Ecuador Road Trip Journal – Week 3: On the Coast
This is a daily journal of our third and final week driving around Ecuador. Our family (mom, dad, and three young boys) spent three weeks driving around Ecuador in a rental car. We sampled three of Ecuador’s four main regions: the jungle (el Oriente), the mountains (la sierra) and the coast (la costa). The Galapagos is the fourth, of which we got a taste as Isla de la Plata. None of it was planned or reserved ahead of time. We made up our route as we went and allowed ourselves to veer off on a tangent if that’s where the wind took us.
Map of our Route
Day 14: From the Top of the Andes to Sea Level
This was our longest drive yet. Seven hours from Cuenca in the Sierra, to Puerto Lopez on the coast. While driving days would be expected to be the dullest in the midwestern United States, they are the most exciting in Ecuador. This day was no exception.
An hour into the drive, we reached the highest altitude of our journey. We stopped to hike around a lagoon in Cajas National Park. At 3,800 meters (12,500 feet) we were feeling the altitude. The weather treated us with on-and-off cold drizzle and the temperature was in the mid-40s Fahrenheit (7° C). But the scenery, reminiscent of Torres del Paine in southern Patagonia, kept us energized.
After the hike and lunch, we continued winding down the mountain. The view was majestic until we descended to cloud level. In an instant, visibility reduced down to a short stretch of pavement in front of us. To make matters worse, mounds of boulders would suddenly appear out of nowhere; detritus from landslides that hadn’t yet been cleaned up. This occurred every half mile or so.
Then, just as suddenly, we exited the clouds and flat land stretched out to the horizon. Soon we were down on that expanse, cruising at speeds we hadn’t dared to go on our trip so far, on a straight, newly-paved highway. But we didn’t realize the magnitude of the change until Miles opened his car door to take a pee. While the car still trapped the icy mountain air, the air outside was stiflingly muggy!
Once we reached Puerto Lopez, we drove down to the beach for a late dinner. For a family of introverts that enjoys the sounds of nature, and just came from a remote part of the Sierra where the loudest sound was a sheep bleating, the beach was obnoxious. The row of restaurants lining the beach engaged in an arms race of booming woofers, gaudy neon lights and restaurant workers (sometimes two at a time) accosting passers by with their menus.
Day 15: Beach Bums
The ocean was the perfect temperature: cool enough to be refreshing but warm enough to swim indefinitely. The kids were thoroughly entertained by first running away from the waves and then getting in and letting the surf toss them back and forth. Pelicans dive-bombed for fish just feet from where we floated. The clouds shrouded the glaring equatorial sunlight but broke open just briefly as we were drying up from our dip in the sea. In short, as we told each other laying on the sand, “This is the life.”
Los Frailes Beach, where we spent the morning, is part of the larger national park Machalilla. Unlike the Puerto López beachfront, this one was immaculate, preserved by strict rules against bringing in anything but towels, water, and sunblock. We were amazed at how many staff were patrolling every area, from the parking lot to the boardwalk to the showers and changing rooms.
Later we learned that when the Ecuadorian government decided to turn the area into a national park in the 1970s, they faced fierce opposition from the locals, who use these areas for fishing—their livelihood. They finally came to a compromise which allowed locals to continue managed fishing while also employing many of them in the tourist industry.
Day 16: The Poor Man’s Galapagos
Didn’t reserve ahead? No problem. A guy selling tours started his pitch before we even closed the car doors.
The day-long tour took us out an hour on the open seas to Isla de la Plata. They call it the Poor Man’s Galapagos because the cost for our family of five came out to $180 instead of thousands of dollars, while still getting to experience some of the unique flora and fauna of the real thing much further out. It was Galapagos light.
After braving the choppy seas for an hour, we arrived at the island and took a hike to the other side where birds made their nests in the sides of rocky cliffs. Blue-footed Boobies were the star of the show with their wide floppy sky-blue feet.
After lunch we snorkeled in a nearby reef. The boys stayed on board and threw crumbs where Matt was swimming, luring in swarms of brilliant colored fish. Oliver also donned a snorkel mask and dunked his face underwater while clutching the boat-side ladder. Snorkeling was mesmerizing. The moment your face enters the underwater universe, all the muscles in your body relax as you float over this vibrant alien world. We even saw over a sea turtle! On the way back we were lucky to spot a juvenille humpback whale spouting out their blowhole, showing its bumpy back, raising a flipper to say hello. It was magical.
In the evening we had a redo of our first dining experience in Puerto Lopez. If you remember from Day 14, we were more than a bit put off by the obnoxiously loud music. But we got a tip from a local expat that weekends and week days were completely different. (When we asked him why he chose to settle in Puerto Lopez, he said because it was quiet. Our puzzlement must been clearly visible because he continued to explain that weekends were an exception.)
As anticipated, we had a pleasant dinner. This time, the light background music didn’t drown out the soothing sound of the ocean.
Day 17: Puerto Cayo
On our final morning in Puerto Lopez, we made breakfast (fried potatoes, bell peppers, mushrooms and eggs) and picked up our laundry at the lavanderia.
We looked at the odometer to check if we could still stay within the 1,900 km limit before the rental agency charged us for the overage. Supposedly, if we took the most direct route, we would make it back to Quito with 10 km to spare.
We drove forty minutes north to Puerto Cayo, another beach town located along the route back to Quito. Despite being so close, it had a completely different vibe. Unlike Puerto Lopez, nobody swarmed us with menus or tours. In fact, there was nothing much going on at all. It took some work to find an open restaurant and somewhere to buy some basic groceries.
After lunch, we checked into our hotel, Casa Ramali, a stylish boutique hotel owned by Ecuadorians. We were the only guests. After a nap, we headed down to the beach and played in the waves until sunset. The water was warm like a heated pool, and the breeze never got too cool. One could stay in the water indefinitely.
Day 18: One Day, Two Beach Visits
Liuan had to catch up on some work. The boys just wanted to spend the entire day at the beach. Matt decided to dangle beach time as a future reward for doing some much-needed homeschooling and washing the car, which by now was covered inside and out with sand and dust.
Oliver completed his Starwars math workbook and Finley copied sight words. Satisfied with their efforts, Matt took them to the beach and made a wickedly cool sand castle. After that we all played in the waves, which were rougher than they had been last evening. We all came home encrusted with sand; in the hair, in the earholes, in the lining of our swimsuits.
After nap, the boys took another sunset splash at the beach. The adults had a long talk about how they were feeling about going home in a little over three weeks. That, and how expensive health insurance is.
Day 19: Roadside Shakedown
Our five hour drive from Puerto Cayo to Santo Domingo, midway back to Quito, was supposed to be uneventful. Instead, an hour into the drive, our plans melted in the sweltering sun and in a tense standoff with corrupt police.
It looked like a routine checkpoint, something we’ve been through many times. Show your license, maybe the car registration. Sometimes your passport. Get waved on. But this time, an officer named D. Silva said the treads on our tires were too low. Even though we didn’t own the car — it was a rental — we needed to go to Porto Viejo (2 hours away) to be detained for 15 days while waiting to defend ourselves in court. Or, we could pay a $900 fine on the spot. You can see where this was going.
The checkpoint, previously lined up with several other official trucks and other stopped motorists, had evaporated and we were the only ones on the deserted road with three men demanding money or threatening to detain us in a faraway “jail”. More to come on the full story, and what we learned.
For now, know that we escaped safely, after calling our car rental agency and asking them to call the police. Yes, we called the cops on the cops. That quickly turned the tide on the situation and our would-be extortionists left in a hurry. But we were left shaken and scared, processing what happened in those 45 minutes for days afterward. We arrived at our next hotel in Santo Domingo grateful to be alive, still in possession of our cash, and, miraculously, in time for Liuan’s 3 pm Zoom meeting.
Day 20: Triumphant Return
Our three hour drive to the car rental agency in Quito was uneventful. But that doesn’t mean we weren’t on edge. Every time we saw transit police, and there were a lot, our stomachs twisted in knots.
Once we ascended back into the Sierra, the transit cops thinned out and we were able to relax somewhat.
We ended our day arriving in an artsy Airbnb apartment with a stunning view of the Virgen de Panecillo.
When we set out on our road trip through Ecuador, we knew we were in for an adventure. But, as always, the adventure came when we were least expecting it.
We wish we could have reported that the entire road trip was problem-free and every experience was of the pleasant variety. But so it goes — we “…take the adventure that is sent to us,” as C. S. Lewis writes at various points in his Chronicles of Narnia.
Our road trip around Ecuador was truly wondrous. Even after eleven months of travel through stunning scenery — including Brazil’s coast, Torres del Paine in Patagonia, Colombia’s idyllic coffee region, and the all the exotic experiences we had in Bolivia — Ecuador still packed a punch.
Given the chance, we would return to the Sierra and Oriente in a heartbeat. Besides frequently dodging potholes with our compact rental car, we never felt unsafe in those regions. Every destination was a pleasure through and through. For reasons that should be clear after reading this journal, we would think twice about visiting the coast again — especially in our own car.
And that concludes our journal! Hopefully you enjoyed following along on our journey.