Boobies and Beaches

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Guayaquil is Ecuador’s biggest, most commercial, and formerly most crime ridden city. Sweltering at sea level at the mouth of the Rio Guyas it presents an immediate contrast to elegant, colonial Cuenca with its slower pace and immaculate streets. During the last 10 years the current mayor has conducted an urban renewal program designed to get a handle on the rampant crime that caused the city to be under nightly curfew for some years. It is still a city where tourists and locals alike take taxis rather than walk after dark, but the streets are quite safe during the day now, and the waterfront vastly refurbished.

The main project is a long pedestrian walkway running 3 or 4 kilometres down the length of the downtown waterfront. Known as the Malecon, it is filled with trees, botanical gardens, historical monuments, a children’s park, restaurants, contemporary sculpture, etc etc. Enclosed by iron grillwork, it is patrolled heavily by police and locked up at midnight. It makes a very pleasant place to walk, and it took us most of one day to completely traverse it and Las Penas which is at the north end.

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Las Penas is a kind of gentrified barrio, separated from its original neighbours by iron gates which are locked at night and also heavily patrolled (I am talking 4 policemen every 100 metres). The city has built a staircase through it — the barrio beside has the original snaking dirt trails — and there are 444 of these steps. Your geriatric correspondents were amazed at how easily they sprang up those 444 steps after training at high altitudes for 6 weeks! The project is very interesting, as “before” photos are posted on each house. Most of them are now small bars, as the whole thing is lighted at night, until they close the gates at midnight. We could see that most of the gentrification is the immaculately maintained steps and the gardens beside them — the insides of the houses seem about as they were, and the city paints the outsides in bright colours every 3 years. Just the facades are changed. Great view from the top.

I decided we should stay in a hotel which was at the foot of Las Penas, an elegant old mansion from 1920, refurbished as a hotel and furnished with antiques of that period of the Ecuadorian upper class by the on site owner. Just 10 rooms spread over 4 floors, our room was on the first floor, actually up 3 steep flights of steps from street level and had a tiny balcony overlooking the river. Our taxi had to negotiate 2 police checkpoints to get us in there! Amazing house, and our room was gorgeous, but the saddest thing was that the owner was clearly one of those creative individuals who can’t see dirt. Our room was well cleaned, but the beautiful salon with its ceilings painted with Renaissance type figures and festooned with enormous crystal chandeliers hadn’t been cleaned in the 3 years the place has been open. Huge crystal vases and bowls were thick with grime, no one swept the graceful curving staircase. The magnificent terrace on the 3rd floor was even worse. Over the unused and disheveled bar hung one of those hanging wine glass holders with cut glass antique champagne glasses, they were so black with dirt they were no longer transparent! And on and on. Maria the owner was extremely charming, full of suggestions for where we should eat, what we should see, endlessly helpful, but clearly had no clue about housekeeping! And this was an expensive and classy establishment charging top dollar. Fortunately we loved our room for the 2 nights we were there — 20 foot ceiling with its own chandelier, immense brass bed, filmy white curtains blowing at the double French doors opening onto the little white balcony with the sun glinting on the river…and perfect location.

On we went to Puerto Lopez, a small fishing village about 4 hours by bus up the coast. What a contrast the coast is to the tidy mountain villages we have been visiting. As soon as we left the mountains for the flat lands leading to Guayaquil it was a different world. Rickety houses on stilts, garbage strewn everywhere, bananas, pineapples, sugar cane, and even rice fields beside the road — much more familiar scenery to these Asian travellers. However the coastal fishing villages take their relaxed attitude to sanitation to an extreme. In a country where we have been impressed with efforts to recycle and separate refuse into organics and inorganics, it was a shock to see things thrown down on the street again, even dead animals left at the side of the road for the black vultures to feast on. Puerto Lopez was definitely of that ilk, but somewhat more prepossessing than all the little towns the bus stopped at on the way there, because of its tourism industry.

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Off the coast sits a small island called Isla de la Plata, dubbed “the poor man’s Galapagos” because of its collection of nesting sea birds like three kinds of boobies — blue footed, red footed, and Naszca, frigate birds, and albatrosses. We took a boat trip there, funnily enough our companions were 2 Canadian expats living in Cuenca and their two friends from Edmonton. The crossing was very rough with kind of a side wallow as well as waves we were hitting head on. Of course I immediately began to feel foul, and as the talk turned to the unlikelyhood of seeing the humpbacked whales for which this area is known (their dates of transit are June to September) I started praying that we wouldn’t be “lucky” and actually spot some. If there is anything worse than rocking about in a boat that is moving, it is stopping to observe wildlife and sitting still while the boat wallows from side to side. Wouldn’t you know it we had the amazing good fortune to see 2 pods, a total of 9 whales including babies, which breeched and spouted — sending the Edmontonians and our other companions, 4 Belgians, into ecstasies, while I sat and counted off the interminable minutes, enduring as best I could, until thankfully they all dived and we could at least move again. Never, never am I going on a whale watching expedition!

Things improved markedly when we reached the craggy dry island where we did a 3 hour guided hike, skipping around nesting blue boobies as we went. These feckless birds lay their eggs on the footpath as they like the heat, demarcating their area by defecating around it. Their feet are blue because of their diet, in this area a type of sardine. The red footed ones nest on the sides of the cliffs which ring the island so it is harder to spot their red feet which are due to their shrimp diet, and the Nazsca ones who have green feet and eat various types of fish had not yet laid their eggs yet. The bluer the feet, the more attractive males and females are to each other, as they are basically an indicator of maturity and good health. They lay 3 eggs at 3 day intervals, with the poor 3rd one doomed to provide emergency food rations for the other two chicks as they get bigger.

Frigate birds are the oddest group — they are huge and soar constantly up and down this coast. The soaring is due to the fact that they are terrible landers — we watched them coming in to perch beside their dishevelled nests in trees and they would often need more than one attempt as they tumbled off the branch in a graceless heap. They also can’t swim, and if their feathers get wet they sink like a stone. What kind of sense does that make for birds with a diet of fish? They eat by stealing from other birds and finish off with flying fish if they encounter a school. Just can’t see how that would lead to a successful future for them, but they abound here. Albatrosses on this island are endangered so their nesting area was off limits when we were there. Lots of other small birds and reptiles so all in all a successful hike before we had to get back in the boat for another hour and a half of hellish pitching, even rougher this time but thankfully without the wallow.

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We did some other lovely exploring, including one of the prettiest and cleanest white sand beaches we’ve ever seen, Los Frailes, where Doug stripped off and plunged in as we were the only people there. Just in the nick of time was stepping back into his shorts as a tour bus of Germans drove up and they all marched out and across the beach in full hiking gear. And luckily we had the most lovely guesthouse, with Italian/Swiss German owners — the place ran like a top due to the Swiss German wife, and had the most artistic woodwork and carving I’ve ever seen due to the Italian. Perfecto, as they say here.

This time we opted for a long distance taxi to our next destination as we realized we would have to change buses twice and it would take at least 6 hours. We made it in less than 3 in the taxi. We went to stay with an American expat couple just outside Canoa, another grubby little town, but with a stupendous beach as long as the eye can see. They have built a gorgeous home, extremely tasteful in adobe style which fits the colours of the landscape beautifully. They built it in stages, so we are happily staying in the “Studio” which was stage one, their son who is visiting from the enormous yacht he crews on is in the “Casita”, and they live in the “Casa” which was the final stage. We got in contact with them via some Americans we met in Banos, and the prospect of staying in a home, away from a village and cooking for ourselves for a few days intrigued us.

I have mentioned this expat life a few times now, we have met quite a few as Ecuador has a reputation as a cheap and comfortable place to retire. This couple is originally from Texas, and while living in Washington got into sailing. They decided to retire early and go sailing so they saved up, sold everything and went off sailing for 3 years, eventually ending up anchored near here. They found a plot of land and kind of fell into building, when it was finished they sold the boat and are land bound now. The house is beautiful, the view from the front patio of miles and miles of surf and beach with not a soul in sight, is gorgeous, but… The whole place is ringed by high walls, brick at the back and sides and wrought iron grill work at the front so they can at least see the beach. Not only that, all their doors and windows are grilled and they have grill work across the lovely front deck — so the view is obscured by not one but two layers of iron grill. They have an old guy who sleeps here every night, in a hammock in the yard and supposedly tours the property with his light at intervals. The place is ringed with high poles with huge lights on them — we have to hang our beach towels over our windows at night as it is broad daylight inside the room! And did I mention the two pit bulls? Not my idea of quality of life, despite the beauty of the setting and the lovely house. I can’t decide if they have overreacted to an admittedly very frightening episode about 2 years ago or whether this level of vigilance is justified. Not for me anyway.

The funniest episode occurred the day after we arrived. Cheryl came to our door in the morning to say that the police were coming to check the place over because a young man had come to their front iron gate that morning and tried to speak to her. She couldn’t really understand him, but the gist was that he wanted money. She immediately went into a panic, got Scott out of bed to take his picture with the iPhone, and called the police. That night when the geriatric guard arrived he had with him a rifle, which he proceeded to sit down and polish. We were having drinks with them at their outside kitchen and Scott told us the guard was going to “fire a shot” so not to be alarmed. Sure enough the old geezer fired off 2 rounds and then came and gave the empty cartridges to Scott. No evidence that anyone was around, or that there was any danger, in fact the teenager had practically posed for his picture and the police knew who he was. Then the old gaffer climbed into his hammock and went off to sleep as far as I could see.

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Cheryl and Scott are wonderful hosts and she particularly loves to plan and organize so we have had a couple of great outings from here. Yesterday we visited a “dry rain forest” where we were surrounded by 20 howler monkeys, a great stroke of luck according to Cheryl who has been there 3 times and was glad to see 2 or 3. They make such odd noises, quite incongruous for such small animals, and when they howl you could be sure a pack of lions was overhead! Our guide was an indigenous guy from the Amazon and had some wonderful stories of his childhood as well as lots of nature lore. Our Spanish must be improving, we can pretty much follow a description like that, and also a guided tour of a nearby tiny museum of pre Columbian artifacts which abound here. Scott has a huge collection of ones he has actually found on the beach after the river floods. Sadly we don’t “hablar” as well as we “escuchar” — we have the greatest difficulty spitting out the words.

It’s been great fun here on the coast, and so very different from the inland areas in so many ways. We are off next to Mindo in the Cloud Forest not too far from Quito for birds and butterflies. We mis-planned, thinking we would loop around the country and see Mindo on our return, not having realized that to get from here to Mindo would take us two days by bus due to road connections. So we are taking a 50 minute flight from Manta just south of here instead. Will keep you posted, the trip is nearing its close, just the Amazon to go and then we will have seen all the climatic zones.

 

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