Welcome to another in our Expat Living interview series, where we interview expats we meet on our travels for an insider’s point of view on what it’s like to live and work as an expat around the world.
Iker and Endika are two brothers from Spain living in Cuenca with their parents, running a tapas restaurant, La Tasca de los Hermanos en Ruta. Originally from Bilbao in the Basque country, they lived near Valencia for 10 years where their parents ran a hotel and restaurant before coming to South America.
Could you tell us a bit about your journey and how you came to live in Cuenca?
Endika: Well, we left Spain three years ago and went first to Argentina as our parents had been going there for holidays for years and already had many friends there. At first, we were living in a town near Córdoba and also travelled around the country, spending time down in Patagonia as well as in the north of the country, which are like different worlds. We were trying to find a place we liked to set up a restaurant, but nowhere felt right.
Iker: The idea to come and live in South America started in 2008, so we’d been thinking about it for a long time before we actually did it in 2010! In Argentina we ended up taking odd jobs around the place, I in a supermarket, my brother in a hotel, and eventually we decided to leave Argentina. It’s a country that very much looks towards Europe, and we wanted something less westernised and more tropical. Also, it was very difficult to obtain a visa to remain in Argentina, and we’d heard that Ecuador would be much easier.
Endika: Yes, so after a year in Argentina, we were ready to find a place to start our business. We actually travelled directly here in five days by bus, moving all our possessions with us! We arrived in Montañita in October 2011 without knowing anyone and thought “we could do something here, by the beach!” So we set up our first restaurant there when the town was known just to the four surfers who would come for the waves and lived there completely disconnected from the world; we didn’t even own a phone! Now we’ve been in Cuenca for one year.
Being from a Spanish-speaking country and coming to South America, do you think you are treated differently than other expats here who don’t already speak Spanish natively? Also, I’m curious, are you considered gringos in Ecuador?
Iker: Yes, it’s very noticeable that they do treat us differently. Although they know we are from abroad, they perhaps hold us a little closer than other foreigners because of the shared language, even though our Spanish is of course different from Ecuadorian Spanish! But in general, no, people don’t refer to us as gringos!
Endika: Of course it also affects the way we travel, because we are much more easily able to chat to people and get to know them better than if we didn’t speak Spanish.
What, in your experience, have been the biggest challenges with regards to moving to Ecuador and in particular, setting up a business here?
Iker: Things have been changing very fast in Ecuador in the last five or ten years, a lot of laws have changed, so it is sometimes difficult dealing with the official people because they aren’t used to all the changes yet. For example, being able to open a restaurant here in the old town of a UNESCO World Heritage city is now subject to a lot more rules and regulations that simply didn’t exist before. Even though this place was a restaurant before we rented it, and it was allowed to function as such, we had to change a lot of things to get permission to open.
Endika: Yes, there is a lot more paperwork now. It’s almost as bad as in Europe! They have swapped corruption for bureaucracy, and while it is sometimes very difficult and frustrating to get things done, the system does work and in the end, it is a good thing for the country.
What advice would you give someone else who wanted to come to Ecuador and set up a business here?
Iker: Have patience! Don’t jump straight into starting your business. First, take some time to get to know the people and the country and what the market for restaurants (in our case) is like already. You also need to realise that people in Ecuador look for different things than in Spain, for example. When we first opened the restaurant, we offered a menú del día, which in Spain is a meal people come in and take a couple of hours over, eating, talking, laughing. But here in Ecuador, people want a fast meal at lunch, just spending maybe thirty minutes in the restaurant, expecting just a bit of rice, a small portion of meat and a leaf or two of lettuce!
Endika: In our first restaurant, we noticed the people were eating and leaving very quickly at lunch and we wondered what was wrong; did they not like the food?
Iker: So it’s very important to be adaptable. You must realise that you cannot impose the way you are used to doing things on other people when you move to another country, especially if they are you customers!
Tell us a bit about the name of your restaurant La Tasca de los Hermanos en Ruta. What does it mean and where did it come from?
Endika: It means The House of the Brothers on the Road, and it came out of our first year of travel in Argentina; Iker and I started a blog to record our adventure, which we updated almost daily, and we called it the Brothers on the Road!
Iker: We had the idea that the restaurant could become a stable place to serve homemade food where travellers could meet, share stories, experiences and recommendations; the name is meant to not only apply to us, but all people travelling through here. That was the idea, but actually, we’ve been surprised that even though there are a lot of other expats here in Cuenca, and it is a very popular tourist destination, still about 80% of our customers are from Cuenca themselves.
Endika: Yes, although the original idea, perhaps a bit bohemian, that the restaurant would be a place for travellers, what we really enjoy is mixing with and getting to know the locals. And thankfully, they’ve responded well!
Iker: In fact, we’ve found that the people here in Cuenca, compared to the coast, are more interested in gastronomy and food, and we had a lot of people from here come to our previous restaurant in Montañita, which had the same name and menu, and tell us “guys, you should really come to Cuenca and open a restaurant there!” So we did!
Thanks a lot to Iker and Endika for the interview. The restaurant, La Tasca de los Hermanos en Ruta can be found at Honorato Vazquez 6-45, Cuenca. If you've been in South America for a while and are craving something familiarly European other than pasta, this is a great place to come; we particularly recommend the tortilla española. Here it is on Facebook and Foursquare, and the brothers’ blog (in Spanish) is still going and can be found here.
Note: this interview was conducted in Spanish and translated by me at the time of writing.