Photo Credit: Johnny Chunga.
Stuck at work? Glued to a computer screen? Covered in oatmeal thrown by a toddler? If you’re dreaming of the beach, of bright sand, rum-soaked cocktails and the aromas of coconut and sunscreen and tanning oil, you should start planning your visit to Montañita, in the Santa Elena province of Ecuador.
Those of us who have visited Ecuador for an extended amount of time know Montañita’s reputation for parties and debauchery, which is why the majority of backpackers make it a must-see on their trip. Nevertheless, it remains a popular destination for all ages and incomes.
Accommodation-wise, there is something for everyone, from hotels with ocean views priced around $60 to bunk beds in dormitories for $6 a night. The neighborhood you choose will determine the tone of your trip. If you stay in the downtown area over the weekend, be prepared for echoes of revelry to seep into your room at all hours. If you want the community/party vibe but also desire a good night’s sleep, the Tigrillo district, just outside downtown by the river (bring bug spray!), is a good choice. Hidden House Hostel (beds start at $6) and Iguana Hostel (starting at $8) are two popular choices for young backpackers looking to find similar-minded folk. For those looking to dip into the roiling waters of vice only sparingly, better to stay in the La Punta neighborhood. A ten-minute walk on the beach from downtown, La Punta has its share of great restaurants and stunning ocean views. Casa del Sol is a hostel located one street from the beach, with dorms starting at $15 (breakfast included) and private rooms starting at $20. There are a ton of hostels in Montañita, so I recommend that you jump around, see what you like best, and stay for a while.
Due to the high number of foreigners, both tourists and expats, there are a great number of restaurants to choose from. In the mornings, whole streets are dedicated to pancakes, parfaits, jugos naturales, and (a personal favorite) Nutella, banana, and oreo milkshakes. Later in the day, take a break from the beach and grab a savory, individual-sized pizza from the aptly-named RastaPan or opt instead for one of the ceviche carts that perch on every corner (choose one that you see locals visiting). And there are always the ever-pervasive almuerzo restaurants if nothing else appeals. Around dinnertime, the choices open up even further. For a sit-down meal, Pigro’s Italian Restaurant is much-lauded, with entrées generally ranging from $5 to $10. Shankha Sushi in the La Punta district is absolutely delicious, and with its location directly on the beach, it’s an experience not to be missed. If you’re lucky enough to be there in the right season, Shankha has the added benefit of being next door to Montañita Brewing Company, whose IPAs and tropical fruit ciders are enough to have even teetotalers hanging hopelessly from the bartop.
During the week, Montañita is like most beach towns—laid back, friendly, and sun-drenched. It’s the weekends when it turns into an entirely different animal. Cocktail Alley is a lane stuffed with booze vendors who will mix you up a piña colada or screwdriver for a couple of bucks. Scantily-clad revelers move to Latin and electronic beats, ceaselessly pumped from dance floors open to the sea and surf. For a fee, the more ardent partiers are granted access to clubs like Alcatraz and Cana Grill. Unlike the rest of Ecuador (and most of the world), the partying doesn’t end at 2, but rather seems to kick off into an extravagant swan dive from there, lasting until the sun surprises the frantic bacchanalians still roaming the beach and streets of downtown.
Montañita is an animal all its own, though it shares some of its attitude and disdain for sobriety with places like Las Vegas and Cancun. Many are the people who are turned off by its reputation, but sometimes reputations can be deceiving. Yes, all the things that are said about it are true, but beyond that, there is something calming about the pace of life in this bastion of coastal culture. Interesting conversations with myriad strangers, barefoot meals with waves crashing in the background, entire days spent lazing in hammocks—all this and more can be found here. And, if the mood so strikes you, there is always a piña colada with your name on it down Cocktail Alley.