Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Playas... The Surfing Frontier
There is a word that is used here in Ecuador called “Cholo”. It is hard to describe what exactly “Cholo” means, but my understanding is that its closest equivalent in the English language would be “white-trash”, or in this case “Latin-trash”.
I live in a coastal town called “Playas” which translates literally into “Beaches”.
Traditionally, those Ecuadorians who travel to the beach on weekends to enjoy the ocean and the sun have passed up on this town, despite its proximity to the big city just less than two hours away. Indeed, it is no place for the rich classes in search of secluded beaches and five star services. Rather, it is a town of cheap deep-fried food, stumbling drunks, and reggae tone. It is a town of rustic hotel rooms, dust filled streets, and urine smelling walls. It is probably the closest geographical representation of “Cholo” that can be found here in Ecuador. For me, it is paradise.
I’ve lived in my share of beach towns and none of them compare to Playas. Part of the reason for this I think, is that it is extremely difficult to find other foreigners around. People that travel avidly tend to seek out those places that allow them to be fully immersed in the local culture, and Playas provides just that. There is a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment that comes with being the only foreigner in town; it really seems to take the experience to the next level.
With a lack of foreigners comes a lack of crowded waves, especially in a country like Ecuador where surfing is still a relatively new activity. Playas has at least ten different locations to surf close by, yet there is not one surf shop to be found. Finding a surfboard, wax, a leash, are not easy tasks for those just passing through, but finding a wave means a short walk down the beach.
The shape of the coastline here in Playas makes for perfect surfing conditions, especially when the south swells are rolling in. A series of rocky points north of town allow you to walk along the beach and have your pick of right-hand point-break waves. Those that venture the furthest away are sure to find an empty break. Despite the “Cholo” feel of Playas, the beaches are beautiful and relatively clean. They are of soft white sand and they stretch for miles, roaming across them one can always find perfect sea shells and sand dollars, or quite often washed up creatures from puffer fish to sea turtles.
Heading even further north in the back of a pick up truck for ten minutes and you find yourself in Puerto Engabao, one of the most consistent and powerful waves in this part of Ecuador. Engabao is particularly special because of its isolated setting and the openness of the local population to outsiders. It is a coastal-desert town, where the dry and open landscape meets blue pacific waters. The coast is highlighted by red cliffs and rocky outcrops where crabs are seen scurrying around as massive pacific waves crash upon them. It is a fishing town and nothing more, and the fishers actually embark right at the point where the waves break. To surf you must sit and watch until all of the fisherman have left the beach, and this is often a show in itself when the swell is big and the boats are all struggling to get past the break. Why they would choose a place where the biggest waves break as a port is beyond me, but I suppose it seems to work for them. Those surfers that are lazy often hop in the boats and get a lift out to the point – in Engaboa the fishermen heading out to make their living are happy to contribute to the recreation of others. Despite its reliance on fishing, the community of Engabao is making a clear effort to diversify economically by making their small settlement a haven for surfers. They have set up a lifeguard tower that is always manned in peak hours which acts as a safe place to leave belongings while surfing. Even more interesting, they have set up a community based hostel system for surfers that wish to stay overnight. This is a series of families around the community that have either converted or built private rooms in their homes to house surfers that want a longer stay. It is a communal system that allows for cooperation rather than competition in this steadily growing tourist area.
My illustration of Playas as “Cholo” is probably not the most appealing to those looking for a beach getaway. However, once you get over the initial “cholo” feel of Playas, a deeper undercurrent of beauty and authenticity reveals itself. It is not just the cultural authenticity that is apparent here, but rather the emotional authenticity of the people whose lives pass by here, or of those simply passing through. The smiles and the genuine sense of happiness and content is apparent as one strolls through the town. Playas is a place like no other, and for surfers, it is a frontier waiting to be explored. The empty line ups are undoubtedly a treat, but people here are willing to share. There are plenty of waves for everyone, there always will be.