Eight days were spent on the Ecuadorian coast. We had a fluid group of traveling buddies throughout the duration of the eight days. We made our way from Cuenca to Guayaquil in three and a half hours, which was a record for me. The fog- covering was heavy, so not much to see at the higher altitudes. I was most impressed with the bus station in Guayaquil. In a country that has no functioning rail road system, except for one line that I believe has more appeal to tourists, and in a country where most Ecuadorians do not own cars; buses become the main mode of transportation. I hadn't seen anything like this since I was a kid and Chicago was the railroad hub of the country. The then two Greek style temples that made up the station with a walkway under the street that adjoined the two stations was congested with passengers back in the 50's and 60's. What I enjoyed most was my mother, I, and my brothers as we made our way on the Milwaukee Road Hiawatha to Wisconsin Dells to visit my maternal grandparents, uncles and aunts, and an incredible number of cousins over the years. Traveling in early June meant school was out for the summer. The Union Station in Chicago would have literally hundreds of nuns of every order imaginable scurrying about as they searched for their respective trains, and made their way to their order's mother houses for two months of relaxation.
The Guayaquil bus station was mammoth, modern, and clean. While the station was big, it looked even larger because located above it was a large mall.
We proceeded to take a bus to Salinas. Salinas has a facade along the ocean of modern day high rises that are reminiscent of Miami Beach. However, with nowhere near the action or the egregious prices of Miami Beach. The swimming and jet skiing was good here. Little else was happening during the week.
We stayed on the edge of the strip, so we had to walk about twenty minutes to the beach area. Our first night we walked in the opposite direction of the strip in the hope we would find a nearby restaurant. Meeting with little chance of success; we came across a restaurant, with an expansive patio, and a convention center/hall as well. However, the small complex was open only on weekends and this was a Wednesday night. There were three men sitting inside the restaurant watching television. One of my amigos rang the door bell. Believe it or not, we were invited in, and the owner offered to cook us dinners. The dinners were quite good. It included soup, of which Ecuadorians excel. The juice was not watered down, the main dish of chicken,plantain and rice was good. Price was only $2.50 for each of us. It was like an amuerzo (lunch plate), but far better than most. We came back another night and while the owner was fixing us another plate, we played billiards with some of his friends, and took the customary photos. I thought I took some photos, but I guess I was using some of the other guys cameras to take photos for them. I hate lugging my camera about. It's a nice Nikon, but bigger than most cameras. I also get tired of being an observer through a lens, when I want to be busy being part of the experience. Yet I also want the photos. What's a fella to do?
While eating dinner, the hombres setup a makeshift screen. This is a shout out to my brother Ron Mola, who is a huge Andre Rieu fan as we watched the DVD while eating. The owner said he was a big fan of Rieu and had the complete collection of all of his DVD'S with the Johann Strauss orchestra. Rieu is a Dutch violinist, composer, conductor and creator of the Strauss orchestra. Rieu and the orchestra perform all over the world. Surprisingly, everybody enjoyed it, and were contented to sit through the concert. One Ecuadorian amigo especially liked it, which was easy to believe, Ecuadorians seem to love every kind of music, and know the lyrics to so many songs.
Our next stop was Montanita. Unlike Salinas, Montanita is compact in size and easy in which to maneuver. The town or pueblo is arrayed in color and life. Everything is located at your finger tips. There is a tremendous amount of colorful products, which some are of value and others just junk. The merchandise and souvenirs fill the booths and open front stores that are a trademark of Montanita. People can drink openly in the streets, and the town has a reputation for drug usage. Of course, if that is what some people want to do, if they have the money, someone will have the product any where in today's world.
There is some hippy-like influence here among the young. Montanita appeared to be very safe. There were times when I walked the streets by myself at night, and I never saw or encountered any kind of problem. Especially on Friday and Saturday nights don't expect much sleep unless you find a hotel or hostel in the right area, which is either above the main route that parallels Montanita, or a place like our hostel which faced the beach, and was down from the other end where discotec music was blaring maddenly.
We had a tremendously good time in Montanita. The waves are bigger than in Salinas, and we were able to watch surfers perform. Rather than sit in noisy discos each trying to blast its music louder than the other, and paying bar prices for booze; we bought our beer from the local tiendas, and spent the first night on the beach until sunrise as we met people in their 20's and early 30's. Some of these young people would become part of our group; not only in Montanita, but also as we made our way to Puerto Lopez. Saturday night was the big night. Many people were on the beach and we positioned ourselves closer to the music from the discotecs, where we could dance to the music while enjoying the beach and the sound of the waves as they rose to a cresendo and then broke across the shore line.
Next we headed to Puerto Lopez. This was a town that had many activities to do in and around it. We could swim, take a day trip out to Isle de Plata, snorkle, view whales in what was their last two or three days of the mating season, when they would no longer stay close to shore. Horseback ride and hike in the Parque Nacional Machalilla, which is about a thirty minute ride northeast of Puerto Lopez. You may read more about the forest and activities on tomorrow's second posting, which is primarily photos with some comments.
It had rain the night before, and the top part of Machalilla was very muddy, and extremely difficult in which to maneuver since the altitudes were high and steep. Going up was bad enough as the horses in this five and a half hour combination of riding and hiking, at times needed a rest or could not carry us up the steep inclines and down the equally challenging slopes. Going down was as bad as going up, because the natural inclination of our weight was to rush us downward. I wanted more than anything not to belly flop in the mud. Like the typical Norte Americano, whether going up or down, I wanted to bull doze my way through. Others in the group had to tell me to take it slow, relax, no hurry, don't push against nature, ride and walk with nature. My buddies gave me a free lesson on Daoism, which I should have remembered. One of the fellows in my group showed me an easier way to incline and decline, which was a help. Then I ran into a narrow not very deep ravine, where I lost my footing on the way down and fell on one knee, which led to one pant's leg completely covered in mud. Other than that, neither I nor any one else suffered a spill.
My horse the entire trip would not stop eating. The lead horse barely attempted to eat any of the vegetation. However, by the last thirty minutes the lead horse began to act very strangely as he began to take wide weaves from side to side sometimes almost wanting to move in a circular fashion. Needless to say, our horses followed whatever path the lead horse took. I don't know if he ate some marijuanja leaves, or if he was famished from so little eating during the ride. I really thought the horse was going to keel over with my amigo on it. Nevertheless, we made it back to where our guide lived. His wife had a hearty meal waiting for us. After which we headed back to Puerto Lopez.
Carlos, our guide, spoke very little English. Both in this adventure and the one to Isle de Plata, I had to depend on others who spoke and understood sufficient Spanish to provide me with a synopsis. I am in awe of Carlos. Not just his love for the forests, but by the fact that he walked the entire ride, either walking from behind or leading the horses from the front when all of us riders had to hike through the mud.
The biggest payoff for most of us was as we entered the steepest part of altitude upwards we began to see monkeys. These were not your ordinary monkeys. These monkeys were at least the size of chimpanzees. Possibly even a little bigger. I marveled at how they could be found in the tallest part of the tree branches, which are the newest and weakest. From those branches they would swing to another branch, and the branches always held their weight. Later that evening, a couple of the girls said that we may have seen Spider Monkeys. I don't know one monkey from another, and after we literally spent forty minutes spotting and shooting photos of the monkeys, the fog kept the photos from being very clear.
The Parque Nacional Machalilla was a welcome relief with its greenery from the extremely dry brush and low lying trees along the coast. Don't think that the Pacific coast of Ecuador looks anything like the West coast of the United States, nor like most of the East coast. nor like the coasts of Hawaii. No wonder the coastal areas of Ecuador have been among the last to be settled. No doubt everything is green during the first quarter of the year when there is a combination of rain and sunshine. For those of you in the Chicago area, the coastal areas are less attractive than along the Indiana Lakeshore Dunes National Park, following the lake up to Warren Dunes state park just across the Indiana border in Michigan. Along the coastal areas we visited, we saw no dunes. One Ecuadorian has told me that the best coastal areas are in the northwest corner of Ecuador in what is known as the Esmeraldas, which are also located across from the Galapogos.
I need to withhold judgment on the Parque Nacional Machalilla, although it is part of the Amazonas (Amazons), we entered what was basically the perifery of the park. It might be fair to describe this part of the park as jungle with low lying trees and dense foilage. The park from our bearings was more a reminder of a number of the state parks in southern Indiana. Nice forests, but lacking the mammoth trees one finds in Sequoia and Redwood National Parks, or parks I have visited in Japan where the trees tower over you, are hundreds if not a couple of thousand years old, and it takes at least four
adults to extend themselves around the tremendous girth of the tree.
Possibly deeper in the Ecuadorian rain forests or maybe into Brazil one
might fine the slow growing hard wood trees like Mahagony, Ebony, and Teak that one associates with tropical rain forests.
Puerto Lopez was overall a low-income area of friendly people, which we could observe as we made our way through, to, and from the national park and view the homes. Many people lived in concrete buildings with concrete floors often no bigger than a garage with electricity and running water. Some even has TV dish satellites. Advantages for such Ecuadorians compared to other countries is that they did have a roof over their head, and there is mostly enough food grown in the rich top-soil of Ecuador to keep the people's stomachs full. I would not refer to these people as poor or poverty-strickened. I find such terms as condescending. These people are not victims. They are rich in family and community. They are rich in the respect that they overall demonstrate to one another. The children are happy and playing outside continuously. Compared to the many disfunctional, affluent families in the states today; these people have what is lacking in much of the states, which is a spirit of well-being that material things at a point begin to produce the wholesale narcissism found in the states among many people. In fact, the problem has become so bad that the American Psychological Association, an organization which never lets scientific evidence get in the way of its major pronouncements, declared this past year that narcissism was no longer a psychological disorder, because it was so prevalent in the United States.
I did see more men here than in Cuenca, who did not work. Drinking is a major problem, but only to those who see drinking as a problem. Many of these hombres do not. It has been an engrained part of their culture for a very long time. There are also men like Carlos, our guide through the park, who absolutely work their behinds off to make a living.
Saying goodbye to new found friends the next day as well as everybody heading to various destinations, left us with one unanimous agreement we did not want to leave the coast. Once I and my orginal traveling buddies reached Guayaquil, they chose to spend a couple of nights visiting the Malecon. I had already experienced the Malecan area when my brother and his wife visited in March of this year. No doubt I will do likewise again if any other friends or family members come to visit.
I headed back across the Cajas in a van. When we entered the Cajas it was very foggy, so I didn't expect to see much. Keep in mind that when we left Cuenca about 1:00 p.m. to start our trip, it was one of the most sunny and warmest days at that time that I could remember. We would not see the sun again the entire trip until the van made its way through the Cajas. Suddenly, out of nowhere the fog lifted, and we saw into deep valleys and gorges for almost an hour before it became too dark. I had reached the point when I ride through the Cajas to either sleep or study Spanish. When one generally reaches the high altitudes, fog with a possible intermittent break is all one will be experiencing. There was a young couple in our van from French Canada who only had time to spend one day in Cuenca. This couple lucked into it as they had their camcord whizzing. We arrived in Cuneca and the rain and drizzle was waiting for us, but we were able to see some awesome views of the Cajas, and the ride took only three hours, another new record.
Some travelers might be put off by the heavy cloud cover this tme of year. I wasn't. The temperatures were warm, without being scorching. I did not want to spend the day on the beach under an umbrella. Despite the heavy cloud cover, the intensity of the sun at the equator is so great that I still was able to tan in a week. The water was at a nice swimming temperature, although I will never like the salt in ocean and sea water.
I also need to say something about the food. When I was in Playas with a friend many months ago, fishermen would come up to us in the open-air restaurants and attempt to sell us live fish and lobsters. For five dollars a piece we bought live lobsters just caught that morning. The lady with whom I had traveled according to the fisherman's instructions took the lobsters back to the hotel, where the desk clerks kept them in their bags behind the desk until 5:00 p.m., which was about the time the fisherman told us that the lobsters could live outside of water. We then took the lobsters over to the same restaurant from that morning, where the owner had the cook prepare them for us and he also provided us with all the sides and beverages for the price of five dollars per lobster. In other words, we enjoyed a lobster dinner for ten dollars a lobster. There was nothing like this in any of the three coastal towns we visited. We never even saw any fishermen from the coast fishing the same way Jesus' disciples fished with nets 2,000 years ago. I found all of the seafood and their preparation not to be on par with what I had experienced in Playas. The seafood was about the same in quality as one could find in many places in Cuenca. Most likely, fishermen may have been out earlier with their catch. I can just share with you what we experienced.
What really made the vacation so great and so enjoyable were the people, especially the young people we met along the way and with whom we had spent time. Having taught and been an administrator at the secondary and college level in the United States, I probably feel more comfortable relating to young people than most people my age. It was also special in the sense that I was not having to play "the heavy". I was very proud of myself that I could keep up with, and at times even ahead of some of my young mates. Of course, everything in life is not perfect. There is always that yin and yang. Upon returning home, I discovered I lost my ATM card, and I came down with a bad cold two days later. Not even the perfect vacation is completely perfect, but I wouldn't trade the last week for anything.