Montañita, Ecuador
January 30, 2024
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TL;DR

Montañita isn't a posh and clean resort town with modern infrastructure; however, it's also not just a party town. For me, Montañita's charm lies in its unpolished, laid-back vibe, offering a sense of freedom and simplicity.

Colorful domes top an eclectic beachfront Dharma Beach building with a large owl statue, flanked by palm-thatched huts and colorful beach umbrellas on the sandy shores of Montañita Beach.
Montañita and Dharma Beach: A harmonious blend

While I was still in Costa Rica, I felt a bit lost, unsure of where to head next. Up until that point, every destination had had its unique purpose and theme. Having achieved most of my goals (at that time), the only major item left on my list was to continue learning Spanish, a process that I realized brought me an unexpected amount of pleasure. Additionally, I was excited to keep practicing surfing and enjoy some more beach time.

After some reading and discussions with a few people in the surfing scene, including my instructor, I decided to visit Nicaragua. Yet, there was a significant factor - this was to be my first New Year away from my family. While I had found a perfect surf spot in Nicaragua, something about the decision didn't feel quite right. I found myself continually rethinking it, unable to make that final click.

This indecision was frustrating, as I felt the pressure to make a choice quickly. At that stage of my travels, I was still planning quite a bit in advance. So, I opened Google Maps and dived into the abyss, searching for a Spanish-speaking country with decent surf and, importantly, a place that felt right for spending a special New Year.

After several minutes of browsing, I stumbled upon Ecuador. Embarrassingly, at one point in my life, I mistakenly thought Ecuador was near Africa. But now, I was on a journey to explore the world from direct contact with it. The next thing was to do quick research for recommendations and surfing spots in Ecuador.

Opinions were mixed, but many people mentioned Montañita. It was a controversial choice. Most described it as a party town best avoided. Nevertheless, after a quick glance through Google Images and checking out a few places to stay, something clicked. I don't remember exactly, but I think I bought my tickets either that same day or the next. It was an unusual move for me, but despite concerns about safety and the generally negative reviews of Montañita, I felt at peace with my choice.

Heading linkArriving

Live concert in celebration of my arrival

I'll be honest with you. Reading comments and articles about Ecuador really got to me. It affected me so much that when I landed and left the airport, I was internally debating whether it was safer to take a taxi or just walk. All those comments and warnings were spreading inside my head.

After fighting with my inner demons, I realized that it's not the time or place to allow weird and unreasonable thoughts to control my life in a way I don't like. So I waved to a taxi driver and asked: "Hola, cuánto cuesta ir a...".

A few minutes later, I arrived at my accommodation for the night. Before leaving the taxi, I quickly asked about the fare to Montañita. The driver responded, "$80." As I was about to open the door, I replied, "Hmm, caro, pero gracias." Just as I was about to shut the door, the driver added, "Pero es más seguro" feeding my inner demons yet again.

In my accommodation, it felt like a ghost town. I didn't encounter or hear any other gringos or guests in general. Just before going to sleep, I was treated to a free live concert by folks outside, reminding me that I wasn't in a war zone and should start thinking more clearly.

Heading linkBus

Vibrantly decorated bus with colorful stickers.
Sticker mania in Ecuador: It's more than just a sticky situation

Despite the taxi driver's attempts to fuel my fears the day before, I was determined to take a bus. It wasn't just about saving money, paying 12 times less than the taxi fare, or immersing myself in a more local environment. Although both reasons were compelling, the most important factor was my resolve not to let fear or irrational thoughts dictate my actions.

My previous bus journey in Costa Rica had taught me valuable lessons about traveling in Latin America. So, the first place I checked for the bus timetable was the official Facebook page. While there were various sources listing different times, I decided to trust the one posted on the official page. This experience was much more straightforward than in Costa Rica or my return to Manta, thanks to Manta's large bus station.

Upon entering the station and following the signs, I found the Cooperativa Manglaralto stand. By pure chance, I was greeted by a driver's assistant who kindly walked me to the bus stop and even asked two other girls, who were also taking the same bus, to let me know when our bus would arrive.

With each passing minute, I felt my confidence growing and my ease increasing. While admiring buses covered in random stickers, a unique sight I hadn't seen in any other country (at least to that extent), I boarded the bus, ready for my approximately four-hour journey to Montañita.

This is when I truly appreciated my decision to take the bus. The ride offered me a glimpse into numerous small and exotic towns, and I observed regular people getting on with their groceries, children, and even handheld lawn mowers. However, the real highlight of the journey was the vendors. Unlike anything I'd seen in Mexico or Costa Rica, the bus transformed into a mobile marketplace. A lady boarded with a massive plate of home-cooked meals, followed by a man (presumably her husband) with drinks, and a third person selling watches and earphones. It was a fascinating peek into the ongoing catering services on wheels.

The most surprising moments were when someone from the back of the bus would suddenly start selling goods, having silently boarded earlier and waited patiently for the right moment. It was amusing to see the bus conductor occasionally receive free items from these vendors, presumably as a form of payment for their travel. The most memorable vendors for me were those selling individual candies from a large bag. While I didn't fully grasp the concept, it seemed like a form of charity with an exchange of goods. All I can say is that I have immense respect for people trying to earn an honest living.

P.S. For those accustomed to paying upon boarding a bus, don't be alarmed when taking a bus here. The conductor will come to collect the fare based on your destination at some point during the journey.

Heading linkMontañita

First moments in Montañita: tranquility meets bohemian vibes

The moment I stepped off the bus in Montañita, I felt an overwhelming sense of tranquility. I believe this was a mix of excitement from reaching my final destination, the warmth of the sun's gentle kisses, and, most importantly, the town's laid-back and simple vibe. I know this description sounds somewhat abstract, but let me try to paint a clearer picture.

Imagine a place where buildings are crafted from natural materials like bamboo and wood, topped with thatched roofs. The streets are enriched with vibrant and whimsical decorations, like umbrellas hanging overhead and charming lights. The people here dress casually, radiating a sense of ease without any pretense.

Don't get me wrong, Montañita isn't a spotless, polished, upscale locale, especially once you stray from the main streets. But that's precisely where its beauty lies. This imperfection, simplicity, and the overall laid-back atmosphere add to its unique appeal. This theme resonated with me throughout my stay in Montañita.

If you're in search of a polished, clean, sophisticated city with upscale infrastructure, Montañita isn't the place. But if a bohemian, relaxed atmosphere surrounded by vibrant nightlife, a hint of surfing, and a touch of the hippie spirit appeals to you, Montañita might just be your ideal destination.

Heading linkParty

Complete madness. As it should be

Let's address the aspect that often gives Montañita a bad reputation: its image as solely a party town. While it's true that Montañita features a lively nightlife, I firmly believe it's unfair to label it as just a party destination. The town offers much more than the thumping bass of its night scene. You'll find surfing, Spanish lessons, beach activities, yoga, and an amazing gym, among other things. The experiences are there for the taking, shaped by your own interests and choices.

I acknowledge that for some, the partying aspect of Montañita can be intrusive, especially if your accommodation is near the main party area and you're sensitive to noise. As someone who didn't stay next to the nightclub and slept with earplugs, it wasn't a problem for me. However, this is something to consider if you're a light sleeper or traveling with children. That said, it's entirely possible to coexist with the partying side of Montañita without it impinging on your experience.

Your experience may differ, and if you're particularly sensitive to nightlife and music, Montañita might not be for you. For a quieter alternative, consider the small town of Olón, adjacent to Montañita, known for its more relaxed vibe. However, for those who love nightlife, techno, and a vibrant crowd, Montañita could be a great fit.

The epicenter of Montañita's party scene is the Lost Beach Club. While the music they play isn't exactly my cup of tea, the club itself is quite intriguing and worth a visit at least once. I'd recommend timing your visit to coincide with a special DJ event or celebration for a livelier experience. What I found amusing was how the party would shift to "The Cave" once the main event ended. A name that amusingly fits both the context and setting.

Tickets to the Lost Beach Club are on the pricier side (well, at least compared to everything else in Ecuador). This may be due to its ranking as the 25th best club in the top 100 list by DJ Magazine (at least at the time of my visit). Personally, I don't give much importance to these ratings and don't consider the club to be extraordinarily special, but I still had fun. The club also hosts festivals in collaboration with others, for instance, Trotamundo took place there during my stay.

In conclusion, while I'm far from being a party person, Montañita's vibrant party scene didn't diminish my experience. On the contrary, it added a unique and dynamic dimension to my visit.

Heading linkBeach

Dog resting on the sand with its head down, in front of me, at the tranquil Montañita Beach.
Getting lost in my thoughts with unexpected company

As is my custom when near a beach, I feel obliged to offer my review. Personally, I would describe the beach in Montañita as okayish, which is quite a compliment.

I wouldn't go to the part that is adjacent to Montañita, as it's too crowded and the environment is less appealing. However, a 10-15 minute walk towards Manglaralto reveals a much nicer spot: a wide beach with few people, small hills, and a more inviting atmosphere. If the sand were a bit lighter and softer, and the water more turquoise, with more nature it would almost win my heart. Nevertheless, I found it to be a great place for relaxation, whether it's to listen to a podcast or just lie down and get lost in my thoughts.

Additionally, if you're into running, this beach is fantastic. The stretch of sand is wide, firm near the water, and the distance from Montañita to Manglaralto is ideal for an amateur runner like me. The experience of running here, with the sun shining, few people around, and large waves breaking beside you, is truly exhilarating.

Pollution and trash were less of an issue here compared to other places I've visited in Latin America. However, there was one thing. While I enjoy the unexpected company of friendly dogs, the abundance of their droppings on the beach is a big downside. This is a broader issue in Montañita: the stray dogs are pleasant, but the land mine field they leave behind is not.

You can also expect to encounter crabs burrowing into the sand, various fish taking a break on the shore, different birds lounging, and some kind of sea worms that emerge near the water after high tide. If anyone knows the name of these sea worms, I'd be very interested in learning more about them.

Although I didn't spend much time at the main beach near the city, I must acknowledge the charm of the old-school, colorful umbrellas. They add a fun and playful vibe to the setting. Paired with the view of Dharma Beach, they transport you to an exotic place, making even the main beach worth a visit.

Heading linkNew Year

Año Viejo: Crash Bandicoot about to be thrown into fire.
Año Viejo: sacrificing Crash Bandicoot to cast away negative energies

While I knew I would be spending New Year in Montañita, the abundance of activities and unique customs took me by surprise. Don't get me wrong the idea of fireworks on the sand by the ocean already sounded fantastic, but I soon discovered there was much more to the local New Year traditions. I was particularly excited about Año Viejo - a tradition where people burn dolls to symbolize the casting away of negative energies and experiences from the past year.

Another custom that tempted me was "the first wave of the year", where surfers rush into the ocean as the clock strikes midnight, each hoping to catch their first wave. The scene was like something out of a movie: the crowd chanted and cheered as surfers marched into the ocean like warriors armed with their trusty surfboards, ready to do battle with Poseidon.

There were so many activities I wanted to try, but it was impossible to do them all. The diversity of New Year's Eve celebrations in Montañita was truly astonishing. I felt there was something for everyone: whether it's participating in the purifying ritual of burning a doll, riding the first wave of the year, dancing to the relentless bass at Lost Beach Club for six hours, or simply joining the festive crowd on the beach.

Heading linkSurfing

Surfing warriors moments before fighting Poseidon and catching the first wave of the year

Though I didn't surf as much as I potentially could have, I certainly caught more waves than in Jacó. As a beginner surfer, Montañita was an exceptional place to ride the waves! I was aware that surfing is popular here. In fact, it was one of the reasons I chose this location. Yet, I consciously kept my expectations in check. While my surfing experience is very limited, compared to the few places I've tried, Montañita was outstanding.

One of the major advantages for me was the vast space available. Even though "La Punta" can get crowded, there are still plenty of excellent waves to catch at the beach break, especially for someone at my level. The waves here were relatively clean and lasted long enough to allow for some enjoyable rides.

The beach break predominantly offers a sandy bottom, which is great for beginners, but caution is advised near La Punta. Another crucial factor to consider is the intense sun, here often referred to as the cancer time. If you're looking to mix up your surfing experience, a taxi ride to Olón is a good alternative. From what I recall, some members of the Ecuador national team practice in this area.

The people in Montañita are incredibly friendly too. I remember the first day I rented a surfboard. I wasn't sure how long I would need it, so I paid for two hours. When I returned, slightly disoriented by the passage of time, I realized I had only used just over an hour. The lady at the rental counter kindly refunded part of my payment, even though I was a little over time. I tried to leave a tip as a thank you, but she refused, laughing and repeatedly insisting: "No, no."

Heading linkGym

Dog standing next to gym administration desk, attentively peering over the counter.
Gym supervisor waiting for new clients

The gym in Montañita was undoubtedly my sanctuary, a standout highlight of my time there. Oddly enough, I often found myself thinking back fondly about this gym, even after leaving Montañita. Describing it might sound peculiar: rusty weights, dusty equipment, floor covered in dog hair, and techno music blasting from the speaker. Yet, in my mind, all these elements somehow contributed positively to its unique ambiance.

Despite techno music blasting from the speaker, there was a sense of relaxation and tranquility in this gym that's hard to put into words. Everything and everyone felt exceptionally approachable and unpretentious. The gym manager played a significant role in shaping this atmosphere. From our first interaction, he created an inviting and friendly environment. It was one of those rare instances where a friendship is formed with minimal conversation.

Moreover, this was my first experience with a semi-open gym, which added to its specialness. It felt as if I was still connected to the outdoors while training indoors. This gym was also the first place where working out shirtless was completely normal and went unnoticed. This aspect, too, infused the gym with a liberating, maybe even "free-spirited", vibe.

Heading linkSituation in Ecuador

Soldiers riding through Montañita

Sadly, during my stay, the situation in Ecuador took a turn for the worse. I was already aware of certain safety concerns and a deteriorating situation before arriving, and these concerns were further reinforced after conversing with locals. It was disheartening to hear someone express fear about driving a bus or celebrating New Year's Eve in their own country.

Then, one day, I received a message from my brother about a notorious drug cartel leader escaping prison in Ecuador. Initially, I didn't take it too seriously and even joked about it with him. However, the gravity of the situation hit me when, the next day, my father messaged me, alarmed by news reports about officers being kidnapped, a state of emergency being declared, a television station being taken over by armed individuals, and a curfew being imposed.

At that point, I started following the news more closely. While the unrest didn't affect me directly, it felt surreal to hear from acquaintances in Guayaquil about how their lives had suddenly taken a turn similar to a movie plot.

It's not my place as an outsider, who is unfamiliar with the complex history and nuances of the country, to comment deeply. However, based on my discussions with locals, it appeared that things had been progressively worsening over the last few years.

Ecuador is a country of remarkable beauty, with friendly and warm-hearted people. I cherished my time there. Though I was fortunate to be away from the worst of the turmoil, I can still recognize that Ecuador is going through challenging times. I believe that adversity can unite people and propel positive change. My sincere hope is that the situation in Ecuador will improve, allowing its people to live without fear and enjoy the beauty of their homeland.

Heading linkLeaving

Me, myself and security

Despite the curfew and the unfolding events in Ecuador, I didn't feel rushed to leave. I would have gladly stayed longer if I didn't have plans to explore other parts of the world. But, it was time to say goodbye to Ecuador.

As I left my Airbnb and met my host, I was reminded once again of the friendly and straightforward nature of the people here. When I tried to leave some money as a thank you for the wonderful time I had, the host shouted: "Are you crazy? No! Good luck with the rest of your trip and enjoy Argentina!"

While arriving by bus from Manta had been a straightforward task, departing was a different story. The official Facebook page for Cooperativa Manglaralto only provided start and end times for bus routes. The information I found regarding bus stop times in Montañita seemed wildly inaccurate.

So, I was back to doing mental math and probability calculations. I won't go into the details of my calculations, as the bus ended up arriving 28 minutes early. However, I can share some timing details that might help you with your own travel planning:

Since I arrived 40 minutes early, I caught my bus on time and embarked on another journey through the mobile marketplace, accompanied by various vendors and folks. The initial part of the trip felt like a rollercoaster ride, with the driver's speed and daring overtakes on narrow, curvy roads giving me flashbacks to an old-school R1 bus in Cancúnn.

Upon reaching Manta, I had a quick lunch and then checked into my hotel. The earlier sensation of being in a ghost hotel seemed insignificant compared to the deserted airport I encountered later. After passing through two checkpoints, I found myself in an almost empty airport, sweating alongside military personnel for the next few hours.

Gradually, the airport started to fill up (it felt like mine was the only flight that day), and life seemed to stir again. After enjoying three delicious jamón y queso sandwiches in succession, much to the amusement of the server, I passed through emigration, ready for my next adventure.

Heading linkMy Take

Sunset over the ocean in Montañita.
While I left Ecuador in its sunset, I hope to return and see the sun shining on its people again

If you've read this entire post, you might have picked up on hints that, despite some initial irrational thoughts and the occasional doggy doo-doo, I genuinely enjoyed my time in Montañita.

While Montañita has a lot to offer, especially to those in their 20s and 30s attracted to its lively nightlife, or to surfing enthusiasts, I believe it's a place that can be shaped into whatever experience you seek. It has the basic building blocks for a great time, as long as you keep your expectations in check. This isn't a posh resort town with modern infrastructure. However, I would argue that this is part of its beauty, as its charm lies in its unpolished, laid-back vibe, offering a sense of freedom and simplicity.

However, I don't want to oversell Montañita as a flawless paradise. I acknowledge that it might not appeal to everyone. My intent is to shed light on the fact that it's more than just a noisy party town. For me, it was a place of positive experiences and meaningful reflections.

As for Ecuador as a whole, I must admit that I only caught a brief glimpse of it. But that glimpse, and the people I met, have left me itching to return. I'm eager to explore the mountainous regions, the Amazon rainforest, and cities like Cuenca and Baños, not to mention the Galápagos Islands. Above all, I look forward to setting foot in Ecuador again, hoping to see both its people and the country thriving.

Heading linkStatement Rain

Three kings and their vast sandy kingdoms, each reigning over their stretch of beach

🟩

— The sunsets here are beautiful. For a more tranquil and private experience, I recommend walking towards Manglaralto.

— As a beginner surfer, I found Montañita amazing. The waves were relatively clean and long-lasting, perfect for enjoyable rides. Additionally, there was plenty of space for everyone, especially away from La Punta.

— The Arena Gym was definitely my place. Loved the environment, people, and the overall vibe there.

— Running from Montañita to Manglaralto was ideal for someone like me. The stretch is spacious, not too crowded, and running alongside the ocean is just incredible.

— Walkability in Montañita is great, especially if you stay closer to the touristy neighborhood.

— New Year's Eve in Montañita is filled with activities. Burning a doll during Año Viejo and catching the first wave of the year were my personal highlights.

🟥

— When I first arrived, I was surprised by the number of cloudy days. It's important to do your research. Locals told me that better weather usually begins around January, and from my experience, that seemed accurate, although mornings were still a bit cloudy.

— Lots of stray dogs around, both on the beach and in town. While they're not a problem themselves, the random poopoo on the ground is a bit problematic.

— Montañita can get pretty loud at night. Earplugs might be essential.

— If you're sensitive to nightlife and music, Montañita might not be your cup of tea.

— The situation in Ecuador demands research before visiting. Safety varies, with some areas being more risky than others. It's a beautiful country, but caution and awareness shouldn't be forgotten.

🟨

— At Manta airport, the jamón y queso sandwiches with salsa were so good that I ordered them three times. Either I was really hungry, or they were just that delicious.

— Locals spoke very highly of Baños and Cuenca.

— Getting to Montañita by bus from Manta is straightforward, but getting back is a bit more complicated due to unclear schedules. Also, in my experience, Cooperativa Manglaralto buses were pretty decent compared to others in Ecuador.

— The number of vendors on the buses surprised me. It felt like being in a moving marketplace.

— For the best experience at Lost Beach Club, I'd recommend going during a special event or when an interesting DJ is playing.

— Montañita isn't a polished, upscale city – it's all about raw, unrefined charm.

© 2024 Edvinas Byla

(my lovely corner on the internet™)