Things to Do in Ecuador: Camping on the Canoa Coast

It pains me to say we almost missed this experience. It was always part of the original plan, but new plans got in the way and it became a bit of an inconvenience. However, I’m proud to say we listened to our guts, stuck to the plan, and made the trip out of our way back up the coast to camp for a night.

We had been living in Canoa, a small town with a lovely expat settlement, on the coast of Ecuador for two months, and when we finished, we decided to head south to Montañita for a few nights. We had wanted to camp earlier but it never worked out, so we just let it go. Our plans were to then go onward to Quito before heading north to Colombia, but our friend Pete reminded us of our camping plans, and was an expert at persuading us to head back north.

We tested out the Monkey Beach camping experience he now offers as a tour through Canoa Suites, and let me tell you, it is worth every penny! It is at the top of all of the experiences we’ve had in the past 15 months on the road, and man we’ve seen a lot. If you’re in Ecuador and looking for something to do, and you love doing things off the beaten track, look no further. And if you’re thinking about skipping Ecuador while traveling through South America, you’re crazy. It is the best part, and adding this adventure in will be the icing on the cake.

$80 pp gets you transport to the private entrance to the coastline, tents and gear, amazing food, and a boat ride back into town. The beaches are only accesible by boat or private land access (exclusive to Canoa Suites), so you are really out in the wild.

Arriving to the Coast

Leaving Canoa in a car, we had about a 15 minute drive north, and another 10 minute drive west through the private property. Natural dry forest surrounds the land with howler monkeys calling from the treetops. The car dropped us off and we put our packs on and got ready for the 6km trek to the protected bay.

We do recommend shoes, although we both made the journey in flip flops and survived! But we also got married in flip flops and live in them or bare feet so we wouldn’t really have done it any other way.

Along the coast there are incredible rock and shell formations. We saw the layers of earth, with fossils of sea life, and I was sure if we spent time digging, we would find dinosaur fossils too. It felt like we were on an archaeological site waiting to happen. It is one of the longest stretch’s of untouched coastline on the whole of South America, and our flip flop footprints lined the sand.

In addition to the dinosaur-vibes, there were ancient Kichwa fish traps, estimated at over 2000 years old, still standing and still used today by their descendants. We even had the pleasure of meeting one of them along the way. He had set up camp around the bay from where we were staying, and was living there for a short time, while collecting fish to sell at market. Boats would come in every couple of days to collect what he caught and he would stay behind. The traps were perfect storage, since there were no refrigerators!

Setting Up Camp

After about an hour and a half of walking, we reached a bay that was sheltered from all of the wind, with beaches protected by rocks. It was us and a few fisherman about a kilometre down the bay from us. That was it. We hadn’t been expecting others at all, Pete was a little surprised, but he remained calm and so did we. Okay we were a little worried, but what can ya do?

Once we pitched our tents and decided where our fire pit would be, we felt it was important to meet the fisherman. If they weren’t good people, we wouldn’t be able to stay.

There was something so primal about walking up to a crowd of unknown people, on a barren coastline in Ecuador. Rarely do we experience these moments in the Western World. There’s often easy access to flee if things go wrong, or a cell phone to call for help. Entering a new country where you don’t speak the language, or a new community or new job, those are tiny moments of the primal feelings. But we’ve never felt anything like this before. Not even close. It was us and them. How do you offer peace without showing weakness, how do you know they mean what they say. You don’t. You just breathe, do what is right by you, and trust. We decided to go in with smiles.

And thank God we did.

As soon as we rocked up, they smiled back and greeted us with pounds and pounds of freshly boiled up crab that they had caught earlier! We stood around enjoying the view and the experience with them for awhile, learning about them and their work, and that sadly the reason they were camped on the beach was that pirates had been robbing them while they slept on the water a few weeks back. Another little primal moment, but we knew that the power in numbers on the beach would keep us safe. I’m still pinching myself when I think back to that day. What could have been, and what really was. It was such a lesson in bravery and being present. It was like a drug.

We watched sunset from an abandoned building deep in the forest on the hill while Humpback whales put on a show in the water and the howler monkeys sang us their growly lullaby. We spent all night chatting around the fire, solving all the worlds problems, and really getting to know one another better. Something about a fire in a natural environment really opens one up. When we finally said goodnight, sleep hit like a ton of bricks…for John. I was slightly on edge. We were in the middle of nowhere on the Ecuadorian coast, with a bunch of strangers. The voice in my head echoed “Trust. Be present.” And before I knew it, I was waking up at sunrise after one of the most peaceful sleeps I’ve ever had. And we were all alright.

We also had a chance to check out the campsite of the first fisherman we met. He invited us by and showed us how he weaved his own fishing net, which he used in addition to the traps.

Through our time in Canoa we witnessed many nets being made but never went up to actually watch the process. We had seen a few Dead Sea turtles wash up on the beach, and heard many stories of the local fishermen taking their anger out on the turtles that got caught in the nets, often bashing their heads in.

It was incredibly sad to hear and see, but after watching the incredibly tedious work of building these nets, and seeing the poverty the fishermen lived in, I found empathy. The education around sea turtle conservation was undoubtedly lacking, as well as the compassion for an animal who was potentially ruining a livelihood and preventing the fishermen and their families from eating. Essentially, people in glass houses should not throw stones. I’m not condoning their behaviour, but I empathize with the position they are in when they make those decisions. It was deep, to say the least.

Heading Home

Leaving the beach was a bittersweet experience. We really connected to Canoa, made lifelong friendships, and felt like this could be the spot we choose to settle down in. We had looked at purchasing land, and had become a part of the furniture in our short time there, joining in on every social activity we could, ensuring we had a place to call home. Being on this camping trip was a bit of a mindfuck as we played over our lives if we stayed and bought land, or if we stuck to our original plan and continued on seeing the world. In over a year we had never felt a home like this. To be honest, in over 6 years that we’ve been together, we’d never felt a home like this. We’ve loved everywhere we’ve lived, but something about Canoa stole our hearts and choosing to move on was hard.

But this beautiful experience was a microcosm for our journey. We almost moved on without following the plans we made because we found something a bit easier along the way. If we had gone with the new plan, we would’ve been happy, and we would never have known what we missed out on, but we would’ve wondered. And by taking the more inconvenient previous plan, we had one of the best experiences we’ve ever had in this life. So we must go on. No matter how inconvenient it may become, no matter how easy or exciting the new experiences life throws at us may be, we set out to see the world, and we’ve got so much more to go. We’ve hit all the spots we wanted to in South America, though we know we will be back to see more eventually, we can tick it off for now.

We are heading back to New Zealand for some weddings and Christmas this year, but we will be off again in the new year. It was a goal we set and a promise we made to ourselves, and we’re going to keep it, no matter what.

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