|Returning from a vacation is always a mixed bag. On the plus side, you feel well-rested and happy to be back on familiar territory; on the downside, the cupboards are bare, you have a kilo of dirty laundry and everything in your home is covered in a thin layer of dust. This is all well and good for someone like me, who relishes the challenge of getting everything back to normal, as quickly as possible, but for Mike, it was something of a nightmare. Unfortunately, he had no choice in the matter because we had guests coming the day after our return. I doubt very much whether Phoebe and Harry, our good friends from University, would have minded a bit of dust here and there and a few dirty mugs, but my Mum’s pride in her unfailingly clean house has invariably rubbed off on me and I couldn’t stand for the flat to be anything other than sparkling. As luck would have it, our friends didn’t actually come over that first night, not that it mattered - we were having far too much fun to care. We met them at one of our preferred haunts, a trendy restaurant/bar called La Cigale where we caught up over cocktails, before heading to our favourite restaurant for some hearty Colombian food. From here we went to another bar, talking non-stop about Ecuador and its many delights (and annoyances) until we all started to yawn and look nonchalantly at our watches. It was the strangest thing to see our friends from another life here in Cuenca. It reminded me of the time I bumped into one of the housemasters from King’s in a nightclub in Canterbury, although having Phoebe and Harry to visit was far more enjoyable, of course. The following day, the four of us ambled around Cuenca after taking in the wonders of the Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción and the church of San Blas. We parted ways for the afternoon so that Phoebe and Harry could discover the delights of reading by the river whilst we prepared an enormous soup for dinner. We had to ask them to smuggle some bowls from their hostel, since we only have two, and Pheebs and I had to eat cross-legged on the bed since there are only two chairs, but it worked. More chatting over a bottle of wine ensued before we all crammed onto our bed to watch ‘The Beach’ in preparation for our week ahead. We parted ways all hoping for the same golden sands and glorious sunshine as in the film (the sinister group dynamic we agreed we could do without) with the promise of meeting bright and early on the morrow.
Knowing that I am almost always perfectly punctual, Phoebe was astounded to have lost a bet with Harry, who was sure we wouldn’t be ready by 7am on Monday morning. Still, to be ready by 7.15am when you woke up in a flap just half an hour before wasn’t bad going. By 8.20am we were on our way to Guayaquil, wending our way through the picturesque countryside in Cajas National Park. After a lightning-fast changeover at Guayaquil, we were soon on the sweltering bus to Puerto López, all of us wishing we’d had time to change out of our jeans in between buses. We all had bets on what time we would arrive and I’m pleased to say that my optimism paid off, allowing me to win the title of, well, best at guessing how long buses take, I guess. We arrived just as the afternoon was giving way to evening, positively gleeful at how hot it still was at 4.30pm. After traipsing round a number of hostels, we found one near the beach for five dollars each a night that we liked well enough (even though the locks on the doors to the bamboo rooms were about as secure as the one on my old diary from when I was ten, and we saw cockroaches the size of mice scuttling around the garden), and raced in to change. That night, after a romantic stroll along the beach at sunset, we set out to find food along the main street where all the restaurants were. We soon discovered that every restaurant had pretty much the exact same menu, the only vegetarian option being spaghetti with vegetables for $4.50, and yet we still managed to pick the restaurant with the slowest service ever. Thankfully, there is a well-known remedy to over-priced, sub-standard food that you’ve waited over an hour for: cocktails on the beach, which was, conveniently, a mere hop, skip and a jump away. Here we whiled away the night drinking freshly made caipariñas from the comfort of our hammocks, listening to the waves draw ever closer and wondering what more we could want after a days travel.
Tuesday dawned bright… and cloudy. This posed quite a flaw in mine and Phoebe’s plans for a morning spent sunning ourselves, but we weren’t going to let it spoil the day. Instead, we decided to reshuffle our itinerary and visit a small village in the nearby national park called Agua Blanca that’s said to be unusual for what it lacks, namely noise. So, the four of us crammed ourselves into a tuk tuk meant for two, arriving, after a very bumpy journey, at the quiet village at mid-morning. We were shown around the museum by a guide (although the explanation was in Spanish, so we only ever picked up the gist of what he was saying), but decided to hike the trail to the Manta ruins and the sulphur pool ourselves. After two wrong turns we did feel a little foolish for having turned down the company of a guide, however, we managed to find our way in the end. The ruins were a little disappointing – just a collection of roped-off stones without so much as a placard saying when they were discovered – and also somewhat eerie, probably because it was deathly silent. The sulphur pool, hailed as a natural spa, was not exactly as I had imagined either. The stench of rotten eggs coming off the pool was horrendous and whereas Mike, Phoebe and Harry were able to bear it long enough for a dip, I found that I just couldn’t. It was a shame, for though the others described it as diving into liquid egg, they did look like they were having fun. Starving hungry and stinking to high heaven (those who went swimming, anyway), we waited for our driver to come and pick us up so that we could go for an extremely late lunch in Puerto López. Walking back to our hostel from the restaurant meant passing by all of the street stalls, which contained some of mine and Phoebe’s favourite items to buy, i.e. jewellery and dresses. The boys soon got bored as the two of us tried on dress after gorgeous dress in a makeshift changing-room and wandered off to the beach, where we found them half an hour later with a bottle of beer each. We waited for them to finish up, after which time we paired off in order to go and nap. Shopping and eating are tiring pursuits, after all. Feeling refreshed after an hour’s sleep, the four of us headed to one of the cabañas on the beach for another night like the one before. With a bottle of rum stashed in my handbag, it was an extremely cheap night, although how the woman behind the bar wasn’t suspicious that we appeared to be getting so drunk on passionfruit juice is beyond me. Perhaps she just didn’t care. We played cards, we went paddling in the sea, we befriended a dog, (which the boys didn’t like on account of its becoming a little protective of Pheebs and I and refusing to let them anywhere near us) and before we knew it, it was 1am and the beach was deserted apart from us. The bar-woman hadn’t said anything, but we were sure she probably wanted to close up and go home, so we bade her farewell and stumbled back to our hostel.
It was surprisingly easy to get up the following day, which was good since we were due to visit the nearby island at 9am. Isla de la Plata (Silver Island) has been coined ‘the poor man’s Galapagos’ on account of its bird population, which includes the fascinating blue-footed boobie. We should have known that 9am translated into Ecuadorian time is actually 10am, which is what time we headed down to the boat that was to take us whale-watching and then on to the island. Our guide was friendly, although he didn’t speak any English and seemed to think my name was ‘Jabba’, which greatly amused the others. We met our fellow islanders on the beach, who were an eclectic bunch comprising a lovely French girl, an American guy, an Argentinean couple, an English guy who spoke four languages fluently and was kind enough to translate for us a little bit and a Mancunian that I’m pretty sure everyone wished wasn’t there (he was rather socially inept, to put it nicely). We’d been on the boat for about half an hour when the Argentinean woman suddenly gasped and pointed out to sea. She had spotted the first whale. We sped towards the place she’d pointed to (along with three other boats full of tourists with their cameras at the ready) and sure enough, the graceful body of a humpback whale glided out of the water for a couple of seconds. Sadly, none of the whales jumped clean out of the water (like they had the day before, according to the annoying Mancunian), but we did manage to see some fins and a tail or two before we set sail for the island once more. We arrived just before midday and began our tour soon after. We hiked up through the dry scrub on what I decided must be a truly impoverished man’s Galapagos. Soon enough, we encountered a pair of blue-footed boobies, who really are quite a sight to see. They were very calm (clearly used to having tourists gawk at them) and very pretty, in spite of their sad fates. The guide explained that they are born without eyelids, which means that after some years, they become blinded by the sun and, unable to hunt, die soon after. We did wonder why evolution hasn’t provided eyelids for them yet, or at least some form of inbuilt sunglasses, but soon got distracted by the frigate birds, who were parading their red-ballooned breasts as though told to do so by the tour company. We spent a while watching these crazy-looking birds before moving on to see some… more blue-footed boobies. It’s not like we weren’t impressed by these pretty birds, but we had thought we’d see more than two types of bird (three if you count the pelicans on the way, though you can see them from Puerto López). Soon enough, we were back on the boat eating a rather miserly lunch before snorkelling. I didn’t go in, but I did see some brightly coloured fish when our guide dropped some crumbs into the water. I don’t think anyone saw anything particularly exciting (except the Mancunian who undoubtedly thought he saw a mermaid or something) so I didn’t feel I’d missed out too much. We arrived back at Puerto López at about 5pm after a fierce round of ‘would you rather’, which had us all in stitches, and went back immediately to wash the salt water out of our hair. Feeling as though we needed hot showers instead of a freezing hose (which was what we had at our hostel), Mike and I popped across the road to a popular backpacker hostel and asked if we could pay to use their showers. The guy was rather rude, but said we could use them (quickly) for $1.50. We thought this was a bit steep, but I was so cold that I didn’t care. It wasn’t until I got into the shower, in the dark because the light didn’t work, and found that there was no hot water that I felt like a total mug. I should have complained, but the hostel owner was surrounded by men and there were quite a few other people around, so when it came down to it, I lost my nerve. That evening, we were all a little subdued, clearly tired from the day’s exploits, so Mike and I weren’t at all surprised or put out when Phoebe and Harry didn’t return to the beach after ‘popping back’ to the hostel for ten minutes after dinner. We stayed out for a little while, but found that the sound of the waves was sending us to sleep and thought it better to have an early night.
I’ve no idea why, but whenever I try to get an early night, I inevitably end up sleeping badly, which is exactly what happened on Wednesday night. A cockerel had started crowing at midnight and continued right through to dawn, and as if that wasn’t enough, a pack of hounds took it upon themselves to provide some backing vocals. I was also feeling unwell in the early hours, which meant that the rest of the morning was spent catching up on the sleep we’d been deprived of. The day wasn’t lost though. After lunch at the market, we bundled into another tuk tuk back to the national park, though this time our destination was Los Frailes beach – said to be one of the most beautiful in Ecuador. We decided to walk from the park entrance to the beach and were glad we did, because we spotted none other than an owl on the way! It was a small, brown thing, sitting very still in a tree not three metres from us – bizarre. The beach was nice, although I imagine it looks far better bathed in sunlight (the weather had failed us for the third day in a row). Pheebs and I laid out our towels and sat chatting like old times while the boys mucked around with a ball, first on the beach and then in the sea. They invented a game called ‘wave ball’, which involved one of them throwing the ball to the other just as a wave was about to break. It was amusing to watch and even more amusing to hear them laughing about it like a pair of schoolboys afterwards. Unfortunately the park closed at 5pm, which meant that we had to vamos, not that we would have stayed much longer since the wind was picking up.
Since it was our last night together, we wanted to go for a nice meal (by this I mean that Harry and Mike wanted to order more food than usual and I wanted a drink with my vegetable spaghetti) and indulge ourselves a little. It was Phoebe’s idea to go to the “amazing” pasteleria that she and Harry had gone to earlier that day and get some cake/pie to share between us; but before we knew it, it was 7.30pm and we hadn’t even ordered our dinner yet. Fearing that it would close before the obtuse waitress could fathom that we wanted a meal each and not one to share between the four of us, Pheebs and I volunteered ourselves to hotfoot it over there and act as cake ambassadors. I’m still not sure whether this was a mistake or a blessing for the boys, since Pheebs and I didn’t just get a couple of slices, we got five… They all looked so delectable that before we knew it, we were dancing away with nine dollars worth of pie. We got a slab of chocolate cake, a slice of lemon meringue, a slice of guanabana pie, a slice of peach cheesecake and a slice of oreo cheesecake, all packed up in hamburger boxes. Dinner was all but forgotten in anticipation of dessert and each of us hurried through our mains without comment. We had debated whether to eat dessert while we waited for our mains to come, but decided against it, grudgingly. After what seemed like forever, the long awaited and much talked about event was upon us: the devouring of the cake and pies, and I can honestly say that I’ve never known such mouth-watering suspense in my life. The tension as we sat poised with our plastic spoons above the five slices laid out in a grid formation was enough to send us all into hysterics before we’d even had a mouthful. After implementing a rotation system, specifying what size a reasonable bite should be and agreeing on periodic breaks, we finally delved our spoons in and tasted cake heaven. Even now I can’t decide which one I liked the best (probably the chocolate cake, though that lemon meringue was something else), though if I had to choose one thing, it would probably be the laughter that went with it all, which continued long after Harry had demolished the last few pieces of pie crust. It was certainly a night to remember, but just in case we should forget, we were sure to take plenty of photos of the spread, both before and after that legendary event that was cake eating.
Friday witnessed the parting of the ways for our friends and us, though not before one last meal together. The four of us walked down to the far end of the beach, where the fisherman haul in their nets, and seated ourselves at one of the outdoor tables to wait for some freshly grilled fish (obviously I didn’t eat any fish, but I sat with them anyway). Mike admitted that it wasn’t the best fish he’d ever had, though he said it was a good start to the day. Phoebe and Harry had to run for their bus back to Quito, so Mike and I walked back up the beach alone, all set to travel down the coast to Montañita, the place to be for good surf and all-night partying. We arrived just after 11am and though it was cloudy, it was slightly warmer than it had been in Puerto López. As we walked the streets searching for a cheap hostel, we were directed to one a couple of blocks away from the restaurants and shops by the proprietor, a man that goes by the name of Colorado. He assured us that his hostel, Mama Cucha, was away from the “boom boom” and that there was hot water. The former turned out to be surprisingly true, though the latter was false. The rooms were organised around a blossoming courtyard, filled with exotic plants and flowers tended every day by the hostel staff and though the rooms themselves weren’t anything special (our bathroom smelt distinctly of sulphur), it was tucked away from the noise. After dumping our rucksacks, we went in search of lunch and I was pleased to find, almost straight away, a tiny veggie restaurant run by two young women who looked as laid-back as the town itself. Unfortunately, their appearances reflected their approach to cooking so that after an hour, Mike and I were still waiting for our food. Eventually, I was served what was supposed to be Thai noodle soup (but was actually pea and noodle soup that tasted like dishwater) whilst the two women sat down to crepes that were miraculously ready at the same time as our food. This was our first lesson of many over the next couple of days that taught us, soon enough, that you can expect to wait a long time for everything in Montañita. That same evening I waited an hour for a pizza (that the woman tried to charge me more for since I asked her to omit the meat – what’s that about?) during which time we were forced to watch a medley of Michael Jackson’s worst music videos. Still, we had a nice time after that, strolling along the beach hand in hand and checking out the many, many stalls selling everything from artwork to obscenely named cocktails. I was a little tempted to get dreadlocks, since that seemed to be the general look around Montañita, but despite Mike’s enthusiasm, I thought I should probably sleep on it. And sleep we did, really well considering the parties we knew were going on for most of the night. Being on antibiotics, I didn’t fancy going out and staying sober so I was glad not to have my nose rubbed in it, for this night at least.
I couldn’t quite believe it when I woke up to a clear, blue sky and warm sunshine beaming down on the lush courtyard below, but I wasn’t dreaming; it really was a perfect day. We had planned to head to Olón and spend a night there on Gaby and Joel’s recommendation, but we were so eager to get to the beach that we settled for a different hostel right around the corner from Mama Cucha. This hostel was less busy, more spacious and less expensive, but even if it hadn’t been, we probably would have settled just so we could be done with looking quickly. By 9am, I was spread out on a towel, reading and Mike was off hiring a surfboard for a couple of hours. I watched him ride the waves for a while, but soon got back to my book. Soaking up the sun with a book was what I’d been longing for all week, after all. Stupidly, in our haste to be out in the only sunshine we’d seen for the duration of our beach trip, both Mike and I were a little lax about sun protection, which had harsh repercussions that lingered for some days (mine, quite a lot longer). It wasn’t until about 2.30pm that we both started feeling hot and irritable and decided to head back to the terrace at the hostel in search of some shade. It was there that I discovered how savagely burnt I was (and still am), on both my face and my body and how much it hurts when your skin begins to blister. Mike was suffering too, we think, in hindsight, with heat exhaustion. We pretended we were fine that evening and sought out another veggie restaurant, but soon confessed to one another that neither of us was feeling great. We were gutted to be missing the Saturday night discos, more so this time because we could hear the “boom boom” loud and clear from our bed, even with earplugs in. Needless to say, we had a terrible night’s sleep and both awoke feeling as though the sun had sapped all the nutrients from our bodies, leaving us with nothing but nausea. The seven and a half hour bus journey home was less than appealing to us, but it wasn’t too bad in the end. We made it home in the early evening wanting nothing more than a cup of good old English tea, which we actually happened to have. Phoebe brought us forty Tetley teabags that we are trying to ration (‘trying’ being the operative word), which was possibly the best present I could have asked for. Drinking it seemed to double the relief of being home, since it signified the comfort of our Cuenca home as well as reminding us of our home in England, to which we’ll be returning in what seems like no time at all. Still, if time is going to fly like the week just past, in excursions, in sunshine and in laughter, then I can’t say I have all that much to worry about.