Manabí Ecuador

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We recently found ourselves with a couple of weeks of vacation, and knowing that our free time had come when most of the rest of Ecuador was still at work before Holy Week, we decided to head down to the beach and beat the crowds.

I honestly haven’t spent too much time on Ecuador’s coast.  But when I have made my way down from the Sierra, I’ve never been disappointed by the Province of Manabí.  Our last trip there was to the beach towns of Puerto Lopez and Ayampe, and I’ve got fond memories of both places.  There’s always the temptation to go back to a place you know you love, but then again, Manabí is a huge province, and it boasts just about a third of Ecuador’s entire coastline.  We had gotten to know only the southernmost tip of what Manabí had to offer, and so we chose to make our way much further north this time around.

Of course, in addition to our destination being several thousand feet below Cuenca’s high valley, it’s many, many kilometers to the north as well.  Add that to the fact that there is nothing like a direct road connecting Cuenca and any of the beach towns we had in mind, and you’ve got yourself a lengthy road trip.  And unless you’ve got a car, which we don’t, that means you’re taking the bus.

Bus trips around Ecuador have been a main feature of much of the blogging that you, my loyal readers, have read plenty about.  My wife Nancy, myself, and at this point, even our baby girl, we’ve all been on our share of long bus rides.  Seeing as how we enjoy traveling around quite a bit, we were glad to learn that our daughter could handle being on the bus for many hours without causing much fuss.  Until our most recent trip, however, all of our bus trips had been around the Sierra, and we were a little concerned that the heat and humidity of Ecuador’s coast might present some problems for her that weren’t present in the cooler mountain rides we’d taken before.

I’m happy to report, however, that our daughter, despite sweating far more than either Nancy or I, seemed to mind the many, many sweltering hours of stop and go travel far less than we did.  In fact, this trip revealed far more about my own limitations as a traveler than our daughter’s.

You see, any trip to the coast from Cuenca necessarily implies a dramatic drop in elevation.  This particular trip took us through Guayaquil, and the most direct route from Cuenca to Guayaquil first takes you from Cuenca’s modest, springlike climate, then up into Cajas, with weather often feeling much more like a day in February for my readers in the US.  The Cajas leg of the trip also features the most stomach-churning twists and turns, which ultimately lead you winding down, inevitably through cloud-forest conditions (read: heavy fog) before plunging you into the eternal Summer of the coast.

All in all, we’re talking about about an 8000 foot change in elevation in a short time.  More than enough to get your ears popping.  In my case, however, I was fighting off the last few days of a head cold, and something about the congestion in my sinuses also meant that my ears were far less able to release pressure than normal.  The fact that our ears, nose and throat are all connected is well-known, but little had I ever had to think about it until I came to realization that I had a pressure building in my inner ear, and all the ear-popping tricks I knew weren’t working.  With nowhere to go, the pressure quickly became acute, until a loud and painful pop finally sounded in my left ear.  The right one kept on aching dully until we got to Guayaquil, about 90 minutes after the descent.  That also had the effect of everything sounding as though I had my palms pressed firmly over my ears.  I heard my own voice mostly through the vibration it caused in my own head, and only the lower frequencies of the outside world seemed to make it through.

That night in Guayaquil, as the pressure in my cranium slowly matched that of the world around me, my ears regained their normal capacity for hearing.  Or at least, my right one did.  I’m no doctor, but I suspect that I did some damage to my left eardrum when it made that loud popping sound, because for the next three days all noise entering my left ear sounded as if I were hearing it through a blown subwoofer.  Periodically throughout those days, as my ears would naturally pop, I felt like I was mildly re-injuring my already damaged ear, and it would go from sounding closer to normal, to going back to that blown-out, rattling sensation.  The good news is, before the end of the trip my hearing had returned to normal.  And, I know now not to take any trips that mean big altitude changes when I’ve got a stuffy head.

Once in Guayaquil, our next stop was Manta.  Home to a former US military base and located five hours north of big, sprawling Guayaquil, the map revealed a long, straight stretch of highway leading there, interrupted only by the small city of Portoviejo.  The trip out of Guayaquil took us near the edge of the port district, where metal railroad boxcars were stacked up several stories high, waiting for their next trip on a big cargo ship.  We also caught a glimpse of Guayaquil’s less-seemly neighborhoods, consisting of concrete block and wooden shack homes on leafy hillsides, garbage spilling down ravines along the city’s unincorporated extremes.

Outside of the city, we were treated at last to the tropical countryside:

I think Ecuador’s low, coastal interior is one of the most beautiful and diverse ecosystems you can find.  There are wetlands, mountains, deserts and cloud forests and jungles all within a few kilometers of one another.  Unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to spend as much time exploring the national parks of Ecuador’s coast as much as I would like, but once Tamia can begin carrying her own weight, maybe we can start checking them out a little more.  Until then, some glimpses from the roadside will have to do.

The mix of open countryside and small agricultural communities you see here are the hallmarks of a ride through Manabí, as much as are the many roadside stops in countless dusty towns where the locals hop on the bus briefly to sell.  Water, juice, bread.  Corviche, pan de yuca, empanadas.  And big, juicy oranges, with the tops sliced off and peeled down to the white albedo, which are made for tidily squeezing every last drop of the sweet juice into your mouth.  Yum!

Of course, each stop means an ebb in the cool breeze which blows in constantly through the windows while the bus is moving, and the moment the bus loses momentum, the heat and humidity instantly creep in, reminding you that you’re sitting at sea level, right on the Earth’s sweltering middle.  A ten minute stop in a small town, with tasty fresh fruit to keep you cool and refreshed, isn’t so bad.  But at the grimy bus terminal of Portoviejo, where our bus stopped inexplicably for more than an hour at midday, the wait began to take it’s toll on our patience.  With little outside of the bus besides a seedy bus station, dusty metal vending booths and some dusty palm trees scattered around the black asphalt, we chose to wait out the layover in our seats.

The long wait didn’t seem to bother our little daughter, as sweaty and sticky as she was.  Nancy and I on the other hand, knowing we were only an hour from Manta once we got back on the road, were both taken aback by this long stop.  The never-ending line of vendors moving along the bus aisle went gradually from a source of welcome refreshments to an annoying array of people to say “no, gracias” to.

My Catholic upbringing has instilled in me the sense that there is a place called Purgatory where we atone for our sins.  In a departure from the traditional belief, I’ve come to the conclusion that Purgatory is a place on Earth, and if you can endure long stopovers with grace and keep your cool throughout the experience, you have paid some penance for your past transgressions.

Finally the bus got back on the road, and it didn’t feel like long before we were in Manta.

Manta has a population of around 200,000 people, and its economy is driven largely by its status as a port city.  Tuna fishing, canning and shipping is a big part of its revenue, although more and more people are beginning to come for the wide and long beaches that lie on either side of the port district.  Including us.  Our main destination wasn’t Manta but Canoa, which laid still further north, but after five hours on a bus, we decided it would be nice to get a hotel near the beach and see what Manta was all about.

So we got off the bus and made our way out of the small but bustling bus terminal.  It turned out we were just a couple of blocks away from Manta’s Malecón, which refers to a seaside path made for walking and enjoying some shade and the nice views.  In this case, however, we had arrived in Manta just in time for the renovation of their Malecón, and so it wasn’t as pleasant of a walk as it could have been.  Nevertheless, there are still a number of parks to be found along the sea, along with some informational maps to help you keep your bearings.  While these maps were conspicuously lacking the “You are here” feature, we were, after some triangulation, able to determine that we were a modest walk from the nicer of Manta’s two beaches.

Manta, unlike many of Ecuador’s smaller beach towns, doesn’t seem to have too many hotels right along the sea, nor were there signs advertising lodging, nor people trying to convince you that their hotel was the best option.  Once we found our way to the beach, with all our bags, we still hadn’t seen one hotel.  At this point we were ready to find a place, any place, to stay for the night.  Preferably in time to get down to the beach before sundown and enjoy a few hours before going to bed, waking up and making the push up to Canoa.

In the end, we picked a random street to wander up, in hopes that some accommodations would present themselves.  Luckily, we did find a hotel, albeit a far nicer one than was really necessary for our purposes.  The rooms were essentially vacation apartments, complete with a small but functional kitchen.  There was even a private garage down below for the security of your personal transportation.  Not the rustic cabin setting I was accustomed to staying in when I came to the beach, and at $30 the price was a little high, considering we wouldn’t be there long enough to take advantage of many of the hotel’s comforts.  But, after so many hours on the bus, we were happy to have found a comfortable place to stay, and since we planned on leaving on an early bus out of Manta the next morning, the fact that breakfast on the patio would be included was a convenient bonus.

We unpacked, relaxed for a little while, and then headed down to the beach.  Halfway down the stairs I remembered something I wanted from the room, and on my way back down I saw that Nancy and Tamia had found a nice place to sit in the grass and wait for me:

We ended up not being too far from the beach after all, and once there we found it to be almost devoid of tourists.  While there was some development along the shore, it didn’t encroach excessively onto the sand, and there were many spaces set aside for gardens and palm trees.  We got there in time to roam the beach from end to end, and then we found a nice place to watch the sun go down.

There are few things better than watching the sunset on a tropical beach.  Before you churns the vast sea, above, the changing sky, and behind you, a continent that holds more mysteries than known places.  If you have a woman next to you who loves you as much as you love her, and perhaps a small child seeing such a scene for the first time in her young life, you could truly want for little more.

And then the sun goes down, and it gets dark.  An old man plays guitar in the sand and sings pasillos. After a few songs, a younger man selling smokes and candy pretends to steal coins from his overturned hat, and then gives him a cigarette.  The music is over, and we recall the strip of restaurants further up the beach.

A seafood dinner washed down with guanabana juice and a cold beer.  One last walk along rows of palm trees, sand and tropical flowers.  And the walk uphill to our hotel, shower, and cozy bed.

The next morning we awoke in time for a big breakfast to be served on the second story patio of our hotel, and then we packed and made our way back to the bus terminal.  We bought tickets for a bus departing in an hour, and found one of the nearby parks we’d passed the day before, to watch how a morning in Manta unfolded.

We were surprised to see dozens of men hanging out in the park, seemingly with nothing to do.  The demographic was mid thirties to mid forties, male, able bodied, and idle.  Were they truly unemployed, or would they be heading off to work sometime later?  Manta seemed like a bustling enough city that there would be jobs to go around, but something about the stance and camaraderie amongst the circles of fellows standing around the park implied that they were geared up for a long day of not much to do.

Well, one can speculate and people watch for only so long when you’ve got a new beach town to go to.  We soon got on the bus, and were on our way to Canoa, which lay further still up the coast of Manabí, four hours by bus.  Including another stop over in Portoviejo.  Seriously?  It seemed as if every bus traveling along the central coast of Ecuador was destined for an extended wait in this town.  I’m sure it’s a nice enough place, but from the bus terminal it didn’t look like it, and if it does have anything worthwhile to offer the traveler, we weren’t too curious to find out.

Beyond Portoviejo was a truly beautiful stretch of green hills, big trees and wetlands.  Our trip took us away from the coastline as the road wound through hilly countryside, and back again near the town of San Vicente, a fishing community with big beaches and small houses.  Beyond the palm-lined beaches and fishing boats, one can see across the calm Bahía de Caraquez, to a narrow peninsula from which rises a popular tourist town named for the bay itself.  Our guide book said it was a nice place to visit and a common destination for beach-bound Quiteños.

The fact that we were now much closer to distant Quito than we were to Cuenca weighed heavily on our travel-weary minds.  As our four hour trip was stretching into five hours and counting, and as our bus settled into a prolonged stop in San Vicente, as it had in many other towns before it, and as the town of Bahía de Caraquez sparkled invitingly from across the bay, I was sorely tempted to suggest that we hop off the bus and stick out the remainder of our trip here in this quiet fishing town.  After all, we’d heard you could get a boat over to Bahía for only a couple of dollars, and we’d be there in 20 minutes.

As if reading my mind – or more likely, the weary looks on our faces – the ticket collector on the bus assured us that we were almost in Canoa: “Ya mismo llegamos.” I’d come to learn that ya mismo can be interpreted as a duration of seconds or much, much longer.  But before we could vacillate our way off the bus, the engine cranked up and we were on our way.  And indeed, 15 minutes later we were pulling onto the sandy streets of Canoa.

Our original plan was to stay in Canoa for a day, and then head back down to Bahía de Caraquez and stay there as well.  But our one day in Canoa stretched into more.  We found a hotel with a small pool with nice, warm water:

We played cards and watched the sea at a beachside café:

We took an afternoon on the beach and drank beers under a canopy:

And otherwise, we just enjoyed being in a lazy beach town.  Canoa is a surfer’s haven, and the locals are content to collect what cash they can from the young travelers that flock from the world around to their little town.  After so many hours on a bus, we were in no hurry to leave such an easy place to be.

I originally chose Ecuador over other countries I had considered as places to work, largely because I liked the idea of a mix of mountains, Amazon, and beaches.  I’ve never had a home close to the ocean in my life; as the crow flies, Cuenca is by far as close as I’ve ever lived to a coastline.  Having lived here now for three years and been to the beach a grand total of four times, I can say with certainty that we’re still far enough away to make our beachgoing ventures few and far between.  So when we do get there, it’s nice to have no urgency to get back.

When the time to go finally came, and we walked over to the town’s one bus stop, we were happily surprised that a bus was pulling up just as we got there.  And, as it turned out, it was a nice one.  Air-conditioned, spacious seats, and amazingly, even though the bus was pretty full as it pulled in to Canoa, there were two open seats for us as we climbed on board.  We had planned to hit Bahía de Caraquez on the way home, but I suppose we’d gotten our fill of the beach already, and having found seats on a cool, comfy bus heading all the way to Guayaquil, we couldn’t bring ourselves to get off it as it reached San Vicente a few minutes later.  That little town on the bay will have to wait for another time.

It took us three days of travel to make our way up to Canoa at the beginning of our trip, but we made the push home in one day of dedicated marathon bus-hopping.  So it was that we were having breakfast on the beach in the morning in the shade of leafy almond trees, and carry-out pizza in our own house for a late night dinner, high and cool in Cuenca, far from the surfers, the ocean breeze, and the hot, tropical sun.  The trip itself was a blur of long naps, Portoviejo, homemade snacks from the coast, the sprawl of Guayaquil, and an unexpected tire change in the crisp air of Cajas.

As we went to sleep that night, snuggled up into the warm bliss that is our own bed after so many nights of hotel rooms, it was hard to believe that in the morning I had awoken early and watched the sun rise from a hammock a stone’s throw from the Pacific.  But that’s how it had been.  And until we go back again, those are the kinds of thoughts that cross my mind when I think about Manabí.

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