Fishing in a Fishing Village: Puerto Lopez, Ecuador
It took quite some time for this post to come together. I blame that mostly on my currently off kilter work/life balance. When I started writing this, Puerto Lopez was a sweet, faint memory made of seafood, salty beach air, and deliciously slow sunsets. The humble, rough & tumble fishing village was as an easy blend of small town charm and low season volume in the few days we hung our hats there. Fond memories remained intact. Thoughts that used to sit on a lofty perch, safely nested in my memory bank waiting for me to brush the dust off whenever I felt the need to get a taste. That nest came crashing down to the earth when news of the earthquake this past April had surfaced. The tenacious 7.8 magnitude quake’s epicenter was about 12 miles below the earths surface near the town of Muisne along the northwestern coast of Ecuador, not too far from where we once walked down the dusty streets of Puerto Lopez. The quake and the aftershocks caused serious damage throughout the region in both rural and dense city settings and were responsible for over 27,000 injuries and roughly 650 casualties. The quake was strong enough to cause multiple structural failures ranging from residential homes in Quito up to a highway overpass in Guayaquil. Lives were both shattered and lost in this powerful display of the forces that are the inner workings of our earth. It was hard for me to muster up the energy to post this entry without thinking that it was bad timing for me to reminisce about our experiences that were based around casual travel observations and leisurely adventures in an area directly affected by this event. Puerto Lopez will always be a sweet memory in my mind, and ultimately a part of who I am. I hope this helps pay homage to the pretty little seaside village that we once knew, if only for a small moment in time.
Still reeling from our blissful adventures in the high mountain cooperative village of Salinas, I knew that we had to keep our expectations in check and our minds open moving forward. We were most certainly following a seriously dizzying travel high down it’s shaky footings & back to reality at the solid surface of the earth. I realized this while we were riding in the collectivo truck back through the mellow & windy valley in the mountains. There we stood, two of us among twenty or so people, crammed in the back of a standard size pickup truck bed with the breeze blowing over our smiling faces as we slipped our way back into town. The ride back from anywhere always seems shorter than the way out for some strange reason, and that particular day yielded the same result. Before we could even get comfortable with the thought of letting Salinas go we were back in at a street side bus depot buying a one-way ticket to Guayaquil.
Our vintage Ecuadorian bus (complete with complimentary unbearably warm seating area, and scratched, dusty windows with vintage drapes) rolled us right out of the green and golden hills of Salinas down into a more flat & linear landscape. We passed through a few hours of endlessly flat green rice fields accompanied by the occasional house on stilts. Once in a while the large mats of green vegetation would be spotted with small workers all hunched over, tending to the countless rows of the staple starch that seemed to be prevalent in this area. The country life was in full play, and it wasn’t a surprising sight to see large pick up trucks full of various odds & ends, complete with young kids precariously sitting on the very top of the heaps of random objects, hats covering their faces to shield themselves from the air rushing past. The shifting landscape transitioned into the city quickly, with greens being replaced with dark greys and the pace of life accelerating with each city block we moved forward. Large urban environments always carry a certain amount of anxious energy on their concrete backs & structural steel shoulders, and to me the shift in energy is always more evident when moving between such polarized environments. When we pulled into the bus station we couldn’t wait to get off to stretch our legs and get some slightly fresher air.
At some point in our journey an acquaintance had spotted our travels online and reached out to me with an offer of a place to crash if we made it down to his neck of the woods. It just so happens his woods were in Guayaquil. A free place to stay in a place we’ve never been before is an offer we would seldom pass up. Erik had been working on an international construction project in the area and had a whole house to himself for his tenure. Living large was an understatement as we would come to find out. Our bus station taxi found the secure gated entrance without any trouble, but locating the house was an issue that quickly followed. I recall the streets weren’t marked in a logical order, with numbers dropping off a cliff from one block to the next and starting up again like some sort of unpredictable algorithm with too many unknown variables. After circling about 4-5 times around the neighborhood, we were all stumped. Eventually we got in touch with Erik and pulled up to his humble abode. Off memory, I think he had a 3 bed, 2.5 bath SF with a large outdoor patio & grilling area. His space felt palatial after spending hundreds of consecutive nights in small budget hostels. We played catch up from our last encounter, which admittedly was many years back, and made kebabs for supper. Erik showed off his fresh new pair of llama chaps and told tale of the market in Cuenca where one could purchase such beautiful items.
The next day we took off for the coast so that we could line up a later weekend excursion with Erik. We headed back to the bus depot and hopped onto another old beauty headed for Puerto Lopez. Puerto Lopez is a fishing village that gets a moderate amount of attention during the June – October months when humpback whales return to one of their favorite mating spots in the Pacific. Many whale enthusiasts & tourists from all over the world come here to catch a glimpse of these gentle giants try and win over their female counterparts. Having just missed the prime whale watching window of time by a few weeks, we came with hopes that we would be able to see a few of these beautiful creatures still hanging around by chance, like the stragglers after the party died down might still be swimming around looking for anyone who wanted to have one more conversation before heading off. If anything we would be on the water on a new beach somewhere, so that was the worst case scenario we were very much ready for and prepared to deal with.
The bus ride was not very thrilling until we started getting near the coast and into some fishing villages. We began noticing the nets, buoys, and boats parked along the side of oceanfront abodes and bobbing gently in the ocean backdrop. Tiny congregations on narrow roads would disappear right before the road detoured around a small cliff and into the next sheltered bay. We started slowing down in a larger bay and watched the road turned from asphalt into dirt as we pulled along side of a small outdoor market in the little center of Puerto Lopez. Without knowing where we were going to hang our hats that night, our first priority was to find a bed. I’m sure this blog makes it seem effortlessly easy to wander around the world, taking pretty pictures, and enjoying every sunset the world has to offer. But a truth of just about every place that we found ourselves is that we usually spent about 30 minutes to an hour walking around with 35-40lbs of gear trying to find a hostel or hotel we could afford. Add to that a requirement to have a decent enough communal kitchen that we could cook in. Surviving this length of travel without putting a wrecking ball through your budget requires plenty of home cooking along the way. Think rice, curry powder, olive oil, and whatever protein & vegetables the markets had to offer. Eventually an odd hotel/hostel hybrid was discovered and we took a room with an ancient, but fully functional wall TV.
At first glance, this fishing town looked pretty abandoned. Local activities seemed to be sparse at best. In the heat of the day, homes all seemed quiet, with the occasional dog barking nearby but never seen. The streets were mostly all but silent and laid out in a grid of sorts, with the occasional local pub adorned with hombres smoking cigarettes & giving you the once over. We sniffed out a small stand that sold papas rellanas almost instantly and decided to head over to the water after eating our snacks. The malecon along the beach looked as if we were about 30 years late to the party, and I mean that in a very visually stimulating way. The beach had some tired tiki bars that must have been busy a few weeks prior now sitting empty. Store fronts with faded signs faced the long, mellow sandy beach. Balusters that were completely decayed & missing from the malecon wall were most likely the result from a large storm that came and went, leaving it’s mark forever along the strip. Tons of small & large fishing boats bobbed on the bay in the distance, patiently waiting for the next trip out to sea. A few patches of palm trees provided some shelter on the playa, which was almost completely devoid of people that day.
At second glance, there was a whole different scene going down the beach far away from where the sun worshipers would presumably hang. The dozens of wooden boats pulled up on shore just above the high tide line attracted us like bugs to a high powered night lantern. On the way over to check out the scene we came upon some small kids practicing their goal kicks on a sandy court, complete with tattered nets & ancient goal posts. After watching the impromptu soccer match we started meandering in the sea of parked boats on the beach. Wooden vessels of different shapes & sizes were laying silently on the sand, presumably after already spent the day on the ocean and already cashed in on the days haul. A few guys saw me snapping pictures and wanted to show me their prized catches. They held up a few of their living trophies and threw down some tough guy poses & big toothy grins. We saw a few other fishing boats come in, quickly unloading their work into a small pickup truck loaded with ice and ready for delivery. After we were done playing photographers, we walked back towards the beach came upon a small bird hanging out on the shore that had bright blue feet. It took a moment to realize we had stumbled upon our first Blue Footed Booby. I had forgot how close we were to the Galopagos, so it was pretty exciting to see this beautiful creature just hanging out in the sand right in front of our toes. The garbage scattered all along the beach just beyond the bird was disheartening admittedly, but seeing this wild animal for the first time still felt special.
After poking around town a little we bumped into a guy named Wiston Churchill. That’s right, Wiston Churchill. I’m pretty sure he picked the moniker as a gimmick to have instant name recognition, and if he did he forgot an “n” in it. Regardless, Wiston was a super nice dude that ran an eco-tourism business to show off the ecologically rich environment Puerto Lopez has at it’s fingertips. One of the main drivers of this business was chasing whales, going fishing, and swimming in some shallow nearby reefs. He was enthusiastic to tell us about how travelers loved his little business and even had them note their experiences in a book he kept at his storefront. He flipped through the worn out ledger to show us a bunch of reviews written in many different languages, probably a persuasion technique so he could show anyone on the fence how much fun other visitors had. It was kind of like online reviews without the internet, which was clever on his part. We flipped through the weathered pages and read some accounts of a fun day out on the boat enjoying the activities he described. Wiston admitted that we were probably not going to see any whales because they began their northern migration a few weeks earlier. A natural businessman through and through, he effortlessly pitched us a day of fishing & swimming for about $20 a head, with his promise of procuring a boat and a captain. We obliged of course, or else I wouldn’t be writing about this.
The next day we ate breakfast, put on our swimming attire, and made our way over to Wiston’s place. When we showed up he sent us on our way with his son, his cousin, and his cousin’s son on his boat. We were hoping Wiston would join but it seems like he wasn’t too interested in going fishing for the day. We went back to the launch where all the fisherman were the previous day, pushed his boat into the water, and set off. There were hundreds of pelicans, frigatebirds, and albatrosses flying around the boats searching for scraps. The grey sky was alive with these winged beasts flying in every direction as we slowly idled out of the bay. The cliffs that surrounded the beach were steep & mostly vertical walls of solid earth. Our captain pointed out that these cliffs were actually covered with Blue & Red Footed Boobies and took us closer to have a look. When we focused our eyes we could clearly see the dozens of birds hanging onto little sections of ledge that provided footing. Once out of the bay, our captain opened the engine up and we headed straight for a small island. This was where the tour usually stops to let the people take a swim in the shallow, turquoise water. We weren’t really super excited about swimming since it wasn’t particularly hot that day and the water was a bit on the cool side, but our captain insisted we swim since it was part of the package. We took some goggles out and looked under water for a while before hopping back on to go do some fishing.
We motored over to an area nearby some large commercial fishing vessels before cutting the motor. It didn’t seem like the best place to fish, but I assumed our captain knew this was where we’d catch some chow. Small chunks of wood were distributed that had fishing line wound around the middle a few dozen times with one hook & a few sizable sinkers. I fished a lot when I was a kid but had never tried my hand at fishing without a rod so I was pretty thrilled to try it out. Small pieces of bait consisting of small fish were doled out and on we went. Keeping true to the magic of fishing, nothing was caught after 10 – 15 minutes of waiting. The anticipation and excitement definitely cooled off after the initial rush of dropping lines. Our guide noticed the energy was low and decided to move to another spot nearby. Wiston’s son, who was about 3 or 4 years old, eventually pulled the first fish out of the water. He shrieked with excitement as it was taken up onto the boat and added odd oinking noises, mimicking the sounds the puffer fish was making. We clapped and laughed about the whole ordeal and put our lines back in the water eager to see who would come up with something next. Elissa brought in fish #2, which was a large puffer that had a very unique camouflage pattern on it’s back worthy of a picture of course. Our captain cupped it in his hands in order to show us how it blows itself up to appear larger & more ominous for predators. Before long, we were pulling up fish left & right! We must have stumbled upon a sizeable school and the adrenaline rush perpetuated with each fish on the line. Some were tossed back, the most edible ones were kept on the boat with us for the next part of our trip.
After we had used up all our bait, we started back towards Puerto Lopez with a bounty of freshly caught fish. Our captain took out a large bowl, a cutting board, onions, tomatoes, & limes and laid them on a seat while his 8 year old son was at the helm manning our vessel. I took a bunch of funny pictures of the little guy driving the boat who couldn’t have been more proud of himself and his newly minted responsibilities. His father diced up the fish, mixed the ingredients together, and squirted fresh lime juice over all of our freshly caught lunch. A few minutes later we cut the engine and enjoyed our own ceviche buffet. The company was just right, and the experience was definitely worth writing about.
After getting back on land we thanked our guides for the adventure and made a plan to catch Wiston to thank him before we left town. The experience, while definitely not unique by it’s existence, seemed to have played out as it was supposed to in our own unique way. Much of our trip seemed to be following the definitions that we were manifesting, focusing on the simple pleasures of what it means to experience a new area.