Text and Photos by Sabrina Sabbagh
hen you’re in a new city every few days, they can begin to blend together. Skylines start to feel familiar and even beaches become interchangeable, no matter how spectacular they are. After exploring more than 70 countries over the last seven years, I was experiencing a serious case of travel fatigue. To prevent total burnout, I picked a country I’d never visited and set out to reignite my love of adventure and exploration.
I heard about a tiny fishing village popular among backpackers in northwestern Ecuador that boasted big surf and uncrowded beaches. I needed to see the hidden gem for myself so I booked a flight to Quito, Ecuador’s capital. I rented a car and drove 250 miles to a town I still wasn’t sure how to pronounce. Like most developing countries, Ecuador’s roads are harrowing and the rental cars are low torque off-brands of popular models not found in the U.S. The three-cylinder, manual transmission Kia Picanto struggled to climb the massive mountain ranges separating Quito from the west coast of Ecuador. The tiny hatchback barely gripped the road during the tropical storm that dumped steaming rain for the entire seven-hour drive through the dense jungle.
The parameters for my fight against travel fatigue were as follows: commit to staying in the same place for 3-6 months, learn Spanish in a full immersion program, close proximity to good surfing and, of course, affordability. In a matter of hours, the beachy jungle vibe of Mompiche had exceeded my expectations. By week’s end, I found an apartment, a Spanish teacher, the perfect surf spot and caught the best wave of my life. I rushed home to California for the holidays and got back to Quito in early January to start what I thought would be the transformative travel experience that I was searching for.
The transition from short-term traveler to village resident was a master class in patience and humility. In Mompiche, development moves at a pace that makes you feel like you’ve traveled back in time. Despite recent efforts to install fiber-optic cables throughout the country, the northwestern region has yet to benefit from advancements like credit card readers or reliable electricity. There are no banks or even ATMs, so the cash and barter system is still king in the lush paradise, and fishing remains the lifeblood of the locals.
Just before dawn, fishermen begin the arduous task of dragging dozens of boats resembling oversized canoes down the beach. Using tree trunks and driftwood, the skilled laborers create something of a conveyor belt to get the heavy wooden fishing boats into the water. One by one, they roll the hand-carved boats over logs in the sand and push their duct-taped motors to the brink of failure as they launch over crashing waves and out to sea.
With daily power outages making already spotty internet nonexistent, I shifted my focus from working online to learning about the locals and exploring the thick jungles that have kept Mompiche virtually hidden from the rest of the world. Because of the tropical climate and remote location, construction and development have been slow. The weather and tides could make or break the day for the fishermen, as well as the backpackers and surfers calling Mompiche home. When the rains come, the dirt roads turn into a muddy sludge that creates the sensation of walking through quicksand while playing tug of war with at least one rain boot cemented so firmly in the unforgiving earth that you have no choice but to leave it behind.
Mompiche has a rainforest feel with lush jungles full of leafy trees and colorful tropical flowers that grow all the way down to the beach. Because of the wet climate, most of the buildings are made of bamboo and feature an open-air design to prevent mold. The place I rented looked more like a treehouse than an apartment building, but for $200 a month, my unit came with a kitchenette and private bathroom.
My days started at first light with a sunrise surf. Rain or shine, I’d grab my board and walk or slosh through the empty streets toward the beach. Mompiche is famous in the surfing community for being a perfect left. But as with most point breaks, the paddle out can be long and exhausting. Walking the same route every morning for weeks gave me the opportunity to develop a sort of silent rapport with the fishermen I waved to every day at dawn. One morning, a familiar face motioned for me to come over. Only a couple weeks into entry-level Spanish, my conversation skills were lacking but I got the impression he wanted me to get into the boat. He grabbed my surfboard and in a matter of seconds, I was being hoisted up and headed out to sea.
There were some chuckles when I didn’t brace myself properly and ended up an entire row back. After that, I followed the lead of the seasoned fishermen, who lifted themselves off the bench as the boat made impact with the water after each wave. The surf was huge and the waves were splashing up into the boat with such force that my board was almost washed away. Before I had time to worry about what would come next, we were past the break zone and my surfboard was tossed over the side. Confused and a little panicked, I looked around to see that we were 200 yards from shore and I was being dropped off in the perfect position for the next set wave. With just enough time to get to my board, I got into a wave that is still the longest ride of my life. The fishermen were unrolling their nets when I flew past them yelling “Gracias!” just before I wiped out. I could hear their cheers as I surfaced and remember thinking, “I never want to leave this place.” Little did I know that soon I would be in desperate need of a military rescue and safe passage back to the United States in the middle of what would turn out to be a global pandemic.
It was late February 2020 and local officials had just started imposing lockdowns in an effort to stop the spread of what was being called a “tourist disease.” My tropical oasis turned into a military state overnight. Armed guards stopped me on my way to surf, saying the beaches were closed. The one road in and out of town was barricaded, and it became illegal to travel between provinces. Any time I tried to leave my apartment, I was harassed and threatened by police. Things were unraveling at an alarming pace and by March, I was one of only a few foreigners unable to get out before the airports closed.
In an area known for torrential downpours, I was naive to think that access to clean water was a guarantee. The remote village, now cut off from the rest of the country, relies on a water supply service that requires trucks to fill water tanks at each property. When the deliveries were on time, opening my tap would release mostly clear water clean enough to use for washing dishes and showering. A few days into the lockdown, the water levels got so low that the sediment from the tanks started to clog the drains. Since the tap water was never clean enough to consume, drinking water was sold in 5-gallon jugs that you could re-fill for $1. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before local markets ran out because necessary delivery trucks were prevented from entering the heavily guarded village.
My living conditions were deteriorating at an alarming rate, and I was continuing to experience targeted discrimination by guards tasked with enforcing stay-at-home orders so severe, it became illegal to leave your home without permission.
Thanks to assistance from the embassy, State Department and tourism ministry, I was granted safe passage to the airport, where a U.S. military rescue was being coordinated.
To avoid detection by local guards, I broke curfew and made my way to the getaway car in the middle of the night. I walked along the dark coastline and waded across a rushing river mouth in waist-high water, holding my backpack above my head and shining a shaky iPhone flashlight into the dark murky water, praying that the current wouldn’t push me farther out to sea.
When I got to the car, I was sandy, soaking wet and terrified that I wouldn’t make it to the airport in time for extraction. Seven hours and several bone-chillingly scary checkpoints later, I was nestled safely in the hold of a C-130 naval carrier en route to a U.S. Air Force base. Despite how things devolved during my time in Mompiche, the second my feet touched U.S. soil, all I could think about was hopping on my fishing boat ferry to the next perfect wave. Travel fatigue, cured.