Visiting Ecuador

La Libertád Commercial Area

Looking down one of the main streets in the commercial area of La Libertád, Ecuador. There's not much traffic but lots of pedestrians. Most ordinary folks can't afford to own and maintain an automobile.  

Another view of the same street.  

A street scene in front of the copy shop ("copias") in downtown La Libertád.  

The front of the copy shop. When they're open, most shops have an open front without a door (they don't usually have air-conditioning). When they close, they roll down a steel grate or covering from above.  

One end of the street market; it goes on for several blocks.  

A typical produce stall in the street market.  

Since this is a resort area, there are some fancy facilities for people who have enough money to use them. Nearby (within easy walking distance), there is a mall called El Paseo that could pass for any American mall—they even have a food court like American malls. It's your typical air-conditioned mall, with numerous shops selling the usual things you find in malls.

There is a movie theater in the mall, and one night we went to the movies. Most of the films are American with the original English soundtrack; they have Spanish subtitles on the screen. We saw a movie with Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton, which was amusing but a little silly. Movie admission is $4, but we had two-for-one coupons. However, being the odd man out, I didn't get to use a coupon.

The mall also has an Internet Cafe, where you can go online for $1.80 an hour. The computers have the usual programs like Windows and Internet Explorer, but all the commands and menus are in Spanish. For such a frequent computer user like me, this wasn't too big of a problem—all the buttons are in the same places, they just have different names.

The mall has a big supermarket called the Hiper, which is like a Wal-Mart Supercenter but not as big (in other words, they have food, clothes, hardware, toys, etc.). Most of the food products are recognizable, although they have some local preferences and some curious-looking local produce. For better or worse, they even have American cereals like Sugar Frosted Flakes, but it's all in Spanish (instead of Tony the Tiger, he's Tonio, El Tigre). They have the equivalent of junk food, including things like taco chips (made by Frito-Lay among others), fried plantain slices (tasty), potato chips, but no pretzels. They even have a locally-made junk food that looks like a Twinkie.

For the most part, prices are much cheaper than the U.S.—about one-quarter to one-half of U.S. prices (a good example is a bottle of rum for $2). Things that are imported from the U.S. are very expensive, though (for example, U.S. candy costs about twice the U.S. price). The hardware section has a reasonably good line of Ace Hardware products, like you'd find in a typical Ace Hardware store in the U.S. They also have a lot of the same cheap junk that we have in the U.S., and it's all imported from China, just like in the U.S. Ecuador now uses the U.S. dollar as its official currency, so prices don't require any mental conversion to dollars. All purchases in Ecuador have a value-added tax, which I think is 12 percent.

One big difference from U.S. malls is the presence of strong security forces, not just at the mall but elsewhere, too. Ecuador seems to take domestic security very seriously, and the mall has several guard towers in the parking lot, with uniformed guards toting shotguns. There are armed guards on the street (not too many, but they are visible), and the police force carries machine guns. My theory is that the country has had numerous instances of domestic unrest over the years, so the current administration is making it very clear that they will not tolerate trouble-makers.

Although this is a resort area for affluent outsiders, there are many "ordinary" local folks living here, too. There is a very busy commercial center in downtown La Libertád that caters to them. Unlike the U.S., there are very few big stores (like Home Depot, Best Buy, or Sears, etc.). Instead, there are dozens and dozens of very small stores, each with a particular specialty. Since we're refitting the boat, we visit hardware stores a lot (in Spanish, "hardware store" is ferretería). Since the stores are small, we usually have to visit several to find all the things we need, and even then, we might be disappointed. For example, on one trip, we visited several radiator repair shops looking for a hose for the engine, and visited several hardware stores until we found one that sold the nuts and bolts we needed. Most of the stores have a public room that is open to the street (no doors and of course no air-conditioning), with one or more clerks behind a counter. There is no such thing as self-service, so the clerks have to get everything. Many stores have a back room that serves as the warehouse.

The downtown commercial area is full of hustle and bustle, with lots of pedestrians and traffic. Most people don't have cars, so people get around by bus, bicycle, or on foot. Some adults use bicycles as their main wheeled transportation, and we saw several bicycle shops around town (sales, repair, parts, etc.). Around town, we usually walk, although if we have lots of stuff to carry (like after a major provisioning trip to the supermarket), we take a cab (which can drop us off right in front of the boat).

In one part of town, they have the local market, with small tent-like stalls lining both sides of the street. This area was very crowed, with people, bicyles, and cars all jostling for room. The market vendors sold just about everything, so the local market is the equivalent of a supermarket for the less affluent locals. In another part of town, we walked through the fish market, which was a big open-sided building with numerous tables. The fishermen were selling their catch, including tuna (whole or cut-up), lots of shrimp, and many other fish that I didn't recognize. I was surprised that there was no refrigeration or ice at all, so everything was sitting out in the heat.

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