Bustle vs Bliss: 7 Solid Reasons to Skip Montañita and Head to Olón Instead
Do you like the beach? Do you crave sitting in hammocks, eating fresh seafood and sipping cold coconuts? Do you want to play in the waves, bathe in the sun, relax, hang back, and chill the heck out?
On Ecuador’s South coast lies the Santa Elena province, where tourists flock from all over the world to enjoy the long stretches of balmy beaches, equatorial heat, and laid back Latino living. It’s a true paradise; boasting big waves, a never-ending coastline, and a natural landscape ripe for exploring.
When we decided to head to Montañita to kick off our Ecuadorian escape, we knew it was popular. We went there because we had the most available information about it. It was comfortable.
Though we quickly learned this place is not quite the laid-back hippie town we craved. It’s a perpetual full moon party, a latin-American Koh Phi Phi, and an Ibiza in its infancy.
While some places such as historical monuments, geological anomalies, and World Heritage Sites are popular for obvious reasons, other places emerge from obscurity and become tourist traps after the recommendation of a popular travel guidebook puts it on the backpacker trail.
But our guide doesn’t always know what’s best.
Just because a place is filled with Western comforts, bumping bars, and tour companies galore doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better than the next town over. Sometimes it’s better to go to the town that only gets one small paragraph in the guidebook. Or better yet, no mention at all.
These are the places where you really get to immerse yourself in the culture. The places that you can really appreciate on a level other than the cheap beer and cheeseburgers. The places you discover for yourself, Christopher Columbus style, with only the locals to guide and advise you.
Montañita is an example of the type of place put on the tourist trail back when it was a small fishing village. Surfers discovered it and put it on the map, but its popularity grew over the years and now I’m sad to say its vibe isn’t as advertised. If you want to enjoy paradise without the perpetual party, go to Olón — Montañita is only a bus ride away.
Here’s seven solid reasons to skip Montañita and head to Olón instead:
We arrived in Ecuador in the early hours of the morning, delirious from overnight travel and no desire to tackle the bustling city of Guayaquil. Coming straight from the bitter cold of Canada where defrosting the wings before take-off is necessary, we were craving the coast and hopped on a three-hour bus straight to Montañita where we could bliss out beach-side.
Stepping off the bus into Montañita, we were hit with a nice, funky whiff of shit-river wafting its way into our nostrils. It was early, so the streets and beach were lined with evidence of the previous evening’s festivities. A few straggling hippies were hanging onto the last hours before they crashed hard, and the busy-bee locals were already going about their daily business while stray dogs scavenged the streets for snacks.
#1. Montañita stinks. It has a river flowing through it and an only recently built sewage system. As much as people claim the situation is now fixed — my senses say it’s not. Olón is riverless and odourless.
We devoured an overpriced breakfast before quickly concluding we had no desire to live in the country’s biggest party town and would rather something more… peaceful. We hopped in a taxi, forking over $1.50 for a ride around the point to Olón. We’d read about Olón a lot — the small, quiet town, just North of Montañita — far enough to escape the noise but close enough to take advantage of its neighbour’s commercialization.
#2. You can party it up in Montañita, then head back to Olón for a mere $1.50 and get a full night’s noiseless sleep. Unless you like staying up until 6am nightly, that is.
The town won our hearts over immediately. The house-front tiendas that sell everything you could possibly need, the friendly kids playing with puppies, the baby chicks burrowing in the sand, the town-wide lazy, hazy, hammock-hanging afternoons — we stepped back in time into a simpler, happier, and certainly more care-free way of living.
Olón is nowhere near as built-up as Montañita has become, but the gringo retirees have still caught on and built their mega-mansions interspersed with the shacks and hollow concrete foundations of could-be homes. A supermarket has been built — if you could call it that — and several small, gated communities crept their way in. While the town is lacking certain amenities, such as an ATM, it’s a convenient 40 cent bus ride to Montañita and each trip becomes a treat to see how many empanadas and Rasta Pans you can chow down in one go.
With only a few hundred permanent residents, Olón still doesn’t make it onto most backpackers’ itineraries and so it still caters mostly to Ecuadorian tourists. The local vacationers crowd in by the bus-full on weekends during the Ecuadorian holidays, especially Sundays, and the town comes alive for a brief moment before settling back to the usual buzz.
#3. Olón has far fewer people and mostly local tourists giving it a more relaxed, coastal Ecuadorian feel. While Montañita also sees a large influx of local tourism, it has become a backpacker hot-spot and not for the better. It’s packed full of people, especially during the high season — December through April.
The beach stretches for miles; you can run for what seems like forever on the hard-packed sand before reaching the end where cliffs tower high above, golden in the sun.
Despite Montañita being the renowned surfer’s haven with a world-class point break, Olón has a steady beach break with excellent waves for both beginner and intermediate surfers. You’ll see surfers and boogie boarders playing all day long and a few tents offering lessons and board rentals, mainly on weekends.
#4. The surfing scene is practically non-existent. Montañita has big waves and a big surfing crowd while in Olón you can surf without fear of A) being destroyed by a giant wave or B) crashing into a big-boy surfer dude and suffering the consequences.
Actually, the surfers in Olón were so nice they would occasionally come push my board when they saw I lacked the strength to paddle hard enough to catch the big waves. They’d cheer me on when I did catch one, “Go chica, go, go, go!” as I fall and flail in the water like a limp rag doll. Sorry to disappoint.
Cabañas line the beachfront selling fresh seafood a la carta. These are great places to eat in Olón, but definitely not the cheapest. The best way to eat is to buy off the trucks that pass through town or from the fishermen roaming the streets with their daily catch.
The people are incredibly friendly, they will greet you with a smiley ‘buenas’ as you walk by and the kids will belt a big “hola” your way if they aren’t too preoccupied playing with puppies. I always felt safe walking around at night, and could even leave my things on the beach without them disappearing.
#5. It is safer in Olón; while I wouldn’t recommend walking alone on the beach at night, you likely could without issue. If you leave your clothes in the sand while you swim, rest assured they’ll probably be there when you get out.
Vacationers from Guayaquil were eager to practise their English with us. One family chatted us up while lunching on the beach and we ended up spending hours conversing with their kids about Ecuador, Spanish, and the world. It must be uncommon for them to get the chance to chat with foreigners because they were sad to see us leave.
Their parents insisted on driving us the two minutes to our house while the kids showed us their musical instruments. They photographed us all together and repeated ‘god bless you’ in Spanish more than we’ve ever been blessed before, offering us their contact information should we happen to pop by Guayaquil in the future. Like that, we had our first Ecuadorian friends.
#6. Montañita is filled with foreign businesses, taking away from the small, family run joints. It’s good to support local families, you are after all visiting their country. They are often very friendly and sell all sorts of great treats, such as the nice lady offering $0.35 homemade ice creams in Olón (one block behind Hostal Surf Olón).
If you can peel yourself away from beach bumming everyday, there is plenty to do in and around Olón. Outdoor Ecuador is a new company based right at the entrance to the Jardines de Olón (two blocks South of the Church) offering Spanish classes, surfing lessons, board rentals, yoga, motorbike tours, horseback riding, parapenting, waterfall trekking, and they’ll even help you find accommodation if you’d like to stay a while — that’s how we found our amazing Casa Canadiense. They are pretty much the only ‘tour’ company in town if you could call it that. They’re more like friendly locals wanting to show you a good time.
#7. Spanish lessons and activities are a fraction the price of those in Montañita and just as good, if not better. While we paid $185 per person for a week of group lessons in Montañita, we paid only $35 per person per week in Olón for private lessons. There’s no arguing with that price difference, it’s a no-brainer — especially considering the teachers in Olón are former instructors of the Montañita Spanish School.
Time in Olón zips by. With daily Spanish lessons and learning how to surf, our days quickly turned into weeks and then a month was over and it was time for us to move on up the coast. We wanted to stay but had a hard time finding somewhere affordable to live that had internet.
While WIFI is available, many homes have yet to be connected and the ones that are tend to be gringo-owned and overpriced, a result of Olón’s proximity to Montañita.
We know we’ll be back, but Canoa was calling and things weren’t falling into place as expected. That’s the beauty of long-term backpacking; drift when the wind blows, and stay only when it’s right. We had work to do and no means of doing it, so the journey continues.
If you like to chill out, relax, eat delicious Ecuadorian food and feel the coastal vibe — Olón is your place. If you prefer night-long rave music, prison-themed night clubs, and the sad sight of an overdeveloped once-was laid back hippie surfer town, then you might just enjoy Montañita. But I’d recommend making the trip around the point regardless.
Okay, okay… I’m convinced, I want to go to Olón. But where should I stay?
Hostal Surf Olón — This family-owned hostel is somewhere we’ll go back to again and again. They’ve created a chilled out atmosphere, with lots of hammocks, a garden courtyard, a relaxed rooftop perch – perfect for sunset viewing – and a backyard garden housing a giant mango tree (which you can eat when they’re in season), and a BBQ.
They offer dorm rooms as well as private rooms, with and without air-conditioning — basic breakfast included — a big communal kitchen and good WIFI. All the rooms are clean and have hot water.
Terrace Inn — If you’re not into a hostel-style atmosphere, Bobby at the Terrace Inn has clean, spacious, gringo-style rooms complete with WIFI, air-conditioning, mini fridge, microwave, a table set and a hammock-filled rooftop terrace with a BBQ and a view. He’s been around since Montañita was just a few beach-front cabañas and has a lot of knowledge about the area.
How to get there/away?
From/to Guayaquil – Hop on the CLP from the terminal terrestre in Guayaquil, it will take you straight to Olón. From Olón, there is a CLP station where you can buy bus tickets at the Northern End of the main road. It takes 2.5-3 hours and costs $6.
From/to Manta – Catch the green Trans Manglaralto bus all the way to Manta where you can catch onward buses. It takes 3.5 hours and costs $5. You can also take this bus for day trips up to surf town Ayampe, Los Frailes beach in Machalilla National Park, or Puerto Lopez to visit the Poor Man’s Galapagos.
Have you been to Olón? Would you stay there instead of Montañita?