Those two words give brilliant birth to thoughts of idyllic days, listening to the waves crash on the shore and watching the seabirds wheel in the sky. Since the altitude of Cuenca harms my health, we must leave. Our question is: where next? We loved the Amazon town of Puyo to visit, but we didn’t want to live there, and the Galapagos is too remote. That covers the Sierra, the Islands, and the Oriente. So, we asked ourselves, could we learn to love living in the fourth of Ecuador’s four regions, la Costa, the coast?
Just as we asked ourselves that question, nature helpfully pointed out that the northern coast of Ecuador is located on a major fault line prone to earthquakes. The terrifying quake which hit on April 16 was felt throughout the land, but it had the greatest impact in that so-called “tongue of fire” area. To be honest, we had ruled out living there already, because we saw how isolated it was from medical care and other resources, and most critically, that the supply of water was not sufficient for the population. Water is supplied by truck delivery to cisterns, supplemented by rainwater collection. We feared, in a disaster, being cut off with inadequate supplies and medical care. Sure enough, when the worst-case scenario happened and a 7.8-magnitude quake struck, the suffering was—and is still—immense in that region.
However, there is a stretch of coastline just west of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s most populous port city, on a relatively geologically-stable peninsula. There are two beach communities on this peninsula about an hours’ drive from Guayaquil’s international airport, shopping and hospitals: Playas and Salinas.
Playas, closest to Guayaquil, was our first stop.
The actual name of the little village is General Villamil. Playas, of course, means beach in Spanish, but Ecuadorians know what you’re talking about when you say you’re headed to Playas (as opposed to la playa, which could be any beach). Playas has been a fishing village since colonial times, but in the 20th century it began to be developed as a beach retreat where people could escape from the teeming streets of Guayaquil or the chill of the mountains for some fun and sun. I reserved us a suite on Booking.com. We had a very typically Ecuadorian experience once we arrived. Our taxi driver agreed to drive us from the Guayaquil airport to Playas (for $60), so off we went. The road to Playas is empty and deserted, running between scrubby vegetation and tall sand dunes for quite a distance once one leaves the main highway of the peninsula. The warm, dry air had the aroma of the sea breeze and I was excited to see the ocean again.
We passed through the town of Playas itself, and set off down the main road out of town along the coast, known as Via Data. The listing for the hotel gave us an address (Via Data km 10) and GPS coordinates. The problem we discovered was, the GPS coordinates were 7 km from the street address! The cabbie took us to the street address first, and there was nothing there resembling our hotel, and no one in the street had heard of it. So we turned back around and combed the roads near the GPS coordinates. Finally, we gave up. I asked the driver to take us to the beach and help us find an open hotel, and he dropped us at the clean, quiet hotel Lunnazul. A basic room, a third-floor walkup with en suite bathroom and a balcony overlooking the beach, cost $45 a night, paid in advance. The furnishings were basic: a double bed with two pillows, two nightstands, two plastic patio chairs, and a naked lightbulb. But the wall air conditioner worked and the door locked, so we were set with a home base to explore Playas, which UNESCO named the town with the second best weather in the world.
First things first! Lunchtime! Delicious smells were wafting from the comedor shacks on the beach directly across the street, and each one had a little thatched shelter hung with colorful hammocks for their patrons’ use. We visited Comedor Doña Ceci and I had a whole corvina (sea bass), while Steve opted for a giant prawn platter. After that we were ready for a soothing siesta on the beach, listening to the waves roll in. Corvina is one of the delicacies no one should miss when they visit Ecuador. I’ve never had a more delicious fish, and Doña Ceci cooked it right, with plenty of garlic!
Once the burning hot equatorial sun was lower in the sky, we rose and took a walk along the beach. The blue-green ocean was gorgeous, and we picked our way through the boats of the local fishermen, where they rolled them on logs onto the beach at the end of their day.
Women played music on boom boxes and children ran about, as families met their hard-working providers at the shore. This was the only lively area on the beach. The rest of the strand was almost completely vacant, and only a few of the souvenir stands and refreshment booths were open. We asked several vendors and hoteliers, and they all said that tourism had disappeared the day after the earthquake, and now, a week later, they were seeing only a few brave souls, like us, trickle back in.
To us, spoiled by the crystal white sands of the northern Gulf of Mexico, the black dirt left on our feet after hiking through the sand barefoot was mildly unpleasant. More unpleasant, though, was the scallop of garbage left on the tideline. In fact, even though the garbage truck makes regular passes through the town playing a little ditty, like a parody of an ice cream truck, about bringing out la basura, the streets of the entire village are strewn with detritus. When we finished our meal at Doña Ceci’s, the young lady who bused our plates and condiments left our napkins and plastic cups to blow down the beach, where they joined a whirlwind of the trash of other comedores. And this was on an atypical, deserted, post-earthquake day; I can only imagine what the beach looks like after a busy day!
The next morning, we set out to find brewed coffee. The locals usually make due with instant. It turned out to be a rather long walk until we found an open restaurant with a coffee maker in a hotel lobby downtown, where we had a lovely, typical Ecuadorian breakfast with queso fresco, crescent rolls, eggs, jugo de frutilla, and of course my coffee! I began to realize that my gains in Spanish proficiency up in the Sierra were of limited value here. The coastal accent has a nasal drone, and many words are cut off on the final syllable. Add to that the fact that many common, everyday objects are called by different words here, and I am left with limited communication abilities, back perhaps where I was six months ago in Cuenca. If we choose to move to la costa, I will have to backtrack on my Spanish and work even harder. Poor Steve has been struggling to learn the bare minimum, and he would be seriously isolated with so few English-speaking foreigners around.
We met an expat couple, Canadians. I’d connected with W on social media, and we ran into her husband N on the boardwalk at noon, where he was taking his daily constitutional and we were walking as well. The hot sun had made us turn around before our walk was done. The equatorial sun is fierce in Cuenca, but there in the mountains the cool, thin, dry air whisks away your sweat. Here in Playas the noonday sun is brutal, especially reflected off the sea, and we were feeling it start to burn our highly Caucasian epidermis even through our sunblock. W and N met us a few hours later at the food court of the one and only shopping mall in town, a smallish structure with a Walmart-like hypermarket, perhaps ten stores, a movie theater, and a food court. The food court is something special: it has a really spectacular view of the ocean and a giant-screen TV. As we chatted, the rest of the food court was occupied by local men watching a futbol match on the screen. Men watching sports are the same the world over: intent silence until an exciting play, then the whole room erupts in a collective shout.
W and N had moved here two years ago, after falling in love with a lot with a spectacular view of the harbor in a yet-unbuilt, gated subdivision. They had spent the past two years in disputes with the developer (who had not registered the lots before selling them) and the developer’s attorney, followed by the local government’s numerous building and planning boards. It had been two years of repeated frustrations and setbacks, but they are finally, they hope, close to breaking ground on their dream home on the hill. It is ironic that a system requiring so much permitting and red tape that it takes two years to break ground on a home, yielded so much substandard construction which exacerbated the damages of the recent disaster.
In the meantime, I mentioned to them that the town was somewhat dirty. I’d noticed the aroma of garbage in many locations, and the smell of human waste in a few places. “You should have seen it before!” W told us. The town apparently has a new mayor, who has done things like increase trash pickups, improve drainage, and build sidewalks next to the dusty, rocky streets. The line of trash on the beach? Well, the trash of the city of Guayaquil washes out to sea and washes up on the shore of Playas, they explained.
We’d noticed, we mentioned, a few bugs, what we call no-see-ems in Florida, biting us around twilight. W and N told us the bugs were not bad now, but they were horrible at certain times of year. They regaled us with tales of flies swarming so thick after rains that the kitchen floor was black with them as they died, and then mentioned the presence of scorpions as well. I was beginning to think they were trying to chase us away!
One other thing I observed here is the packs of roaming feral dogs. There are few trash cans in town, but the few that there are, are quickly emptied by these mixed-breed animals, who show their teeth as they fight over the contents. If people happen to walk too close, they get a show of the teeth as well, and we saw the pack outside our hotel chase two bicycles and a motorcycle that went by.
It looks like time to finish our last day in Playas with another visit to the beachfront comedor. One more corvina entera for me, and a mixed ceviche for Steve, followed by a rest in a colorful hammock, holding hands and watching the sun go down. All that’s missing is Jimmy Buffett singing, “Just Another Day in Paradise”! Then out to the hotel balcony, enjoying the cooling evening breeze, sure that Playas, while a pleasant enough weekend getaway, is not our next new home.
Next stop: Salinas.