Ecuador is where we experienced real South America for the first time. I was most impressed entering into the country, after spending such a wonderful time in Colombia. Traveling the way we do, when you spend a certain amount of time in one country, have profound and positive interactions with people and experience unique and intimate moments, you find yourself becoming familiar with your surroundings and feeling somewhat attached or connected. Comfortable, a word not to be thrown around lightly, might be the ultimate feeling, goal, or desire thinking about it now. When we first arrived in Colombia, for example, like every country we’ve traveled through, I was totally paranoid, completely on my guard, expecting the worst as we had made the great crossing from Central to South America and were in completely new territory. But after some time, you start to get a feeling for where you are, have positive experiences and start to feel somewhat obliged to relax a little and give people a chance. Basically, the first part of our time in a country I’m way more on my guard. An image I like to portray in general, a good habit to have in case somebody’s watching. Near the end, as it has been with almost everywhere we’ve traveled, I’m more relaxed and enjoying my last days in the country, mentally preparing for the next, come what may. The great unknown compared to the now familiar.
I’d like to take a moment now and credit the true inhabitants of Latin America, the good people who give these countries and cultures the reputations they have as assets to the planet and heritage to the world. The Pre-Colombian cultures that were not only able to live and thrive in such harsh conditions, but also accomplish feats of mankind left unexplained to this day. And to the Europeans who came and indelibly left their mark, for better or for worse. This blending of cultures, mixing in some from Africa and Asia, makes the Americas what it is today. You could say The Americas are unique in their isolation, rich in natural goods and resources that became a draw for people around the world to come and take part in, take advantage of, or like in many cases, mercilessly exploit. You might say North America is a more recent example of what South America was to the Old World. The New World, a land of abundance where people from all over the globe come to manifest a new life and way of living, inevitably creating a new people and culture. Humanity ever evolving, slowly but surely.
I love the concept of the New World. Imagine how Europeans felt when they first heard about it. A land far from the chains of Government, tradition, and organized religion, a place where you can start fresh and live comfortably. Master your own land, live among people with the same dream, not bent on submitting to classism and hierarchy, but intent on respecting their own lives and values. Cultivating a more intimate and personal relationship with their environment and higher power. What a dream. The truth is we’ve come a long way in this field, but a lot of sacrifice has been made to achieve what we now have. Take us for example, I like to think of Ingrid and I on the forefront of this movement, exploring the concept of living a life of freedom in the Free World. I think it’s possible that we wouldn’t have made it this long and this far hundreds of years ago. Or maybe we would have, who knows? Certainly the roads are better now than they were then, proportionately speaking.
The Andes officially begin in Ecuador. The chain starts in Colombia, but grows from adolescent to full size almost immediately crossing the border. The mountains are enormous, taking up vast amounts of time and space. The first few sitting all on their own, jutting up out of the seemingly flat earth, spaced apart and unobscured by others. They command attention, and have a magnetic like attraction. You stare up at the peaks, blanketed in clouds though just visible, and imagine what the view is like from there perched on a rock sitting next to a condor and mountain goat. Driving along the flat ground surrounding, you feel supremely grateful that you can appreciate their majesty without having to drive on a mountain road to achieve this effect. Suddenly you see a dip in the earth ahead. It turns out to be a giant chasm or mini canyon stretching to no end, your heart and eyes settle down when you see an approaching bridge. Without warning, the flat road leads to a massive descent. The ground disappearing before your very eyes and your looking at what appears to be miles below you. Endless switchbacks on a major highway, brand new, not a pothole in sight, in a place where you can’t imagine how they even got to, let alone built a road through. South Americans continue to astound this very day.
Before attempting the Trampolin de la Muerte, we had stopped at a mechanic shop in Armenia to address a sticky break piston. I had seen what the guy done in Costa Rica to address the same issue on the right side, so we went and did the same thing to the left caliper with the aid of the shops and associated mechanics. We had emergency installed the new pistons in Bocas Del Toro, but as I was sitting on the side of the road with a Venezuelan boat mechanic, wasn’t able to clean the rust off the caliper, specifically inside the cylinder to an appropriate level. Arguably the cause for the piston failure and disintegration to begin with. I had hoped this was the source of the front-end vibration we were experiencing, also known as ‘death wobbles’ (again). Though completely necessary and justifiable to address, it was not the source. Rolling down that mountainside, I figured out the exact speed I was safe, and was able to anticipate when it would happen. Feeling the subtle warning in the pedal when it was imminent. We made it to our destination campground well before golden hour, and settled into a great spot. Full of overlanders from all parts of the world, with different lives and stories. We spent a few days. A great memory, my first nights in Ecuador. A couple of young Venezuelan musicians showed up, a backpacking duo with their guitar and violin. Well rehearsed and classically trained, it was a joy and pleasure to jam with those guys. We entertained our fellow travelers well into the night, our cups never empty thanks to the generosity of our new friends.
We finally made it to Quito, and straight to a mechanic shop. A father and son business, started by the grandfather. These guys were quick and experienced, in minutes they correctly diagnosed the issue, a failing steering stabilizer. They changed the part while I read my lonely planet guide, a brief history of Ecuador.
The Inca territory expanded from Santiago, Chile, to the present day border of Colombia and Ecuador. An Empire, complete with government and infrastructure, encompassed much of the western coast of South America. The last battle and their official defeat happened in a small Mountain town known as Vilcabamba, with the execution of Tupac Amaru, the last Inca ruler. The Incas are said to have risen from the highlands of Peru, expanding outward from there. Cuzco was the nation’s capital and remained that way till the end. Expanding to the north, Quito was taken by Huayna Capac, absorbing most of present day Ecuador in the Process. Huayna was fond of Quito, and made it a secondary capital of ‘Tawantinsuyu’, name of the Inca empire in Quechua. Huayna Capac had three sons, and the eldest would traditionally have been heir to the empire, had he not fallen ill and succumbed to small pox along with his father. Before passing, Huayna divided the empire in two, leaving each half to his remaining younger sons. Huascar, the elder, legitimate child of the empress, was left the southern and larger half. Atahualpa, born of a Quitu princess, was left the northern half and the control of the Inca army. Huascar, seeing Atahualpa as a threat to his reign over the majority of the territory, set out to overthrow him and take control of Quito. It nearly worked, but Atahualpa escaped and retaliated. Thus resulting in a civil war that ended with the defeat of Huascar, the weakening of the Empire, and ultimately, the Spanish Conquest.
Learning this, it made me realize the value of family and maintaining strong relationships. Also how vulnerable something as large as an empire could be. How did Huayna not anticipate this? Was the fate of the Empire sealed with the death of his eldest son? Why couldn’t the brothers sit down and hash it out before acting so rashly? In my opinion, they had as much to win as they had to lose. And with the Spanish arriving when they did, goes to show you never know what’s coming around the corner.
Quito is a crossroad. the Pan-American highway runs right through the heart of the Andes, an alluring proposition. The equator passes by just to the north, running east to west. From north to south, it’s a left to the jungle, right to the coast. The coastal plain runs close to to Quito, making for a clean and gradual descent to the coast. After months away from the ocean and the dizzying mountain roads of Colombia, we opted for a break from the demanding geography of the highlands, and get our boards wet again. Ingrid had some friends living in Canoa, so we went to meet them and pay our respects as they were veteran overlanders, and had been a major inspiration for us to take on the adventure lifestyle we currently live.
It’s important to note that Ingrid and I were at each others throats as we arrived in Canoa, our relationship was tense and running thin since crossing into Panama. The rainy season had made it’s impression on us. All the time practically on top of each other, van life was taking it’s toll. The over stimulation, the feeling of obligation to see all you can, maximize on time spent in each country while you have the opportunity, the breakdowns, the stress of solving difficult problems, navigating unknown territory, the constant assessment of people and situations, cooking, being vegan for so long then breaking out of sheer desperation, the isolation and lack of true family and friends, people you can trust, the driving, the list goes on. We were on top of it, had everything covered, adjusting and making our situation better all the time, but we were worn out and we knew it. Ingrid would say, ‘Are you tired? You want to stop and go back to Sag Harbor’? It felt like a jeer or a threat, as if she could take it but I couldn’t. I would always feel guilty thinking back on how much good we’d experienced, but we were earning it. It’s not a free joy-ride. Much like life, you get what you put in.
It was great to spend time with Sol and Gus. I wasn’t sure if I was going to like Gustavo, but we hit it off immediately and I consider him to be one of the good friends I’ve made along the way. We stayed with them through the New Year, culminating into one of the best sessions of the trip. We camped in San Mateo for a swell and scored epic left-hand point break surf, endless peeling walls, one of the greatest experiences and memories of my life.
It wasn’t all peaches and cream. As you leave the lush mountainside of Ecuador and head to the coast, it turns back into the tropical dry forest, what we refer to as Mad-Max conditions. One of my favorite climates and environments, but a harsh one to say the least. We were living in the van the whole time, which is nice but its a dusty mess. Hot and dry, very little shade, mosquitos, prickers and thorn bushes everywhere. Inhospitable in reality, but easy to overlook staying with Sol and Gus. To support their beautiful and growing family, they make and sell delicious bread products baked in a homemade brick oven, everyday a different selection. As a bread guy, I was in heaven. Gus would let me use his moto to go down the road and get a backpack full of beers to share over dinner at the end of a long day doing various projects around the house and in the van. Scooting down the road with the hot air blowing all around me, I was taking full advantage of living the simple life. It really does reward. We reluctantly said goodbye, and move on south towards Montañita.
There’s a couple of foreboding facts and signs I’d like to point out in no particular order. One in particular was that Ingrid never really wanted to go to Montañita. She had been there 10 years before and for whatever reason, had no desire to go back. Another was that we had been warned by some seasoned northbound overlanders that the vibe in Ecuador was fishy. Not a lot of culture exchange, or interest, most interaction with Ecuadorians involved money. Another was second hand information relayed by friends saying to avoid the coast in Ecuador. It’s feo and there’s not much to see compared to the interior. Another that was running through my head a lot was that 2 years before, while we were on the road, two young Argentinian girls were abducted, murdered, hacked up, and buried in black plastic bags somewhere in Montañita. I naively assumed that the town would have taken that seriously and there would have been more consideration for tourists and a boost in security since that horrific and somewhat recent event. Reading this now, I wish a had paid more attention to the signs but I thought with our good habits and consistent routine, protocol serving well to date, we were seasoned travelers and primed up for dealing with a town with a reputation like this one.
We arrived in Montañita after driving the coast from Canoa. We had driven north as far as Mompiche, and seen what we had seen. Now I liked Mompiche and Canoa, they are great surf towns and beautiful in their own rite. But the coast of Ecuador was rougher rough and harder on the eyes than anywhere we’d passed through yet. The place looks like an earthquake tore it apart. The truth is, it did. More than two years ago, but it still looks like it happened the week before. I have to admit I was feeling extremely uncomfortable driving through these coastal towns. Seeing how the people were living and the conditions they lived in just from the outside seemed unfathomable to me. We stayed in a place in Mompiche, a hostel with the largest infestation of cockroaches I’d ever seen. And we’d already been through Costa Rica. They had stacks of beer bottles sitting in crates for what looked like years, and the roaches were just owning it. Right next to the shared kitchen. If you shined a flashlight back there, you would have lost your mind. Roaches so big their eyes glow yellow in the dark. The little ones glow white.
The majority of buildings are stacked concrete blocks, and if you thought that someone would have painted them, think again. Almost entire towns of drab concrete grey. Unfinished of course, with rebar sticking out the tops. And with half the year permanent cloud cover, a depressing sight to say the least. Our eyes were nearly popping out of our skulls when we finally came upon Ayampe, and the abrupt pass through the lush jungle town of Rinconada. Suddenly it gets fairly nice as you are arriving to Montanita, traveling past La Entrada, San Jose and Olon on the way. The road runs along the coast, and as you arrive in Montañita there’s a giant statue of a surfer, in front of a spacious beachfront parking lot with some rundown skate ramps in it. Something we hadn’t seen before anywhere along the way. The cops call that lot, “ El Parqueo de las Surfistas’. The statue is apparently modeled after a local surfer, but it looks like a long-haired tourist.
We drove through town without stopping and continued on to Punta Blanca. Ingrid had made a call to a school friend from Peru who was living in the area, and owned a beach house in Punta Blanca. Catrina had offered to let us stay there when we passed through and Ingrid called in the favor since we were pretty worn out. She was so nice, had the cleaning lady come before we arrived. We stocked up on produce and settled in for 1 glorious week. Nobody but us, just chilling and laxing. Finally having the much needed space to spread out a little. Those days in Punta Blanca were so satisfying, I’ll be forever grateful for the kindness and consideration granted to us in the moment we needed it most. Ecuador looks a lot different from an ocean-view apartment, compared to living on the streets.
We have friends from NY that have had second homes in the area for years, and we were lucky enough they happened to be arriving around the same time we were. We spent some wonderful days with Santi, Maria and Rosita in a house that Santi built for himself, bar none, one of the most impressive and beautiful structures I’ve ever seen. Avid and ripping surfer, he has a semi-private wave nearly walking distance. Surreal. We were blessed to be able to spend such quality time with them. Maria helped me get some gigs in town, I started hustling up some work and got some paying exhibitions. Between staying with friends and making some cash, we were doing pretty well. Not to mention there’s a concentration of decent waves in the area. Montañita itself has an exceptional right point, right in town. I remember playing music at a Pizza spot in front, watching the waves break while entertaining the patrons.
I was even lucky enough to have my friend Nancy show up and sit in with me at a Burger joint in Olon. She and Tom finally rolled into town from NY with the kids, and I was so stoked to see them as they’re both musicians and Tom’s been talking about Ecuador as long as I can remember. We hung out with them for some time and were having a blast, just living it up. They have a beautiful place in Manglar Alto. It suddenly gets lush and green in the area, their place is no exception. We also crossed paths with a friend we met in NY, a Peruvian guy named Fernando. An artisan, invited us to stay with him and his girlfriend, we had such a good time and felt so welcome.
So, it was all too convenient for us to stay as long as we did. We stayed, surfed, worked, partied, had a great time until Carnavales came along and for whatever reason, we left the van parked in a public parking lot with no guard for more than an hour on a Saturday afternoon. I went to go check on the van and the truth was I was about to go suit up and surf because the point was starting to look good. When I came up on the van, there were some guys parked a little too close for comfort, considering the amount of space in the lot. They shut their doors cool as a cucumber and drove away so slow that I practically wrote them off, even though my instinct was screaming otherwise. I checked the van and they had locked the doors again before driving away, but I saw the blankets on the seats had been moved. They ransacked the van, throwing my amp and guitar equipment around. They took my backpack that had my sketchbook, MacBook, and portable recorder among other things. Worse, they took Ingrid’s computer bag and camera bag, that had her computer, hard drives, all of her cameras, and lenses. They got all of Ingrid’s photos of the entire trip. They also got our original NY title and vehicle import permit, which had been temporarily stashed in Ingrid’s computer bag. They even took the USB drive out of the stereo that we had just filled with music from both of our I-tunes libraries, an accomplishment I was really proud of. They were minutes away from getting our passports and $300+ in cash but I’m pretty sure they saw me coming, and split before they could finish. We went straight to the Police but it was a complete waste of time. Funny thing was, in three years of driving through Latin America, we hadn’t come across a single corrupt cop until Montanita. Tom and Nancy let us stay with them to see it through, but we never got anything back. We went to the police station I don’t know how many times, to no avail. We almost got shot when a cop dropped her gun on the floor, bullets rolling everywhere.
I can’t help but relate the fact that Ingrid and I were fighting that morning, on our way to town. It had rained hard the night before and Ingrid hadn’t completely shut the back door, not to mention I was dealing with a growing leak in the side window. The only window that can be open when it’s raining for much needed ventilation. Water was pouring in on my head, mattress, and pillow, also filling the side door we use as a storage compartment. I reacted insensitively and received a predictable response. I consistently get an uneasy feeling when we are at odds because I feel like something unwanted is more likely to happen when our priorities are off we aren’t focusing on what really matters. Negative energy is poisonous, and I even mentioned it that morning like I often do when we aren’t on the same page. There’s little room for error on a trip like this, especially in a place like Montañita.
The truth is I loved Ecuador, and was completely devastated when this happened to us. Yes, we had a lot of great experiences but, this significantly tipped the scale in the opposite direction. It’s sad for me because if we hadn’t been robbed, Ecuador would have been a highlight, fitting all the criteria we were looking for in a place to settle down and more. The thing about Montañita is it doesn’t seem dangerous. It actually looks really nice and inviting. Comparable to a carnivorous plant or ambush predator. You relax, think everything cool and your in the safest place you can be, all the while you’re in the jaws of an Anglerfish about to bite down hard. The Lonely Planet guide says very little except for ‘Some people love it, some people hate it.” After the fact, as we were passing through Guayaquil, I stopped into a gas-station bathroom and saw the toilet and soap dispenser were locked and bolted to the wall with heavy-weight steel straps. I resisted smacking myself on the forehead.
I wish we had spent more time in the mountains as they had such a profound effect on me. If I were to go back, that’s where I would go. Taking the Pan-American right through the heart of the Andes. The Mountains and jungle are said to be more tranquilo, the coast being far more dangerous. One more amusing fact was that while we were on the way to the border, a cop pulled us over and tried to extort money out of us. Ingrid said, “We just got robbed and now you want to steal money from us?’ He was like, ‘Ok, you can go.’
We were pretty heartbroken when we arrived to Peru. Our relationship was fragile as ever. When we crossed the border I looked down to see my favorite necklace, acquired in New Mexico at the beginning of the trip was gone. The strongest and longest lasting of all, just up and disappeared. We were riding an emotional roller coaster complete with ultimate highs, and ultimate lows. Enough feelings to make your head spin. Finally we had made it to Peru, a major milestone on the trip. I was so proud to arrive and greet Ingrid’s family without experiencing any significant set-backs, I guess I got a little to ahead of myself and forgot where I was. I remember arriving to Tumbes around dinnertime, stopping at a local restaurant and ordering my first of many Chicharrones de pescado. Popping the top off a cold Peruvian beer and tipping it back, the stress slowly melting away. Some of the best surf in Peru is in the north and we had finally arrived. The only way to go is forward, and that's where we were going. The mood and attitude is up to you.