At 72, Jacqueline Mackenzie has lived in nearly every state in the U.S. (her father was in the military and moved the family often), spent six years in Mexico and traveled all over the world.
But it’s in Vilcabamba — an Andean foothills town in southern Ecuador — where the retired teacher plans to spend the rest of her life.
“The climate is just unbelievable — never below 58 [degrees Fahrenheit] or above 86,” says Mackenzie, who moved to Ecuador with her husband, Don, in 2013. Jacqueline, who loves to garden, adds: “You can grow 365 days a year. It is a gardener’s paradise.”
‘Our friends think we are crazy, but they also envy us. An alternative lifestyle can be going overseas, but you can also go overseas and be alternative. We do both.’
Though Vilcabamba is small (the town and surrounding valleys are home to about 4,000 residents), plenty of expats, particularly Americans, Canadians and Europeans, live there: “There are a lot of aging hippies,” Jacqueline jokes. Vilcabamba is particularly appealing to people who love an outdoorsy lifestyle — hiking and bird watching are popular here — and it, along with most of Ecuador, has a strong ecological bent. In 2008, Ecuador was believed to have become the first country in the world to extend constitutional rights to nature, with one passage of the document spelling out that nature “has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution,” as the New York Times reported at the time.
This ecological leaning is one of the big reasons the Mackenzies moved to the country. They live in a so-called eco-village — residents here seek to have minimal impact on the natural environment and give back to the planet. “We do what we can in whatever way we can to live a life that’s less consumerist,” Jacqueline says.
That means they grow much of their own food, live in a home made of sustainable wood and stone, have a composting toilet, get their electricity from wind and water, and don’t have a hot-water heater (the water is heated by the sun). Jacqueline explains: “We try to live a very simple life.”
It’s a life they say they adore — since 2013, Jacqueline has only been back to the United States once, and Don hasn’t been back at all since then. Though this, of course, is not for everyone. The town is small, and some say it’s too good to be true. Still, as Don points out, “the air is so clean, and I can’t get over the intensity of the blue sky.” And Jacqueline jokes that because even their grandkids are now grown, “we are just working at living.”
What do you spend each month?
The Mackenzies live on about $2,000 a month, most of that coming from Don’s pension (he’s retired from the military), they say. “We couldn’t afford the States, but here we are rich,” Jacqueline says — adding that they now live in a home with a “million-dollar view.”
Their biggest expense when they first moved to Ecuador was rent: They paid $400 a month for a three-bedroom house on a quarter-acre of land before they moved to the eco-village last year; now they don’t pay rent, having built their home for about $38,000. They lease the land for free because they help out at the eco-village; when they die their home and most of its contents will go to the owner of the eco-village. They paid for the house through a combination of savings and loans.
Now they spend the biggest proportion of their money on food — roughly $375 a month — in part because, as Jacqueline says, they are committed to eating organic whenever they can. Other significant expenses include transportation — they don’t own a car but spend about $350 a month on taxis — and health insurance. That costs them about $100 a month, though they do have out-of-pocket health-care costs like doctor’s appointments and prescriptions, which can add up. Internet service costs them a little over $80 a month, and a mobile-phone plan costs $28 a month. They also spend money on things like gardening tools, gardeners, seeds, trees and soil.
In addition to their simple lifestyle, they save money by not having a television — “we’ve not had access to a TV for eight months, so we are entertained by nature’s sunrises and sunsets,” Jacqueline says — and by not traveling a lot and not eating out. “We like the rural lifestyle,” says Jacqueline. “Eating out is not a big deal to us. We’ve already been to bazillions of concerts and plays. Now we listen to music with a glass of wine on the patio.”
What’s health care like in Ecuador?
The Mackenzies say thus far they’ve been impressed with Ecuador’s health-care system. They both have insurance through Ecuador’s government (which costs about $100 a month total), and their out-of-pocket costs haven’t been too bad. When she had her hip replaced a few years back in Guayaquil, the second largest city in Ecuador, Jacqueline says the out-of-pocket costs were about $1,800. But because they live in a small town, they do have to travel about an hour for some surgeries (when Don had an operation a few years back, he did so in the nearby city of Loja).
How hard is it to get residency?
“It’s a nightmare,” Jacqueline says. “It is complicated.” This resource can help you figure out what you might need if you want to stay for an extended period or become a permanent resident.
What do you miss about the United States?
“Not the politics,” jokes Jacqueline — who says it’s her friends she misses most. “I do my best to stay in touch but I do miss them.” For Don, it’s Home Depot
— “getting parts for building is difficult here, it can take two to three months.”
Despite the great weather and their simple lifestyle — both of which they embrace — Jacqueline and Don say it’s the people they love most. Don gets together every Sunday with a group of about a dozen expats for brunch “to resolve the world’s problems,” he jokes. And Jacqueline is a member of a “sister circle” of roughly a dozen women where “we try to be as emotionally supportive as possible.” Plus, young people from all over the world come to visit the eco-village, so sometimes “there might be five different languages spoken over one meal,” Jacqueline says.
“Our friends [in the U.S.] think we are crazy, but they also envy us,” Jacqueline says. “An alternative lifestyle can be going overseas, but you can also go overseas and be alternative. We do both.”