Pacific Vibrations // Ecuador

From mighty Laguna Quilotoa, we headed back to the coast, aiming to start at Manta and surf our way south.   Along the ambling highland roads, patchwork fields were seemingly endless, and around one of the many turns, was a woman and her pre-teen daughter roadside with large bags of potatoes waving their hands for a ride, so we picked them up.  Just a few feet after pulling off, we heard a squeak, at the next major turn it was a grind.  Looking at each other, we knew the front brake pads were gone.With our new car-mates and 100 pounds of tubers, we rambled down the steep descent from the 5 figure altitudes an hour or so when we noticed a number of truck and bus drivers waving at us- not fingers up and down like a normal hello wave, but hand horizontal, fingers splayed and the whole hand rotating from the wrist back and forth.  Raising a confused eyebrow, we waved back as the suddenly very friendly bus drivers passed.  “Must be a regional type of wave” we thought and “my, my, bus drivers are usually a$$h*les trying to run us off the road or pass us on a blind curve over a cliff.  How refreshingly nice they are here.”

As we came into a small hamlet, a cement truck was mostly blocking the road and the driver waved us to a stop.  He said in his gruff Spanish that there was a big rockslide and the road was closed.  Aha!  Suddenly the strange waves made sense… but not in a good way.  He said the road would take a day or two to clear, so we asked our hitchhiking passengers if they preferred to return or continue from there- they unloaded from the van and we backtracked up into the Andes once again.  If you must back-track, this stunning stretch is a lovely place to do so.  Knock on wood, but we have had nothing but good experiences with honest, hardworking mechanics… so much fear-mongering about how everybody is trying to screw you and take your money.  We got our brakes sorted in a short afternoon for a fantastic $37 and were back on the road with new front brakes and checked rear brakes, but in the opposite direction we wanted.  So we headed to the bathroom, err, um the town of Baños that is.   As it was a Friday night, the streets were bustling and from the many small shops selling taffy whipped onto wooden posts in doorways.

Give us a clean, cheap hotel with decent wifi, access to a well-stocked kitchen with 12 burners, private bathroom with consistently hot water and you will find three very happy Harteau’s.  Hostel Chimenea in Banos is where it’s at- there was even a parking spot for the van!  We uploaded pictures and wound down- one adult on the computer, the other taking Colette to the fair conveniently across the street, or down to the swimming pool, or the awesome park around the corner, or to chase palomas in the church square.  So much fun for a toddler to have!

In the mornings from the small balcony facing the waterfall at the end of the horseshoe shaped canyon, we would sit and watch the shades of green reflected on the walls change as the day woke.  From the terrace café, we would order breakfast (2 #3’s one with eggs revueltos, one eggs frito, both with cafe and a #10 please) and watch Colette flirt her way around the restaurant in English and Spanish.For lunch one afternoon Emily prepared sweet potato topped with local corn, avocado, farmers cheese and homemade mango aji (hotsauce).  Eating well on the road has been quite easy if you just avoid the junk food aisle at the grocery stores- so the same rules apply as at home.  Farmers selling their harvest set up on weekend markets or roadside stalls. People everywhere eat food… shocking I know!

We rarely eat at a restaurant twice, but at Le Petit Restaurant, the French garden-fresh cuisine and Ecuadorian prices were too good a combination to pass up…  evening one we enjoyed roasted tomato and herb sauce on artichoke heart with baguette for appetizer, gruyere topped veggie cassoulet and white wine for Emily, petit steak with mushroom cream sauce, sautéed green beans and a delicate carrot soup for Adam’s $5 special of the evening along with red wine and- as we were going big- the chocolate mousse for Emily and a banana split for Adam & Coco.  Oh-mah-gah!  So tasty and nice to have a fun & fancy splurge dinner out and have it NOT give you a heart attack when the bill comes!

Departing the hotel, we headed to the hotsprings for which Baños is so named.  Up a canyon 2km from town, the pools range from piping hot to river shock treatment.  As the cool rain fell, we looked up from our steaming baths up the canyon walls and sighed.  THIS is how a day should be started!    This will be a good day!But nooooooo, the relaxing baths were only to prepare us for the 5 police stops and 3 major delays we would face in our quest to return to the playa.  We had seriously not passed any police checkpoints in Ecuador prior to this day, and to have 5 seemed like a joke.  Stop #1 was in the same zone we had stopped on our way out of Quilotoa- an hour-long mid-highway stretch much like the famed 7th inning stretch at a baseball game- was for widening of the goat trail currently passing as a highway.  #2 was where the rockslide had caused our retreat a few days earlier.  The gasoline transporting semi in front of us barely fit on the narrowly carved new dirt trail, road would be too generous a word.  Looking to the right, a canyon river rushed 1,000 feet below.  No pictures were taken on this portion of the drive, as white knuckles prevented us from moving to grab the camera.  Swallow that lump in your throat, Emily, we will be fine… Deep breath Adam, just keep looking forward and driving safe.  Colette- ah, well Colette, sometimes ignorance is bliss.  This was our first taste of the ‘scary Andean cliff roads’ we had heard about, we are sure it will not be our last.  #3 delay for the day was a wrong turn (or was it missed turn?) in the dark.

For our gas station dinner, the appetizer was chocolate cookie ice cream sandwich followed by cream cheese, avocado, homemade mango hot-sauce and tortilla chips for the entrée, to drink we had the 2013 agua purificada.  Sometimes the healthy eating goes right out the window with the road-blocks.  Colette snoozed in the back, and A&E chatted up front, listening to music- it feeling for a bit like old times when it was just the two of us on the open highway.  As our eyelids got heavy and we had not reached our destination, we found an enchanting gas station already hosting a few semi-trucks for the night.

Yeah, you have heard of a Panama Hat, but have you heard of a Monticristi?  Well, somewhere along the line (circa the 1800’s), the town of Monticristi got screwed out of their world famous export- sombreros de paja toquilla.  Spanish entrepreneurs exported the hats via Panama- then when the Panama Canal was being made, workers wore these lightweight and long-lasting hats- cementing the misnomer.

Made in this almost coastal town in central Ecuador, the natural fibers are made from the shoots of the toquilla palm tree.  The arduous process of harvesting the palm goes something like this: shoots are harvested right before it opens into leaves, then transported by donkey or truck for preparation, next bundled and boiled in water, then strung out to dry for 3 days, and possibly soaked in sulfur for bleaching.  Then the ‘straw’ is woven into hats.  There are four grades of weave- standard, superior, fine, superfine.  The superfino’s are said to be woven only by moonlight so the weavers hands do not sweat and should be woven so tightly as to hold water.
Hooray, finally back to the coast!!  Referencing Adam’s surf map, we visited San Mateo where some big lefts come through on the correct conditions.  The swell was not right, but on the desolate beach were the most *magical* colored rocks representing the full spectra of hues.  Have you ever seen such lovely rocks?! The flipside of that spectra, was the beach trash that littered the shores of a secret beach break further down the coast.  We have seen SO much plastic garbage on this trip.  A late afternoon drizzle passed by and left a stunning arc, the sky goddess seemingly stretching her arms as far across the lands as possible, completing our rainbow triad for the day.  We posted a wild camp above the high tide line and watched as the flaming ember sun dropped below the cloud line illuminating the sky in an electric tangerine and watermelon splash of magic. Adam handled a morning sesh at two separate beach breaks.  The waves were overhead, a-framing into steep, fast drops that barreled in an instant in shallow water.   You could tell when a major swell hit it would be off the charts.  Adam had driven by several, ahem- but not stopped at any grocery stores, markets, tiendas or veggie stalls.  Emily can be a bit of a kitchen McGuyver and it was a miracle when she whipped up some brekky on our remote beach.  Our awning from GoWesty! has been a life saver from rain and sun in the exposed environments we have been living in.  
Colette loves to sit in her custom seat between our two captain chairs on mellow roads.  SO glad Adam crafted this awesome addition so Coco doesn’t have to ride solo in the back.
We hit up Puerto Lopez to book our seats on a (mandatory) tour-boat excursion to Isla de la Plata (Silver Island) also known as “the poor man’s Galapagos.”  Paid up and tickets issued, we departed and soon found a solitary beach just south of Solongo where we were set up camp.  “I’m SO eeh-sye-ted!!” Colette giggled as she bounded towards the sand.  Emily, inspired by her recent ‘collecting’ images found a section of beach dappled in stone-washed seashells, their edges softened by the infinite tumbles in the salty shore.  Adam pulled out his fish and eagerly jumped into the glowing sea.  Emily missed documenting his awesome rides because as the sun was *just* right, the no-seeums came out in full force so Emily dragged Colette to the van for the layers & bug-spray routine.  Bummer! At our remote site, Colette- having avoided a nap all day- fell asleep early.  In Los Angeles we are totally spoiled by a bounty of willing (even wanting?) babysitters, so on the road, an evening for just the two of us is a welcome simple pleasure.  Adam built a fire (more to keep the bugs away than to warm) and Emily prepared a tasty meal for the two to enjoy al-fresco.  As the stars overhead dazzled, the full moon rising in the east was blocked by a clump of clouds that turned the luminescence into a soft glow.  Yeah, you could say romantic. Morning began in an unusual manner- to the sound of that iconic iphone jingle… the snooze button was hit, and all too soon it rang again.  We stretched and descended from the top bunk, put on a pot of coffee and set to packing up camp.  The night had brought rain, and we slipped and slided around the slick inches-deep mud that now covered our campsite.  Backpacks ready for a day on the island, we shoved off for the short drive to town.

100 meters down the trail, we fishtailed a little, then dipped over a bump and into a pool of deep mud, sliding across the narrow ‘dirt’ road we finally could go no further.  The mud flung off our back tires as they spun in vain.  We were stuck- and not just in any mud- we were stuck in a deep clay-like earth that would make a potter weak in the knees.  It’s times like these we wish we had a 4×4 Synchro.  Adam set to the back-busting task of shoveling the mud out of the way, while Emily went to the road to flag down some more help.  Back behind the van with an eleven year-old, an overweight 40-something dude, a feisty grandma, a skinny dad who was afraid to get his sparkling white sneakers dirty (can’t blame him) and Emily, we set to pushing as Adam sent the wheels spinning onto the driftwood road he had laid.  Wet from the rain that had continued to drizzle and covered in mud, we thanked our motley crew of good Samaritans and went to town.  You know the saying, right?  Arriving an hour and a half late, we really did “miss the boat”.  Our bummer options were to either 1) lose our whole $80 payment 2) go to a little local island with no additional cost 3) pay 50% more to take the boat tomorrow.  We sucked it up and paid the additional $40,  then headed out to look for a lavandora for the van & Adam.All the car-washes were closed, so we found a nice beach just out of town to relax.You best believe we were early to arrive the next morning for our hour long boat ride to Isla de la Plata.   Half way out, the ocean turned into a calm, glassy plane-  a gently rolling swath of crystal clear waters that comes only when in the open water.  As we neared the island, a pod of 200 Pantropical Spotted Dolphins surfaced near the boat.  Colette was freaking out she was so excited, yelling “Coco go swim wiff dolfeens!”  The juveniles do no have freckles yet, and as they get older gain their spots.  They leapt playfully near the boat, coming so close we could have reached over and stroked them.  In the high, warm winds the Magnificent Frigate birds gracefully glided.  Such an interesting bird- they have the longest prenatal care of any bird & the largest wingspan to bodyweight ratio which allows them to stay airborn for up to a week!  On the island, after liberally applying our third round of sunscreen, we set off for a hike in the already sweltering heat.
On the far side of the island, we spotted the popular patas azules or Blue-footed Booby.  These goofy birds (booby is derrived from Spanish word bobo meaning stupid or silly) seemingly have no fear of humans and waddle humorously around the rocky landscape.
The island at this time of year is a blooming natural garden, covered in green and bursts of blooming color.  Back on the boat, we eagerly dove off the top into the refreshing water.  Eyes bulging and jaws agape, the other passengers stared terrified as Colette eagerly suited up to go into the deep water.  She is such a water baby!  In her floatey, she leans forward blowing bubbles into the sea and kicking her legs… it will be no time before this little grom is swimming and surfing on her own!
We had hoped to do some snorkeling, but there was terrible visibility in the water.  This guy, a Pacific Green Sea Turtle, came by for a hello.  “Check-a-out the jelly man!” Colette giggled, quoting yet again from Finding Nemo… I think it is time to get a few more movies into the occasional rotation.  The guides on the boat casually tossed watermelon rind into the water, an eyebrow was definitely raised as we were in a National Park, but the turtle eagerly gobbled it up.
Back on dry land, we headed to Ayampe- a surf town just north of the übertouristed Montañita. The next day we arrived at (name withheld due to surfers code of conduct)- a dusty fishing village with a great right-hand point break, fresh seafood and not much else.
The shores are dominated by the fleet of brightly painted fishing boats.  Each day, the village is on the shore, rolling in and out the boats two times daily.  This is the first time we have seen the boats return at mid-day to drop off half the catch.
We spent a handful of days camped on the point.  Emily practicing yoga on the beach at day break and taking Coco daily to play in a small pool only accessible at low tide.  Miniature greenish-black crabs darting along the barnacle and sea snail dotted rock walls of the pool.  Along the northern beach, the crabs were bright red and scurried in groups of 30 or so, chasing the waves and digging into small holes when chased by a certain excited toddler.  Adam exhausted himself with 2-3 long surf sessions daily.  In the water, a friendly vibe and long peeling waves abounded.  Mellow good times at the sea! Emily ventured into the boat strewn beach one evening and wrangled up some prawns for Adam.  Butter, parsley, cilantro and obscene amounts of garlic are what dressed up his $1.50 worth of feast.
Returning long after dark, the hard-working fisherman sort their catch by clip light.  It is amazing to see 6 days a week, this many boats go to sea and return with coffers full.
This other spot only hits at low tide with a bigger south-west swell… which there just happened to be.The sun set in the west, just as the day before and like it will the day after.  We sent out our daily thanks into the wide open sky with hearts full.