For three weeks we volunteered at The Donkey Den, an eclectic guesthouse and cafe situated on the beach in Santa Marianita, a small fishing village on the Ecuadorean coast.
Unfortunately, the town itself isn’t much to look at; it’s slightly war-torn looking, like many others in Ecuador. We’ve noticed a trend here when it comes to building houses. When you see what looks like a half-built house, it’s actually intentional. The family doesn’t build the second level until they have children and need more room. If they don’t have children, then they won’t build up. So what you’re left with is a lot of brick buildings with steel reinforcing rods protruding out the top of them. Not so aesthetically pleasing.
The rubbly-ness of Santa Marianita however, could be due to the earthquake that sadly hit the coast of Ecuador in 2015.
At the other end of the beach, where the Donkey Den is situated, there’s a growing number of apartment blocks, mansions and hotels being built, that stand out in all their glamour along the cliff. It creates quite the contrast. And who’s behind all this construction? Gringos, of course. It’s cheap to buy land in Ecuador and combine that with inexpensive health care and a warm climate, it’s not hard to see why so many expats – *cough* Americans and Canadians – emigrate here.
By South American standards, the beach is pretty decent. There’s hardly any rubbish and there are no pedlars roaming the sands trying to sell you cheap trinkets. It’s a hotspot for kitesurfing too so people travel from far and wide to come here and at the weekend it’s busy with locals from all the neighbouring towns.
This was our first “work-away” experience. We organised it through a website we heard about from other travelers where you sign up to volunteer your time to help in hostels, building, nannying, teaching etc. in exchange for free accommodation and food. It’s a great way to save some pennies, to meet new people and, if you’re a little travel weary, to stay in one place for longer than a few nights to re-energise.
We arrived late on our first day, around 10pm, and to be honest, our immediate thoughts were “where the hell are we?” and “what have we signed up for?” You know when you arrive somewhere in the dark, it all looks a bit strange, you don’t know anyone, and you don’t really get your bearings until the morning? Yeh, we had that exact feeling of uneasiness.
But after the first day, we had settled right in. It’s hard not to at the Donkey Den; it’s such a welcoming place and unique, to say the least. From the name, you’d think there would be donkeys roaming about reception but really it should be named Crazy Cat Land. It was built 12 years ago by Linda, an animal-loving American who takes in stray dogs and cats (and once upon a time Donkeys, hence the name) to nurse them to health and to ideally, find them a good home. During our stay, there were 9 dogs and 24 cats which was slightly overwhelming at first but by the end, we were pretty attached to some.
The work was relatively easy. For 5 days a week, we worked 5 hours a day, cleaning the rooms, welcoming guests, walking the dogs and helping out in the cafe with Mayra, the chef. She is so cute! We really liked working with her as it meant we could practice our Spanish. Although, after three weeks, she still couldn’t get my name right and it was “hola, Kaylaaaa” every morning.
The volunteers also took it in turns to cook dinner for the five thousand. Or so it felt that way. Guests occasionally signed up to eat dinner at the hostel, along with all the volunteers and staff so sometimes we’d be cooking for 20 plus!
Our meals went down well (excuse the pun) except for one night I had a bit of a stress in the kitchen when my homemade burgers didn’t really stay…whole. Oh well, they were edible.
The best part, as always, were the people we met, especially the other volunteers who were fantastic and hailed from all corners of the world. There’s a true family vibe present there which, when you’ve been away from home for a while, is very comforting.
On Sunday’s the guesthouse is a somewhat Mecca for the expats who crowd to the cafe for breakfast. The 2 Bloody Marys for $3 probably has something to do with its popularity, along with Mayra’s infamous breakfasts, which are delicious. It was certainly an experience serving them and it brought back some fun (and sometimes not so fun) memories of my waitressing days in Chicago. Let’s just say you have to get used to serving in the style that Americans are accustomed to.
Tim did a great job of hiding his discomfort of working in hospitality; he was a complete natural and they all loved him instantly. I told you, he’s good at everything!
The talk is all gringo too: builder recommendations, where you can buy the best home appliances, visas, and the big one, health care. You only have to look at the bookshelf to get an idea of the people who live or stay at the hostel (there are some expats who have retired and live there or are long-term renters); books on the 2008 financial crisis, self-help, dieting, biographies of past American presidents and one or two James Patterson thrillers.
Do I sound like I’m being rude? I don’t mean to be! Actually, they were all lovely people and entertaining in their own ways. Our experience at the Donkey Den wouldn’t have been the same without them.
We weren’t working all the time. The beach was right on the doorstep so I went for runs in the morning or practiced yoga, we walked the dogs or just read in the hammocks. During the week it’s quiet and very relaxing. I also took some kitesurfing lessons! It was a lot of fun, albeit very hard. I definitely prefer it to surfing (sorry Tim) because you don’t have to battle with the waves all that much and once you’re up and surfing, there’s no constant paddling out.
After a sad farewell to our new friends at the Donkey Den, we took a few days to relax before I began my Yoga Teacher Training and Tim embarked on a 150-hour TEFL course. We stayed in the quaint beach town of Ayampe, further south on the coast from Santa Marianita. It was awesome. It’s a little village in the jungle with sandy streets, hostels, eco-houses, bars, and restaurants all nestled into the palm trees and the beach is only 200 metres away. It’s also a hub for surfers and yogis; our kind of place. The only downside was the humidity which attracts a huge number of mosquitos. For that reason, we couldn’t have stayed too much longer. Out of wet season, Ayampe would be pure bliss.
Alex and Izzy, friends from New Zealand, are also in Ayampe for three weeks, house and dog sitting so it’s been super hanging out with them!
And now we’re in Montañita, the Miami of Ecuador where, ironically, I’m completing my Yoga Teacher Training. We’re actually a little out of town at a very chilled hostel called Casa del Sol. It’s a sweet spot as you’re in a quiet area but only 10 minutes walk from the bustling party town of Montañita…if a party is what you’re after. The beach is a stone’s throw from the hostel too.
Now we’re just waiting for that sun to show it’s face.