Montañita: Surfing and Cocktails

Surf time
On the roof at Montañita Spanish School
On the roof at Montañita Spanish School

The small coastal town of Montañita was our final stop with the travelling classroom. We were keen to explore Montañita so we agreed to get the bus from Manta together with our travelling classroom friends Stephanie and Jacqueline at 09:30 in the morning. We arranged to share a taxi to the bus station so that we all arrived together and, since we were the furthest away from the bus station, we got in a taxi at 08:30 and headed over to Stephanie’s. Stephanie was already waiting for us on the main road (5 minutes early, thank you Swiss efficiency) so we headed over to pick up Jacqueline. We arrived 5 minutes early to the spot where Jacqueline had told us that she would meet us. She’d told us that there was a café next door to her house, but we couldn’t see any sign of it so we drove on a little further. I spoke to Jacqueline on the phone and got a slightly confusing response. Eventually after 5 minutes of driving around we put the taxi driver on the phone to the father at Jacqueline’s house and he explained where to go, back to exactly where we’d started, we would have found it easily except that the sign for the café was missing! Relieved and still with enough time we headed to the bus station. At the bus station the taxi driver pointed out the right bus.

Jacqueline demonstrating the Dutch travel games
Jacqueline demonstrating Ganzenbord

As soon as we started walking to the busses the staff for the Montañita bus spotted us as obvious tourists and led us to the desk where we could buy our tickets. The bus ticket came on a printed receipt with assigned seat numbers. We were all sitting on our own as it was a very full bus, but my seat was across the aisle from Jacqueline’s and through some coincidence Stephanie’s seat was already occupied and the driver ended up putting her next to Alex. We got moving and Jacqueline opened her bag to reveal some games that she had brought along with her. We played various games across the aisle for a while. One of them is called Ganzenbord (the goose game) and involves being a goose and moving towards the centre of the board where a Dutch girl in traditional Dutch clothes feeds the geese. It is probably best described as a Dutch version of Snakes and Ladders. Eventually the seat next to me freed up so Jacqueline moved over to sit next to me. We talked about our jobs (she is a trainee doctor) and the similarities between them and soon enough we arrived in Montañita.

Alex enjoying tasty fresh food and cocktail
Alex enjoying tasty fresh food and a cocktail

The bus dropped us off on the main road and although we had a map we barely needed it. Across the road in front of us was a banner saying Montañita Spanish school, and 200m behind us another banner saying Montañita Cabañas, the accommodation for the school where we’d be staying for the week. We arrived at the cabañas and found ten bamboo and palm roofed cabañas sitting around a pool and lush green garden. Since Monday and Tuesday were national holidays the cabañas were quiet so we checked in, unpacked and headed into town. Montañita is totally different from Manta, full of hippies and travellers with the occasional smell of marijuana in the air and a more relaxed atmosphere. The town is edged by a long beach with bars and clubs spilling onto it. We had a walk around and found an Italian café where we ordered big tasty salads and 2 for 1 cocktails. After lunch and a walk on the beach we walked back to the cabañas to relax for the afternoon.

A few hours later we headed back into town to eat and check out the nightlife. After wandering around the town for a while we stumbled upon the appropriately named cocktail street and bought ourselves cocktails for $3.50 each. When they arrived they turned out to be full pints of cocktail which, 30 minutes later after no food, were starting to go to our heads. We walked round the corner and found a large bar with a selection of food that we all liked and we grabbed a table. We waited over 40 minutes for the food to arrive and as we waited thick cloth walls were dropped down from the edges of the roof and the area we were in was roped off. The music was turned up a few notches, the disco lights came on and a queue of people formed outside. At this point we realised that our bar had become a club. Eventually a huge pile of fairly greasy food arrived. Now being somewhat full from our pints of cocktails (Mojito in my case) we ate as much as we could and escaped onto the street.

A typical street in Montañita
A typical street in Montañita

Stephanie hadn’t been feeling great all evening and decided to call it a night so we walked her home. We took the long walk back via the beach which meant cutting back to the main road via a grand Indian-inspired hotel featuring multi-coloured domes on a roof which appeared to have a terrace for hotel guests to use. Jacqueline made a comment about how she’d love to see the view from up there, and before we knew it we were wandering through the restaurant pretending to be hotel guests! We found a glass lift up to the roof terrace and went up. After admiring the view and having not yet been caught we walked through the hotel, escaped past reception and back onto the streets of Montañita where we dropped Stephanie back home. Alex, Jacqueline and I went back out.

We walked along the beach stopping in a few clubs to dance. It seemed that the beach itself was busiest, followed by the clubs playing salsa music. We wandered up to the top of the beach and sat and watched the sea for a few minutes enjoying the peace and sound of the waves. We headed back towards the party, stopping at interesting looking bars and clubs. We bought beers from sellers on the beach and again sat on the beach, this time listening to one of the local clubs and talking about our lives. It is always fascinating to talk to other Europeans about our experiences and culture because, while we are so alike in so many ways, we also have slightly different values and things that seem so normal to us sound bizarre to them and vice versa. We eventually started making our way back home stopping whenever and wherever we heard interesting music. It was after 2am by the time we got to sleep and we drifted off with the sound of the clubs in the background, luckily far enough away not to be disturbing.

Alex chilling out with the cabaña cat
Alex chilling out with the cabaña cat

We woke up the next morning to Jacqueline shouting through our window “Chris, Alex we have breakfast”. I replied mostly still asleep with “what, here?” to which I received the typically (Dutch) direct response of “I’m not bringing it to you”. That was not what I meant and reminded me once again how much a difference even a slight culture and language barrier makes. We threw on some clothes and walked to the kitchen area to find that Jacqueline and Stephanie had gone out and bought us breakfast of fruit, bread, avocados and tomatoes! Still half asleep we ate breakfast and then spent a few hours lounging in the hammocks. We popped into town a few times to buy tickets for that night’s full moon party and to eat a late lunch but generally did very little.

Keen to not tire ourselves out too early we didn’t head back into town until a little later. Our wristbands for the full moon party got us free drinks from 8pm until midnight at a bar on the street where they also had people painting faces. We queued for an hour so the girls could get their faces painted while nipping in and out of the queue to get free drinks from the bar. At around 11pm the street bar moved to a beachfront club and we followed it in order to make the most of our free drinks. The club slowly filled up with locals and tourists and just after midnight the word went round that they were about to start the celebrations. Outside on the beach was a sign strung up between two bamboo poles. The sign said “Full Moon Montañita” and the letters were made of metal wrapped in cloth and then doused with petrol. With a crowd gathering around the sign the letters received a final petroleum based top-up and were then set alight. As the letters burned, fire jugglers performed and fireworks were let off. Once the fire had burned out the party continued on the beach.

We were pretty hungry by now and Anna, one of the girls that we were with, had bumped into a friend called Jorge. Together we went to a place that sold empanadas on the street and had one each. We were still hungry afterwards so we bought a “pizza in a cone”, to share between Alex, Jacqueline and myself. A pizza in a cone is a strange snack where the cone is a rolled up pizza base and the filling is the pizza topping. It was odd but filled us up. As I was waiting for my turn at the “pizza en cono” Jorge asked my if I was going to eat it (in Spanish) I replied in my best Spanish with I’m waiting for the girls. Unfortunately instead of saying “las mujeres” I actually said “mis mujeres”. By changing only two letters what I’d actually said was “I’m waiting for my wives”. Jorge was both suitably impressed and kind enough to explain my mistake. Nevermind I thought, Jorge was just a random Ecuadorian friend.

We entered a club called the Caña Grill, grabbed a drink and headed to the dance floor. Jorge revealed himself to be an incredible dancer and Anna mentioned that he was in fact our dance teacher for the week! Not only that but he was also our surf instructor. I started regretting my earlier faux par, but luckily I’m getting quite used to saying stupid things in Spanish. Only the week before I’d told our Spanish teacher that I heard ‘couples’ in the night instead of ‘birds’ as the two words sound similar! Anyway after dancing for a while we decided to head home via a walk along the beach. Before going to bed we all agreed that anyone who was feeling capable would meet at 08:30 in the morning to go on a tour of “Dos Mangas” that we’d planned but not booked the day before.

We woke up the next morning feeling a little rough but keen to make the most if the day. We got ready and went outside to find Stephanie, Jacqueline and Anna waiting for us. We walked down to the tour office and, as soon as they opened we booked ourselves onto the “Dos Mangas” tour. A taxi arrived and all five of us climbed into it with the four girls all squashed into the back. Luckily we didn’t have far to go. “Dos Mangas” is an area of protected forest outside Montañita and luckily for us it is less than 10 minutes drive away. We got out of the taxi and met our guide who spoke no English. Luckily since we were five Spanish students, between us we were able to understand him well enough as he led us on a walk through the jungle. He eventually led us to a group of natural pools between waterfalls which we jumped into and swam in.

Afterwards we walked back out of the forest and took another cramped taxi back into town. Anna (who’d already been in Montañita for a few weeks) took us to a nice cheap lunch place that she knew that served me a giant plate of pesto pasta. That evening we went into town to eat had an obligatory cocktail and went home to get an early night. We were all looking forward to starting at the Spanish school but also slightly nervous about the 07:30am ‘test’, the results of which they’d use to judge our level. During dinner we all practiced our Spanish and Jacqueline taught me some of the words that she’d been learning in her beginners classes (which was incredibly useful as we’d effectively skipped it).

The next morning we got up early, meeting at 7am so the we could head into town and buy some breakfast. After fruit and juice we went to the school for our introduction and test. The very first section of the test consisted of the words that Jacqueline had taught me the night before and after that I was able to complete everything up to my level with only a little help from Alex. We started our first class straight afterwards with Ximena, our teacher for the morning. Although I was feeling a little rusty after having spoken little Spanish for four days, I’d picked it back up after an hour and ended up giving her advice on buying a new computer.

After our first Spanish lesson it was time for our first surf lesson. The schedule at the school doesn’t allow for much downtime, so straight out of the lesson we went downstairs to the surf garage and quickly changed into wetsuits and jumped into a taxi to the beach. Jorge (the guy we’d danced with two nights previously) came with us in an old Ford pickup carrying the surfboards and we immediately started warming up on the beach. After a quick lesson on how to paddle and stand up on the boards we headed straight into the water to try to catch some waves. Pretty quickly Jacqueline, Alex and I started catching waves with Stephanie not far behind us. After a quick break to walk back up the beach we got back into the water and slowly we started to stand up on the boards. Surfing is surprisingly tiring and after two hours with Jacqueline, Alex and I having all just about managed to stand up (Stephanie wasn’t far off) we were happy to go back to the school to change and grab some lunch. We went into town to find something to eat and although we ordered pretty quickly we ended up having to wolf down our food and still made it back to the school ten minutes late. Luckily Elizabeth, our teacher for the afternoon, was accommodating and we carried on the morning’s work. In the evening we had a welcome dinner organised by the Dutch interns at the school so about 25 of us all piled into a great Italian restaurant and followed it with an obligatory cocktail on cocktail street.

Thursday was a similar day to Wednesday with Spanish lessons followed by surfing and then more Spanish. Stephanie wasn’t feeling very well and hadn’t particularly enjoyed the surfing so it was just Alex and Jacqueline and myself. Since most of the students in the school were either German or Swiss, Alex, Jacqueline and I were some of the only non-German speakers. Although the German speakers were actually pretty good at speaking English around us so that we could all understand, there was naturally a bit of a gap between the German and non-German speakers. Partly because of this, and partly because she is just such a nice and genuinely funny person, Jacqueline, Alex and I had become pretty good friends so it didn’t feel at all odd that it was just the three of us surfing. Jacqueline somehow managed to be relaxed and unfussy like Alex, but also shared my interests and our sense of humour so it made it very easy for the three of us to get on.

The second surf lesson went well with all of us standing up more often and for longer. After being late to our Spanish lesson on Wednesday we didn’t want to do the same again so the three of us headed into town and bought tomatoes, avocados, garlic, limes and fresh bread and back at the school we made sandwiches filled with a rough Guacamole that was both delicious and incredibly cheap! Our afternoon went well and finished with us playing scrabble in Spanish with the teacher. In fact we all enjoyed it so much that the lesson ran ten minutes late!

On the roof of the school with Jacqueline, Stephanie and Jorge
On the roof of the school with Jacqueline, Stephanie and Jorge

That evening we had our first salsa class with Jorge on the roof of the school. Jorge is an excellent dancer and teacher, but I am not a natural dancer. The four of us were joined by Adrian, a Swiss guy in his 50’s, which meant that we had three couples including Jorge. We slowly learnt the basic steps with the girls picking it up pretty quickly and me just about managing not to stand on anyone. After an hour we’d learnt the basics and even one step where the girls had to spin round. It was hard work but a lot of fun. I still felt like a two left-footed ape and found dancing with anyone but Alex terrifying, but I was definitely getting better and Alex thought I did well. After the lesson Jorge took us to a restaurant that he knew and after dinner we played doubles pool with Alex and Jorge making up one team and Jacqueline and I the other. Jacqueline played incredibly well for someone who had never played pool before and both Alex and I also played really well. Jacqueline and I made a great team, winning two games to one and we all went home to get an early night.

Friday was a big day. Just like Wednesday and Thursday we had Spanish followed by surfing and then more Spanish, however this time we had both another salsa lesson in the early evening and a cooking class at the cabañas. The Spanish lessons went well with us going back over a complex concept that we’d learned in the jungle but that I’d struggled to understand. The surfing was also good despite slightly choppy conditions with Jacqueline, Alex and I all catching loads of waves and looking balanced. We took it fairly easy in the afternoon and then went out for our Salsa lesson. This time our new moves almost entirely involved either the women or the men spinning around and one move where, while the women span, the men had to move round them within about a second. I felt a little more co-ordinated this time and although dancing with Jacqueline was still pretty terrifying I started to relax just a little!

Straight after the dance class we raced back to the cabanas for a cooking class. Unfortunately the guys organising it had forgotten to get anything for the vegetarians so while we learnt to make ceviche I actually ended up eating a Spanish omelette! After dinner we went out for drinks on ‘la calle de las coctails’ and while we were there discovered that the school had arranged for all students to be given wristbands for the local club (‘Caña Grill’) that got us two free drinks (entrance was already free). When we arrived at the Caña Grill we discovered that they also had a live band playing everything from Sublime’s Santería to Salsa. We practiced a few of our salsa moves and generally had a great time. We didn’t plan to stay too late because we had an all day surf trip on Saturday, but when we bumped into Jorge in the grill at around 1am we decided to hang around for a little longer, eventually getting to bed just after 2am. Six hours later we were getting up again in preparation for our all day surf. Stephanie had decided not to come having missed the last two lessons but Anna, the German girl who we’d been to Dos Mangas with, decided to come too so we ended up with just the four of us plus Jorge and the two Dutch interns JB and Natalie.

Surfing lessons
Surfing lessons

Both myself and Jacqueline had a great morning surfing and Alex was also having a great time until she had a bad fall and pulled her hip which was already slightly dodgy. Unfortunately after that she had to get out, but it did mean that she managed to get a few photos of Jacqueline and myself surfing. After a break for fruit and lunch we surfed again in the afternoon. Alex tried coming out again too, but much to her frustration quickly realised that the long break hadn’t done enough to improve her hip and she had to go back to the shore. I had a great last hour of surfing thanks to my huge lightweight surfboard that seem to easily catch the waves. It allowed me to start actually practicing steering once I was riding a wave, as opposed to just trying to stay balanced! Jacqueline had taken out a much harder board (she’d had one lesson previously but also picked it up pretty quickly) and although she struggled to catch the waves with at first, by the time we finished she was just about managing and was in a great mood. At about 16:30 we packed up and got changed. There were no facilities on the beach except for a toilet in someone’s house, but thanks to a garment that the Dutch interns had, that can only really be described as the beachwear version of a slanket, modesty was preserved! We said goodbye to Jorge and got the bus back into town with the Dutch interns.

We gathered up a group which included the four of us, Anna, Jeannine (a Swiss girl who had arrived at the school a few days after us) and a few others and we all went for dinner together at Tiburón, a place that came well recommended and seemed to do either Thai food or giant plate sized empanadas. Alex and I both went for the Thai which delicious but I did a swap with Jacqueline for some empanada and found it to be equally tasty! After dinner we had cocktails and then went back to the Caña Grill. The music wasn’t as good (or at least to my taste) as previous nights but Jacqueline and Stephanie had to get a bus to Guayaquil at 4:45 am and Jacqueline was determined to stay up and go straight there, as otherwise she would have only been able to get an hour or two’s sleep back at the cabañas. Alex was feeling pretty tired but I was determined to stay up to keep Jacqueline company and Jeannine did a good job of keeping Alex awake! Stephanie decided to try and get some sleep and they rest of us (about 10 students) danced for a few hours at the Caña Grill.

View from the school roof over Montañita
View from the school roof over Montañita

As the night wore on the music turned from dance to Salsa and the local men enjoyed showing the tourist girls their Salsa moves. While Jeannine and Jacqueline danced with their local partners Alex and I did our best to copy and learn from the experts. Around 3am we were getting quite tired and decided to go for a walk barefoot along the beach. Since Jacqueline and I were in shorts and Alex and Jeannine were in trousers the two of us walked along with the waves breaking over our legs while Alex and Jeannine walked a little further away from the waves to keep their jeans dry. After walking the length of the beach we found a wall to sit and chat on, but of course being nearly 4am we all started to get tired pretty quickly. That was OK though as we still had to get back to the cabañas and collect Jacqueline’s bags and find Stephanie. We walked home and arrived just after 4am to find Stephanie ready and waiting. Jacqueline collected her things, we said goodbye to both girls and then Alex and I went to bed.

I woke up a few hours later feeling pretty sad. I initially thought that it was mostly because we’d just said goodbye to two friends who we’d seen every day in Manta and then spent pretty much every waking minute with in Montañita, but as I thought about it I realised that it was also because we’d come to the end of our Spanish course and the structure that we’ve had for the last month. We’ve had a pretty amazing month with the Spanish school. Firstly I’ve learnt a lot of Spanish and, although I still need to practice a lot, I can now talk in present and two past tenses. After the Spanish comes the activities. In the last month I’ve learned to Salsa (badly), seen Ecuador win a national football game, seen deadly snakes and spiders in the jungle and been tubing down a jungle river. I’ve also seen the same deadly snake nearer the coast (talk about bad luck), walked in the jungle many times, been paragliding and learnt to surf. I’ve also got to know two lovely Ecuadorian families and made great friends of some of the people that I’ve shared these experiences with. Many of these people are people who I’d never encounter in any other other way for example a Swiss architect, a Dutch medical student and a German teenager who wants to be a pilot for Lufthansa! Without exception they’ve all been lovely interesting people. I’ve written in a previous post that forming relationships is interesting when travelling. Everyone is very friendly and makes small talk (which is incredibly easy since you only need to ask about their travel plans to start a conversation), but because you generally don’t spend a particularly extended time with anyone one person (especially true when you are already travelling as a couple), these friendships often don’t go much beyond small talk. On the travelling classroom however it’s been very different. Even though we never had the same companions for the whole month, we spent the first two weeks with Prisca and then saw her again in the final week. We then spent the final two weeks with Stephanie and Jacqueline. It took at a little longer to get to know Stephanie due to a combination of her English not being great (but still a hell of a lot better than my Spanish) and the fact that I talk very fast, so it took us a little while to be able to converse properly. But I noticed on Saturday that after two weeks her English had improved massively (not what she came to Ecuador for I know!) and she also understood me a lot more. On the other hand Jacqueline spoke perfect English (being Dutch), and thanks to sharing a sense of humour and many interests (the fact that I’ve lived in and loved the Netherlands helps), we’ve spoken about a wide variety of subjects in the last couple of weeks from the situation in Israel and Palestine to our personal bucket lists!

Chris chilling out at the cabañas
Chris chilling out at the cabañas

Anyway thanks to the combination of the Spanish school ending and losing our new friends I was feeling pretty low on Sunday morning, but it also reminded me how lucky I am to have an amazing wife to travel with. After everything we still get to travel with each other for another four and a half months and share these experiences, whereas Stephanie is off to Quito and Jacqueline is off to the Galapagos (though we won’t see her there as we’re on a cruise). That said however we’re planning to stop in Cuenca in two weeks time after the Galapagos (where Stephanie will be), and Jacqueline is heading in a similar direction to us (Peru then Bolivia) so we’re hoping we’ll bump into her there! So with a bit of luck we’ll be able to have a least a partial reunion sometime before Christmas!

Anyway, back with the story, we packed up our things, said goodbye to the cabaña and then went for breakfast with Jeannine and some of the other remaining students. After breakfast we went to the bus (which Prisca was also taking) and headed to Guayaquil. This time there was no Connect 4, crazy Dutch goose game or even a Stroopwafel to amuse me but they did have Pearl Harbour dubbed into Spanish on the screen (which is just as hilariously bad in Spanish), and thanks to getting terrible seats at the back of the bus I had Alex squashed into me all the way for comfort. We made it to Guayaquil in good time and discovered that our hotel for the night was in walking distance from the bus terminal. It was the first proper hotel we’d stayed in for over a month (which has helped extend the life of the rewards points) and it was a very weird experience to go from hippy backpacker town surrounded by friends to corporate hotel, but since our cruise in the Galapagos is classed as ‘first class’ it was probably a good way to ease ourselves back into the good life.

So that’s our week in Montañita and our time in the Spanish school done. The next week was our trip to the Galapagos, where we managed to get a last minute booking on the newest boat in the Galapagos for half price. It still wasn’t cheap even with 50% off, however the Galapagos was one of the two things that weren’t really negotiable about the trip, and thanks to a little generous help from Alex’s parents we were looking forward to the experience of a lifetime!

Author: Chris Greenwood

IT Consultant, traveller, foodie, husband and occasional blogger

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