01.09.2017 - 14.09.2017
During our time in Otavalo, our traveller friends shared epic stories of leaping humpback whales, snorkeling with sea turtles and powdery black sand beaches. We heard of their visits to "Isla de la Plata," where they observed the one and only blue-footed booby. Most importantly they told us that mid September was when the whale season would be over, as these gentle giants would be making their way back home to Antarctica. It being the end of August, we had a few weeks to meet the deadline. All these stories inspired us to change our route and head straight to the coast. We just had to see the whales! Last time we went "whale watching" was in Sri Lanka and after four choppy hours navigating in search of these beautiful beasts, all we saw were a few dolphins and my half digested breakfast fly over people's heads and into the water much like a fountain of yuck. Yup, I was super sea sick, and we didn't get to see whales. Boo! This time we were very hopeful, because everyone we'd met said they had seen them and that tour companies would offer your money back if you didn't see them. Getting there would mean starting our coastal adventure in the north at a little surf town called Mompiche, in the province of Esmeraldas. We planned on cruising down the coast, visiting a few other beaches before reaching the legendary whales. Since our first week in Ecuador had been nothing but cloudy, we also looked forward to some fun in the sun. Hurray for beach time! Or so we thought...
Journey to the Coast
The ride to Mompiche was annoying, to say the least. We were supposed to take a bus from Ilumán at 6:00am and it was pouring down as we stood by the side of the road waiting for our bus. Our first stop was Ibarra, and we were supposed to take a bus from there to Esmeraldas. To our dismay, this bus was cancelled and we had to take three different buses to get there, making it a fourteen hour journey. Eye-roll. After waiting by a dumpster on a highway for our last bus, we were finally almost there. The weather changed drastically from chilly to extra hot and sticky. The people changed too, and went from indigenous looking to African style. Hot pants, flip flops and short sleeves ruled the scene, and we were psyched for some beach time!
Mendee and Andrés, the sweet and kind owners of The Mud House, received us in Mompiche with open arms. They led us to our lovely bamboo cabin, which would be our home for the next five days. This place was a cute eco-friendly hostel with a shared kitchen, hammocks and comfy communal spaces. Unfortunately, the sun was no where to be found. So, we spent our days going for jogs, eating loads of seafood and exploring our surroundings. "Playa Negra" or Black Sand Beach was our favorite! Getting there was a bit of a muddy mission that included some pretty confident chickens blocking the entrance with their menacing pecks. Or maybe I'm just paranoid around chickens, but that's another story. We'd heard from the locals about the slow death of this ebony beach, which was currently taking place. Apparently, this unique beach's shimmering sand was being illegally mined for its titanium and other rich minerals. Sadly, government agencies were not doing their part in regulating and protecting this beach. On one night, trucks were loaded with black sand, and with the help of the police, some locals were able to unload the precious sand and had dumped it in front of the school to make a statement. There was quite a revolution going on to save this place and when we were there, we quickly understood why. Shiny particles showered the black powdery sand and it reminded me of stars twinkling in the dark night sky. On the shore, the sand became soft like silky smooth mud and walking barefoot on it was delightful. You could see patches of normal sand on the part of the beach that was being mined. We are happy that we got to see it and hope the local community wins this movement to save "Playa Negra."
Quick Stop in Canoa
Canoa was nothing more than a place to stop over and break up the long journey from Mompiche to the whale zone. It took us six hours and about $6 to get there. Colorful boogie boards were lined up on the shore waiting for their big chance to surf some waves. Ceviche stands, fresh coconuts carts and ice cream bikes kept the beach goers well fed and even though the skies were gray, the beach was packed. We stayed at Rutamar Hostel for $20 a night, and looked forward to hopping over to Puerto López to visit the humpbacks. Although we had a good time, our hearts were set on some sun and whale watching action.
Whale and Booby Time!
After a three hour bus ride, we arrived in Puerto López, where we stayed in a cute little wooden cabin across the beach at "Cabañas Playa Sur." The town was cute, with one main road, a few restaurants and lots of bars on the beach which all looked exactly the same and had the same drink menus. A little creativity could go a long way here. We had a few Mojitos in one of these cloned bars and then immediately booked our whale adventure for the next day. It was a $40 package that included whale watching for an hour, a trip to Isla de la Plata (poor man's Galapagos), lunch, and some snorkeling near the island. We thought it was a great deal and immediately booked it at our hostel. The same deal is offered everywhere in town, but the most important thing is to make sure that the guides and boats are licensed. As the group gathered outside of the agency's office, I made a friend, called Molly. She was an American living in New Zealand and had an awesome sense of humor. It was friendship at first chuckle. We also met some nice Germans and a sweet Dutchie called Alyssa. The journey began with us boarding the boat and putting on our life vests. About 30 minutes into the ride, the first whale was spotted and my heart went on a full stop. It was a baby and it did a full body leap, slowly falling on its back with a massive splash. It all happened so quickly, and I was torn between holding my camera or enjoying the moment in it's live magic. It was capturing the moment versus living the moment. Ah!! I managed to take a few photos of the towering humpbacks doing some of their favorite tricks. Full body jumps, flipper waves and tail slams were the best! At one point there were two babies playing with each other, swimming on their sides and slapping their fins down on each other, much like school kids playing patty cake. Researchers were on board, keeping track of the whales based on their tails. They told us that the whales make an annual trip to Ecuador, escaping the freezing cold winter temperatures of Antarctica. Here they come to give birth and raise their babies. So the warm waters of Ecuador serve as mating grounds and a nursery for these humpback giants. When the whales were swimming up, you could hear and feel their strong breaths pushing through their blow holes, squirting water into the sky. After some more spectacular flips and jumps, we set off to "Isla de la Plata," where a welcoming committee of sea turtles surrounded our boat.
When we arrived on the island, we were divided into groups and taken on a one hour tour to see the one and only blue footed boobies and other bird species. It was mating season on the island and couples of blue footed lovers were found all over the island. We were able to observe the mating rituals, where the male stomps his blue feet around and when that doesn't work, he offers the finest piece of dry hay to woo the female. Their feet were a bright candy blue color comparable to Tiffany blue. Their eyes were bright yellow like mini headlights and their white and gray feathers smooth and sleek. We saw many other birds on our hike around the island, and after this we all gathered back on the boat to have our lunch. After some pretty decent sandwiches we went to a part of the island where the snorkeling was meant to be amazing. We had spoken to people who had swum with turtles and manta rays. Sadly, we did not get to swim with those lovely sea creatures. Instead, we saw lots of beautiful and colorful fish swimming around the coral reef. That was the final part of our tour and overall, we had a wonderful time! We spent the next day in Puerto López, which ended up being the first sunny day we had experienced in Ecuador. Finally! We hung out on the beach all day with some new friends and booked our next hostel. Montañita would be the next and final beach destination on our coastal adventure!
Chilling Out in Montañita
We had heard that Montanita had a great beach for surfing, a variety of restaurants and the perfect combination of a chilled out beach vibe and a hardcore party scene. We were happy to see that the party was not intense at all and that it was mostly a laid back place with lots of bars and tons of restaurants. We stayed at Kiwi Hostel and our friend Molly joined us for a day! It was wet and gray the entire time. We had booked five nights and spent our days reading, watching movies and eating out. Our favorite restaurant was called Tikki Limbo and we were hooked on their apple crumble deserts! We also had the best pizza at Ezzio's at $3 for a medium pizza, thanks to our friends Hannah and Brandon who highly recommended it. At night, the cocktail street came to life with incredibly cheap happy hours of two drinks for $5. Since it was low season, it was not as busy as it tends to be. Not bad! Since being at the beach when it's rainy is extremely lame, we looked forward to our next destination. We accepted that the sun would be hard to find and decided to head inland.
Baños was next on the list and I was excited to see some waterfalls and take a dip in the thermal baths of this natural haven!