About an hour up the coast from Salinas sits the small beach town of Montañita. While Salinas is more of a local vacation spot, Montañita is the opposite. Many ex-pats have established small hotels and restaurants that cater to the constant stream of foreign tourists that pass through on an annual basis. Even though I hate “tourist traps”, I love hanging out on the beach so I definitely couldn’t pass up the opportunity to explore Montañita.
Arrival to Montañita- I checked out of my hotel in Salinas at about 1030 Monday morning. Fortunately, I was staying on the main road and there was a bus passing as I was walking out of the hotel which could take me to the regional bus terminal in Santa Elena for 30 cents. I ended up choosing the wrong bus as it was not a direct bus to the terminal with the trip taking about an hour (as opposed to 25 minutes when I arrived). However, I arrived at the bus terminal just as a bus was leaving to Montañita. The ticket cost $1.75 USD. The bus almost left me as I stopped to buy an empanada but I was able to chase it down. While more crowded then other buses I have ridden on, I was still able to sit comfortably with my travel bag. The trip to Montañita took about an hour and 20 minutes with most of the ride going down the Ecuadorian coast. There was no official bus terminal in Montañita as the bus stopped on the side of the road at the town’s main entrance. From the bus stop, it was a short walk to my pre-booked accommodation. While billed as a hotel, it was really a room rented out by an American expat. I also ran into a similar issue that I ran into in Salinas where the place couldn’t take credit card for payment. However, it was such a good deal, that I ended up staying and paying cash. Specifically, the room was had an ocean view with a private balcony and was only $78 USD for the whole week. I doubt I could have found a better rate anywhere else.
Montañita Town- Despite its widespread popularity, Montañita isn’t really that big. The entire town is spread out over 10 city blocks give or take. However, it is very congested and gritty reminding me of Playa El Tunco en El Salvador. There is a nice soccer field in the middle of the town where I assume the local team holds Sunday evening matches. While there was no big supermarket, there were plenty of small tiendas that provided everything one would need for a comfortable stay. However, as with many tourist areas, the prices for commodities were pretty inflated. It was the first time in over 4 months of traveling in the region that I paid over $1 USD for a liter of water. There were plenty of restaurants to choose whether it was local seafood places or high-end foreign cuisine. Most places only took cash and those that take credit card, add 10-20% on the price. Another surprising thing was some of the expat shop owners didn’t even speak Spanish which I would have thought you at least needed a basic understanding of to start a business in Ecuador. There was a nice boardwalk that bordered the beach. While the weather wasn’t exactly the greatest, the beach seemed to be pretty desolate which was emphasized due to how large it was. In fact, it was similar to Playa Venao in Panama in that the tide dictates how far you need to walk in order to reach the water’s edge (making it seem even bigger during certain times of the day). Right next to the main tourist boulevard, there were beach chairs and umbrellas set up for one to relax. While Ecuador doesn’t exactly have a “club culture”, there are also several bars in Montañita that are open until 12 AM and play several popular English language songs.
As I near the end of my time in Ecuador, I have decided to explore the areas along the country’s southwestern coastal region. My first stop was Salinas, a small beach town about 2.5 hours west of Guayaquil. It is a small beach town along South America’s most western tip which caters mostly to local Ecuadorians. Salinas reminded me of a poor-man’s Miami Beach (no pun intended). However, I am glad to finally be able to relax on a beach again after nearly 2 months of traveling inland.
Arrival to Salinas- After leaving Cuenca due to outrageous hotel prices, I technically stayed in Guayaquil for the weekend but made it a point not to explore the city. I decided to first explore the coast and come back a stay a proper week in Ecuador’s largest city. From the Guayaquil bus terminal, I took a 2 hour bus to the town of Santa Elena ($4.40 USD). The bus was comfortable despite being packed and the ride was smooth. After arriving in Santa Elena, I had to take one of the many local buses for .30 cents to Salinas which was about 25 minutes away pass the town of Libertad. I actually lucked out because I happened to check Google Maps right as the bus was passing my stop as there wasn’t a municipal bus terminal (my phone was also at 2% battery). I got off the bus and arrived at the hotel that I booked via Booking.com. Unfortunately, despite annotating that they accepted credit card for payment on the website, they did not accept credit card. That actually made me angry because it amounted to deception in order to get people to book non-refundable rooms. I ended up telling the owner that I would book another reservation for fewer nights but I wasn’t going to pay for 7 nights in cash. After I he cancelled my original reservation, I took a look at the other available room which turned out to be a dump. I ended up just leaving them high and dry. Fortunately, I only had to walk about 2 blocks before finding a nicer hotel which cost a little bit more but did accept credit card.
Playa Las Salinas- As for Salinas itself, it was a sleepy beach town transitioning between tourist seasons. The beach was so-so but the farther you went from the shore the more picturesque the water. Playa Las Salinas had a long causeway lined with restaurants and hotels that was reminiscent of South Beach in Miami, although not as nice. However, it was acceptable given the affordable cost. There was a nice pier (El Malecon) which provided a nice panoramic view of the city shoreline. The beach itself is a swimmer’s beach and I was able to rent an umbrella and chair for $3 USD which is cheap compared to other places. While not as bad as Bocagrande in Cartagena, I did constantly have to shoo vendors and ad-hoc masseuses away as I was trying to relax. The most frustrating thing about Salinas was the inconsistent hours of the restaurants in that a restaurant would be busy one day and completely boarded up the next. It was the same thing with food vendors, I never ran into the same vendor two days in a row. The only restaurants that remained opened throughout the week were either the ones that charged US expensive prices or the seafood places which I couldn’t eat due to allergies. There were several instances where I enjoyed a dish but didn’t get to eat it again. In the end, Salinas was a cheap place for locals to come to relax and do as little as possible which is why it seemed that there weren’t many foreign tourists hanging around.
La Chocolatera- Salinas didn’t have much to offer as far as site seeing. However, if there is one thing that I felt I “must do” while hanging out for the week, it was going to visit La Chocolatera at the most western tip of the country. The easy way of doing this would be to pay a taxi $6 USD to take me there and back. However, as someone who is always looking to save money, I decided to go the more “adventurous” route. I took a bus (.30 cents) to the entrance of the Ecuadorian military base where the site is located. (The Ecuadorian government only recently opened up the base to allow for tourist traffic). After showing the soldiers a photo of my passport on my phone, I was allowed inside where I had to walk another 3.5 kms to the point. I took the street path but could have taken the beach trail from La Loberia which is two miles and takes a little under two hours. La Chocolatera was fairly commercialized as it had multiple parking lots, souvenir vendors, and a small café. Because I went on a Thursday afternoon, only a few people were walking about. I was able to get some great pictures of the crashing waves, the small lighthouse, and the coastline. Despite being on a beach, the current is way too strong to swim in, although you theoretically could get close enough to touch the water. I spent about 30 minutes at the point before paying a waiting taxi $3 USD to take me back to my hotel. I think La Chocolatera provided a nice distraction from the beach and even better photo opportunities.
My next stop along the trail is the city of Cuenca, a colonial city which is the capital of Ecuador’s Azuay Province. The city is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its many historical buildings and sites. Unfortunately, I will not have a full week in Cuenca due to outrageous price increases in regard to accommodation for the upcoming nationwide holiday (Día de los Muertos) and the city’s Independence Day celebrations but I plan on taking advantage of three full days to see as much of the city as I can.
Arrival to Cuenca- As has become custom, I have designated Mondays as my travel days. I left my hotel in Baños at 8 AM in order to get a jumpstart on my trip to Cuenca. I arrived at the bus terminal to find out that a bus directly to Cuenca was leaving at 8:45 AM and would take 7 hours. The price was high ($10 USD) in Ecuadorian terms so I decided to take my chances and see if I could get a cheaper ticket in nearby Riobamba. I decided to pay $2 USD for a ticket to Riobamba and had to go wait on the side of the road to hop on a passing bus. The trip to Riobamba took about an hour and 45 minutes and I arrived in the Riobamba bus terminal at about 10:30 AM. Fortunately, there was a bus going to Cuenca at 11 AM which gave me extra time to charge my cellphone. However, the ticket cost $8 USD which would have equaled the price had I just chosen to take the bus in Baños. Nevertheless, I was on my way at 11 AM on a fairly comfortable bus with very few other passengers. The trip itself took about 6 hours as we passed through mountains and stopped in several smaller cities (i.e. Cañar, Azogues). However, as we were rolling into Cuenca, I couldn’t help but notice how lush and green the city was even compared to places like Baños and Mindo. The city was very clean and even the local houses had a unique colonial character to them. I arrived at the bus terminal at 5 PM and after charging my cell phone for about 10 minutes, I hopped into a cab and made my way to my hotel near the central square ready to explore the city.
Cuenca Walking Tour- As has become custom, the first thing I do when arriving in a new city is take advantage of the “free” walking tours. After some research, I made a reservation with Free Walking Tour Cuenca which offered tours twice a day (11 AM and 3 PM). I chose the 11AM tour and while I did not receive a confirmation email, there were instructions provided one the companies website on where to meet. I met the tour guide, Mica, in a plaza next to the city’s modern cathedral. She was standing with a couple. While I always book the tours in English, as it is my first language, I’ve come to figure out that most of these tours will always be done in Spanish given that most of the tourists are from Spanish speaking countries (If you don’t speak Spanish, then you can insist on an English tour). This time was no exception as the other couple did not speak English, so the tour was done in Spanish for simplicity. While the tour followed the same format as the other tours I’ve done, I though Mica did a good job at highlighting some of the unique facts as it relates to Cuenca such as the stories behind the city’s monuments and building, the isolated life of the nuns of the Monasterio de las Conceptas, and the importance of religion in Ecuadorian society. We also toured the gigantic new cathedral as we arrived right before the start of mid-day mass. We then made are way to the traditional marketplace where Mica recommended us several local dishes to come back and try. We ended the 2 hour tour at a lookout above La Universidad de Cuenca where I was able to get an excellent view of the city landscape. Overall, I enjoyed the tour and I thought Mica was pretty cute so there is extra points for that.
El Parque Nacional Cajas- Cuenca’s biggest attraction was actually not located in the city itself. El Parque Nacional Cajas is a vast national park located about 45 minutes northwest along the highway which connects Cuenca with Guayaquil. Only having a couple of days in the city, I wanted to make sure I took advantage of the opportunity to explore it. I chose to go on a Wednesday. I woke up about 630 AM and took a taxi to the bus terminal. Even though the taxi ride supposedly cost $1.20 the driver cited a “$1.50” minimum fare which was no where to be found. Having take a few taxis before in the city, I had not run into such rule. I called him out on it but ultimately decided .30 cents wasn’t worth any more of my time. I arrived at the terminal and got various answers on how to catch the bus to Cajas. I was finally able to find the right driver and hopped on the bus right before it left at 8AM. The trip took about and hour and cost $2 USD. However, I was dropped off right in front of the ranger station that I was required to register at. I was immediately greeted by the giant lake I had seen in the reviews. Not surprisingly, it was a lot more chilly in the park than back in Cuenca. Although I had heard a passport was required (I only had a picture of it on my phone), the lady at the station never asked for it and just had me type my information in the computer. More importantly, there was no cost to enter the park. Exploring the park was a “choose your own adventure” as there were about 10 different trails of varying difficulty and time. Not wanting to hike for 9 hours, I chose Ruta 1 which I had thought was only a 3.5 hour hike based on what I had read on the sign. Much to my surprise, after walking about 1.5 km to the first sign, I found out it was actually a 5 hour and 50 minute hike (it had 29 different stopping points along the trail). I still decided to go along that trail until I felt like turning around. While the trail itself provided many picturesque moments and was not physically difficult, the path was extremely muddy which made slipping a continuous possibility (I actually slipped pretty bad on my way back up). I ended up hiking for an about an hour and a half and got to “Point 8” of the trail where I was able to take a picture of another small lagoon and a small waterfall before heading back to the ranger station. I turned back because I was tired, hungry, and pretty bored of the views at that point. However, I could definitely tell why Cajas is a must-see for those passing through Cuenca, especially those who are a fan of the outdoors. It took me about an hour to get back to the ranger station and another 20 minutes to catch a passing bus back to Cuenca. Although I didn’t even do half of one of the shorter trails, I still spent a solid 5 hours at the park.