We were born and raised in the U.S., and we've loved (well, almost) every car we've owned. Which is why we were so surprised when we discovered how easy it is to get along without one in Ecuador.
We've had a vehicle of some kind everywhere we've lived in Latin America for the past 12 years. Pickup trucks, vans, sedans, SUVs... you name it, we've owned and driven them, from Mexico to Panama. But when we made our latest move from Merida, Mexico, to Cotacachi, Ecuador, we made a conscious decision to send the SUV we were driving back to the States and go carless.
Photo Courtesy of Hugo Ghiara, InternationalLiving.com
After all, we reasoned, the Andean mountain village we were moving to has only 7,000 people... you can walk from one end to the other in 20 minutes. That's one of the reasons we like it so much. The village is really like a large neighborhood, and that is our preferred style of life... having a neighborhood around us with neighborhood grocers, neighborhood hardware stores, coffee shops, restaurants, bakeries, shoe repair shops... where everything is within walking distance and you actually get to know the merchants and customers you meet each day on your daily rounds.
It's the kind of life we'd always sought in the U.S. and often got close to but were never quite able to manage without a car.
And in Ecuador, as in most other Latin American countries, if you need to get any farther than your feet can take you, taxis and buses are literally everywhere. Stand on nearly any corner or alongside any paved road, and sooner or later a bus or taxi will go by. Around here, five dollars will get you to a larger nearby town 20 minutes away in a taxi, and a bus will get you there for a quarter. Need to go any farther than that and the bus fare averages about a dollar an hour, so we can make the two-hour trip from where we live to the capital in Quito for about two bucks.
Hard to justify owning, maintaining, operating, and insuring a car at those prices.
But as I said, we're Americans, and for us and many other U.S. citizens, cars mean something special. We've grown up with them, and from an early age they've come to represent personal independence and freedom. We've come to think of our cars as extensions and reflections of ourselves, and Americans just don't willingly go without cars unless they're physically unable to drive or live in a city like New York or Boston.
All of which made us think that we'd go through some kind of car withdrawal in Ecuador... that we'd start getting the shakes if we didn't have a vehicle parked right outside that we could jump into whenever we wanted to go wherever we wanted.
Weeks passed. No shakes.
In fact, it was remarkably unremarkable. Every couple of weeks we'd get the notion to visit some famous landmark or geographic oddity or just go out sightseeing, and we'd kind of wish we had a car for a few minutes. Then we'd either take a taxi or hire a driver. (You can have a private driver haul you around all day in our part of Ecuador for about $10 an hour.) Adding up all our transportation costs for every trip we decided to take didn't even approach the cost of maintaining and insuring a car over the same period of time, despite the fact that gasoline in Ecuador is remarkably affordable at just $1.50 a gallon.
So at first, every few weeks we'd get those notions to drive somewhere, and they'd quickly pass. And pretty soon, we stopped getting them all together.
Our cars used to mean freedom to us. Now we feel liberated from them.
And it has everything to do with living in a real village in a country where public transportation is how most people get around.
Don't get us wrong... there are cars everywhere in Ecuador, and the number of vehicles on the road is growing each year. Ecuadorians like to get themselves around in nice cars just like everyone else, and as the economy here improves, record numbers of Ecuadorians are purchasing their own vehicles.
But just as many rely on cheap, abundant taxis and buses as well, and that's fine with us. It lets us celebrate the freedom of living in a real neighborhood... a walking town. And that's something we're thankful for every day we live here.