

Dinner (la cena) tends to be observed more on holidays, at special events, or on family outings, and it’s really not even a “thing” here on a regular basis. Sometimes in the late afternoon or early evening, they’ll often have a “merienda,” (a snack). If any cooking is involved, it’s typically minimal. Of course, there is a proliferation of restaurants in the Cuenca area, so many more local people are going out for dinner these days.

One important thing to know is that lunch (almuerzo) is the chief and largest meal of the day, and folks here frequently don’t have lunch until around 1:00 or 2:00 PM. During that time, many businesses close down for a few hours. So if you’re making a special trip to a specific store to buy something, you’ll want to do a little research before you leave to make sure that they won’t be closed for lunch. 

Food

Also, if you ever find yourself as part of an Ecuadorian household, you should definitely plan on being there for almuerzo. Not only is it the most important meal of the day for Ecuadorian families,  but it’s also a specific period of time that family members and friends set aside to attend, almost religiously. If you’re on your own, however, you can eat wherever and however you wish. One very positive aspect of culture shock is that you can still get a basic lunch in Cuenca for as low as $2.50 – $3.00.

And yes, eating guinea pigs (cuy) is a common sight in the mountainous regions of Ecuador. If you come to Cuenca, you’ll see them roasting over a charcoal fire along certain streets in town. I’ve been told that it tastes something like rabbit, but since I’ve never liked rabbit, I’ve never tried cuy. Frankly, I find the whole idea a little disturbing, so I have no plans to try it myself. 

Guinea Pig

On the other hand, I know many expats who’ve tried it and liked it. So when you’re in a new culture, it’s always a good thing to sample the local cuisine – but do not let yourself be pressured into eating something that doesn’t appeal to you. For me, chicken feet floating in my soup is just about as adventurous as I care to be!

One issue you should be aware of is that many of the vegetables here are grown using human waste as a fertilizer, and, as a result, there is a proliferation of food-borne parasites. Whether or not you get infected isn’t the question, but rather, how long will it take? In my case, it didn’t take very long at all. The foods most likely to contain hidden “pets” are vegetables and fruits with a rough or leafy texture. 

For instance, avoid buying foods like lettuce cabbage, and broccoli in the mercados and veggie stands. The supermarket equivalents will almost always be cleaner and less prone to harboring stowaways. And even then, you’ll still want to wash those items according to local standards.

Likewise, not all restaurants here observe healthy and sanitary food preparation practices, so I generally do not eat the salads that I get in the small mom-and-pop lunch places. Also, if I order a drink, I drink it out of the bottle. Larger restaurants that cater more to expats are generally safer when it comes to things like salads and drinking glasses, but the smaller places, I don’t recommend it. 

Values and Beliefs

Culture

Variances in religious beliefs, personal values, and cultural attitudes towards gender roles, family structure, and personal freedoms can lead to feelings of disorientation, discomfort, and even discrimination. Overall, I’ve found that Ecuadorians are very accepting of expats coming from other parts of the world, such as North America or Europe. But when it comes to other South American neighbors like Colombians or Venezuelans, those folks tend to be not-so-welcome, and they tend to be blamed for anything and everything that goes wrong here. 

Discrimination against fellow Ecuadorians is a reality too, and seems to be based on how dark or how light your skin is. In fact, my wife is Ecuadorian with African roots, and you can bet that we’ve gotten the “third degree” from an assortment of landlords when we’ve gone house-hunting (they usually think she’s from another country). But all you can really do is roll with the punches and be prepared as to how you’ll answer awkward questions like these when they come up. In any case, you’ll eventually see the “pecking order” in operation if you pay attention, but just remember that we’re guests here, and it’s not our job to try to “fix” societal quirks in foreign cultures. Our job is to integrate, not to interfere.

As for religion, Roman Catholicism is the primary faith here, although many other other types of faiths and churches are present and represented here. While Catholicism has shaped many of the laws and norms in Ecuador, the influence of the Catholic church here would appear to be somewhat more superficial or ceremonial for many Ecuadorians. That’s not to say that many of them don’t take it seriously, because they do. 

For instance, I nearly rented a house once that had a huge five-foot-tall crucifix hanging in the stairway. Before I could even ask if they’d remove it, I was informed that the owner believed that it protected the house, so she would never approve of my taking it down. This is not an altogether uncommon thing, so if that sort of thing upsets your personal sensibilities, you’d be better off continuing to look for another home.

On a more progressive note, members of the LGBTQ+ communities are generally accepted in the Cuenca area, though I can’t speak to that personally. I have never heard of too many other cases of discrimination toward LGBTQ+ expats, but the one instance that comes to mind involved a white gay couple with two adopted black children. 

When they tried to rent a particular house, the owner flat-out refused to rent it to them after she saw the entire family together. And while that type of discrimination is technically illegal, it’s very difficult to fight it here. Even if you did fight it and win, would you want to rent from someone who looks down on you? 

Workplace Culture & Dealing with Employees 

Employees

Variations in workplace ethics, office hierarchy, communication styles, and professional expectations can create challenges when integrating into a new work environment here. Or, for most of us, simply dealing with that workplace as a client or customer can be very frustrating. But since most expats don’t come here to work, I’ll focus more on the client side of the equation. 

For one thing, customer service, as many of us understand the concept, is a rarity here. Smaller shops will frequently be a bit more conscientious in assisting you. But in many larger stores, you’re more likely to die in aisle 11 and become completely mummified before any of the employees ever acknowledge your presence. 

There are a few larger stores where employees will ask if they can help you, but I wouldn’t count on it. Rather, you should be prepared to hunt down an employee and ask for help. You should also be prepared for someone else trying to jump in front of you to get that employee’s attention. The best thing I’ve figured out is to stick to that employee like glue until he or she finishes with the customer ahead of you, and then be prepared to jump right in and remind them that you need their help – or someone else will do so.

Related to this is the apparent and seemingly inherent need to be “first” here, or at a minimum, “the next.” If you’re standing in the checkout line at a supermarket, or you’re waiting in line at a pharmacy, leave as little space as possible between you and the person in front of you, because someone will inevitably try to cut in front of you if they think they can get away with it. 

This is where knowing certain phrases in Spanish can come in helpful, such as “Soy el siguiente,” (I’m next), which most would-be line-jumpers will respect. Still, be prepared to be completely ignored on occasion – and try to keep your cool. I know that line-jumping is a huge no-no in North America, but here, it’s practically a national sport – sometimes you’ll win, sometimes you won’t. 

Related to line-jumping is the tendency for some locals to abuse things like dedicated lines for the elderly, pregnant, or disabled people. This happens in supermarkets, on the Cuenca tram line, and anywhere you’re likely to find dedicated lines or seating. Of course, there are just as many conscientious folks who, upon seeing someone who should be given priority, will move aside and offer you their seat or their place in line. 

Then there’s that North American attitude that “the customer is always right.” That doesn’t exist here, so don’t expect it. Nor are there any real obvious attempts to win customer loyalty.  For instance, I accompanied one expat to a cellular service provider’s office, and he was enraged because they promptly cut off his service after he was a day late with his monthly payment. 

Employee Zero Care Factor (1)

But that’s the norm here, and while I tried to explain this to him, he continued to bluster and get progressively louder, telling them (in English), “Well I’ll just take my business elsewhere!” The reaction he got was similar to the reaction shown in this photo – it was simply no big thing for them! The attitude here often seems to be, “Go ahead and take your business elsewhere – we’ll always get more new clients!

I wouldn’t say that the customer service rep we were talking to was exactly indifferent to my client’s plight, but rather he appeared to be completely powerless to go beyond a certain point when dealing with customers. This is an informed assumption, but it would appear that “org charts” here are very tall and skinny, and that critical information only flows in one direction. As a result, lower-level workers have very little power to impact your consumer experience, and requests to “speak with a manager” will almost always lead to a dead end. 

I’ve also found frontline employees to be very reluctant to approach a manager or supervisor on your behalf, so I strongly suspect that such behavior is frowned upon. As a result, many of these employees are powerless to resolve certain situations. Additionally, problems with business or government processes here never really get revised or resolved – they just keep getting “patched up” and made even more cumbersome and difficult to understand. 

This also puts front-line employees in the position of having to interpret the rules for themselves, and that can be extremely frustrating for many ex-pats, as you’re likely to get a completely different response from everyone you talk to in a given job position. But if you just try to keep in mind that employees here have very little authority to offer creative solutions to whatever problem you’re having, it may help you to resist the urge to force the matter or lay the blame at their feet. In short, you need to realize that they probably feel as helpless as you do at times.  

In terms of products you buy, you always want store employees to remove electrical or electronic items from the box, plug them in, and prove to you that they function normally, even for such small things as light bulbs! Why is that? Because, if you get it home and it doesn’t work, you’re pretty much limited to dealing with whatever manufacturer’s warranty applies to the product. Most stores here won’t do exchanges or refunds, though a few of them will do limited exchanges or give you an in-store credit. Cash refunds, however, are very rare here. In short, don’t buy anything until you’ve inspected it and make sure that it works properly before leaving the store. 

Finally, if you decide to get irate during an interaction with a lower-level employee, please do NOT get up in their faces and read them the riot act. Because, if you do, you’ll suddenly encounter the most masterful display of passive aggression that you’ve ever experienced. It’s almost an art form here, and most workers you’ll deal with have long since perfected it. 

By nature, most Ecuadorians are conflict-averse, so getting in their face and getting ugly with them is only going to shut them down while shutting you down in the process. The expression that you can “catch more flies with honey” has never been more true than it is in Ecuador. 

Climate and Environment

Climate

Adapting to a new climate, weather patterns, and environmental conditions can impact your physical comfort and well-being. This is especially true in the Sierra (mountainous) region of Ecuador, where the average daily temperature ranges from the high 60s to the low 70s, with an average humidity level close to 70 percent. If you’re moving here from Miami and you really enjoyed the heat, you’ll probably find that most high-elevation destinations in Ecuador are too chilly for you. But with that humidity level, walking the streets of Cuenca’s historic district on a sunny day when it’s 70 degrees Fahrenheit can feel more like 80 degrees! Five minutes later, when a single cloud covers the sun, it can suddenly feel 20 degrees cooler. As a result, your best defense against the ever-changing climate in the high Andes Mountains is layers! If you plan to live in Cuenca, Quito, or somewhere else in the Sierra region, throw an extra shirt and a hoodie in your backpack, and pop an umbrella in there, too!

Speaking of the cool weather, many (including myself) feel that the cooler weather between June and September has been gradually getting even cooler in recent years. Ten years ago, the most I ever needed during these months was a hoodie, a rain jacket, or a sweatshirt. Nowadays, I find myself occasionally needing a full-on winter coat. It can get especially chilly in the evenings, so you may want to consider bringing some flannel sheets, an electric blanket or mattress cover, and even a thick, down comforter. You may also find you need a space heater at night or in the early morning, but you can pick those up here.

Also, at the higher altitudes in Ecuador, very high UV index numbers are not uncommon. In fact, it’s largely the norm. Ultraviolet radiation poses several significant health risks, including: 

  • Skin Damage: It can cause sunburn and accelerate skin aging. Long-term exposure increases the risk of skin cancers, including melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma. 
  • Eye Damage: UV radiation can lead to eye conditions such as cataracts, photokeratitis (a sunburn of the cornea), and macular degeneration, which can impair vision.
  • Immune System Suppression: Prolonged UV exposure can weaken the immune system, reducing the skin’s ability to defend against infections and diseases.
  • DNA Damage: UV radiation can directly damage the DNA in skin cells, leading to mutations that can result in cancer.

Protective measures against UV radiation include things such as wearing sunscreen, sunglasses, and protective clothing, and avoiding being in the sun at its daily peak. You’ll see many Ecuadorian women carrying an umbrella, or a parasol. The danger is very real, and the damage it can cause can be devastating, so please try to avoid being a sun worshipper here and protect yourself from the sun whenever possible. 

Going downhill from the Sierra, coastal temperatures and humidity levels can be downright oppressive, depending on what you’re used to. But there are also periods where it’s cloudy much of the time, or in some places, there can be considerable rain for parts of the year. All I can tell you in this case is to bring plenty of summer clothing and find a place with a pool! 

The weather can (and does) vary, depending on the precise area, but you can typically expect temperatures similar to what you’d find in southern Florida. Socially speaking, many coastal towns and cities are small and offer very little to do. Of course, this suits a great many expats, especially if they love the beach life. 

But if you enjoy city life, you’ll probably find most coastal towns a little too laid back and limited in what they have to offer. Many of the towns can also be noisy and dirty, depending on how far you are from the beach. (Cuenca, on the other hand, is scrupulously clean, partly due to the paid street sweepers who come out early in the morning and make everything nice and tidy.) 

Typically, the beach itself and the first few blocks heading into town will be neat and clean, but the farther you go, the more likely you are to find trash everywhere. There are larger coastal cities, such as Guayaquil, Machala, and Manta, but due to recent crime issues on the coast, we recommend that you avoid those areas until the government brings them back under control.

Crime and Punishment

Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, drug-related crime and violence have become a serious issue all along the coast. It’s also present in Cuenca, too, though not nearly to the extent or scale that you’ll find on the coast. You can read all the details in the most current news reports, but suffice it to say that this is probably not the best time for expats to live on or travel to the coast. And while Cuenca is relatively much safer, crime happens here, too, so you should avoid walking outdoors alone at night, especially on poorly lit streets where there are few or no pedestrians. Even with a friend, you should still avoid those areas. 

You should be aware, however, that robbers and pickpockets tend to operate where the expats are. For that reason, you should only carry enough money to meet your needs for a given day. And if you need to make a larger purchase, the increasingly common method here is to do a bank-to-back transfer of funds to the seller.

Also, avoid wearing expensive jewelry out in public. A set of inexpensive “dummy” wedding rings is a good idea if you choose to wear a ring. And if you do get robbed here, try to inform a policeman as soon as possible to take a report. This will help with statistics (and warn other expats), but don’t expect the police to actually go searching for your assailant. It does happen occasionally, but you will likely just need to accept the fact that your belongings are long gone, and the likelihood of the police doing anything about it is slim.

Some folks bring a cut-proof, reinforced backpack with a protective RFID lining to prevent someone from reading the chips on their credit and debit cards. I’d also recommend putting some sort of luggage lock on the opening. This can be very important if you like to ride the bus because many pickpockets ride the same buses. And if you’re in a huge crowd, like the holiday parades here, do the same thing and protect your belongings. Cell phones are very popular targets, so keep yours tucked away in a safe place. 

If you carry your phone in your trousers, put it in your front pocket, or lock it away in a secured backpack. One thing that I do is carry an older, cheaper phone when I’m out at night, so if someone does rob me, my good phone is still safe at home. One tip that a friend gave me is that put a rubber band around his cell phone, which provides some friction that you’ll notice if someone tries to snatch your cell phone out of your pocket.

Back to the police, it’s not just the “bad guys” you have to be concerned about. In many parts of the country, there are transit cops who set up traffic stops to shake down drivers who are either speeding, have a burnt-out brake light, or perhaps are driving on balding tires. Or, sometimes they’ll simply stop you for no reason at all, except to try to find any reason to exact a bribe from you before they’ll let you go. I’ve never personally been shaken down in Cuenca, but I know of others who have. 

In my case, it’s happened to me several times just this past year while traveling along the coast in Manabí province. As an attempt to avoid paying a bribe, some ex-pats will pretend they speak no Spanish, while others carry a “dummy” wallet or purse that only has a few small bills in it – a trick that seems to work for some but did not work for me.  

Ultimately, there’s no real defense against this practice aside from making sure your vehicle is defect-free, has good tires, and that you watch your speed. And you should know that it is legal to film any government employee here (including the police) when in the performance of their job. But the one time we tried that, it ended up in a weird standoff. Luckily, we got away with only giving him a small handful of change — along with our agreeing to delete the video. It’s a complex situation in which most people feel violated for allowing the police to take such advantage of them, but it is definitely not the time for righteous indignation or becoming rude to the policeman, which is enough to get you arrested.

 All you can do is remain calm, and polite, and try to offer the smallest amount possible to convince them to let you continue on your journey. 

Bureaucracy and Legal Systems

Bureacracy

Navigating unfamiliar legal systems, bureaucratic procedures, and administrative processes for obtaining visas, permits, or residency status can sometimes be stressful, to the point of being overwhelming. For this reason, if you don’t speak fluent Spanish, situations like these almost always call for a facilitator who is familiar with the process you’re trying to accomplish. One word you’ll eventually learn in Ecuador is “trámite,” which loosely means “process or procedure.” But here in Ecuador, the word takes on a bit heavier meaning, such as excessive red tape and inordinate amounts of paperwork when dealing with government officials or certain businesses. 

Then there comes the process of entering your information into their computer system, which almost always takes five times longer than you’d think it should. Unfortunately, this is an unavoidable part of living in Ecuador, and your best defense against dealing with it is simply to be patient. One way of minimizing the aggravation is to listen very closely when specific information is requested of you because failure to provide exactly what is requested will only drag things out and make you more angry and frustrated. No amount of complaining will make things move any faster, and, in fact, will likely make things take longer.

In terms of the legal system here, you should be aware that Ecuadorian courts don’t use the same “Common Law” approach to court cases as is used in North America, where many court case decisions are based on precedent. Instead, Ecuador uses the “Napoleonic Code,” where the only thing that’s looked to by a judge is the letter of the law itself. The end result is that the judges here have much broader discretion when deciding a court case, and a lot of it will be based on that judge’s particular interpretation and application of the law. This should not be an issue for most expats, but it’s good to be aware of.    

The Libel/Defamation Laws

It’s not a matter of if, but more of a matter of when you find yourself being treated less-than-fairly by some local service provider. It could be an attorney, a visa service, or any random “facilitator” who regularly helps expats carry out a wide variety of tasks. 

The important thing here is to avoid going online and trashing that person’s character, or saying anything bad about them at all. This can get you sued in a hurry, and an expat in an Ecuadorian court is already at a disadvantage. Also, choose your battles wisely, because trying to sue someone here can put you in a spotlight that you’re better off avoiding, and one that could actually put you in danger of retribution. So if you have a negative experience with some service provider and you wish to warn others, you should only do so on a face-to-face basis, and then only with someone you know and trust. 

One thing I recommend is that if you plan on hiring someone to do a considerable amount of work for you (such as a visa facilitator), you request a written contract that specifies the maximum you’ll end up paying for any given service. These providers already know what everything costs, so this shouldn’t be a burden for them, and it should prevent them from coming up with “hidden” fees that they supposedly didn’t anticipate. 

Housing and Living Conditions

Adjusting to different housing standards, amenities, and living conditions, such as housing size, cleanliness standards, and infrastructure reliability can impact one’s sense of comfort and well-being. Whether you buy or rent, you need to do your homework before signing on the dotted line.

Real Estate

Renting a Home

Renting here is not like renting in North America. Lease language can vary a lot, and, most typically, the leases are tilted heavily in favor of the owner/landlord. The tenancy law, however, tends to lean more in favor of protecting the tenant, so always request a copy of the lease, get it translated, and then make or request certain changes to protect yourself. I go into this in great detail in my three articles on Finding a Home in Cuenca, especially in the article devoted to lease issues. When you’re doing a pre-inspection before moving in, don’t expect the same architectural standards or attention to detail that you’d find in most developed countries. The sheer assortment of potential problems with a house or apartment can drive you crazy here, especially if you don’t know what to look for before moving in. But rather than going into too much detail in this article, you can find almost everything you need to know about the local renting process in my three-part series in YapaTree on “Finding a Home in Cuenca.”

Buying a Home

Most expats in Cuenca rent, but a fair handful of them purchase their own homes as well. My only experience in this matter is watching what other expats have gone through just to get to the final closing date. The process is much different than what most North Americans are used to, so you’ll definitely want to have someone knowledgeable about the process to guide you through it. Though many expats disagree with the idea of buying a home here, I personally remain skeptical. The lack of zoning laws and the poor quality of construction of some houses and condos make me wary. But if you are interested in buying, I suggest that you start by checking with the real estate people who work in conjunction with YapaTree.

Transportation: Getting Around in Cuenca

Transportarion

One thing that many expats enjoy about Cuenca is the ready availability of public transportation, plus the fact that Cuenca is generally a very walkable city. But for all the convenience, there are still a few headaches involved until you figure out which options are best for you and then learn how and when to use them.

Motorcycles/Scooters

I mention these first because they impact every other form of transportation here. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an explosion of moto-based delivery services and motos in general. In my opinion, they create the most chaos and danger on the roads here, taking ridiculous chances and risking their lives while weaving in and out of traffic. And trust me, there’s nothing quite like having two motos pass on either side at the same time, then crisscross in front of you, or otherwise turn in front of you and force you to hit the brakes. 

Delivery

They routinely drive much faster than the speed limit, don’t use their headlights, go the wrong way on one-way streets, and I’ve even seen them drive on the sidewalks to get around a long line of autos. I find motorcycles a clear and present danger on the roads here, and I’ve had more near-misses than I care to recount. If you choose a moto or a scooter for yourself, please follow the traffic laws and not the example that local moto drivers set.

As I mentioned above, motos will pass on either side of a larger vehicle, paying no attention to the people exiting buses and taxis. So please look out the window before exiting a vehicle to make sure a motorcycle isn’t about to run you down. It has happened here, and I know folks who’ve been badly injured by passing motos. Another more nefarious motorcycle hazard is when there are two people on a given moto, and then the driver will veer in close enough to the sidewalk to grab your cell phone or purse right out of your hand. So if you ever see two drivers on a moto heading in your direction, get away from the curb and take any other sort of evasive action necessary.

If you are considering 2-wheeled transportation for yourself, some options that do not require you to have a license or registration are electric scooters and motorized bicycles. Some expats have opted for those as a means of getting around. Just keep in mind that many drivers of 4-wheeled vehicles have become numb to the idea of avoiding contact with motos, and as such there are a lot of accidents between motorcycles and other types of vehicles.

Private Auto

If you choose to drive a vehicle in Cuenca, you’ll have a lot more freedom in terms of exploring the city and other parts of the country. Still, most Cuenca expats opt not to have a vehicle. Some expats don’t have one because they feel it’s too dangerous, while others just don’t want the hassle or expense of owning a car. I personally don’t think it’s nearly as bad as some expats do, but it does require a different mindset. It’s not as bad as some other countries I’ve driven in, but keep in mind that I’m mainly referring to Cuenca and similar/smaller-sized communities right now; Guayaquil and Quito are a whole different story, and trying to drive in either of those cities is daunting, to say the least. Vehicles turn and change lanes without signaling, they straddle multiple lanes at the same time, and then, just when you think you’ve got the hang of it, you find out that you accidentally ended up in a “Bus Only” lane. 

But in terms of accidents, there don’t seem to be nearly as many here in Cuenca as I used to see in Colorado, which I attribute to the unpredictability of other drivers. That may sound odd, but as a result of said unpredictability, you must drive both offensively and defensively at the same time. This is necessary just to navigate through the traffic here, and also to avoid drivers who regularly do nutty things. It does take some getting used to, but once you get a handle on things, you’ll find that there’s a certain method to their madness. My working theory is that drivers here must pay more attention to what’s going on around them, primarily because they have no choice! I’ve seen more accidents in the U.S. in a month than I’ve seen here in over ten years. I guess that it’s because, in North America, drivers are theoretically more predictable. As a result of that predictability, it’s easy to become complacent and simply assume that other drivers are going to obey traffic laws and do the right thing. 

So when something unexpected happens, the drivers simply aren’t expecting it, and that’s when accidents occur. Here in Cuenca, the unexpected is the norm, and as such, I believe that drivers remain more alert to traffic hazards, and perhaps a bit more adept at avoiding them. The only exception to this observation is where motorcycles are involved, and I believe that there are many more accidents here involving motos than in North America.

In general, be prepared for drivers who do not pay much attention to traffic signs or stop lights. On multi-lane streets, be prepared for drivers to swing out into your lane simply to help make a turn in the opposite direction. I personally swapped paint with a large ambulance that swung into my lane, but I was able to hit the brakes and avoid a full-on collision. Likewise, I’d been driving here for a long time, so I was also prepared for the unexpected. 

Additionally, be aware that most Ecuadorian drivers here seem to have a deep inner desire to be “first” in a given line of traffic. This again results in drivers taking some crazy chances, so you simply have to keep your wits about you and be ready to slam on the brakes at a moment’s notice. Of course, this urge to be first isn’t unique to Ecuador, but some seem to be more noticeable here. Regardless, complacency on the road is not an option here. By the way, if you are in an accident here and someone is injured, be prepared to be taken into custody, at least until it can be proven that you’re not drunk or under the influence of some other illicit substance.

Apart from dealing with other vehicles on the road, there are also several other road hazards, such as deep drain holes along the side of the Panamerican Highway that runs through Cuenca, other deep potholes, unmarked speed bumps, extremely uneven road surfaces, and dangerous rock slides that range from causing a slight interruption in the flow of traffic to something that can crush a car. The photo here shows one such boulder, and I had to drive around one that was quadruple the size of the one in the photo. Cuenca city streets, however, are typically maintained in very good condition. There are exceptions in some parts of town, but once you’re outside of Cuenca, the exceptions multiply rapidly.

Boulder
Photo taken by the author

Car Insurance

Unfortunately, auto insurance is optional here. As a result, many drivers opt not to have insurance. It also means that a lot of drivers here flee the scenes of accidents. One of the best bits of advice I can give you is to buy a good quality “dash cam” with both front- and rear-facing cameras. If you don’t have video proof that you weren’t at fault in an accident, you most likely will be deemed to be at fault. I’ve always had insurance here, and it costs about the same (or less) than insurance costs in the U.S. Your best bet is to visit an insurance broker who can find the best policy and price for your vehicle. If you do get in an accident, insurance will cover it… and then drop you at renewal time. Fortunately, there are always other insurance companies to pick up the slack.

Buses, Taxis, and the Tranvía

Public transportation in Cuenca is almost always readily available to get you where you want to go. For the bus system and the Tranvía (tram) in Cuenca, you must have an individual user card for each system – neither accepts cash once aboard, but you can buy individual Tranvía tickets at any of the stations for $1.00. These cards can be obtained in multiple locations, and if you’re 65 or over, make sure you get the cards for the tercera edad (the term for anyone over 65) card, as your ride will cost only half of what younger folks pay.

Tram

Buses go all over town, and you must determine which numbered bus line will take you to your desired destination – never assume! And at peak times of the day, many buses will allow as many people aboard as can squeeze through the door. This makes a pickpocket’s job quite easy, so make sure your valuables are properly and safely stowed away. Many bus drivers also drive way too fast, run red lights, and routinely cut off other vehicles. Next to motorcycles, I consider buses the next most hazardous vehicles on the road. 

As for taxis, there are an incredible number of them in Cuenca – unless it’s raining, in which case most of them are already full with other passengers. But for a variety of safety and convenience reasons, it’s much better to use a taxi app on your cell phone when you need a ride. AzuTaxi and Cuenca Taxi are two such apps, and sometimes they can get you a ride a lot faster than hailing a taxi on the street. 

Taxi

And speaking of hailing a taxi on the street, that’s becoming increasingly less and less safe; sometimes, a given taxi on the street has been stolen from the rightful owner, and is being used to pick up people, and then they drive the person around the corner and pick up an accomplice. They then drive you around to as many ATMs as is necessary to drain your accounts. This doesn’t happen very often in Cuenca, but it’s a big problem in Guayaquil, and perhaps in Quito. With the apps, you get the driver’s name and license plate number, and, with some services, you may even get the driver’s photo. By the way, if your taxi arrives and there is someone else in the cab apart from the driver, play it safe and wait for another taxi. 

The Tranvía, aside from being a nightmare during construction, has turned out to be very handy for getting to and from many locations near the tram stations. It runs from the Industrial Park on the southeast side of Cuenca to Rio Tarqui on the northwest side. This takes you through the heart of the Historic District, out past the airport in one direction, and out along Avenida de Las Américas in the other direction. This has opened up a lot of new housing options for expats who previously were forced to take a taxi or a bus into town. So rather than paying $3 – $5 for a taxi, using a prepaid Tranvía card costs a mere fraction of that. If you buy an individual ticket, it costs one dollar. But if you’re a senior, it costs a mere 17 cents per ride – or 29 rides for five dollars! Buses are much cheaper, too, but I personally avoid riding the buses here for a variety of personal reasons. In any case, a 10-minute Tranvía ride can save you a few hundred dollars per month on a rental property, because the closer you get to El Centro, the higher the rent.

The Potential Social Isolation of Being an Expat

This particular aspect of culture shock can be one of the most difficult for us to deal with, and can be the lone factor in determining if we even succeed in living abroad. Feelings of loneliness, isolation, homesickness, and guilt are all common when separated from familiar support networks, friends, and family members. Loneliness isn’t a huge issue for me now because I started a new family here. 

Solitude

But I was alone for my first two years here, and I missed my family back home terribly. Those feelings eventually lessened and became tolerable over time, but for the first year or so, I frequently second-guessed my decision to move here. I’m personally comfortable with the idea now, but I still have occasional pangs of guilt because I’m not back in the U.S. and not physically available to do things with my biological kids, grandkids, and siblings. In fact, based on personal observation, most of the expats who eventually return to their passport countries do so because they either miss everyone too much, or because they have ill or elderly family members who need their help. 

I personally try to get back as often as I can, but finances don’t always cooperate. Many of us stay in touch with family members and friends via WhatsApp, Facebook, and Facebook Messenger. Both WhatsApp and Messenger offer audio- and video-calling capability, and in my opinion, are much easier and faster to use than Zoom, Facetime, or similar apps. The only requirement is that the person on the other end has the same app installed. 

The one thing that’s helped me the most in becoming comfortable with my decision to move to Ecuador is the fact that it’s changed my life in a number of significant ways. I can honestly say that my life and my future prospects have changed for the better since I moved here, and it may have even saved my life. Two of my adult children have visited me here, and they totally “get it.” They’re very happy about the effect that living in Ecuador has had on my life, and they’ve been instrumental in helping other family members understand and accept my choice to move here. If you’d like to read more about my personal journey of reinventing myself in Ecuador, click here to read my article on the topic.

Once you’ve been here for a while and feel “established,” you may want to invite one or more family members down to Ecuador to see just how it’s impacted your life – that’s the only real way they can understand why you came here, and why you plan on staying. Having family come to visit also helps this feel more like “home” once you’ve had a chance to share your new life here with them.

In other cases, some expats develop serious health issues of their own and have to return to their passport countries to get help for themselves. Long-term elderly care facilities are in short supply in Ecuador, mainly because elderly Ecudorians are usually cared for by family members in their own homes, right up until the time they die. 

We expats, depending on who’s here with us, often don’t have that option. Plus, most of us have sold our homes and the bulk of our belongings to move here, intent on remaining here for the rest of our lives. But that’s a huge, life-altering step, and some expats come to regret having burnt so many bridges in order to move here. So if you’re not currently an expat in Ecuador but are thinking about moving here, you need to do a lot of soul-searching and decide whether or not you can weather these particular storms, because it’s not always easy. 

Being in the Hospital in Ecuador

Hospital

One thing you’ll notice when you check into a Cuenca hospital is that there is almost always at least one family member with each patient, and hospitals rely on those family members to hang around the hospital and provide for many of your non-medical needs. All the private hospitals I’ve been in have a sofa bed for one or two of your family members to spend the night with you, and attend to your more mundane needs. The nurses or aides come in every night and actually put sheets and pillows on the sofa bed, and then unmake it the next morning. If you’re here without a family member or a friend willing to stay at the hospital with you, you may have to hire someone.

Another thing you may find to be a bit of a culture shock is when you’re finally ready to check out of the hospital, but you don’t have the money to pay your bill. What happens then is that they won’t let you leave! I refer to this as “hospital jail,” and that’s where you will stay until you can find the funds to pay your bill.

Regarding private health insurance, a lot of the price depends upon your age, your overall health, and any pre-existing conditions. Most plans will cover you on pre-existing conditions after a few years of buying their coverage but don’t think that they won’t look for other reasons not to cover your claim. The current crop of private insurance companies feels solid, more or less, but there have been at least two private insurance companies that closed down and disappeared in the middle of the night. Another option is the Ecuadorian Social Security Institute (IESS) for your health care, which is far less expensive and doesn’t care about pre-existing conditions, but keep in mind that you’ll sometimes have to wait months for an appointment, regardless of how sick you are. 

However, the IESS hospital systems are currently under investigation for corruption, where most of the funds coming in are not being used for medical supplies and medicine. I’ve had to leave the IESS hospital to go buy medicines that the ER doctor needed to treat a friend, and you can best believe that they did not reimburse me.

My approach is to have IESS coverage for routine doctor appointments and long-term catastrophic care. Then, I mostly see private doctors or specialists and pay out of pocket for urgent issues that can’t wait for an IESS appointment to open up. A specialist here in Cuenca typically costs $40 – $50, but most of the time you’re not expected to pay for the appointment for the follow-up visit. Then, I’d highly recommend establishing an emergency medical fund of between $5,000 and $10,000, which would cover a wide variety of procedures and short periods of hospitalization. I’m not suggesting that you follow my approach necessarily, but I wanted to give you at least one gringo’s strategy.

If you’re a U.S. military veteran or retiree, there is a new clinic that’s going to be opening in Cuenca soon that will treat service-connected conditions, as established by the Veteran’s Administration. Also, if you’re Tricare eligible, you can use your Tricare in Ecuador, but you have to file a claim after the fact, after which you’re typically reimbursed at about 75 percent of the claim amount.

Moving Here, Sight-Unseen

I know several people who’ve moved here, having never been to Ecuador before, and without knowing whether or not they’d feel at home here. Many of those folks do just fine here and have no regrets about not having made a scouting trip before moving here. But I also know others who spent every dollar they had to move here and start a new life – only to hate Ecuador. 

Some of them now feel “stuck” here because they have no home to return to, and no money to facilitate such a move. In my personal opinion, moving here without ever having visited is a very bad idea, although some people do it without incident. But in my mind, it only adds to the possibility that you’ll have trouble adapting here when faced with one or more of the previously covered Culture Shock topics above.

Making Romantic Connections in Ecuador

A lot of expats arrive here as singles, and many of them come with the hopes of finding love and/or companionship. Depending on your age, gender, and a number of other factors, you may or may not be successful in this endeavor. But if you are, and if you connect with an Ecuadorian here, you’ll instantly discover just how different and similar our respective cultures are at the same time. 

There will almost certainly be new and unexpected challenges, and you’ll probably find that the people here like to move a lot faster than we’re used to, at least in terms of cementing the relationship. But this is a vast topic in and of itself, so the only thing I can suggest here is to take your time, do your homework, and, above all, follow your gut. 

Don’t let yourself be pressured into making any life-altering decisions that you may regret. The only other thing I’d add is that, if you like to frequent various bars or clubs in hopes of meeting someone, be very careful – many expats have had their drinks dosed with scopolamine or other incapacitating drugs, and were later either assaulted, robbed, or both. Never leave a drink unattended if you’re spending the night out on the town! 

Wrapping Things Up

I know I’ve thrown a lot of information your way, but all of the above issues can add up when you’re a new expat, and understanding these triggers and the causes of culture shock can help you prepare for and successfully navigate the challenges of living in a new cultural environment.

Please note that I’ve tried to offer at least one or two strategies for each of the above topics, but there are many additional triggers for culture shock and just as many additional strategies that may work better for you than what I’ve suggested. If you have any questions, I invite you to join my Facebook group Expats Without Agenda, where one of the friendliest groups of expats in Ecuador are ready and willing to answer any question you have. 

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