Friday, September 5, 2014

Four days in Ecuador

After Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires and Machu Picchu, what else can be “attractive” for a visitor to South America?  I’m sure there are plenty of other places, but somehow Ecuador slipped into the itinerary.  Not that it doesn't have much to offer: there’s clearly the Galapagos, where Darwin really upset the [religious] apple cart with his evolutionary theory (btw, did you know that prior to his voyage South he was studying religion at Cambridge to become an Anglican Clergyman?  … talk about a radical change in direction, huh?!), there are the active volcanoes (like Cotopaxi, with one of the few glaciers located near the Equator, at almost 20,000 ft. altitude; that’s roughly 5,900 in metric-speak), wonderful thermal baths around Baños, then there’s the coast – largely undeveloped – which offers incredible “raw beauty”, Cuenca (a major destination for US expats), and of course Quito, which claims the oldest and best-preserved colonial “old town” in the Americas.

So because of all this, and a bit of curiosity around what makes it the latest destination for retiring Americans, the last 4 days of the whirlwind South American tour included about 1,000 km across this beautiful country.

Day 1

Guayaquil airport was incredibly modern as we touched down a little around 11.  Felt like any other mid-sized American airport.  Caught a bit of the Argentina – Nigeria game (Messi punched twice to get the South Americans through) then jumped in a rental, and two hours later we were having lunch sea-side in Salinas – one of the many tourist destinations on the Ecuador coast.  From afar, it looks like any other seaside resort in the states: beach-side condos, marinas, the works… but once you venture a couple blocks inland, the poverty and lack of amenities are immediately apparent.  So as much as the Ecuador coast is being touted as the next destination for American retirees, the overarching caveat should be the willingness to accept this difference…

Now, I must note that 2-3 days in passing is not enough to develop any kind of definite perspectives on a locale or its people.   But there have been enough “episodes” to at least give us a good taste for it.

Salinas: we got in on a cloudy day; this photo does it more justice...

Heading north from Salinas, through Ballenita and a few other small fishing villages stringed around the coast, highway 15 hugs the arid coastline presenting the driver with a view of what the northern coast of California must have looked like half a century ago… Pockets of developed communities, contrasted by dilapidated sheds, display a reality that speaks both to the challenges and [high-risk-high-reward] opportunities that clearly exist here.  

About 70 km north of Salinas, the mandatory stop is Montañita – one of the best surfing spots in South America, synonymous today with the hippie movement, and attracting the weed-smoking-liberal-extreme-“peace”-loving crowd.  Our brief visit was cut short by a general power outage across the entire village (something that probably happens quite a lot, as no one seemed to be phased by it).

As night was beginning to set and cows, horses, and donkeys became frequent road obstacles, the Mantaraya Lodge – a very original “inn” right outside Puerto Lopez could not come fast enough.  The 45 km made for an interesting hour-long drive (especially since there was no lit signage of the place, and had to turn around after asking for directions).  Incidentally, I realized that my Spanish is not too shabby, illustrated by the fact that we were able to “talk” our way out of a traffic ticket.  Or maybe it was the lack of Spanish-speak that made it happen… I guess we’ll never know ;-)

The innkeeper at Mantaraya was very accommodating – seems like a common trait for all Ecuadorians, regardless of whether money was required or not – and gave us two rooms (for the same price of what we had originally booked: a quadruple room).  He also kept the drinks coming as we were relaxing in the oversized jacuzzi… Nothing more relaxing…

Day 2

Freshly-squeezed passion-fruit juice provided an early reminder that we were in the tropics.  Once you taste tropical fruit at “home” you’ll never touch the US grocery store-bought without a grimace or two…

Shortly after, we were on the beach in Peuerto Lopez, where the fishing boats were already hauling in the morning’s catch and the wafting pungency of sun-decaying fish guts mixed with the aromas of freshly grilled and fried fish contributed to a singular conclusion: this had to be the best place for fresh fish!

A Rover older than time...
20 bucks or less

Moto-taxis are the "in" thing down here...
Puerto Lopez

Makeshift tables right on the beach, unsanitary prep conditions, the lack of ice or even water would make most people think twice about eating here.  But when it literally takes minutes between the fish being gutted and thrown on the grill or in the pan, none of that should matter… The part of the beach where the cooking took place smelled amazing!

check out the lady with the purse below: elegance in cleaning fish!

Even after a full breakfast, just had to try the ceviche.  It was very fresh, simple (sardines, lime juice, red onions, tomatoes and cilantro, with hot sauce and plantain chips on the side) and amazingly delicious.  For a moment I felt like Andrew Zimmern in one of his food adventures with the locals…

soooooooooo gooooood!
The kicker: a bowl of this goodness was only $2 [I should have mentioned by now that the official currency in Ecuador is the US dollar].  When we offered a $5 and asked him to keep the change, he insisted in pouring us another bowl.  Small gesture that speaks volumes of the kind spirit of the humble Ecuadorian fisherman.  We clearly “screamed” tourists and could have easily been taken advantage of.  But instead, it was a memorable experience and a definite win for human decency…

Back at Mantaraya (startled by the creature on the left while heading back to the room) we caught the USA – Germany game with an eye to what was going on in the Portugal – Ghana encounter.  The Yanks deserved to go through, although the class difference against the Germans was very clear…

Back in the car and a quick stop at a gas station to refill.  Gawk at the price: it said $1.48 (I assumed per litter, since we were in South America); turned out it was per gallon.  14 bucks total for 9.5 gallons.  It would have been over $30 in the States.  Score one for Ecuador!

Following the road up the coast, with stops in Puerto Cayo, and Santa Rosa, we continued to be mesmerized by the untamed wilderness around every bend in the road.  Frequent cliff-edge stops provided beautiful vistas of small villages or the fishing boats out in the Pacific.  From place to place there were signs where attempts are being made to develop beachfront properties into something more in tune with "Gringo" tastes, but that is more than the exception than the rule... and for the most part, not very well executed.

Beachfront properties under development
Bogdan and his beach-front "ready to build" lot ;-)

The next big city was Manta – the largest port in Ecuador (5th city in size) and biggest tuna-catching operation in the eastern Pacific.  The smell was there to attest for that, as we drove by one of the big canneries.  But in the same time, the fresh fish lunch [amazing soup] at a place just off the beach was fantastic, although flies seemed more prevalent for the first time (or maybe it was lunchtime for them as well)! 


North of here, the scenery and vegetation changes considerably.  It gets greener as you approach the equator.  In about 40 km you reach Crucita – another seaside resort that’s a primary beach destination for Ecuadorians.  It’s not as developed as Salinas (our first stop, if you recall) or Bahia de Caraquez (further north) but the potential is there.  We had to stop abruptly, as the road into Crucita (four-lane divided highway) was blocked by what looked like a very tall stadium-seating stand.  Apparently, a major festival was under way!

After another 45 km we reached Saiananda in Bahia de Caraquez – our lodging stop for the evening.  The property has an extremely "natural" setting (the folks who run it make every effort to conserve its natural beauty as much as possible) full of animals and lush with vegetation, with amazing views of the estuary.  Alfredo and his staff were very accommodating (we had reserved a regular quadruple room and we were upgraded - for just a bit more $$ - to bungalows over the water) and they even offered some tips for the local area.  Turns out they also manage other properties/land and are very knowledgeable of the local real estate market; lucrative business in these parts…

Bahia de Caraquez from above
A quick evening tour of the “tourist” end, revealed a “happening” central area (another festival in full force) and nice properties down towards the ocean.  Apparently this is the preferred spot in terms of vacation properties for the Ecuadorian elite.  At the end of the peninsula, several sidewalk bars (mostly empty, after all it was a Thu night) apparently were engaged in a competition as to who can win the decibels contest, blaring latino music well beyond levels safe to the human tympanic membrane.   Multiplied across 3-4 bars in a 50 foot area, the cacophony was probably what was keeping everyone else away from the pier.  One drink was all we could take, after which we crashed.  Another first that evening: sleeping in a bungalow over the water.  Not Bora-Bora, but an interesting experience nonetheless…

Day 3

We had 400 km on the itinerary this last day, cutting across the country towards the East, heading high up into the Andes, crossing the Equator line 5 or 7 times before stopping at the official “Mitad del Mundo” monument, then - as evening fell - descending into Quito.  The change in landscape, from the arid coast, to lush rain forests, and back to the sparely vegetated peaks of the Andes right above the capital was very enjoyable.  Less so, was the Hyundai we had rented, which at times struggled to make it uphill, even though my foot was about to break through the  floor board, Flintsones' style!

Bahia from across the bridge
Actually, my first crossing of the equator came almost 2 weeks earlier in the flight from Atlanta to Rio.  Seemed so long ago…  The first one on land, this time, was near the Coaque ecological reserve on Hwy 15 on the way to Pedernales.

From Pedernales, we turned East heading to Santo Domingo, then up into the Andes, with a pit stop at the Mindo forest reserve.  Less than 10 miles from there, Maquipucuna – a rainforest reserve located on the equator, and one of the top 5 biodiversity hotspots in the world – is another point of interest for those looking to explore a tropical cloud forest.  Too bad we didn't have time to linger more…

$2 buys you an entire banana stem (and probably all these pineapple), but not sure about buying the cow-girl in the Karaoke Bar!

 Kids with backpacks coming home from school...  and women with "headpacks" acting all cool!

Heading into the cloud forest (apparently different from a rain forest...)
At ground level in the Mindo reserve 

Eventually, as the Andean plateau opened up before Quito, we made it to the “official” Middle of the Earth site, and took the obligatory pictures straddling the drawn “equator” line.  In actuality – given more modern measurements and GPS accuracy – the equator is actually about 240 meters north of that location ;-)  Close enough for government work, as they say…

Quito traffic meant the last 25 km took almost another hour.  Once at the hotel, and after the 7th – and last – “unpack” of the trip, all we cared for was a nice meal and a soft bed…

Day 4

Ready for Brazil-Chile
The plan was to do a bit of local sightseeing, and in-between games spend some time in the old part of town (the one I mentioned earlier as being one of the oldest and best preserved in South America).  

Unfortunately, the Brazil – Chile match took a good extra hour, after penalties.  The experience – in a sports bar near Plaza Foch – was just fantastic, with people from all over the continent (especially Colombians, who were already lining up for the next game) having an absolute blast!  I felt for the Brazilian guy next to me praying on his knees during the penalties [video link here].  I've said it already, and will say it again: as the next two world cups will be in Russia and Qatar, I’m pretty sure that I’ll make plans to experience the greatest sporting event in the world back in South America.   

Bogdan giving a post-game interview to the local TV station
(despite the fact that the only Spanish phrase he knows
is "no te preocupes por mi existencia"!)
The Old Town is definitely worth exploring for at least half a day (not in less than one hour like we did).  The Metropolitan Cathedral (1572) right on Plaza de la Independencia (Plaza Grande), Iglesia de San Francisco (1605), with its convent, Iglesia de Compañía de Jesús (1540) a Jesuit gem with its opulent golden splendor, or the new Basílica del Voto Nacional (1985), which is the largest neo-Gothic basilica (Roman Catholic) in the Americas are but a few of the more significant edifices in this part of town.

Outside of the World Heritage Historic Center, other options are the Teleferico (nice panoramic views from up high) and La Virgin del Panecillo (although most claim that the view is not as great from the top of the hill, and the area is not very tourist-friendly). 

Back in Plaza Foch (for us to catch the second game and the girls to “enjoy” the local Saturday market) the number of Colombians had at least quadrupled.  A “toothless” Uruguay [see what I did there?] was no match for a spirited Colombian side with James in top form.  The yellow-clad crowd went berserk!

As the games went on, I noticed a lot of preparation in the square (big stage set up, music blaring) and I assumed it was all to “party” after the game.  To my surprise (and undoubtedly I wasn't alone) the “party” was a very elaborate gay-and-lesbian-drag-queen show.  In the States (and particularly in San Francisco, or Atlanta, for example) this would not have been such a surprise… But experiencing this in a very strict catholic country, in an area full of “macho” football fans (who let’s agree, are not typically an overly-sensitive bunch) made me think how fast this world of ours is changing… And how gutsy of these people to organize it on a World Cup game day!

With suitcases full of dirty clothes and souvenirs, our minds full of new memories that will undoubtedly last forever, and an expanded cultural baggage, we set off to the airport to catch the flight back home.  The 5+ hour flight gave us a chance to finally unwind and replay the experiences over the last two weeks.  It seemed a blur, but looking back we've packed soooo much in these two weeks!  In retrospect, we should have spent more time in Brazil, enjoying the World Cup in other cities as well, or in Argentina (maybe heading up to Iguazu Falls), and definitely in Peru (I hear Lima is worth a longer layover at least)… but now that we got the “South America bug” we’ll definitely return to explore more.  Soon!

my Romanian friends will appreciate the humor here...

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Oh, in case you missed the earlier trip journals for this South American 2-week adventure, here they are:

* for those not into football, Suarez was suspended for the game because he took a bite out of Chiellini's shoulder during the Uruguay-Italy game...thus my "toothless" jab ;-) 

1 comment:

  1. I would like to ask you a few questions about your Ecuadorian trip.