Manta, Ecuador isn’t a pretty city. At its heart it’s a small fishing village that has grown into a substantial metropolis with an estimated 300,000 citizens. Although the city has existed since Pre-Columbian times, there are no cultural ruins and little aesthetic appeal in the gritty commercial downtown. Narrow one-way streets climb up and down the steep hills attended by sidewalks in need of repair as crowds of vendors and shoppers move in opposing directions and swirls of activity. The vast majority of the downtown, one or two blocks set back from the waterfront, consists of relatively new and unimaginative structures: two, three and four-story cement and cinderblock square buildings, predominately gray or in need of a new coat of paint, their sides plastered with posters and signs. If the architectural term “Eastern Bloc” existed it might well apply to this portion of the downtown. In contrast, the Malecon, the main street abutting the Pacific, running along the beach from Playa Murcielago eastward to roughly Playa Tarqui, hosts recent, modern, commercial edifices of glass and steel of several stories. Here are the larger banks, government buildings, hotels and the like. But, regardless of where you are in the city, tower cranes, arc welders and cutting torches attest to the fact that the city is in a genuine boom phase, both commercial and residential.
Manta has the largest seaport in Ecuador as well as one of the most stable economies in the country; fishing, tuna processing and canning are the main industries. We half expected the city to reek of fish but this wasn’t the case. The fish market, a huge open-air structure roofed in tin and located on the beach was worth several morning visits. Tables were piled high with more varieties of fish than we had ever seen (tuna, dorado, corvina, red snapper, grouper, wahoo, prawns and lobster, etc.) with the fresh catch of the day glistening under stray shafts of sunlight. The flash of machetes and fillet knives slicing through the sea’s bounty and the salty smell of the sea and fish in the air gave us a new appreciation of an ocean harvest. Mid-day, after the crowds depart, the market is washed down; later on in the day it might turn rank, but there are the scavengers (frigates, egrets, herons and buzzards) waiting their turn to help with the final cleanup.
At three roundabouts on the Malecon sculptures are erected that reflect Manta’s roots as a village of fishermen and seafarers. Here, also, we watched the skilled boat builders of Manta craft their handmade ships and, near the Manta Yacht club, we admired the yachts and other ships and boats floating in the bay. Tourism, both foreign and domestic, is becoming more and more important to Manta’s economy; assorted cruise ships make Manta a port of call. When the ships are in port, local vendors from the city and nearby Montecristi as well as those from the mountain cities of Quito and Cuenca set up their tables and display their handicrafts, textiles and artwork from many of the country’s finest artisans.
The citizens of Manta were some of the most welcoming and friendly people who we’ve yet encountered. Although the expat numbers are growing (estimated to be around 350) the ratio of gringos to locals makes this one of the most “authentic” places we’ve been. Taxi drivers were friendly and we had many conversations in Spanish, and occasionally English, as we were speedily delivered to our destinations. We made many friends in the active expat group which met several times during the week and our social life varied only with our desire to participate in the many gatherings or seek some quieter pursuits. And, while conversations of religious philosophies might be tolerated, political discussions could be volatile and engaging in such was best avoided.
Manta’s an easy city in which to live and it’s only going to improve. It has beautiful beaches and the influx of affluent Ecuadorians looking for vacation homes, foreign speculators seeking a good investment and retiring baby boomers searching for a place where their money goes further are spurring the growth of this city. The availability of fresh produce and seafood at economical prices is unsurpassed and the city abounds with excellent restaurants. Garbage pickup is daily and there’s good cellular service as well as cable TV and, depending where you reside, excellent Wi-Fi. The electricity costs appear to be much lower than Central America’s and there’s even an airport.
However, our ninety-day visa was close to its expiration date and it was time for us to move on. And, lest we sound like an ad for International Living, Manta’s not for everyone and it’s probably not for us. The dry climate that results from the offshore Humboldt Current gives Manta a mild and very pleasant temperature which draws many expats seeking to avoid the torpid humidity of Mexico and Central America. However, the aridity combined with the constant wind and dust can also cause a lot of respiratory problems for people predisposed to breathing difficulties (what the locals call gripe) and the rainfall, which would clean the air, is erratic and scant. It was usually cloudy during the months that we were there (September through November) but when the sun shone the skies were dazzling. We genuinely felt like we were leaving an old friend when we boarded the plane bound for Cartagena, Colombia.
By Anita and Richard