Adam writes on 2014-04-24:
Máncora is nice little beach town an hour or so south of the border with Ecuador. We arrived here a few days ago following a fairly straight forward border crossing having stayed the previous night in Machala, Ecuador. There wasn’t too much to report with regards to the border crossing except that we had a cost surprise with the mandatory Peruvian auto insurance. We expected to pay US$8 each based on notes from Life Remotely. As it turns out it is $8 for a car and $35 for a motorcycle so we forked over US$70 instead of $16. This makes Peruvian insurance one of the most expensive to date. Mind you, $70 is probably cheap compared to the hassle of trying to talk our way out of a situation with the police.
While it is fair to say that we are both enjoying ourselves here in Máncora, I (Adam) apparently arrived with a bit of baggage which pertains to my 2010 trip. Four years ago, having arrived in the dead of darkness from a long ride down from Quito, Ecuador, and feeling bagged, I immediately found a hostel (by way of one of the many
helpful aggressive moto-taxies), and immediately went for food. Having had pizza and a beer, I woke up the next morning feeling a little queazy. It had been a long day prior, and I chocked up my mild headache and queasiness to sleeping (hard) in the heat of the second floor under a ceiling fan.
Having packed up my stuff, I stopped for breakfast on the main strip. At the time I felt that the heat, wearing riding gear and the temperature being above 30 degrees, was attributing to my sense of mild nausea. I was definitely hungry but was hoping for something simple and dry like pancakes. Or at least until I was “upsold” on a lobster omelette. It sounded like a deliciously good deal. Waiting for the “queaze” to end as I sat sipping on a jumbo papaya juice, the omelette arrived. I had a few bites of toast then started in on the eggs. Within minutes my mild nausea turned into a burning sensation and I ran for the bathroom. The extra seconds spent looking for the bathroom that said “men’s” was enough of a time delay that I couldn’t get to lifting the toilet seat and simply sprayed down the walls with what was mostly papaya juice.
Feeling, “better”, I continued riding on, but in hindsight, maybe should have stayed another night. Having ridden for a couple of hours through the desert of northern Peru and attempting to replenish my fluids with Inca Kola, another wave of nausea came upon me and I ended up puking in my helmet. I ended up taking a room and wearing all of my polar fleece under all of the blankets as I nursed myself back to health from what could have only been acute food poisoning. You can read about it here if you wish.
Now that you have a little background here, you, dear reader, probably have a good idea as to why I was pretty intrigued (and slightly apprehensive) about coming back to Máncora. It was also a good opportunity to further the theory that I faked my first trip to South America. We say this as so many things I have mentioned to Jenn just haven’t come to fruition. It is almost like I’m telling big, fat porkies from time to time. “I swear this was here”, etc., etc.
As with trips down memory lane, I was in search of the two restaurants in question and curious if he could find the hostel where he previously stayed. At this point in time, I am pretty sure that the two restaurants aren’t there anymore. Máncora has undergone a bit of a makeover so the place where I had breakfast seems to now be taken over by clothing stores, etc. There are a number of pizza places, but if the one that I ate that fateful anchovy and olive pizza (nice combination Adam, was I pregnant?) at is still around, they have reconfigured things. We are not sure that we would have run into either place to eat, even had we found one.
We did manage to find the hostel, which really only served the purpose of proving that I am not going mad. Jenn has heard all sorts of little tidbits, but think she might now think that I am a compulsive liar. For example, I had wholly expected that coffee would be served as a glass of hot water which you flavour to your taste with coffee liquid (not sure of it was strong brewed coffee, or pre-diluted instant) but then we were served “normal” instant coffee. What the hell? That said, the hostel – having taken no photos – did match my description almost perfectly. [Edit: we were served pre-diluted coffee this morning].
It is a strange sensation to came to a place again but to have an almost completely different experience with it. In my experience, I say this about one or two places, but imagine what Ted Simon must have felt traveling the world in the early 1970s a la Jupiter’s Travels, and to have retraced his steps some 27 years later (Dreaming of Jupiter). In 2010, having left the border at dark, I saw literally nothing except shadows of dunes as I got closer to Máncora. As a side, one of the fundamental “best practices” for overlanders is to not travel at night. As it turns out, it is not about banditry, or giant potholes, but that you miss shit.
It was definitely interesting to see what I had missed the last time, at least from an intellectual point of view. I had no idea that northern Peru hosted rice paddies before it turns into a big, beige desert. I was also hustling for time in 2010. I can hardly believe that I didn’t even swim at Máncora’s lovely beach, or any beach for that matter. While it felt a tad cool due to wind today and the derma-abrasion from the blowing sand grew old quickly, Máncora has one of the nicer of the beaches we have visited to date.
It is easy to miss out on things when you travel quickly. Another advantage of travelling more slowly, so it seems, is that we seem to be doing something correctly with regards to eating. Neither of us has been violently ill so far (knock on bamboo) which is probably because we have been building up a resistance to certain food-borne illnesses slowly. Don’t get me wrong, we use a degree of caution but definitely eat at places not recommended by the Lonely Planet guide or travel med commercials. This is not to say that we haven’t had “mild adjustments”, but nowhere near the sort of episode as described above – which was violent.
While every place is always a little different, I would say that Peru marks a bit of a departure. While we have seen many different places while mambo-ing about, Peru, from what is obviously visible, marks a more than subtle change, at least in terms of South America with respects to standards of living, housing conditions, etc. I am sort of “cheating” here as I already know this, but Jenn was a little “taken” by Peru (so far) in that the “landscape” has really changed even compared to their northern neighbour of Ecuador. While I think she expected to be riding through desert, the change in housing conditions came as a bit of a surprise. There are many more “shacks” of materials such as bamboo, and what we perceive as fairly rough housing conditions along the highway and through various towns we have passed.
With Máncora being a popular tourist spot, while being “rough around the edges”, its problems are not immediately apparent. In many ways, it resembles one of the many beach towns we have visited. At the same time, my understanding is that various factors, including overfishing by foreign “mega-trollers”, have drastically changed the economy over the last couple of decades with a greater reliance on tourism. As a stroke of co-incidence, I discovered over the last couple of years that my old friend Josh (Toronto) is involved with Para el Mundo, who provide various social and community programs to the Máncora area related to health and education. The things you don’t necessary see or think of when you are simply a visitor.
We have apparently arrived in Máncora at the tail end of rainy season and it sure doesn’t seem to be the “high season” here. Máncora is fairly well known, and is definitely known as one of the nicer beach spots in Peru. That said, the beach here is not crowded, restaurants are not full and we feel like we have the “place to ourselves” a bit and I don’t think that we will have trouble find seats in the various restaurants. This is definitely in contrast to some of the other beach “party” hubs we have visited.
As travellers, we are trying to make our dollar stretch. I would say that the prices for basic restaurant food has come down a bit. US$3-4 buys a pretty decent two course meal here including a fruit juice. This could be fried plantain or ceviche (seafood “cooked” with lime, marinated really, but not actually cooked) as a starter, and then a good piece of fish with rice, or a seafood rice plate. It makes you wonder what the daily cost for food is for people who are not eating at restaurants.
On the subject of food, and still with vomit on the brain, when we ordered our breakfast we were offered pineapple or papaya juice. I went immediately for the papaya. Over the last while it has taken me a bit to get back onto papaya, but I think I have finally exorcised my reflexes and can stomach it again. This is not a bad thing since papaya can be fairly mellow compared to orange or pineapple. In addition to this, we felt like pizza for dinner and having sussed out all of the menus (and
cheaping out economizing) – and pretty much confirming that my pizza place was no longer around – we found a nice little place on the beach that served decent pizza. It actually looks a bit like a dive from the outside – ramshackle and plain – but it is run by a woman from Lima, Peru and a man from Argentina. I could instantly tell that neither were from Máncora by their accents, appearance and demeanor. Looking past the bamboo and dimly lit area where a bar might have been, there was a large earthen pizza oven. The pizza was good – not fantastic – but the humble atmosphere and the fact that it didn’t seem to be completely aimed at tourists was most enjoyable – and even romantic.
I said it! I had papaya juice and pizza (but no omelette). How is that for facing one’s fears?
I will move on here a bit as to recap our last 10 days or so. Our first full day here in Máncora involved me retracing the “vomit trail”, swimming in the ocean, and finally changing our oil which was well overdue – at least by our metric which should leave some room for safety. We picked up some pretty decent oil (Mobil Delvac 1300 Super truck oil) on the way out of Ecuador, changed out our oil at a small sort of shop which handles the local motorcycles and moto-taxis. I should mention that these moto-taxi guys are both persistent and annoying. The drive around in their motorcycle-on-front-chariot-on-back cabs and repeatedly ask you if you need a hostel. One. Then another. And then another. And if you don’t need a hotel, then they are quick to try to sell you kite-surfing lessons.
Actually, if any of you feel like you might like to visit Máncora, just hop on a plane to Lima or Guyaquil, hop on a bus to Máncora and get off the bus. I promise you that you will have absolutely no problem finding an accommodation that suits your fancy. Pool? A/C? Restaurant? Massage? On the cheap? Camping? These moto-taxi drivers have a dossier of all of the local places to stay and would be most willing to take you to one for a small tip. Yes. It is that easy. Actually, you probably want to hit an ATM on the way but they will gladly stop for you. For us? We needed a place to change our oil. Who else to ask? Simply: a moto-taxi driver.
By now, it is time for a little “catch up again”.
The previous night was spent in a town an hour north of the border in Ecuador called Machala. It was nothing special, but a decent stop over (albeit an little ‘roachy’). We stayed at the Hostal Saloa for $30 which was quite acceptable. A/C, internet, secure parking and a number of cheap restaurants nearby. Yes. Two can dine on Chino for $5.00.
Having left off our last blog post at Guayaquil, you might remember that we were headed for the coast. At this time, I will hand things over to Jenn, who has diligently prepared our segment on coastal Ecuador – or the south part, at least.
We have been enjoying our time by the ocean in a few different stops along the coast. It’s probably the last thing our friends and family want to hear right now as they battle the snow and frost that is still plaguing everyone even though the calendar clearly says that it is spring.
We have had hot weather ever since descending from the Andes, so if you are looking for somewhere to escape the cold, Ecuador is a swell place to do it. The other day we met a woman from Saskatchewan who was doing just that very thing, and not returning until the weather got warmer. Not a bad plan. Ecuador – by the way – has been one of our favourite countries so far with so many things to see and do in such a relatively small area. We are trying to pitch their tourist board on the new slogan: “Ecuador: what Costa Rica aspires to be”. Zing!
So we left sweltering Guayaquil and headed for the coast. Our destination was Montañita, a small town famed for its surf culture. It wasn’t a very long ride but we were both surprised to see the lushness of bananaland quickly dry up to desert. Once again we were riding on straight roads that lead through dusty towns with sparse vegetation. This is not really what we expected so close to a large – the largest – body of water in the world.
Montañita turned out to be a very, very small town with most of the action compacted within a few blocks nestled beside the ocean. At first we checked out a few places to stay in the center of town, but then branched out to the ‘quiet’ side of town, just across the river. We chose a place on the main strip called Alta Montañita that offered us parking and a room with a private bathroom for $10 per person. It was a basic room, but we could park right outside, and it was clean, but a little on the warm side.
We soon discovered that even though we were on the Pacific Ocean, seafood was not cheap. At prices that could be found in Red Lobster, we were a little disappointed that we most likely would not be able to enjoy the local catch of the day. Adam reminded me that potatoes, mussels and lobster are not particularly cheap in the Atlantic province of PEI, Canada either. The town was full of ceviche stands, surf shops, tour operators, hostels, bars, and craft stalls. Of particular happiness was an entire street lined with cocktail stands, or “Alcohol Alley” as we liked to call it, with impressive bar selections that would rival any permanent establishment. In front of these little stalls from heaven was a single table and a collection of plastic chairs for the patrons to sit at while enjoying the sunshine and sipping on their cocktails.
We frequented Coctales Darwin where we found the best piña colada on the strip, made with fresh pineapple, condensed milk, creme de coco, coconut flesh, and lots of rum. In Skype calls to Jenn’s parents, we jested that “they wouldn’t like it here”. The inside joke here is that Jenn’s father, Bob, is a wizard of tropical cocktails, and they both relish in the tropical lifestyle.
We sheepishly took some photos of various cocktail menus to export back to Beaverton, Ontario – perhaps there will be some interesting ideas to be found. We should also mention that – like most fine bars, including Bob’s Comfort Zone in Beaverton, Ontario, almost every bar here stocked a bottle of Fernet Branca – a liquer popular with Argentines, often mixed with cola in a large vessel and drunk communally.
With a large hippie culture, Montañita had a fair share of street performers, as well as people selling handmade jewelry. It also had quite the reputation for being liberal with marijuana and we saw a number of people selling trays of ‘pot brownies’ (we think). While some of them looked rather tasty, sprinkled with coconut and berries, that really isn’t our thing (neither is prison on drug charges) and we bypassed them for other treats that were on offer.
We discovered a stand selling Rastapan – a dough pocket filled with cheese and a variety of other toppings folded into a bundle and baked fresh into warm goodness. We also ate fried rice at a Chifa restaurant which included soup for US$2.50. Yikes, that is a bargain. Adam also indulged in deep-fried empanadas filled with cheese and ham. So while we didn’t have any fish – except for the first day for lunch, and which we suspect made us mildly ill – there were plenty of other tasty things to fill our bellies. And when in doubt, there was always piña coladas.
We decided that our next stop would be 40 kilometres north in Puerto Lopez. We were interested in checking out Isla de la Plata, otherwise known as the Poor Man’s Galapagos, which is just off the coast of Puerto Lopez.
When we arrived in Puerto Lopez it appeared to be everything that anyone ever said that it was – dirty and dusty, without much to offer. It had apparently also been raining and the roads were transformed into slick mud tracks, at least those that were not paved – which accounted for many.
Our hostel, Hostal Maxima, was located a few blocks from the beach. Although our room was on the third floor and lugging our gear up the stairs was a bit of a pain, we caught some pretty amazing breezes from the water, which helped to cool us off. As we had arrived during Santa Semana (Easter week) things were filling up quickly, and we didn’t look around too much before taking the room.
As in most places in the world, it seems that if it’s a holiday, then things are more expensive, namely room rates, which can almost double. While we had already agreed to take a slightly increased rate, for some reason we were put back to our original rate for all four nights. We suspect that a small flotilla for Ecuadorian motorcyclists who stayed for only one night threw a wrench into their holiday expectations and they provided an incentive for us to stay.
Once settled in we headed off for lunch. Walking past three or four restaurants that looked to be serving exactly the same thing and who boasted no customers, we went a little further and found a place that looked unique amongst its peers. We had encebollado – which is a type of fish soup – served with fried plantain chips, for $2.50 and then headed off to secure a booking for our tour to the island the following day. Fortunately, the hostal also booked tours and we easily reserved our place through them and took advantage of their laundry service, as well. The hostal had somewhat of a Dr. Dolittle feel to it, with a number of pets throughout the grounds. The owners have a cat and a dog (Staffordshire pit-bull), an iguana, a number of cockatiels, and a kinkajou. It’s quite the animal-arium.
We took a short walk along the beach and were a little dismayed to see a great amount of trash on the beach. Along the water line, where the wet sand met the dry, stretched a row of litter. It’s the first time we have encountered such a lack of care on a beach, and it was greatly disappointing. But then, the town itself it also littered with garbage, so it spoke volumes about the people who lived there. We also noticed that there wasn’t a single garbage can on the beach, but frankly we weren’t sure whether that would have changed any behaviour. Tossing one’s garbage out of a window from a moving car also seemed to be acceptable behaviour in Central and South America, but this had been the dirtiest beach we had been at thus far.
Continuing our walk around town, we ended up at the main church square and came across a caterpillar train, all pink with neon lights and music blaring. Having seen a video of the same train by our friends Sheldon and Ewa posted a few days earlier on facebook, we took this as a dare, and hopped on. We anticipated a leisurely ride around town, but we were in for much more. Apparently we did not watch the entire video prior to setting foot on the train. We paid the driver our $1 and settled in for our tour. When we started moving, the driver did an abrupt u-turn and headed down a dark street, where he proceeded to do donuts at high speed. He then he circled around and did donuts in the opposite direction. It wasn’t what we were expecting at all. But in a good way. A kamakazee caterpillar train doing donuts at high speeds on pubic streets. Que divertido!
We then swerved down a road towards the beach strip where we bumped and troddled our way along to a volleyball court to do more donuts then turned around, retraced our tracks along the beach, and headed back to the main square. Many locals stared as we went by as if thinking “not that atrocity again…”. I also couldn’t help but think that perhaps Beaverton, Ontario could use one of these amusement rides to help boost the local economy, but then realized that the permits and insurance would be through the roof. Is it even legal to drive an amusement ride on the street? What sort of insurance would you have to have? And it would probably be necessary to install safety cords across the doors as well as seat belts, in addition to plenty of signs stating that riders are boarding at their own risk, yadda yadda. Ahhh, North America has taken all the fun out of everything.
When we had first arrived, we had noticed that the circus was in town. (Upon leaving Puerto Lopez we realized there was, in fact, a second circus in town along the main road). A large red and yellow tent with various country’s flags could be seen from the balcony of our room. We decided to check it out, so at 9:15 p.m., when the doors opened, we headed over, paid our money ($2.50/pp), and took our seats in some rickety looking bleachers. It was quite busy and the small tent was almost filled to capacity. There was a bit of a buzz in the air, mostly from Adam as this was the first circus that he had ever attended.
A small concession stand was selling popcorn, candy apples, and bags of cheezies. We waited for what seemed like forever before the lights dimmed and the music started. This attraction was also all in Spanish and was a little difficult to understand for the only ‘gringos’ in the audience but we caught the gist of much of it. For such a late start, there were quite a lot of children in the audience, and it was well past 10pm before things got under way.
While there weren’t any animals in the acts (do they even use animals in the circus anymore?), the clowns were very amusing and very talented – with mildly obscene jokes in no short supply much to the childrens’ amusement. They also had a few dancing girls who doubled up on acts on the high rings, as well as tight-rope walkers. The most confusing part of the whole thing was a group of ‘theme-park characters’ who came out, danced around, and made out with each other. Well after midnight we stumbled out of the tent and back to our hostal, happy we had went, but a little bewildered.
Sleepy eyed, if not somewhat traumatized, we were up bright and early and ready for our trip to the island. There were 16 of us on the boat plus 4 crew. It took over an hour on a speedboat to get to Isla de la Plata, but underneath blue skies with the sun shining down, it was quite a nice day for a cruise on the ocean. Unfortunately for us (and for another Canadian on the boat) the entire tour would be spoken in Spanish, including the boat safety tidbits. Thanks to an Italian woman on board, however, she was able to translate the important stuff so we would know exactly what to do in case the boat capsized.
When we arrived to the island, we were greeted by sea turtles, who eagerly arrived at the edge of the boat in anticipation of watermelon rind tidbits thrown overboard. They were quite amazing to see as they soared through the water, popping their heads up for a breath or a bite. Many birds soared overhead, mostly pelicans and frigates.
The terrain was far hotter and drier than we had anticipated. The guides explained that there hadn’t been any rain on the island for months, and that many of the trees that would normally be green were dry and bare. Soon we reached a small mountain and started climbing the stairs (for what seemed like forever) that wound their way to the top. We have been constantly amazed by the footwear that we have seen in the most inappropriate places (neck-snapping heels on the cobblestone streets of Antigua, flip-flops in the sopping mud at Tikal), and this trip was no exception.
For every person who wore suitable footwear, there were two who wore flip-flops, jelly shoes, or fashion flats. It wasn’t scaling Mount Kilimanjaro, but it also wasn’t a Sunday stroll through the park. The paths were dusty, dry, and made of dirt, strewn with rocks. There were also plenty who did not bring something to throw over their bikinis, and thus spent many hours in the sun without protection and probably now resemble bacon. I don’t want to sound like a Mom or anything, but sometimes I really just want to give people a shake.
Anyway, we reached the top of the climb to find a shady gazebo with benches, a breeze, and a view of the ocean cliffs. We were given two options for exploring the island – the long route or the medium route. We chose the medium route, which turned out to be the short route, and which we coined “the flip flop route” which took us down to the coastal cliffs in search of the blue-footed booby. While we were expecting to see the cliffs crowded with the birds, we were surprised to see that this wasn’t the case. While we didn’t have to search for them, there wasn’t exactly a lot of them. But true to the Galapagos, the birds were not afraid of us, and we were able to get quite close. They were certainly curious and sized us up carefully, but did not appear to be alarmed at our presence, in most cases. With exception was the juveniles who were mostly brown in colour and whose feet had not yet turned blue, and a chick (3-5 months old) who appeared to be quite nervous without Mom and Dad.
Our guide did a good job of teaching us about the habits of the boobies, and we returned to the landing site with much more knowledge. Back aboard the boat, we had a lunch of fresh fruit and sandwiches, where we also got to enjoy the company of a group of sea turtles. Once everyone was back on board we took the boat around the island for a bit of snorkelling. The water was quite murky and a bit rough which caused me some concern. But while everyone rushed off the boat and left only a handful on board, the captain started chucking bread crumbs off the boat. Soon a school of large and colorful fish were eagerly gulping up the morsels floating in the water and putting on quite the show for the people in the boat.
After a few minutes I joined the rest of the snorkellers only to find that visibility was quite poor in the water and that the fish show had been better on the boat. But it was an experience to be snorkelling in shark
-infested -present waters (yes, there were sharks; no, we didn’t see any) off a small island in the Pacific. Then it was time to head back to the mainland. And boy, were we in for quite the ride. The water was considerably rougher than on the ride to the island, and more than one of us was feeling slightly nervous. As we booted it across the large swells and big waves with the boat leaning at a bit of an angle, the boat slamming down onto the water as it came down off of the large waves, the ride resembled more of a speedboat ride down the Niagara River. A little scary.
But we made it back to dry land, and everyone seemed to be grateful.
Our second day in Puerto Lopez was reserved for rest. Unfortunately our sleep was not so great with plenty of noise from the street disturbing us. We didn’t have much planned so a nap was well within our plans (which happened after breakfast). We also took a stroll down to the beach for a swim and some beers. Adam got stung by a jellyfish but didn’t seem to phased by it. As the sun went down (or rather behind some dark clouds), we went back to the hotel, showered, and got ready for dinner. We decided to head to a pizza joint on the beach making artisinal pizzas for $5. When we got their we were surprised to see our new friend Graham (who we met on our tour to Isla de la Plata) sitting there, as he was scheduled to leave for Quito that morning. We had had a good time talking with him the day before so were happy that he was still in town, and happy for the opportunity to spend some more time together.
Our third day (and Easter day!) was reserved for sleeping in, having breakfast, grabbing a good cup of coffee (Colombian style), then hitting the beach. Since there were no chocolate eggs for us, as apparently the bunny doesn’t know his way to Ecuador, beer on the beach had to suffice. And in lieu of a traditional ham dinner, we had one of the best meals of the trip so far – breaded langostinos, rice, patacones, and salad. At $7 a plate it was also a steal. The lady of the kitchen also let us sample her tortilla de camerones (sort of like a shrimp omelette, but thin like a crepe) which was to die for. We were somewhat kicking ourselves for not trying her beachfront shack earlier, but were happy that our usual place was closed and that we took a chance, because it was so worth it.
After our stay in Puerto Lopez, it was time to head towards Peru, with our stopover in Machala, then forward to Mancora.