Easy as Ecuador!

When deciding on a winter getaway vacation destination, who picks Ecuador?  Most people immediately think of the all-inclusive resorts of the Caribbean.  And why not? They have it all!  Sun, sand, surf, all you can eat buffets, nightly entertainment, copious amounts of alcohol, and people….lots and lots of people.

Don’t feel bad. We would’ve normally been looking for a Caribbean destination too.  We still do! We like to take that week in February of every year and just find a nice all-inclusive resort somewhere so that we can both just lay on the beach like beached whales.  I like to call it re-charging my batteries.  Being a sole proprietor of a small business means 51 weeks out of the year my mind is in constant motion. It wears a person down without them even being aware of it.

My wife has a very stressful job as well, but she also is a bear for punishment so she decided to become a travel agent and do that part-time as well. We all know that job definitely has some perks, but what you may not know is the incredible number of hours spent staring at a computer screen trying to find the exact package, or flight, or destination, or accommodation, or menu, or transportation, or room color, to suit the most fussy clients, only to be told, after untold hours of work, that they decided to book it themselves.

So yes, we “get” the need for an all-inclusive Caribbean vacation.

It was our retirement plan however, that prompted us to think outside of the box last year.  We both like the idea of retiring off-continent for a few reasons.  Neither of us are big fans of cold, Canadian winters, and it only makes sense to avoid them completely if possible.  The other big attraction for us is the cost of living in a lot of tropical countries, tied to the beautiful scenery, different and exotic cultures, languages, food, and lifestyles.

We had developed a list of countries of interest, and were left with the difficult decision of which one to visit first.  After bouncing back and forth what seemed like an endless amount of times, I suggested we start at the equator and work our way out from there.  Thus our decision to visit Ecuador first!

Lesson One. Surprise! There’s not much in the way of all-inclusive in Ecuador.  Ok, no problem. My wife is, after all, a travel agent. I just had no idea how good she really is at her job!  After only a few days,  an amazing package began taking shape for us.  When all was  said and done, we were booked for 10 days at an awesome little Bed & Breakfast at the end of the road in a tiny fishing village. Run by an expat couple from the US meant that there would be no language barrier, and they would make excellent resources for our retirement research.  She arranged transportation from the airport, and a rental car once we arrived at our location.  In the end, we were so excited about this trip that we invited our good friends Dave and Kathleen to join us! Ecuador, here we come!

So. Toronto to Bolivia, Bolivia to Guayaquil. In Guayaquil it’s just after midnight and pouring rain. Our taxi driver tells us it’s the rainy season and that we just missed a huge rainstorm. It’s been raining for days which they haven’t seen in years. 4 hours later our taxi reaches San Jacinto. We have arrived! Now it’s almost 5 AM and our hosts meet us in the pouring rain with umbrellas.  They give us a brief tour of our accommodations and send us to bed. Good. We’re all asleep on our feet anyway.

I’m the first one awake and the first out of bed. I quietly open the patio doors to see where I am. Unbelievable! The rain has stopped.  The weather is warm. There is no hustle or bustle. No loudspeakers. No traffic. I hear only the surf rolling in on the beach in front of me, and the sound of birds. Songbirds from the jungle behind me, and seabirds from the Pacific in front of me. I stand there like an idiot, just taking it all in.IMG_20170208_090837

I go back in and grab a towel to dry of the chairs and table on the little patio in front of me. I can’t get over how peaceful and beautiful it is.  30 minutes later  our host comes down with a pot of hot coffee and a promise of a delicious breakfast. Our vacation begins.

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We didn’t really have much of an agenda, other than to meet with the local realtor to look at a couple of prospective properties in the area for retirement, so the bulk of our time spent in Ecuador would be kind of fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants.

Our first adventure was our trip to Manta to pick up our rental car. The same taxi driver that brought us the 4 hours from Guayaquil just a few short hours ago, returned to drive us the 60 minutes to Manta. With our amazing driver as interpreter, we drove off in a Mazda pick-up.

I think it worthwhile to spend a few minutes talking about this taxi driver.  Prior to leaving Canada, my wife had corresponded back and forth with our hosts at the B&B on several issues, one of which was to arrange transportation from Guayaquil to the coast.  They recommended a local friend of theirs, Juan, who is based out of Manta.  She immediately booked his services to bring us to the B&B, and to get us to Manta to pick up our rental.

We discovered Juan to be an extremely friendly and knowledgeable gentleman with a very firm grasp of the english language, and driving skills second to none. (We discovered later how important those skills are in Ecuador)

Tired as we were from our long flight and layover, and even though it was midnight and pouring rain, Juan kept us entertained with a running commentary of the sights we were driving through and asked a ton of pertinent questions of us to better understand us and where we come from. It wasn’t until waiting for him to pick us up to take us to our rental, that we understood that he is based out of Manta.  This meant he drove 3 and a half hours from his home to pick us up at the airport and drove another 4 hours to get us to our lodgings, and then drove another hour home. He basically caught 2 hours sleep, and turned around to drive back to get us again to take us back to his home city.  All of this driving cost us a total of $195 USD. Included in this cost was a wealth of information from a local that provided us with at least a dozen recommendations and even more tips on how to get around, and communicate effectively in Ecuador.

He has a Facebook page (Manta with Juan) and a Twitter feed (@MantaJuan2015) and he is definitely worth checking out for some awesome pics, videos, and stories of his adventures with clients in Ecuador.

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While in the big city, we decided now that we had wheels of our own, to find a nice place to have some lunch. We drove past a few different places but settled on a sign we understood was advertising fish.  We’re on the Pacific coast, in the city considered to be the tuna fishing capital of the world, and starving nearly to death.  We parked the car and walked up.

“Hole in the wall” is the term that best describes this place. There were windows with curtains but no glass. The few tables inside were sort of covered in those endearing plastic red gingham tablecloth, and surrounded by well-worn plastic patio chairs. The only person immediately apparent greeted us in Spanish, and we promptly forgot everything that Juan had coached us on, and stood there staring blankly, smiling like village idiots.

Luckily, we all knew “cervesa” so when the second gentleman appeared, we were promptly seated and provided with cold beers and menus. We got lucky again when we discovered the menu had pictures.  We all knew we wanted fish, but we had to somehow make sure that Kathleen’s fish wasn’t served with the head attached. It appeared our sign-language worked since we all got what we wanted.

Several reminices and almost a year later, the four of us still agree that first meal in Ecuador was the best one we ever had. It turns out the first gentleman that greeted us when we walked in was the captain of the ship that brought the fish to the establishment. Fresh. Very fresh.

It was also the first time we experienced what we all now call the Ecuador salad. I have no idea what kind of fish we had, and it was nothing short of amazing, but as good as it was, the salad was the real star of the show. A simple combination of cucumber, tomatoe, lettuce, cilantro, with a lime and honey dressing. I’ve tried re-creating this dressing several times and have finally come very close, but it still pales in comparison with my memory of that first taste in Ecuador.

In all honesty,  every meal we had in Ecuador was a real treat for the tastebuds.  In the village where we stayed, there were no fast food outlets. Very refreshing. Every meal we had was prepared fresh, from fresh, locally sourced ingredients. The fish and seafood we ate was caught that very day from our village and served up with local produce brought door-to-door by the local farmers. I have yet to experience anything like it.

Over the course of the next few days, we took advantage of our open timetable and spent leisurely mornings having breakfast on our patio, followed by a dip in the plunge pool, and then some romantic strolling of the beach. There were several small eateries all along the beach and you can walk for miles up the beach, from one small fishing village to another.

Alternatively, we took advantage of the recommendations of Juan and of our hosts to see some inland sights as well. We definitely had to get to Montecristi. Did you know that Panama hats originated in Ecuador?  Neither did I.  And Montecristi is the capital city of Panama hats. Dave and I both got one. Ok…I got 3. Sue me.

Also recommended to us was a restaraunt in Montecristi. Trattoria Da Gabriel. A very authentic Italian gourmet restaurant, perched on the side of the high hillside overlooking Montecristi. We met the owner and had an amazing lunch. Unbelievable dining experience.

Of course, what visit to Ecuador would be complete without seeing the Galapagos Islands? Unfortunately, time and budgetary restrictions prevented us from booking any of the the full-on tours of the archipelago. However, thanks once again to our hosts and Juan, we discovered “The Poor Man’s Galapagos”.  This is a local tour that takes you out on a large speed boat to

My wife, being the grand adventurer that she is, spent a day out and about on her own. She started with a trip to the local market. This happens every Sunday in Charapoto, just 20 minutes away from our location. Here they close all the streets and bring all of the wares out of the shops into booths and tables in the street. Everything from livestock to toilet paper is available at the market and you walk away with a weeks worth of groceries for a house of 4 for $10 US.

Not one to be accused of being boring, my wife couldn’t wait to drive up to Crucita to spend the afternoon paragliding. Know for its spectacular cliff views and air currents, Crucita is a hub for paragliders from all over the world. Seeing some of the pics she brought back, I can certainly believe it.

Lets talk a minute about driving in Ecuador.  Thank god my wife was born and raised in the GTA. Since she booked the rental car, she was the primary driver listed on the agreement, and Dave was a backup driver. Like I said, not a boring person, my wife was happy to get behind the wheel and tour us all over the countryside. First rule of driving in Ecuador. There are no rules. Or at least there don’t appear to be. The only thing that “some” drivers seem to care about are the speed limits. Thankfully, there are speed monitors mounted along the roadways to let you know when you’re speeding so you have a chance to slow down before you get to the speed trap.

They have speed bumps on the highways as well. That’s something you want to look out for as you travel down the hillsides at breakneck speeds. Locals certainly look out for them, and when they see one, they simply move into the oncoming lane….whether there’s another vehicle approaching or not. We determined that since there are no lines painted on the hiways that there are 3, potentially 4, lanes. This means that you can pass anyone, anywhere, anytime. Climbing a blind hill, on blind corners, and with oncoming traffic speeding towards you to see if you can make the pass before they scrape by you at full speed.

Our little Mazda truck was always full of the sounds of “Oh my god!” and “No way!”, or “Did you see that??”  And my beautiful wife, Tina, just took it all in stride and made the locals proud. After the first couple of eye-ball-popping situations, she just drove like an Ecuadorean, and flitted about from place to place like she’d lived there her entire life.

Our last night at San Jacinto was filled with good food, good friends, and the most beautiful sunset.  We would begin our journey home in the morning with a drive back to Guayaquil to see it in daylight and catch our flight home the following morning.

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Driving back to Guayaquil the next morning allowed us to see all of the things that Juan had described to us on our previous journey in the dark. The roads were all very well maintained and traffic was light. Upon reaching Guayaquil however, things soon changed. Traffic on the way to our hotel was thick and fast. We were using Google Maps to navigate our way, but in some instances we only had a split second to make important lane changes and exits. Thus, we missed an exit and spent an hour trying to get back to where we needed to be.  In the end, we made it safely to the hotel, checked in, and prepared to do a walkabout tour.

The area of the city that we were in held lots of street vendors, tiny shops, and authentic Ecuadorean eating places, along with larger shopping complexes. This being our last day in Ecuador, the ladies wandered about looking for last-minute souvenirs for the folks back home.

The wife and I discovered a park nearby so decided to take a stroll through. I had heard about a place referred to as Iguana Park from friends who had visited Guayaquil, and it turned out this was the place. Originally known as Seminario Park, this beautiful green space in the middle of the city is home to an amazingly large number of iguanas.

Cathedrals, statuary, historical architecture, and store fronts all surround Iguana Park, and it’s definitely a perfect place to spend some contemplative time, or to relax with your partner over a romantic lunch.

Rejoining Dave and Kathleen for dinner, we raised our glasses a final time to our adventure in Ecuador, and headed to our rooms. Next morning saw us whisked to the airport on the hotel shuttle, and shortly thereafter, winging our way back to Canada. Of all of our travels thus far, Ecuador will always be a special place for us, and we are still very strongly considering it for our retirement destination. If you ever get the opportunity, don’t pass it up. It’s as easy as Ecuador!

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