I took the bus as far as it went (to Lita), where I hoppped into a camionetta (back of a pickup truck) with about 8 other people. The camionetta couldn't go all the way either however, because the road is blocked at the town of Alto Tambo. For some reason, a large truck and a railroad car are set across the road. Rolling into this tiny blockaded town under threatening skies, as the fifty or so local Afro-Ecuadorian residents looked on was definitely one of the stranger experiences I've had traveling. I've rarely felt so far from the world I know. After walking around the roadblock, I hopped into the next camionetta for the final leg of my trip. The clouds opened up and rain came down increasingly hard for the next half hour. We all just hunkered down and I managed to shield my camera from the wet. It cleared up just in time for us all to air dry as we approached San Lorenzo.
San Lorenzo is the heart of Afro-Ecuadorian culture, its people descended from slaves brought over by the Spanish and quickly left to fend for themselves in this seemingly worthless area. They're known for their use of the marimba in their music, a tradition brought over from Africa. The only music I heard though were the more mass produced dance songs popular throughout Latin America. As the only non-South American tourist in town, I received plenty of curious looks as I walked toward my hotel. A couple of local girls left their boyfriends's sides to ask to have their photos taken with me. I met a guy who walked around town with me and told me a bit about his life and the area. The two of us ate dinner in a small restaurant crowded with people watching the Ecuador-Argentina futbol match. The town erupted when Ecuador scored to make it 1-0, but Argentina tied the game up with seconds to go.
My new friend eventually hit me up for money with some story about his mother needing medicine. I thanked him for showing me around town and gave him a dollar. You can't kid yourself when traveling like this. You're not on equal economic footing with the locals and they know it. Every interaction is seemingly complicated by economic disparity and most are instigated by commerce. It's a constant struggle to guard yourself against being taken advantage of without turning so cynical as to avoid all contact with the local people. Toeing that line is one of the tricks to making this sort of trip work.
The futbol disappointment didn't seem to dampen spirits in town for long as I could hear the party raging at the local discotheque until the power went out around 9:30. That inconvenience didn't stop them though, as a few minutes later the generators were up and running and the Cumbias and Reggaeton blared on into the night.
The following morning, instead of taking the bus out of town, I chose to travel by boat (almost always a more pleasant method of travel). One little boat per day leaves San Lorenzo (currently at 10:30am) for the smaller communities among the mangroves to the south. The first boat took me to Limones in about 45 minutes, and a second took about as long to get me to La Tola. We made a few other brief stops along the way to pick up people living in insolated homes on the water's edge. From La Tola it was just a few bumpy hours of bus riding to the beach resort of Atacames.
For some additional photos, check out my flickr page
Down to the coast. That's where I headed next. Not to the oceanfront resorts, but to the northernmost coastal town, surrounded by mangroves near the border with Colombia. It was a more difficult journey than I expected. I started with a bus from Otavalo to Ibarra, just a half-hour north. From there I planed to catch a bus to San Lorenzo, but was told busses weren't running that far. Turns out the frequent rock slides and fallen trees prevent them from getting through.