Retiring abroad when your new home declares an emergency

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

Life had other ideas.

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

Ecuador was plunged into 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 took on criminal groups accused of spreading extreme violence. A nightly curfew was imposed and the U.S. State Department cautioned travelers heading there.

From the outside, Ecuador now looked far from an ideal place to escape the pressures of life in their former U.S. hometown, Albuquerque.

But despite ongoing political tensions, the couple say that they have no regrets about moving there and love their new lives.

‘People were panicking’

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

Shortly before the state of emergency was announced, gunmen armed with explosives had stormed a TV station during a live broadcast.

Harrison and Phillips say that, while they were getting trickles of information, they were not aware of the seriousness of the situation until much later.

They relocated from the US 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 Ruth / CNN Newsource)

“People were kind of panicking and everybody was heading home,” says Phillips. “We had no idea any of this was happening.”

He recounts how a concerned Ecuadorian woman drove over while he was waiting at the bus stop with a friend and told them to head for home.

Once Phillips made it to their rented house in Cuenca, a city in southern Ecuador’s Andes mountains, he and Harrison, who had noticed a larger than normal amount of people buying up food at the local store, were able to piece things together.

They soon realized that they’d likely be stuck inside for a little while.

“We had enough stuff stocked here for about three days,” says Phillips, adding that there was “kind of a three-day pause,” before “everybody took a deep breath and went back to life.”

However, the couple stress that the situation has had little impact on their lives, largely due to the location of Cuenca, which is well away from the coastal towns, where the “biggest problems” are.

“We did see a more visible police presence the first few months, but that had returned to normal,” says Harrison, stressing that believes the state of emergency “affected native Ecuadorians, more than expats.”

So what prompted this American couple, who were living in Albuquerque up until 2022, to up sticks and move to Ecuador in the first place?

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Harrison and Phillips explain that they were getting increasingly concerned about how comfortably they’d be able to live in the U.S. as they approached retirement age.

Although they were in “a really good spot” financially, Harrison, who previously worked in finance, says that the rising cost of living in the U.S. left her worried that they wouldn’t be able to enjoy the type of retirement that they’d always imagined.

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

Harrison and Phillips, who spent many vacations touring the U.S. Mountain West region by motorcycle, also wanted the opportunity to take more trips together, as well as the budget to live comfortably.

Retirement plans

“I wanted it (retirement) to be something more than playing video games on my telephone and making trips to the thrift store,” adds Harrison.

Realizing that they might have to look outside of the U.S. for a better future, they discussed the possibility of relocating somewhere their money would go further.

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

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

In 2017, they’d taken a two-week motorcycle tour in the latter, and were very much taken with the country, finding it to be “very affordable.”

“One of the things we liked best about Ecuador was all the variety of the country: the glaciers, the beaches, or the Amazon,” says Harrison.

The issue of safety was something that they gave a lot of thought before making, comparing crime rates in U.S. cities to those in Ecuador.

After some soul searching, Harrison and Phillips decided that Ecuador would be the best place to spend their retirement.

“Really, what it came down to was the immigration policies in Ecuador at that time, and now, are much easier to navigate than many other countries,” explains Phillips.

Although Ecuador offers various 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 called in an Ecuadorian immigration facilitator to help them through the process.

After researching potential cities to base themselves in, the couple decided on Cuenca, a destination that they hadn’t visited during their trip to Ecuador, but had read much about online.

Ecuador calling

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

Once they’d made the decision, the couple began the process of applying for a visa, and put their home on the market.

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“We liquidated, resigned, prepared and packed up over the next four months to get here,” says Harrison, explaining that they sold their house, cars, furniture and motorcycles before leaving.

In July 2022, the couple flew into the city of Guayaquil with just four suitcases and their two cats. They’ve since adopted two “feral” kittens.

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

During those first few months, the couple spent much of their time getting to know the area, and doing tourist activities.

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

“We had to find out how to walk around, when is it safe to go places, when it’s not safe to go places, 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 them a little longer to get to know locals due to the language barrier.

“That is starting to happen now as our language skills improve,” says Phillips.

Phillips, who grew up in a small town in northeastern Montana, says that the experience of living in Cuenca feels similar, and very far removed from life in Albuquerque.

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

“Whenever you start a conversation with an Ecuadorian, you have to start with the greeting. ‘Hello, good afternoon. Good morning. Good evening. How are you?’ Every single one.”

Harrison admits that she’s had to get used to refraining from being “short and curt” during day-to-day conversations, which was how she was used to operating in the US, where people are “so busy.”

“I have to be careful when I engage in a conversation that I am respective of their habit rather than my tradition,” she explains. “Because part of being so busy, you don’t want to take up someone’s time.”

The couple have also noticed that restaurants don’t “chase you off the table” once you’ve finished your meal while eating out in Cuenca.

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

No regrets

When it comes to safety, the couple say that, despite the tensions in the country, they felt more at risk of “random violence” while living in America.

“In the US, when I went shopping, I located exits out of stores other than the door I came in,” says Harris. “In case I had to run, and I have never felt that in Ecuador.”

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As for the cost of living, they say they get a lot more bang for their buck in Ecuador and are able to live more comfortably.

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

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

She goes on to explain that, as utilities are regulated in Ecuador, they spend around $85 a month on water, gas, electricity, internet and cell phone bills.

They pay around US$470 a month to live in their rented home.

The couple aren’t planning to buy a property in Ecuador, explaining that they’ve found house prices in the country to be “similar to the US.”

While Harrison and Phillips have no desire to return to the US, they admit to missing simple things, like the food. And even this has lessened over time.

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

He’s also had to accept that he’ll likely never get to ride to some of the places on his bucket list now that he’s based in Ecuador permanently.

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

While relocating to Ecuador has worked out for them despite the recent crisis, Harris says she’d advise other couples considering making a similar decision to ensure that they’re “on the same page.”

“I have met some couples where the one person was the big idea person, and the other one just came along because they felt a sense of marital responsibility,” she says.

“So they didn’t feel like it was their choice that they came here. They just followed a spouse.”

Although they know of expats who’ve decided to leave Ecuador and return home in recent years, Harrison and Phillips plan to stay put for the foreseeable future, and hope to eventually become permanent residents.

However, they’ve openly discussed “what we think it would take for us to leave,” says Harrison. She says they would only consider it if they felt that foreigners were being specifically targeted by criminals in Cuenca.

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

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

“It’s a decision we made together,” says Phillips. “And it was as informed a decision as can be at the time.

“I think we’ve adapted to life in Ecuador pretty, pretty readily.”

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