A few miles south of Manta are a group of little towns each known by the unique wares that set them apart from their neighbors. Unlike the US, where it’s often difficult to distinguish between cities and towns with homogenous strip malls, big box and chain stores, it’s easy enough to pinpoint exactly where you are in this area.
Hat Town. Before we even reached our first destination, Montecristi, our friends all but hung their heads out the windows and inhaled deeply because we were passing a coffee roasting plant located off the side of the road. A-w-w-w! At a round-about, a statue of a woman, at least four stories tall and fashioned from tiles loomed over us, the effect slightly marred by bamboo scaffolding surrounding her for ongoing renovation work. Leaning slightly forward so that we had a view of her subtle smile and generous cleavage and supported by a traditional hat-makers stand, she was engaged in the art of weaving a hat.
And not just any hat but the original and misnamed “Panama” hat which was created in Ecuador but became famous when Teddy Roosevelt donned one while viewing the construction of the Panama Canal. The hats woven in Montecristi are an enormous point of pride with their residents because they are said to be of the finest quality. Stores line the streets, displaying not only the hats but beautifully woven hammocks, wickerwork, intricately fashioned straw baskets as well as rustic and good-quality handmade wood furniture.
Not to be overshadowed by its famous hats, the colonial city of Montecristi (founded in 1628) is also the birthplace of Eloy Alfaro Delgado (1842-1912), the leader of the Ecuadorian Liberal Revolution. A bronze statue of him resides in the central plaza in front of the elegant cathedral, Nuestra Madre de Monsarrate, alongside a huge and tiled mosaic of Alfaro’s portrait.
Statue Town. Upon resuming our journey we came to La Pila, also known to the locals as “Statue Town” for its ceramic statues of imitation pre-Columbian pottery, cherubs, dogs, horse heads, vases and other kitschy bric-a-brac and pottery lining the sidewalks and filling the stores. We stretched our legs and ambled about the displays for a bit, including the unadorned statue of the female potter at work – the city’s totem – but found little to tempt us among the goods.
Honey Town. Further down the highway is a wide spot called “Honey Town” where shaded tables display jars, large and small, of various shades of golden honey. We walked among the various stands, smiling at the sellers and, after bargaining a bit, we left with a good-sized jar of Ceibo honey ($8) in which a generous piece of honeycomb was included. In retrospect, the inedible, waxy honeycomb might have been an unwise choice as we could have had more honey!
A huge ear of corn, betasseled and partially husked, towers behind a mosaic sign spelling out the town’s name. Lore has it that the town’s mayor, at the time of the statue’s conception, wanted a statue that would rival his neighbors; who cares if no corn is grown in or around Jipijapa? The town serves as a trade center for cocoa, cotton and coffee and, while not a tourist attraction, has a very photogenic Parque Central and the Comunidad Mercedari Catholic Church which is in the process of being repainted.
Ceibo Town. Okay, we’re making this one up! However, these unique trees that are found throughout the area deserve mention. During our journey we saw the Ceibo (Say-BO) trees standing in groups or solitary silhouettes against the skies.It wasn’t hard to understand why ancient people believed they connected earth to the heavens and allowed the ascent of ancient souls. At one time the cotton tufts (kapok) that grew on the trees were used for life vests but now the trees have negligible commercial value and this, along with the old beliefs, may have led to so many of them surviving and flourishing even while much of the land around these trees has been converted to agriculture. The trunks and branches were a bright velvety green and some of the limbs still had last season’s kapok clumps clinging to them.
Puerto Cayo. Our last stop before turning back to Manta was Puerto Cayo, a town that’s getting hype in the investment and expat press but struck a huge note of “buyer, beware” for us. We were left with the impression of a nowhere town with limited amenities and few stores located on an amazingly beautiful coast where the beaches go on for miles. Speculators have bought up large portions of land and are, with varied success, attempting to sell these coastal lots in pricey developments to foreigners who dream of retiring in paradise. However, from what little we could see, vacant lots far outnumbered the few homes that had been completed and sat behind lonely gates. And, although the scenery provided during the drive is both varied and lovely, it’s a long way back to Manta…
By Anita and Richard October 2014