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Tim and Crystal from Galakiwi Adventures – Doing Business in Ecuador

Editor’s note:

I interviewed Tim and Crystal at the very start of the COVID19 pandemic when we all had no idea how far-reaching and devastating the virus would become. As I publish this (late July 2020), all tourism business on the Galapagos has been severely affected and it’s still unclear when tourists will be able (and willing) to once again visit one of the world’s most unique ecosystems. 

Galakiwi –  A Success Story 20 Years in the Making

Tim is a veteran expat that has seen a lot of businesses come and go since arriving in Ecuador in 2001. His key message is simple but annoyingly difficult for many expat-run businesses to understand let alone implement; build your local community or you will not last. 

Our interview is held at the Galakiwi office on San Cristobal Island, Galapagos. In the distance, I see (and hear) numerous sea lions and spot the rocks where I played with marine iguanas the previous day.  

Sitting in that office, it’s easy to get swept up in the romanticism of starting a business in a foreign land. Especially one with such iconic beauty and history as the Galapagos. But, that’s the glossy magazine version of the story. Tim and Crystal’s tour company, Galakiwi Adventures, was not an overnight success. Underneath the surface lies 20 years of perseverance, error, and a good dose of chance. 

The Galakiwi Office on San Cristobal Island, Galapagos.

What does Galakiwi do?

“Galakiwi operates land-based adventure tours in the Galapagos. Our focus is on small groups, privately guided. These groups are generally between 8-12 people, with a maximum of 16.”

Crystal – Director of Business and Operations, Galakiwi Adventures

Galakiwi has now narrowed its sights on Galapagos and Ecuador. They’ve learned from previous expansions into Peru and Colombia that whilst they could offer tours in these countries, they could not guarantee the level of service their clients have come to expect. 

These form part of their 20 years of learnings – ultimately leading to their current offering that focuses on providing quality service in small groups. I’ve seen the level of preparation that goes into each tour and witnessed their tour guides in full flight. It’s an impressive operation. Especially so considering their relatively small team. 

What are Galakiwi’s origins? 

Galakiwi’s history is a fitting tale of adventure, opportunity, and trial and error (or natural selection –  if you’ll indulge me just a little).

It started in 2001. Tim studied Spanish in Quito but felt he needed an immersive experience to practice and further hone his skills. This coincided with a volunteer opportunity to teach English in a community setting that just happened to be on a far-flung island off Ecuador’s mainland. That island was San Cristobal, Galapagos. 

A love affair with the island ensued, as did marriage with a local resident. At the time there was very little tourist activity on San Cristobal, but the local extended family could see the value tourists could bring to the community. They were also aware that Tim could act as the conduit between the Galapagos and these tourists. So, a plan was born to build a boat and offer a tour that would allow tourists to island-hop between the various islands of the Galapagos. 

This was really the first island hopping tour on the Galapagos. And whilst the current operation is quite different (ie there is no boat), the adventurous spirit lives on through the various activities now available through Galakiwi. 

Sustainable tourism equals sustainable business

“Travel broadens your mind. It shifts your perspectives. We’re connecting people and that’s what our clients want as well. They want to interact. That’s the whole reason they are doing this type of tour.”

Tim – Founder & Director of Operations, Galakiwi Adventures

Crystal points out that Galakiwi’s core success metric is the quality of visit, measured via visitor satisfaction. It’s hard to overstate how critical this is to the ongoing success of not only Galakiwi, but the entire Galapagos lslands as a long term tourist destination. 

A 5-minute bike ride from the Galakiwi office is the interpretation center, which includes some exhibits of the threat that mass-tourism has to the livelihood of the very people that rely on tourism to feed their families; the Galapaguenians.  

Amongst the displays is a simple graph showing the cost/benefit of the Galapagos. The main message is that less, higher-paying tourists is what’s required for an ongoing, sustainable tourism sector. Tim and Crystal are too humble to say it, but their business model is in alignment with what the community actually needs. Quality, sustainable tourism focused on smaller group sizes and personalized experiences.

I would argue that this harmony between business and community is what has allowed Galakiwi to survive and prosper where many have failed. 

Sustainable Tourism - San Cristobal Interpretation Centre
Sustainable tourism educational poster at the Interpretation Center

Community grows with the business

“The whole reason we’re here is to create opportunities to connect cultures, empower communities and inspire positive action.”

Crystal

At the heart of Galakiwi’s offer is a quality service. Tim and Crystal have learned how to work with the local community to ensure every tour they offer lives up to their high quality standards. They joke about their early days when Tim would disappear for hours because he would need to physically check every hotel, restaurant and other itinerary items just before a tour would arrive. 

That was seen as just a cost of doing business in the Galapagos when trying to bridge the gap between what was currently being offered and the high expectations of tourists.

The business has grown and Tim no longer does the checks himself, but the ethos towards quality is as alive as ever and it’s something that other tour operators really struggle to compete against. Having their base on the Galapagos provides a strategic business advantage. It allows them to foster a two-way relationship with local providers that is unmatched in the land-based tour industry; their providers actually care about delivering quality service because they care about Galakiwi and what it represents. 

Sea Lion at San Cristobal, Galapagos Islands

Helping sustain the local economy

“If you want to protect the Galapagos, then you have to empower the people that are here.”

Crystal

Being part of the local community means getting involved and helping others. One of the ways Galakiwi serves its local community is by offering microloans. These loans have been made available to community members and employees on generous terms. And Tim is quick to point out that they’ve had very few problems with anyone defaulting on these loans. 

We talk about other community initiatives and to me it’s clear that Galakiwi wants to provide a net return to their local community. Now, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Tim and Crystal are particularly enlightened individuals that have always recognized the importance of serving their local community. I don’t believe this was always the case. Indeed, Tim notes the challenge of fitting into the community as one of the biggest hurdles to doing business in such a small, remote place. 

“I think that a big reason why we can run these types of tours is that we know we’re living on a small island and we want to work with the people, rather than do our own thing and forget about everyone else. That was a big thing for me and I think anyone coming into a small town needs to make an effort to become a part of the community rather than not talking to anyone and walking down the street with their nose in the air.”

Tim

Tim’s seen many foreigners come into the Galapagos with the expectation that they have the golden ticket just because they’re able to set up a business on an island with such a strong tourism industry. This has not proven to be reality.  Many businesses are forced to close because they’ve tried to do it alone and deliberately avoided community participation and growth. 

“If you get on the wrong side of the locals, you’re wasting your time here.”

Tim

To further illustrate how much their business relies on their ties to the community, we discuss a couple of topics that will be familiar to other expats operating a business in Ecuador; labor laws and accounting.

Galakiwi Office Oceanfront San Cristobal, Galapagos Islands
The main marina and street of San Cristobal. The Galakiwi office is in the background.

Ecuador vs Galapagos Labor Laws

Visitors to the Galapagos get a feel for the double standards that exist between Ecuador and the Galapagos. The first taste is at the airports of Quito or Guayaquil where all tourists are made aware of the different check-in desks, fees, and processes for entering Galapagos. And once you get to the islands, you’ll likely come across some other fairly small reminders that Galapaguenian’s are treated differently. 

What most tourists cannot see are the substantive differences beneath the surface such as labor laws that heavily encourage the employment of locals over Ecuadorians and the two-tiered pricing that local companies apply to Galapaganians vs Ecuadorians (& everyone else). 

Tim and Crystal walked me through their experience trying to understand and abide by the local labor laws. To hire an Ecuadorian, they need to go through a contract process of putting an ad on the local radio for 3 or 4 days and then start vetting the applicants. If they don’t get an appropriate local applicant, then they can look to Ecuadorians. But, the onus is always on the business to prove why a local candidate is not suitable, and provide evidence that the Ecuadorian applicant meets this standard. 

As an example, say they need a receptionist for their hotel that speaks a certain level of English and has a certificate in hotel management. This may prove very difficult to find locally, so they may wish to hire an Ecuadorian (or even a foreigner). But, they would need certified certificates for both English and hotel management to be provided by any non-local applicant. Anyone that’s had anything to do with Ecuador’s love of red-tape will know that this may prove to be a little more difficult and take more time than you’d like. 

This is merely one of many labor law requirements that can easily trip up the uninitiated. But, how did Tim and Crystal learn of these requirements? Sure, they’ve read the labor laws themselves to try and get an understanding. But, this will only get you so far. You really need the support of trusted lawyers and accountants to make sure your business complies with labor, tax and other regulations.

And how do you learn about these trusted professionals? By tapping into your local community business network. Once again, a clear message that your business is only as strong as the community you’ve helped to build. 

Sea Lion and Iguana San Cristobal Galapagos
Sea Lion and Iguana, San Cristobal, Galapagos

Husband and Wife vs Business Partners

“Because we both have matured a lot, and because we’re stubborn as hell, we’ve made it.”

Crystal

Tim and Crystal are not just business partners, they’re life partners too. This presents more challenges to running a successful business. They tell tales of being with each other 24/7 and needing to solve any personal issues quickly before their next tour arrived. Their business demanded everything from them and they found it very hard to separate themselves, their relationship, and even being parents from their business.  

It’s only through their conscious evolution as a couple and as individuals that they’ve been able to thrive in such a closed environment. This personal development has, in turn, allowed the business to grow through organic and strategic efforts. 

A major challenge for Tim and Crystal was to accept their differences. Meet them both for 30 seconds and you’ll quickly understand they have very different approaches to life. Tim is very hands-on and knows as much about operating land-based tours as anyone you’ll come across. Whereas Crystal prefers to take a step back and focus on the bigger picture.

This complementary relationship allows them to see into each others’ blind spots and the business is stronger because of it. Through their mutual efforts, they’ve been able to execute short and long term visions for themselves and their employees, community, and business. 

Final word

Tim and Crystal’s message of building community support being pivotal in creating a sustainable business in Ecuador struck a chord with me. I’ve increasingly seen community building as both the biggest challenge and also the most valuable skill to hone if you’re going to thrive in Ecuador on a business or personal level. 

As an expat, it’s easy to rely on the local expat community for support, encouragement, and some initial customers. However, if you are not able to garner the support of your local community through mutually beneficial opportunities, then your time as a business owner in Ecuador may be brief and costly. 

And of course, if you are on the lookout for personalized, land-based adventure tours in the Galapagos, make an inquiry directly on the Galakiwi website.  

The True Cost of Living in Cuenca, Ecuador

The cost of living in Cuenca, or Ecuador in general, is often cited as one of the core reasons why expats move here. 

It was a consideration for Michelle and me too. In particular, the cost of schools in Cuenca is approx half of that in Quito. So, we decided to move from Quito to Cuenca when the youngest was entering school partly to help cut down on living costs. We both work remotely, so the lower wages in Cuenca were not an issue for us. 

I’ve tried to be as transparent as possible with our costs of living to give you an idea of total living costs in Cuenca, Ecuador.

These costs are itemized into our monthly budget below:

Category Item Cost (Monthly)
Home Rent $800
Home Internet (25Mb Up/Down) $30
Home Water $10
Home Electricity $20
Home Security $22
Home Home phone $6
Home Gas $3
Home Maid (4 x monthly) $80
Home Gardener (1 x monthly) $30
Home Mobile Phone (x2) $20
Food Fruit & Vegetables (Mercados) $85
Food Groceries (SuperMaxi) $220
Health Heatlh Insurance $170
Car Gasoline (Small Car) $30
Car Car Maintanence $100
Kids School Fees (2 kids) $500
Kids Horse riding (2 kids) $100
Discretionary Cafes & Restaurants $150
Discretionary Yoga (2 adults) $60
Discretionary Clothes $100
Discretionary Streaming (Netflix & Spotify) $15
Total Monthly $2,552

We live a simple, middle-class life in Ecuador. We are fortunate to always have enough food on our table, a small car, rent a large house and have some help from a maid and gardener.

You can find some reports of expats living on less than $1,000 per month and this is certainly possible if you live a simple, frugal lifestyle away from the major cities of Quito, Guayaquil and Cuenca.

You can also get a good basic feel for cost of living in Cuenca from sites like Numbeo where you can compare your current city with Cuenca (or other Ecuadorian cities). I like the granularity of Numbeo as it allows you to pry directly into the cost of basics like milk, bread and beer. Given Ecuador also uses the USD, if you’re comparing costs from the US, then it’s a very straight forward exercise.

 

Cuenca Home Costs

These form the most substantial component of our budget. We also have a considerable amount of discretionary spending here, so you can certainly cut down on a few of these things to cut costs.

 

Rent – $800/month


We rent a large house on the outskirts of Cuenca in the Challuabumba neighborhood. It’s a 15 min drive to Cuenca on the Autopista (main highway). We chose here because it’s a little warmer than Cuenca itself, close to our school of choice, and we can get a much bigger house (and yard) than we could get in Cuenca. We like the privacy available to us and there are enough local shops, including a supermarket, that we really don’t need to visit Cuenca if we don’t want to.

The biggest downside of living 15 mins away from Cuenca is that we found it necessary to purchase a car (and get an Ecuadorian driver’s licence). There are buses and taxis, but we found them too time-consuming and limiting. We also like to explore close by towns, villages and mountains on the weekends which is easier with a car.

Our house is a 2 level, 4 bedroom house with a large rear yard and good sized front yard. The previous tenant was an expat that clearly poured a lot of love into the garden, attracting many hummingbirds. We were the first to see the house as it was coming onto the rental market and we immediately said, “yes, we’ll take it!”

Our current landlords are amazing – which has really made a big difference to the overall enjoyment of the space. Everything gets fixed, even some improvements made. Our previous landlord was an absolute nightmare who never fixed anything, so we’re super grateful to have wonderful landords now.

A similar house in Cuenca itself would rent for $1K+, so we’re happy with the price we’re paying for the location.

You can find 4 bedroom homes for less than $800 per month, but you probably won’t get your entire wish list. A properly maintained and welcoming garden was important to us, so we were willing to pay a bit extra for this.

Some expats do purchase homes instead of renting. If you’re on the fence, check out our article on renting vs buying in Ecuador.

 

Internet – $31/month


You’ll likely have different internet options depending on where you live in Cuenca. Our experience is the speed you can get will largely depend on the port availability at the distribution hub. Ie There may not be any more fibre optic ports available at the closest hub, so you’ll need to choose a different plan, provider, wait until a port becomes available, or beg your internet technician to find an available port.

We pay $30.90 each month for a 25MB down/up plan from Etapa. Etapa is basically the default option as they are government-controlled and are also responsible for the infrastructure.

We’re happy with the speeds that we receive at our current house. We normally get very close to the speeds we pay for (25MB Down/Up). See the speed test below:

ETAPA Cuenca Internet Speeds

Our main issue is ensuring the entire house receives coverage via strategically placed repeaters.

Other popular options in Cuenca include Puntonet (Celerity – fibre optic) and Netlife.

Take note of the contract terms. Many plans are 2-3 years, with penalties for leaving early. Our plan from Etapa allows us to take the connection with us if we move (within their Cuenca service region). But if not, then we’ll need to pay for the installation costs ($55) that we waived at the start of the contract. Some companies have higher termination costs such as paying out the rest of the plan + exit fee.

 

Water – $10/month


Water is cheap in Ecuador. The water in Cuenca is noted as having some of the best water quality in the world due, so you shouldn’t feel the need to get in bottled water or pay anything extra.

With 2 adults and 2 kids, we’re constantly using the shower and washing clothes. We consider $10/month for water to be a very good deal.

 

Electricity – $20/month


Our house has a lot of lights and we generally have at least 1 (normally 2) screens on during the day. We weren’t given a choice with the electricity provider.

The biggest issue I’ve found with electricity providers in Ecuador is they are ruthless when it comes to turning the power off for non-payment. If you are a day late, someone may come to your house & ask what is going on and request payment. Or, they may just cut off your power without warning.

Our power has been cut off in Cuenca and we’ve needed to go to the Electricity company to have it switched back on (the following working day).

 

Security – $22/month


This is largely for peace of mind. This covers the cost of the electric fence, alarm and monitoring from the security company. The company is generally very quick to respond to any alarm.

It pays to shop around for a security company. I’d definitely recommend asking your neighbors for their experience with their providers as a starting point.

The other form of security comes from our neighbors. We live in a welcoming community where every house belongs to the WhatsApp group created for discussing any practical issues like security.

As an example, last night our next-door neighbors’ alarm went off. They were out of town, so I got up to check it out and their security company was already there and talking to another neighbor. Our next-door neighbor was thankful to have all of their neighbors and the security company watching their back whilst they weren’t there. Other neighbors have done the exact same for us.

 

Home phone – $6/month


I’ll be honest, I don’t know why we have a home phone as we always use our mobile phones for calling locally or Skype for international calls.

Okay, I’ve just asked Michelle and we have the home phone only for the security system as it uses our landline to communicate with the alarm company.

 

Gas (Propane) – $3/month


Gas is ridiculously cheap in Ecuador. The price varies a little by city, but expect to pay around $3 per bottle delivered to your home. And, expect to be annoyed by the constant passing of gas trucks through your neighborhood, complete with speakers blaring a ‘gas truck’ song so you don’t miss them.

We generally only go through 1 (maybe 2) gas tanks each month. This powers our hot water, oven and even our clothes dryer. We don’t use a space heater.

You’ll need to pay for at least one, we recommend an additional as a spare, propane tank for about $45. The condition isn’t super important, just make sure it isn’t too rusty… Then you can participate in the home deliveries where they just swap tanks. Quick, easy and cheap. You should be able to sell the tank for a similar price ($45) upon leaving.

 

Maid (4 x monthly) – $80/month


Depending on how busy we are, we alternate between having a full-time maid/nanny and just having her come in 1 day per week for the ‘deeper’ cleans.

We’ve found it hard to find a quality, affordable nanny that is still happy to do a fair amount of cleaning. You may need to trial a few until you get a feel for their enthusiasm for the work offered.

If you’re providing any sort of on-going work, you may also be required to register this with IESS and also be aware of the full range of pay entitlements. This includes paying into the IESS system and the two additional monthly salaries each year (ie 13th & 14th months).

We also provide lunches and coffee for any worker in our house. I believe this is a fairly standard custom. Even if the worker has their lunch, the gesture has always been appreciated and it’s a nice way to get to know the workers a little more.

 

Gardener (1 x monthly) – $30/month


Whilst we enjoy doing a lot of gardening ourselves, we also pay for a gardener to come once a month to do the stuff we aren’t equipped for. In particular, we don’t have a lawn mower, edge trimmer or a decent hedge trimmer.

The amount we pay is for 2 gardeners for the entire day. They are very efficient and knowledgable. Their knowledge of how to grow certain things or control bugs has also been very valuable to us.

Again, on top of their payment, we also provide lunch and coffee.

 

Mobile Phone (x2) – $20/month


Michelle and I both use mobile phones.

I’ve just switched to Tuenti (a challenger low-cost brand) and pay $5 for 2GB data, 30 mins of calls & free Whatsapp. This plan lasts for 30 days. The biggest downside for me is that they use the Movistar network, which isn’t so great where we live (Claro has much better service).

I use a cheap Android phone which is not included in the pre-paid plan from Tuenti.

Michelle is on a $15 pre-paid plan from Claro that provides 15GB data, 200mins of calls & free Whatsapp. This also lasts one month. Michelle needs a better, more reliable plan than me as she uses her mobile a lot for work.

Michelle has also purchased her phone outright. Electronics like phones and computers can be expensive in Ecuador, so we recommend bringing these electronics with you.

The two main networks in Ecuador are Movistar and Claro. My experience is that Claro generally provides better coverage, but they are also difficult to deal with. Ie You can no longer just turn up at their service center to receive help, but need to make an appointment using their not-so-great app.

Getting out of post-paid plans without a significant exit fee has proven to be difficult for us. So, we’ve vowed to stick to pre-paid as we’re a little sick of being the games played by telco companies in Ecuador.

 

Home Subtotal – $1022/month

We find this a very reasonable cost for our lifestyle. However, there are some discretionary costs that can be minimized if we needed to. Take out the maid, gardener, security and home phone and you’ve cut down expenses by $138. Rent a slightly cheaper home or apartment at $600/month and you’ve saved another $200.

Combine both savings and we’d take our monthly home costs down to $684.

 

Cuenca monthly food costs

The main food choice you’re going to make in Cuenca is how much food you’ll buy at the local markets (mercados) vs the supermarkets such as Supermaxi. The more you can shift your purchases towards the mercados, the cheaper it will be.

 

Fruit and vegetables (mercados) – $85/month


Ecuador has cheap and plentiful fruit and vegetables. Our family of 4 finds it difficult to spend more than $20 on fruits and vegetables each week. And we mostly eat a plant-based diet. Check out this article for the types and costs of fruits and vegetables in Ecuador.

We are always sure to have a steady supply of starchy staples such as potatoes, green plantains (for bolones de verde) and choclos (corn). These form the basis of 3-4 meals each week.

We’ve included our coffee costs in the fruit and vegetable section as we generally buy these at the same time. We pay $4 per pound of quality roasted coffee beans. You can have them ground for the same price.

If you’re not aware, Ecuador has some very good quality coffee. But, coffee culture as we know it with fancy coffee roasters, cafes and hipster baristas are still in their infancy.

 

Groceries (Supermaxi) – $220/month


Supermaxi is the biggest and most renowned supermarket chain in Ecuador. They have 4 locations in Cuenca that are well scattered throughout.

The big advantages Supermaxi have over the mercados are quality control and variety. If you’re after some creature comfort foods from back home, your best bet is going to be Supermaxi. Note – these comfort foods will also increase your food bill. A lot.

We generally buy all of our cleaning, toiletries, dairy, bread and meat from Supermaxi. We’re making a conscious effort to ween ourselves away from Supermaxi by baking our own bread and making our own yoghurt etc, but the convenience of Supermaxi can be hard to break free from!

Supermaxi tip: Flash your cedula to a store assistant and ask where you can apply for a loyalty card. Most locations allow you to sign up on the spot and issue you with a loyalty card. This will open up more specials and shave a few dollars off your grocery bill.

You can certainly decrease your grocery bill by buying meat and dairy from the mercados, and many do. But we don’t really eat much of either, so it would probably cut down our bill to $180 or so.

 

Food Subtotal – $305/month

Ecuador has an in-built price incentive to purchase fresh, unprocessed food. This is opposite to many developed countries where the balance is skewed more towards processed food.

If you’re aware of this and able to take advantage by switching your diet and cooking towards fresh, unprocessed food, then Ecuador is perfect for you.

If your diet consists of processed food, high-quality meat, or you just need to eat certain brands, then your food bill is going to be considerably higher.

Your meat requirements are also worthwhile considering as Ecuador does not have a good reputation for producing high quality, cheap meat. You can find different meats, but there is no government assistance for farmers, so meat prices might be higher (and of lower quality) than you’re used to.

Vegan basics are covered with plentiful fruits, vegetables and grains. There’s some organic markets in Cuenca too and the prices are not much more than the regular markets. Supermaxi stocks some vegan-friendly food such as tofu, cheese and fake meats. But, if you need to take it up a notch and buy specialty items like nutritional yeast, then you’ll need to find a store like Nectar, bring it with you, or have it muled in.

 

Cuenca Health Insurance Costs


You have the option of private or public health insurance in Ecuador. But, many temporary residency visas require private health insurance. We also think you’re better off with private health insurance until you’ve properly explored the public health system.

The public health system is a lot cheaper, but the level of care is not as high as the private system.

 

Health Insurance (2 x adults) – $170/month

Our private health insurance with Salud allows us to visit our preferred hospital in-network. The main health insurance variables are yearly plan limits, deductibles, co-pays and network coverage.

We haven’t done a lot of research into other health insurance providers, so it’s quite possible that we’ll change providers over the next 6 months.

It’s worth pointing out the cost of medical treatment is considerably lower than many expats are used to (especially if you’re US based). The cost to see a doctor or even a specialist in Cuenca is generally less than $50. So, some expats choose to self-insure for these smaller costs, but still have public IESS insurance to cover any major surgeries, etc.

 

Car Costs in Cuenca

The decision to buy a car in Cuenca is not one that should be taken lightly. It involves a commitment and they are expensive. But, getting an Ecuadorian driver’s licence is relatively easy once you know how.

 

Gasoline (small car) – $30/month


Gasoline in Cuenca, and Ecuador, is super cheap. But, gasoline prices in Ecuador are a hot topic as the strike in 2019 that resulted in nation-wide chaos was partly caused by the President removing a long-held subsidy on gas and diesel prices.

The President eventually backed down, but was able to slide in a decree in 2020 that removes the subsidy, but limits the effect of any price movement to 5%.

The current price for gasoline is approx $1.75 for regular gasoline (ie Ecopais) and is $1.00 for diesel.

We have a 1.8L manual hatchback car and generally go through 1.5 tanks per month. It costs us $20 each time we fill up.

 

Car maintanence – $100/month


Maintaining a car in Ecuador is relatively cheap given that labor costs are so cheap. But, if you need to rely on imported parts than it will cost you considerably more. For this reason, Ecuadorian’s tend to like commonly available cars like Chevrolets.

Whilst I consider the roads in Ecuador to be good compared to other Latin American countries, they are not as good you’ll find in many developed nations. Potholes, speed bumps and other unexpected surprises caused by the weather (ie landslides and fog) can make driving difficult and cause a fair bit of wear and tear on the car. And, given Cuenca is in the Andes, you’re bound to be going up and down mountains a lot which also puts pressure on the engine.

Given the expected wear and tear on cars here, you’ll need to find a good, honest mechanic in Cuenca.

We’ve included the following in our $100/month car maintenance costs:

  • General repairs (ie suspension, brakes etc)
  • Tire replacement
  • Oil & other minor servicing
  • Car washing twice per month ($5 each time).

 

Car Subtotal – $130/month

This is an easy cost to remove if you decide to live in the city of Cuenca as many expats get by without a car. Taxis, buses and trams are cheap and you’d be doing well to spend more than $30-40 per month.

If we didn’t have a car, then I’d expect us to spend around $150/month on transport. The majority of this would be on taxis as it costs us about $8 each way to get into Cuenca.

 

Child Related Costs in Cuenca

I’ve already mentioned that the cheaper cost of schools in Cuenca was one of the reasons we moved here from Quito. On top of that, general activities like horse-riding and other after-school activities are cheaper here.

 

School Fees (2 kids) – $500


You can choose the private or public school system in Ecuador. We’ve noticed a very substantial difference in the quality of teaching offered through each system, with private schools generally outperforming public schools in every metric except for cost.

School fees for our school of choice in Cuenca are $250/month. Transport costs extra, but we don’t need it as we drive or walk the kids to school.

There are also yearly costs such as uniforms, books and in what is a weird custom to me, you’ll also need to buy (and label with your child’s name) a whole host of other materials that they’ll use throughout the year. I’m talking about stuff like educational toys down to colored paper. Basically, anything your child will use throughout the year, you are expected to buy at the start of the year.

These one-off costs are why the government mandates workers receive an extra payment in August – to help pay for these educational costs.

School fees vary a lot. You can find schools in Cuenca that cost $800/month down the $100 or so. Homeschooling is another option that is popular amongst expats.

 

Horse Riding (2 kids) – $100


This covers tuition and riding twice per week for each child. I realize horse riding is very specific, but most after-school activities are in a similar range, costing $30-50 per month.

Other activities include football (of course), bike riding, dancing, swimming and hiking.

Child Costs Subtotal – $600/month (2 kids)

If you’re looking to put your kids through private school, you will be looking to pay a similar amount for education in Cuenca. You’ll pay considerably more in Quito or Guayaquil.

Obviously you can save yourself some money if you removed the after-school activities and decided to go to a cheaper school. But, I would suggest you check out the various schools you’re considering before making any decision because the teaching methods and environments can vary a lot.

 

Discretionary Costs

Alright, time to spend some cash on the fun stuff!

 

Cafes & Restaurants – $150/month


We generally eat out 4 times per month for lunch and another 4-5 times for cafe style coffee and snacks. For 2 adults and 2 kids, lunch generally costs $20-$30 and the coffee/snacks around $10.

Michelle and I will also go for the occasional date night approx once per month where it’s just the two of us having dinner and drinks. This might cost $20 or $50 depending on how romantic we’re feeling lol.

 

Yoga (2 adults) – $60/month


There’s a decent selection of yoga studios in Cuenca, most of which offer drop-in classes for around $5. Better value are the monthly passes which we currently pay $30/month for. This gives us more than enough yoga every month.

Yoga not for you? No problem. Gyms and other activities also have monthly passes in a similar $30-$50/month bracket.

 

Clothes – $100/month


Whilst we generally wait until we holiday in another country to buy clothes, we still purchase some basics in Cuenca like shoes, jumpers etc. You are better off bringing clothes with you if possible – especially if you’re a larger ‘gringo’ size as your options here might be limited.

 

Streaming (Netflix & Spotify) – $15/month


Streaming costs are likely to be cheaper in Ecuador than in your home country. The combined cost of Netflix and Spotify for individual plans is $15.

I know numerous extended families in Ecuador that pay much less than this because they take advantage of the family plans which work out to be much cheaper.

With IPTV and a Firestick, you may find you have access to enough channels that you no longer need a Netflix subscription.

 

Discretionary Subtotal – $325/month

If strapped for cash, you can basically remove these discretionary costs.

An easy substitution if you like eating out, but prefer to be a little more frugal, is to stick to the lunch menu of the day or almuerzo. These are generally $3-$5 and consist of a soup, main, drink, and sometimes a dessert. The quality varies, but you should be able to find several staple restaurants in Cuenca that you’re happy with the price and quality.

You could also bring your yoga/gym costs down by working out at home. Michelle and I occasionally practice guided yoga with instructors on Youtube or Gaia. We value the community that comes from practicing in person at yoga studios, but we still enjoy practicing at home.

 

Total Costs – $2,552/month

Our total monthly costs come in at around $2.5K for a family of 4 (2 adults and 2 kids). This total includes many items that I would consider luxuries that we could certainly go without if we wanted to save a little more.

I believe we could get our monthly costs down to $1,500 if we needed to. But, this would require a lifestyle change and moving to a cheaper house.

Lastly, to get money into Ecuador, we generally use a low-fee online service, as traditional bank transfers normally cost more and are more effort.

Do you live in Cuenca and happy to share your monthly costs? Feel free to let us know if the comments below. Or, perhaps you’re still deciding about Cuenca and are busily comparing prices between here and your home country. If this is you, let us know if the cost of living in Cuenca is high, low, or similar to what you’re paying now.

How to Send Money to Ecuador with WorldRemit

Need to send money to Ecuador quickly and cheaply? WorldRemit may be the best provider for you. I've had to transfer cash into Ecuador for numerous reasons and WorldRemit has been my go-to for the majority of these situations. 

Once you've read this article you'll be armed with a step-by-step guide on how to send money to Ecuador with WorldRemit. And, how to get your first transfer for free!

But first, I suggest you check out this article on sending money to Ecuador which covers other options (ATMs etc). This article is specifically how to transfer cash online using WorldRemit and we don't cover other online options such as Western Union or Xoom. 

Why use WorldRemit to send money to Ecuador?

I continue to choose WorldRemit because of the low rates (incl fees), ease of use and transfer speed.

My needs have mostly been for an online service that would allow me to transfer from my US account to my Ecuadorian account. There's numerous options that fulfil this general requirement, but I like WorldRemit because:

Low fees

WorldRemit has a sliding fee structure based on the amount sent. This is always very transparent so there are no nasty surprises. 

Amount Sent

WorldRemit Fee

$500

$9.99

$1,000

$11.99

$1,500 - $5,000

$14.99

You can see the fee basically has an upper limit for $14.99 (sidenote - why not just call it $15? This type of pricing annoys me...) 

This $15 fee is the same if you're sending $1,500 or $5,000. So, it's more cost effective to send larger amounts, less often. 

$5,000 will last most expats 2-3 months. So, you should be able to get away with one fee of $15 to cover your money transfer needs for 2-3 months. 

You can then use your local debit card (I use JEP) to get cash out or pay directly with the debit card wherever it's accepted - ie supermarkets etc, but not local markets. 

Up to $5,000

$5,000 is the maximum that WorldRemit let's me send in one transaction. I've tried to send more, but it would not let me and I needed to send several smaller transactions with separate fees. 

I'm not clear if this limit changes based on personal circumstances. I'm not guaranteeing $5,000 will be available to you - maybe your limit is less. I don't know. 

You can check your limit once you've hooked up your US (or Canada, Australia etc) bank account to WorldRemit and start a transfer to Ecuador. This only takes a few minutes and you don't need to finish the transfer to find your limit.

Transfer speed 

Money is generally in the account the next business day. On several occasions it's been transferred on the same day!

I can tell how long it takes because I receive one email from WorldRemit telling me the transfer is being processed and another saying it's processed. 

Money has been transferred by the next business day. Every. Time. 

It's great to know this speed is consistent as there have been numerous occasions where unforeseen circumstances have arose and I needed funds quickly. Having the cash quickly has saved me considerable heartache. 

Easy to use - 2 minute transfers

The WorldRemit transfer process is easy to use, especially for repeat transactions. It takes me less than 2 mins to complete repeat transactions. 

The main time hurdle is adding new accounts, because you obviously need to enter in the account information for the recipient (ie your account in Ecuador). 

The website UX is clean and it's always clear what your next step is. For example, the very first screen is a simple prompt asking which country you would like to transfer to. This clear process means that it's difficult to get lost at any point. 

Sending money with WorldRemit: Step-by-step

I took some screenshots of a recent transaction to show you how to do the transfer to a local Ecuador bank. The most difficult part was finding the recipient's bank account details in the monster drop down list.

I actually had to email WorldRemit's support team to clarify the recipient bank name. Their support came back to me within an hour to provide my answer. I was happy with this support. 

Step 1: Visit WorldRemit website

Send Money to Ecuador WorldRemit - Step 1

Self explanatory step, but we need to start somewhere!

Head on over to the WorldRemit site.

Step 2: Create account

Ecuador WorldRemit - Step 2 - Create Account

Basic details here like name, email address password etc. Shouldn't take more than 2 minutes to complete. 

Step 3: Recipient country (Ecuador!)

Ecuador WorldRemit - Step 3 - Recipient Country

Of course, you can also use WorldRemit to transfer to many other countries. For us expats in Ecuador, we'll obviously want to choose Ecuador as our recipient country. 

Step 4: Bank transfer

Ecuador WorldRemit - Step 4 - Bank Transfer

We are focusing on transfers to a local Ecuadorian bank account (yours or a friend's). So, leave it as the default "Bank Transfer" option and hit continue.

But, you can also elect for a cash pickup at several bank branches if you prefer cash. Please be careful if you're walking around with large sums of money. 

Step 5: Recipient bank

Ecuador WorldRemit - Step 5 - Recipient Bank

There's three options for choosing which bank you want to deposit into:

  1. Banco Guayaquil
  2. Banco Bolivariano
  3. All other Ecuador Banks

This 3rd option is very extensive and covers many, many Ecuadorian banks and cooperativas. This is what I use for JEP. 

Step 6: Amount (& fees)

Ecuador WorldRemit - Step 6 - Amount

They've made it easy to understand how much you're sending and what the recipient will receive. If you're transferring from the US, then this won't change because Ecuador also uses USD.

If you're transferring from another country such as Canada or Australia, then this will change and you can see how much the recipient will receive. 

This is also where you can see the fees charged by WorldRemit. If you change the amount to send, the fees will also update. 

I've set it as $5,000 because this is the most cost-effective option when allowing for the $15 fee charged by WorldRemit. 

Step 7: Recipient Details

Ecuador WorldRemit - Step 7 - Recipient

Here you'll choose whether your sending another transfer to an existing recipient or adding a new recipient.

Adding new recipients is the most time consuming part of the process. The good news is that once a new recipient is added, their details are saved making it super easy to make additional transfers. 

The ability to save recipients will come in very handy if you're sending regular payments to yourself in Ecuador. 

Step 8: Recipient's Bank

Ecuador WorldRemit - Step 8 - Recipient Bank

Choosing the recipient's bank was the most difficult part for me. 

Why? Because I did not realize that Ecuador had so many banks and cooperativas.

And this may sound silly, but I didn't know the name of my bank. Well, the official name anyway.

The bank I was looking for was JEP and that's the name you see on their ATMs, at branches etc. I did a quick search on their website and found the following official name:

Cooperativa de Ahorro y Crédito “Juventud Ecuatoriana Progresista” Ltda

So, I had a good lead and tried to find this exact name in the list. But, I couldn't find the exact name amongst the many different cooperativas. As I wasn't prepared to take a gamble, I decided to email support to ask them. One hour later I got the confirmation I was after:

JEP is included in WorldRemit as "COOP. AHORRO Y CREDITO JUVENTUD".

I've included this here as  JEP is popular bank amongst Cuenca based expats. 

If you're having similar issues trying to find your bank amongst the list in WorldRemit, I suggest you also contact their support for confirmation. This is likely to be much easier and quicker than trying to get a refund. 

Step 9: Payment

Ecuador WorldRemit - Step 9 - Payment

You'll need a debit or credit card to make the payment. 

It would be nice if they integrated directly with my US bank, and maybe they will in time. For now, you'll need to use a debit or credit card. 

Debit cards

Make sure you've set your card limit to cover the amount (incl fees) that you're transferring. You should be able to do this in your internet banking. 

Credit cards

Paying with credit cards is likely to attract a hefty cash advance fee from your bank. Definitely check your bank's cash advance policy before doing this!

Step 10: Success (& track)

Ecuador WorldRemit - Step 10 - Success

The final step in the process is the confirmation. 

Congratulations. You've now setup the transfer and it should arrive within 48 hours. 

You can also track the transfer by downloading the App or logging into your WorldRemit account (via their website). They will also send you email updates when they've:

  • Started the transfer
  • Completed the transfer

I hope you found this guide helpful. Let me know in the comments below 🙂

You can get your first transfer free with WorldRemit by using my link (I'll also get a free transfer). 

Should I Buy or Rent Property in Ecuador?

A question that many expats ask themselves on the start of their journey is whether they should buy property in Ecuador or rent first. 

The decision can be made even more difficult when the excitement hits as you learn the price of property is a lot cheaper than in your home country. But, does this mean that buying is better than renting?  

We've put together a simple, but hopefully thought-provoking quiz to answer this question. We think it's particularly useful for those considering taking the plunge and buying property in Ecuador.

Feel free to leave any constructive comments below!

This is certainly not meant to be financial advice. 

How to Transfer Money into Ecuador

One of the first questions new Ecuadorian expats ask is ‘how do I send money to Ecuador and is it expensive?’

The answer is, well, it depends. Like many latin american countries, transferring money in and out of Ecuador has traditionally been problematic, expensive and time consuming.

These difficulties arise through the combination of weak governmental oversight, tough anti-money laundering measures and lack of innovation from the banking industry. This can result in a not so great experience for the end consumer.

Hopefully this guide will provide you with the best options on how to transfer money into Ecuador.

Money Transfer Options

$500 or less

You have several options for transferring amounts of $500 or less into Ecuador.

ATMs

If you’re only here for a short period of time as a tourist, or don’t have an Ecuadorian bank account, then ATMs are going to be your best bet.

Pros:

  • Easy and accessible across the entire country (incl Galapagos).
  • Withdrawing small amounts is secure as you don’t need to have large amounts of cash on you.

Cons:

  • Fees can add up. You’ll generally pay about $5-6 to the Ecuadorian bank on top of whatever your home bank charges.
  • ATM issues do happen in Ecuador and the banks don’t have a great track record of helping customers regain their money. I personally had to wait 6 weeks when a Bank of Pichincha ATM failed to dispose of my $600, but still charged my account. However, my bank in the US (Bank of America) was great and immediately credited the account whilst they investigated.
Pro Tip: Sign up for a bank account in your home country that reimburses ATM fees such as Charles Schwab or Fidelity. But, be aware of any fair use policy and I would not suggest telling them you're just about to move overseas...

Online Money Transfer

There’s several services you can use to transfer from your home bank direct to your Ecuadorian bank or for a cash pickup.

This is my preferred method for payments up to $3000. But, I’ve still used it for smaller amounts as it is quick (24 hours generally) and I can transfer straight into my Ecuadorian account, so I don’t need to worry about walking around with a wad of cash after visiting an ATM.

My preferred method is WorldRemit because it offers the cheapest fees and I find it user friendly. Western Union is also quite popular, but is generally a bit more expensive.

Pros:

  • Quick (one business day)
  • Transfer straight into account or cash pickup

Cons

  • Fees for smaller amounts (ie $500) are approx $10. More cost effective for larger transfers (ie up to $3000).
  • Won’t help you out if you need instant cash
Pro Tip: Use my WorldRemit refer-a-friend link and you'll get $20 credit to make your first transfers.

$500 to $3000

Online Money Transfer

This is where the online money transferring services shine. They are quick, safe and cost effective.

I was a long-time devotee to an online transfer service called Transferwise, but they do not operate in Ecuador. Whilst annoying, this did lead me to comparing all of the various online services that would allow me to easily send money into Ecuador.

My recommendation is WorldRemit because they are the cheapest and I’ve found their support to be helpful the one time I needed it.

I actually needed to contact them because I couldn’t find JEP in their long list of Ecuadorian banks and cooperativas they transfer money into.

Hint – WorldRemit calls JEP “COOP. AHORRA Y CREDITO JUVENTUD” as shown below:

JEP WorldRemit Ecuador

The fees will increase depending on how much you are sending. But, for reference, a $2000 transfer will cost $15 with WorldRemit. This compares well to other services such as Western Union where fees are $20+.

Pros:

  • Transfer into most Ecuadorian banks
  • Setup bank details once and send follow up transfers within seconds
  • Cost effective

Cons:

  • They have a limit of around $3K for bank transfers. So, not a great option for larger one off purchases such as property or cars.

$3000+

For larger transfers you’ll be limited to bank transfers and checks.

Bank Transfers

Each Ecuadorian bank has a different policy and will charge different amounts for wire transfers. Your best bets are the larger banks such as:

Expect to pay at least $50 to your Ecuadorian bank for a wire transfer + the fee from your home bank. If you’re transferring from the US, then you won’t have to consider exchange rates, but if your home bank is an another country, then you will.

Note, transferring amounts $10K or greater will trigger the bank to ask you a bunch of questions around where you got the money from. They are required by law to ensure that the funds were legally obtained (ie not through drugs, money laundering or a scam). This is not normally a major burden, but just adds another step to the process.

Pros:

  • May be your only option for amounts of $3,000+

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • Need to open an account at the bank

Checks

Again, you definitely want to check with your Ecuadorian bank on their policy for accepting checks. Pay particular attention to the limits and expected processing time as it can take 3-4 weeks for checks to clear.

Pros:

  • Straightforward process
  • Many banks do accept checks

Cons:

  • Long processing time

Sending Money to Ecuador FAQs

Can I use PayPal to withdraw money in Ecuador?

Not directly, no. Whilst it would be convenient to be able to withdraw cash straight from Paypal into a local account or ATM, that isn’t possible.

You still have a few options to get your cash into Ecuador which are similar to the above, but with the added step of transferring from Paypal first:

  1. ATM
    Transfer from your Paypal account into your US (or other home country) account. Use your foreign debit card in Ecuador to withdraw from an ATM.
  2. Online transfer or cash pickup in Ecuador
    Send from Paypal to an online transfer service such as World Remit, Western Union or Paypal’s own service, Xoom. Then you can choose to transfer to a Ecuadorian bank account or arrange for a cash pickup at a bank in Ecuador.

Is there an ‘import tax’ on cash entering Ecuador?

No, there is not. Moving small amounts of money into the country is relatively easy.

What is Ecuador’s cash exit tax?

Sending cash out of Ecuador triggers an exit tax of 5% if transferring over $1,200. The $1,200 threshold is calculated from 3x monthly minimum wage ($400 in 2020).

Have I covered your favorite method here? Feel free to let me know in the comments if I’ve left anything out so I can update to include.

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