We finally made it to our final destination Montañita , a cool, chill little beach town about 3 hours west of Guayaquil. Montañita is best known for two things; surfing and partying. This combination attracts a diverse, slightly offbeat and hippie crowd from all over the world.
The town has grown tremendously in recent years and while this is mostly a good thing (accommodations and infrastructure have improved), some of the locals lamented to us that just a little bit of charm may have been lost in the process.
That being said Montañita is still a great spot where travelers and locals depend on each other and mix and mingle as well as any tourist town I’ve seen.
But the real reason to come here is the waves. Now I’m not a huge surfer by any stretch but the waves in Montañita are legendary. The edge of the beach at the Point is where the big monster waves are, but given my surfing experience (basically none); we decided it best if I sought the services of a professional.
We headed over to the Balsa Surf Shop and one of the best surfers in town, Eusebio Rodriguez agreed to give me a lesson. Eusebio is not only a great surfer; he’s a good teacher.
He insisted I stick to the baby waves, not the big daddy waves I naively wanted to try. In the end, I listened to Eusebio and got up on my first try. From there on it was a constant battle to stay upright and to remember all the techniques Eusebio taught me until I eventually tired out and called it a day.
Once back on land I accidentally dropped the surfboard on my foot and bled like a stuck pig. But that didn’t damper my producer’s enthusiasm. He ignored the injury and insisted on getting his “intro” and “outro” so I gave it to him.
Later that night we sampled a little bit of the Montañita nightlife but nothing too crazy or ridiculous. I was exhausted from surfing and a work out at the local gym aptly named “Surf and Gym” and called it an early night.
We went to sleep to the lovely sounds of waves crashing in surf and the decidedly less lovely sounds of reggaeton and electronic music spilling from one of the discos in town.
The next day we took a cramped and claustrophobic minivan back to Guayaquil because the buses back were all booked up. It would have been a quicker and less painful journey but one guy, an obvious friend of the driver, kept insisting the van stop so he could either buy more beer or relieve himself of the beer he had just consumed.
Montañita may not be the charming little beach town I first set my eyes on 5 years ago. But it’s still a cool and somewhat off the beaten path destination to take in a little beach action. If you go, I heartily recommend you look for Eusebio at the Balsa Surf Shop and at least give the baby waves a try.
Guayaquil has a whole different vibe than Quito but has plenty to offer a curious traveler for a couple or three days. Though many people may tell you the central part of town is dangerous, that is based largely on outdated information from the 1990s. We stayed in a lovely apartment flat cum hostel called “Casa Romero” in the central part of town that was perfect for our needs.
The Malecon or waterfront boardwalk is the area to see and it was completely redone in a very intense renovation in the year 2000. Today it is a beautiful part of the city and a great and secure place to go walking (day or night), but especially around dusk or sundown when you’ll see families and tourists doing what they do best, enjoying life.
There are restaurants, bars, cultural monuments and statues, artisan markets and on weekends and holidays usually entertainment (the night we were there a live tribute to the music of the 1960s). And perhaps most importantly lots and lots of police and security stroll around so that a traveler never should feel insecure.
The end of the Malecon leads to the beautiful Cerro Santa Ana the historical part of Barrio Las Penas. Cerro Santa Ana has over 400 winding steps that are numbered so you can track your progress.
If the hike is too intense, don’t worry; the area is full of colorful restaurants, bars, souvenir shops etc., so you can take your time. On the day we were there it was packed because it was a holiday but we made it all the way to the top which has a lighthouse and church, both which afford a great view of the city and surrounding river.
Also near the central part of town is the famous Parque Bolivar which is better known as Iguana Park because it is chock full of friendly and cool iguanas that will even let you pet them (though I saw signs telling us not to, we, along with about a dozen kids, did anyway). Iguana Park is small and besides the iguanas isn’t that unlike many of the dozens of other parks we’ve visited, but it’s still one of my favorite parks in all of Latin America.
Now if you have time to head outside of the center of town, I recommend Parque Historico, which is out in a newer, wealthier suburb of Guayaquil just past the airport. Parque Historico was built in a naturally occurring mangrove.
It has a zoo that features the native wildlife of the area that is not to be missed. The animals aren’t really in cages as much as fenced off and contained in naturally occurring areas that make it feel like your observing them in their natural habitat. We saw monkeys, foxes, exotic birds, leopards, caymans and more. While zoos don’t really turn me on, I must admit the monkeys cracked me up with their antics. Hilarious and so human like.
The park’s namesake comes from the fact that they have a scaled down replica of what the Malecon was like during the heyday of the late 1800s and 1900s. The buildings feel pretty authentic and it seemed like a small movie set.
They also have other traditional exhibits which showcase the different types of homes, complete with the culture and traditions of the 1800s including a hacienda (ranch) and a rural farm typical of the coast.
It felt pretty authentic because it comes complete with actual actors in full character. On the weekends we hear they have shows and demonstrations that add to the feeling. All in all, Parque Historico is worth the drive/taxi ride if you have the time.
We also visited the Botanical Gardens way, way on the outskirts of town on top of a mountain. The best thing to me about the gardens was the beautiful view of the city as well as the monkey and bird exhibit.
Let’s face it plants just aren’t that exciting. The guide map promised a butterfly reserve, but we could only spot two butterflies in the whole exhibit. Maybe they escaped or were in hibernation? All in all I can’t recommend the Botanical Gardens unless you are really, really into plants.
But Guayaquil, I can most certainly recommend, especially if you want to get a different flavor of Ecuador beyond Quito and the indigenous, mountainous cities and towns. It’s not as cultural as Quito or Cuenca, but there is something about the coastal vibe that you feel immediately upon arrival to Ecuador’s largest city.
Perhaps the best thing about Guayaquil is that it is just a few hours bus ride to the coastal towns of Salinas and Montenita, which is where we are headed next to wind up our trip.
Ecuador got off to a somewhat rocky and inauspicious start when I was surrounded by 6 young hoods and accosted for my camera just hours after having arrived in Quito. The location was Plaza Foch which is packed with tourist and police, but evidently is one of the more dangerous areas you can wander around at night by yourself with a camera around your neck.
By yelling, screaming and simply refusing to give over my camera without a fight or a big scene, I was able to avoid anything more serious than a ripped jacket. I was also able to notify the police when I later spotted some of the main culprits walking around as if nothing happened just a few blocks away.
Unfortunately, because they did not actually steal anything, I’m afraid the guys were most likely released from custody that very same night to continue their reign of bullying on unsuspecting travelers. Nonetheless I recognized my luck at having my Cannon still available for our first day of shooting the very next day and while I had an exciting story to tell I’ll be the first to admit I was a bit foolish in having my camera out at night in the first place.
But I must say I will probably do so again, when circumstances are similar and I want to get a good shot. I firmly believe you can’t spend your whole life with your camera packed safely away in your hotel or hidden away because someone might actually be willing to rob you for it.
At some point you have to live your life and enjoy your trip, but common sense must tell you have to weigh the risk vs. the reward and be prepared to lose your camera or worse. If you don’t risk anything you may as well stay at home and never go anywhere or do anything. But if your reading this and planning a trip to Quito, be very vigilant, especially at night around Plaza Foch and other areas.
We received what we thought to be a 2nd bad omen when early into our first day of shooting in the historic old city of Quito (at 52 blocks the largest preserved old city in South America), a bird, or a flock of birds more likely, did their business all over me, my shirt, my producers shirt and our camera bag. Normally I’d laugh this off but this stuff was the ugliest, foulest smelling bit of feces I’ve ever come in contact with (and I grew up on a farm). I didn’t have another shirt with me so we all had to wash in a nearby public restroom and I had to change into my previously ripped, hooded jacket and we carried on shooting, continuity be damned.
My producer, Renzo, is Colombian and he said that in Latin America a bird plopping crap on you was considered a sign of good things to come. I certainly did hope so because the last 24 hours had been tough.
Indeed, things did quickly get better. Our shoot in the rest of the Old City was wonderful as we shot such beautiful historic sites as Plaza Independencia, La Plaza Grande, The Government Palace Building and more. I took advantage of the situation and bought a hand woven replacement shirt at one of the stalls where they featured clothing made in nearby Otavalo, a city famous for its textiles, market and indigenous culture . We also met a lovely couple who were weavers and demonstrated how to hand weaving process works for our cameras.
Later we were joined by Cheo, a local, young communications student from the coastal city of Esmeraldas who had volunteered to help us out. We made our way to the Teleferiquo or the cable car which took us up for an incredible if chilly view of Quito high above one of the area mountains.
We made it to the back down to the old city and the lovely La Calle Ronda, an area of cobblestone streets, cafes and restaurants in time for dusk and we got some great shots off there before dark and then heading over to the more modern part of the city to shoot at the famous rock bar, “The Garage”. We were there to shoot my buddies from the local punk band DMTR (Demeter) who agreed to put on a special performance just four our cameras.
All in all it was a solid 1st day of shooting and given the way things had begun I had a feeling our luck was changing. I mean the camera wasn’t stolen, I ended up washing my shirt and getting a cool hand made replacement in the process. Maybe the old Latin American superstition about a bird doing its business on you was true after all? Only time would tell but so far, so good… I guess!??
Today packed up to make our way over to Colonia Del Sacramento by bus (2.5 hours from Montevideo).
But first we took the morning to wind up with a few last shots of Montevideo. We really wanted to shoot this lovely, antique bandoneón store in Cuidad Vieja. We had seen it on multiple occasions but it had always been closed.
This morning we were in luck. The store was open! Mario, the proprietor has been refurbishing musical instruments for decades, since he was a child. His father began the store in another location a few blocks away.
Mario was very gracious and gentle older gentleman who patiently told us about the history of Tango and the relationship with the bandoneón. The store had some beautiful, refurbished bandoneóns, some worth over $5,000, as well as accordions, mandolins and other musical instruments. But all were old and refurbished and the store resembled a museum more than a place of business.
Mario allowed me to “play” a bandoneón. It was very difficult with a lot of hand/eye coordination going on. After this weak showing I decided to let the experts take over, so Mario and a client who happened to be there demonstrated for our cameras how a bandoneón can and should be played. Best part of the trip so far.
Carnival was in full swing in Uruguay where we were there and it’s a very unique celebration compared to other carnival hotspots like Brazil and Trinidad, so we hit the Carnival museum as well. Then we headed to the hotel to check out and taxi over to the bus station to catch our bus to Colonia Del Sacramento as we wanted to get there with enough daylight to shoot.
We had about 10 minutes to choke down a quick lunch at the bus station before our bus left. This bus ride was one of the worst I’ve ever taken and I was not expecting it given the general good infrastructure of Uruguay. .
The bus ride was a non air conditioned, unventilated, stop and go hell ride that made a direct 2 ½ hour trip turn into 3 and ½ hours thanks to so many unscheduled stops and pickups.
This was such the opposite of my ride over from Buenos Aires a few days earlier on the Buque Bus. The Buque Bus had Air Conditioning, lots of leg room and even wi-fi on the bus. Most importantly it didn’t make any stops. Next time it’s Buque Bus all the way for me.
Colonia Del Sacramento is a small but beautiful and very historic town with cobblestone streets, old forts and an interesting if bloody history as the Spanish, English and Portuguese wrestled for control of this little town by the Rio Plata. It was so very tranquil and relaxing with the river beaches and an incredible sunset that it was hard to believe so much blood had been shed here.
You get an idea how life is here when the cars actually come to a full stop for pedestrians in the middle of the street, allowing them to cross first before they carry on their way. Such an incredible contrast with 99% of Latin America (or for that matter the U.S.), it really was shocking at first. We walked our way around town but if you’re tired, in a hurry (why would you be?) or just a little lazy, well then you can rent little golf carts to tool around town and see what you need to see
Later that night I ran along the beachfront road which is really the Plata River, not the ocean and then off to bed fairly early because we had to catch the ferry (45 minutes) to Buenos Aires the next day with a full day of shooting.
Colonial Del Sacramento is a day trip for many people traveling between Buenos Aires and Montevideo but I really recommend you consider staying one or even two nights, so you can really appreciate the beauty of this tiny little gem.
For more pics of Colonia Del Sacramento, visit our FLIKR PAGE.
We woke up early to take the 5 hour or so bus ride to Pereira. The bus was big and comfortable and we made a couple stops to eat along the way so the time passed surprisingly fast.
After we pulled into the Pereira bus terminal we were met by Renzo’s friend Laura, a local film student who had agreed to help us out on our shoots while we were in town. We were glad for the help and she was glad to get some real world experience in her field.
After checking into the hotel in the central part of town, we rushed out to the rental car agency because Pereira was really just our home base and most of our shoots were an hour or so outside of town.
After renting a decent sized vehicle we headed over to the Villa Martha Coffee Finca (ranch). The drive was absolutely stunning as we climbed the mountainous terrain and the weather thankfully held out. We arrived late afternoon, a perfect time for shooting.
Javier, the owner of Villa Martha met us and, appropriately enough, offered us some of his home grown, organic coffee. I found out later that almost all of the best Colombian coffee is exported to places like the U.S. and Europe, with the worst quality held back for sale in Colombia locally. Not so with Javier’s coffee, it was extremely fresh, just picked and processed days before and I can honestly say was the best coffee I think I’ve ever tasted (and trust me, I’ve drank a lot of coffee over the years) .
Javier doesn’t speak much English, but I instantly liked him and we built a good rapport as we shot a few on-air segments with Renzo shooting camera, and simultaneously translating my English questions to Spanish for Javier and Javier’s answers to English for me. Not an easy job even without the worries of shooting camera!
The Villa Martha Coffee finca (farm) is relatively small and the sole purpose is tourism. The coffee it grows is sold exclusively to tourists and those who come to the finca specifically to buy the coffee. The accommodations are rustic but beautiful and run around $30-$50 US Dollars per night, depending on the season. There is also a nice pool out back, tiny hummingbirds and colorful butterflies all over the place. All in all, it looks like a very relaxing and tranquil place to vacation and I was bummed we weren’t going to be spending the night.
We met one young European guest who was in the middle of an epic motorcycle journey from Alaska to the tip of Argentina! He had some great stories to tell but since he’s hoping to write a book about them someday I won’t steal his thunder.
We wrapped up the shoot and headed back to Pereira just as it was getting dark. I felt really good about the shoot today. I sure hope tomorrow that the Termales (Thermal Spas) will offer more of the same.