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!??
Day 2 in Buenos Aires. The rain has cleared and it’s a beautiful, sunny summer day. We were scheduled to spend the first part of the day with the fine folks at Voluntario Global, the non profit organization that for the past several years has helped connect scores of volunteer travelers who wish to give back to some of the most vulnerable and poor in the greater Buenos Aires area.
Helping the poor in Buenos Aires is a daunting task. Argentina was once one of the world’s top economies. But having barely survived multiple financial crises, a military dictatorship and a war in the last few decades, it’s estimated that there are over 4 million people or almost 1/3 of Buenos Aires’ population living in poverty with over 1 million completely indigent and unable to purchase basic food needs.
We’re not talking the kind of poverty where Mommy or Daddy can’t afford a new X-box for little Jane or Johnny for Christmas kind of poor. We’re talking the bitter, devastating kind found throughout the better part of the third world kind; the kind where you regularly see young kids as young as 3 or 4 years old, juggling, playing music, or performing acrobatics or just plain begging at stop lights for spare change so their family can eat.
The Argentine government is unable (some say unwilling) to help all the poor, many of them recent immigrants from surrounding countries such as Peru, Ecuador or Paraguay or indigenous people from rural Argentina who make their way to the capital for a better opportunity and find it lacking.
That is where Voluntario Global comes in. They work with volunteer travelers from all over the world and help them connect with different organizations in Buenos Aires to make a difference. We interviewed the organization’s founder Valeria who gave us some insight on how the program works.
Voluntario Global offers many different packages that not only provide volunteer placement but can combine the traveler’s volunteer experience with long term accommodations, tango, salsa or Spanish classes, so it’s not all dreary work all the time if you don’t want it to be. I was really impressed with Voluntario Global’s mission but more importantly their enthusiasm and commitment to their mission. Their accommodations, reserved solely for volunteers, did create a bit of envy from our production crew as we had rented an apartment in the Micro Center that was in dire need of remodeling.
They invited us to see some of the volunteers in action, so we headed off to one of Buenos Aires’ biggest psychiatric hospitals, where we met up with volunteer travelers from the U.S. who were helping the patients with creating a garden. Simple, relaxing tasks such as gardening can offer valuable therapy to patients as they begin to transition leaving the hospital to return to the outside world.
Next we made it over to one of the community food kitchens and computer training centers in the colorful but impoverished La Boca neighborhood. There volunteers can help in the kitchen or in the computer training center helping to train people with little access to technology.
For travelers who’ve never visited Buenos Aires or for travelers seeking a new kind of experience when traveling, then Voluntario Global is really a valuable asset, not to mention the lifesaving services they are giving to help the many poor in Argentina, who’d have little to no hope otherwise. If you don’t find your way to Argentina but would still like to help out, Voluntario Global has fundraising opportunities as well. Visit their SITE to find out more.
After we left the fine folks at Voluntario Global we continued our tour around the colorful, touristy but edgy neighborhood of La Boca. I say edgy because almost every travel guide out there and especially the locals will advise you against stumbling around La Boca at night. However, during the day, there is plenty to do and it’s full of tourists and police so you can walk along and find it as fun and inviting as anywhere in Buenos Aries, especially along the colorful if touristy El Caminito.
Caminito is a street with a long strip of restaurants and bars teeming with Tango Acts, performance artists and people hawking souvenirs. La Boca (the mouth) gets it’s name from the fact that it’s a port town. At the turn of the last century this is where many of the Italian immigrants ended up. The neighborhood was even more poor and hardscrabble during these times and the large barges and ships that came through would give or trade their excess paint to the locals, who used it to pain their “mostly” tin houses, the result is one of the most visually colorful spots in all of South America.
Also La Boca is home to the legendary soccer team the “Boca Juniors” where the great (love him or hate him) soccer player Diego Maradona used to play. Now if you’re not there on game day, no worries, then you can still check out the incredible museum and even walk out onto the legendary “La Bombonera” field to get some kind of feel for the craziness that is futbol (soccer) in Argentina.
But if you really want to get a feel for how crazy soccer is in Buenos Aires, hit up a game. Since we weren’t in La Boca on game day, I went to see the the Boca Junior’s chief rivals, “Club Atletico River Plate” play on the other side of town a few days later. Just remember not to wear your Boca Juniors souvenir shirt to a River Plate soccer game. You literally could get killed for this seemingly innocent mistake. We’re not talking “Jets vs. Giants” type of rivalry here. In Argentina, soccer is a akin to religion and it can get taken to a level that we in the U.S. see as insane.
The night I went with my buddy Humberto who organizes tour packages to the games for travelers. River Plate was playing one of the other many soccer clubs in the Buenos Aires area. Let me tell you the atmosphere was out of this world, people singing, chanting, laughing, having a good time. Due to problems and extreme violence in the past, they no longer sell or allow alcohol at these events and the visiting team fans are required to enter the stadium from a completely different area of town under heavy, heavy police escort.
As the game wore on and River Plate, which was in a slump, seemed destined to lose. The crowd went from joyous to downright surly. Before the game began, when I had my video camera out, fans were clowning around, trying to get in the shot and welcoming me to the game, but now they were giving me a vibe of “get that camera out of my face” and I did so.
River Plate lost, didn’t even score a goal and Humberto apologized on behalf of the team, saying it was one of the worst soccer games he’d seen in a while. For me, a very casual futbol fan, I had a great time taking in the atmosphere of a professional soccer match in Buenos Aires.
When the game was over we, the home fans, were required to stay in the stadium for a good half hour to 45 minutes more as the visiting fans were allowed a generous head start to leave the stadium safely (once again under police escort). The visiting fans, knowing the home fans can’t leave until well after they do, often take their time leaving, sticking around to chant songs and taunt the home fans (especially after a visiting victory).
I can’t imagine a sport, any sport, being taken to these extremes but there is a ton of history and rivalry between clubs in Buenos Aires. When you think about the insane amount of money and respect paid to athletes in the U.S. these days well…I’m not sure which is the bigger fallacy.
The next day was a Sunday and I wanted to hit up the big antique flea market in the historic neighborhood of San Telmo. San Telmo is one of Buenos Aires’ oldest neighborhoods and it is really quiet a charming area of town. It has a bit more of a gritty feel to it than the upscale neighborhoods of Palermo or Recoleta, but it also has more of a neighborhood feel to it as well.
San Telmo is within walking distance of major tourist sites and has a lovely section of restaurants and bars at Plaza Dorrego which set along cobblestone streets. The flea market is huge stretching along block after block and attracting locals and tourist alike each and every weekend. There are probably at least a dozen or so hostels and hotels in the neighborhood of San Telmo that attract a more alternative, indie budget traveler. So if you decide to break with the crowd and stay in San Telmo rather than the other more upscale areas of Buenos Aires, you’ll be in good company.
NEXT UP: We get outside of the city and get an amazing change of atmosphere with some common day trips.
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.
Today we visited thefood market which is primarily Afro-Latino. It’s a muddy, unhygienic mess because of the horrible rain and flooding. I’ve been to markets like this before in Brazil and other countries and it takes some getting used to seeing the raw meat just laid out bare on tables, without refrigeration and crawling with flies.
The one thing I always seem to notice is how everything gets used, we’re not just talking pig’s feet here, we’re talking pig brains, bull nuts, you name it they got it at the market.
And that is why the locals come here. It’s a cheap place to buy meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, but not just food, you can also buy toiletries, toys and you can get a haircut or buy some music, recharge your cell phone (or buy a cell phone).. it’s like a mall, not as nice by a long shot but way, way cheaper and full of mini entrepreneurs selling their wares and wheeling and dealing to make their living.
We get a decent amount of footage shot with Luis Towers providing the guidance, but once again just as we’re getting rolling, the rain sets in and dampens the rest of our shooting schedule.
Moe and I head out at night to a new part of the city, Boca Grande, and eat Mexican (a nice change of pace from the typical Colombian food we’ve been having) and get some footage of the Chivas, Colombian party buses. Boca Grande is not as charming as the old city but it’s a nice change of pace from the constant touts and vendors hounding you to buy buy, buy!
The Next day, we shot some more in the old city during the day. We find an English speaking tour guide Rolando, who agreed to be on camera with me and gave me the lowdown on a couple of historic spots in the old city including the famous Plaza Santo Domingo, where back in the day, slaves were bought and sold but today feature touristy restaurants with outdoor eating with live entertainment like traditional Afro-Latino dancing troupes, etc.
We get a few more establishing shots in before rain once again interrupts our plans.
We chilled for a bit at the hotel and then headed to a cool little restaurant owned by my friend Flavia called “Bazurto Social Club” on the edge of Getsmani for dinner. We were in luck because that night they were featuring live Champeta music, which was perfect to get us in the mood for our trip to San Basilio Palenque the next day. Tomorrow was to be a long day, so we hit the hay early, but not before doing some damage on the dance floor. While Moe and Renzo were dancing for fun, I was doing my “please no more rain” dance. I hope it works.