Pura Vida: Montañita

Montañita is Ecuador's premier beach destination. The surfer vibe promotes a relaxed environment and the small town is popular with both long-term backpackers and local weekenders to catch some sun and sand. In fact, it reeks of some of the same quirks as Southeast Asia's best tourism destinations. At night neon lights and deep house beats permeate through the night, ensuring that getting to sleep before dawn is downright impossible. During the day the streets are lined with handmade jewelry sellers and tiny mini-markets selling mostly beer, chips, and cookies. There's even a requisite alley of breakfast street food vendors, all with different versions of the same menu: pancakes, omelettes, sandwiches, and fruit shakes. 

It was here that on Monday morning I was pleased to cross paths for the third time with Charlie, an Irish-American traveler working his way from Mexico to Lima. We had previously met in Medellin and then Quito, where Charlie worked for two weeks in the popular Secret Garden hostel and as such seemed to have already met half of Montañita's traveler population. 

Along with three of his friends we set off for a morning stroll along the grey beach, slowly growing more hopeful about the weather as the morning rain began to dissipate and blue skies showed promise on the horizon for the first time since my arrival on the Pacific Coast. When sunny, Montañita's beach is downright perfect: it's a miles long stretch of never-ending sand with a strong current and a calm enough break to spawn plenty of surfing schools. The sand is even firm enough to go for a barefoot run and halfway to the point at the end of the beach, Charlie and I decided to set off for a quick work out, alternating intervals of sprinting and jogging.

As we warmed up and started to break a sweat on the way back, we settled down on the beach for the perfect spot to take a refreshing swim in the ocean, letting the waves crash over us. Just taking a dip in Montañita is a sport in its own right, as you have to constantly swim to the left to not get pulled away by the current and the wave breaks can get rough, tossing swimmers around. The general rule of thumb is there's always a second wave coming right behind you. 

After some beach chilling it was high-time for our first indulgence is one of South America's best seafood dishes: fresh ceviche. Along one of the main drags in town is a consortium of ceviche stands, each staffed by an Ecuadorian man who takes great pride in his vocation of crafting potent ceviche mixto, with shrimp, octopus, clams, heaps of lime juice, and fresh nuts on top. They must each purchase their bicycle push carts from the same distributor as each one is distinctly numbered and has the same slogan written on the side: "mmm....Que rico ceviche!"

No talk of Montañita is quite complete with an in-depth analysis of the food; the city seems to have mastered fast-casual dining and delicious cheap eats abound. Without further ado, my top favorites: 

  1. A la Uruguay: At this husband-wife hole in the wall burger joint, they sell hamburgers with a side of fries for just $1.50. It's not only a great value, they boast the thickest patties in town.
  2. Rastapan: Down one of the alleys in town you'll find amazing personal pizzas for $2.50, in your choice of Pepperoni, Jamon y Queso, or Caprese. 
  3. Empanadas: There are two open-air empanada shops on the side of the road, offering fresh hand-made gooey goodness for just $1 each. Warning: it's easy to consume three or four without even noticing. 
  4. Breakfast Omelettes: If you wake up feeling like you indulged a little too much the night before, the best bet is an omelette from breakfast stand alley, where an order completo will get you veggies, ham, avocado, and 2 slices of toast for $3. It's nightmarishly difficult to consume with the spork provided, so the best option is one Charlie concocted: cut the omelette in half and use the toast to fold it into a breakfast sandwich. 

The beach in Montañita is an economy in and of itself. If the sun peeks through the clouds, people pour out from their hammocks all over town to lie in the sand and listen to the waves of the ocean. Local entrepreneurs take advantage of the captive audience: older men hawk sunglasses, ice cream, and all sorts of tourist trinkets, whereas enterprising travelers bake and sell empanadas, brownies, and deliciously gooey calzone wraps. On weekend afternoons the beach becomes chalk full of people from all walks of life enjoying a cold cerveza and taking in one of the many pickup soccer games proliferating on the sand. 

Although Friday through Sunday can be hectic, spending a week in Montanita also made me notice how strikingly different the town can be depending on the time and the weather. When the rain steadily blankets the town, the population thins out and puddles start to form in the muddy street, giving everything a somber feel. At this point, it's high time to retreat to one of the many chill hostels just outside of town, where you can find plenty of people lounging in hammocks and reading or going on a Netflix binge.

The rain can certainly put a damper on things, but there's no way it could ever dissuade the population of Montañita from hitting the streets and going out at night. In this respect, Montañita is the kind of place a guide book could never really explain. Starting in the early afternoon every day the clubs began blasting techno music and don't stop until well past 4am, making it next to impossible for anyone to sleep if they're staying nearby. 

As the sun begins to descend into the ocean horizon, Montañita's nightlife begins to materialize out of thin air. The best bet for happy hour is the packed back porch of Iguana Bacpackers, where two hilarious Australian bartenders mix strong drinks and keep everyone entertained. Although pregaming at one of the hostels can be an inexpensive way to get the night started, the best way to take in the vibe of the city and meet people is to grab a drink in cocktail alley, a stretch of drink stands with tiny plastic chairs spouting cuba libres, piña coladas, and maracuya daiquiris. Here's a shot of our crew from one night this week: 

Despite their propensity to overcharge for both cover charges and drinks, the bars and clubs of Montañita are pretty much guaranteed to deliver a good time. Sand dance floors and plenty of live music means the dancing takes over early in the night as backpackers and locals mingle on the dance floor to a mix of salsa and pop music. 

One of the most popular clubs is Lost Beach, whose proprietor is purportedly an Israeli millionaire who made his fortune and then promptly spent most of it installing the strongest speaker system in Montañita. If you've ever been to Pacha in New York City, you already know exactly what Lost Beach is like: there's a raised DJ booth dominating the center of the dance floor, a second floor with tables for bottle service, and an expensive bar selling tiny bottles of water for a ridiculous sum of $2. It's completely empty and feels eerily creepy until early well past midnight, but once people come streaming in it's the hottest spot in town. 

Despite all the partying, Montañita never seemed to give me a hangover. Maybe it was the constant sound of the ocean in the background. It could have been the infectious personality of the city, where even when there are rolling blackouts everyone seems to be happy. But perhaps it was just the promise that regardless of what happens, when you're on the beach life is good.