I’ve always had a weird relationship with so called “party towns.” In case you’re not a familiar: party towns are small backpacker havens that exist solely for travelers to party and relax comfortably in a scenic back drop. You can find them mostly in South East Asia but it would seem there are a few sprinkled elsewhere around the globe as well.
Last year in South East Asia I didn’t fare so well with the party towns: I was grossed out by Ko Phi Phi, depressed in Vang Vieng and cautious at the Full Moon Party in Hat Riin. All around me people were having wild drunken fun but I just couldn’t relax.
Now I like to have wild drunken fun as much as the next twenty-something girl, but something about these places just rubbed me the wrong way. When you boil these places down what you have is essentially a bunch of (relatively) wealthy foreigners going wild without having to worry about things like “money” and “laws.” People who have flown thousands of miles to get high, eat french fries and watch Family Guy at a bar in Laos.
On the one hand I try really hard not to be a judgmental traveler. People can do whatever they want as long as they are respectful to the locals. Still, the weird artificiality and the strong differentiation between the western consumers and the local vendors really ate at me, and I just couldn’t loosen up. I felt like an old lady; “turn that down!” “put on a shirt, you’re being disrespectful!”
Which is why I had mixed feelings on spending the holidays in Montañita, Ecuador’s beachside party town. On the one hand, I was dying for some beach time after months in the Andes, but on the other hand, apparently I’m an old lady who hates fun and partying. Mmm, things could go either way.
Actually, things turned out pretty well because Montañita is nothing like those Asian pleasure islands. It was fun, and it was relaxing.
The first time I walked down the street in Montañita was absolutely surreal: it felt like I’d transported back to Thailand. Everything was bright and loud and western. There were street vendors and restaurants selling fruit juice and crepes. Instead of colorful bucket sellers there were tiny street side bars serving every cocktail imaginable. Even so, the atmosphere felt entirely different because:
It’s Not Just Gringos
In SE Asia there seemed to be a strong differentiation between the western tourists and the people serving them. It made me uncomfortable: sure they were making tons of money off the masses, but their businesses were also entirely dependent on catering to foreigners. You would rarely, if ever, see a Thai tourist on vacation to Ko Phi Phi.
In Montañita things were more diverse. There were quite a few gringos from around the world, but there were just as many if not more Ecuadorians, Colombians, Argentineans and Chileans. This wasn’t just a vacation spot for backpackers- it was for everyone.
Ecuadorian Culture still Dominates
Although very different from anywhere else I saw in Ecuador, Montañita still retained some of it’s local charm. There are many foreign owned businesses but Ecuadorians are still running the town, the dominant language is spanish and the place has a unique charm. This was particularly evident on our fiery Ecuadorian style New Years celebration.
People Were Relaxed
It was easy to party hard in Montañita, but it wasn’t the hedonistic free for all of somewhere like Ko Phi Phi. Nobody was puking in the streets or starting fights, people either relaxed at a street side bar or danced at a club or listened to a band, but they did it all with good humor. Maybe it’s because the crowd was on average a bit older than you’d find in Asia, or maybe it’s the extreme prevalence of marijuana. Can’t say.
In any case, the place felt more relaxing and less cliche-d than any other party town I’ve been to. It had it’s downsides: it drained our wallet for one thing, and I got pretty damn tired of hearing the same 5 pop songs played on a continuous loop (if I never hear Party Rockers again I can die happy). Still, for a little while at least I was able to shake my guilts and hang ups and actually have a good time.