I love Ecuador. This country is merely a dot on the map, but within its borders exist such biodiversity and beauty that it’s hard to believe Ecuador is only the size of Colorado. Where else can you find volcanoes, jungle, beach, highlands, and Darwin’s famed islands all in the same place? One of my treasured friends, Jessica Cornett, came to visit me to embark on a beach tour of Ecuador. It was amazing. I don’t even know where to begin. I saw so much of Ecuador that I literally haven’t left a rock unturned now in this awesome country. Jessica is a flexible, spunky, active (yet capable of being totally lethargic, which is awesome), bare-bones traveler, and we were a formidable pair. We relished not having a plan, a watch, or a place to be. Our days consisted of absolute relaxation. The biggest decisions we had to make were if we were going to pay six dollars or eight dollars for our hostel, if we wanted the pineapple or coconut milkshake, if we wanted to sunbathe now or later, if I wanted gummy snacks, or if I should start reading a new book. (I’ll stop now.) We started our adventure in a tiny beach town called Canoa, and I have to say that getting there was the most frightening Ecuadorian bus experience I have ever had. We literally escaped crashing into an oil tanker by the skin of our teeth at one point during the almost 10 hour bus ride to Canoa. I loved how a really sassy woman on the bus marched up to the driver in an irate fury due to his driving. I had never seen such hip-popping, finger snapping, oh-no-you-don’t, hand waving in the face spiciness since my arrival here nearly eight months ago. We all applauded her. Jessica was beside herself, and I was laughing because I have developed this irrational and all-too-trusting confidence in bus drivers here. The whole “near death, hey let’s pass ten cars on a blind curve” thing really just doesn’t phase me. I always seem to assure myself that no matter how crazy the ride, I probably won’t die. I’m way too okay with the driving. Canoa was awesome. We stayed in this tiki hut hostel loft thing, and it was our first introduction to the cold-water showers of the coast. Jessica proceeded to burn herself like the royal lobster that she is, so the rest of our days on the beautiful beach of Canoa were spent pilfering tons of aloe plant branches for her. We got quite good at it. I wish I had pictures to put on the blog, but I’ll get into that later. It’s a tragic story.
Jessica is marvelous. She cracks me up (and herself, which is oftentimes even funnier). She also makes really keen observations and insights, so I really enjoyed hearing what she had to say about the country that I have come to love. Her first obsession began in Quito when she awoke the first morning to the “fruit and randomness truck”. These trucks are all over the country, and they’re fun to watch. Someone drives the truck while droning on into a microphone that is attached to a massive megaphone/loudspeaker mounted on top of the truck. They drive really slowly down residential streets advertising the myriad products they have on the back bed of the truck. Usually it sounds something like this: “aguacates, bananas, tomates, comprame los aguacates”. If you’re lucky, they might just be selling underwear, toilet paper, or even chickens or pet turtles (lucky charm!). I’m getting off track.
After Canoa, we explored the beach town of Bahia, and it’s a small, but charming pueblo. We made it our mission to eat Pinguino brand Magnum ice-cream bars. It was great while it lasted, but we tired of Magnums after a while like the toddlers that we are. We climbed up the ridiculously tall, imposing cross on the hill that serves as a lookout point over all of Bahia and walked along the beach beneath a precipice of natural beauty that we lovingly termed “The Prettiness”. We also checked out a beach soccer game, and it is always fun to see girls playing with the guys and their proud moments when they actually pass the ball or defend a male opponent. It gave us a good laugh to witness their glee. I forgot to mention that Jess and I began our costal culinary tour in Canoa and Bahia. We tried specialties like Viche (a peanut based soup with fish- read amazingly delicious), encocado, arepas, etc. Jessica is a fan of looking at a menu, identifying what she has never seen or heard of, ordering the unknown items, and relishing in the delight of the surprise. This creates for fun eating.
After Bahia we ventured to the rather uneventful, but tranquil town of Crucita. I had heard tons about it, but it actually turned out to be our least favorite town. The only thing there is to do there is paraglide, so Miss Jessica had a go. I am in my ridiculously frugal stage of traveling now that money is running out, and I still have 1.5 months left, so I stayed back and took pictures of Jessica riding the winds in her massive purple sail. We also observed the throngs of fishermen and fishmongers in Crucita. It’s the primary industry, and there are literally fish everywhere. Boatloads of fish come in, and the fishermen bring the fish fresh off the boat right to the shore, where there are tiki warehouses set up for the scaling and cleaning of fish. Scales fly everywhere, and a small stream of blood trickled down from the cleaning shacks into the sea. The men all work together to transport the fish, and they systematically and methodically push the boats onto the shore using the method of logs underneath the boat to roll it up. Meanwhile, birds swarm in dizzying numbers over the fish cleaning stations and the boats in the hopes that they’ll find a tasty scrap. It’s a colorful, chaotic, hot mess, and I loved observing it.
Puerto Lopez was next on the list because it’s the starting point to go to the poor man’s Galapagos, or Isla de La Plata. There is no comparison between the two, but we did have the good fortune of happening upon a few blue footed boobies, and the crowning moment was seeing the albatross. It’s an enormous bird/almost mystical looking animal. The views from the island were impressive because the deep indigo and turquoise waters swirled and crashed against mammoth black rocks and cliffs. There were many smaller islands as well that created sweeping, curved archipelagos. We went snorkeling there as well, and we saw amazing diversity that Erica and I missed out on the Galapagos a little bit. There were so many different kinds of fish! We hung around Puerto Lopez a little too long. We joked with each other that when we started to recognize people in the towns and when we noticed when new waves of tourists had come in that it was definitely time to go. We started to not even be able to drink a soda on the street corner without seeing people from the town that we knew. Speaking of colas, Jessica was quite fond of Inca Cola, the yellow, bubble-gum tasting favorite of Peruvians, and we had the ritual of sharing a cola in a glass bottle some nights. We’re too cute. A lot of cola is served in glass bottles in the little convenient, corner store type “variety” stores that offer everything fried and trans fat. The best is when the stores have little tables inside them so the townspeople come and hang out. I likened it to getting a Slurpee at 7-Eleven and sitting at an indoor table in the middle of the isle. How strange, right? Anyway, serving the colas in glass bottles has many advantages. For starters, it tastes worlds better, the shops can send the bottles back to be cleaned and re-filled, the cost can be lower for consumers due to the savings in material, and Ecuador can actually take part in small-scale recycling because lord knows it’s lacking here. I have become painfully unaware of throwing plastic bottles and paper away now because it’s been so long. The only downside is that you can’t take the bottle home with you because it needs to be returned to the store. Therefore, you have to enjoy the drink on the premises. Jessica was about to walk off with the bottle, and I thought it was really funny. Again, I’m getting off track.
Puerto Lopez served as a great home base for lots of activities. We also attempted to go to a town called Agua Blanca because there was a good hike we had read about in the Lonely Planet. Speaking of the Lonely Planet, my advice is to not take everything they print to be fact. Jessica and I are convinced that the writers didn’t go to some of the towns we were in since the last edition. Anyway, Agua Blanca was a flop, but my fiesta-ready eyes saw the preparations for a big party that was to take place that night for the patron saint San Isidro. People were adorning the entrance of the church with crazy palms and they were constructing a big tent and stage. It looked all too much like the Mexican wedding party scene from the movie Babel, and ever since I saw that movie I have wanted to go to a party like that. So we went! It was an event, let me tell you. Getting there was an effort, as the only way to go is on these little motorcycle-taxi things. We had shamelessly cajoled our motorcycle guy, Luis, into taking us to Agua Blanca. So here were are in this sputtering, moto-taxi, and Jessica of course had her supafly, fake Chanel, pink sunglasses on even though it was 10 pm (for the dirt and dust, claro). We arrived, and surprisingly we didn’t receive the stares I thought we would for being the only gringitas in the middle of the most in-the-sticks town celebration that two girls could possibly happen upon. The people were happy we were there. Lots of people wanted to know who we were, and I was happy to be in this rustic, dirt-floor fiesta with the people of the community. Old couples danced next to young teenagers. Young boys danced with their moms and weren’t embarrassed in the least. Ladies tried to stand upright in spite of the really tight jeans, sparkly halters, and high heels they were wearing in the dirt. I swear though, even the toddlers dance better than Jess and me. It’s such an important part of their culture that I’d be hard pressed to find an Ecuadorian that can’t dance. They went so far as to announce us over the speaker system (multiple times), and this infinitely amused us. I even got Jessica to dance some salsa! You know it had to be a good party to get her dance. Everyone was drinking the famed (disgusting) Pisener beer of Ecuador, and Jess and I found it funny that when someone ordered a beer, the beer man brought out a small, wooden table with the one bottle of beer (and 10 cups because everyone shares). So for the price of one beer you get a whole set-up! That’s hard to beat. We also went to the most picturesque beach that we saw during beach tour ’07 called Los Frailes. Los Frailes is untouched by man. It’s absolutely gorgeous, and we basically had the whole beach to ourselves. Moto-boy Luis drove us again, and we were a bit upset by the early closing time of the park. We had tried to go the day before, but the guards wouldn’t let us in due to the San Isidro party, and the day we went was Mother’s Day, so they wanted to go home. (Read: they were finding good excuses to not work). I’m actually really glad that we were there during Mother’s day because we saw the most awesome karaoke truck. A big, blue Ford truck with speakers and karaoke equipment in the back just drove around the town and parked in front of houses, and the people came out and started celebrating wherever the truck went. They seemed to really be enjoying themselves! I don’t think that this truck would have much success in the majority of the U.S. Puerto Lopez on the whole treated us rather well, and it’s hard to resist the charm of a quaint harbor town situated on a beautiful bay with hundreds of bobbing, floating blue boats anchored in the water. We had bad luck with the place we stayed, but breakfast is included. “Breakfast” here is kind of funny. I am way too spoiled now. Ecuadorian breakfast always includes coffee, tea, or hot chocolate, and fresh fruit juice. It comes with scrambled eggs and bread with jelly and butter, and if you’re lucky, fresh fruit. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I love instant coffee here! No, you read that right. I’m in a country with decadent coffee, but it’s mainly exported, as with most profitable products in developing nations, and what do the locals drink and get left with? Nestle instant, soluble coffee. I love it in hot milk though. Anyway, I am tired of the traditional breakfasts now, but it was nice while it lasted. Another funny thing in Puerto Lopez were the many young guys transporting fish around town. Jess and I were off in our own little world, when all of a sudden I saw a swordfish inexplicably approaching Jess and dry land! What?! These MASSIVE fish were piled high on a bicycle-buggy, and the poor kid was working really hard to pedal the weight of the fish. It was really odd to see the fish right next to the motorcycles and cars that passed by. Jess also really found the random stores funny. She bought a hat, for example, in a store that sold shirts, hats, crackers, toilet paper, lettuce, tea, batteries, shoes, dog food, pots, and figurines. There are so many of these stores that I don’t understand how any of them stay in business and why they don’t specialize in and offer one product is beyond me. They all want to offer a little of everything though instead of only offering one kind of item. They must have their reasons.
Another funny thing we noticed was how people open up their houses for their businesses. It makes better financial sense to open up a room of your house to have a business and live there as well, but this created for interesting times when we did laundry, bought snacks, or tried to use internet. We were just sitting there at the computers when in the next room over the whole family eating dinner, the kids were doing homework, and people were watching dubbed versions of the Simpsons in Spanish on the t.v. that sat right below the gigantic poster of Jesus and Mary framed in a huge, cracked, bronze frame. We also dropped our laundry there, and the lady told us that we’d have to come back in about 8 hours because she needed to wash all the clothes and hang them out to dry. She returned the clothes to use in a piecemeal fashion as she remembered where she had hung different articles in different places of the house to dry. Or, one time I tried to buy an creamcicle, and I had to knock on the gate of a door to alert the woman who was sitting on her couch watching television that I wanted to buy something from her store. A frustrating thing about Ecuadorian purchases is the change issue. I can’t stand it. Vendors and taxi drivers alike are notorious for NEVER having change for larger bills. And by large bills I mean a 5 or a 10. No joke. I wanted to buy a Twix once because I was having a U.S. craving day, and I just flat out couldn’t buy it because the vendor didn’t have change. The pain of walking away from that piece of chocolate was too much to bear! It amazes me how these people lose out on sales because of merely not having the energy to go get change for the day for their business. Nobody wants a big bill. I’ve entered a store and tried to buy something more than a handful of times and have had to leave the item there because of this. What I don’t understand, however, is if these people are charging people in small coins all day long (taxi drivers especially), how is it exactly that they don’t have change!? Argh.
After being in Puerto Lopez too long, we ventured on off to the most touristy beach town in all of Ecuador called Montañita. It’s the epitome of laid back, surfer dude chillness. In the Tracy’s words, more sounds come out of the mouths of the surfer boys than actual words. (“The waves were like whoooooaa, and I was like, chaaaa.”) It was absolutely adorable though, and I really liked the town minus the boom, boom, boom, thumping of techno music until 5 a.m. right outside our window. I felt like I was literally sleeping in the subwoofer. The town had tons of great food (which was well received because Jess and I were a little tired of the fixed Ecuadorian meal of rice, beans, meat, and some kind of strange salad). I need not say more when I tell you that the very first thing I did was buy an entire watermelon when I arrived, and I practically ate the whole blessed thing myself on the rocks. If you know me well, you know that little brings me more happiness than single handedly devouring a watermelon with no utensils. Another great addition was the random baker on the corner who had the most decadent treats. Jess and I indulged practically ever time we passed him, and we usually had the good luck of getting something that came right out of the oven. He baked for the lazy, unproductive and shamelessly hedonistic crowd at the beach though and didn’t start baking until wake-up time, or 12 p.m, since that’s when breakfast is anyway. He also had the fabulous 6 p.m. sunset treats when the air got a little chilly. He’s a genius. It got a little pathetic when we knew what was old and had tried almost everything. Life doesn’t get much better than freshly baked goods if you ask me. I feel like it’s right up there with cuddling with hot laundry that’s just come out of the dryer. Anyway…the highlight of this city was my fatal attempt at surfing. Holy cow, surfing is impossible. I took a “lesson”, and I thought life was good since I could stand up and ride in a few waves while my instructor was helping me. The minute he left and I was left to my own devices, I was doomed. I was laughing all day long as I almost lost my bathing suit multiple times and took some seriously noteworthy, completely ungraceful and ungodly falls. I felt like I had hung out in a washing machine all day long by the end of it.
The good thing about these towns is that even though there are tourists, there are still locals who keep on living their normal lives, so you never feel like you are too far removed from normality. When we were in Montañita we observed the fiestas of San Isidro as well. This San Isidro character is pretty popular apparently. There was a carnival-like celebration in town, and the church was the happenin’ spot. I just love how people are inside praying and outside a band is blaring at fully capacity while people dance in front of the church doors. These are the kids of scenes that I would love to capture on film, but it’s impossible to show the juxtaposition to do it justice. Oh wait, and I don’t have a camera. We just walked around the town because that’s precisely what everyone else was doing- walking around and looking at everyone else. There were a lot of salchipapa (hot dog mixed with potatoes) stands as well as other makeshift “restaurants” on the road, which basically means women with a portable stove and the biggest pots known to man with weird meat mixes in them. They put up tents with plastic chairs, and there was the essential cord of light bulbs hanging above. I smiled when I saw tourists mixing with the locals and eating at these local joints. There was also a cotton candy stand, and being that I am a sucker for anything sweet, and especially pink and sticky cotton candy, I had to try some. I noticed an older couple standing by me watching my every move. I asked them if they had even tried cotton candy before, and not only had they never tried it, they had never seen it, and they thought it was some freak, alien creation. It made me laugh. I offered them some, and they didn’t quite know where to put their fingers. Then they feared putting the pieces they had torn off into their mouths. After the lady tried some I saw the glimmer in her eye for more, so I offered her more, so we stood there and shared cotton candy together. She kept taking more. It was really funny. There were also all kinds of corn (choclo) stands because people eat them as snacks. I think we should too in the U.S. The funniest part was this big dance floor that had been partitioned off with fencing. There were female dancers inside the entrance and really loud music, but the confusing part was that nobody was entering. Everyone was standing outside the entrance as if they were waiting for something. We were really confused; if the party was inside, why was everyone staring at an empty dance floor from the outside? Then we saw a poster on the fence that said, “Entrance: 1 dollar”. It was kind of sad. People eventually entered though. The best part of the whole thing was a fireworks show called the “vaca loca”. That means crazy cow in English. Tracy and I saw a similar event in Baños, but this was 1,000 times crazier. It’s essentially a really unsafe fireworks display, and a daring man gets into a wooden contraption (that looks like a cow) with explosives all over it and runs around the town square like a crazy cow. The best though was this tower that they had constructed of all kind of fireworks, and it exploded in the middle of the town square. At the top was an icon of San Isidro, and once the fireworks reached the top, his image appeared in all of its divine, farming (haha, and flaming) glory. The people think it’s really funny to play with fire, and they laugh when things go wrong and flaming rockets comes hurtling toward their faces. I don’t get it.
Next on the list was Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador and the business capital of the country. While Quito is the cultural and political capital, it still pales in comparison in terms of population. I had heard that Guayaquil was very dangerous and rather uneventful, so we only spent the afternoon there. We walked along the Malecón 2000, which is a 3 km boardwalk that is absolutely amazing. It is the nicest public space that I have seen in all of Ecuador. There were playgrounds, zen gardens, restaurants, and just generally cool architecture. It impressed me that such a restoration project exists here. After our jaunt in Guayaquil, we went to Cuenca! What an awesome city. It reminded me a lot of Cusco in Peru, but it’s still entirely different. It has quaint cafes and shops and cobblestone streets. It also has 30 churches or something and all are different styles. It was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the efforts to keep it pristine are amazing. Coming from Quito, I can really appreciate recycling efforts, and Cuenca has it right. There are trash cans on every street corner (gasp, what a concept), and the streets are clean. We took days trips to thermal pools, Inca ruins (called Ingapirca), and we went to Cajas National Park. This beauty of this park is seriously beyond my descriptive capacity. If only we had pictures to show for it, which brings me to the tragic loss of Jessica’s camera. My camera is broken, and like I said, I’m in a frugal state now, so I decided to rely on the people’s cameras who come and visit me. Well, it was just our luck that her camera broke as well. She is obsessed with photos, so we immediately went to buy another camera. We took 300 pictures of awesome scenery in the national park, Cuenca, and a really cool market in the middle of nowhere called Cañar, but then she lost the new camera. (It’s okay, Jess.) We were beyond sad, and she was especially devastated to have lost a camera and such awesome pictures. Oh well. Cajas was unbelievable, and the best part is that we got lost, but then we found the path again after tromping around in the muck. The trees in the forested areas were unlike any kind of vegetation I had ever seen. It rocked. (Get it?) The best part was hitching a ride back with an Ecuadorian family back to Cuenca on the back of their faltering pick-up truck. They were a hilarious bunch. There were literally 10 or so of them, maybe more including the little ones, and they even had a mattress and blankets in the back of the truck for comfort. It was really nice of them to offer us a ride. The truck put-put-putted up the hills, and I wouldn’t doubt if it broke that day after we got off, but they were a jolly bunch, and they were traveling as a family around this beautiful country, and you can’t ask for much for than that. Plus, they were happy to help some gringitas out. They’re always surprised when I can hold a conversation with them. Ah! I forget to mention something that continually makes me happy when it comes to national parks here. Being that I am more Ecuadorian now than some nationals (kidding), I have a census and an I.D. here, which means that I pay like a national in all the parks, i.e. I paid $1.50 and Jess had to pay $10. I just think about that when I’m feeling poor! Jess and I also tried some good food in Cuenca, namely a Colombian specialty called “arepas”. It’s a corn tortilla with just about anything sweet or savory that you might desire on top of it. They also had this great oatmeal drink that we loved, although the malt-flavored soda wasn’t so great. Another interesting thing about Cuenca is that the indigenous women dress differently than the women in Quito and other parts of Ecuador. They wear really elaborate, vibrantly colored (and heavy) skirts with all kinds of hand-sewn sequins and embroidery decorating the bottom hem. They also wear different hats and shoes. The hats are more rounded, and instead of the Otavalan, triangular shoes, a lot of them wear tennis shoes with ridiculous USA socks. Seriously, there were so many ladies wear this one particular kind of sock that it made me wonder where the big U.S. sock sale was. I felt like we were in a completely different country when we were in Cuenca.
Next we traveled down to Loja (en route Jess lost the camera), and we then went to Vilcabama, a famed town because of the number of centenarians who live there. Many say that there is specious evidence because many of the really old people can’t generate a birth certificate and don’t really know when they were born. In any case the scenery is breathtaking, and Jess and I did our fair share of hiking. I really liked that there was honestly nothing more to do than go hiking; it creates for healthy, uncomplicated living. All of the people that we met during our travels were very helpful and kind for the most part. I find Ecuadorians to be really affable. We were in a taxi once, and the driver asked me where I was from, and I told him that I had spent six months in Quito. He immediately jumped into how the Quiteños are cold, hypocritical, and while they are very well-educated, they are not so helpful and giving. He said that on the other hand, the Costeños, the people who are from the coast, may be vulgar and a little dirty, but they are genuine, straightforward, and loyal. He made me laugh. I had heard about the highland/coast divide for a long time, but he was the first person I have met to be so vocal about the stereotypes. I also met another woman on one of the buses we took along the coast, and she asked me where I was from. After only the second question I noticed that her hand was on my lap, and soon after she was holding my hand. I know it’s a simple gesture, but I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. I just thought about how nice it is here that people do that. She wanted to know all about me and my parents and how I felt about being away from my mom on Mother’s day. I think she held my hand for a good 20 minutes. I quite liked it actually, and I surely have never had that happen to me in the U.S. People like to be with people here, and the good ones look out for travelers and spread a little love when they can. Oh, and there’s one more thing that I think needs to go down in the books. Jessica and I were on the bus, and it was only a short bus ride (an hour I think), but I made the mistake of drinking a whole bottle of water a good half hour before we left. I’m usually good about dehydrating myself so that I don’t have to worry about bathroom emergencies on buses. I forgot this time though. I didn’t know what to do, so I just asked the bus driver to stop the bus. I got off, went to the back of the bus so nobody could see me, and successfully went to the bathroom. It was liberating! Jessica was horrified I think (as was everyone else on the bus), and more importantly, so were the people in the truck going the opposite way that drove by at the perfectly wrong time. Awesome.
So this has been beach tour ’07 in a nutshell. I hope you’ve enjoyed if you’ve made it this far. I figured I owed you a long entry after a month break. I’ll be in Quito until June 7th. I then leave to meet up with Kjell in Argentina for some more backpacking, and then it’s back to the U.S. on July 12th. I have a huge adventure ahead of me still, which I’m really looking forward to, but I’m also looking forward to catching up with everyone when I get back. E-mail me so we can make some dates! Abrazos y besos a todos.