Finally reached Ecuador’s coast
After a week delay in Cuenca, I've finally reached the first destination of my surf trip - Montañita, Ecuador.
Soon after I purchased my plane ticket to Ecuador, my parents followed suit. They've been researching the country for retirement opportunities, specifically, the city of Cuenca. Ironically, because of work constraints, they would only be in Ecuador for 7 days so I decided to spend my first week joining them in Cuenca.
Cuenca is the cleanest South American city I've visited, yet it is still distinctly South American. My dad and I had a hunch that this would be the case but my mom insisted that "unless you go, you'll never know." She had hoped to find an affordable American suburbia next to a quiet city that could cater to all of her needs. During our stay we discovered that the nicer homes were often found on dirt roads, neighbored by small plots of crops or abandoned shacks; and the city, while sometimes quaint, was bustling with human and automotive traffic. Cuenca just won't work for them.
|From Ecuador 2010|
We ended our stay in Cuenca with a trip to the nearby Cajas national park. We spent a few hours in the area hiking around one of its 200+ lakes, visiting an area where the Virgin Mary was spotted, and eating the local trout in a classy hotel/lodge. We moved quite slowly on our hike as every step yielded another discovery of alien fauna. I was incredibly surprised at how observant and well entertained my parents were by their surroundings. Though we didn't cover much ground, we saw plenty.
This was my second time in or around a cloud forest and it really is something special. It slows you down and shuts you up. It reminds you to be still and yield. You're swallowed up by its quiet, cool, foggy yet green atmosphere. The peace found in the cloud forest is wholly different than the peace found after a long surf session or an undistracted savasana, or the perfect refactoring. The trip to the cloud forest was exactly the change we needed from the crowded and loud city of Cuenca. It was the highlight of my parent's trip.
I left for Guayaquil on the 8th of December to begin my trip to Montañita. I was once again able to gaze at the cloud forest on my way to the city. The ride was quite comfortable, though it got chilly as we reached the summit, requiring a light sweater. As we began descending I started noticing palm trees growing on the mountainside as the clouds dissipated. Then I could smell it… the smell of humidity! I tossed my sweater and for a moment I thought I saw the coastline which brought me way more joy than expected. It wasn't long before I could feel the humidity, which makes my dry skin happy, and then I was drowning in it. Welcome to Guayaquil.
Guayaquil reminds me of Lima with its crowded, gritty feel. Approaching the Guayas river on the Malecón 2000 presents an interesting illusion. The river has enough current and debris that it actually makes you feel like you're on a boat and the whole city is traveling up the river. There's so much human traffic on the large pedestrian streets (9th of October and 10th of August) leading from the Malecón to the central park that navigating without running into anyone is like a fun game. I had an excellent tomatillo milk shake while strolling through the city. The tomatillos here are not the same as the Mexican green husked tomatillo. It has a sweet, earthy and bitter flavor that I've never tasted before which bears further research. Walking toward Iguana Park I thought I'd be lucky if I could spot a lizard in a tree and that's exactly what happened upon arrival. Lucky me. Then, as I entered the park I was shocked to see one iguana after another, whole groups of iguanas in fact, with no fear of the humans walking past. What fun!
A few weeks ago I read about a traveler on the coast waking up multiple times in the middle of the night taking cold showers just to stay cool. I thought for sure that was an exaggeration but there I was, showering off before bed without reclothing. Yep, I was hanging out naked, considering whether I really wanted to catch the hot 1 p.m. bus the following day... Nope! I walked through most of the city in one afternoon and was ready to get moving. Instead, I grabbed the 5:30 a.m. bus to Montañita the next morning.
The bus driver called out "Montañita" as he pulled over on the highway. No bus terminal? I was left off on the side of the road. There were only a few small tiendas opposite me and some local handing me business cards for his hostel. He had some food item on his lip and I could smell the alcohol around him. I wanted to ditch him so I instinctively began walking away from the little bit of visible civilization. Turns out, I was walking in the right direction. He helped me out, telling me to cross the nearby bridge, walk down to the beach and head north for a mile to get to my hostel. A mile seemed a bit far but I enjoy walking on the beach and didn't have any better alternatives so I followed his directions. The beach immediately felt familiar and though there wasn't much surf, I was glad to finally see the ocean.
I got settled in my hostel and because the surf was small, I immediately went for a barefoot run. It was, as I now know, uncharacteristically hot and sunny that afternoon. It was my first time running in three weeks and it showed. I ended the run panting, with newly blistered toes. A dip in the ocean temporarily relieved the pain. I bodysurfed the first wave that approached me with ease; kudos Pacific Ocean. I often forget just how good the ocean feels. Within the first couple of hours in Montañita I felt like I had succeeded in extending my Floridian summer. A quick outdoor shower, air drying and relaxing shirtless made me feel totally at home in this foreign land. My only concern was how I would fill the long days ahead of me?
Generally, I've been filling my days with surfing, running, futbol, frisbee, reading, journaling, fighting mosquitos, playing the hot water dance (AKA: trying not to get scalded in the shower), learning to enjoy cold showers, drinking my calories (love the fresh fruit juice here), eating mediocre food, preparing interesting salads, buying friendships with the locals (think conversation with ceviche guy, not prostitution), aimlessly walking around town, and taking a siesta or two.
Balsa boards are really popular among both the tourists and the locals. I'm renting a 8'2" balsa long board which I actually find more maneuverable than my POS at home. It recovers well when I misplace my balance, kinda like it knows the wave better than I do. There's beach break and a point break and my hostel is located just outside of the point break. There's a decent wave at the point and apparently, it's building. Usually, the wave is mushy and forgiving. Most days the locals have to really work it just to get a short ride. The conditions are reminiscent of my Florida beach break in that there's nothing to fear, the waves are tame. It's supposed to get really good but also really crowded in January/February. It's already crowded enough with half a dozen to a dozen surfers all paddling for the same wave at the point. I feel especially self-conscious on my long balsa board because if I screw up within the tight group and send my board flying, someone's liable to get a concussion. Surfing has been fun but the water is a little chilly and the constantly overcast skies don't help. The water definitely feels like the low 70's if not high 60's.
The locals are warm and friendly. They've learned the art of speaking Spanish slowly and rephrasing with patience which is wonderful because my Spanish isn't very good. They have a special greeting which comes with its own HANDSHAKE! Everyone says "Todo Bien?" (All good?) with a slow-moving open-hand slap, which looks like it should be a handshake, followed by a fist bump. It's nice to greet and be greeted like a local.
Every conversation I have down here, with a local or otherwise, always gravitates toward the chicas quite suddenly. Conversations typically unravel with "when did you arrive", "how long are you staying", "where are you from", and "where's your chica"? "Oh, don't have one? Go pick one (two or three) up at the Hola Ola Cafe or at the Christmas Festival, or at The Natural Bamboo bar, or at the nearby yoga class." To these guys and gals, it's like stopping by the pet store on your way home to grab a pet fish for some light entertainment. It's all so natural and common that I really wish I could identify with the sentiment. I mostly just chuckle and change the subject to the local fruits. The machismo is strong here.
I'm not in love with my accommodations but like most establishments in Montañita, it's run by a young surfer crew. This crew is especially green though. They'll get their schooling in the coming months as the high season really kicks into gear. I think a mentor, someone who really understands service, could go a long way for them but I doubt they'd accept one; they're independent souls, learning on their own.
I'll be in Montañita for another week, then I'm headed up the coast, stopping at various small towns along the way to Canoa. The extremely close town of Ayampe is the first (and only) on my list. Not sure how the timing will work out but I'd like to get a few days in Canoa before leaving for Quito, then home.