photo of a street at night beside a harbor, crowded with cars and people, winding around a roundabout with buildings and bright lights

From our very first night in Ecuador we knew our sensory experience would be unlike anything we had ever experienced before. What we did not anticipate was how much of an impact the sounds around us would have on how we have felt about our time in various places. 

Sure, we expected to be surrounded by the sound of Spanish being spoken all around us. Our expectations were quickly realized when we stepped up to the passport control officer at the airport in Guayaquil and we were met with rapid-fire questions in clipped, but tourist-friendly Spanish. But nobody could have prepared us for the volume and auctioneer-like speed of the sales pitches emitting from loudspeakers atop passing trucks everywhere we’ve been, whether they are selling fruit or fish or propane or water… or want to buy things you don’t want anymore. Either way, they’ll let you know (if you can parse the Spanish!). 

Then there’s the non-stop symphony of roosters crowing, dogs barking, donkeys braying, and other unexpected sounds that we have encountered throughout the country. I had a children’s book-inspired image of roosters greeting the sunrise with a hearty cock-a-doodle-doo and then settling in for a day of scratching at the ground and pecking at bugs. But in actuality, chickens and roosters cluck and crow at all hours of the day and night, each one trying to outcrow the others. Over time, Al and I have mostly acclimated and become inured to the sound. We recently spent a week in Mindo in what I lovingly refer to as Ecuador’s Garden of Eden, where the local fauna had the run of our Airbnb’s property. We had some of our best sleep in Mindo, lulled by the gentle whisper of the nearby river, and soothed by the sound of rain on the wooden roof. But just to remind us that even Eden has challenges, one pre-dawn morning a rooster took up residence immediately under our open bedroom window and gave us a full-volume rendition of his favorite (only!) song. There was no chance of sleeping through that!

photo of a small fluffy white dog wearing a gray sweatshirt looking up and barking

Not to be upstaged by the birds, the dogs of Ecuador compose and deliver their own nightly canons, starting at dusk, then quieting for a few hours, then reawakening with a crescendo towards dawn that a person would need to be dead to sleep through. Their vocal range spans from the nails-on-a-chalkboard yips and squeaks of the smallest pups to the throaty barks and yowls of the big dogs and every register in between. I love dogs, don’t get me wrong, but I want to give each one an electric bark-control shock collar for Christmas (early).

The humans have their own ways of making themselves heard above the din. One fun pastime, particularly among the population under 40, is modifying one’s mode of transportation to maximize its aural impact. In Bahia de Caraquez, the coastal town we are in now (see photo at top),  there is a road running adjacent to the beach, and people spend hours driving up and down the malecon (oceanside boardwalk/road) in all manner of unmufflered vehicles, gunning their engines and generally making as much noise as possible. What fun! It usually reaches a fever pitch by Saturday night, when you honestly can’t hear yourself think and your fillings start to shake loose in your mouth.

But nothing, and I mean nothing, could have prepared us for the music. We actually love the reggae- and salsa-infused Ecuadorian cumbia music, which seems to be universally popular. Unfortunately—and I’m aware this may make us sound like curmudgeons, but hear me out—people here seem to have an unusual tolerance for volume and cacophony. We first noticed it when we took a long-distance bus ride. Moments after pulling out of the bus depot, the driver began playing music through an improvised speaker system wired the length of the overhead luggage compartment. The song list was what we have snarkily come to refer to as “Ecuador’s soundtrack” because it seems to play on every bus we’ve ridden and in every mall we’ve visited. This is mostly a melange of bad ‘70s and ‘80s American rock bands—remember Journey, Asia, and Toto? You’d recognize the songs!—along with a handful of forgettable one-hit wonders (we’ve heard “Bette Davis Eyes” on at least three bus rides). Add a sprinkling of Michael Jackson, The Beatles, Genesis, and Alan Parsons Project, and then just to make it more eclectic and jarring, randomly insert technobeat Latin pop songs and a few traditional boleros (acoustic love ballads) for good measure. Often the driver will play only the first minute of each song before growing bored and jumping to the next one, but still has the soundtrack on for hours. Such joy! 

In case that’s not enough to make a person want to open the emergency hatch in the ceiling and climb out, there is a decided absence of headphones in this country. Weirdly, nobody seems to own a pair even though they are for sale everywhere, including on the buses. Inevitably, once everyone is settled in for the duration, people start to pull out their phones to entertain themselves. It might be a telenovela (soap opera), YouTube videos, music, or a long conversation with a friend, but regardless of their choice, it’s always out loud at full volume. Just as you are thinking it couldn’t get worse, about two hours into the trip the driver will put a movie on the screen at the front of the bus, usually something loaded with chase scenes, explosions, and gratuitous violence, and he makes sure everyone from first to last row will be able to enjoy it.

Put together—the weekend parade of revving engines, the passion for booming techno/reggaeton (not sure what it is? Check out the link here: Reggaeton example – and think about it being so poundingly loud that the air vibrates and the knickknacks dance off their shelves) and a culture of all night gatherings on the malecon—you have a perfect storm of ear-splitting, soul-crushing, sleep-depriving chaos. On weekends here in Bahia, from the end of the afternoon to the wee hours of the night, entertainment takes the form of cars parked along the sea wall, their open trunks filled with speaker stacks the size of steamer trunks hooked up to the car’s stereo system. Everyone has their own idea of what music to blast and they try to outdo one another for volume. It is complete madness. The police just shrug and drive on. Dogs, donkeys and roosters head for the hills. I think even the tide wants to be out to escape it. 

photo of the trunk of a small red car filled with two large, round audio speakers
Creative Commons image

Lest you think the soundscape here is nothing but torture, there are some surprises on the other end of the spectrum. One notable difference between here and the Boston suburbs is the nearly complete absence of aircraft. Some of you may remember the eerily quiet skies in the weeks following 9/11, when all flights were grounded, and the lack of air traffic noise was a shocking contrast to the normal, near-constant thrum of planes. Well, here it is the rare day when a plane passes overhead. Another is that all landscaping and lawn care, where it exists, is done with machetes and human power. Absent are the infernal leaf-blowers and power mowers and their incessant din, to say nothing of the smell from their exhaust. We could not be happier about that! Also worth noting is that in general people here do not use their car horns to express their emotions. If there is traffic for whatever reason, people just wait it out politely and seem to take in stride that there are going to be dogs, roosters, donkeys, and pedestrians sharing the road with them. (Of course, they do toot to say “hello”, “I’m passing you” or “heads up!”—they just don’t lean on their horns in anger.) 

And lastly, the soundtrack that I have come to treasure most is the sound of content children. Honestly, in all the time we have been here I have yet to hear a truly unhappy baby or whining, needy child. When they are not drowned out by other noise, the air is filled with their laughter and gaiety. It is a balm for the ears and soul.

What we have discovered is that every place has a unique soundscape, some more pleasing to us than others. We have enjoyed many nights drifting off to sleep to the rhythmic slap of waves hitting shore. Some mornings we have been sung into consciousness by the melodic voices of warblers and finches. Even along the malecon on a rainy weekday, the only sounds are raindrops, the surf and a breeze passing through palm fronds. 

Yet both the quiet and the noise are part of what makes being here, and traveling in general, so special. I guess going to each new location is like being on Let’s Make A Deal—behind curtain number one you might get a surprising trip or you might get barnyard animals. Either way you’ve gained from the experience and might have a good laugh about it later.

photo of a three-tiered waterfall surrounded by leafy green trees, pouring over gray-green rocks into a bubbling grotto.

9 thoughts on “Soundscapes

  1. Lane Klein says:

    Thank you, thank you, for a double experience. I relived our visit with you in Santa Marianita, especially the vendors blaring their presence as they motored down our dirt road, the bird calls, the surf and the music. I also heightened my awareness of sights and sounds here in our Florida neighborhood and realize how much they contribute to my sense of place.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Russ Klein says:

    You are, indeed, a gifted writer! This is a wonderful piece. I love the juxtapositions. I can relate to this on many levels, especially the absence of aircraft, lawnmowers, and leaf blowers; but also the music, the roosters and dogs, and the loudspeakers. It all really comes to life for me through your words.


    1. Rachel says:

      Thanks Russ. I had a feeling you would be able to relate. It’s interesting that so many of our sensory experiences are similar despite the distance between West Africa and western South America.


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