I’m JP, the writer, y mi media naranja (my better half) is Amelia, a fantastic plant-based cook with a Plant-Based Nutrition Certification from the eCornell and T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies. We are two vegans living an unconventional life in beautiful, tranquilo Cuenca Ecuador.
We get the same two questions a lot: why did you go vegan and why did you move to Ecuador? The answers to both questions are closely related…
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Why We Went Vegan
In 2015, I was diagnosed with congenital spinal stenosis and degenerative disc disease following a loss of feeling in my hands, legs and feet. Several MRI’s revealed a shattered disc in my neck that had pinched my spinal cord to within 1 mm of death or permanent paralysis, and 3 ruptured discs in my lower back. Both required immediate surgeries to repair the discs and prevent further nerve damage.
During my recovery, I had a lot of time on my hands. In addition to re-learning how to walk and doing physical therapy, I watched a bunch of documentaries on Netflix that changed my perspective on diet, the treatment of animals, and the state of politics, power and money in America.
I was raised to believe that we humans cannot survive without eating meat, and our bones will crumble without dairy. Both of these “beliefs” are based on very effective marketing campaigns produced by the animal agriculture industry with help from our federal government.
But they are just beliefs with no legitimate, unbiased science to back them up. In fact, the overwhelming evidence produced by unbiased nutrition research is that humans are not biologically designed to eat meat, dairy or eggs.
Heart disease is the number one killer of people eating the western diet that’s heavy in animal products and processed foods. People in the Paleo, Atkins and Keto crowd blame it on the processed foods, which are undoubtedly bad for our health and part of the problem, especially with obesity. But the over-consumption of animal products are equally, if not more to blame for the rampant heart disease, cancer and diabetes found in those eating a western diet.
Our bodies are simply not biologically designed to process saturated fat and cholesterol, which builds up on the walls of our arteries and throughout our entire cardiovascular system, reducing both the length and quality of our lives. In addition to cardiovascular disease, elevated levels of cholesterol also contribute to Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia!
You can feed a true carnivore or omnivore a pound of butter or bacon a day and they’ll never develop heart disease. That’s because their thyroid glands have a special function that prevents oxidized cholesterol from accumulating on the walls of their arteries. For me, that’s the smoking gun that settles the debate once and for all that we are biological plant eaters.
In addition to congenital spinal stenosis (a birth defect that caused my spinal canal to be much smaller than it should be), I also have Degenerative Disc Disease. This isn’t really a disease; it’s a condition that’s thought to be caused by chronic inflammation and possibly a lack of blood flow to the areas surrounding the discs.
And guess what causes the majority of chronic inflammation and reduced blood flow: meat, dairy, eggs and processed foods. Conversely, foods high in antioxidants such as fruits, vegetables and spices help fight inflammation, while dark leafy greens and a truly low-fat diet (10% of calories from fat and virtually no saturated fat) help improve blood flow.
In all likelihood, my overconsumption of meat, dairy and eggs (I’ve never been much of a processed food eater), years of high cholesterol and a diet low in antioxidant-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and spices significantly contributed to my Degenerative Disc Disease by causing low-grade chronic inflammation and reduced blood flow throughout my body.
Once I learned (and finally accepted) that I wouldn’t die from skipping meat, dairy and eggs, and that I would actually be healthier without them, I went vegan overnight. I pitched my case to Amelia and she transitioned over two weeks.
A few months later, we realized there was a big difference between a vegan diet and a Whole Food Plant Based (WFPB) diet so we transitioned again to a healthier way of eating.
Coke and potato chips are vegan, but they’re certainly not healthy. On a WFPB diet, we seek to eliminate all processed foods and eat only whole foods from plant-based sources: fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains.
The legitimate, non-industry funded science is clear on this way of eating: it promotes health, fights disease and increases both the length and quality of our lives. It’s the diet humans evolved to eat over the past 10 million years despite the corporate junk science, books and marketing campaigns created to confuse the issue so you continue buying their unhealthy products.
Once we realized we wouldn’t die from protein deficiency without animal products, we became more open to learning about how the animals are treated by the animal ag industry. It’s horrible. It’s worse than a nightmare. It’s an abomination.
Most animal products in the US come from factory farms. Some estimates put it at over 95%. These factory farms treat the animals and the humans who work there like cogs in a machine. They are handled in the most efficient manner possible without regard for the horrific suffering they must endure.
It’s inexcusable. It’s unjustifiable. And it’s killing not only billions of animals a year, but also the people who process them and eat them, and our environment. It’s the biggest scam in human history, perpetuated by people who only care about the bottom line and their quarterly earnings reports. The animal ag industry is worse than the tobacco industry.
We are happily no longer allowing ourselves to be manipulated by corporate greed and government corruption. We’ve freed ourselves from the scam while improving our health, reducing animal suffering and reducing our environmental footprint in the process.
Once the genie was out of the bottle, going vegan was the least we could do.
Why We Moved to Ecuador
During my recovery and after watching all those documentaries, we decided the writing was on the wall for America. There is growing tension between the left and the right, between the educated and uneducated, and between the growing minority of racially diverse men and women, and the shrinking majority of old white men.
The United States is on the verge of transitioning to something else that may be better or worse, but regardless, the transition itself is going to be painful.
We had this realization before the 2016 presidential election, and the social, political and economic state of America is far worse today as I write this than it was in the spring of 2016.
Back then, I told Amelia we have two options: we either stay and fight the system or we leave. I couldn’t stand the thought of staying and not doing anything, but the task of fighting such a massive and pervasive corrupt, disintegrating system was akin to Don Quixote tilting at his windmills. With my continuing health issues, that didn’t seem like a good use of my time on this earth.
In addition, the system could collapse at any moment, which meant we also needed to be prepared for that. I started researching firearms to protect our home, and non-perishable food items that would last us several months. The cost of guns, ammunition and food needed to survive a collapse was not chump change. It was expensive.
Plus, neither Amelia nor I like guns. I grew up with them, but I never liked them. They’re just not my thing. Amelia had never shot a gun until I encouraged her to go to the firing range with a couple of her friends. She thought it was cool, but she still didn’t have any interest in owning a gun.
With America now in possession of more guns than people, you can bet your neighbors are well-armed. And if shit hits the fan, brotherly love will fly out the window and they’ll want whatever you have if it means the survival of their children and loved ones.
After a lot of soul searching, we decided we didn’t want to invest in the things necessary to survive a collapse in the most well-armed country in the world, which is also dependent on several other countries for its food supply.
We also decided that with my health issues, fighting the system wasn’t safe. Protesters often find themselves at the blunt end of a billy club, manhandled by well-intentioned police officers just doing their jobs, and spending nights in jail on hard surfaces. None of those things were advocated by my spine surgeon…
So… I started searching for a more friendly, less armed and more food independent place to hang our hats.
We briefly thought about Puerto Rico because we like tropical weather and it’s like America-lite, at least according to a good friend of mine who moved there. However, with climate change ramping up, that means more frequent and stronger hurricanes. The thought of being on an island in hurricane ally as the oceans warm didn’t seem like a better choice than staying put. If Hurricanes Irma and Maria are any sign of what’s to come, we’re very glad we didn’t move there.
We researched Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica and Panama, but decided those were either too politically and economically unstable, or also likely to suffer the negative effects of climate change.
Next, we researched New Zealand and Australia. We even put our feelers out for jobs in those countries, but they’re very picky about who they let in. You really need a marketable skill set that’s hard to find AND you need to be under 30 years old with good health. We simply didn’t qualify.
Finally, we set our sights on South America. Ecuador topped the list, but I’ll come back to that. We looked at Uruguay because they have legal marijuana, which was a miracle drug during my recovery. It got me off of 3 addictive, prescription pharmaceutical drugs that had horrible side effects. I still suffer from neuropathy in my legs and feet, and the Mary Jane helps alleviate those uncomfortable sensations when I need it. Uruguay was certainly near the top of the list for that reason.
We also looked at Argentina, Chile and Peru. Each had their pros and cons, but Ecuador was the clear front-runner for several reasons.
First, Ecuador uses the US dollar for its currency. That meant we wouldn’t need to learn a new currency and do money conversions in our head all the time. Plus, our dollars would go a lot farther in Ecuador than they did back in the states.
Second, Ecuador is a major food exporter and they don’t allow GMOs (yet). It’s the world’s fruit basket, but they also grow most of their own veggies. As vegans, we liked the idea of having easy, year-round access to fresh, non-GMO and/or organic fruits and veggies.
Third, Ecuador has a large expat community with lots of people from the US and Canada. Because of that, a lot of Ecuadorians speak English. We thought that both of those things would make our transition to a different culture much easier.
Finally, Ecuador has a low inflation rate (the lowest of any country in the world as of this writing), a social democracy and political stability (at least compared to the US and other Latin American countries). They provide healthcare to everyone (even us expats) with affordable insurance rates and medical services. They also cover preexisting conditions (like my defective spine) after a waiting period.
With our destination selected, we booked an exploratory trip in March of 2017 to Ecuador. We spent a couple days in Quito on our way to Cuenca. Quito was nice, and a good second option, but Cuenca had a lot more to offer expats, mainly that the water is drinkable without additional purification.
We briefly considered the coastal cities of Salinas and Montañita, but you have to drink bottled or filtered water there. Plus, we’ve heard the infrastructure isn’t as reliable, and Internet access often goes down. As virtual workers, it’s critical that we have reliable Internet access.
After spending a week in Cuenca, we fell in love with the city. We were a little concerned about Ecuador’s third-world reputation before our trip, but it far exceeded our expectations. There are parts of Ecuador that are third-world, but Cuenca is not one of them.
We decided it was the perfect place for us, so we returned home and began planning our exodus for the fall when our apartment lease in Denver expired. It ended up taking us longer to get here than we planned, after spending some time with our families in Kansas City and Atlanta, but we eventually made it.
Our Life in Cuenca Ecuador
Cuenca is extremely well-developed, the people are very friendly and the food is amazing. The mercados are eye-candy for vegans, loaded with beautiful fruits and veggies. We never bought many of the tropical fruits in the states because they were so expensive, but we can easily afford them here.
Mangos, papaya and avocados are usually 3 for a dollar, sometimes 4 for a dollar. ONE DOLLAR!!! Considering they typically sell for 3 or 10 times that amount in the states, we often have reverse sticker shock. Plus, they’re always fresh. They haven’t been shipped halfway around the world, frozen or sprayed with chemicals to keep them fresh. They tree/vine ripen and they taste amazing!
But even most of the restaurants that aren’t vegan have vegetarian/vegan sections on their menus with items that can be easily veganized, like Namaste, our favorite Indian restaurant. Most of them have even agreed to cut out oil and coconut milk for us! It’s far easier to eat a vegan/plant-based oil-free diet here than it was in Denver, Kansas City or Atlanta.
The cost of living is also much lower here than in the states. We’re spending less than $2,000 per month for both of us, everything included, and we live in a really nice 3 bedroom, 4 bathroom house. Rent is 1/4th the cost for an equivalent place in the states.
It was costing us more than $5,000 per month to live in Denver, and we lived in a tiny 1 bedroom, 1 bathroom apartment. We’re using the savings to pay off Amelia’s ginormous student loan and the debt that we accumulated from my medical expenses and my inability to work for almost a year following my spine surgeries.
We don’t need cars here, which were really expensive back in the states when you add up the loan, maintenance, tags, gas, parking and insurance. Our health insurance is cheaper. Mobile phones are cheaper. Internet is $34/month with fiber to the curb compared to the $120/month we were paying in Denver for crappy cable service.
Food is 1/10th the cost here. We were paying $30/bag on average for fruits and veggies. The same amount costs us $3/bag here, and the quality is much higher.
Restaurants are about 1/4 the cost, and tipping is based on the number of people, not a percent of the bill. We were told most Ecuadorians don’t leave tips, but $1 per person is common for those who do. That means the tip for 2 people for a $20 meal is the same as it is for a $50 meal: $2.
Most meals at typical restaurants cost the two of us about $20 for dinner and $10 for lunch. That includes a bottle of domestic cerveza and/or a glass of wine for each of us. We would easily pay in excess of $100 for dinner and drinks at our favorite restaurants in Denver.
We each get a small pizza (sans cheese) and a glass of wine at Mia Pizza Gourmet (our favorite neighborhood pizza place) for $24 with tip. Tell Carla the gringos up the street sent you.
We could live on less than $1,500 per month in Cuenca if we didn’t eat out so much, lived in a smaller place and spent less on our health and fitness. I have an amazing physical therapist who I see at least once per week. She has helped my spinal issues tremendously! I also swim at the Universidad de Cuenca pool, which costs $2.50 per visit. And I go to Baños at least once per week for physical therapy in the hot springs. Amelia also has a yoga membership.
Ecuador is called the land of eternal spring because the weather is pretty much the same year-round. It’s usually in the 40’s F at night and the 70’s F during the day. It rains quite a bit, but it’s sunny a lot, too. That means we spend a lot of time outside, but we always have an umbrella and/or raincoat with us.
Despite a few cultural differences that can be frustrating for Americans (like the kissing…I’m still not totally comfortable with that!), we’re really happy to be living here and we’re 100% confident we made the right decision for us.
Amelia and I hope you enjoy the journal of our life and adventures here on VegansAbroad.com, and if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to drop us a note.