Cheshire Cat in Ecuador

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


After leaving Panama in April we headed south for Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador, arriving after five days. On the way we encountered light winds and motored a fair part of the way. One night we had lots of lightening which lit up the flat calm sea for miles around us. (This, as usual, happened on my night shift that generally falls anytime around 1 am to about 6 am). As you may guess lightening isn't welcome on a boat, too much water around and we have too many valuable electronics on board. Several of our friends have suffered costly damage from being hit by lightening, so I was a little anxious, even though it seemed at the time more picturesque than dangerous.

On the last day we saw several sails in the distance and soon discovered that the sails belonged to local fishing boats from Manta.

These engineless old wooden boats each towed a series of small, one man pirogues that were set adrift to fish on their own. They were picked up by the mother ship at the end of the day before returning to port. Nearing Bahia we anchored overnight at a spot called the 'waiting room' (reminiscent of dentist?) and spent an extremely uncomfortable night rolling around in the short choppy waves.

Next morning we had to call for a pilot to guide us through the sandbars into the Chone estuary where we anchored near to Puerto Amistad. Maja and Trip have a ‘marina’ (all the boats are on mooring balls or at anchor, there are no docks) and offer the cruisers facilities such as laundry, great showers with lots of lovely hot water, and of course, the ubiquitous happy hour. Over the next few months we saw the renovations and improvements to the converted ferry terminal progress, although we missed the Grand Opening as we were out and about in the Galapagos. Now there is a lovely thatched building with a bar and a restaurant.

Bahía de Caráquez is one of the major Ecuadorian beach resorts. Its a pleasant little Pacific resort with a nice river, fronted by well sculptured parks on the Alberto Santos Malecón. Clean with nice beaches Bahía has been declared an "eco-city", with organic gardens, ecoclubs and recycling projects and has been the first city in the world with a certified organic shrimp farm.
A couple of boats anchor off the Yacht Club, and there is also a small mooring field further up the river at Sayonara which is an absolutely beautiful spot. The owners have six mooring balls set just off their property. The grounds are a mini paradise with peacocks, (and the most astounding white peacocks) emus, horses, donkeys, cows, a variety of different breeds of chickens and almost as many different types of doves. There are beautiful trees, ponds, and it is only a short bus ride into town.

The town of Bahia is surprisingly small – there are a number of high rise condo units on the sea front and we expected there to be more of a hustle and bustle, but most units were empty or only used occasionally as vacation homes.

We soon became accustomed to making our way around the few streets, found the excellent daily fruit and vegetable market and a couple of small supermarkets.

Mike sussed out where to buy cheap beer, we found an excellent bakery and we ate out in local restaurants; lunch, consisting of soup with a main course of meat, chicken or fish accompanied by rice, together with a fresh fruit juice cost about 1.50 US. Beer was a buck a bottle – 16 oz). We used the local tricycle cabs at 50 cents a trip to cart our shopping back form the market.

The tides in the river were pretty high especially at full moon, and the current could run at something like three knots although it sometimes felt more, especially on full moon tides, when all the boats rocked and rolled. We had to be aware of debris including floating logs and islands of grass heading towards us down river and Mike went off in the dingy several times to help clear the flotsam off boats. As soon as a mooring ball came available we up-anchored and tied on to it.

Dinghy dock at the marina

Checking in to the country was a bit of a palaver – the Port Captain had to come out to the boat to inspect the boat before we could go ashore. In our case this turned out to be a very cursory glance down into the cabin. Then we had to make a trip into Manta – about three hours away on the bus - to visit the immigration offices. Instead of the bus trip we took a taxi, sharing the cost with two other couples that had also recently arrived, Cheval and Sea Cardinal.

The roads in Ecuador are not maintained very well and it seemed as though we spent more time on the wrong side than on the correct side. We passed shrimp farms and rice fields. Some houses had spread their rice harvests out to dry in their yards – sometimes on a tarpaulin, often spread on the dry packed earth to be pecked over by the family chickens. In the towns and villages rice in bags of various sizes were for sale on tables. The rainy season had not quite finished and there were several houses in the low lying areas that were surrounded by water – and presumably they also had water inside. Most were bamboo and palm huts, some standing on stilts with a crude ladder for access.

Further away from the coast the terrain became much hillier, with a little farming done on some of the hillsides. Here we saw the tall kapok trees. Growing apart and with no branches on the tall trunks except at the top of the tree when the branches sprout in ungainly angles. One almost expects them to be able to stomp off across the hills in a scene from Macbeth. The kapok grows in hard pods which drop to the ground looks like clumps of cotton. Kapok used to be harvested for lifejackets before it was replaced by modern synthetics.

Manta has a good supermarket, an excellent butcher shop where they speak fluent English, and a reasonably good hardware store in a lovely air-conditioned shopping mall. On subsequent visits we found that one can get all kinds of boat items fixed or refurbished, as this is a busy and thriving commercial fishing port. We also discovered another excellent supermarket selling a larger variety and including some imported goodies like cereals and recognizable name brand tinned goods.

The climate was quite a surprise – much cooler than we expected, especially considering we were so near the equator. In fact towards the end of our stay we were wearing long pants and topped up with sweaters in the evenings. It was a pleasant change however, and we found that boat jobs were easier to do in the cooler temperatures. No swimming however, the river is dirty and the water too chilly.

Fresh caught crabs for sale on the street

We took a trip across the river as passengers on the local car ferry to San Vincente, and along with Chuy and Susan from Libre hopped on a bus for a local town called Canoa. Part way there we left the bus and walked several kilometers along the beach. We were searching for shells, shark’s teeth and pre Colombian pottery shards and beads that wash up on the high tides. There were plenty of bits of pottery and I even found a bead, but no sharks teeth. The trophy of the day was a lovely piece of petrified wood discovered by Amy from Sea Cardinal. Lunch was good – we chose from a selection of pancakes filled with fresh fruit, meat or fish, washed down with fresh fruit juice or beer.

I had an exciting adventure when I went paragliding with Joe and Greg.

Crucita is located about 50 minutes by bus from Bahia on the coast road to Portavejo. - The cliffs in the south of town are considered one of the best locations for this sport. I went up in a double harness with Luis and had a couple of wonderful tours through the sky, flying at the same level as the frigate birds and looking down over the hills and the sandy beach below. What an wonderful experience - soundless drifting with the breeze, limitless and free.

When I left for an all too brief two week visit to Canada, Mike stayed on the boat. I met for the first time my two newest granddaughters – Ella and Breanne and reacquainted myself with Caitlyn and Tabatha. It was lovely seeing all the family again – too little time and so much to do, so hardly went anywhere apart from Oakville and Burlington. Tabatha flew with me back to Ecuador where she spent three weeks with Mike and I before Helen arrived and we all went to the Galapagos.

Our trip to Galapagos was fantastic, and all too soon we had to return to Ecuador. We followed Libre to Puerto Lopez and spent a few days anchored near the pirogues off the long beach in front of the town. Puerto López is a pleasant small fishing village set in a arched bay, with some 16,000 inhabitants. Tourists come to Puerto López between June and September for whale watching tours.

We found Hostel Mandela and admired the whales tails, the eclectic collection of various musical instruments and the signpost telling how far from various world cities we were.

The owner was very interesting and told us he had built the small hotel mainly from driftwood. He used to be a member of Greenpeace. The roads leading to his property were lined with a long series of saplings, each enclosed in a protective square wood board barrier A whale fact was painted on each white painted board, each fact repeated in several languages on the one square.

We needed money and as the nearest bank was in Montañita we took a local bus for the hour long journey.

Montañita, is a small colorful rustic village known throughout Ecuador as the best beach for surfing, very popular with international and local surfers. It has a population of around 1,000 inhabitants. Water temperatures range from 56-68 degrees. The sea in Montañita is OK (big waves though) 4 to 5 meters. But, always beware of stingrays close to the water's edge. We had a great meal there and watched the youthful population as we ate in the outdoor restaurant.
Next stop Isla de la Plata Machalilla National Park where we had heard we might be able to stop over for a few days. Unfortunately the custodian wanted us to pay him and we opted not to stay but continued along the coast to the busy fishing Port of Manta

On the way we saw several whales – in particular two huge momma's with a small calf and a teenager type. The teenager couldn’t stay in the water – it was having a marvelous time jumping and breaching. The baby calf did it’s best to emulate the teenager and even the two big momma's got in on the action. They swam just a few feet away from our boats and provided a fantastic display. I wish I had a better camera – mine has a delay that means I sometimes miss the vital Kodak moment!

Wending our way through the labyrinth of fishing boats past the breakwater at Manta which stretches for about two thirds of a mile was pretty nerve wracking but we were soon satisfactorily anchored between the Yacht Club and a row of fishing boats. For a change we were not the ones doing the gawping – the local water taxis patrolled our spot with their passengers pointing and exclaiming, shouting “ola” and “Bueno” and waving in a friendly fashion. The boats here range from huge North American style tuna boats with all the modern gadgets including personal helicopters on deck, through all the sizes of wooden shrimp boats, regular style fishing trawlers, the local wooden fishing sailboats down to small pangas with outboard engines. The boats are careened on the beach and the bottoms cleaned or repaired. Near us crews arrived on board their boats, slapped coats of paint about, used noisy grinders on steel, made repairs to engines and generally made lots of dirt. Trucks and cars roared up and down the nearby road, helicopters zoomed around, dogs barked on decks, people shouting – a cacophony of sound and movement all around.

Manta is a major commercial and holiday resort center and is the second major Port of the country behind Guayaquil. The Malecón that arcs around the bay is always busy and is always a pleasant area to walk..
Since 1999 Manta has been used as a military location for U.S. Air forces in unison with Ecuador's in strategic warfare against Colombian drug traffic cartels through surveillance flights as well as being used as a geographical look out point for the U.S.A for any war crafts heading north from the Middle East and Asia.
Less than a week later we returned to Bahia and made preparations for a short jaunt to Peru. Our six months allowance in Ecuador was nearly up, so a few days out of the country would extend our time until the beginning of November. No such luck, at the border we were given the normal thirty days in the country, and told we would have to leave then. This wasn't a huge problem, and when we arrived back on the boat we started to get ready for the trip north to Panama. There were new arrivals and we soon became involved with boat visits, Happy hours at Puerto Amistad and occasional meals out in local restaurants. With so many new friends it was hard to leave. As usual we made plans to meet those who are intending to travel in the same direction as us and made our farewells to those whose wind and sails will take them elsewhere.