Experience indigenous culture on a superyacht cruise along Ecuador’s less-visited mainland coast with Kontiki Expeditions
We crossed the Buenavista River and followed a dirt road through ceibo and carob trees, past bulbous termite nests and women beating laundry against rocks, until we emerged into a clearing under a twisted ficus tree. . The shaman Plinio Merchán was waiting for us. Her body was painted in red roucou ink and a precious ceramic necklace, generations old, hung over her heart.
Merchán is the leader of Agua Blanca, an indigenous community descended from the Manteño, one of the oldest civilizations in South America. For 1500 years, ancestral knowledge has been passed down from father to son. But today, for the very first time, Merchán invited strangers to join him in a ritual prayer.
A trail of sawdust forms sinuous lines in the earth, and it is along this path that we walk barefoot. A pyre burns in the center of the circle and the air is scented with smoking palo santo. Merchán tells us to make a wish before calling down solstices and directional winds, blessing families and nations near and far, and ending the ceremony with the mournful whimper of a conch shell. This was not how I imagined life on a superyacht. It’s better.
The Shining, 128 feet M/Y Kontiki Wayra features nine cabins, a spa, jacuzzi, wine cellar and a deck to sip freshly chopped coconut juice. The trip I took part in begins and ends in Manta, a busy fishing port in the central province of Manabí in Ecuador. The flora and fauna of this region are not unlike what you will find in Galapagos. The big difference: no tourist ships.
Carlos Nuñez, whose family made a fortune in tuna fishing, started Kontiki Expeditions because he wanted to bring sustainable tourism to the little-visited coast of mainland Ecuador. By focusing on luxury yacht excursions, Nuñez is reducing his environmental footprint while creating jobs and supporting communities still recovering from the devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake of 2016. His idea was so novel that Nuñez had to offer 20-30% higher salaries to convince the deck crew to bet on their vision.
Every stop on my route serves this greater mission. When our plancha arrived at Gray Bay in Isla de la Plata, we were the only ones there. The island is part of Machalilla National Park, the largest in Ecuador. It is nicknamed “Little Galapagos”, or, more ironically, “Galapagos of the poor”, which drives guide Raul “Ruly” Menoscal crazy. “This place deserves respect,” grumbles the retired shortstop-turned-avid naturalist, noting that while there is some overlap in wildlife between the famous volcanic archipelago and here, it’s one of finest seabird reserves in the world. “It just suffers from lousy marketing.”
Isla de la Plata has a cap of 200 visitors per day in peak season, but Nuñez pulled enough strings to ensure we had the place mostly to ourselves. Park ranger Sandra Plua led us on a three-mile hike through seabird nesting sites, pointing out medicinal plants along the way: sticky berries, or muyuyo, are a natural laxative and screen solar; mimosa albida, recognizable by its frilly fuschia pompoms, is boiled for tea and used to treat menstrual cramps. Nazca boobies with orange traffic cone beaks staggered along jagged cliffs and magnificent frigates flew overhead, but I was particularly obsessed with an abandoned blue-footed booby who gazed longingly at the lady he had lost. and her new suitor.