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Driving La Ruta del Sol



Late in the afternoon, we turn a corner on the dusty road and spy our goal—the balmy, azure Pacific Ocean, white apartment buildings sparkling in the sun and the sea reflecting the clear blue sky. I have been promised paradise, and this view secures the dream.


Six hours driving from Quito brought us here, to the province of Esmeraldas, winding along the scenic route through the mystical, mountainous cloud forests of Mindo, then rapidly dropping altitude whilst increasing humidity and traversing through the warmer lowland banana plantations. An aggressive four-day drive, our tour begins in the city of Esmeraldas in the north. Our route will take us through pretty little coastal pueblos and party towns from Atacames through Perdernales, Canoa, Manta, Puerto Cayo, Puerto López, Montañita and finally to the large port city of Guayaquil in the south.


Stopping for the night in Atacames, a lively beach town, we head for the beach to watch the sun set. The beach stretches for miles, eventually framed by craggy cliffs. Beach vendors sell trinkets and wiry men lazily lob a volleyball over a makeshift net. Everything is orange as the sun seems to drop out of the sky; within 15 minutes it disappears over the horizon and complete blackness ensues.


In the open air beach side shack, the ocean breeze cools and soothes burnt skin. Cocktails are ordered. I opt for a tri-color, sickly, red, green and yellow drink, and sip slowly whilst the deejay beats out reggaeton and local men woo the gringas, teaching salsa and promising eternal love.


Morning comes and the trip continues. The sun blazes down on the car. Photographic opportunities abound and frequent stops are made to capture the sweeping landscapes, the mangroves, the local life, and the bright orange and pink flowers against a backdrop of greens, ranches, coastal villages. We share a warm Pilsner mixed with cola and munch on crackers. The radio blares and we sing along, warm and satisfied, salty skin sticking to the leather of the seats. It is difficult to feel anything other than elation in this sunny, sandy haven.


We take a break from the driving in sandy Pedernales. No gringos here. The hot sand burns my feet as I dash into the glistening waves of the warm Pacific that crash down onto the beach. The fishermen are bemused; they pause from their fĂştbol to observe this crazy chica splashing to cool off from the heat of the mid-afternoon sun.


Our home for the second night, Manta, feels like the original Sin City with dark, seedy-looking, and empty streets. Maybe it’s the time that we arrive—late—scouring the deserted streets for a decent hotel, that make this city more menacing than it needs to. There is a large U.S. Marine base here. There is no reason to stay for long.


On the road again, the vegetation changes as we reach Machalilla National Park, the foliage is heavier, the roadsides more forested. We turn a corner and from nowhere, a marine iguana skedaddles across the road, narrowly escaping death. Every few miles, a secluded cove, a beautiful little island, an unusual bird appears, as if for our viewing pleasure alone.


Montañita is a surfers heaven. This funky little hippie town in the south serves as our third night’s rest and watering hole, and it emanates a relaxed, warm vibe. The youth and travelers in the town are on the beach, gathered around a roaring fire. The beer flows fast and dancing by firelight is atmospheric, reminiscent of the ambience of a grungy music festival back home.


Slightly worse for wear, the drive continues south. Vultures circle overhead—carrion is nearby. A huge flock of pelicans darken the sky, flying north. A family of donkeys ambling along at an idle pace greet us at a beachside stop along the road—mother, father and baby, completely in tune with coastal life—nothing happens quickly here.


After driving almost the entire length of the Ecuadorian coastline, our trip draws to a close. The port town of Guayaquil is nearing, smoking on the horizon. Ecuador’s largest city is a sprawling urban maze and a world away from the lazy beach side towns of our recent days. Strolling down the Malecón 2000, we recall snippets from the trip. We climb the Cerro Santa Ana hill; the recently gentrified bars are pumping. Overlooking the city we drink a toast to returning someday soon.

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