I just returned from a three-week trip to a country that takes so much pride in being spread over both hemispheres that it decided to name itself after the famous divide. It’s been a most interesting, if often exhausting journey that I could retell in some detail here; but since there are already tons of articles about what you should see in Ecuador (and when and how and…), I decided to resist the temptation and opted instead for some quick throwaway comments about local mores, politics and decision-making processes that struck me as interesting, in no particular order. Some of them are particular to the country, others seem to apply to all of Latin America. To appease those who were hoping for a travel diary, there’ll be a few snapshots from the trip thrown in for visual appeal.
- Everyone enjoys a relaxed start into their holidays, s̶o̶ ̶w̶e̶ ̶d̶e̶c̶i̶d̶e̶d̶ ̶n̶o̶t̶ ̶t̶o̶ ̶g̶o̶ ̶t̶h̶r̶o̶u̶g̶h̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶h̶a̶s̶s̶l̶e̶ ̶t̶h̶a̶t̶ ̶i̶s̶ ̶E̶c̶u̶a̶d̶o̶r̶i̶a̶n̶ ̶g̶r̶o̶u̶n̶d̶ ̶t̶r̶a̶n̶s̶p̶o̶r̶t̶a̶t̶i̶o̶n̶ ̶a̶f̶t̶e̶r̶ ̶w̶e̶ ̶l̶a̶n̶d̶e̶d̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶s̶t̶a̶y̶ ̶a̶t̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶a̶i̶r̶p̶o̶r̶t̶ ̶i̶n̶s̶t̶e̶a̶d̶. What actually happened is that the Ecuadorian government declared a state of emergency in an attempt to curtail a wave of violent protests against recently imposed austerity measures, most prominently the cancellation of fuel subsidies that had been in place for more than 40 years. When our plane arrived, an additional 24-hour curfew was imposed as things were taking a turn for the worse. Most international flights were cancelled (an extreme example being an Air France machine that returned to Paris halfway through its flight), and we got to spend the night trying to sleep next to an ATM on the airport floor. The next evening, following discussions between government officials, protesters and indigenous leaders, the austerity measures were by and large repealed, and within hours, everything was back to “normal”.
- The similarity with France’s Gilets jaunes is striking. In both cases, increased fuel prices triggered the protests, which then evolved into a kind of general outrage about how “the elites” were treating the common people.
- Massive protests often occur in reaction to minor policy changes; call this the paradox of public opinion. It’s not so much the extend of a measure that matters as it’s how it’s being delivered — I speculate that raising income taxes (a more anonymous and automatic protests) leads to a less visceral reaction than having to pay more for a certain everyday commodity (such as fuel), even if the the former dwarfs the latter in terms of sheer magnitude. Behavioral economists should have a word or two to say about this.
-Overall, I think these and similar protests are bad news for libertarians. As they (correctly, I believe) have emphasized since the days of Milton Friedman, government spending, not taxes, is the greatest threat to economic sustainability of a country; and austerity is the only effective remedy for it. But to say there’s no popular base for austerity measures is a gross understatement; people loathe them and are willing to take it to the streets to get rid of them, in South America as much as in Europe or anywhere else.
- Some more politics: It’s at least a little bit surprising that Quito, and not the coastal city of Guayaquil, was chosen as Ecuador’s capital in 1830 — or why this decision was never revised. Both cities saw their first settlements in the mid-16th century; but whereas Quito is located in the Andean highlands, at the feet of an active stratovolcano, Guayaquil — with direct access to the Pacific and two major rivers — seems to offer all kinds of geographical advantages. It’s also the country’s most populous city, although that might have changed as recently as 2019. An (admittedly half-hearted) attempt to understand the reasoning behind it brought no results. If you’re more familiar with Ecuadorian history than I am, feel free leave a comment.
- Travelling foreign countries is great an enriching; however, what about the effects on the local population? In order to find out, I r̶a̶n̶ ̶a̶n̶ ̶e̶x̶t̶e̶n̶s̶i̶v̶e̶ ̶e̶m̶p̶i̶r̶i̶c̶a̶l̶ ̶s̶t̶u̶d̶y̶ created a quick scatterplot comparing standards of living to the number of foreign visitors throughout South America. There’s indeed a moderate (positive) correlation between the two, indicating that tourism is beneficial for locals as well. While rather intuitive, one could also argue for reverse causality — tourists prefer to visit countries that are richer — in an equally compelling way. Thoughts?
- Things have improved for non-meat eaters compared to my last South America trips in 2015 and 2016. Many restaurants started noticing that there’s money to be made by catering to a growing number of vegetarians and vegans, and even if they’re not advertising “special options”, they typically understand what I meant by vegetariano. A few years ago, I literally had to go through a list of things I didn’t eat (beef, pork, ham, chicken, fish,…) to get my point across; not anymore. And you’ll even find vegan dishes in some of the more touristy towns, which was almost unimaginable in the past. This lends some support to the case for pragmatic veganism.
It’s a cautioned optimism, though: Few Ecuadorians abstain from meat if they have the choice, and demand for it, if anything, is growing. Plant-based diets are generally consider a weird fad, and truth being told, the meat-free alternatives you can get there are not exactly haute cuisine, in addition to being rather repetitive. I repeat my appeal: Any program that’d achieve as much as getting people to reduce their meat consumption just a little bit would vastly outshine the effects of debates about, say, whether it’s unethical to eat honey beloved by Western vegans.
- A theory beloved by fans of the free market is leapfrogging technology. In a nutshell, it says that poorer countries, instead of having to gradually climb up the ladder of technological development, can skip intermediate rungs and just go straight from zero to state-of-the-art. An obvious example would be the phone — few people in developing countries ever had access to a telephone box or a landline phone, but almost everyone now possesses a smartphone. Thus, the theory goes, even though differences in standards of living are currently enormous, and probably ethically problematic, they won’t last for long because the entire transformation from subsistence farming to a modern economy the West has already undergone can be accelerated by orders of magnitude.
Appealing as the theory is, I’m afraid it doesn’t tell the whole story. The part about the phone seems by and large true, but it might not apply to many other technologies that we consider essential. For instance, it wasn’t exactly an uncommon sight to see kids roaming around their village, trying to connect to the WiFi, while their mothers (never the fathers) would wash their laundry in the river. I don’t know whether this is evidence for or against the claim that the washing machine has changed the world more than the internet.
- I think the way buses (local as well as international) work in South America is amazing. They pretty much just have a route and an approximate timetable, and then you can get on and off wherever necessary. Bus doesn’t go all the way to your destination? No problem, just get on and they’ll tell you where best to change. As long as you know where you want to end up, there’s almost no planning involved, and it’s unlikely you’ll have to wait for any extended period of time (although, in fairness, the journey can still be fairly long).
Why can’t we have something like that in Europe, then? Red tape and more (and more strictly enforced) traffic rules might be part of the reason, but my bets are on cost of labor, relative to other expenses: Every bus has at least two employees on it, the driver plus someone who is in charge of tickets and (un)loading the luggage. This makes it possible for everyone to get on and off without slowing down the bus too much. By contrast, in Europe, doubling the costs of labor by adding more personnel would probably eliminate the profit margins. Germany’s average monthly wage, to pick one example, is about ten times what you could expect to get in Ecuador. I shall return to this later on.
- Speaking of buses: With only a few exceptions, all of them will have street vendors coming on every now and then. Most of them sell food or drinks, but you can also buy watches, chargers or earrings, and it’s actually pretty convenient, if sometimes a little too annoying. Now what’s interesting is how they go about their business: Type 1 vendors just walk through the rows, ask who wants to purchase their product, sell however much is demanded, and are off the bus again within a minute. Type 2 will deliver a five-minute speech about their personal situation, hand out an item to everyone on the bus, followed by another speech, followed by an attempt to talk people into buying whatever they were given.
I don’t wish to to doubt the veracity of their stories, and I do have sympathy for their plight, but I’m left wondering about the efficiency of their approach. Given that their pitch takes so much longer, you’d expect it to generate higher profits than Type 1 approach, but the opposite seems to be the case. Is there a deeper rationale that I fail to grasp?
- Buses aren’t the only thing that work slightly different there. Another thing that I struggled to make sense of were tourist agencies: Not the fact that they exist, of course, but that there’d be so many of them, so close to each other, all offering pretty much the exact same thing (you’d often find yourself on a tour with people who purchased their trip at a different agency), and many of them owned by the same person. How can that possible be profitable?
I suspect two culprits: low wages/rents and coordination problems. The first is what makes it possible to hire a lot more people and open a lot more stores in slightly different locations than you’d really need to run your business, workload-wise. The second means that even if things once started out as some hyper-efficient Garden of Eden, where each tour operator opens only one shop, but makes the same profit, savvy businesspeople will soon ruin this idyllic set-up: By opening more stores than everybody else, you can lure some customers away from your competitors — not because your product is better, but because of exposure/geographical convenience. Since all tour operators are savvy (those who aren’t have long been removed from the market), everybody opens a whole bunch of shops, and thus brings about a new equilibrium where everybody’s worse off.
- I also feel that restaurants work in a similar way: It’s not uncommon that you order something and then see the chef crossing the road to get the missing ingredients from the restaurant on the other side of the street. Again, low ages might explain that, but at least their menu is more varied than the tourist agencies’.
- It’s also often cheaper to eat out than to buy groceries in a supermarket and cook for yourself. Big supermarkets in particular don’t actually offer any better deals than their counterparts over here, which I found surprising (lots of locals go there as well). By contrast, street markets and bakeries offer real bargains.
- A Latin American constant: Whenever you walk somewhere next to a street, an unreasonable number of drivers will honk at you. Why? I haven’t fully figured out yet. I get why cab drivers looking for passenger would do that, but everyone else?
- Part of the reason why we went to Ecuador was for its mountains, which are quite a different category from what you’d find in the alps. Do not underestimate the challenge if you hope to summit one of the country’s highest peaks — Cotopaxi’s refuge, to pick one example, is already higher than Mont Blanc! Despite my ultra-running background and some serious acclimatization, we failed to reach the summit, largely due to altitude sickness. While disappointing, it definitely taught me a lesson in humility.
Interesting side fact: For many of the most famous mountains, you will actually need a certified mountain guide to even be allowed to enter the national park. Some smaller peaks, such as Tungurahua, have a checkpoint at the entrance where you have to promise them you will definitely not attempt to climb the summit alone and just want to sleep a night in the refuge (because they’re so incredible, well, cozy?). Of course they know you’re lying, so why have such a policy in the first place? My theory is that if a sign like “Dangerous! Don’t go without a guide!” doesn’t scare you away, you’re probably experienced enough to go. Also, too few people go there to justify the effort of a more thorough control.
- Somehow, I managed to ignore the existence of Maps.me, or at least never tried it out before this trip. While not perfect, the offline map feature and the many small hiking paths they somehow managed to track down (many of which aren’t indicated in any way on the ground) very extremely helpful. (No, they don’t pay me for posting this, but if you know how that works, tell me.)
- Lastly: I consider it a minor tragedy that in a country like Ecuador, which produces an outstanding variety of coffee cultures, most people would drink the human rights violation that is instant coffee. The filtered variant is most easily found in tourist hotspots, but hard to come by anywhere is.