Lessons from Ecuador


So, here we all are at the equator. Sitting by the fireplace in a 400-year-old hotel, nestled in a tropical valley at 9,000 feet above sea level and surrounded by towering volcanoes. Well, that’s where my mind remains, even if in reality I’m finally back home in Colorado at the end of a 36-hour day of touring and travel*.

When I say “we”, I am referring to Jim Collins, JD Roth, Cheryl Reed, her Clint Eastwoodesque husband named Rich, myself, and a deluxe coalition of people who were bold enough to travel to South America to join an adventure dreamed up by a bunch of writers they had only met through blog posts.


And what a group it is. Since the day of arrival, we have stayed up late every night talking, drinking wine**, laughing, discussing the craziness of the world we left behind, and planning future trips and business ventures alike. Within days, a group of permanent friends has been formed. The experience was much more than could reasonably be expected from any vacation.

But as usual, all this fun has come with a generous side dish of lessons in living a more prosperous life. Of course, there were the obvious ones, beginning with a study on happiness and finding your passions from Cheryl, my own presentation on the intersection of riches vs. happiness, Jim’s moving sermon on the power of keeping your stock investing as simple as possible, and JD’s great workshop on how to improve your life by being less fearful. But the bigger lessons formed organically from the unusual event of a large group of wealthy but frugal people gathering in a third world country and absorbing the differences between our cultures.

While visiting the villages and small towns of rural Ecuador, we were reminded of just how little money it takes to lead a happy life. Many people live in rudimentary huts or cinder block houses without indoor plumbing, yet deliver a genuine smile and a “Buenos tardes” as you walk by, even as an obvious outsider. The children run and play just as joyfully as any I’ve ever seen in the United States, even with no toys more sophisticated than an old soccer ball and a field of tropical vegetation and assorted free-ranging livestock. While we could do a lot to help people in these villages, the few problems that did exist came from a need for better health and education, rather than a lack of material luxuries.

las vachas y los toros

A portion of the proceeds of the Chautaqua went towards rebuilding the small house of a large family which had been damaged in an earthquake months ago, forcing them to live in a chicken coop across the street until their home could offer shelter again.

Here your hosts stand with the family in front of the rebuilt house.

But the real surprises began when our group was comfortably lodged together at the Hacienda Cusin. We found that we had an incredible amount in common, from the basic skepticism of consumer culture, right up to a shared bizarre sense of humor. We found that trust was building among us, which led to a mutual sharing of some of our secrets, which led to more understanding and a desire to help each other. Quite a few ambitious business plans were hatched between many of us, from casual job inquiries right up to my slightly crazy plan to look into buying the 24 acres adjacent to Cheryl’s existing farm to turn it into a permanent gathering point which also generates money for charity. The energy was so powerful in this crowd that the buzz will probably take weeks to wear off.


Having three very fine meals a day served to us probably didn’t hurt either

We were all so surprised at this, that it’s worth repeating: you really do give your life a boost by meeting the right people. Sure, the folks you work with, live near, or grew up with are all dandy people. And if you feel a genuine connection with them, cultivate it to the fullest. But this particular meetup reminded me that even uncommon people can find each other, with fantastic results. Personal connections of this type are the ones that stick around through the years, and come through for you when you need them in the future. They are the reason some people find that the world is friendly and jobs are easy to get, while others have the opposite opinion.

The general goodness of this retreat has made me reconsider my assumption that it was a one-time event. J.D. is already talking about trying a similar thing right in his hometown of Portland, Oregon. And I figure it would be appropriate for Mr. Money Mustache to do some sort of semi-organized group camping/kayaking trip through the deserts and canyons around here next spring. We shall see.. but for now, it is time for a few days of sleep.

The gardens at Hacienda Cusin, our home for the week

The gardens at Hacienda Cusin, our home for the week

Party on MMM's front porch

Party on MMM’s front porch

This guy scores big during our visit to the orphanage at San Pablo

This guy scores big with the Piñata‎ during our visit to the orphanage at San Pablo

The "Mustachian Salute": finger mustache, flexed bicep. Pass it on.

The “Mustachian Salute”: finger mustache, flexed bicep. Pass it on.

Famous world traveler Dmitry Petrukhin happened to stop by, so we taught him the Salute as well.

Famous Khazakstani world traveler Dmitry Petrukhin happened to stop by, so we taught him the Salute as well.

Just one last place of beauty - a lake set inside a high volcano crater

Just one last place of beauty – a lake set inside a high volcano crater

* Since you’re probably wondering: our neighborhood was unaffected by last week’s giant flood, but I’ll be doing my best to help out some of the other Longmontians who were less lucky.

** And other things. On this trip, I accidentally invented a new drink called the Mustachian Rosé, which quickly became quite popular. 50% whisky, 50% red wine. Although you are surely frightened by the description, you will be surprised by the deliciousness of this drink. 

J.D and Colleen demonstrate their Mustachian Rosé mixing skills

J.D and Colleen demonstrate their Mustachian Rosé mixing skills

J.D. Roth made his own great post on the event – you can find it here.


  • Use it up, wear it out... September 18, 2013, 1:05 pm

    I never really gave serious thought to attending this Chautauqua, but after reading this article, I’m feeling a twinge of regret! Anyone else in the same boat?

  • Happyback September 18, 2013, 2:03 pm

    Based on the new interactive map on the forum, I’m alone here in Southern Oregon. I would really like to have a meeting of like minded friends in Portland! Sign me up! I think it’s a great idea. Love the blog, would love to meet the faces behind it!

  • claret September 19, 2013, 7:44 am


    Love your blog; found it via WaPo, where I’m sure you’ve picked up thousands of readers in your target demographic: young techies making ridiculous money.

    Anyhow, I ran across this post on Nouriel Roubini’s Ecomonitor, discussing the rise of “bullshit” jobs. The premise: instead of everyone working a Keynesian 15 hours/week due to increased productivity, lots work “bullshit” jobs in order to pay the bills for things they think they need. These jobs aren’t really necessary (e.g., telemarketing) and the concept of leisure time doesn’t sit well with many. Anyhow, there’s lots to dissect. Here’s a slice:

    “a big part of the capitalist exercise is to find or create workers to exploit. Graeber has the story backwards. The moral fable (idleness is bad for the perp and putting him to work is thus a moral undertaking) was not, as Graeber suggests, because lazy people are proto-insurrectionists. It is that people who are self-sufficient and have time on their hands on top of that drove the early capitalists nuts. They were exploitable resources lying fallow, no different to them than a gold vein in the next hill that the numbnick farmer/owner was unwilling to mine because he liked the view and was perfectly content grazing sheep.”

    – See more at: http://www.economonitor.com/blog/2013/08/the-rise-of-bullshit-jobs/#sthash.m0tOPNaE.dpuf

    Thanks for all you do. Personally I’ve recently sold a car and changed jobs to cut a 1.25 hr commute to 10 minutes because of your blog. Much more to say but I’ll leave it at that for now.

  • Charles September 19, 2013, 2:40 pm

    People in third world countries are often happier than Americans. When I visited family in Vietnam in the country side they all led very happy simple lives. Although I have never seen poverty until I went to a third world country. Despite that people there seem to be less stressed and extremely friendly.

  • squashroll September 20, 2013, 12:07 am

    I noticed a MMM appeared to be giving a power point presentation in JD’s photos of Ecuador. Does anyone know if there is a link to his presentation/slides?
    looks cool–

    • Ottawa September 20, 2013, 5:42 am

      Squashroll…the link for MMM’s presentation is in the blog post above…

  • Woodshark September 20, 2013, 4:47 pm

    FYI. Great post but that jdroth.com link in the original post has been broken for days.

    • J.D. September 20, 2013, 9:37 pm

      Yeah. Sorry about that. I’m still here in Ecuador. I’ve been on a boat in the Galapagos Islands for the past several days, with no internet access whatsoever. It’s fucking awesome. Anyhow, I got email this evening, and have contacted my webhost to see what’s up. I hope things will be fixed by morning.

  • JR September 20, 2013, 10:33 pm

    I like reading your posts and call in regularly but this particular post leaves a bad taste in my mouth. “Right people”….. “positive people” …….. “what they can do for me people”! Are you for real? Sounds like a wank to me. Shouldn’t such a specimen of positivity and happiness be asking “what can I do for others”? Many great and highly successful folks have experienced depression and failures. Judge not lest you be judged.

    • Mr. Money Mustache September 21, 2013, 9:51 am

      Hmm.. you have a good point there. Maybe we could compromise – hang out with positive people who make you feel great, but then use the resulting energy and productivity to help out people who are not doing as well?

      After all, not everyone is strong enough to be the only beam of energy in a sea of depression. Might as well set yourself up in an environment where you will be able to produce the most positive change.

      • Richard September 21, 2013, 6:17 pm

        I noticed a few similar comments on the post… I think it’s time to put away the Optimism Gun for a minute and bring out the Hard Hammer of Reality. Statements like this are similar to saying that attractive women should sleep with a few ugly and boring men just to be fair. Apart from being a personal choice that no one else can dictate, the effects are more likely to be positive than negative.

        Anyone who’s saying they should be “let in” to a gathering or group does in fact believe that there are right people and wrong people to spend your time with. People of a certain mindset have always gotten together to help each other. We are extremely lucky that it is now possible to have international communities that not only invite anyone who is willing to commit the time to join, but also share the details in public like this so that others who weren’t there can benefit from the example to improve their own lives and those around them as well.

        Anyone who has the right mindset knows that it’s not about blind positivity. Even the most accomplished people regularly experience uncertainty, fear, and sadness (all the more so because there are few role models they can look to for reassurance). Something like this event creates new examples that can reduce that uncertainty and allow everyone in the world to experience a better life. It is a very necessary way to create more good things in the world – things that were previously thought to be impossible.

        There are some people who truly need another type of help to overcome their barriers but that’s best left to the professionals. Simply removing the negatives does not create more positives.

  • DG September 22, 2013, 10:27 pm

    Hi MMM,

    Love the blog and have been following for about 3 months now. In particular I’ve been enlightened by your focus on avoiding unnecessary purchases as a mental habit to train, like a muscle.

    I’m struggling a bit with this event though, not for your choice to go, but for readers and followers. It appears as though Cheryl was selling tickets to this gathering for $1995 a pop. That doesn’t seem like a very mustachian use of money, or a reasonable fee given the very low cost of lodging in Ecuador (I’m familiar). Hope I’m not reading too much into it, but I must say I was a bit disappointed to see the active pitching of the event by Cheryl for such a steep fee – which would seem counterintuitive to the message being delivered by you, Jim, et. al. and wondered if you wanted to elaborate.


    • Mr. Money Mustache September 23, 2013, 8:41 am

      Good question DG and my concerns were similar when I was first invited to the event. If you look at my original post, you’ll see a warning regarding who I think the trip is suitable for.

      Now that I’ve done the trip, I can see the cost is totally reasonable. The Cusin resort is over $100/night per person, then the three fine meals per person in the the restaurant were covered, plus a lot of coach transportation. And the costs are supposed to cover the expense of bringing the presenters there too. We did get a mostly-free trip, but there isn’t much in the budget for actually paying them, if you imagine what nine days of wages would be for three fancy financial and lifestyle gurus ;-)

  • TSR Capital September 23, 2013, 9:21 am

  • Katherine September 30, 2013, 1:16 pm

    A lovely post to read. Thank you! I had been thinking about you/your blog a day or two before you posted this, as I was out on a bike ride, specifically, wondering your thoughts about giving back in our society. Thank you for touching on this subject, as well as others. I will look forward to hearing more about this theme in future posts!

  • Pamzarella October 19, 2013, 11:56 pm

    Hey MMM, I really enjoyed your post. (Am late responding as I am still working my way through all of the posts – I started in June and am almost caught up, which will be a bit sad when I do!)

    I just wanted to weigh on this topic as well. As I work in Africa I see everyday what you experienced in Equador. Kids here run around the streets pushing old bicycle tires with sticks and play with cars made from old tin cans, happy as clams. People in general are happy and they take care of each other despite their lack of wealth. Their wealth comes from the relationships they have with their family, friends and neighbours. The lesson is, as all Mustachians know, having ‘stuff’ does not necessarily buy happiness. As long as you have a roof over your head, enough to eat and people to share your life with, everything else is gravy.

    We have so much in the West yet there are people left and right taking anti-depression medications and too many people complaining that life is ‘so hard’. They really have no idea. It is sad truly. No sense spending time with energy suckers, as I like to call them. Positive energy is too valuable a commodity to have it sucked away by someone who has no desire to see the good in any situation and who likes to blame everyone else for their life situation. Until these people acquire some self awareness you’ll never change them no matter your good intentions. Better to spend time with like minded people who multiply those ‘good vibrations.’

    Would love to attend an MMM retreat so keep us posted. When I am back in Canada (Ottawa) I will even organise one myself.

    Keep up the great writing!

  • Sebastian October 26, 2013, 6:19 pm

    I’m from Paraguay and I couldn’t agree more. I see so many people sit on their sidewalks all day drinking terere (it’s a kind of tea) and chilling telling jokes to their friends.

  • Prabhakar M N October 27, 2013, 9:23 am

    Dear MMM,

    Thanks for this wonderful post. This is my favourite. Mainly because, I’ve understood long ago that -whatever I do with my life, it should make me happy or content rather than only wealthy. Ofcourse there’s always a Input (money) vs Output (happiness, excitement etc.) relation. And the relation is always logarithmic!

    The other day we were having a small-talk at work. Here’s a jist:
    Me: Which one of you is shorter?
    Mr.V: You should ask which one is smarter?
    Me: Actually, I should ask which one of us is happier?
    Mr.V: You are!
    Although it was just small talk, the realization was profound. Compared to the man-hours Mr.V puts, I just put 50% less and earn about 10% lessser. Yes, I consume all my paid-leaves & leave work at 5PM, whereas he leaves at 8PM.

    To sum it up, this blog entry reflects as to what kind of lifestyle I want to have. I’ve begun the journey towards this keeping in mind the basics you always keep reiterating!

    Keep rocking,
    Prabhakar M N from India

    PS: I’m going to email the “Riches vs happiness” file to my colleagues just before the annual appraisal / pay hike

  • YamaMama March 6, 2015, 12:32 pm

    Hi MMM. I am a little skeptical about your blog. My husband is becoming addicted to it. We are both in health care… not software engineers…. so I guess we are in the minority 10% of your readers who might be slower to come around. (this is only my first day reading it.) Anyway, I just want to share what Ecuador means to me. My husband and I met there as part of a study abroad tropical ecology program while in college. I am originally from NJ which is consumer heaven. Going to Ecuador changed my life. It made me realize how much people need to actually live. I had some of the most memorable experiences of my life “roughing it” while I was there and being immersed in another culture. Most importantly I made some of the best friendships in my life with my fellow classmates (one of which became my husband 7 years later).


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