Passage Note #57: Our home base: Bahia de Caråquez, Ecuador
The middle of the earth has been our home base for the past 6 months..... Ecuador, lovely Ecuador - the country named after the imaginary line marking the half of the earth - the Equator.
Jacaranda sways safely on her double mooring with the strong incoming and outgoing tides of the River Chone in the small town of Bahía de Caráquez (pop. 19,700) known to all as “Bahia”. It is hard to believe that this tired town was once Ecuador’s principal port in the first half of the 20th century...that it once had an illustrious and self-important history. That was before the port was moved south to Manta.
We are in front of Puerto Amistad at the south end of town, ground zero for the cruising fleet and expat community. Functioning as a yacht club, it is a lovely facility with nice restaurant, showers, dingy dock, water, and an internet palapa run by Alabamian Tripp Martin (ex-cruiser himself) and his Columbian wife, Maje. There is a nice camaraderie with the non-english speaking staff and Tripp and Maje put on some wonderful holiday parties, helping to engender a sense of community. The 4th of July was celebrated with red-white-and-blue decorations and buffet lunch! Halloween was a treat! Sunday was cruiser potluck day since the restaurant is closed and Tripp allowed us to use the tables and grill.
Although it is possible to anchor, moorings run $330 for a month and include all the services. Tripp charges $150/month for the services and dingy dock usage if you anchor. He has plans for adding more moorings and building a little marina in the future, which will also have a fuel dock.
By prearrangement, Tripp will have a pilot meet you at the entrance to the Bay; after waiting at the designated spot outside (“the waiting room”), the pilot boards your boat and guides you in through the narrow path between shifting sand bars. Tripp also will arrange to take care of the check-in procedures for you if you desire, including the local port captain and the car fare for someone to go to Manta (one hour taxi ride away) with immigration paper work. It’s very convenient and worth the fee. Our total check-in costs, including the pilot, was $350.00 - which is not cheap. It is off-putting for some; indeed we were hoping to catch up with Capt. Fatty Goodlander of Cruising World fame who wrote us and said he decided to bypass Ecuador and go straight to the South Pacific instead where his $350 would stretch a lot further.
Bahia is sited beautifully on a peninsula jutting out into the water - the blue Pacific Ocean on one side, the brown Chone River on the other. From an aerial photograph it would seem as if Bahia was a mini-Miami Beach with its white high-rises on the beach. But far far from it!! Some of the high rises stand as unfinished skeletons; the others are full of second homes for vacationing Quiteños when the weather is good.
Cloaked in the benign grayness of the days, day in and day out, Bahia can be a rather dismal looking place. The majority of the town - lowrise homes and shops - is in bad need of an upgrade. It’s a shame because with minimal effort Bahia has the potential to be quite a lovely destination...and maybe even live up to Lonely Planet’s premature description of “charming”. It could benefit greatly from a program like Mexico’s “Pueblos Magicos” infusing a little capital for fixing up and a coat of paint.
(And yet, it is the lack of any real weather that makes it a perfect place to leave the boat to do some inland travel - which is just what we did.)
A spark of gaiety comes at night when the new bridge spanning the river, linking Bahia with San Vincente, glows bright blue on one side, neon green on the other. The longest bridge in Ecuador it is said (it is unfortunate that it was not built with enough height to allow sailboats to pass through). Someone must have seriously considered how to enliven the looks of this place in order to install such a festive touch. Besides, it matches the bright blue glow of the huge Catholic cross sitting on the hill overlooking everything, like an interior design accent or a sculpture on a coffee table. The domineering religious icon does double duty - on the one hand it is Bahia’s protector against storms or earthquakes (hadn’t they suffered enough in 1998 with El Niño landslides and a big tremblor?), but it also serves as a mirador and practical tourist site. Climbing up through the guts of the huge Cross, you are afforded a spectacular vista of the populated peninsula below and its marine environs.
Bahia touts itself as being at the forefront of the “green movement’” which we think means that they recycle and that you can take an ecotaxi (bicycle taxi) for $.50 around town......like to go food shopping at the wonderful Central Market, to the two small food stores or to the newly expanded TIA “supermarket’. Larger “real” supermarkets are an hour taxi ride away in Manta or Portoviejo but sometimes it is possible to find a resident expat who is going to pick up some goodies not found in Bahia (like sour cream, barbeque sauce, romaine lettuce or specialty cheeses).
The small archeological Museum deserves a special mention - it is of outstanding quality and a pleasant surprise...and it’s free. Interpretive signs are in spanish but there is an excellent english-speaking guide who will explain the artifacts and replica of a sailing raft.
Bahia is a tranquil, sleepy little town with not much going on although you get the feeling of something more underneath, lurking, waiting to emerge when the conditions are right --like a hibernating bear, or a cicada. We did attend a very nice performance by several Argentinian musicians/singers in the Town Hall one night and other musical concerts were sporadically advertised. Some signs of underlying vitality did show themselves in the Founders Day weekend celebration in early November when more people surfaced from the region than one would believe live here. The colorful procession wound along the malecon or seaside road and consisted of bands of all types, marching military and municipal brigades, giant paper mache effigies of historical heroes, jugglers and clowns, and the queen and her court. At the conclusion, there was an equine showcase of dancing horses that pranced down the street ridden by local cowboys representing regional horse clubs.
Local Side Trips
Nearby excursions include a privately owned Chirije archeological site, whale watching during the June - Oct. season, and mangrove islands a short distance upriver with one the largest frigate-bird colonies on the Ecuadorian coast. Rio Muchacho Organic Farm has places to stay and volunteer opportunities; a weekly pre-ordered delivery of freshly harvested vegetables (which nicely supplement what you could buy at the Central Market) was a service that was newly available this year.
CANOA, a short hop to the north of Bahia, is a surfing destination with a mellow vibe; it has a gorgeous long beach framed by picturesque high cliffs on the north with some nice hostals and little restaurants on the sand. It is probably the biggest tourist draw in the area.
MONTECRISTI is a small town in the coastal hills about an hour south of Bahia. This is where the “panama hat” (a grave misnomer) first originated. The fiber for the hats, paja toquilla, is grown in Montecristi and shipped to Cuenca in southern Ecuador where most of today’s “panama hats” are manufactured. True connoisseurs know these sombreros de paja toquilla not as “panama hats” but as “Montecristi’s” and one of the highest quality hats in the world is still made here by a local family using traditional techniques. A lot of wickerwork and basketry is also sold in shops along the main street.
SOSOTE -This is Tagua Town. A small stretch of the highway from Bahia to Manta is lined on both sides by shops selling colorful jewelry, beads, and carved figurines made from tagua nut, known as vegetable or poor man’s ivory.
We are looking forward to returning to our Ecuadorian home with Jacaranda (on the same mooring) next June and catching up with our friends (locals and ex-pats) again before we head off for more inland travel in South America.
MORE PHOTOS: In the "Photo Gallery" for Passage Note #57
There is an “Ecuador Cruiser’s Guide” updated to 2010 at or on the southbound yahoo group for members (in the file section:countries:Ecuador) that has a lot of information for Bahia and other areas.