The Galapagos were incredible, but it was inevitable that we would have to return to mainland at some point. This point came around way too quickly, and next up we spent some time on the coast in Ecuador.
Here we based ourselves in Montañita at first. This is a real tourist town, which means a bit less authentic culture but plenty of opportunities to find somewhere to stay cheaply, eat cheaply, party cheaply, you get the picture.
We had an extended time here, as we had read about the Montañita Spanish School and had booked in here for a couple of weeks of lessons there. I always feel that a huge part of both enjoying and respecting a country you visit is to learn some of the language: if I go away for a couple of days I might only learn enough to say ‘please’, ‘thank you’, and to order things, but being away for 12 weeks seemed a great opportunity to delve deeper into the local language.
Montañita is pretty self-explanatory when you get there, so you don’t need many top tips to get by – plus, most people there are there to party, which gives most people slightly different priorities to mine. That said, I do have a few pointers I feel I ought to mention:
Firstly, you must check out cocktail alley. This is one of the little roads leading down to the beach, along which, lining both sides, are little pop-up- or kiosk- style cocktail bars, each with a handful of seats at the front and a selection of spirits and fruits on display, and each manned by a different person. The quality and prices at them all is pretty much equal, and sometimes an order at one will be fulfilled by another (for example if they don’t have the right fruit, or are too busy) so it doesn’t really matter which you go to – just pick one you like the look of! And don’t worry if you’re not a cocktail person, you can get great fruit juices cheaply too. Head there in the evening when most of them are open.
Secondly, make the most of the local-style cheap eats around town. There are several large, funky looking café/restaurant/bars around, where you can get good food at reasonable restaurant prices – and for the most part (certainly while I was there) they were the ONLY places where you could get ok coffee. But don’t limit yourself to these touristy places – there are so many small local style restaurants in the town, from where you can get a Menu del dia for between US$2 and US$4. These ‘menus’ consist of a choice of starter, usually soups and cerviche, followed by a choice of main course – often with fish, red meat and chicken options. You also get a drink, normally a small fruit juice. And it’s always freshly cooked and delicious, and much better value than the tourist restaurants.
|Delicious food - this is from Tiburón|
As well as permanent restaurants there are carts everywhere selling fresh juices – blended from chunks of real fresh, ripe and delicious fruits mixed with either water or milk. You can totally customise these drinks – remember to ask for no sugar (‘sin azucar’) if you want to keep calories down. A roughly pint sized drink is about US$1-2. These places almost all also offer fruit salads. Fruit here is so ripe, sweet and delicious that a fruit salad – served with a pouring of yoghurt and a sprinkling of granola – that you can get a really tasty meal from a fruit salad. Ideal if you have a bit of a hangover and want to put some goodness back into your body, or if you simply want a delicious breakfast. These salads cost US$2-3.50 while we were there.
Thirdly, Montañita might be party central, but with a gorgeous beach where you can sunbathe, swim, surf (or learn to surf) as well as watching the pelicans and looking out for turtles, not to mention the nearby excursions into jungle to spot wildlife, or up the coast to visit the Machalilla National Park – then you don’t need to be a party animal to enjoy staying here. Avoid peak times, such as Christmas and New Year, and stay just outside of the main town centre. Montañita is so small that ‘just outside’ means only a 2 minute walk from the restaurants and bars, while allowing more calm accommodation away from the thumping music. I highly recommend Kundalini Hostel. This fabulous place is still reasonably priced – although I predict that to change in the near future – with lovely rooms in mini cabañas, complete with hammocks outside each room. Located against a grassy lawn, the other side of which meets the beach, the sea-facing rooms have wonderful views, and the whole place is a very short walk from the main bit of town while being quiet enough that you can get a good sleep there. The breakfast area is right next to the beach and the eggs, fruit and coffee served up are included in the price. The whole place is clean and smart, and the staff are really helpful, particularly Diego.
|Kundalini - photo from www.hostalkundalini.com.ec/en/|
Finally, get out and about! It’s really easy to grab a taxi and travel to Dos Mangas, a small nearby town from where you can walk into the forest on a couple of routes, either to a small cascade or a small natural pool in which you can swim and cool off after a hot hike! You sign in to the area and hire guide for these walks, and remember to get the phone number from the taxi driver when they drop you off so you can call when you need a ride back.
|Pool reached from Dos Mangas|
The Spondylus cycle route also passes through here, and while this wasn’t something I did while we were there, you can get plenty of information and hire bikes to enjoy the area from several places in town.
A very cheap 45 minute bus ride up the coast takes you to the town of Puerto Lopez, which is another starting point for walks in the forest and also for boat trips out to Isla de la Plata, sometimes known as the ‘poor man’s Galapagos’ due the abundance of wildlife to be seen here. Trips within Machalilla can be booked from Montañita or Puerto Lopez, but bear in mind that often if booked from Montañita then you will have to make your own way to Puerto Lopez (just flag down a bus on the main road). Machalilla forest walks are great for seeing howler monkeys and other jungle wildlife, and as we had already seen lots of marine birds and sea lions on the Galapagos, monkeys appealed so this was the trip we did. You can do this trip on horseback or by walking, so even more options for variety.
|Machalilla National Park, looking down towards the sea in the distance|
This only covers the small part of the Ecuadorian coast that we saw and there is far more to explore, but it’s not a bad start :)