Your run of the mill armchair traveler must tremble upon the mention of the northwest border of Ecuador, entrenched with FARC guerrillas, abound with illegal loggers and lawlessness: a modern day Wild West. Little do they know, cocooned ever so delicately in their lazy susans rapaciously reading the pages of Lonely Planet, Northwest Ecuador is a adventure waiting to be had. I had the privilege of experiencing that adventure two weeks ago in the company of my great friends and thrill seekers; Rodrigo and Pete. Our itinerary, to start, was simple enough. Pick me up in Tabuga and head north, leaving the comforts of Manabi and snaking our way up the coast into the “Green Province” aptly named Esmeraldas. We set off with high spirits, hair whipping in the wind as Rodrigo's diesel powered Defender 90 hummed it's way through coastal forest highway. With a vague idea of reaching our destination sometime that evening, we took our time stopping along the way to explore this forgotten coastline. As lunchtime approached, indicated by the collective growl of our stomaches, we took a hairpin left turn off the highway rattling down a dirt road amidst sporadic rain. We were heading to a small ramshackle beach town named Mompiche,famous for a very shy point breaking left wave and inundated by Serrano tourists come holidays. As we rolled into town, Pete pointed out one of his favorite haunts; a nondescript bamboo structure renowned for some bomb seafood and not for it's feng shui dinning room. We settled ourselves into the plastic chairs, scanning the various wall decorations such as a Baby Jesus poster and fake Nativity scene adding life to a otherwise lifeless gray wall. Shortly after we settled in, the waitress-cum-cook sauntered in and took our orders; three lobster cebiches, could you eat anything else being within a stones throw for the ocean? As the staff of one set out to prepare our feast, a middle-aged man, apparent kin of the cook, sat down to chat us up. After obligatory salutations, buenas tardes and the like, he directed our attention to the celling where affixed to a bamboo support beam was a monster exoskeleton a la the predator's mask in the gobernator's classic movie “Predator”. As we pondered the enormity of the foot long flat shell that once housed a mangrove dwelling crab-like thing, we were saved by the enticing aromas of our orders. Cebiche done right is divine, light and down right mouthgasmic, cold cebiche and a colder beer is my favorite Ecuadorian meal. We downed our meals with the fever of competitive eaters and parted ways with the drab restaurant, stellar cook and weird crab shell wall decoration. We had a lost coast to explore. Back on the road, we began to take notice of the changing scenery blurring our vistas at 100 kph. Being the green province and all, Esmeraldas has a annual rainfall that rivals some of the wettest parts of the amazon, which makes for verdant green forests and meandering rivers born high in the mountains eventually reaching their ocean outlets. Such a occurrence, river meeting ocean, or confluence if you will, was our final destination and outpost for the rest of the trip. We arrived in Rio Verde just after dark, named after the river that separates the town as it flows into the Pacific. Its a small community, roughly 900 inhabitants that grind out their living fishing and cultivated crops such as cacao, banana and other tropical fruits. We took up refuge in HipoHotel, a cinder block edifice advertising fans and tvs, drawn by the promise of circulated air in the thick tropical heat, hey why not. We retired early, preparing for a excursion in canoe to some rural settlements along the Rio Onzele that snakes through part of the Choco corridor, a biological hot spot home to thousands of species of flora and fauna as well as important ethnic groups like the Chachis and Afro-Ecuadorian that inhabit the forest. The morning before our excursion we stocked up on mameys (mango like fruit with dark flesh) and a five pound watermelon to tide us over until we reached Borbon, a important hub that links remote settlements to transportation and trade. Upon arriving in Borbon, we promptly hopped in a motorized canoe and took off up stream the Rio Onzele. We visited cacao cultivators, tree farmers and fisherman all who had nary a mean bone in their bodies. We were two hours south of the Colombian border, perceived FARC territory,but the reception that met us drowned out all trepidation. Their hospitality was refreshing, humbling in a way as we listened, snapped photos and drank in our surrounding. Being engulfed in wilderness depending on the river as a main transportation route was magically, fulfilling childhood dreams of jungle expeditions in unpronounceable far away lands. We basked in the shade of coconut palms, looping the tops of coconuts with our machetes spilling the sweet juice into our mouths and down the front of our teeshirts, it was heaven. Such a palpable connection with nature really put my mind and body at ease, forgetting all modern day preoccupations and really living the moment. After the canoe gracefully glided back on to shore and we disembarked, weighed down which more tropical fruit gifted to us, we knew it was time to part ways with our amicable guides and new found friends. We packed into the truck preparing to return home, our brief stay in this undiscovered paradise passed as quickly as a tropical downpour but we knew that our return was as imminent as the sunrise. This place touched us, brought us to the forefront of the issues; logging, guerrilla movements, rich culture and warm people, but more than anything else, it opened our eyes to one of the true gems Ecuador has to offer. Thanks you Esmeraldas, we will be back!
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