Adventure dates: November 11-14, 2010
Adding to the documentation of my Ecuadorian experiences
On a whim, I decided to go to the beach with Kevin via overnight bus on a Thursday night in mid-November. Neither of us had classes Friday (my weekly Four Day Weekends were wonderful), and honestly I hate wasting time on the bus during the day, so overnight bus was the perfect option! Previously I had been planning on going to Banos, but when Kevin asked me Wednesday, it was hard to resist. Thus, I found myself boarding a bus at 11:30pm in Quito, and waking up on a bus, exhausted, around 6 in the morning in Atacames.
Atacames is about six hours away by bus, one of the closest beaches to Quito and close to Esmeraldas. The south of Ecuador is known to have much prettier beaches, but is also a 12 hour bus ride away. Atacames is known for its night life, and features a good number of tiki hut style bars to which Ecuadorians flock to from all around.
Kevin and I, relaxing in hammocks
We had heard about a rather new hostal that seemed promising, called The Chill Inn, and took a taxi from the bus stop. By taxi, though, I don’t mean a car. It was more of a covered seat contraption attached to a motorcycle. There were lots of different models and it was really fun to ride in them throughout the weekend (and since I didn’t snap my own picture, I stole one from the internet).
Fortunately the hostal was even more wonderful than we had expected, and the owner (from Switzerland) took us in despite the early hour without charge. After dropping off our bags and such in the room (at $7.50 a night per person, I was very impressed), we headed out to scope out the town. It wasn’t unsurprising to find things pretty quiet. Around eight the hostal owner made us breakfast – pancakes!!! I have not had pancakes my entire time in Ecuador, and it was a delicious reminder of home. Things were still quiet after breakfast, and so we opted to take a walk along the beach. We were careful to leave everything in the hostal since it is known as a high robbery area.
Rather than returning with less, I found myself starting a sea shell collection and, by the time we returned an hour later, sea shells were practically overflowing from my hands. It’s unfortunate I couldn’t bring my camera on our walks (for this was only the first of many) because the sea critter life was by far my favorite part of the entire weekend! Although we ended up taking five different walks scattered throughout the weekend, I’m going to consolidate all our discoveries into one long paragraph. The first thing we noticed were hundreds and hundreds of small, sand-crab like creatures darting in the waves. I had a lot of fun playing with these, and Kevin even joined in the seashell collecting, finding a HUGE sand dollar. (I was even a bit jealous). Many more sea shell hunting excursions would follow when we found an hour of spare time, and my collection continued to grow. When I sorted it all out, here‘s a nice image of the collection.
A few more of our friends planned on meeting us there, but since they had classes on Fridays, they wouldn’t get there til the next day. And so, of course, we took to adventuring ourselves. The weather wasn’t fantastic, which let us bargain down the vendors on the beach for a boat tour along the coast. I tried exceedingly hard to get steady photos in the boat, but the vigor with which it rocked made me think that at times I would end up pitching my camera over! But, where there’s a will there’s a way, and I managed to get a couple.
Full steam ahead
Out on the water
One of the reasons that Atacames is known to be a high (non-violent) crime area – meaning that tourists tend to come, get intoxicated and end up without their possessions by the time they get home – is because the accompanying local towns tend to be impoverished. As with any time there is a clash between those with money and those without, petty crime arises. Looking out at some of these towns as we passed, the ‘beach houses’, really drove this point home.
View of Atacames shore from the water
The boat trip turned out to be much more fun than I anticipated, and I particularly like the view of Atacames above. Back on the beach, we encountered vendor after vendor for the rest of the day trying to tempt us to take similar trips. Since the water was on the cold side, however, we resisted offers to be pulled along on a giant banana through the water.
Because we had an extra bit of time, Kevin and I decided to check out the nearby Esmeraldas. The city, with the namesake ‘emeralds’, is the capital of the province and had an attractive enough name. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite live up to its name. While the streets of Atacames are fairly clean (by the standards of Ecuador), Esmeraldas sent me into hyper-active awareness mode. Upon arriving in the bus terminal of Esmeraldas, we waved down a taxi who took us to the center of the city. Wandering around for an hour or two yielded very little, it probably would have been more productive to have headed straight to the more touristy beach. But, to make the best of it, we explored the park and walked all along the streets.
Esmeraldas city park
In the end, a round of beers and good conversation finished off the Esmeraldas adventure. Honestly, we were rather eager to get back. The entire time the locals were staring at us, as we appeared a bit out of place. The entire time we did not see a single other light skinned individual. In my adventures in Ecuador, it was one of the few times that I felt blatantly out of place and unwelcome (most of the time I could pass as Ecuadorian, as long as I didn’t open up my mouth and reveal my accent!) On the bus ride back, I admired the banana fields. I would have liked so very much to be able to visit one, but sadly I never did get that opportunity while in Ecuador.
Back in Atacames, dark was setting in. Dinner, and exploration of the night life was in order. Atacames, since it was rather a tad off-season being November, has an eventful night life on Saturdays, but not necessarily on Fridays. And so, Kevin and I had the privilege of exploring the exotic tiki bars without the shenanigans of drunken tourists. The drinks, while not only delicious, were accompanied by all types of fruit props – sliced bananas, coconut halves, and whatever else comes to mind when thinking of a tropical beach bar. One of my favorite parts, to be honest, was just playing on the swings.
Exotic drinks at an exotic bar
The next day, Saturday, was much less eventful. The remainder of our group didn’t make it to Atacames til later in the afternoon, so e repeated our long walks on the beach, and had delicious street food. I even worked on my tan (it’s incredibly hard for me to sit still, when adventuring. I’m the worst sun-bather. But, this time I had the novel advantage of being able to watch Ecuadorian locals!)
Vendor, scouting for customers on the beach
One of my favorite things to do in Ecuador was to explore the markets and, of course, bargain. Normally I’m not a huge fan of shopping, tiring far within an hour, but the combination of cultural trinkets, homemade crafts and the thrill of talking down a price is hard to beat. Next to the beach, in the same way that we have boardwalk-type areas in the United States, Atacames had its street market. Vendor after vendor crammed their goods into stalls, and while there can be expected to be some repetition in the offerings, its impressive the variety of trinkets offered. I picked up quite a few little things throughout the day!
Street vendors in a beach-side market
That night our friends arrived, and we experienced the Atacames night life. I have to admit, it was quite a lot of fun and differed from the night life of Quito, described in my earlier post A night out on Quito. In Atacames, the bars are lined up along the edge of the beach, allowing the music to be heard over the beach itself. We joined in on a group of locals who were dancing, and they did their best to show us how to do their dances. Some of us were definitely better than others, but I’ll resist posting any embarrassing photos (luckily no one else had a camera, so I don’t have to worry about being embarrassed either!) We made our way through a number of bars, and while the crowded ones had good, popular music we found ourselves migrating to the less-crowded salsa bars several times. I LOVE salsa, I took classes for a couple months while in Ecuador, and any opportunity to practice was more than welcome. We frequented several of the food vendor stands in between our bar adventures.
Street food vendor
Two of the girls, unfortunately, decided to take a night walk on the beach. Not surprisingly, the excursion didn’t end well and two boys stopped them and grabbed their purses. No injuries resulted beyond a bit of a shove. The rest of the evening was perfectly lovely, and finished without too much of a hitch. A fight broke out on the street, and some of the locals seemed to be getting a bit riled up, so we did the smart thing and returned to our hostels to avoid any trouble that might follow. The last day of the adventure was calm, with more time spent on the beach relaxing with our other friends. All in all, I had a fantastic time and I know I will treasure my seashell collection for years and years to come. Two of the photos even made it to my favorites, found on the Photography Page.
Now, I’m going to go on a bit of a safety rant.
I mention this only to emphasize the fact that YOU MUST BE AWARE AND CAREFUL, EVEN MORE SO WHEN DRINKING! Walking on a dark beach may be perfectly acceptable in the United States, but consider the perspective of a thief. They don’t want to cause a scene or attract attention. Removing oneself from a group or the public and wandering off, especially at night when span of vision is reduced, makes you a target. Many pickpocketing and mugging incidents can be avoided if you approach your behavior and situation from the perspective of ‘if I was a thief, how would I go about stealing while minimizing attention?’
Above all, never get cocky. As soon as you let down your guard and find that nice sense of security (ie. ”It couldn’t happen to me!“, “Ha, I’d like to see them try“, “I’ll see it coming“ or “I’ve been here for x weeks and no one’s bothered me. I’m in the clear“), that is when you will be robbed.
Luckily, that doesn’t need to be any more than the $20 you’re carrying with you (more than enough for a normal day’s expenses) or the $40 cheap international phone you carry around. Preparing before you leave the house is a great way to minimize losses. Every SINGLE time I walked out my front door, I made a mental inventory of everything in my possession. I mentally prepared myself for the possibility that I might return without those things. If the thought seemed too unbearable, I turned around and left whatever that valuable item was back inside. There are tactics to stay safe, and to divert the attention of a thief from the truly valuable things (ie. second wallet, hidden pockets). While I habitually employed those other methods, I also mentally prepared myself for the very real possibility that those systems would fail and that my hidden valuables would be discovered.
One of these days I’ll write up an entire post just about safety in South America. In a nutshell, for now, my advice is to assume that you will be robbed when you leave the house, and from there to think like the robber that is watching your every step. It’s no more scary then you make it! The adventures in Ecuador more than compensate for any extra caution the destinations require! Promise.