Ecuador might not leap to mind as a nightlife destination - but from the clubs of Quito to the full-on partying of Montanita, it's got more than its fair share of action going on
I spent the best part of my 20s touring in a rock band, which should have prepared me for anything - eccentric people, extreme parties, seemingly endless nights and surreal situations. But it didn't prepare me for Ecuador. Basking in the hippy surfers' paradise of Montañita, partying all night on fire-lit beaches, discovering the Quito club scene where electronica and Latino beats blew large holes in my inhibitions... it was a constant surprise.
Ecuador's capital sits at a queasy 2,850m in the Andes, surrounded by snow-capped volcanoes, and has the feel of a good university town. Its clubs attract international DJs, and its bars are sweaty and loud with salsa, the musical lifeblood that runs through much of Latin America. Even the club music has a Latino feel and the lure of the beat is so irresistible that even nervous dancers like me find themselves up on their feet.
The heart of Quito's nightlife is the compact Mariscal district in the south of the city, and I soon found a cool little bar/eatery called the Coffee Tree in Plaza Foch, where I eased myself into the evening. Around the corner in Juan Leon Mera, the sublime Mi Viejo Arrabal is a lively, traditional steak house where huge plates of home cooking whiz overhead and red wine rains down on you. My rare fillet steak, washed down with a fine Chilean red, was the perfect ballast for the evening ahead.
In Ecuador, a kick-ass mojito costs £1 and a very large beer 75p, so I was only about £3 worse for wear when I somehow found myself as the guest of a well-known businessman and his friend, the owner of a few of the local clubs. They invited me for a drink in Blues, a popular late night electronica club, which was a flashback to the early 90s - sticky floors, red leather, disco balls and tacky lighting. The music was mostly European techno, but the DJ would throw in the odd Latino track with a techno beat, which, albeit strange, regained a sense of place.
After I'd taken all the 120bpms I could handle, I moved on to Seseribo, a highly recommended salsa club that did not disappoint - it was small, sweaty and the music was top draw. It's impossible to not dance in a place like this, when every available inch of dance floor, and even the bar top, is pressed into service. Or to drink - the entry policy is that unless you consume $6 of booze, you pay $6 on the way out. So, naturally, everyone drank. A night out here is big deal: the dresses are short and the slacks are pressed. People are up for it, and it's hard not to be swept along until dawn on the tide of cheap mojitos. And that was how, after a mammoth night, I found myself washed up on chilled shores of the coast ...
There's nothing unusual about seeing a man riding a donkey, but when he's got a fully grown pig strapped to his back, the mind boggles. This was not a mojito-induced hallucination, but one of the sights I took in on the ride to Montañita. Ecuadorians talk about Montañita with a knowing smile: it's a 'lawless village' where 'anything goes' - which really means a small, isolated fishing village that has transformed itself into a haven for hard partiers. Rumours are rife of people coming here for a few days and staying for good.
The village sits on an alluring stretch of beach with impressive surf, evidently Montañita's selling point. The bamboo and thatch buildings are crammed together and look perilously close to collapse. The signs for the bars, restaurants and hostels are brightly painted and multicoloured surfboards line the streets. The smells of barbecued food and incense tease your senses while the sun sedates you. It's blissful.
I stayed in the Cabanas Pakaloro
, a hostel right on the beach, with five-star ocean views. It was clean, comfortable and right in the heart of the action. The only complaint was the odd electric shock while showering, but, for $7 a night, who's complaining? While sitting in the hammock on my balcony I got chatting to some American backpackers in the neighbouring room. 'This place has it all, man,' said Chas as he waxed his surfboard lovingly. Relaxed? This was a man so relaxed he was in need of a jumpstart from the dodgy electrics in my shower.
During the day, most gringos sit around barefoot nursing exotic fruit juices and reading or playing games, waiting for the surf to break. Despite being the main attraction, the beach is delightfully undeveloped - a surf school, a few scattered cabanas, and that's about it.
The restaurants offer the usual range of pizzas, burgers and pancakes, but also lots of fresh local fruit and heavenly sea bass steamed in palm leaves. In the early afternoon, street vendors sell oysters, cracked off the rocks that morning. Prepared on the back of a bicycle, they're chiselled open, and mixed with chopped tomato, onions and herbs, with a dash of lime and some hot sauce. But all this is only a prelude, a time-filler until night falls. The eclectic residents of Montañita all have the same agenda: to do very little and get high. Albeit very friendly, there's some strange behaviour - the barmaid in Tiki's danced round taking orders in a rather over-enthusiastic manner, while a customer dressed like a throwback from Woodstock chatted nonsensical drivel. All harmlessly eccentric and hugely entertaining.
The music carries from one packed bar to another, creating an audible mess as 60s rock'n'roll and European techno blend into one. I found Funky Monkey, a surf shack-cum-hostel-cum bar, ordered a beer and chilled to the cacophony of the night. Other bars worth a try are Tango Mango on the beach (great for sunsets), Alibarbar, a techno-fuelled neon-lit crazy place,or Tierra Del Promitida on the main street, serving two for one drinks that can leave you half cut by 9pm - not the smartest move, as things are only just starting to kick off then.
Unfortunately, I couldn't stay for the full moon parties, said to be unforgettable. But it's the people who make this place special. There's a real festival atmosphere and, like Glastonbury, the party goes on all night. From the bars, people move down to the beach where the night dissolves into pure fire-lit, bongo-banging hedonism. It's easy to see why some people never get round to leaving.
Way to go
Getting there Black Tomato offers nine nights in Ecuador (two at Cafe Cultura in Quito and seven in Charo's Hostal in Montanita) with flights from Heathrow via Miami, internal flights and transfers from c£1,455pp.