False starts. Back tracking. Forgotten items. Everyone have everything now? Okay. Let’s go! ¡Vamos chicos, vamos! Bags in the trunk. Boards on the roof. Friends in the back. My chico behind the wheel. Music on the speakers. Driving north from Manglaralto.
Montañita: The streets are crowded with waikis and surfistas; the music thumps from nearby hostels; all is buzzing with energy. Cut through, cut through. Olón: The Santuario church and orphanage is perched on the point, looking like an ark left after the flood subsided; a big futból game going on in the pueblo; a cheering crowd is in the street. Cut though, cut through. Curía, San Jose, Las Nuñez, La Entrada: The villages get smaller and the houses get bigger; mini-mansions for the extranjeros and guayaquileños ricos with big walls to keep out the locals. Dodge the donkeys and the street dogs who lay down the road and watch us swerve around them without a care in the world.
Then climb, climb, climb. Up through the jungled hills. No people, no villages. Just lush green and the ocean off in the distance peeking out at us through the valleys. And then down. The waves roll beside us as we coast along, back,back to the shoreline. Ayumpe: Lovely beach break; best corbiches in Ecuador. Las Tunas: Home of Jimmy of ‘Jimmy’s Restaurant’ fame; he can make you the best arroz marinero on the coast, or help find you a mechanic; the man wears many hats. Islands pop up in the distance. Isla Salangos, Isla de la Plata: Coral reefs, humpback whales, clean beaches.
Puerto Lopez approaches. The streets are filling with motorcycle rickshaws and mud. The smell of human life washing back in the windows. Do you know where the bank is señor?Left, left, right, left, right… The bank isn’t open. ATM? Out of cash. Why did we even bother. We’ve lived here long enough to know better. ¡Vamos chicos, vamos! Back to la Ruta!
Machalilla Park rolls out on all sides. It pushes away civilization and the air changes again. The tangy fragrance of animals, gasoline, fish guts, garbage, and shit, it fades and fades until it’s gone. Los Frailles, Ecuador’s most beautiful beach. Aguablanca village with healing sulfuric spring water and ancient artifacts. The secret beach, Las Playitas.
“Abril,” my chico turns me and points. “By that little hut is where you can leave your car. It’s better to come on a moto so you can hide it away and it’s not so obvious when the vigilantes pass by. Then you grab your stuff and go scrambling all the way down that valley until you reach the sea. No one else is there. No one is suppose to be there. But you go down anyway with your board, your tent, and food. A perfect little break to surf. A perfect little beach to hide away on. There is no one else. Just trees and ocean and birds. It’s Las Playitas and it’s beautiful. I promise you when you come home from New York, I’ll take you there.”
The jungle and the emptiness changes back to pueblos. Beach after beach. Point after point. Sand and waves trail along side us, whispering promises. The road splits and it’s up to Manta we go. The smell of tuna canneries hits us like a wall. Traffic blocks us in and the street turns to mud. Suddenly we’re in a city. The road crumbles here and there. The beaches are fenced up amusement parks and packed with weekenders from the Sierras. Gated communities with matchy condos and houses, like pastel colored piles of legos spread out behind fences guarded by armed men. Ugh, let’s get outta here. Which way? We’re lost. Damn it, why are there no signs. Do we take the road to Puerto Viejo or is that too far inland? Just follow the beach. Forget the signs they’re not helping. Just follow the beach. We drive past the wooden skeletons of half constructed boats, towering like the rib cages of strange man-made whales. The edge of Manta is a long line of restaurants. Each sandy parking lot packed with cars. Each selling the same seafood plates, fresh from the ocean. Each with a man standing on the street in front yelling “¡Vengan! ¡Vengan!,” spinning their arms in the air with the colorful menus clutched in their hands, like human windmills. Trying to get our attention. Trying to make their beachfront cabaña stand out from the plethora of other identical beachfront cabañas. Trying to make as much money as they can before the temporada passes, and the tourists leave.
We drive away from the over-stimulation of the city. ¡Vamos chicos, vamos! I am hungry. Everyone is hungry. Lets stop here. We stand at a crossroad. Brown dry scrub land as far as you can see in all directions. We’ve lost the beach. The restaurant is rundown and stands alone. There can’t be anyone here. I’m wrong. The restaurant is full. It doesn’t seem like there are any farms here but their must be, because here are all the farmers. Boys that look like they’re 16 years old and men, with well worn jeans and faces which are dark from the sun. We grab the only empty table: Three extranjeros and two Ecuadorians in bathing suits, sandals, and sunglasses in a sea of dusty faces. Should I feel unwelcome here? I glance around and see smiles. “Buen probecho,” says a man with a nod. Enjoy your meal.
I smile back. “Gracias. Buen probecho.”
Our waiter tells us to take a left, and then its only 30 minutes more. Really? That seems like so little. Off we go. Where are we? What is this village? The road ends at a bluff. “Buenos días señora. We’re looking for the road to Canoa. ¿Estamos cerca?” No, we are not close. We are lost. The señora sends us back the way we came. The sand and gravel alleys in the village twist and turn organically around houses and blocks and into gullies like a serpentine creek sliding up and down and around boulders in its path. We make it back to main road. We’ve lost over an hour. Okay, stay positive. Part of a road trip means getting lost, no? It’s not problem. Now we’re on the right track. But here’s another split. Which way? There are no signs. There is nothing to tell us where these roads would take us. We take a left (follow the beach right? The beach must be to the left.) Time passes. Towns pass. We know we’re lost. It’s hot. It’s getting late. We’ve lost another hour.
“THIS IS RIDICULOUS! Why the f*** would people build highways and not put any f***ing signs on them! Why is it impossible to buy an up-to-date f***ing road map in this country.”
“April, calm down. We’ll make it.”
“No! We’ve been driving in circles for over 2 hours! I’m losing it. This is F***ING RIDICULOUS!”
“April. It’s Ecuador. I guess they just haven’t gotten around to putting up signs yet. We’ll make it. Just chill. Lanza un poco si te ayudaría.”
In. Out. It’s all cool. This is just part of the adventure. Chillajate. Ecuador is all about relaxing and going with the flow. Breathe in, breathe out. You wanted to live here. Ridiculous inconveniences are part of the package. All calm. Don’t take this out on your friends.
“Uh oh… guys, I think we need to double back again. Now April, don’t get m–”
“¡CHUCHA SU MADRE! ¡HIJO DE PUTA!”
Time to check out for a bit. Sunglasses on, music up, don’t talk to anyone because you have nothing nice to say right now. Relax. We pass farms wrapped like sarongs across pregnant hills. Break for the cows! Don’t hit the cows! Churches and shrines on the street corners with patron saints and virgins nodding sleepily in their arched nooks.
“Mi amor? Why are there so many virgins? Are they all the same virgin with different names? Or did each of these towns really have their own virgin, because that seems like a hell of a lot of virgins.”
“Ummm… Not 100% sure on that one babe…”
Suddenly we see a sign for Bahía. It’s a miracle. Yes! Yes! Yes! I’m sorry I blew up on y’all. Thank god someone in this car has patience. ¡Vamos, chicos, vamos! Where’s the ferry to Canoa? There’s a bridge! The most ‘recent’ map I found said you had to take a ferry over the inlet, and now there’s a bridge! I take back all that crap I said before. Ecuador is amazing! Look at this bridge that just popped up! ¡Increíble! What have all those politicians been saying recently? “Ecuador es progreso.” Or something like that…
Victory. Feel the victory. We run to the beach just as the sun is setting. We feel the sand between our toes. Gawk at clouds glowing in the dimming light. ¡Vamos chicos, vamos! We made it! We’re here!