It’s hard to escape the tourist loop.

After awhile you get kind of sick of following the guide book’s path. It’s a whole country, there must be places to go that aren’t in the dang book, no?

The map in there shows nothing up the coast from Salinas until Montanita, which is Coastal Ecuador’s top tourist destination, and whose description (in the bleepin guide book) begins with “there should be a sign at the entrance to Montanita saying ‘you are now leaving Ecuador.’ Such is the international vibe that you could be anywhere in the world.” Ah. One of those. They are nice, but I kinda felt like more Ecuador.

So in Salinas I asked the maintenance man about the towns between there and Montanita, and he said there were a bunch, mentioning San Pablo in particular.

Two bus tickets to San Pablo, please.

The bus left Salinas and headed up the gorgeous chunk of coast known as La Ruta del Sol. As we passed through the first town it was a dusty heap of chipped cinderblocks and cracking concrete, stray dogs wretched with mange, and broken down cars rusting away to nothing on beds of garbage. It was Ecuador, alright. Yet I found myself thinking “I hope San Pablo has a little more than this…”

That’s when the bus driver signaled to us. It WAS San Pablo. His look said “you sure you want to get off here?” K turned to me, her pupils dilated and asked, a hint of panic in her voice “do we want to get off here?!?”

Heck yes! We stepped out onto the pavement and the bus drove away, surfing the edge of a cloud of dust. K and I looked at each other, then at the four old men sitting on a bench under the sheet metal overhang in front of us, who looked back at us without expression, but without looking away either. Don’t get many gringos in downtown San Pablo I guess.

Actually from another town a week down the road, but it was similar and I just haven’t been taking pictures lately for some reason.

There was a dusty hardware store, a couple shops selling potato chips and soda, and that was about it. But a block down beckoned the sea. The sea the sea, oh how I love the sea. So we went that way.

Around the corner the highway continued up the coast past a string of bamboo cabana huts serving fresh fish to automobile-equiped travelers. This helped me understand why the maintenance man would have such a positive idea of San Pablo, but we needed habitat, not halibut.

A couple hundred meters up the highway was a sign for a hosteria, which is a level below a hostel in terms of price and cleanliness, but it looked like the only option. It was a restaurant in front, and the guy looked surprised when we walked in, then more surprised when we asked for  room. He paused, “we have rooms…but…they’re not elegant.” I liked him already.

The rooms were bunks, more like barracks for tired truck drivers than anything else, but they were clean enough, and I was ready to stay there when we asked the price. A long pause…a look at our clothes and skin…”$15?” While a good deal in the US, for $15 we could get a much nicer place, and not share it with any truckers. It was an option, but I was holding out for something better.

We headed farther up the coast, checking a couple menus along the way, just out of curiosity. Unsurprisingly there was not a vegetarian dish to be found, and the prices for a fried fish made me wonder if they came with the golden fish-hook still embedded in the jaw. I wonderd where people who lived there ate, then remembered the answer: their kitchens.

Frigate birds in San Pablo, one of four pictures I took in town. (The other three are blurry pictures of frigates.)

We picked out a piece of sand and lunched on the cookies, crackers, and raisins we bought in Salinas (never go shopping when hungry, no matter what country). The beach was long, slim, and windy windy with extra wind. A few stubborn Ecuadorians splashed around in the shallows, arms clenched tight to their sides, looking a tad miserable in the cold water.

We talked it over while watching pelicans and frigate birds overhead showing us the superiority of feathers to fur, and decided to head to Montanita after all. We tried hitch-hiking for a bit, but the only ones with room were too wealthy to pick up hitchers, but (luckily) a bus stopped, and an hour later we were in Montanita. Just a tad different.