Updated: Feb 4, 2022
Long before the Inca or the Spanish arrived in Ecuador there were many unique cultures and societies in different zones of the country…although history is often written by the victors, so their stories are less widely known. Specifically on the Northern Coast of Manabi were the people of the Jama Coaque culture. Their fingerprints are left on the beautiful pottery that they crafted. Some of the priceless artifacts date back as far as 2,000 years…ancient. Without even “googling” their story, it is apparent that they thrived in this environment from the sheer quantity of ceramic shards that you find washing up on the beach to this day. Ceramic whistles that still whistle, faces with deep eyes, pierced ears and noses. Pictographs of pelicans, jaguars and shards from jugs and pots can all still be found strewn about on the sand amongst the unsuspecting seashells….it’s hard to believe the quantity of treasures that can be found. Buckets of it.
In my late 20’s I fell in love with the beach and everything that means. Sand in your toes, that sting of the salt water as it hits your eyes and insults your sinuses, the flush…. slightly toasty tingles on the top of your shoulders, when you know you’ve been kissed by the sun a bit too much…good pain if there is such a thing. I love the sound of crashing waves and the white noise. The waves create a rhythm that sets me at ease, it’s soothing. The sound that makes you take a deep breath and feel all of it. For me it’s the sound of being lucky. It smells like vacation.
In Manabi there are literally kilometers and kilometers of white sand beaches that are lost in time….they are places where crowds don’t exist….anymore. Full of absence, full of emptiness and a wonderful sense of having something special all to yourself. These kinds of empty places are becoming harder and harder to find in this noisy world. Sure, it’s easy to find a place that’s empty and miserable…Kansas in January for example. But to have something truly beautiful and pristine all to yourself is something that only happens in wild places like Ecuador. Imagine going to a beach in California…looking left and then right… and seeing absolutely nobody. It just doesn’t happen anymore. It does here.
Every year the chilly Humboldt current from the south and the warmer El Niño current from the north perform their delicate courtship dance. Around December they entangle themselves and struggle to discover who is going to take the lead in their ancient ballet. If the warmer currents from the north dominate the dance… the increase in ocean temperature provides a wetter rainy season. In these extremely wet years there are flash floods. The usually dry creek beds crest above their banks and the water slices through the overgrown vegetation. The velocity of the seasonal deluge cuts new paths in the thirsty soil and in doing so can open up the hidden burial tombs of the Jama Coaque. Opening these tombs exposes the cultural treasures that have been hidden under the dirt and preserved for centuries, or longer. Oftentimes, the swift moving water carries the newly exposed artifacts down the river to where the drainage dumps into the Pacific. In a rainy season this process repeats and the intricate clay artifacts are then laid upon the beach, a scavenger hunt for the ages. Treasures saved for the fortunate ones that have time to wander empty beaches and discover.
As I lay in my hammock swaying to the gentle Pacific breeze, daydreaming about what a perfect beach entails, several places come to mind. Memories of Belize, Costa Rica, and Hawaii flash through the mental “slideshow”…stiff competition. It’s one thing to boast the jaw dropping beauty of a magical beach like Los Frailes, one of the most beautiful spots on the entire Pacific, but to have the chance for an archeological find…next level. For a treasure hunter or just a collector of “special things”…it’s quite an experience when you combine that caliber of tropical scenery with the high probability of finding an ancient and identifiable artifact…just laying there in the white sands like somebody put it there for you to discover.
It’s such a special feeling to find your first piece of history from an extinct people. Holding something crafted by ancient hands in your own hands feels significant, tested and connected. It turns on your imagination to a time long gone, wondering what life was like back then. Finding an intact piece is like being picked for an award or some other type of sought after achievement when you happen to walk by the right piece of beach at the right time. Perfect timing, just right. That moment: between tides, before the ocean gods wipe the beach clean of treasures with a careless bubbly wave….like a fresh white snow, the shells and sandy footprints are gone back to the ocean….and lost forever.
It’s not just the quantity of stunningly deserted white sand beaches that put Ecuador at the top of my “best beaches” list. The raw beauty is abundant, the crowds are not, and the beaches breathtaking…what makes the beaches of Ecuador truly special is the chance to hold an ancient piece of art in your hands by doing nothing more than wandering the stretch of sand. Beachcombing for the perfect seashell or sand dollar is fun, beachcombing for a historical artifact is fantastic. The next time you’re on the beach in Ecuador go for a little treasure hunt, you might find a bit more than just pretty shells.
Author: Peter Stromberg