I came across one of my old travel diaries the other day and found passages I had written in 2018 when I spent my university summer travelling up the north coast of South America from Peru to Ecuador. The entries begin with this, “Here I am in the depths of Latin America, with no one to help me but myself. The feeling I have right now is somewhere between lost, confused, and homesick.” They end with, however, this: “It was a beautiful morning; the sun shone and I walked along the shallow part of the shore feeling like a desert island mermaid.”
I remember this trip, along with trips to northern Peru and the west coast of Morocco, as being some of the best times of my life, and I put some of that down to the benefits of traversing off-the-beaten-path.
35mm film from the islands off of northern Ecuador, by Anna Juliet Stephens
I’ve always liked to travel to less-touristy, more authentic places, and Latin America has proven to be perfect for this. Of course, as a woman travelling alone, you have to be cautious (always), but if you’re sensible and find opportunities like working abroad, you can be very safe. I travelled to Ecuador from a surf and party town called Mancora, in northern Peru, and had originally planned to travel to Montanita on Ecuador’s west coast, a much bigger, better known and relatively popular tourist surf spot.
However, a few days before leaving, I asked the owner of my hostel where he’d recommend I go, given his aligned interests in surfing and wildlife and his insight as a long-time local. He said Mompiche (pronounced mom-pich-ay) – a much smaller, fishermen’s town, with many fewer tourists, but one that is “authentic, with long beaches and empty waves, the people are friendly and it’s far up on Ecuador’s remote north coastline, in Esmeraldas”. I was sold.
A couple of buses and one border crossing later (thankfully, I had a $5 note tucked randomly into a pocket in my bag that I used for the final bus journey inside the country, or else I would’ve been stuck with my useless Peruvian soles), I arrived.
I got off the bus and felt like I’d be transported to another continent. It was truly remote, with a couple of chickens clucking around and dark-green earthy nature, but the thing that struck me the most was that the people themselves seemed different. This is perhaps because of Mompiche’s unusual, and possibly mythical, past – it is said that a Creole community, originally from Africa, settled there after a slave ship sank off of Ecuador’s northern coastline in the mid-16th century (according to a local history pamphlet, at least).
My diary entries describe the town as “quite unimpressive at first,” but this is probably because I immediately got lost, walking in a huge circle before I eventually found my hostel, a big wooden house placed on the beach itself with handmade wooden kitchens and dining areas spilling out directly onto the sand.
I soon fell in love with Mompiche, core memories being the incredible street food of empanadas and buttery corn on the cob, the long black-sand beaches completely devoid of anybody, the friendly, laidback locals and, of course, the surfing.
Surfing in Mompiche
Surfing in Mompiche was something otherworldly, involving lots of bright-blue electric jellyfish that looked like space creatures with their vibrant tentacles but didn’t really hurt much when inevitably they stung (apart from that one time I pulled one out from underneath my ankle surf leash strap where it had lodged itself).
I used to surf near Playa Negra, the long black-sand beach that glitters as if composed of a million stars, and that also happened to be where a giant turtle would spend its time, drifting in and out of the beach and – I found out – sometimes surfing the waves. I decided to paddle alongside it once, curious to see where it would go until I saw it turning slowly in the current and letting a wave pick it up, at which point we proceeded to surf the wave together, side by side. It was in one of the remotest places I had ever been to, but I ended up with the best company I could have imagined.
35mm film photo of Mompiche – a local family
Since then, I’ve travelled to other, similar towns which have stolen my heart and given me some of the best memories of all my travels. This includes Lobitos, in northern Peru, which is more remote than the popular tourist spot Mancora but has some of the best left-breaking waves in the world and a friendly community feel.
When I last visited, in 2019, there was only one restaurant in the entire town, but the numerous surf hostels and communities dotted along the dusty coastline made up for it. Similarly, when I travelled to Morocco last year, I was torn between visiting Taghazout – a famous, safe and relatively developed surf town – or Imsouane, which I knew was much more rural and difficult to get to, but I had heard it was some people’s favourite place in the world. I chose Imsouane, and was so glad to have done so.
To get to Imsouane you have to take one or two taxis from the square in Agadir city, and we were lucky to have a local haggling the price for us as haggling is a cultural norm in Morocco and you’ll be overpaying without it.
Imsouane is currently somewhere in between a rural fishermen’s town and a surfers’ paradise – it’s still authentically Moroccan, with the best restaurants being those that don’t show up on the map (and the tiny shack where a man makes chip baguettes, the best double-carb post-surf snack) and fresh bread and fish available at the crowded harbour. It’s developed enough now, though, to offer a multitude of hostels and to find other travellers to befriend along the way.
Travelling to the less-touristy, off-the-beaten-path places usually feels overwhelming and nerve-wracking, to begin with, but it’s worth pushing past any such feelings, as the best adventures do – as the saying goes – begin outside the comfort zone. Having a place to work or volunteer abroad, where you know you will be looked after and around a community, really helps.
35mm film of Imsouane surf spot ‘the Bay’, Morocco
Take the leap
WorkingAbroadhas a plenitude of opportunities where you can volunteer in places of wilderness, areas of remote beauty, support different cultures or even spend time in locations you may never have heard of. Volunteer with marine biologists in the sea forests of southern South Africa by following this link, gain hands-on experience with some of the world’s biggest sea turtles in Grenada here, or immerse yourself in supporting the lives of rural community members in Nepal here.
Life is short, but the world is expansive; take the leap into the unknown and thank yourself later.
Written by WorkingAbroad Blogger Anna Juliet Stephens