Ecuador Markets: The Gentle Art of Negotiation

by Gary Phillips

One of the cultural aspects of Ecuador markets that many foreign visitors find a bit daunting is the custom of negotiating.  

For example, one time I needed to purchase a new coin purse.   I knew the going price for these types of purses was $1 at the local Ecuador market.   I walked into a store on Leather Street, picked one I liked, and the clerk, believing me to be a tourist, told me the price was $2. 

Let me put this in perspective.  He is trying to get a 100% mark-up over the going price.  I "acted" very insulted, said that I knew for a fact that these purses were sold all over the street for $1.  He then acted very insulted back, telling me that this was a much better purse than the others (it was a little better, that’s why I wanted it).  He said he would give it to me for $1.50.  I said $1.25, he said okay.  This entire exchange took about 3 minutes.  

Negotiation is Expected in Ecuador Markets

Then he got a big smile on his face and called me "amigo", friend.  We shook hands and I left.  We were both happy.  He got a good price and I got a good purse.  More importantly, we left with mutual respect.   

But the deeper point is that an unsuspecting tourist not only would have greatly overpaid for this purse, but would have lost the respect of the merchant as well.  If one wants to master Ecuador markets, then this game must be mastered.   

A friend of ours came from the states for a visit a couple days ago. I had advised her about a hotel near the Quito airport, but forgot to advise her about the taxi cost.  Keep in mind, in Quito, you can ride nearly from one side of the city to the other for about $6 or $7 by the meter during the day.   

At night, the prices go up, and the meters are shut off.  This is where negotiation enters in.  The hotel was about 2 miles from the airport.  Normally a ride like this should not cost more than $3.  She was charged $10.  She simply didn’t know about negotiating and the taxi driver saw her as an easy mark.  

But the next day, when she went to catch the bus, the taxi charged her $8 without turning on the meter.  The ride should not have cost more than $2.  So in two rides, she paid $13 more than the market price. Things like this can add up quickly.  During the day in a Quito taxi, always watch the driver to see that he turns on the meter.  If he doesn’t, tell him to do so. If he makes excuses or refuses, either get out of the taxi or negotiate a fixed price for the trip before setting out with him. 

The place to really practice the gentle art of haggling is at the Otavalo market, the largest indigenous market in the Americas.  The Otavalo Market is the perfect place to master your negotiation skills for Ecuador markets.  The merchants there have been doing this business for 500 years. And they will take you for a ride if you give them the chance.

One day I was at an Ecuador market buying a painting for a client.  The asking price: $125.  It was beautiful.  I wanted it and the vendor knew I wanted it.  Just as I was going to make a counteroffer of $80, (I thought we might settle on $90), a friend came by who has lived here for 14 years.  

I asked her, “What do you think this painting is worth.”  She replied, “You should be able to get it for $25.”    I tentatively offered $20.  We settled on $30.  He was happy, I was thrilled.   And I learned a huge lesson.      

Learn to Get High Value from Ecuador Markets

Even in the vegetable market, after buying fruits and vegetables here for nearly a year and a half, the vegetable ladies will still try to get an extra quarter or $.50 out of me. 

We have learned what the Ecuador market prices are by patiently watching the locals when they buy, seeing what they pay and requesting the same deal.

If I ask the price for avocados and they offer me four for a $1, I come back and say, “Le doy a usted un dolar por cinco.”   “I will give you a dollar for five.”  If that is a good price, they will give it to me.  If not, they say no.  I try again, just to check, “Por favor, un dolor por cinco?” with a pleading look in my eye and voice and a bit of a whine!  Then they smile and give me the fifth avocado.  I happily give them the dollar.  Now we respect each other and our relationship is developed for the next weekend. 

But I see too many gringos come into the market and give whatever is asked.  And sometimes I see the look of distain on the faces of the vendors.  They start seeing gringos as stupid marks to be taken advantage of.  It certainly doesn’t help our collective reputation in the community.  

Negotiation in Ecuador markets is a part of the culture.  If we are going to live in Ecuador, we need to learn the culture and learn how to enjoy the game. 

With the potato lady, after several months of buying from her, I tell her I want a dollar’s worth of potatoes and she fills my bag with twice as many potatoes as I used to get, even when I bargained.  Her reward is that she knows I am going to purchase from her instead of the lady beside her.   My reward is knowing that I have been accepted into her world.  We are friends and good business associates.  I have become a part of her culture.  We dance the Ecuadorian economic dance seen in all Ecuador markets.  

So don’t be afraid to bargain.  Learn the game and play it. Your experience of living in Ecuador will be much richer and your pocket book will still have some money in it at the end of the day.  Have fun in the Ecuador markets.

More Information

"Should I negotiate in restaurants?"  No, this is not necessary, unless there is no menu and the price they quote you seems high. But most places have menus and just go with the printed prices.

"Do you negotiate in hotels?"  The higher-end chain hotels have a set price, but the mid- and lower-end privately-owned hotels regularly give discounts just for the asking. It is very simple to ask, “No puede dar me un discuento?” Sometimes, the hotel will say, “Do you need a receipt?” If you say no, then they will often give you a 10-15% discount. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

That said, we have even received discounts at the Hotel Quito, the Radisson, and the Marriot, simply by asking.

"Should I negotiate for tour services and guides?"  Many tour services will give discounts too, just for the asking, especially if you are within one or two days of their departure date. The tour company may have 10 slots but only 8 filled. For them, it is better to get something rather than nothing for those last two slots, because their fixed costs are already covered by the first 8.

In fact, this is a very good strategy for getting low-cost fares to the Galapagos and to the Amazon, particularly if you are in country and your departure date is flexible. You can sometimes save as much as 50%, even on the expensive boats. Shop around.

There are many of tour agencies in the Mariscal Sucre district of Quito. But make sure you ask for references and have them specify exactly what you are getting for your fare. Sometimes the agencies cut fares by cutting services.

If you go to two or three agencies and do some comparison shopping, you can get an idea of the differences for different prices Also, check the guide books. Many tour books will point out agencies that are less than solid.

"I assume that most people who can afford to visit from wealthier countries are considerably wealthier than the people of Ecuador. I imagine that I may well feel quite a degree of guilt if I try too hard to get the best deal."

This is most often an erroneous assumption and is characteristic (excuse me for being blunt) of the imperial attitude of many westerners who travel abroad. In the market places of Ecuador, especially Otavalo, the merchants have been doing this business for years, even centuries. They send family members to Europe and America to peddle goods they make here in Ecuador. They have found that the “We are so poor” approach works very well with gringos to separate them from their dollars. Then they get into their new 4-wheel drive pick-up and drive home.

I guarantee that no one will sell an item at a price that they do not want to sell it for. If you make a deal with a merchant, then you can be assured that he is happy with what he gets. Maybe you cut into his margin a bit, but he knows that the next gringo that comes along will make up for it.

Many times, westerners are played for suckers because of their, “Oh, we just want to help attitude.” The wise merchants love it. I have negotiated hard, even walked away from a potential purchase, then come back to buy it, only to find that on another day, a friend or acquaintance purchased the same item for 20%-30% less than what I paid. So regarding your feeling of guilt, I have one thing to say. Give it up!

Now, in spite of all this, if you hire a guide, go on an excursion,etc., you’ve bargained hard for a good price, and then you get excellent service, reward the service with a good tip. Believe me, you will be appreciated.

So the bottom line is this: If in doubt about a quoted price, ask for a discount. This simple question takes you out of the tourist class and puts you into the traveler class. There is a huge difference and can save you significant dollars on your trip.

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