What a week
31.01.2008 - 10.02.2008 35 °C
First of all, I have to apologize for how long this entry is going to be. I tried to no avail to break up the stories I have accumulated on my week of personal travel with three others. Ecuador has so much to offer and each day can be written like its own little tall tale.
The four of us, David (having just gotten out of the hospital no more than seven hours earlier), Katie, Nick, and I, on Thursday, took a bus that crossed the entire country of Ecuador, the equator, and some of the largest banana plantations in the world in order to arrive at our destination of Esmeraldas. We inquired about the length of time it would take for such a journey and all the estimates ranged from twelve to thirteen hours. But those were favorable estimates for a week after rains on the Andean slopes that caused more than half of the roads to be closed due to mudslides. It took us seventeen hours. Arriving with the sun directly overhead, beating down on us, encouraged us to quickly find a hotel rather than bake while napping in the park plaza. We stayed the night in the beach town of Esmeraldas called Las Palmas. The scene was more or less as depressing as one can get for an equatorial beach. Esmeraldas is home to the pipeline that traverses over the Andes and down into the Oriente Amazonian rainforest where they pump up more than 50% of the countries revenue in "black gold." The horizon was littered with oil tankers each going to all the different parts of the world. In the actual town of Esmeraldas we explored what seem to be more like a Caribbean town, finding music stores for which to come back to. We also ran into a Tía store for some much need groceries and water, buying our first bundle of Club Social crackers for David's diet. We kept Club Social in business with the amount that we bought over the course of the week. We found nothing better for a weak stomach. The following night, after living the life in our air-conditioned room, we headed southwest along the coast to Atacames. In Atacames, we hopped on the ecotaxi, a motorcycle attached with a carriage in front (to obstruct the vision of the driver), until we arrived at the beach where already the stands bordering the beach were blasting their reggaeton. We had reservation through Narcisa so as to have a place during a very busy Carnival in this French Quarter style party strip but on first look we knew it wasn't worth $15 a night. Inside a barbershop, overlooking a bar without a window, and no toilet seat on the toilet helped convince us to move on and find a different place to stay. After a few rejections because of the high prices, we came upon Hostal Jennifer, which was actually in the guidebook. They gave us a bargain price of $12 a night if we signed for three consecutive nights. We took it for the four hammocks and mildly quieter atmosphere. The rest of the day was spent looking for a bathing suit and some flip-flops and then body surfing on the waves of a beach much more acceptable than that in Las Palmas. Each passing day added hundreds and hundreds of more people arrived at the beach, littering it, literally, with people. We took in one night of the party, and that was all I could really handle. We stopped into our first bar-hut looking for some flavorful mixed drinks but I made the wrong choice. Before thinking it through I had ordered "la cucaracha" for its name, meaning "the cockroach." I was not on the top of my game. I got a bowl of tequila and coco flavor literally on fire. I realized later I was supposed to drink it while on fire, but the surprise of it caused me to blow it out like it was an unintentional fire. It was the strongest drink I've ever tasted, and hope to ever taste. Katie, after seeing my reaction to it, wanted to give it a try and immediately spewed it all over me. Only after a few sips, chased down with David's coke, I gave up on the drink and we danced a little to the reggaeton being played. We chose the right bar to be at because I got myself on Ecuadorian television. Afterwards, we took a little time to try and cool off before trying another place where I chose not to make the same mistake again with guessing at a mixed drink and ordered simply "tropical drink." It tasted like pineapple juice and nothing more. A little upsetting. The culture on the beach was quite interesting indeed. Lots of wandering people without choosing a place to sit and dance perhaps. All of the discobars and things in an actual building were for the most part empty. And without bathrooms, drunken guys lined the surf to relieve themselves. Quite an interesting time. The party never really stopped either. The music only subsided when the sun rose again, but only for a few hours before you could hear the bass beats of reggaeton to call breakfast. The following day, David had a reaction to eggs that he ate for breakfast and his health turned very sour. We got close to taking him to the hospital or finding him a way back to Cuenca. It didn't take long for someone to get sick. That night he got to feeling better but none of us really wanted to take part in the activities over night and spent most of the time lounging in the hammocks sharing stories. I indulged in some ice cream in the bottom half of a pineapple, called piña hawaiiana. I was already missing it by the time I finished.
After wearing ourselves down with the high powered experience of Atacames, we headed south down the coast to arrive eventually at Canoa, a small beach town known for it's large beaches and little population. We got an unexpected treat on the bus rides though. It was probably one of my favorite days on the entire trip. We started on a late morning out of Atacames and caught a bus to Mensaje where we could another bus, and then another to arrive at Perdenales where at last we could get a bus to Canoa. The bus rides drove through scenic seaside vistas where out of the green hills of tropical flora came a beautiful view of the Pacific. But most of the enjoyment hailed from the people that we saw. The first bus had a late blooming drunk. He very well could have been up all night, but he was drunker than ever and carrying a bottle of Pilsener. It didn't take long for him to pass out. No one really made a move to help or punish him, only looks and laughs. When we jumped out to catch the next bus, sir drinks-a-lot got the boot. Our next bus pulled up almost immediately. The town we were in, if you can even called one, was a crossroads that housed no more than ten building, all home to vendors of you name it for the buses that drive through. The driver made a pit stop here so we had plenty of waiting time in the center of the road, enough time for Sir drinks-a-lot to purchase a new bottle of Pilsener to spill when he passes out a second time. But David and I sought the seats up front away from the commotion he was bound to cause. The sight to have on this bus was the ayudante, who took the money, provided the music, and hurried the traffic in and out of the bus. He was lost in the culture of the late eighties and early nineties. We listened to essentially the soundtrack to Rocky. We also heard some "Eye of the Tiger" and "Highway to the Dangerzone." Not only was his musical tastes from the late eighties and early nineties but he looked like he came straight out of Fresh Prince of Bel Air. The white rimmed bug-eyed glasses was just icing on the cake. The bus change to go to Perdenales was even more abrupt than the previous one. We hopped of the bus midway down the street to get into a extended open-air hummer-like bus, more common in the north coast of Ecuador. It was only a 50km drive so we figured it would not take more than an hour and a half but the road conditions pushed back our expectations and it took more like two and a half hours. That's a whopping 13km/hr, that's equivalent to less than 10 miles/hr. The road was more like a jungle four-wheel drive road than a coastal highway. There were small indigenous communities built up every ten minutes or so, each bearing three or four kids looking to celebrate Carnival. Like everywhere in Ecuador, there are speed bumps at the most unnecessary points. Unfortunately they were right in the heart of every little community. Prime position for the kids to hurl buckets of water on to everyone stuck in the bus. I got absolutely soaked by the time we pulled into Perdenales. It didn't really matter because the splash mobile came to greet us. This was true anywhere you were around the time of Carnival, certainly true in Cuenca. There would be a crowd of teenagers in the back of a slow moving pickup truck with a huge vat of water for a large supply of these raids on the innocent. We nearly made it the entire two hour wait without being hit, but on the walk to the the bus station, we were spotted and thoroughly drenched. On the bus we got the best American culture, the movie "the Marine." It was your classic stereotypical American film with action scenes every ten minutes, starting in the first two minutes, with the main character in Iraq, killing hundreds of terrorists in the most absurd ways. I was pretty embarrassed to be sitting there in the bus front row, and secretly hoped that no one paid any attention. The volume shorted out midway on the drive, and possibly the most peculiar thing was to see more than one person concerned about turning it up again. One thing is for sure, Ecuadorians love their absurd action. Here's a quick list of some of the movies I've seen on buses: The Fast and the Furious, The Scorpion King, The Medallion, and the Terminator.
Anyway, we finally got into Canoa in the dark, dusty town. Tired and had no idea where to go, we scoped out the places in the lonely planet guide. Everyone was way over priced for a hut with a mosquito net. What we did find was the best room in Canoa for a mere $8 a night. What a score! The fifth story, right on the beach with a cool breeze looking straight at the setting sun. It was a little like heaven. And what more, but Canoa had pancakes to feed our craving in the morning. The next day we spent the day in the corner of a very pristine beach where crabs still lived in their burrowed holes moving back and forth to their homes with any movement and the surf was spotless. We really were living the life. Everyone was near perfect health. Of course that had to change overnight. I got a little over zealous with the good food that we found here and ordered veggie spaghetti, with uncooked vegetables. The onions, which I was told not to eat before going to the coast, were potent. I woke up at 4 in the morning to unbearable pains in my stomach, throwing up, and diarrhea. It was the most sick I think I have ever felt. I had to get an injection and take some crazy amount of pills just to avoid getting an IV. Phew. The next morning I was able to get out of bed to take the long trip down the coast to Montañita. Montañita is more or less a surfer town, caulk full of gringos. We made a similar fantastic find here as we did in Canoa, we scored an $8 room high in a building over looking the bog/swamp near the ocean, just about the best you could find in this far too ritzy coast town. I had to avoid eating the fantastic international food though. I missed my last chance of getting Pad Thai until I return the states more than likely. And then the following morning, Saturday, we found the best pancake place in the world. Oh I was jealous. Eating beans and rice and snacking on crackers to stave off my hunger was my diet for three days. The next morning I felt 100% and had some of those pancakes to die for. Banana an chocolate. Ohhh so good.
The bus back to Cuenca was pretty uneventful. We passed through Guayaquil, surging with people. The bus depot was a three story high bus stop with over 200 terminals! From there we went up the unbelievably steep Andes, fishtailing the turns in the pouring rain, just missing the possibilities of bus plunge. I was finally able to breath by the time we reached Cajas national park, but then I lost it again. The views were breath-taking. Pristine lakes, mountain peaks showing bare rock cliffs, and not a tree in sight to block the view of the sunset and then moonlit scenery. I have to go back! I would stay weeks or months there if I could. Absolutely beautiful, like nothing I've seen before. I got back into Cuenca at 8:30 on Sunday, only to wake up again less than eleven hours later for school once again.