“It’s basically Ecuador’s equivalent of Zante!”
The words echoed through my head at 7am, as we bundled bags and bodies into the bus for a seven hour ride to Montañita. The tiny coastal town, encompassing just a handful of streets and a long stretch of beach, is a mecca for travellers, hippies and surfers, both local and foreign alike.
We’d known that a visit was on the cards ever since arriving in Ecuador, and a quick chat with some of the other volunteers in Quito determined that spending Easter weekend on the beach was a perfect idea.
What we hadn’t anticipated was everyone else in Ecuador thinking the exact same thing.
It turns out that the culmination of Semana Santa is the time when Montañita, busy enough in the rest of the year, takes the term ‘holiday destination’ to a whole new level. The roads were packed, the hostels were bursting at the seams, and the beaches were thronged with semi-naked bodies preparing for three days of partying. Apparently Easter doesn’t have quite the traditional religious meaning for the youth of South America that I’d first thought.
The sudden rush to the beach also meant that bus tickets from Cuenca were in short supply. Ie there were none.
Amazingly enough, we managed to find a minibus willing to take twelve of us the whole way for a very reasonable $15 each – the only negative being that our maniacal driver wanted to overtake every single car he could see, despite having zero visibility in the thick mountain clouds of the Cajas mountains, and despite being shouted at by twelve terrified gringos every time he attempted the manoeuvre.
Suffice to say, there were a lot of internal prayers and outward exclamations to a deity.
And, despite actively avoiding Easter itself by heading for the beach, it was still easy to spot Ecuadorian preparations for the religious aspects of the holiday.
Driving through the smaller towns and villages, we spotted a number of Easter-based oddities; a van with a GOD numberplate, a reenactment of a crucifixion which looked terrifyingly realistic, and two processions of people walking along the side of the highway, carrying a huge cross with their heads hung low.
Seeing all this religious fervency, I felt a little disappointed that I wouldn’t see what Easter was really like in Ecuador. Im not at all religious but I do have a love for a country’s culture, and it seemed like I was missing out on a specific ‘experience’ for the sake of getting a tan – and it felt a bit dishonest to my travelling ethos.
But as it turned out, Montañita provided experiences aplenty. They just happened to appear in a way I hadn’t expected.
Finding another type of faith
Despite most of Montañita’s accommodation options being packed to the gills, I’d managed to find a hostel just outside of the main party stretch that would accommodate fourteen volunteers eager for some beach time. And after a couple of hours at the beach, we returned to Hostal El Pelicano just in time to catch a rather bizarre outburst.
“You have to piss on it! You have to put water, and piss, and be quick!”
The woman’s voice rang out around the grounds of the hostel. We’d already dealt with her chattering excitedly in rapid Spanish earlier, in her role as hostel owner; but this latest outburst seemed a little over the top.
We watched in confusion from as a bearded man in board shorts was helped up the path by two similarly clad men; one with his arm around the clearly injured party, the other nodding profusely at the pissing comment.
My immediate thought was a jellyfish sting, but it soon transpired that he’d stood on a stingray. Jason, a surf instructor from Australia by way of Hawaii, had been standing in the shallows, enjoying the waves, when he suddenly felt excruciating pain in the sole of his foot. And as he hobbled into view, he didn’t look too good.
Normally we wouldn’t have known any more about the poor guy’s accident, but hostels have a funny knack of breaking down the barriers you normally have with strangers. Within a half hour of watching him limp upstairs, my friends and I were standing in Jason’s dorm room with the Colombians who’d joined us for a few rounds of drinks before inviting us up to see “the injury”.
We crowded round his bed with our plastic cups of zhumir (Ecuador’s local liquor), eager to see what a stingray puncture wound looked like. The small dark hole wasn’t exactly pretty.
“Maybe you should go to the doctor,” Jas said, worriedly. The Colombians looked interestedly at Jason’s reaction to the idea. But a little dish of green liquid was already making its way through the door, held aloft by one of the guys working at the hostel. As it dripped onto the wound, Jason’s face visibly relaxed.
“Woah, that feels better,” he said, eyes tight shut. And as I watched the potion’s creator moving his hands gently around the air above the sting, I suddenly realised what was happening.
“He’s taking all the bad energy out,” I whispered to Jas. “See his hands?”
After six months in Asia, I shouldn’t have been surprised at what this guy was doing. I worked with healing crystals in India, discussed meditation with Buddhist monks, and watched a Thai grandmother plaster strange concoctions onto my bug-bitten legs from her basket of homegrown medicines. I developed a new belief in energy and its capacity to heal, and I knew without a doubt that it was necessary to listen to how the world decided to behave – when I was in Asia.
But for some reason, I hadn’t yet considered the fact that Ecuador has just as much connection to the natural world as Asia does – to alternative healing and to working with Mother Earth – and it was only as I felt the energy around the sting shift and realign that I realised what the next year of travelling could easily contain. A focus on energies, on different kinds of faith and belief, and the exploration of yet more alternative methods of healing.
And before you ask, no: I’m not a new age hippy. But I happen to be fascinated with the ways people choose to conduct their lives, and what they believe in to justify their decisions.
Maybe Montañita wasn’t your typical religious Easter location, but there was definitely an element of faith involved. And with that sense of faith, I felt a welcome return to things I’d learnt in India, visible in a new and different way this time around.
Something in the Montañita water
I’ve never been overly keen on the sea. In direct opposition to my Piscean star sign, which calls for being a water baby, I was always that child with a healthy respect for waves and open water.
But for some reason, I spent more time in the sea at Montañita than I ever have before.
It could have been partly to do with our sudden inclination to start skinny dipping; or maybe it was the rather attractive surfers that kept frequenting the waves. But I think more than anything it was a sudden pull to the water that I can’t explain at the moment. I just knew that watching the sun set over the waves from dry land wasn’t good enough; I had to be in the water, and I had to absorb it all as much as I could.
This water based attitude continued in a glorious blur of sun, sand, sea and zhumir. Our days were spent wandering the shoreline and swimming in the waves; our nights spent on the same stretch of sand but accompanied by alcohol instead of water, slightly less suncream, and rather more excitable conversations.
And eventually, I sat on the beach with a Colombian stranger at three in the morning, while our respective friends threw their clothes down on the sand and ran towards the dark water. He asked me what I did for a living, and somehow I told him my life story in a rush of emotion.
He smiled, and told me how similar his life had been; losing a mother, finding travel, realising things about himself he’d never even considered. And I knew from the moment I’d seen him that afternoon that we’d had something in common, but it took a stingray’s sting and an Ecuadorian healer to realise it.
Montañita is a place where people go to look for paradise. And while they might find it in a pair of broken flip flops or a beachside cocktail, I found it floating in the sea at sunset, my bikini in my hand and my skin deliciously bare. Montañita allows a different facet of yourself to emerge; one that acts a little more free and easy than normal.
My discovery of the alternative lifestyle in India was one of my favourite elements of travelling there – and I’d been hoping I found it here in Ecuador, too. Just a few days in Montañita was enough to show me that my travels through South America are likely to offer up a multitude of experiences, all pointing towards a further discovery of who I am and what I want to be.
And if I need a break from it all, I can simply find a new beach, and watch the waves.