Category Archives: Ecuador

What we’ve spent in South America

As a public service to anyone who might be thinking about following in our footsteps in South America, and to satisfy the curiosity of others, we thought we’d share a little about what our day to day spending is while traveling in various countries.

We do this as we leave South America and we’ll repeat a similar exercise for Asia later.

We’re providing an average daily spend in New Zealand dollars, and our estimate of how many times cheaper the countries we travel in are than New Zealand. This data is taken from our ongoing spending tracking which we update every week (I affectionately describe this as our WEEBU or weekly budget update) and from our general recollections of the prices we have observed.

Screen Shot 2014-06-08 at 10.20.11 PMDisclaimers

I’d have learned nothing as a consultant if I didn’t offer some disclaimers over this and indeed, a couple of caveats are in order:

  • This is on the ground costs. It excludes international flights and other pre-trip costs like visas and vaccinations.
  • This represents our travel. That means it reflects the specific experiences we chose to have, rather than what costs will be like for everyone. You could travel and spend more, or less and you might differ from us in where you chose to splash out or do it cheap.
  • Our costs are for a couple. You could reasonably assume two thirds for a lone traveler.
  • In a long period of travel there are inevitably some ‘lumpy’ costs like buying a new backpack or sending a package home. Where it’s easy to do so we’ve taken these out, but some will remain.

Some observations

  • Argentina is pleasingly cheap given the quality of food, accommodation etc. we’ve enjoyed is as good, if not better, than what you’d expect at home. Taking advantage of the black market exchange rate it’s like an awesomely cheap version of Europe.
  • Peru is probably cheaper than it looks. Costs are pumped up by expensive entries to places like Machu Picchu. We also chose to spend more to enjoy more of Peru’s excellent cuisine. We don’t regret that for a second, but you could spend less.
  • If you’ve got US dollars then Venezuela is silly cheap and the quality of food and accommodation is surprisingly high. But even given that, traveling there at the moment isn’t worth it. It’s just too dangerous to be enjoyable.
  • Colombia is a great destination and well worth the extra few dollars above the price of travel in Ecuador and Peru. Spending a long time there, to volunteer like we did, is very worthwhile.

So long South America – some parting observations

The sunset at the beginning of the world; day's end at Isla del Sol.
The sunset at the beginning of the world; day’s end at Isla del Sol.

We’re really sad to be leaving South America. It’s been an amazing five months and, if it weren’t for Asian travels on the horizon we’d probably be pretty down about our departure.

Truth be told, South America was never my first priority. When our timing for Asia didn’t match with the climate we needed to do what we wanted we had to reshuffle and I wasn’t sure how it would work out. But our time here has been challenging and rewarding and the places we have been and people we’ve met have been incredible. Significantly exceeded expectations.

As we leave, here are a range of parting observations. They try, but fail, to capture what we’ve seen and what we’ve thought in broad sweeping themes:

  1. There’s a lot of European history here, more than I had understood. Around the same time that Maori were losing their independence to British colonisers, Colombians were getting their independence from Spanish conquistadores. So things look and feel quite European even if they also feel different.
  2. There’s an upper middle class in the Andes whose life experience is probably not so different from ours at home. And that’s true for the whole middle class in Argentina. At the same time there are poorer groups whose living standards are dramatically different.
  3. A little Spanish goes a long way. A little more goes a long way too. There’s surely no other language that is so accessible to English speakers that allows you to speak with such a diversity of people. And the ability to cut through the hand signals and ask about family or work or aspirations really enriches a travel experience. I’m glad I learned some and grateful that Fiona knew lots.
  4. South American societies are colonial, like at home, but the mixing of ethnicities, be they African, European or indigenous, has been much greater. At its most mixy, skin colour doesn’t even denote ethnicity anymore. This is fundamentally different to New Zealand.
  5. It’s not realistic to call South America ‘catholic’. Not when there’s devil worship, hallucinogenic/spiritual drugs and witches. There’s catholic traditions for sure, but there’s a parallel spiritual belief system which sets South America apart, too. They still manage to be pretty prohibitive about abortion, however.
  6. Sloths are amazing.
  7. With notable exceptions, South American food isn’t much to write home about. There are a lot of carbs and a lot of fried things. Peru and Argentina stand out as the pick of the bunch in terms of cuisine.
  8. There’s a strong left wing political tradition in lots of South American countries. The best face of this is innovative policy and a concern for the poor. The worst is disastrous policies piled one upon another to sustain a doctrine that is clearly unrealistic.
  9. It’s not that dangerous, and danger isn’t always where you’d expect. The massive police presence in Colombia made us feel safer there than in the tourist hub of Ecuador.
  10. The people are great. Colombians and Argentinians are the most openly friendly we’ve come across; Bolivians and Peruvians tend to be a little more reserved. But we’ve experienced kindness everywhere we’ve been.

Some parting thoughts on Ecuador


Diverse is an overused adjective in travel guides. Of course China is diverse, it’s massive. What makes Ecuador remarkable is that it is both diverse and compact. Within an area that is scarcely bigger than New Zealand it packs: Amazon rainforest, Andean highland complete with snow capped volcanoes, tropical beaches and thirteen million people many of whom stay true to their indigenous roots. That’s not even mentioning the Galapagos Islands off the coast.

You can understand why it is so appealing to tourists, especially those from North America who are looking to “do” South America but don’t have a lot of time to do it. In Colombia most travelers we talked to were on a big trip through the continent – months not weeks. Here in Ecuador there are plenty who have just a couple of weeks.

The greater density of tourists is observable in lots of ways: there’s a greater variety of international cuisine, much more English spoken, a predominance of Western over Latin pop, a part of Quito that feels like the US, just a little more seedy. These sorts of things, in turn, make Ecuador a comfortable choice for American retirees. We’ve met a bunch here in Cuenca.

As we’ve mentioned before, this adds up to a very comfortable and obliging travel experience, but one that doesn’t get us especially excited when we haven’t really had enough time to get off the beaten track. But we certainly don’t begrudge Ecuador for maximising what is a massive economic opportunity, especially if it’s one that allows it to preserve its stunning natural landscapes rather than mining them for oil.

The things we have probably found most interesting are less about the tourist trail: the left-wing reformer President who’s taking on the oil industry and asked the West to pay to keep jungle intact, the use of US dollars to try and address economic woes, the jungle drug where you vomit your guts out to get a spiritual experience. We’re policy wonks as much as tourists, after all.


Inappropriate use of sloths

Join with #teamsloth, and sloths everywhere, sticking our tongues out at the barbaric practice of sloth head hunting.
Join with #teamsloth, and sloths everywhere, sticking our tongues out at the barbaric practice of sloth head hunting.

There’s only so much cultural relativism that #teamsloth can stomach. Ecuador’s Shuar tribe definitely crosses the line of acceptability.

One of the makers of Ecuador’s famous shrunken heads, the Shuar have evidently decided that killing each other for heads to shrink is no longer appropriate (so far so good). But they now just use sloths instead (no longer good). As part of a coming of age ritual adolescent boys are sent into the jungle with green bananas. When the bananas ripen to yellow they return to their homes with the spoils of their hunt. They’re hunting for sloths to cut off their heads, steam them to reduce their size, and then use them as ornaments.

This seems both mean spirited and cowardly. Seriously, want to have some ridiculous ritual to prove manhood, why not try hunting something that can effectively run away from you? It’s not even like these Shuar boys take blow darts. If the Ecuador National Museum of Ethnography’s illustrations are to be believed, they hunt with guns. That’s an inappropriate use of sloths.


Fast food development: Ecuador and McDonaldization

It’s time for the next installment of our project to track the fast food development of all the countries we’ve visited as a tongue in cheek proxy for their overall development. If you’re not familiar with our categorisation, you can find it here.

Ecuador is a pretty easy case. There are Western fast food brands here – we’ve seen McDonlad’s, KFC, Burger King, Subway – so it’s at least a stage two. But there aren’t many franchises. We’ve seen them only in Quito, the largest, and most cosmopolitan city, and in Cuenca which has a significant population of US retirees. Nothing anywhere else we’ve been including tourist centres and towns of more than 100,000 people.

And where it is available, Western branded fast food is really expensive. Victims of an inexplicable public transit system in Quito we found ourselves seeking shelter under the golden arches from an impending rain storm. The lunch we ate there was maybe three times as expensive as a set meal in a local restaurant. And the clientele was mostly foreign, or at least very European looking Ecuadorians.

The conclusion is clear. Ecuador is stage 2: Western fast food is available in major cities (or tourist traps) but is prohibitively expensive for all but the richest.


McDonalization is a term developed and used by a psychologist called George Ritzer. He uses it to talk about societies that develop characteristics that are also seen in fast food chains: efficiency, calculability, predictability and control.

One example of McDonalization that Ritzer uses is of a certain style of journalism that’s served up in bite sized pieces, with predictable narratives and general inoffensiveness. On that front, at least, there doesn’t seem to be a correlation with the fast food development we’ve observed. That kind of ‘junk food journalism’ is very much alive and well in Colombian and Ecuadorian tabloids.

But you can see his more general point, and we could probably think of other examples. More developed societies tend to feel more efficient and more rational. There’s certainly a stronger sense of control and order. And the less developed have that enigmatic sense of functional chaos that’s the polar opposite of a McDonald’s drive through system.

Double (bed) dipping

Arriving in Cuenca tonight we looked for accommodation. The first place with space had a lovely room – the nicest we’ve seen all travels, balcony and all – and quoted us $15USD. This seemed like a total bargain. We were chuffed and about to unpack when the hotel owner came back and offhandedly mentioned that was the price per person. To be fair, $30USD was probably a reasonable price for the room. But we were still disappointed. We’re even more disappointed that our couple advantage from Colombia doesn’t really seem to have stretched to Ecuador.

In Colombia we commonly paid less for a private double room than two individuals would have paid to stay in a dorm. This was very gratifying. I mean, we both vehemently oppose income splitting as a policy, but it’s nice to get a couple perk every now and again.

In Ecuador private rooms are often, though not always, priced per person. This leads to some confusion, as in tonight, but also means Ecuador is a comparatively more economical place to travel if you’re by yourself.

Neither situation quite seems to make sense. The advantage we got in Colombia was probably too high. But we don’t think we should be paying twice what one person would pay to stay in the same room. There’s a mix of costs that are associated with the space and some with the occupancy. Maybe hoteliers could learn from our approach when couples replaced singles in rooms in our flats: they paid 1.5 times what a single would. Perhaps some wisdom can be found in the spate of rent splitting articles I’ve seen floating around facebook recently.


Some of the Catholic stuff we’ve witnessed on our travels has been both interesting and kind of quaint. My suspicion is that the particular brand of Catholicism – almost folk religion – is a little different to many Catholics’ practice at home, but I’m not sure. DSC08491DSC08489

  • In Baños we followed a parade of the virgin statue normally housed in the basilica. Marching bands played and the statue was followed as something to be revered. Good fun was had by all.
  • We saw a holy week parade in Quito where, dressed like the KKK, thousands of devotees put themselves through significant pain carrying large crosses, dragging chains and even flagellating each other.
  • We were once in Manila for the parade of the black Jesus, an ebony idol that was paraded through the streets for a crowd of millions. People were anxious to have their possessions touch the statue, believing it would bring them good luck. Sometimes people die in the stampede to get close.

And that’s to say nothing of transubstantiation. It feels quite foreign. I went to Anglican and Presbyterian schools. Most of the sermons I heard would still have worked without mentioning God. Fiona has only recently learned who parted the red sea (“It was Jesus, right?”). Neither of us come from a particularly religious tradition. But to the extent that we have experienced Christianity it has been of the ethereal protestant variety.

There’s something different about what we’ve seen in Catholicism. For a start there’s the focus on idols – one supposes not false idols in ten commandment terms. It feels a bit more supernatural to put stock in a statue. Further down the disbelief continuum. More towards the Amazonian shamans that wave leaves over people to see whether they have a grave disease or a minor ailment.  (One indigenous tribe we visited reported they practice both Catholicism and their more traditional beliefs at once.)

And there’s a difference between a nativity play, retelling a story, and a procession of penitence that processors understand to cure them of guilt. It’s a different kind of belief. It’s something beyond a moral code bound together by faith.

We might be overplaying the distinction and given we’re not Christian we are somewhat splitting hairs of disbelief anyway. But from what we see there is a real distinction. Maybe that’s why when we talk to Spanish speakers about New Zealand and they ask about religion they say “is it Catholic, or Christian?”

Pigging on guinea pig


Cuy – guinea pigs – are eaten here as a delicacy. A medium sized cuy will set you back $20USD, about the same price as eight set meal dinners, so they tend to be sold on special occasions only. They were roasting them for the festival of the Virgin yesterday.

They’re roasted and eaten whole. Apparently getting the meat off is a bit of a challenge. You’re supposed to break off a claw to fish it out of the small skeleton.

I’m not sure I’m game to try, and the price tag makes a convenient excuse not to. Fiona, quite reasonably, says that they’re not so different from the ubiquitous rotisserie chicken here. That’s sort of true. But cuy do have heads and beedy little eyes.

Some people say they taste like chicken. I readily admit that chicken is delicious. But if they taste the same then I don’t really see what all the fuss is about. Why not just have some chicken?

Equivocating about Ecuador


I’m just going to come right out and say it. We’re not totally wild about travel in Ecuador.

It hasn’t helped that we’re here in rainy season, which means unexpected dumps of impossibility on our outdoorsy plans. And we’ve both been more than a little under the weather too. But our review of travel in Ecuador will have some equivocation.

We’re not really in a position to complain – many struggling with nine to five jobs at home (or nine to nine, more likely) would probably kill to be here. It’s just that one of the challenges of the kind of long term travel we’re doing is there are likely to be highs and lows of destinations. Ecuador isn’t really a low, but it isn’t a high either. It’s funny the impacts that reference points have on your perspective.

Quito has a really charming old town, and there’s amazing views to be had like the photo we’ve finally an excuse to use in this post. But it’s touristy to the point of seedy in parts. The jungle was entertaining, but our tour company had some issues, and the animals didn’t really show up for us. And, while Banos is a pretty little town, tourism here is much more pervasive than it was in Colombia: we get asked if we want menus in English, there’s hostels on literally every corner, and some light harassment to take tours or go rafting as we walk down the street. That’s probably great if you want to go rafting…

There’s something else more fundamental too. In Colombia we had time to get to grips with things. We had personal relationships with locals. We had the chance to go off the beaten track to places like la Guajira. And we had the time to seek out the things we really wanted, like sloths. Plus we were volunteering, which nearly always seemed meaningful. We’ve less time in Ecuador, and will have less in most places we travel. That makes our journey seem a bit more conventional – the gringo trail.

We’re expecting things to be a little different when we get to Bolivia. Travelers report more of a wild west feel there. And our forthcoming odyssey across Asia will be well off the beaten track. In the meantime, we’re not ungrateful for the the experience we’re having, and we might try and spice it up a little with the unconventional too. But when we look back at our travels we’ll likely rave about Colombia, and be a little ho-hum about Ecuador.