Canoa, Ecuador: Surfing, Relaxing and Helping
I was steered towards the small town of Canoa, Ecuador by rumors of good surf and a relaxed atmosphere so three days after landing in Quito I was rattling down dirt roads, mountain grades, and over potholes that would have swallowed smaller vessels on my way to this backwoods surf town.
Where it is
Canoa is located in Manabi, the poorest of the Ecuadorian provinces, and until recently was about a 12 hour bus trip from Quito. In the past year a new bridge from Bahia de Caraquez to San Vincente has greatly reduced that travel time to about 7 hours, and one bus line has opened a direct route running between Canoa and the capital twice a day.
The town itself is comprised of around 800 people, about 8 blocks long by 7 blocks deep, has one paved road, no ATM, no supermarket, and one mailbox which is checked once every 2-4 weeks. Most services are located either in San Vincente ($.50 bus ride) or Bahia ($.30 boat ride from San Vincente).
Despite its remote location and limited infrastructure there is a plethora of hostels, lots of beachfront activities, and decent internet access. It is growing as a backpacker destination, and the mix of travelers and locals makes for a town where you can share a microbrew with friends from around the
world a few hundred meters away from where you enjoyed an authentic almuerzo (lunch special) served by an Ecuadorian family who speaks only Spanish.
On weekends the town swells as tourists from nearby cities start arriving Friday night and don’t leave until Sunday afternoon. The bars are open later, the music is played louder, and the beach is much more crowded. Ecuadorians don’t mess around with their vacation time either – expect to see volleyball games going and hear music pumping starting at about 7am.
The beach fills as kids of all ages drive sticks into the sand demarcating futbol goals, and vendors pace the sand with coconuts, shaved ice, sunglasses, hammocks, and anything else they can sell. During major holidays the town explodes – for Carnival 2011 an estimated 44,000 people filled the streets and the music on the beach could be heard a kilometer away.
Canoa is growing as a tourist town and has plenty of accommodations spanning the spectrum of price and quality. Room prices can vary anywhere from $4 – $15 / night depending on where they are and your length of stay. Most of the gringo owned businesses are on the beachfront street and offer cleaner though slightly more expensive options. If you don’t want to hear the beachfront bars’ music from 8am to 12am, try looking for a room inland a few blocks or even just out of town towards San Vincente.
What to do
Canoa offers a variety of outdoor activities. The main draw is surfing on the reliable although slightly disorganized beach break. During the winter season waves of around 2 meters roll in regularly with left and right shoulders available. Boards are available at a variety of places around town but The Surf Shak, located on the beachfront street, has the widest selection.
Whether you’re a first timer needing a lesson and a big blue foam top or an accomplished ripper
and want a short quick board, The Surf Shak will probably have something for you. There are paragliding and ocean kayaking tours run from the Shak as well if you want to try either of those and after your adventure you can enjoy something from their full bar and restaurant. For eco-surfing adventures check out some of the eco-surfing volunteer programs.
If hiking/bushwhacking is more your thing there is a set of caves carved into the seaside cliffs about an hours walk to the north of town. They are only accessible by foot at low tide as it is very dangerous to be stuck there as the tide rises. Locals can give you directions but basically you follow the coast north until a cliff blocks your path. Climb over it, bushwhack through the jungle at the top, climb down the other side back to the ocean, and you’re there. Some of the locals will rent their horse for a beachfront ride but rates are negotiated between individual parties.
Also be sure to check out La Escuela Bilingue los Algarrobos. It is a non-profit school founded by an American expat who was one of the first to fall victim to Canoa’s uncanny ability to draw in tourists and turn them into long-term residents. Jim has lived in Canoa for over 15 years and talks about founding businesses and constructing buildings the way most people talk about making a sandwich for a hungry friend – if he can help out he does.
When a local friend was about to lose the property where he operated a bar Jim built and opened The Surf Shak so his friend could continue working. A few years later Jim was covering the books and uniform fees to send nine local children to public school when a group of local parents started talking about the need for a private school in the area. He bought land, built a classroom, and started a foundation to keep the costs affordable to local families.
The school now serves over 50 children with roughly half of them attending for free. They grow each year and are always looking for foreign English teachers.
If finding a pint is your thing, one of two functioning microbreweries in the country is located in Canoa at Café Flor. It is the latest installment by the Coronado family who has run restaurants in several towns around the country before relocating to Canoa in 2005. Andrea, the youngest daughter of the family, talks about selling hamburgers or a pizza for $1 out of an ’86 Bronco while their building was constructed with a nostalgic shine in her eye.
Brandon, the husband of the middle sister in the family, had been brewing under Michigan Brewing Co, Arbor Brewing, and Corner Brewery for years before deciding to move back to Ecuador permanently in 2010.
At that point Roche Brewery was incorporated into the business and started gracing travelers with an IPA here and a hefeweizen there. Café Flor boasts locally sourced vegetables (some from their own farm), organic beef, and claims the largest selection of bourbon whiskey in Ecuador.
Canoa in a Nutshell
If you’re looking for a small, relaxed, beachfront town, Canoa is a great place to check out. There is a thriving expat, backpacker, and surf culture, but most of the locals in town speak minimal, if any, English. Its easy to fall into a rhythm of enjoying the authentic local culture during the day between surf sessions and partying with the gringos at night.
Canoa draws people in and many who come for a few days can’t bring themselves to leave for a few weeks. Jim tells a story of betting a random backpacker at the Surf Shak who was in town for “a few days” that he would be walking down the street two months later. After two months Jim answered a knock on his door to find the same backpacker holding out a $20 bill but he turned it down, telling him to keep it for rent.
Matt Hayes is an aspiring freelance writer whose other skills include surviving large waves on a surfboard, jumping off cliffs into snow fields, rocking a mohawk, and eating nachos with two
hands while riding a bike.Read his blog
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