Editor's Note: Construction began on Hacienda de Las Flores but is now on hold and the entire project is for sale. Sign-up to our newsletter for further updates! --March, 2013
Don McGrae is in love with Cotacachi. It was the top choice of a place to retire in Ecuador for him and his wife. And after living here for a while they began to formulate a plan to share this lovely spot with other seniors and retirees.
It's hard to find two more adventurous people than Don and Anita McGrae. Not only have they lived lives of physical adventure (more on that later); they also jump right into financial adventures when the perfect opportunity presents itself. And just such a venture grabbed their attention in Cotacachi.
Don says that a few years ago "he wasn't 100% certain where Ecuador was." It turned up while he was researching online for great places to live. Ecuador won out over the other Central and South American competitors.
He and his wife Anita came, they saw, they purchased.
First they bought a Cotacachi condo and then found six and a half acres of prime development land inside the town limits. The property was the ideal "ground" for the fulfillment of a new dream.
They both have been blessed with productive, successful lives. They came to Ecuador with the idea of "giving something back to life, and in particular, to those who really need help—the indigenous."
Their dream was to build a first-class assisted living facility. This would be a win/win situation for everybody involved.
Not only would it provide much needed jobs for local people, it would also meet the needs of an international community of retirees who are settling in this area. Don had been incensed to learn the exorbitant price of such care in the United States, as much as $4000 per month!
Adventure and risk-taking comes naturally to Don. Born in a tiny NorthWales village near Bettws-y-Coed, he lived there for many years with his two sisters and hard-working Christian parents.
When I asked him what his childhood there was like, he replied," Wonderful. I went to grammar school in a nearby town. Most of the "city" kids in school would scoff and tell me that I was from 'back and beyond.'
"To that I'd say, 'I can climb the mountains, fish the rivers whenever I like, climb trees. I can kick a football two or three miles down the road. I have the freedom to do that and you don't. You're stuck in town.'"
"I loved to go fishing at five in the morning in the river next to our house. Then I'd come home, collect mushrooms, etc. and enjoy the freedom. I had a wonderful childhood."
Anita is from Manchester in northern England, the daughter of a University of Manchester professor. After taking nursing training in two London hospitals, Queen Mary's and the Westminster hospital, she became a Principal Nursing Officer in charge of a nursing home in west London.
She met Don at a military dinner and dance. They married in 1961 and have two children.
A city girl, it wasn't until she met Don and travelled to Wales that she developed a love for the freedom of the countryside and for traveling.
Don was the youngest member of the mountain rescue team. He knew the mountains of Snowdonia in North Wales intimately. Every week someone would be stuck up in the mountains wearing rubber shoes, without proper clothing and his team would get a call for help.
Almost every one of them would say, "But the sun was out when we left!"
And Don would reply, "Yes, but on the other side of the mountain there may be a front moving in and when it does, it envelops you."
Don received a degree in science, but it was his extreme physical fitness, developed through mountain rescue and cross-country skiing 25 kilometers a day that ear-marked him for a job with the queen of England. He could herringbone uphill on skis and even run up mountains in them. He trained British military in winter warfare.
His prowess came to the attention of the royal family and he was drafted into the Royal Household Division as a guard to the queen and the royal family.
Later he trained as a pilot. He and Anita were based in England, Germany and Australia.
On a flight to Italy several years after they were married, a trip on which Don was not the pilot, the airplane hit a C.A.T. (clear air turbulence) and rapidly lost over 1000 feet in altitude. When the plane leveled off again, there was broken glass from the duty-free trolley everywhere. Passengers and flight attendants were in a state of panic.
Don spent many minutes calming people down and then he realized that Anita and their son had been visiting the bathroom during the incident. When he found her, she had sustained major injuries, breaking her ankle in 5 places plus other not-so-serious injuries. The drop had thrown her high into the air and back to the floor with tremendous force.
She recovered in hospital, but her doctor told her she'd likely pay more for the experience later in life. Sure enough, twenty-five years later she had to have five pins inserted in her ankle and was confined to a wheelchair for many months, later managing to use a walker.
Quietly and resolutely, she declared to herself, "I'm going to get out of this damn chair and walk again!" And to the amazement of her doctors, that is exactly what she did.
Today she has regained most of her mobility and is able to participate again in a life of adventure with her husband.
Their business ventures were numerous and profitable. In England they set up and operated what became the largest privately-owned heating and ventilation business in London and the Home Counties.
They sold the business and while in Florida in about 1988, came across a check-cashing store that seemed like a great business idea. But when Don began to ask the owner all about the business, he initially got nowhere with him.
Don was obviously not a North American so he couldn't understand the owner's reluctance to talk. But Don was persistent and after explaining that he was from England and no competition for him, they went to lunch together and the owner filled him in on how the business worked in the USA.
Returning to England, he approached his bank with his wonderful new idea. At first the bankers were hesitant, but when Don told them that he would be taking all the risk and not them, they agreed to participate.
Don set up three stores, experiencing all the pain and mistakes that are made during a learning curve. Then, he says, "We made a bloody fortune."
Eventually he and Anita franchised, with stores all over the UK. Ironically, they were bought out by a North American company.
Their next adventure was a move to "The Villages," in Florida, where they set up a custom golf cart manufacturing company. "I knew nothing about golf carts. We WALK the golf courses in England," he told me. When the recession hit he sold out and began to look around for a new part of the world to call home.
Don searched the internet and quickly ruled out the countries of Panama, Belize and Costa Rica. Ecuador sounded great to him—a small country on the U.S. dollar and a president who is a U.S.-trained economist. He felt it would be a stable place to call home.
The heat and insects at the coast didn't appeal to him, although he admits that since Anita is a sun lover, she would be happy there. When he first saw Cotacachi, it felt ideal.
He'd read that the altitude for optimum health is about 5500 feet. "Cotacachi is 7800 feet high, the air is pure, the water crystal clear. But most of all, I was in the mountains again, a reminder of happy days spent in Wales," Don remarked. Anita agreed totally with him.
"Seems that I was right about Cotacachi. This place grows on you once you get here. First you have to learn where the best stores are, how to get around, but now I'm totally stress-free. I just love this place!"
The quality of life in Cotacachi and the lack of stress has left time for creativity and productivity. Don and Anita are busy making plans to build a new house near their assisted living project, one complete with a heated indoor pool for Anita.
Anita is learning bridge. She's a fine cook who prepares Indian food better than many Indians. Gary and I were the recipients of a jar of her home-made chutney.
Don can once again enjoy the mountains. Life in Cotacachi is bringing them good health, prosperity and satisfaction at a whole new level.
They will soon break ground at Hacienda de las Flores, their 150-unit assisted living facility, providing a much-needed service for seniors and those who need care later in life. Not only will the development bring work for locals, both in the construction stage and throughout its existence, it will create other related jobs.
With 45% of the land remaining after the completion of Phase I, Don Anita will probably build more condos plus a medical center. With this terminated, the brakes will be applied and life should slow down for them... or will it?
Don and Anita have plans for other philanthropic projects in service to the community of Cotacachi. As Don says, "We are not totally motivated by making big bucks. Giving back is what we want to do. For me, it will be a natural progression to walk the halls of Hacienda de las Flores, talking to the residents, and helping out whenever I can."
"That's the kind of walking I'll be doing; no more hiking in the mountains. I'm not 16 anymore. Now just looking at the mountains will have to be enough."
For more information about their project click here.
Click here to see the Hacienda de las Flores real estate listing page.