The mountains surrounding Cuenca, Ecuador look like something out of a fairytale.
It's so often that the misty clouds perch halfway up the steep, rocky inclines as if gathering strength before storming over the highlands. Small lakes and ponds sit in pools of silver and all over, the terrain is covered in spiky grasses and tough shrubbery equipped to brave this high altitude climate.
These are my stomping grounds.
My favorite way to spend a Sunday is to rise first thing in the morning ready to put on my hiking gear, pack a day pack of water and trail snacks, fill a thermos with coffee and head out with one of my best friends.
A recent Sunday here, in Cajas National Park, started with a breakfast of fresh cheese empanadas and ended with me watching an Ecuadorian farmer walk her flock of sheep across the road before picking up her pail of fresh milk to sell at a neighboring restaurant. On the way home, I always see llamas sauntering roadside and signs for trout fishing just a stone's throw away.
This very well could be a highlight on a trip to South America. For me, this is Sunday.
I point this out not to sound like I'm bragging, rather, it's to illustrate one of the realities of living as a Canadian expatriate in Ecuador. When, just over a year ago, I arrived in this country and thought I'd stay for the length of a tourist visa (three months), but changed my mind a mere few weeks in.
What can I say? I fell in love with the country.
Since I work remotely and independently, staying in Ecuador was a choice that presented itself to me. I fell for the landscape here and saw immense value in some of the things that would come with living in South America (more on that later).
I think I always knew I'd end up living abroad.
After those first few realizations, the rest is pretty much history. I now live as an expat in Ecuador.
Hang on, what's an expat?
An expatriate, or expat if you want to go with the more commonly used short-form, is a person who has opted to live outside of their home country.
I'm a Canadian expat. My parents are Irish expats. My sister is a Canadian expat living in China. My oldest brother has been an expat in Australia. In my close circle of friends here in Ecuador, there are expats from the USA, UK and South Africa.
Leaving the borders of homeland in favor of living abroad is the technical definition if you want to define "expatriate."
I'd expand on that to say expat life is wanderlust on steroids.
An expat is a curious and open-minded person. Expats are eager to learn about other cultures. We're the slow travelers who fall in love with other countries so much so that we decide to make them our home... at least for a short while.
Expats are brave. We're confident in our ability to discover personally unexplored territory. We're adaptable because each border crossing comes with its unique cocktail of culture-shock-causing factors.
As expats, we're comfortable with our own company because really, when you show up in a new country, oftentimes, there is no other option.
Expats are the transplants moving out of their naturally-born state and making a go at it elsewhere — even when the going gets tough.
How I came to choose Ecuador
Sometimes I feel like Ecuador chose me. I arrived in the capital of Quito on a day in late August of 2018 after six months of living in Medellin, Colombia. I came to Ecuador because, located right next door to Colombia, it was the natural choice.
I had no idea that hikes here would look like treks through an enchanted forest or that its angry rainstorms would have me staring wide-eyed out the window in awe. I had no idea that during afternoon runs beside a rushing mountain river, I'd regularly take in the endearing scene of a man walking his dozen goats. I was stunned that I didn't have to choose between the mountains and the coast because short travel times means I can easily travel between both.
At the time, I didn't even realize that I'm not suited to a bustling metropolis, but a medium-sized city at largest. I stayed because I feel that learning a second language (and having to use that second language) is an invaluable skill that I want to have in my life. I stayed because the geographic diversity within Ecuador's border has yet to cease to amaze me.
I also stayed because I love the culture, the food and the cost of living means I don't have to stress as I would back home.
Apparently, Ecuador ranks number five in a list of best countries for expats to live (behind Costa Rica, Malta, Mexico and the Philippines). Low expenses, perfect weather and endless outdoor activities are three common reasons why expats decide to call it home.
Quite recently, I found myself on the edge of a crater peering over a ledge at a turquoise blue volcanic lake below. I had just finished a three-day hike with a good friend in Ecuador and after walking through mountain valleys, peering off the sides of cliffs and pushing our bodies up the impossible angles of the Andes, this was the grand finale.
If the altitude and the steep incline hadn't already taken my breath away, this vision would have: the lake perfectly blue, orange and purple flowers like freckles against the crater sides, heavy mist adding drama to the landscape. I stood for a while there on rocky ledges trying both to catch my breath and not to blink.
"This," I thought, "is why I live here."
The truth about expat life
That scene right there leads me to say something has that been the case for me: the truth about expat life is that it's the most rewarding experience a person can have.
I didn't know that one day I could stand at the edge of a crater after three days spent on a passion of mine that had previously gone mostly undiscovered.
Living the expat life brings you to find out parts of your personality that could easily have remained dormant.
When that happens, at least for me, you count your lucky stars and stop taking your life for granted.
There are other truths about expat life and just because that one's beautiful doesn't mean all of them are.
The truth about expat life is also that you may have to count on yourself more than you may want to. When you show up in this new place, you are alone.
Sure, if you're like me, you may have more inner strength than you give yourself credit for. That doesn't mean you want to rely on it every single day.
The truth about expat life is that it's lonely at first.
Upon arrival, it's a shock. And even when you're settled, just because you can walk in beautiful places where the clouds are doesn't mean your heart doesn't hurt for the people who you left at home.
When living abroad, some friends will forget you and others will let communication fade not realizing how bad that feels. It's true that they're busy. Plus, you're the one who left. Even though you're nourishing your soul in ways you hadn't imagined, this still cuts deep.
Another truth is that you can never go back.
I wander along rocky roads one day grateful to be alive. The next, I'll wonder how cozy and secure it would have felt had I taken the well-beaten path back home.
I'm talking about the one with a stable relationship, rent split down the middle, no foreigner confusion and transactions done in my native tongue. But I didn't choose that. I can't have both the stable life in Canada and the adventurous, independent one in Ecuador.
I'm not going to lie: on some days, it's so hard looking back at what could have been. At the same time, I'm overall glad I didn't choose that path. If I had, I would have been completely naive to everything that I had been missing.
The pros and cons of expat lifestyle
Everything comes with pros and cons. The same goes for establishing your life in foreign territory. I've experienced so many upsides (as I've already written about in this essay). Put succinctly, these are the pros:
Like I said, my passion for hiking and days in the mountains had previously gone undiscovered. Ecuador brought that out in me. I realize now that my happy place is stepping out of my comfort zone up there on rocky terrain breathing heavily as I make the ascents. I often look at how I could have missed all this had I continued living in Toronto.
Being Canadian, this is a no-brainer. At the time of this writing, the first snow of the season has already coated my own hood back home. I'm happy to be missing it.
For many expats, the change of scenery is enough of a pro. Beaches, mountains, vibrant cities, cozy small towns... whatever it may be in your case, the new landscape and environment is often a big draw.
Meeting like-minded friends
All other expats are in the same boat as you meaning you instantly have something in common. Many of the people who I meet are as adventurous (if not more) than I am and travel is equally as important to them.
These are conversations I didn't always get back home.
Experiencing a new culture
From the food to the music to the dancing and just the general way of being, exploring and immersing in a new culture is always rewarding.
Escaping countries like Canada and the USA often means escaping a fast-paced way of life. Here, I set the pace.
And the cons...
Not being able to do things as you would back home
Last year around the holidays I got a pretty bad bug. I had to figure out which medicine I needed, where to get it, I had to buy my food at the market and I had to have these conversations in a language I often struggle with.
There are many times when you want what's familiar and that's not an option. That goes even for things as simple as wanting your morning coffee from the place you know well.
The guilt of living abroad
I sometimes feel guilty that I'm missing things at home.
I've missed Christmas with my family. I've received news of engagements via Facebook message. I've missed major chapters of the lives of friends and family. It comes with pangs of guilt every time.
Relationships take a hit
That saying "out of sight, out of mind" is, unfortunately, true.
The strong friendships won’t drop but it's emotionally very difficult when the relationships you least expected to fade do. And of course it's true that Facebook or Skype can't replace a coffee in person.
Illnesses can hit
A lot of travelers pick up parasites or have issues related to eating foreign foods. Staying on top of your health is so, so important.
Processes are different. The way people act is different. You may speak a level of the language (like me) but if you say something incorrectly, or don't understand, people often assume you know nothing. It's incredibly frustrating.
Phone bills, apartment rentals, delivery services, doctor appointments... all of those come with at least some confusion.
Final things to know
I'd recommend going on a vacation, shorter-term travel or doing a work exchange in the area of the world before becoming an expat.
I had visited South America twice before I moved here. (While Ecuador was new, many things about Colombia had prepared me.) Something like Worldpackers that preps people for work-stay opportunities can be a great bridge to the expat life.
Other things you need to think about include expat insurance or local health insurance. (I bought a package locally.) Visas are also the big one. Many expats can get a visa based on student or retirement status, having made a local investment (such as buying property or agreeing to keep a certain amount in the bank), being sponsored through your job, or having an independent professional visa.
In my case, I need to prove that I have a university degree and that I make a certain amount of money in order to stay legally in the country.
The technical details may need some research but I assure you that if your life is meant to be lived abroad, you'll work that out no problem.
Then, your new chapter will be one of the most exciting, rewarding ones yet.
That's the truth for me anyways.
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Sinead Mulhern is a Canadian travel and lifestyle writer who lives in Ecuador. In 2018, she quit her editorial job to pursue a career as a full-time freelance journalist. Over a year later, she spends her days running and hiking in the mountains, sampling local flavours, working on her Spanish and writing (duh!). Her work has appeared in various magazines in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. Follow her adventures at @SineadMulhern.