Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Mindo to Peurto Lopez

“When I go from hence, let this be my parting word, that what I have seen is unsurpassable” by Rabindranath Tagore, describes the joy of travel: from the magical moments conjured by ancient pyramids and structures that are often the focus of the coloured photos of guide books, to the seemingly more mundane crafts of indigenous people to the taste of a perfectly ripe mango at a local market.

Sometimes however, it’s not some spectacular sight but an alluring descriptor: in this case the availability of real espresso in a small hotel in Mindo that was the catalyst for planning to stay at this particular establishment. As a creature of habit, or more appropriately a forever, soon to be reformed caffeine addict, oh how I miss my morning continental dark coffee piping hot as I try mightily not to let my mind be distracted from the wonders at hand. Not that there is no coffee available in Ecuador, in fact its locally grown and roasted, but the custom of using concentrated essence of coffee, and adding hot water, the result being a tepid black mixture, just does not fully satisfy. So the promise of real espresso in our chosen hotel in Mindo, reawakened the cravings.

Mindo, is a one-horse, dusty little town, a magnet for bird watchers, aficionados of butterflies, chocolate in the making, and orchids, both wild and beautifully cultivated. Alas, my lasting impression is that of a simple authentic espresso, made by Susan the American born, co-owner of Hotel CasKaffesu, delivered splendidly on my expectations. Thankfully, Mindo did make a lasting impression, so when I am sufficiently fortified by my drug of choice, the sight of butterflies emerging, the taste of raw cocoa, and the colours and intricacies of the orchids, do come back with crystal clarity, at least until my next fix.

From Mindo, it was a 13 hour bus ride to Peurto Lopez on the coast of the Pacific Ocean. While unaccustomed to riding buses, especially of such long duration, albeit in three segments, the experience of taking buses turned out to be quite enjoyable.
The roads, rough gravel at times as the bus groans and moans up in first gear and down with breaks screeching, tightly twisted corners, with no guard rails, long views of the hills and valleys once the clouds that hang like pools of cotton baton until the sun burns them off, and the Andes are so dominant that they make a mockery of the roller-coaster rides of country fairs. Beyond the scenery, best are the people, ranging from very young kids coming to or from schools, not yet subject to helicopter parenting, to the elderly, often accompanied by family helpers and carrying telling belongings: produce, pets, animals or well-honed machetes. In between, were the aspirational cellphonated young, and their display of self: dashing young men with glistening, spiked hairdos, reaching for the sky and young women with proud, perky presentations, defying gravity.

Each village has speed bumps slowing vehicles sufficiently to allow groups of men to jump on and off while the bus is still in motion like trapeze artists in training, carrying all manner of local delicacies, which of course must be sampled and explains why there are no formal food stops. I also discover that the least expensive local buses stop very frequently for long, unpredictable periods, surely not union rules, but the whim of the drivers? I get off to stretch and explore when the ticket collector does, and several times I hear Alison shouting, "Andrew" as the bus pulls away, a signal for me hop back on, not quite with the agility of the vendors.

Beyond acrobatic skills, travel also teaches one how to select hotels from guide book descriptions, the mention of espresso being an unambiguous catalyst. However, at times descriptions can be like reading tea leaves. Since we anticipated arriving late in the beach community of Peurto Lopez, after the long bus ride, I called ahead to reserve a room at a highly rated and recommended place called Nantu Hosteria. A woman with perfect English, a real rarity in Ecuador’s hospitality industry, insisted that I email her my passport number and particulars to confirm the reservation. Needless to say, we were somewhat surprised to arrive early evening, to be greeted by a bricklayer, who spoke virtually no English, who did after several attempts, show us a very comfortable room.

The following morning, we discovered that the place was nearly deserted, had annoying ongoing construction and a sense of off-putting officiousness. Walking along the beach road, we soon found and moved to the warm and friendly, family run Hospederia Punta Piedro at half the price, with a huge terrace with hammocks and a commanding view of the fishing harbour and the sea.

Peurto Lopez is one of those places that sadly will be soon discovered by rumoured government infrastructure investments, and spoiled by over-development. For now is a delight for its ramshackle ocean frontage interspersed with eateries, makeshift bamboo bars, souvenir sellers, hotels, broken sidewalks, dusty streets and its benign treatment of tourists. Even touts for tours to the Isla de la Plata, known as the “poor man’s Galapagos”, are content to accept a simple no as a response to offers of tours, or souvenirs and rarely much else, unlike their counter parts of Kuta beach in Bali, where nearly every conceivable thing or service is available. (The actual tour of the Isla de Plata, was a delight: a 40km ride on ocean waves, with sea spray everywhere, in a small boat with twin 110 hp outboard engines might have been enough thrills for the price. However, we also saw migrating whales from a distance, a lifetime full of blue-footed boobies, not to mention some other rare species, giant turtles and snorkeled amongst some truly colourful fish).

Given more time one offer I would love to have accepted, was to go on a fishing trip with Wiston Churchill (sic) who personally runs his tours. He is a larger than life character, suited to his adapted name, who on his return from an early morning trip to the market not only shared a banana with me, but also the usual small-town pleasantries about life, when two strangers meet with limited language skills between them.

As an aside, speaking of being discovered, in the bustling fishing port where in the mornings, small boats come in by the dozens and a whole infrastructure is in place to sort and sell the fish, sometimes over heated negotiation sessions, as foreigners we clearly stood out. It did not take long to learn from another gringo, having exchanged to usual, “where are you from?” and “where have you traveled?”, to learn that a Toronto couple last year purchased an ocean front house for the astonishing low price of about $150,000. The search for retirement nirvana is prevalent in many parts of the world, and it does not take long to learn from other searchers the tax, cost of living, weather and other advantages of Ecuador, the most salient being the cheap prices for real estate. A typical house here sells for around $50 per sq. ft. and condos, for double that. For now, while we can travel on two wheels, or public transit or on two feet, the idea of settling in some foreign spot, especially one with full fencing around a compound, does not yet appeal.

We did however settle after the first morning for a wonderful little cafe, with only four tables, incongruously known as Don Cherry’s, the name of the owner’s husband, after the iconic Canadian hockey personality. We delighted in the warm welcome of his wife Antoinetta who single handed cooks and serves the best five course breakfasts in recent memory. Peurto Lopez is such a sleepy place that neither Antoinetta nor her neighbouring stores had change for the proffered ten dollars. As such we forced, with delight to return the next couple of days to consume the rest of the money, plus some. Such are the unsurpassable moments of travel, not found in guide books that has us longing to return someday to Peurto Lopez and Antoinetta’s, hopefully before it gets discovered.