The Smiling policeboy
You know you’ve acquired a certain age when the policemen look younger than yourself….but this is getting ridiculous. We’ve left northern Peru behind us, crossing the border into south-west Ecuador, and have entered the land of ‘El Oro Verde’ (The Green Gold) – otherwise known as banana country. We’ve come to the town of Machala, commercial and administrative centre for the province of El Oro, in search of supplies and one month of vehicle insurance. In the car park of a modern shopping mall Christine approaches the policeman, or should I say policeboy, to ask where we might buy insurance. I think he’s barely old enough to ride the motorbike he’s standing beside, but he has a gun and, as we all know, if you have a gun you can do pretty much as you please. He rubs the down on his chin at this peculiarly vexing question. “Insurance?” he scoffs. He looks us up and down and after a moments consideration says: “I wouldn’t bother.” After a conversation about the merits of having vehicle insurance he’s still looking at us blankly. He obviously thinks we’ve been in the sun far too long this morning, but he does agree to escort us ‘somewhere‘ in town that might appease our curious ramblings. He hops on his police motorbike and heads off into the rush of Machala’s Monday morning traffic. Every September in Machala they host the International Banana Festival, during which they elect a Miss Banana!!….but anyway, I’m digressing from the story. So, on the way to wherever we’re going our friend jumps a few red lights, because he has a gun…but we don’t have one, so he has to stop on the other side and wait for us. After a couple of dead-ends, eventually we arrive at the municipal police headquarters and here we question two other policemen, traffic cops, in fact. “Vehicle insurance?” they both say. They shake their heads, they scowl, they look down at their feet and they twiddle the safety catch on their pistols. “You’re foreign. You don’t need it.” “But what if we hit someone,” Christine challenges. Curiously, they find this mildly amusing. By now the policeboy has the bit between his teeth – perhaps these gringos are not so loco, he’s thinking. He leads us to a window where a very efficient lady knows exactly what we need, because it’s the law in Ecuador that foreigners must have vehicle insurance, and she sends us to the insurance broker across the street from the police station. Within five minutes we have what we want and our police escort leads us back to the shopping mall. What an amazing service this is we say to each other on the way back, though on our previous visit to Ecuador the cops were also always helpful. “We should get him something for helping us,” Christine says. “How about a lollipop?” I suggest. We have a giggle but settle for a chilled coke. Finally, the policeboy smiles.
Not all camping sites are equal
Lest anyone should think that overlanding is all about camping beside the rolling surf, or a grassy valley fed by bubbling brooks….well, it isn’t. If you can find a half decent service station in which to pass the night you should be thankful, especially if it’s after nightfall, its raining and the road is full of motorists who don’t seem to care if they see the sunrise. After two nights in different service stations it made arriving at Hosteria Islamar even more of a pleasure.
The legend of Isla de la Plata
It’s said that a pirate’s sunken horde washes the beaches of Ecuador, though on our drive from Puerto de Cayo to the fishing village of Salango you would never know it, for it is a rugged, natural landscape populated by a people of simple lifestyles. In the shops nobody pays for their bread with a gold doubloon, there are no high rise hotels, no swanky villas and no lush golf courses – tourism on this stretch of the coastline is a low key affair. On the top of a hill to the south of Salango is Hosteria Islamar, the property of a Swiss man. Originally lured here by the call of lost treasures, whilst diving the waters of Isla Salango Christian gazed back at this hill on the mainland and loved it so much he bought it. Now there are half a dozen bungalows, a restaurant and a campsite, all constructed with traditional Swiss quality.
In 1579 Sir Francis Drake sailed up this coast in the Golden Hind, hotly pursued by a flotilla of Spanish galleons intent on his arrest, for Drake loved nothing better than a spot of looting and pillaging, and especially if it was the treasures Spain robbed from the hinterlands of the New World. It was a clear case of robber robbing the robber, but it didn’t matter did it, firstly because Britain was at war with Spain, and secondly because all this thieving was sanctioned by their respective crowns – Drake was a privateer, his ship owned and crewed by individuals holding a government commission – so provided the queen received her slice of the booty nobody was going to raise the moral issue. What a wonderful world this must have been…naah, maybe not. Anyhow, had I stood on Christian’s mirador some 435 years ago I would most likely have witnessed Drake attacking the Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion, better known by sailors of the time as the Cacafuego, which translated means Shitfire. The Shitfire was in the process of transporting her loot up to Panama when Drake struck, somewhere in the vicinity of Isla de la Plata. It took Drake’s crew five days to trans-ship the loot and when he’d finished the Golden Hind was dangerously overburdened and thus unstable. What he did next is argued by historians for Drake, in modern parlance, ‘went below the radar’, though it’s rumoured he sailed to Isla de la Plata, where he threw 45 tonnes of silver into the ocean, creating the legend of Isla de la Plata.