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They left the US for Ecuador for a better life. Then the country was thrown into a state of emergency

They left the US for Ecuador for a better life. Then the country was thrown into a state of emergency

When Ruth Harrison and Dan Phillips moved from the US to Ecuador two years ago, their main goal was to enjoy a peaceful retirement.

Life thought differently.

As the couple – who have chosen to use pseudonyms for this article – settled into a new chapter in a more affordable country that offered interesting new travel opportunities – things took an unexpected turn.

Ecuador was placed in a nationwide state of emergency after one of its most powerful drug lords escaped from prison and an “internal armed conflict” broke out as security forces confronted criminal groups accused of spreading extreme violence. A curfew was imposed and the U.S. State Department issued warnings to travelers heading there.

From the outside, Ecuador seemed far from an ideal place to escape the pressures of life in their former American hometown of Albuquerque.

Despite ongoing political tensions, the couple say they have no regrets about their move and are loving their new life.

‘People panicked’

“I would say our opinion hasn’t changed,” Phillips said. “I think we’re very happy with our decision.”

Shortly before the state of emergency was declared, gunmen armed with explosives stormed a television station during a live broadcast.

Harrison and Phillips say that while they received information in small doses, it was only much later that they realized how serious the situation was.

They moved from the U.S. to Ecuador two years ago. But Ruth Harrison and Dan Phillips’ new life took an unexpected turn earlier this year when a nationwide state of emergency was declared. (Courtesy of Ruth/CNN Newsource)

“People panicked and everyone went home,” Phillips said. “We had no idea that any of this was happening.”

He tells how a concerned Ecuadorian woman drove up to him while he was waiting at the bus stop with a friend and told them to go home.

Once Phillips arrived at their rented house in Cuenca, a city in the Andes Mountains of southern Ecuador, he and Harrison, who had noticed that more people than usual were shopping at the local store, were able to sort things out.

They soon realized that they would probably have to stay inside for a while.

“We had enough stuff stored here for about three days,” Phillips said, adding that there was “kind of a three-day lull” before “everyone took a deep breath and came back to life.”

However, the couple stress that the situation has had little impact on their lives, largely due to Cuenca’s location, which is far from the coastal towns where the “biggest problems” occur.

“The first few months we saw a more visible police presence, but that has now returned to normal,” says Harrison, who stresses that he believes the emergency “affected native Ecuadorians more than expats.”

What made this American couple, who lived in Albuquerque until 2022, decide to move to Ecuador?

Harrison and Phillips explain that they became increasingly concerned about how comfortably they would be able to live in the US as they approached retirement age.

Although they were in a “really good position” financially, Harrison, who previously worked in finance, says the rising cost of living in the US made her worry they wouldn’t be able to enjoy the kind of retirement they’d always dreamed of.

“There wouldn’t be resources for things we like to do,” she tells CNN Travel. “We’re going to be compressed in 10 to 15 years.”

Harrison and Phillips, who spent many vacations motorcycling through America’s Mountain West region, also wanted the opportunity to do more riding together and have the budget to live comfortably.

Pension plans

“I wanted my retirement to be more than just playing video games on my phone and going to the thrift store,” Harrison adds.

They realized that they might have to look outside the US for a better future and they discussed the possibility of moving somewhere else where they could earn more money.

“We looked at Italy. We looked at Portugal. We looked at Spain, we looked at Mexico,” Phillips said. “I think we looked at one or two of the Baltic states.”

The couple also looked at destinations further afield, such as Colombia, Panama and, of course, Ecuador.

In 2017, they took a two-week motorcycle trip through the country and were very impressed with the country, finding it ‘very affordable’.

“One of the things we liked most about Ecuador was the diversity of the country: the glaciers, the beaches and the Amazon,” says Harrison.

They thought long and hard about the safety aspect before they made a decision. They compared crime rates in American cities with those in Ecuador.

After some deliberation, Harrison and Phillips decided that Ecuador was the best place to spend their retirement.

“Basically, what it came down to was that Ecuador’s immigration policy then, and now, is much easier to manage than in many other countries,” Phillips explains.

Although Ecuador offers several visas for foreigners, they opted for the “Professional Visa”, which is available to applicants with a university degree (or higher) and is valid for two years.

They hired an Ecuadorian immigration broker to help them through the process.

After researching possible cities to settle in, the couple chose Cuenca, a destination they had not yet visited during their trip to Ecuador but had read a lot about online.

Ecuador is calling

“Expats in Cuenca are very active on Facebook,” Harrison explains. “We were able to find Cuenca webpages for apartment rentals, forums for advice on professionals or services. The more we dug, the more information we found.”

After making the decision, the couple started the process of applying for visas and putting their house on the market.

“We spent the next four months liquidating everything, quitting jobs, preparing and packing to come here,” says Harrison, explaining that they sold their house, cars, furniture and motorcycles before leaving.

In July 2022, the couple flew to the city of Guayaquil with just four suitcases and their two cats. Since then, they have adopted two “feral” kittens.

Harrison and Phillips initially stayed in an Airbnb, but eventually found a place on the first floor of a huge house, where they have four bedrooms and three and a half bathrooms.

During the first few months, the couple spent a lot of time getting to know the area and engaging in tourist activities.

“We were so busy from morning to night,” Phillips says. “Just getting to know the city that we moved to, which is pretty good.

“We had to figure out how to walk, when it was safe to go somewhere, when it wasn’t safe to go somewhere, we had to find the grocery stores, we had to find everything.”

The couple were quickly embraced by the local expat community and made many friends.

However, it took a little longer for them to get to know the locals, due to the language barrier.

“That’s starting to happen now because our language skills are improving,” Phillips says.

Phillips, who grew up in a small town in northeastern Montana, says life in Cuenca is similar to life in Albuquerque, but very different.

“It doesn’t move as fast (as Albuquerque), it’s not as busy, people aren’t in as much of a hurry. People smile. People say, ‘Hi.’

“When you start a conversation with an Ecuadorian, you should start with a greeting. ‘Hello, good afternoon. Good morning. Good evening. How are you?’ Everyone.”

Harrison admits she had to get used to not being “short and blunt” in everyday conversations, which she was used to in the US, where people are “so busy”.

“I have to be careful when I go into a conversation that I’m respecting their custom rather than my tradition,” she explains. “Because part of being so busy is you don’t want to take up anyone’s time.”

The couple also noticed that restaurants don’t “kick you out” of the table once you’ve finished eating in Cuenca.

“You can pretty much stay there forever,” Phillips says. “They do seem a little relieved when you get up and leave after three hours.”

No regrets

In terms of safety, the couple say that despite tensions in the country, they were at greater risk of “random violence” when living in America.

“In the U.S., when I went shopping, I would look for different exits from stores than the door I came in,” Harris says. “Just in case I had to run, and I never felt that in Ecuador.”

As for the cost of living, they say they get much more bang for their buck in Ecuador and can live more comfortably.

“Depending on your lifestyle, you can replicate your American life here for about half to a third of the cost of the same standard in the US,” says Harrison, adding that their rental home is nicer than the house they had in the US.

“You can eat out for as little as US$2 per meal. I think the most we’ve ever seen is US$18 per meal.”

She explains that utilities in Ecuador are regulated and therefore they spend about $85 a month on water, gas, electricity, internet and cell phone bills.

They pay about $470 a month to live in their rental home.

The couple has no plans to buy a home in Ecuador, explaining that they find housing prices in the country “comparable to the US.”

While Harrison and Phillips have no desire to return to the US, they admit they miss simple things, like the food. And even that has gotten less over time.

“You can’t just walk into a Wendy’s here and have a great burger,” Phillips says. “That just doesn’t exist here. But Kentucky Fried Chicken is actually better.”

He has also had to accept that he will probably never be able to cycle to some of the places on his bucket list again, now that he lives permanently in Ecuador.

“On the other hand, I have a whole new continent and a whole new country to explore here,” he says.

While the move to Ecuador has worked out well for them despite the recent crisis, Harris says she would advise other couples considering a similar decision to make sure they are “on the same page.”

“I’ve met a number of couples where one person had the big ideas, and the other person came in because he or she felt responsible for the marriage,” she says.

“So they didn’t feel like it was their choice to come here. They were just following a husband.”

While they know that there have been expats in recent years who have decided to leave Ecuador and return home, Harrison and Phillips plan to stay for the foreseeable future and hope to eventually become permanent residents.

However, they have spoken openly about “what we think it would take to leave,” Harrison says, saying they would only consider it if they felt foreigners were specifically being targeted by criminals in Cuenca.

“Never seen it. Never heard of it,” she adds.

According to the couple, the longer they stay in Ecuador, they miss the US less and less and feel more comfortable with their decision to leave.

“It was a decision we made together,” Phillips says. “And it was as deliberate a decision as you could make at that time.

“I think we adapted to life in Ecuador quite quickly.”