We landed in the port metropolis of Guayaquil on a bright, sunny Tuesday morning. We’d heard many, many warnings against driving in Ecuador: the local drivers were insane; the roads were in terrible shape; accurate highway maps did not exist; and, pedestrians – human and four-footed alike – had a habit of walking the center of dark roads at night. JC assured me that he’d driven a car in Paris and nothing could be worse than that. After an anemic debate, I’d given in. How bad could it possibly be?
Btw, never ever ever ask the universe: How bad could it be?
After 14 hours of overnight travel, we arrived at the car rental counter only to be informed that they would be taking a $5,000 deposit on our credit card for insurance. No, the insurance we’d purchased online was not good enough, they needed to charge the card. For safety’s sake, we had taken only one credit card and it had a $1,000 limit. Bullet #1 successfully dodged! And guess what? No major meltdowns either!
And really, it was for the best. Most Ecuadorians travel on buses and taxis and both are ridiculously inexpensive. Furthermore, I believed that traveling on public transportation would give us a better sense of the country and the culture than riding around in our own little bubble. Let the immersion begin!
Guayaquil’s airport couldn’t be more different than its main bus station. Where the airport is all modern, gleaming, air conditioned tranquility, the bus station looms like a crimson Borg ship of Soviet-era concrete with people streaming everywhere in all directions. Touts call out unintelligibly from every hallway junction. 5 stories up, a massive skylight illuminates the bank of escalators but not the gloomy off-shoot hallways. To add to our confusion, nearly every route was run by a different bus company and each line had its own ticket counter.
We were two gringos fresh off the boat, sweating beneath giant backpacks, and towering over almost everybody by a good 8 inches. Sore thumbs? More like sore parrotfish in a fast running river! I was on high-alert for pickpockets and con men and I felt our best defense was a good offense. The information desk at the airport had given us the line name and departure gate number for our bus but there was no map. I decided to try out my new Spanish on the loudest of the touts. “Dondesta elautobus por Santa Eee-lena? Santa Eee-lena?” (I was working that accent really hard and I think it paid off!)
Soon, we were sinking into the two front seats on worn out Greyhound style bus. A few minutes later, we were trundling down the highway – past the skyscrapers and city “progress” into the newish suburbs, through slums and out into the countryside or campo. Lush green vegetation quickly gave way to nearly desert-like scrub, which kind of surprised me. I had expected the whole country to be blanketed in deep, deep forest green jungle.
We grabbed a taxi at the bus station in Santa Elena and after swinging through two small, impoverished communities, arrived at Museo Casaleon. It seemed to be a complex of Spanish style buildings stretching away from the street and down the side of bluff that overlooked the bay of La Libertad. But we couldn’t see inside. We knocked on the wooden gate and rang a rusted old bell several times but nothing stirred. I had booked the guesthouse through AirBnB weeks ago but had forgotten to call the landlady to confirm our arrival time. We pulled out JC’s BlackBerry as the people at Verizon had assured us that for an extra $39.99, it would work just fine in Ecuador. They were wrong.
Meanwhile, the sun was beating down on JC’s baseball cap, we were getting hungry and JC’s genial attitude about the mix-up was quickly deteriorating. We were in a new country, without fluency of the language, a phone or a place to sleep in a town with only two places that offered lodging. One of which seemed closed. Still in my gung-ho offense mode, I decided the best thing for us to do would be to walk the 10-15 blocks back into the center of town, find a telephone company or an internet café, some shade and something cold to drink. JC disagreed. Vehemently.
Luckily Sara, the landlady, arrived before I was able to wear JC down. I’m pretty sure she had been worried about us and had decided to check back often. She led us through a courtyard and into the cool, tiled interior of the main building. The space was narrow, but long and terraced and full of quirky details. A skylight of corrugated plastic threw light onto what was once a whimsical interior pond, tiled in paving stones painted in bright and navy blues. Various religious figurines populated small niches in a painted tree in the wall above. A wooden bar with two stools faced small set of shelves that held a dozen or so full bottles and dozens of decorative empties.
Sara led us out onto a patio, down some stairs, along a twisty path and into a spacious room with a kitchenette! We stood on the adjacent deck and drank in the view. Seabirds filled the skies and a patchwork of homes crammed together tumbled down the side of the bluff overlooking the ocean. Fishing boats peppered the bay and appeared to be packed with bodies. “Boy, these people sure like to party!” (It looked like a regatta at Lake Havasu on Labor Day weekend.) Then I realized that we weren’t that far away and that the bodies must be tall sea birds. Those boats were most certainly covered in stinky guano!
We chose Casaleon Museo because it was not far from Salinas, a popular seaside resort town but was less expensive and far more interesting. Salinas has a sizeable expat population and was a 1 ½ hour drive from a major international airport (Guayaquil.) Perfect for us! Unfortunately, from pictures online we saw that the beach was lined with high-rise hotels and condominiums, kind of like Miami. Certainly, not the peaceful village tranquil we were looking for. But we wanted to see for ourselves what the bastion of expat retirees had described online.
Actually, the retirees were not the best sources. The expat forum I belonged to was full of acrimony and debate on a host of topics. On one thread, a gay man had dared to inquire about which towns were open to homosexual couples. The exchange had quickly devolved into childish name-calling and threats of physical violence between the two most vocal contributors – one a liberal supporter of gay and transgendered people, the other a dyed-in-the-womb conservative who was all too happy to impose his moral authority on everyone in Ecuador as he’d clearly failed to do in the US.
The #1 thing I learned on the forum is: Expats (at least in Ecuador) are a sticky bunch. Most are older retirees with some kind of chip on their shoulder. There were younger people who asked questions on the forum here and there, but they were quickly scared off by the loudest and most disagreeable writers. I found a few frequent contributors that seemed sane and offered thoughtful advice, but they were loathe to answer direct messages. The forum did help us figure out which towns to visit and which to avoid, but it also gave me the impression that I’d only want to experience expats in small doses.
I thought we were able to communicate fairly well with Sara about our desire to have an authentic Ecuadorian dinner in Salinas. She called a taxi driver friend and sent us along to a restaurant she assured us we would love. We pulled up to a tiki bar exterior with a neon sign that read Hostal Acqui. Once inside, we immediately wished we’d asked the taxi driver to wait. The place was packed, everyone spoke English and had grey or white hair. We were tired and hungry so we stayed to eat. On the menu that night: BBQ ribs and fried chicken. Not exactly the Ecuadorian culinary experience we were looking for!
We took the only seats left, on a couch near a coffee table. There we met a couple – he was a vet with a pension and a left eye that intermittently squinched like Popeye. She was wound up tight, like an over-used twist-tie, perched on the edge of her seat, clutching a small dog. His enthusiasm about Ecuador spilled into advice about all he had learned in his eight weeks there. His wife just wanted to talk about her grandchildren back home and how wonderful it was that they could Skype from their apartment on the beach.
Clearly, we were drinking at the wrong well. The priorities for this couple and ours were about as far apart as the Guayaquil airport and bus station. But we just wanted to get a feel for what the place was really like. I tried getting some intel from the bartender, but he was too many cocktails into his evening to be anything other than mildly entertaining. So we gave up on Hostal Acqui and wandered down to the ocean which was lined by a raised boardwalk called el Malecón. There were families out for an evening stroll and some kids played in the surf on the few spots where there was sand. Across from the Malecón, empty restaurants of all stripes crowded the ground floors of each building, with tables and music spilling out onto the sidewalk. One even claimed to offer Texas style BBQ.
On our way back to Casaleon, we passed a giant, US–style supermarket called SuperMaxi, a fairgrounds where a circus was being held and loads of houses and housing developments behind high walls. On the outskirts of town, smaller houses that seemed to be crumbling before our eyes crammed themselves together on narrow dusty streets. Had the expats imported gated communities and supermarkets or were they Ecuadorian in origin? Who could answer such a question and would we meet them on this trip? How about our first day exploring Ecuador as a place to live? Were we really getting a deep enough look to make such a major decision??
The next morning, Sara served us a lovely breakfast on the patio overlooking the ocean. Fruit juice of tomate de arbol or tree tomato was my favorite. It’s only slightly sweet, a tad tangy and smooth – like a strawberry smoothie with the flavor volume turned way down. The juice was served with fresh fruit, a soft croissant like bread, coffee and a salty farmer’s cheese. A breakfast much lighter than what JC is used but delish!
After breakfast, we toured the museo. First, we visited the art gallery hung with the beautifully fractal-like work of the late León Ricarte, Sara’s husband. There were large geometric paintings, some groovy 70’s inspired still-lifes and some intricate works of paper sculpture. His studio, situated beneath the airy galley space, was packed with tools, paints, inks, machines and other minutiae. So neatly arranged were the walls of tools, that we probably took more pictures in the studio than in the gallery!
In another room adjacent to the art building, we were introduced to Sara and Leon’s collection of Pre-Columbian artifacts. When they began excavating the foundation for the art studio, they discovered several burial sites, most likely of the Guangala culture who had lived in the area 2000 years ago. Leon and Sara decided to preserve two of the skeletons in their partially excavated state and built the museum room, or Sala Arqueológica, around them. This space is filled with shelves and glass cases containing various pots, tools, jewelry, shells and statues of various time periods and cultures from the coastal region.
Even though we couldn’t understand most of it, Sara proudly shared what she knew about the cultures who had lived in the region and the objects they had left behind. We were like kids on our first field trip. Originally, it didn’t make sense to us that there would be a museum in a B&B, but after our tour, I think we tapped into the pride and the legacy that Sara was sharing and safekeeping. And strangely, it made me feel really good. Cultural immersion on Day 2!
As we strode out to the taxi and into another blazing day, I realized that somehow, we were unaffected by our rocky start. Perhaps, all of our time on the road had actually taught us a thing or two about embracing change? Or maybe we were just happy to be adventuring, seeing new things and super upbeat about what we would get ourselves into next. JC even tried out his Spanish on the taxi driver (!) as we sped up the coast to our next stop: Montañita, a surfer-backpacker beachtown.