Canoa – Beach Bumming :)

After Puerto López it was time to continue up the coast. In my head I imagined a bus that just rolls up and down the coast stopping at all the coastal towns, unfortunately that’s not how things work. We first had to catch a bus inland to Jipijapa and from there we caught a “direct” bus to Canoa. I put that in quotation marks because in reality they threw us off at their office in Santa Elena and then paid for us to take the local bus the rest of the way. Altogether it cost about $8pp and took around 4 hours. If you had a car you could get there in about 2.

As soon as we hopped off the bus a friendly local flagged us down and showed us his beach front Hostal Atardecer for $15 a night we got a private room and bath and flat screen TV but no AC. The view from the balcony was enough to convince me but Victoria wanted to check out another place. The other place was even cheaper but without the awesome view so that was an easy choice. With the sea breezes going without AC wasn’t too bad, but we are from Savannah, GA and 90 degrees with 90% is the usual 😉 I’d highly recommend the place, the only problem we had was someone nibbled on our groceries the first night we were there.


Canoa was very close to the epicenter of the earthquake here in Ecuador last April and there is still plenty of signs of it, destroyed buildings, construction, and closed businesses. I think that may have scared off some of the tourists which for me was great. It’s a great laid back beach town with only dirt roads.

It’s also great place to practice/learn to surf as it has a consistent beach break that’s not too big or too small. So if course the one day we had to rent a board(10/day) and give it a go. Victoria had no trouble standing up in the surf but wore out her knees by going from knees to standing rather than straight up. After a few hours of trying I was finally able to catch waves before they broke. Unfortunately at that point I was completely exhausted so after catching a couple I had to call it a day.

Canoa was one of my favorite towns in Ecuador. I love the mountains but nothing beats a cheap shack on a nice beach in a laid back town as far as I’m concerned. I’d put it up there with the Corn Islands in Nicaragua, Los Zacatitos in Baja California, Koh Rong in Cambodia, or Railey Beach in Thailand, my personal list of favorite beach towns.

Well that’s the end of our trip in Ecuador 🙁 I’m planning on writing a little guide/summary of Ecuador next….. hopefully it’ll happen this time unlike my article about Koh Rong, Cambodia, lol.

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The Poor Man’s Galapagos and Puerto Lopez

Puerto Lopez is a small, fairly quiet fishing town.  The only touristy part of town is along the malecon which is a very nice area to walk around or chill at one of the beach side bars. Many tourists from all over the world and Ecuadorians themselves come here to go Isla la Plata, known as the poor man’s Galapagos, and Los Frailes which many times has been voted the best beach in Ecuador.

We stayed at Hostal Yemaya which costs $30/night for two people.  It’s in a great location one block from the beach. Miguel runs the hostal and is very informative. Miguel set us up with Aventura tours for our day trip to Isla la Plata.  It only costs $35 each (hence why it’s the poor man’s Galapagos) and includes hiking, lunch and snorkeling.

One of the guys from the tour company met us at our hotel at a chill time of 9:30 am.  Before getting on the boat, we walked down the beach with the rest of the people in our group to check out the fisherman’s catch of the day.  We watched the men carry coolers full of fish from the boats to trucks parked right at the shore while the frigate birds desperately try to sneak a fish from the coolers.

Fisherman’s catch

We were the last boat to leave the dock but our tour guide assured us that we would be the first boat to arrive on the island.  He was right, it didn’t take long for our awesome boat to leave the others in the dust, or mist rather.  On the way to the island we saw the biggest pod of dolphins I’ve ever seen.  There had to be hundreds of them.  We also saw jumping stingrays too.

Within an hour we made it to our destination. As we approached, hundreds of frigate birds were circling high above the rocky cliffs of the island.  They look like pterodactyls gliding through the air.  We stopped at a fisherman’s boat because he was feeding fish to a bunch of sea turtles.  Again I’ve never seen so many sea turtles in one spot.  As you can see, we are already very impressed with Isla la Plata and thinking we already got our money’s worth.

Sea Turtles!!

Our tour guide took us on a short 3 km hike where we saw the famous blue footed boobies.  There were many babies hiding in the scrub brush waiting on mom and dad to bring them food.  We had to be careful not to scare them.  They can’t fly and their wings are so fragile that if you get too close they can freak out and break their wings getting them stuck in the brush.  It seems like that is easy to understand but I was shocked by how so many stupid people in our group still wanted to stop right in front of the baby and take its picture.  In fact this is why one of the trails was closed off.  The Albatross used to frequent the island but quit coming because of too many dumbass people taking selfies with them.  The trail is closed because a family of Albatross is back and the islanders want to keep it that way!

After an underwelming but included lunch of tuna sandwiches on hot dog buns, we went snorkeling at a nearby reef.  We saw angelfish, parrot fish, needle fish, puffer fish and many other beautiful species of which I don’t know.  I was so impressed with all the animals we got to see.  If the po man’s Galapagos was this awesome I imagine the real Galapagos Islands would blow your mind.

The next day we went to check out the many times voted best beach in Ecuador, Los Frailes. From town we took a mototaxi to the bus terminal and then a bus to the Los Frailes for 50 cents each.  It’s free to get in but because it’s part of the national park, you need your passport number to get in.  Since I don’t usually take my passport to the beach and I don’t have it memorized (which I probably should) I just pretended to look at something on my phone while I made up a number.

Hiking at Los Frailes

Once you make it through the gate you have two choices: pay a mototaxi to take you straight to the beach or hike the trails where you will come across two other beaches and a mirador or viewpoint of Los Frailes.  The choice was obvious for Tim (I was feeling lazy and wanted to go straight to the beach) and so we took to the trails.  I’m so glad I listened to him because it was absolutely amazing.

It was realllllly hot but there was a constant cool sea breeze which made it bearable.  We stopped at the first beach and went for a swim.  At the second beach the rip currents were too strong to swim so we stood on the rocks and ate Doritos. In a little less than two hours we made it to Los Frailes.  I can see why it’s voted the beast beach with its surrounding mountains, wide, white sand, and trash free (rare in developing countries). The water had a clean blue tint to it and was easy for swimming.  At 4 pm the beach closes down and a van is waiting to take people back to Puerto Lopez for $2.50 per person.

Puerto Lopez is a must if you visit Ecuador.  It has so much to offer and beautiful sights to see.

Giant grilled skrimp
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Cuenca – The Other Ecuadorean Colonial City

After Tena it was time to head back into the the Andes to the colonial town of Cuenca. The locals claim it has the charm of Quito but cleaner with less traffic and better weather and honestly I’m inclined to agree with them. To get there from Tena was a bit of an affair as there are no direct busses to Cuenca from Tena, you have to connect somewhere. As we wanted to spend the night at the layover spot we choose to return to Baños over Ambato as it sounded like the more attractive option and we knew a good place to stay right next to the bus station and you can get direct busses from either town. The ticket from Tena was $5 pp this time and then it was another $8 for the direct bus from Baños. There were several busses from Baños to Cuenca so it would be possible to do it in one day but you’re looking at anywhere from 9 to 12 hours on busses (usually without a bathroom, those Vietnamese busses seem so charming now…). Both bus rides offer stunning scenery but the on from Baños to Cuenca was particularly so. That way if you’re not into cheesy Mexican or Bollywood productions you have something to look at (I myself find them entertaining to make fun of).

It’s very possible to find a decent private room for just over $20 but Victoria decided this was the time to splurge. We ended up at the Siena Hotel for exactly $40 including taxes. For that we got what I would class it as a four star hotel right in the heart of the old town. A taxi from the bus station costs anywhere from $1.50 to $2 and traffic can be heavy at times.

The best thing to do in Cuenca is really to just wander around the old town. There are beautiful historic buildings everywhere and the central square is stunning. The Riverwalk is also very nice and borders the old town and if you stay on the old town side you don’t have to breath any exhaust(not much anyways…).

There are also a number of museums to visit, we choose the Museo del Banco Central which is exactly what it sounds like The Central Bank of Ecuador Museum. There was of course an exhibit on the history of Ecuadorian money from prehistoric times up till they moved to the dollar. In addition to this they also display modern art and archeological findings. Out back was the best part though, there are the huge ruins of an old Incan City along with beautiful gardens and a menagerie. My personal favorite though as a general cheap skate was that it was all entirely free. After coming from South East Asia where they charge you for pretty much every attraction it’s been great that here in Ecuador most sights are either free or very cheap.

An interesting fact that most people won’t be aware of is that the “Panama hat” was actually an Ecuadorian invention with Cuenca as the heart of the production. The “Panama hat” got it’s name because FDR was seen wearing one while viewing the Panama canal and they became fashionable after that. Now if this was Asia they would have been selling them on every corner but that wasn’t the case, they were only sold in fancy stores meant for tourists as far as I could tell. We ended up both getting hats for around $50 and they were even able to roll them up and put them in a box for easy transit. $50 is a fortune here but they are high quality and hand made, although I’m sure with further research they could be found cheaper.

One last thing anyone should do while in Cuenca is to check out the Mercado Municipal for lunch. There are all kinds of delicious food and drinks severed here extremely cheaply. We had to try some of the whole roasted pig of course and it was just as delicious as it sounds. A portion big enough for two can be had for $3 to $4. We also tried a bowl of chicken noodle soup for the extravagant cost of $0.75. To finish it all off we had a mora(blackberry) shake for a $1. It was a solid 30 Oz and I’m sure would have cost $7 in the States.

Victoria and I both agreed that Cuenca was one of the few towns we’ve visited that would could see spending an extended amount of time in. The architecture is beautiful, the old town is great for wandering around, the food was good, the weather fair, and most important of all…the hotel and mobile internet we’re both great. Plus you could drink the tap water here, a first for me outside the country. After a visiting the two big Andean towns of Quito and Cuenca our next stop was going to be the small town of Vilcabamba with a population of only 4800 but a popular spot with both expats and tourists for it’s stunning mountain scenary.

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Baños (de Agua Santa) An Andean Mountain Town

After the capital city it was time to head to the great outdoors in the little town of Baños in the Andes Mountains. We caught the local trolley bus from Old town to the bus station for $0.25 each rather than a taxi for $15 and would recommend it. From the there we caught the bus to Baños which took around 3 hours after all of the stopping to pick up and drop off random people. After the underhanded compliments in the Lonely Planet: Ecuador I wasn’t sure what to expect out of the town. They said the mountain scenery was spectacular but that the town was basically a concrete block tourist trap. I personally found it quite charming if a little touristy, but with the tourism comes easy cheap tours, accommodations, and a healthy variety of food to choose from.

We stayed at Hostal:Nomada and I would highly recommend it. It ended up costing $24 a night after taxes and included a flat screen tv, private bath, access to a kitchen, and free tea, coffee, and water. The hosts were friendly but only spoke spanish. We met people from all over Europe but I’m not sure that we ran into another American there(It’s interesting listening to French, Italian, and German people all speaking Spanish). I will also say that there seemed to be an abundance of Italians having a good time on both Tuesday and Saturday night and that the walls seem paper thin making it rather annoying to sleep(We’re old folks these days, at least I am).

First up on the tourist hit list was Casa del Arbol, a place where a number of award winning pictures have been taken, one of which Victoria saw on a Facebook group and had been dying to see ever since. It’s about 40 minutes outside of Baños and there are numerous ways to get there: bike, hike, bus, tour, or taxi. The first two are only for masocists, it’s about 15 miles…all up hill. You can catch a taxi there and back for around $20 or catch the local bus for a $1 each way. That was an easy decsion, we took the bus. If you really want to hike or bike I would suggest what we did, take the bus up and then hike or bike back. After the 40 minute ride up through the stunning mountain scenery you arrive at Casa del Arbol and after a short walk and wait your turn to get your once in a lifetime pictures. It was only $1 to get in and in addition to the swings they had the tree house(of course) , some ziplines, and a few other photo oppourtunites. We saw some people with bikes when we got up there and thought it would be a good idea to rent them. Unfortunately they only rent them in Baños and you have to bring them up with you. We settled with walking down which took about two and a half hours and was a great way to get away from everyone, we only saw a couple other people the entire way other than the few cars and buses headed to Casa del Arbol. After walking for a ways on the road you can hit a trail at Bellavista that runs straight into town. It was a great hike with stunning views of the town and valley. We both felt pretty tired afterwards and I couldn’t imagine if we had tried to hike or bike up it.

The next day it was time for some whitewater rafting which we hadn’t done since our maiden journey out to Washington. The Pastaza river is divided into two sections, the upper and the lower, and the guides decided the day of where you are going based on rainfall the night before. The upper has rapids up to 4+ when the conditions are right(they were:) and the lower has class 3 rapids. The company provided everything including lunch and wetsuits. Unfortunately the wetsuits are only overalls and it was raining and of course being up in the mountains the water is quite cold and with class 4 rapids, you get soaked(plus…..we’re southerners). We ended up wearing our rain coats and we’re warm enough while our boat mates looked a bit chill. It was a short(1 hour) but exhilarating ride and for $30 was an absolute steal. It also included all the pictures and videos from the saftey kayaker which was a nice change from the States where they gouge you for them. Be sure to check with your hotel/hostel, some people got deals where it was only $25. Another tip for those not familiar with rafting, try to get in the smallest boat, with the fewest people, and ride in the front for the best ride 😉 Also be sure to check out the rest of the videos and pictures from the rafting at the bottom of the article.

The next day even though we were sore we decided to rent bikes and ride the Ruta de la Cascadas(The waterfall route) which is basically just the road to Puyos, a town in the Amazon basin. It’s mostly downhill and then you can catch the local bus or truck back. Most people stop in Rio Verde but it is possible to ride all the way to Puyos. The route is aptly named, it seems like everytime you look up there is another huge amazing waterfall. The is also plenty of opptunites to hike, zipline, bridge jump, or ride cable cars across the gorge on the way. We passed on everything but a bit of hiking at Palion del Diablo (Devil’s Cauldron) and some hiking and swimming below a waterfall at Machay. That was about 15 miles and took most of the day with a nice lunch break towards the end. I got some delicious heart clogging fried pork called Fritada that I’d highly recommend trying and Victoria had some refreshing fresh lime and strawberry juice. I’d recommend doing it on a weekday as there was a lot of traffic on Saturday.

We had grand plans of going to one of the local hotsprings afterwards but again were too tired and just wanted to relax. Unfortunately the next day Victoria woke up with some stomach issues(It couldn’t have been the food as we both ate the same things and I felt fine) so we sat around and watched TV. The next day she felt better but was still weak from not being able to eat anything, so we stayed another night. Then finally she was feeling better so we hoped a bus to the Amazonian town of Tena.

 

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Qui Nhon – A Local’s Beach Town

From Doc Let we wanted to travel to Qui Nhon as we had heard good things about it and it sounded nice to mix with some more locals again, however neither are particularly popular so you can’t just buy a straight bus ticket. First we needed to walk back to the bus station in Doc Let and catch the public  number three bus (the only one, runs every 20 minutes) back to the main highway (AH1) in Ninh Hoa(10,000 dong).  From here you can flag down any minibus headed north and get dropped off at Qui Nhon or pretty much anywhere further north. Ignore the people who want to “help” you catch the bus, they just want a 50% commission for something you can easily accomplish yourself. It was 100,000 dong in a absolutely packed minibus.

We got dropped off at the bus station in town and walked down to Chuong Duong Street where there were a number of cheap hotels to stay at. The vast majority of hem are not listed online as this is not an area popular with western tourists, we didn’t even seem to see many Vietnamese tourists. During the day the huge beautiful beach was completely empty, crazy in a town this size. However about 5pm the locals come out to swim and drink nuc mia. The beach also has a beautiful 3km long promenade to walk along or hang out on. It’s quite nice to not have beaches blocked by huge resorts.

The food choices catered only to the local Vietnamese as would be expected which isn’t a problem usually but if you don’t get up in time, there is no chao or pho, you have to eat com(rice with assorted toppings, a lunch item). Don’t expect much English.

One day we decided to rent a motorbike and go check out the sights around town. We went and saw some Cham temples, an ancient civilization eventually wiped out by the Vietnamese. We then went and drove the Phuong Mai Peninsula and checked out a traditional fishing village and also drove past a 7 star resort being built(I didn’t know there was such a thing but judging by the size alone I’d give it 7 stars). After grabbing some lunch we went for a ride to check out the beaches to the south, some very secluded beautiful beaches. We drove past Bai Xep which is a popular backpacker hangout with $30 beach bungalows available. We then stopped and swam at the amazing beach Bai Bang which was nothing more than a picture perfect fishing village. Then a little down the road we went to Bai Bau where we had to pay 10k dong to get in but the had showers and refreshments available along with tables and chairs. It seemed real popular with the locals. The drive itself was stunning and would be worthwhile on its own.

Next up the historic town of Hoi An, where we’d be spending a few extra days since I left my debit card in an ATM in Nha Trang apparently and had to have a new one mailed out.

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Mui Ne and My First Bribe

From Vung Tau we had originally wanted to travel to the Con Dao islands, a chain of unspoiled islands with the best diving in Vietnam. There are two ways to get there, the ferry from Vung Tau for $10 or a flight from Ho Chi Minh City for $80, both one way. Of course we decided we’d take the ferry. Unfortunately after roaming around on a tandem bike for a few hours to find the office(GPS coordinates for the ferry office/terminal to save others the hassle 10.413820, 107.128352) to buy tickets we were informed that it was too rough to make the crossing. We called the English-speaking lady at the office the next two days with no luck either(To save you even having to go to the termianl call Ms. Hoa at 0982 890097). Oh well, maybe we’ll get there on the way back.

The infamous banana pancake!
The infamous banana pancake!

So we decided to continue onto Mui Ne. There was some debate online about where the bus station was and when or if busses ran to Mui Ne. They do at 5am and 1pm for 100,000 dong ($4.50) and the station was easy to find(10.3502991, 107.0873626). The ride was around four hours on a nice bus with AC, free WiFi, and a place to charge your phone at every seat.

Ban Mi at the bus stop
Ban Mi at the bus stop

When we arrived we were approached by a lady who offered her guesthouse(Nhat Phuc, I’ll leave the pronunciation up to you lol) to us for the night for $10. It was a nice clean room across the street from the beach but was dark as the only window was covered. We took it and then had dinner at her beach front restaurant, a fantastic meal of spring rolls, fresh salad, sautéed spinach and vegetables, and a whole fire roasted fish smothered in chili and lemon grass, all for about $12 (and only that much because the retaurant was beach front).

The buses here have free wifi!
The buses here have free wifi!

The next morning we decided we wanted to move since it was gloomy and if we were going to be trapped indoors we wanted a room with a view. So we moved to Viet’s Hotel, a much nice place, in a better location in town and near the nicer part of the beach(I hear the sand shifts so that may not always be the case), and a killer view from the top of a hill, all for the same price.

Being at the top of a hill offers some advantages...
Being at the top of a hill offers some advantages…
The view from our new hotel
The view from our new hotel

We continued to eat good, more ban mi, more pho, more Chao, but also other random delicious dishes fried pork, sweet and sour pork, noodles and beef, all good, all different. (We also splurged on some American burgers, fries, and wings one night, our most expensive meal so far but at least it was done right.) All of this was available cheap on the same street(tiny alley) that our new hotel was on.

The "road" to our hotel
The “road” to our hotel

The next day we rented a motorbike for the day from our hotel, $3 and went to checkout the sights. Now technically your supposed to get a license to drive a motorbike in Vietnam (an onerous process and an international drivers license does NOT count) but in practice no one cares. We went to see the famous red and white dunes outside of Mui Ne (way overrated but the ride was awesome). We both loved riding the motorbike. In fact I liked it so much I kind of wish we had bought a bike, you can get them for $200 here.

The famous Red Dunes
The famous Red Dunes
The White Dunes, look at those clouds, time to go!
The White Dunes, look at those clouds, time to go!

Unfortunately between the white dunes and the red dunes there were police pulling people over, we had heard that usually they leave the tourists alone. However that wasn’t the case here they were pulling over literally everyone, locals and tourists alike and charging them with real and fictitious infractions alike. I was originally told they were going to impound the bike for a week and then I’d have to pay an 800,000 to 1,200,000 ($35 to $45) dong fine plus the cost of renting the bike during that time not to mention having to stay there for a week. An obvious shakedown. So I said how about I just pay now, he said 1,000,000 dong, I said ok, and he said your good to drive around here for a week.

Rebels without a cause
Rebels without a cause

Our little motorbike journey ended being pretty expensive after that…… Come to find out that it is very uncommon for tourists to be pulled over…. Except in Mui Ne. Apparently the local police are pretty corrupt and this is a common practice for them. In fact they had the same thing going on in the same place when we left. They even pulled over our sleeper bus! We still plan to do more motorbiking.

After that debacle we decided to ride into Mui Ne proper, a small fishing village just north of the tourist areas on the beach. We were foiled again by literal monsoon rains (the reason the boat to Con Dao wasn’t running was because of a tropical depression hanging out in the South China Sea). We waited at a little while for it to die down a bit and then we made the ride home in the rain, it was exciting if not very pleasant.

Victoria posing in the rain on the beach in Mui Ne
Victoria posing in the rain on the beach in Mui Ne

The next day Victoria woke up with a cold, she blames the cops, I think maybe the rain did it. Anyways we took it easy after that. The next stop of the journey, the tourist mecca of Nha Trang!

Selfie!
Selfie!
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