The Vilisar Times

The life and times of Ronald and Kathleen and our voyages aboard S/V Vilisar, a 34.5-foot wooden Wm-Atkin-designed sailing cutter launched in Victoria, BC, Canada, in 1974. Since we moved aboard in 2001 Vilisar has been to Alaska, British Columbia, California, Mexico, The Galapagos and mainland Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Bahía de Caraquéz, Ecuador, 29 August 2007

Bahía has long had the reputation of being a safe harbour in the truest senses of the word. As a refuge from the turbulent oceans the estuary is a haven because it is storm-free. Robberies and muggings are little feared on the streets of this little beach town even at night. And, as for the safety of persons and property, most cruisers simply leave their boats unlocked when they go ashore or when they are sleeping during the pleasantly cool nights. Even when they take off to visit Manchu Pichu in Peru or travel up into the sierras to sightsee in Quito and Baños on their way to the jungles in the headwater regions of the Amazon River, most of us leave our boats unlocked. When we come back everything is as we have left it. Big-city street smarts aren’t really necessary here.

This may have changed. There are at present about five dozen yachts either at anchor in the river or tied to one of the twenty-four buoys owned by Puerto Amistad. When long-time Bahía cruiser Richard returned from two months of motorcycle travel in the sierras, he found the interior of his large multi-hull Mahayana out of Vancouver, British Columbia, had been trashed and all his electronics and various other valuables had been stolen. Investigating, he was told that one of the boat boys from Puerto Amistad had at some point of time noticed a propane tank hanging into the water from one of the lifelines and went aboard to investigate. Seeing the mess he reported it to his boss who also took a look. Everything was however left until Richard returned.

Reporting it to the local Policia was apparently the wrong first step. Although his staff is not made up of criminal police, the Port Captain is still responsible for all maritime matters in the area including vandalism and theft aboard yachts. Photographs were taken but, in Richard’s opinion, no attempts were made to take fingerprints even from obvious places. The case is pending.

Other cruisers are now wondering if our Ecuadorian paradise has also now been vandalised. Do we all now need to lock up our boats even when we are aboard sleeping, lock our dinghy to the dock when going ashore, hoist it out of the water at night just to be safe, and worry if a lancha or dugout comes too close to our boat? Unfortunately, mistrust is infectious. Nobody wants to see the atmosphere changed in the Mayberry of Ecuador. What to do?

Who says nothing ever happens in Bahia?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Bahía de Caraquéz, Ecuador, Monday, August 27, 2007

Every cruiser seems to have at least one story about muggings in the Mariscal District of Quito. And, one fellow-Canadian was hit upon in broad daylight on the touristy Guayaquil Malecón (river walk) by three ladies who drugged his coke with a date-rape drug and took him along to sign his own credit card in one store after another. Fortunately, a store security card called the police because of the little group’s rather strange behaviour. And then there are the stories of the Big-City Express Abductions: you can be held up or kidnapped while your car is stopped at a red light. Or you can just pay up and drive on without further molestation. By comparison to Columbia, Venezuela and much of the Caribbean, Ecuador’s crime levels are still tolerable, thank goodness, and Bahía is considered muy seguro. Even Canoa, the surfing town farther up the coast some twenty miles is considered more dangerous because it is a narco-centre what with all the young people there. A young English woman was in fact gang-raped one night on the beach a month or two ago and it is reported that they also tried to kill her by pressing her head in the sand. The girl is very plucky and did not immediately make a dash for the airport but stayed to help the police. Not sure where that case is now.

This part of the story, however, is less horrific. Regular readers of this blog might recall that Kathleen and I were also robbed at gunpoint in Venezuela last May, trussed up by two masked guys who plundered the house we were supposed to be sitting as a preventative measure for just such things. Anyway, we are no longer totally surprised by events. We’re old pros now. But, arriving back on the boat one afternoon after a few hours in the cyber-café, I realised I had left my cell phone at the computer desk. Of course, it was long gone by the time I got back. I am trying to line up a good Spanish speaker to call my own phone number on the off chance that the possessor actually is looking for the rightful owner. How likely is that?

At the same cyber-café, Kathleen went into the restroom and then left the cyber-café a few minutes later forgetting the snazzy new Panama hat that she had bought in Cuenca while we were there with William. That really annoyed her even more than me losing the cell phone: I am notoriously absent-minded. Even as a post-grad student I personally contributed a large share of the umbrellas left on London Transport’s Northern Line tube trains. I was therefore secretly glad about the hat so that I would not to be in the limelight now.

The hat and the cell phone went missing last Friday. Mondays there is a household goods, clothing and shoe market in Bahía. We decided we needed to spend a little money to buy some underwear, sandals, etc. and walked over to the open-air mercado this morning while they were still setting up. While I was turning over the goods and negotiating with a lady for some very fetching underpants, I looked across to another table to see a young man wearing a white Panama hat. This in itself would not be totally unusual: after all Panama hats come from nearby Montecristi. But this one look strangely familiar: it had an dark blue embroidered hat band and a dark chin string, both of which were custom jobs when Kathleen bought the hat in Cuenca. In my modest Spanish I said to the man that, “Este sombrero es de mi esposa!” (or words to that effect). He laughed in an embarrassed way and looked mildly puzzled. “Tu esposa?” The people he had been talking with stopped to watch the action. I went over to him. He told me he had bought it for $5 from a guy on the street. It was good quality and so he bought it. “Some guy,” he said. So I offered him $5 for it and he sold it (back) to me. Then Kathleen and he had their photos taken for fun. After he left with a big bag of white cotton socks and some still-packaged underwear, the lady told me that he was a regular customer of theirs. Perhaps he has a shop in town and was buying stock cheaply at the mercado for on-sale to the tourists at a mark-up. Now if only I could find my cell phone!

Who says nothing ever happens in Bahía?

Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador, 27 August 2007

Bahía is known to be a safe and quiet beach town on Ecuador’s sandy Pacific coast. Crime is not unknown here, one supposes, but it is such a positive contrast to, say, Quito or Guayaquil, that some have even called the Bahía the “Mayberry of Ecuador”.

The schools up in the Andes have been out for the last month or more and Bahía is at present full of Quiteños who are either here to use their beach condos and beach bungalows or are just driving through. Out on the Rio Chone there are lots of water-ski power-boats around as well as those ubiquitous yellow bananas saddled with children, the boys jumping up and down and the girls screaming, also being towed around by speedboats. The line-up of cars waiting to cross the Rio Chone estuary on one of the barges – during the high tourist season they have been using two ferries every day and well into the night to handle the traffic – is already fairly long by early morning. When locals take the kids swimming, thereby joining the out-of-town visitors, the beaches both on the river and on the sea side of the Bahía peninsula are well populated. This happens especially on weekends and if it is sunny and it happens even though, for people from the coast, this is deepest mid-winter. While the school kids from the sierras get their vacation break now, the costa kids take their long school break from Christmas onwards. Then it’s the rainy season, which by some sort of perverse logic means there is much more sunshine, and it gets much hotter. At present, one Ecuadorian lady told us, (i.e., now that it is verano, “summer” in Spanish), the weather is, of course quite chilly. So the mountain Ecuadorians head down to the beach. Are you following this?

Bahía de Caraquéz carries the self-assumed sobriquet “Eco-Ciudad” or Eco City. The city administration tries to sort trash into bio and non-bio pickups, undertakes reforestation and clean-up projects and the restoration of mangroves. Motorized traffic in town is supposed to be kept to a minimum by the use of tricicletos or tricycle cabs. You spot them along the main streets. People actually use them too. Of course, there are yellow motorized cars as well and they have several cab ranks around town and you can hail them as por puesto taxis (shared cabs). Everything is pretty cheap: 50¢ to a buck will get you anywhere.

The tricicleros, the tricycle cabbies, are probably amongst the poorest in the area. They rely on their earnings to feed their families in a region where jobs are few. But, like the rickshaw drivers in India that are being pushed aside by motorcycle rickshaws, moto-taxis are gaining a foothold here too. In Bahía itself, you won’t see them because the city wants to keep its eco image and keeps them out. But across the river in San Vincente they are pretty common now. There are various kinds of home-made and factory-built moto-taxis so now, if you don’t mind sitting behind a smelly motorcycle, you won’t have waste any of your very valuable time riding silently along in a regular tricicleta.

But all this modernization is causing a reaction amongst the tricicleros over in San Vincente. A couple of months ago, soon after we arrived back in Bahía from Venezuela, there was another flare-up between the moto-taxi operators and the tricicleros. Apparently there was some skirmishing, the riot police were called out, things got out of hand, and a local triciclero from Bahía, a fairly young man who was taking part in the “event”, was shot several times by police. Things seemed to have come to a stop after that. Riot police with brand-new uniforms and riding brand-new riot vehicles were evident around town and over in San Vincente. Police presence was a bit intensified and you could see the Policia driving around town in their up-to-date white Chevrolet SUV’s with bubblegum machines on top and “Servir y protegir” painted on the sides. (Los Angeles has this too though it is considered irreverent to ask just whom they are actually serving and/or protecting.) Tricicleros are cast into the role of rick-breakers. Moto-taxi drivers are the spearhead modernisers.

Who says nothign ever happnes in Bahía?

Bahía de Caraquéz, Ecuador, Monday, August 27, 2007

That story ended happily. But, for two children and a young man, things are looking different. Especially now when there are so many Quito families here for the vacation, there are lots of motor-scooters and 4-wheeled beach-buggies. There are rules in Ecuador, pretty generally ignored, about wearing protective clothing and especially helmets. Hell, there are also rules about kids driving. Also on paper only.

The other day, we were once again at that cyber-café on Avenida Bolívar when we heard a very loud metallic clap out in the street and the screeching of something metal being dragged along. An SUV came to a halt right in front of the glass door of the cyber-café in which we were working, a motor-scooter jammed under its front right bumper. We ran out to see two kids, a little girl of about 10 and a young boy of about 15, screaming and running around in agony. They were wearing only bathing suits. The SUV driver had apparently nicked them at the corner (perhaps he was trying to turn to the right), dumped the kids into the street, caught the motor-scooter by the bumper and dragged it some thirty or forty yards.

I told the guy who runs the cyber-café to call an ambulance and the police. Then I took out my camera and took a couple of pictures of the front licence plate of the car. The driver himself had got out of the vehicle and gone back to see what had transpired with the kids. Then, while I was snapping pictures, he walked back to the car, got in, started it up, and began to back up rapidly, all the while tooting the horn to get people to leap out of his way. He backed into the intersection again, clipping another car on its rear fender in the process and leaving a little sprinkling of metal and plastic in the street and a streak of bent metal on the second car. He raced off up the side street with his face rigidly set to the front.

Several minutes had passed since the original accident and by this time there was quite a crowd. The driver had just left the scene of the accident. This is a very small town. Everybody knew who he was (he works at the car wash) and everybody even knew whose car he was driving (it belongs to the owner of a local grocery store). What on earth was going on in that man’s head as he raced to get away? The ambulance arrived and a police cruiser. Within a minute or two the police car pulled up the block to car wash place and, I assume, found the bloke there.

I have been haunted ever since by that man. Even though I have no idea who was at fault, in an instant his whole life has been changed, first by hitting two kids on a motor scooter. And then he flees the scene of an accident without any hope whatsoever of escaping detection! That’s the amazing part. He must have known he could never get away with it! So, guilty of the original deed or not, he panicked. Had he perhaps been drinking that morning? Maybe he wasn’t supposed to be driving that particular car just then.

Anyway, they are now going to throw the book at that guy: the police; the family of the kids; the owner of the car; the owner of the car he clipped; the guy’s boss; everybody. Maybe he has a family himself. Whatever, he will be paying a lot of money to other people and will be lucky not to land in jail.

Who says nothing ever happens in Bahía?

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador, 07 August 2007

At the risk of belabouring points that I have made in earlier blogs, I wanted to give a “fersample” of the new and changed situation here for the benefit of other cruisers (so skip this if you are not interested in cruising to Ecuador).

A few days ago a solo world cruiser dropped anchor in Bahia. Aged about 40, he has been cruising for ten years now and has already been around the world once and is now on his second circumnavigation. In other words, he has seen some countries and ports. He had actually visited Ecuador on his first time through and was looking forward to touring some more to the Andes and the Amazonas as well as working on his boat a bit.

He arrived off Bahía last weekend from Panama without being fully aware of the new regime requiring a cruising permit in advance and an agent to handle the work. In radio contact with Puerto Amistad from slightly offshore – Puerto Amistad was arranging the river-bar pilot; Tripp Martin at Puerto Amistad is now a fully qualified agent in the eyes of the Armada del Ecuador - our intrepid mariner was not totally astounded to hear that he would have to hire an agent to enter Bahia harbour. He had, after all, already made a rest stop up the coast at Esmeralda, a big tanker and refining centre. The Capitania de Puerto there told him he could stay in Esmeraldas if he went through an agent. The agent wanted US$1,000. No agent, no entrada. The Port Captain gave him 12 hours to clear out, which was later reduced to about half.

Very irritated, he overcame his exhaustion and sailed on down to Bahía. Here he was just as chagrined to discover that he was now going to have pay US$150 to use the sole agent in town, i.e., Tripp Martin of Puerto Amistad. Tripp does not do the immigration or customs paperwork (Aduana has never till now, at least, been an issue in Bahía because there is no Customs post here). Here the agent gets you your permiso before you enter territorial waters, organises the optional river-bar pilot and does the paperwork with the local Capitania de Peurto, something that in the past took half an hour, cost twenty or thirty dollars and was done by the cruisers themselves. Cruisers now still have to pay the pilot and Port Captain fees in addition to the agent’s charges. And, cruisers still have to get over to Manta to clear Immigration: it’s $6 round trip by “chicken bus” (it stops right in front of Immigration) or you can hire a cab with two or three other cruisers for $30 or $35 for the day. That allows you to do a bit of provisioning at a larger supermarket in Manta or pick up bottom paint or find a big hardware store.

By the time he was settled in Bahía, the solo cruiser's pockets were feeling a lot emptier. The cost breakdown so far was as follows:

$150 – agent (covers entry and a subsequent exit but for Bahía harbour only)
30 – Port Captain fees (including Lights & Buoys fee)
30 – River-bar pilot
15 – Immigration check-in at Manta
10 – Shared taxi to Manta
$235 – TOTAL

He had perhaps the cold comfort of knowing that he was the first boat to enter Bahia using the new local agent. He is not on the other hand comforted to know that it will cost him another nearly $100 to get out when he leaves in about two months for French Polynesia. But at least he won’t have to pay the agent again. He was totally surprised at the excessiveness of the expense, having never run across anything like it just to get into a harbour. “I thought Ecuador was supposed to be cheap! Have they lost their minds?”

He was also unaware that there are alternatives to anchoring and mooring at Puerto Amistad. The Bahia Yacht Club, for example, has generaly till now been much cheaper ($5 for the dock or $1 a day for dinghy docking - both with club usage). One other recent alternative is farther up river and out of town where it costs $150 monthly to moor. Of course, you probably won't know about these till you get settled as the pilot normally takes you straight to Puerto Amistad. To be fair, Tripp does a good job of lining up the pilot for you, his facilities are more than just adequate and I suppose there is no law saying he has to point out other "marinas". In his initial discussion with Tripp Martin at Puerto Amistad, it was also suggested that the new arrival should put $100 “on account” for future bar, laundry, bottom-cleaning and other chits. This is the preferred payment method at Puerto Amistad but one is certainly free to operate on a cash/pay-as-you-go basis. By this time, however, the new guy felt he had been pretty well bled out and he moved his boat down to Bahía Yacht Club.

Vilisar has been anchored there for nearly two months while its mast was laid out in the yard there for repairs. The solo sailor knew we were paying $30 monthly for dinghy docking and for the use of the toilets, showers, swimming pool and tennis court. We also told him that the Club had charged us $10 a day for using their sea wall as a makeshift grid and roughly 50 cents a day for laying our mast out in their small "work yard". These extra charges came along after six weeks of being there. But at least they were the final, once-only fees after negotiating them down from a near rip-off level. Anyway, when our new arival went in to Bahia Yacht Club this morning to sign in, so to speak, they wanted to charge him the same prices as Puerto Amistad, i.e. $2 daily for dinghy docking and for the use of the (one) cold-water shower and (one) toilet, neither kept exactly spotless. In shock, he neverthless got them down to $40 a month on a trial basis.

The only things, after all, that the Club has to offer that Puerto Amistad does not are the swimming pool and tennis court and maybe, depending on what stage of your life you are in, the Incredible & Death-Defying Booming Disco Bar on Friday and Saturday and sometimes on other nights (usually till 0400 in the morning). Bring your own ear plugs! The toilets and showers are definitely of a much inferior standard and the techno and Reggaeton are not to everyone’s taste. Of course, at the Club you are right in town, which is nice if you like it. We do.

Bahia and Ecuador! What had once been an interesting and inexpensive place to visit has become interesting but now rather dear. Add to this that there are still quite a number of still-unresolved other issues directly impacting cruisers. Take for example the problem of how to get diesel or gasoline legally at any price, let alone the $1.05 for a 4-litre gallon of diesel and $1.48 for gasoline that is henceforth apparently to be treated as a birthright-price for Ecuadorians only. You can get fuel, poeple tell us: after all, this is Ecuador! But be aware that you are taking part in an illegal activity. And who knows these days if and when the government will crack down. And, don’t forget that Migración, now that it has an all-singing, all-dancing networked-up, nationwide computer network, has become curiously rather arbitrary in the amount of tourist-visa time it permits in the country to boating tourists. We ourselves have received a couple of surprises and expect the possibility of more. At best it is, shall we say, a trifle unpredictable. Bribes are apparently necessary to overcome hurdles. And who knows whether the recent attempt by Aduana (Customs) officers in Salinas to charge at least one foreign boat a 10% import duty because it had been in the country for more than 90 days (sic!) was simply an extortion effort by the local chiefs or the shape of things to come. Either way, it is the pits and it makes some cruisers very nervous. Us included!

Some people pooh-pooh the changes. It is still cheaper here, they say – at least if you anchor – than other international ports-of-call. Local living costs are low and so is the general level of price inflation. But marina costs are sharply on the way up over even two years ago: count on $210 for a mooring buoy in Bahía and $450 and upwards for a berth at Puerto Lucia in Salinas (plus a $200 live-aboard charge there). Apparently, the Bahía Yacht Club also now wants in on the action and is trying to rake in market-leader prices without providing the facilities or services that Tripp at Puerto Amistad does.

There is no justification surely for making expensive agents obligatory for yachts. If they even come to Ecuador now – and we would not recommend it for the moment - hardly any crusing yacht will be able to afford to visit more than one port in the country. Fortunately, I guess, long-distance bus travel in Ecuador remain a bargain and, unless you are a foreign boat, travel prices are generally stable and still low. Spread over a lot of months the government-induced charges levied on foreign boats might appear to melt away, so to speak. But if you are just stopping for six months or less you may now find it expensive. If you want to do your haul-out in Puerto Lucia, Salinas, for example, the labour-cost advantage of having boat work done in Ecuador starts to vanish when you start figuring in the new government, yard and marina charges. Given the uncertainties and vagaries of Customs, Immigration and fuel availability, visiting cruising boats are not likely to feel totally welcome here.

I wonder why the new government expects demand for visitor permits to The Gelapagos will go down if the prices are raised sharply (that is the government's market-oriented approach to reducing visitors to eco-sensitive Galapagos) but fails to understand that the same might happen to the boat-borne tourist trade when prices shoot up on the mainland too.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Bahía de Caraquéz, Ecuador, 02 August 2007

A Western-Canadian friend once pointed out that Regina, Saskatchewan, was the only important capital city that was not situated on a river or body of water. I let that sink in and left the obvious remark unsaid. Most important cities are in fact situated near water. Try to think of large cities that are not. Not that all seaside or river cities are important. Bahía de Caraquéz, for example, is not at all important.

The town lies on a sandy isthmus between the Pacific Ocean and the huge estuary of the Rio Chone. It could theoretically be a big port I suppose. But Guayaquil, 200 miles south of us is bigger with a much bigger river mouth. Manta, two hours away by bus, is bigger too and home to the largest tuna fishing fleet in the world. Bahía and the Rio Chone are just little backwaters by comparison. Whatever larger vessels might have come in here in the past, the El Niño rains and a couple of big earthquakes put a stop to it all by silting up the mouth of the river. Even yachts like ours need a pilot to get in and out now. There are no big loading docks, no oil terminals here. There never were.

There is some fishing here, though; both in the river and offshore. In the river, fishermen in dugouts lay out nets at certain stages of the tide, use throw-nets from the beach at low tide, jig for shrimp or use hammers and chisels to break out oysters at the extreme low tides. These people are dirt poor and live hand to mouth. There are some fishermen with somewhat beaten-up, open, twenty-two-foot, fibreglass “pangas” used for coastal fishing. They pass us by on their way in from the sea at odd hours of the day or night, their underpowered outboard motors moving slowly up the river against current. The men, young ones and old, weatherbeaten ones, are tired after a night of work and some have T-shirts wrapped around their faces to protect them for the elements.

There are also two traditional, double-ended fishing smacks with blue and white may-pole masts raked sharply forward - at least until they pull up the huge mainsail- They also have out-sized bamboo booms, enormous mainsails and small fractional jibs –no engines of course. These boats depart for sea slack high tide to catch the ebb, their huge Bahamanian mainsails billowing. The mainsail is unbattened, not attached to the mast except by the halyard; no hard hea; the sail loosely laced along the foot to the bamboo boom; and the sail panels cut parallel to the leach. They pass us on the way out, the ancient, toothless, dark-brown fishing skipper sitting in the sternsheets with his hand on the tiller. The boat is about 28 feet long. There are twelve fishermen aboard, spotted around a boat that looks too small to carry them all. The smack also caries six dugout canoes, laid athwartships and sticking out to one side or the other like torpedoes waiting to be launched. The smack has a keel but no weights below the waterline. It’s basically like a lifeboat with a huge mainsail. When a stronger wind is blowing across the isthmus from the sea, the double-ender heels but not excessively. The two boats are painted blue on the topsides and the dugouts are radiant blue as well. They will spend two or three days out along the coast, the men going out from the mother ship, two to a dugout, and returning to sell their catch. While they are at sea, their whole lives are in that smack: working, cooking, sleeping, bodily functions, the works. I suppose they work along the reefs on the coast. So maybe they land to sleep and cook. But I don’t think so.

I was taking some pictures of the boat one day as they were unloading fish along the beach near Puerto Amistad. One of the crewmen, a strikingly large black man (there are not many black people in Bahía though there are a lot up near Esmeraldo), waved me over and invited me to take his picture. He also lined up the whole crew for a snapshot from the grizzled and toothless, captain to the rather dense twins in their twenties; they all grinned at the camera. Now they wave every time they sail by Vilisar at anchor. One night I went on deck late to relieve myself. The same way that you tend to cross smaller streets “by ear”, so to speak, and are almost run down by a silent bicycle, I was startled as the ghostly fishing sloop zished by quite close to Vilisar. I had not heard any engine, of course. There were no running lights either. But the tide was turning and they were on their way out, the men still getting settled in the places for the ride out, the skipper at the tiller. They wave and shout good-naturedly and soon the dirty grey sails and the azure-blue hull are swallowed up by the night. They are under sail. When they turn to the left a half mile down river to cross the huge sandbars at the river mouth, the sails begin to luff and they seem simply to let the current carry them out. When they come back in a day or two later, they will get a push from some passing pangas.

Go to some waterfront towns, Chicago or Toronto, for example, and the waterfronts are dead. Not just because it is frozen for part of the year. But there is no commercial traffic. On a summer weekend the odd speedboat or plastic sailboat, at best. The water seems lifeless. Manhattan’s two rivers are busy, San Francisco Bay, Puget Sound and Vancouver have life because they also have commercial traffic, ships coming and going to faraway places.

Well, Bahía doesn’t have ships coming and going to faraway places. Everything is local: the fishing smacks, the pangas, the dugouts. Now that Quiteños are here for summer vacations in their summer houses and flats there are also waterskiing boats and an occasional pleasure sailboat. Although the locals have been pleading for years for a bridge across the river, they still have to make do with a car ferry and passenger pangas running back and forth across the sandbar-strewn and tidal Rio Chone between Bahía de Caráquez and San Vincente. There are long lines of holidayers and locals waiting to board the ferry.

I like to take the car ferry. For one thing it is free and passenger pangas cost 29 cents (U.S.). So, I save some money. But it is also much more interesting. The big landing craft pulls up to the beach in the middle of town near the square and loading and unloading is done across the beach. The landing site on the other side is just beach too, a little outside tiny San Vincente. The beach is so well packed by the ups and downs of the tides that the sand washed down from away inland in the Andes repacks firmly over and over again. The beach, in other words, never gets chewed up and unusable so they don’t actually need to pave the ramps. There is no real infrastructure, in other words.

When the tide is up the barge simply backs out from the landing beach, swings around in its own length and steams off directly across the mile-wide estuary. But when the tide is down and especially at the springs when the sandbars are clearly visible in spots and identifiable by the change in water colour in others, the captain has to take the ferry far down river near the mouth, slow down to feel his way across the sandbars and then speed back up the river again. The voyage has become at least three times as far compared to high tide and a lot longer. Even longer if he gets stuck on a sand bar and they have to wait for the tide to come up. At present they are using two barges but normally there is only one in action at any time.

I suspect that a bridge is a long way in the future. First, the Rio Chone is very wide. If a bridge were to be built it would be a long way up river from Bahia and thus tourist traffic would bypass the place even more. Second, does the traffic really justify a bridge? It would be a lot cheaper to keep the two ferries going. Finally, any bridge would have to be a floating bridge because I suspect the soil mechanics here – basically sea-bottom sand raised up by the collision of the tectonic plates
(I almost wrote Teutonic plates) – would not be suitable for anchoring a real bridge. Politicians keep promising that they will nag the government for a bridge. Nagging costs nothing. But Ecuador has been so broke for the last twenty years that it cannot even keep up the highway to Bahía let alone build a bridge. Renegotiate the oil contracts and re-schedule the international debt and then talk about bridges.

At present they are usually running two car ferries. This is the Pacific Coast Highway, after all, running down through Columbia and on down to Peru and Chile. Tourists are travelling the highway. Schools run on different schedules in the Ecuadorian Andes and on the coast; sierra schools let out about two or three weeks ago and suddenly all the apartment building in Bahía that have never shown a light in the window since we have been here are now lit up at night. And there are lots and lot of tourists waiting to cross the river. They all drive recent-model SUV’s and come from Quito. Guayaquilenos don’t come this far north: they have their own beaches. Of course, the poor people won’t be travelling down to the beach from the barrios of the capital so these must be the well-off, the children lolling in the back seats playing portable computer games and with I pods stuck in their ears. It could be Los Angeles.

The outsiders join the throngs of locals plying back and forth with their babies on their hips, loads in plastic bags. Sometimes there are campesinos in from the country, a dozen men, women and children in the back of a medium-sized stake truck, all eyes and smiles and having a good time in the big city. Sometimes they will have animals or poultry with them. The passenger pangas, by contrast, are sober and businesslike affairs. People do not usually talk to each other and there are no hawkers and peddlers. But the car ferry is a moving town. People get out of their cars or chat with the peanut brittle and candy salesmen, the toothless orange sellers, the spivs trying to unload pirated CDs or DVDs through the car windows. Big trucks are loaded first followed by the cars: the vehicles usually back on so they can get off quicker on the other side. The foot passengers stream on and off first, some pushing bicycles. While the ferry moves slowly through the sand banks there is laughing and talking and the peddlers sing out the wares. One guy has come aboard with a tricycle loaded with toilet paper and similar toiletries. He is delivering them to San Vincente but he tries to make a little turnover on the way. When we leave the boat in San Vincente, the ancient orange seller is in a corner of the deck peeling oranges and still calling out his wares.

I am on my way to Maestra Quan Qui, the smithy. He is of Chinese descent; his father started the business. It is the usual dusty and dirty outdoor smithy with about eight men working there. You can forget bronze anywhere in Ecuador, but they do good work in San Vincente in most metals including stainless. My intension, now that we have a little money on the account, is to pick up and pay for a couple of items I had asked him to make three or four weeks ago: a new pawl for the anchor windlass and a new and stronger key for the fuel and water tank openings in the deck. It’s a good thing I enjoyed the trip over because, of course, they have not completed the work or even find the items. Maestra is, as so often, away in Guayaquil, and could I please come back tomorrow. Oh, well! It is almost one o’clock and I am hungry. I take the faster passenger panga back to Bahía. To hell with the 30 cents.