Montanita is a tiny beach town 3 hours from Guayaquil on the South-West coast of Ecuador. With its long beach ideal for surfing, uncountable restaurants, bars and clubs, and a reputation of being the “hippie capital” of Ecuador (some say South America), it attracts people from all over the world.
I visited Montanita in the last few days of 2013, which is supposed to be the busiest time of year here, but the crowd wasn’t too bad at all. I expected a lot more people. That said, I wasn’t there for New Year’s eve, which was probably when the crowd peaked. One thing I’m sure of is that locals were outnumbered by visitors by at least 10 to 1.
I arrived in Montanita on a Monday morning after an 8 hour bus ride from Quito, preceded by a 5 hour bus ride from Tena to Quito. Needless to say, I felt like crap. I had my accommodation booked with Punto Verde (Green Point), an eco guest house, run by Joos Fleskens. I called Joos for directions and she explained that I should follow the main road up to the surfer statue, which I couldn’t miss, then go uphill.
The hike from the center and up the hill wasn’t at all pleasant in the state I was, but the view absolutely made up for it. But more importantly, I didn’t hear anything of the town’s busy nightlife and slept like a baby. Something I was very grateful for.
Joos had had a “small live aboard” boat that she exchanged for the land in Montanita on the internet. Her original plan was to go back to nature and live alone. There was a little old cabin on the land that she was going to live in, but it turned out to be in too bad condition to be repaired. She had no choice, but to build something herself. At this point she had no tap water and electricity and no plans to run a hostel. One thing she did know though was that she wanted to build something in harmony with nature. She used locally sourced materials wherever possible and didn’t mind rummaging through garbage to find building materials in perfect condition for free.
Although there is a lot of red tape in Ecuador, according to Joos building a house here was still easier than it would be in most European countries. The state here doesn’t regulate every single detail and gives you more freedom to do what you want the way you want it. One of the most difficult conditions to comply with safety regulations for instance was that an “Exit” sign had to be placed above the entrance. Forget HACCP and the rest…
When the house was more or less ready, and as her savings melted down, Joos looked for a job in town. But when she was confronted with the little money she could make she decided to build an extension to the house and turn it into hostel.
She created a job instead of taking one.
This delicate looking Dutch woman comes to Ecuador hardly speaking the language, exchanges her boat for a piece of land and not only does she build a house, but also a sustainable business in a sustainable way.
I was thoroughly impressed by her story.
When I asked why she started this whole project, Joos said she wanted her freedom. She left Europe because she felt it was over-regulated and she was sick of being told what to do and how to do it.
So she started a new life.
In a new country, with new people, in a new language, doing something completely new.
Only Floor, Joos’ sister, could say what she meant when she told me “Joos has always been different”. But I do know how she is different now.
She doesn’t accept the cards life dealt to her. She is driven by a strong desire to live life on her own terms. She lives and breathes independence. And she makes things happen.
But her family is also a very important part of her life. Floor, her sister came from the Netherlands to help her in the busy season and she’d fly her mom over as soon as she had the cash.
And busy it was.
The little love hut outside the house was occupied by David and his girlfriend from the UK who took some time off work to travel the world. There was a guy who lived in the US from Cambodia, Stephanie, a photographer from Canada, Nick, the Rastafarian from Sweden, two American girls, and of course Floor, Joos and Luigi.
Luigi, the Rastafarian from Italy, the chef of Punto Verde.
And what a chef he was. He made a light and healthy breakfast from eggs and veggies every morning. For lunch he’d make a simple but deliciously spiced pasta. And for dinner, he’d amaze everybody with one of his vegetarian extravaganza served like a piece of art. I really appreciated the healthy and delicious food for a fair price. Even Dave said he loved the vegetarian diet he’d been eating for two weeks even though he was a big meat fan.
Luigi had worked as a chef in restaurants all over Europe. But it’s hard with his dreadlocks as he said. He came to South America to travel, support himself by working as a chef or as a volunteer at farms and learn more about sustainable farming methods. He had a piece of land back in Italy that he inherited and was going to build a farm that would make him self sufficient and independent. That was his plan to quit the rat race.
When I asked him why his dreadlocks were so important to him that he’d rather be out of a job than get rid of them, he said it’s part of the Rastafari tradition that he considers himself a part of . “I believe in equality and peace which are the foundations of the Rasta ideology. There are Rastafarians who focus on other aspects of the tradition, which they consider a religion. I don’t agree with them.“
Luigi created a masterpiece for Christmas dinner. It was a simple meal of fish and vegetables, but the spices and magnificent presentation made all the difference. Other than the quick “Merry Christmas” we whispered to each other at the dinner table, the only thing that reminded me of Christmas was a Santa hat on Dave’s head.
Which I didn’t mind at all. In fact I was very happy to be relaxing on the beach, surfing and eating Luigi’s food instead of running around crowded shopping centers tying to get something for everyone.
No Christmas decoration, but plenty of Christmas feeling. I’d only known these people for a few days, but being with them felt like being with family.
And that’s what made this house special and worthwhile for me. Because much as I appreciate and support the eco-friendly idea, I also like a flush toilet and hot shower. But after a week in Punto Verde, not having these seemed like a minor inconvenience, by far outweighed by the kind and honest hospitality of Joos and the sense of trust that formed between the guests.
I asked Joos what her secret was and she said: “There are more solutions than problems.”
Without going into philosophical debates of whether that statement is true or not, I believe it is. I’ve seen the living example that proves it true. When I was there Joos didn’t even have a car. She carried daily supplies up the hill in her backpack. But at the same time she saw the potential to grow her capacity and make improvements. She was planning a new bathroom with a Jacuzzi, which I think will make the place perfect even for people with higher expectations of comfort.
But I think that was only one ingredient to Joos’ success.
She unintentionally revealed the other when she asked me the first day: “Would you like to eat dinner with us tonight?”
She didn’t put it that way as part of a clever marketing strategy, but because she was genuinely sharing her home with a bunch of friends. That’s what I felt from the moment I set foot in her house.