Expat Story: Chris' Dragon Fruit (Pitaya) Farm in Manabi

Last Updated: 2nd January 2021
Written by Jason Scott
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Editor's note: This is part of our Expat Story series where we dive into journies of other expats to learn about practical information on life in Ecuador. Have your own story to share? Let us know by reaching out to us.

Chris moved to Ecuador from Canada 3 years ago. Like many expats, he was attracted by the potential for a better quality of life Ecuador could offer him and his family.

Ultimately, the move has allowed him to spend more quality time with his daughter.

Along the way, he became an 'accidental dragonfruit farmer' when he purchased land that was mainly accessible by boat. This is Chris's opportunity to leave a tangible legacy for this daughter to enjoy for years to come.

His story is interesting as it is unique. Chris and I had a long chat about his journey thus far, focusing on his property, potential property traps to avoid, challenges he's faced thus far and some of his future projects.

I think there are some good property lessons here for new or aspiring expats. But, his story goes deeper than that and offers several soul-affirming takeaways that resonated with me on a human level.

Let's get to it.

Chris Dragon Fruit Bio Pic

Chris LaChance

Dragon Fruit Farmer
"Pitaya (dragon fruit) is probably one of the best businesses you can get into Ecuador right now."

Chris' Dragon Fruit Farm

Dragonfruit Farm in Manabi, Ecuador
The dragon fruit (or pitaya) farm. Posts on the left are to support the heavy fruits.

Chris purchased 7 hectares of land in the coastal province of Manabi for a very reasonable $25,000. This equates to roughly $3,500 per hectare.

The price per hectare of land in Ecuador varies considerably depending on factors such as:

  • Ratio of usable land: ie not too steep or rocky etc
  • Accessibility: land without reliable road access is cheaper
  • Services: land with basic services already connected such as water and electricity is more expensive
  • Location: land closer to bigger cities tends to be more expensive

In Chris's instance, accessibility, location and lack of services were important factors in pricing the land at $3,500 / hectare.

Buying a Dragonfruit Farm in Manabi, Ecuador
Bringing construction materials by boat is one of Chris' key challenges

Main access via boats

Chris' property is set on a lake with the main access coming from a small watercraft such as a boat or canoe. There is road access via a neighbor's property, but no direct road access. This may change in the future but will require additional investment from Chris.

Obviously, accessing the property predominantly via watercraft creates significant logistical challenges when building. For example, look at how he brought in cement for the tall power posts that needed to be constructed to connect electricity to the property:

So, building anything takes additional time, planning, and expense. He spends significantly more time and money on transporting construction materials to the property than he would a property with road access.

Other factors he's needed to consider given the lake access include:

  • The need to construct a floating pontoon as the water level rises and falls substantially
  • A secure location near the main barge to leave his car and boat
  • Availability of local labor to help with clearing, construction & maintenance

Sure, there are additional challenges, but Chris is quick to point out that the lake only access has advantages for how he wants to live:

Security

The only people that can possibly enter the property need to have a boat and pass numerous properties on the way to Chris'. This makes it a difficult target for potential thieves.

Close community

The isolation provides a natural incentive for the farmers and workers of the community to band together for their common good. Chris is now part of a community that is able to provide the help and support he needs to build his dream.

Constructing a dragon fruit farm in Ecuador
Constructing the tall poles for electricity

Installing electricity & water

Chris was able to connect electricity via a neighbor's property. He needed to construct 5 large poles to run the 680m of electric cable and install a transformer.

The transformer was difficult to obtain because of demonstrations that shut down the roads, but Chris was able to source a second hand 10KW transformer for $500. I've seen others pay much more for a transformer, so this sounds like quite a good deal.

Installing the transformer, poles and cable was all done by hand, with the help of some local workers at the local day rate of $15 per day.

Free electricity!

One of the perks of this particular property is that because it sits on a manmade lake that was formed as part of a hydroelectric project, all of the properties surrounding the lake get free electricity. Yes, free.

Planting Dragonfruit in Manabi, Ecuador
Rows of future dragon fruit trees

But, why dragon fruit?

I freakin love dragon fruit. And, given Chris started a dragon fruit farm, I assumed he was a life-long connoisseur of the popular fruit. I was wrong.

Chris didn't buy the farm with dragon fruit in mind. Instead, he had a vague idea that he'd like to experiment with some different fruits and staples like cacao. Nothing serious, more of a hobby farm.

Dragon fruit farm in Ecuador
A bitter melon that was also grown on the property

It was only by chance that Chris got talking to an owner of a nearby hotel who also grew dragon fruit, and it turns out Chris's property was an ideal location to grow it. Chris did some research and then acted on the local's advice.

Chris sees dragon fruit as the best choice for him to grow commercially because it needs little maintenance or water, and there is a good export market. He's now on his way to becoming a member of the Pitaya Growers Association and can then obtain his own agricultural license.

His biggest challenge to planting more dragon fruit stems from poor access. Strong supports are required for the fruit and these are traditionally made with concrete. Chris initial efforts of transporting bag after bag of concrete in his camioneta and then canoe were to be applauded, but it's a very difficult and expensive way to get concrete onto the property.

He's currently looking at different options to construct the fruit-bearing poles that will require less concrete, and therefore less time, cost, and effort.

Purchasing a farm in Ecuador
Workers clearing out the property

Cacao Corner as a teaching instrument

Whilst Chris' rough plan to farm cacao took a welcome detour thanks to some local intervention, he still plans on planting a small amount of cacao. But, his motivations for doing so might surprise you (as they did me).

You see, Chris plans to devote 0.5 hectares to growing cacao as a way to teach his daughter about business. It will basically be her project to do with as she wishes.

Maybe she wants to grow boutique, organic, heirloom Nacional cacao, or maybe she just wants the bigger yields offered by CCN51 cacao like most growers in Ecuador. We are not sure, and that's entirely the point. It's the daughter's choice and I think it's a great introduction to business.

But, it's much more than just a business lesson. It speaks to the same reason Chris moved to Ecuador in the first place; to spend more quality time with his daughter during her formative years.

The property buying process

Chris Dragon Fruit Bio Pic

Chris LaChance 

Ecuador Dragonfruit Farmer
"I was extremely surprised how easy it was to buy a piece of property"

Chris originally had his heart set on an ideal property in the southern valleys of Quito. He checked out several properties and got very close to buying one.

What stopped him? The land title.

Buying property in Ecuador comes with many risks that you may not be familiar with. One of these is the type of title that is attached to the land.

This particular title was "Acciones y Derechos" (Actions and Rights). This type of title is much riskier than Escrituras Publicas because there's more limitations with what you can do with the land - ie subdivide & the types of buildings allowed.

It's also common for multiple parties (ie family members) to own shares in the land that is titled "Acciones y Derechos". So, you need to be extra cautious in knowing that you're dealing with someone that actually has the right to sell the land. Also, the more family members that need to provide their consent, the greater the risk of the sale stalling.

Not easily disheartened, Chris let this property go and refocussed his efforts on finding another.

Buying Property in Manabi, Ecuador

Finding Properties via Facebook Marketplace

Chris used all the different websites he could find for his property search. These included realtor websites and property marketplaces like Plus Valia and OLX.

However, Chris found the most success with Facebook Marketplace as it allowed him to speak directly with many different property sellers. I've also found Facebook Marketplace to be very useful for scouring property to rent or buy.

Turns out the current owner was also a gringo with a clear intention to sell. He needed to sell this land in order to put the money into another construction project. Buying land from another gringo certainly helped with communication and possibly helped ensure a smooth transaction.

Seller paid legal fees

A surprising development in this transaction was when the seller offered to pay for the legal fees of approx $900 as part of the deal. These fees are normally paid by the buyer.

This is an important lesson in that there is a strong negotiating culture in Ecuador. Think that price is too high? State why and negotiate down. Think it's appropriate for the seller to share legal expenses? Fire away with your request.

Even if there are customs in place such as the buyer paying closing costs, it's unlikely to hurt the negotiation if you simply ask if the other party is willing to share costs. Like most negotiations, you're likely to get better results if you ask in a fun, friendly way.

In Chris' instance, he wanted to negotiate the price down a little bit more, but the buyer wasn't willing to budge on the price. However, the seller paying $900 to cover the legal fees was a happy medium and kept the transaction moving along.

Purchasing a dragon fruit farm in Manabi Ecuador
The lake that borders the property

Smooth property transfer

Chris had previously purchased a car in Ecuador and suffered through the painfully bureaucratic process of transferring ownership. And it's true, buying a second hand car can be a tiring, cumbersome process with lots of little, hidden hoops.

Given his previous experience with transfering car ownership, Chris was expecting to be put through a similar painful process when formalizing the property transfer. But, this did not eventuate and Chris was able to enjoy an easy and hassle-free transfer that only took a few days to finalize.

He puts the smooth transaction down to the following reasons:

  • Basic property - there was nothing complicated about the property itself
  • Rural location - the local authorities & lawyers that needed to process the title transfers weren't backed up with a lot of other properties to also process.
  • Lawyer - Using a lawyer ensure the process was streamlined and that any concerns were addressed.
  • Clear title - This property only had one owner and the type of title "Escrituras publicas" presented little risk of transfer issues arising.

Escrituras publicas vs Acciones y derechos

One of the key differences between Chris' earlier unsuccessful attempt to purchase land and the successful transaction was the land title.

The successful transfer was titled 'Escrituras publicas', which provides a wider range of entitlements - thereby decreasing the risk that something can go wrong. And believe me, there's no shortage of horror stories where expats (and locals) are fleeced from their money whilst trying to buy property in Ecuador.

That doesn't mean that you should automatically decline any property that is titled 'Acciones y derechos', but you do need to be prepared for a more complicated property transfer process and increased due diligence.

Buying a Farm in Manabi, Ecuador
Chris taking some time out at his campsite that will become his home

Border disputes

One part of the property purchase process that Chris didn't formalize was the property's boundaries.

He purchased a quality GPS unit to help mark the boundaries. This, along with a pre-existing fence, were helpful in setting informal boundaries with his neighbors. But, these boundaries are not legally enforceable.

To create legally enforceable boundaries Chris would need to hire an engineer to study the land and titles before using a more accurate GPS to plot the boundaries. This would then need to be formalized by the Ministry of Agriculture & Land.

The total cost of this process varies, but it's likely to be around $2K for Chris' property.

Whose Mahogany is it?

The main boundary issue currently faced by Chris isn't really about the land itself, but was is growing on it.

The previous owners planted mahogany along one of the property's borders. This was inside Chris' fence-line, but that still hasn't stopped the neighbors from enquiring who owns these valuable trees.

Chris has needed to gently fend off suggestions that because the boundaries are not formalized, that they should just sell the trees and split to proceeds 50:50.

Reading between the lines, I don't really see this as a genuine border dispute. It's more a case of locals seeing what they can get away with. Chris handled this in a friendly manner whilst clearly asserting his ownership rights of the trees. Of course, if this dispute over the trees escalates, it's in his interests to have the borders formalized.

Skipped renting before buying

There is a strong recommendation towards renting in the area you're considering before purchasing.

This renting period can be critical in uncovering aspects of the area that can be very difficult to impossible to understand otherwise. Think of seasonal events such as insects & weather all the way down to persistent noise issues.

However, Chris decided not to do this. His desire to own property sooner was stronger than his need to de-risk against potential unforeseen issues. I understand this appeal as it's easy to get excited and let emotions take over.

Not everyone has the same risk appetite. Whilst it looks like it's worked out for Chris, we still generally recommending renting for 6-12 months before purchasing.

Side-note: Think you're ready to purchase property in Ecuador - then take our quiz to find out.

Local wildlife enjoying the lake

Next step: Let's Build!

So, now Chris has his property, the next step is to build on it. He's already completed a lot of the clearing and basic infrastructure such as water and electricity.

However, there's still a long way to go until Chris comes anywhere near completing this project and enjoying the elevated quality of life it will provide him and his family.

We'll keep you updated on his progress.

Are you thinking of buying property in Ecuador? Let us know why & where in the comments below.

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