Category Archives: Ecuador

There’s Something Fishy About Manta

tun on a stick statueManta, Ecuador isn’t a pretty city.  At its heart it’s a small fishing village that has grown into a substantial metropolis with an estimated 300,000 citizens.   Although the city has existed since Pre-Columbian times, there are no cultural ruins and little aesthetic appeal in the gritty commercial downtown.  example of streets in downtown, Manta Narrow one-way streets climb up and down the steep hills attended by sidewalks in need of repair as crowds of vendors and shoppers move in opposing directions and swirls of activity. The vast majority of the downtown, one or two blocks set back from the waterfront, consists of relatively new and unimaginative structures: two, three and four-story cement and cinderblock square buildings, predominately gray or in need of a new coat of paint, their sides plastered with posters and signs. If the architectural term “Eastern Bloc” existed it downtownmight well apply to this portion of the downtown. In contrast, the Malecon, the main street abutting the Pacific, running along the beach from Playa Murcielago eastward to roughly Playa Tarqui, hosts recent, modern, commercial edifices of glass and steel of several stories.  Here are the larger banks, government buildings, hotels and the like. But, regardless of where you are in the city, tower cranes, arc welders and cutting torches attest to the fact that the city is in a genuine boom phase, both commercial and residential.

city beach near portshrimp and prawns happy fish mongerManta has the largest seaport in Ecuador as well as one of the most stable economies in the country; fishing, tuna processing and canning are the main industries.  We half expected the city to reek of fish but this wasn’t the case. The fish market, a huge open-air structure roofed in tin and located on the beach was worth several morning visits. Tables were piled highfresh caught fish with more varieties of fish than we had ever seen (tuna, dorado, corvina, red snapper, grouper, wahoo, prawns and lobster, etc.) with the fresh catch of the day glistening under stray shafts of sunlight. The flash of machetes and fillet knives slicing through the sea’s bounty and the salty smell of the sea and fish in the air gave us a new appreciation of an ocean harvest. Mid-day, after the crowds depart, the market is washed down; later on in the day it might turn rank, but there are the scavengers (frigates, egrets, herons and buzzards) waiting their turn to help with the final cleanup.A fishermans famliy

At three roundabouts on the Malecon sculptures are erected that reflect Manta’s roots as a village of fishermen and seafarers. building a boat Here, also, we watched the skilled boat builders of Manta craft their handmade ships and, near the Manta Yacht club, we admired the yachts and other ships and boats floating in the bay.  Tourism, both foreign and domestic, is becoming more and more important to Manta’s economy; assorted cruise ships make Manta a port of call. When the ships are in port, local vendors from the city and nearby Montecristi as well as those from the mountain cities of Quito and Cuenca set up their tables and display their handicrafts, textiles and artwork from many of the country’s finest artisans.welcome to Manta

The citizens of Manta were some of the most welcoming and friendly people who we’ve yet encountered.  Although the expat numbers are growing (estimated to be around 350) the ratio of gringos to locals makes this one of the most “authentic” places we’ve been.  Taxi drivers were friendly and we had many conversations in Spanish, and occasionally English, as we were speedily delivered to our destinations.  We made many friends in the active expat group which met several times during the week and our social life varied only with our desire to participate in the many gatherings or seek some quieter pursuits. And, while conversations of religious philosophies might be tolerated, political discussions could be volatile and engaging in such was best avoided.boats bobbing

fresh produceManta’s an easy city in which to live and it’s only going to improve.  It has beautiful beaches and the influx of affluent Ecuadorians looking for vacation homes, foreign speculators seeking a good investment and retiring baby boomers searching for a place where their money goes further are spurring the growth of this city.  The availability of fresh produce and seafood at economical prices is unsurpassed and the city abounds with excellent restaurants. Garbage pickup is daily and there’s good cellular service as well as cable TV and, depending where you reside, excellent Wi-Fi. The electricity costs appear to be much lower than Central America’s and there’s even an airport.

However, our ninety-day visa was close to its expiration date and it was time for us to move on.  And, lest we sound like an ad for International Living, Manta’s not for everyone and it’s probably not for us.  The dry climate that results from the offshore Humboldt Current gives Manta a mild and very pleasant temperature which draws many expats seeking to avoid the torpid humidity of Mexico and Central America.  However, the aridity combined with the constant wind and dust can also cause a lot of respiratory problems for people predisposed to breathing difficulties (what the locals call gripe) and the rainfall, which would clean the air, is erratic and scant. It was usually cloudy during the months that we were there (September through November) but when the sun shone the skies were dazzling. We genuinely felt like we were leaving an old friend when we boarded the plane bound for Cartagena, Colombia.seafarer

By Anita and Richard

 

Drivin’ Along in My Automobile … to Puerto Lopez

 

Puerto LopezWe’d wanted to visit the bustling fishing village and eco-tourism hub, Puerto Lopez, south of Manta since we’d arrived in Ecuador and when Barb, our Canadian mentor and friend here in Manta, invited us to drive there we jumped at the opportunity.  Puerto Lopez serves as headquarters for the Parque Nacional de Machlilla, a whale watching port and is a jumping off point for the Isla de la Plata, known as the Poor Man’s Galapagos, which hosts many of the same sea and shore birds as the Galapagos Islands with a day trip costing only $35. trees forming a tunnel

a change in climate - coolerIt was an overcast day as we climbed away from the arid landscape of the coast; the leaden sky gave up a light fog which in turn yielded to a fine mist. The grayness of the drizzle contrasted sharply with the lush greens of a micro-climate through which we passed for a time and then, once we crested the hill and began the descent, we returned to the cacti and scrub of the native coastal desert.coastal desert

roadside eateryDriving through the more typical barrenness of the land, we slid through the nondescript pueblos of the campo, the countryside, of Ecuador. There was no glitter in La Pina, no tourist destinations in Santa Rosa. The surroundings through which we passed were the earthen tones of the uncompromising land itself; the dull red of the bricks, the unpainted gray of the cinder blocks and the fading gold of bamboo turning a monotonous brown with the passing of time.  The colors seemed to be drained by wind, sand and salt air and within were sheltered extended families striving to eke a living from the land and sea.  And somewhere within the mass of dwellings would be one or more churches each proffering its claims of grace in the afterlife as precious little of it was available here. This was the rural side of Ecuador and its people not, as yet, invited to sit at the tables of the middle class.  In this nation of relative prosperity, the country folks stood in stark comparison to their city cousins

near La Pina

As if to mirror the image projected by the villages, the sea faded into the sky, foam pushed close to shore, the rocky shingle of the beach mocked the absence of the sandy stretches elsewhere to the north and south. The view was more stark and on this particular morning it appeared that the seascape was about the immensity of the ocean itself, offering little succor.bluffs of Machalilia beach

We were well past the mid-point of the trip to Puerto Lopez when we pulled into the sleepy little village of Machalilla outside the national park of the same name. It was a small town of indeterminate size with a concave malecon circled around an arched, sandy bay.  Three parallel streets crowded into the bowl area delineated by the highway which hugged the hill furthest back from the water. The town was in desperate need of a facelift: stucco patching, fresh paint for the buildings as well as asphalt in the frame-rattling pot holes. But the beach was a scenic attraction stretched around a half-moon bay.  Small fishing boats were lined up on the fine sand or in the water among larger ships rigged out with fishing nets. After reconnoitering the city and snapping a few photos we departed for our final destination.Machallil Bay

Puerto Lopez beach A few more miles and we arrived at Puerto Lopez. The humpback whales had departed the waters near Puerto Lopez for the season as had several species of birds from the Isla de la Plata.  We walked down the new pier for a long overdue view of the sea birds. Peruvian pelicans, closely related to the brown pelicans of the U.S., were in fine form plunging again and again into schools of fish close by the pilings.Peruvian Pelican

Peruvian PelicansSmall terns harassed the pelicans unsuccessfully as they emerged from their headlong dives with their beaks streaming with seawater and a morsel of fish. Overhead the Great Frigate Birds circled and looked for opportunities to quickly snatch a tidbit from an unwary, feathered competitor. Gulls, few in number, sat in desultory knots away from the action with little hope of getting into the game. The black vultures drifted on the winds or hopped about on the sand dejected by the paucity of options available to them at the moment but their time would come when the fishing boats returned.

We ambled by the numerous hotels, hostels and tourist agencies and browsed through the souvenir shops before we sat down to a fresh seafood meal, indifferently cooked, of shrimp and rice.  After a bill negotiation with a waitress who had trouble adding accurately we climbed back into the car and pointed the wheels north towards Manta. Our slow journey was retraced through the small villages and rural areas while we kept an eye out for the wild burros that we had seen alongside the road.wild burro by the ocean

By Richard and Anita

 

Adding Up the Costs: The Galapagos Islands

galpsaOver the years we’ve watched several documentaries of the Galapagos Islands and have always thought, right along with millions of others, “Wow!  Would we love to visit there s-o-m-e-d-a-y!”  Upon our arrival in Ecuador we started researching affordable ways to visit the islands that were somewhere between the high-end luxury cruises and backpacker hostels.  Most flights embark for the 1½ hour journey from Guayaquil which was only a little over a three hour bus ride from Manta where we’ve been staying.  We  consulted a couple of travel agencies whose prices were roughly $999 per person, for a four day/three night stay in a four-star hotel with meals included, excluding beverages.   A five day tour, with the same inclusions and exclusions was $1299 per person.  Not covered were tourist/park fees and docking fees.  We read a few articles online, talked to friends about their visits and decided that we wanted to add extra days as well as select which islands we wanted to visit.  And so we planned our own “Indie” excursion.galapagos tortoise

Day One

We took an early morning cab to the bus station ($2) and boarded the bus line Reina Del Camino (Queen of the Road) to Guayaquil with our previously purchased tickets, $5.00 for adults, $2.50 for seniors for a total of $7.50. Upon our arrival at the major bus terminal in Guayaquil, a three-story affair, we claimed our bags and then cabbed ($4) to the airport.  The bus terminal and airport are actually adjoined but one-way streets necessitated an extended drive around the parameters of the two facilities.

Our plane fare on Avianca Airlines was $577 for two round-trip tickets from Guayaquil to Baltra Island in the Galapagos.  We were a little out of sync with the order of steps and procedures but they basically boil down to:

  • Stop by the Consejo de Gobierno del Regimen Especial de Galapagos for the control card for transit into the Galapagos ($20 for two people).
  • Next go to the Inspeccion y Cuarentena, a quarantine that checks to make sure you’re not bringing in seeds or other items that could affect the balance of the flora and fauna in the archipelago. Bags will be scanned, checked and stickered.  Some people elect to get their luggage wrapped in multiple layers of plastic but we’re not quite sure why.
  • Finally, we checked our two bags, proceeded through security and awaited boarding.

park ticketsWe landed without incident on Baltra Island at the small airport and claimed our checked bags.  Customs was a breeze and we were separated from another $200 for two people for the Galapagos Islands National Park entrance fee. Our passports received the requisite stamp for the Parque Nacional Galapagos.

We followed the crowd to the waterfront and deposited our suitcases with a man who heaved them on the roof of the covered launcha, clambered aboard and set off for the Isla Santa Cruz, the island we were staying on ($2 ). Upon disembarkation we reclaimed our carry-ons, and boosted ourselves and our luggage onto a bus for the 45-minute ride to Puerto Ayoro, the largest metropolis on the islands, with a population of perhaps 12,000 hearty souls. The bus, incidentally, was gratis. At the terminus we hailed a taxi (a bit of a price gouge of double the normal fare at $2 for the short trip) and proceeded to our hotel.

We had reserved our room through AirBnB previously and found The Hotel Fiesta to be charming, clean and quiet although the room was small. It was also very close to the “downtown area” and restaurants and was a great value at $100 per night, including tax and gratuity, for a total of $500. The room included an enormous breakfast of fruit, yogurt, granola, coffee/tea and juice which was then followed by eggs, bread, cheese and sausage or ham. The Hotel Fiesta also had a travel agent, a delightful woman named Deanna, who booked all our tours for us, including a lucky break on a highly desired island tour.Galapagos

Day 2

We explored Santa Cruz beginning with a walk of roughly 6 miles round trip from the hotel to Playa Tortuga on the island. The vegetation was remarkable and the ocean view was spectacular. Small birds showed no fear and wandered freely around us. Afterwards we went took another ambling walk around the Charles Darwin Center (free) to view rescued land tortoises and large multi-colored iguanas.iguanas

Day 3

blue footed boobiesWe joined a small group for a 4-hour tour of the Academy Bay ($70.00) and cruised by some of the smaller islands and rocky, jutting cliffs for up close glimpses of sea lions, sea turtles and blue-footed boobies. We beached at a rocky point for a walking tour where we saw marine iguanas emerging from the sea and heaving their large bodies over the lava rocks, finally gaining purchase on the sandy beach and hence into the sparse vegetation searching for warmth under the scorching sun.  A calm lagoon had at least twenty white tip sharks floating and sleeping.  Snorkeling was the final activity but only three stout hearts attempted it because, hey, the water was c-o-l-d!  The boldest swimmer made it no more than 15 minutes with only a few fish seen. On shore, following a late lunch at a wonderful Italian restaurant, we wandered over to a pier adjacent to the fish market. The vendors were gone but we were treated to very close encounters with large Peruvian pelicans.sea lion and cub

Day 4

We’d scheduled a tour to North Seymour Island (cost $320 for a couple which included meals) and our day started at 8:00 AM when a shuttle picked us up to transport us to the north end of the island.  Here we caught our boat for the day, a 37 foot Bay Liner, for the 1 hour trip.  North Seymour Island is a flat-topped island, an uplifted piece of the ocean floor raised during one of the tectonic upheavals that created parts of the Galapagos.  Aridity was the hall mark of this island but here we saw sea lions with their pups, some suckling and some juveniles old enough to brave the waters for short periods. As for our avian viewing highpoint, the male Magnificent Frigate Birds were courting and in full display with completely distended air sacks – brilliant red with black spotting.  The Lesser Frigates were fun to watch but no competition for our admiration and the Blue Footed Boobies, while not in abundance, were sufficient enough to fill our quota.Magnificent Frigate Bird

Day 5

Our last tour, St. Bartolome Island, was a genuine score for Deanna, our hotel’s tour agent, ($340 with meals).  This island, especially, has a very high demand for on-shore tours and a daily limit of people allowed.  We started our day at 6:00 AM with the shuttle across the island followed by a 3-hour boat ride to St. Bartolome Island and an exciting sighting of a few manta rays.  The island shores are a combination of rugged bluffs, sandy beaches and pyroclastic lava flows from 1898 which almost resembled an elephant hide in places and served as a geological lesson in island building.  At a second drop site, we climbed 364 steps that circled the island’s extinct volcano for a panoramic view of the whole island.  On our way down we were lucky enough to spot sea turtles regally swimming by, penguins darting rapidly in and about the water with a couple on shore and curious sea lions cruising by the beach for a closer look.  However, the only apparent inhabitants appeared to be grasshoppers in this stark landscape. The long boat ride back was drowsy and filled with quiet talking and gazing out at the water, contemplating our visit.????

Saint BartolomeAnd on Day 6 we retraced our route of taxi, bus, launcha, bus, airplane, taxi, bus and taxi finally back to our apartment in Manta.  The final costs, $1,808, are summed up below:

Transportation (Buses, taxis, launchas, airfare) – $639

Meals – $219

Tours – $730

Park Fees – $220

We saved where we could but we didn’t skimp because this journey will be one of the highlights of our travels.  Going to the Galapagos Islands can be done for much cheaper with hostels starting out at $25/night or it can be done for a lot more money in luxury accommodations.

By Richard and Anita

What We Lost: Burgled On A Bus

Although we were careful with our belongings, we must have become complacent during our travels.  Bad luck finally caught up with us and we became the victims of theft.

We arrived home to our apartment in Manta in the early evening after a long day of travel.  We had begun at 6:45 with a taxi ride on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos to catch a bus to the ferry that took us across to Baltra Island.  From there we flew back to the Ecuadorian mainland into the large port city of Guayaquil and grabbed a taxi to reach the bus station.  After buying our tickets we scrambled a bit to find our departure point and made the bus with only minutes to spare.  We settled in to our comfortable seats for the three-and-a-half hour ride back to Manta and the last taxi taking us (finally!) home.

photo available from http://www.canstockphoto.com

photo available from http://www.canstockphoto.com

We arrived home tired but very happy with our visit and began unpacking our carry-ons, piling up dirty laundry and putting our things away.  And then we turned our attention to our backpacks.  With a sinking feeling I pulled out the bag with the charging cords (camera, I-pod, Kindle) and didn’t see my camera wrapped in its bright blue woven bag from Guatemala.  I pulled out the charging cord and mouse for my computer and, with a slow, sick feeling growing in my stomach, made sure all the compartments were empty.  I compulsively patted my backpack front and back. I looked around at my belongings strewn across the bed, checked under each item and verified that my computer, wrapped in its green padded bag, was also gone.  I twisted my backpack side to side as if my computer might magically reappear but the bag was still empty – the camera and computer still gone.

We had taken turns taking pictures on our cameras of all our sight-seeing in the Galapagos Islands and had carefully downloaded the photos each night when we returned to our hotel in case one of the cameras was damaged or lost.  Our Wi-Fi was so slow that uploading our photos to Dropbox, our cloud-based storage file, to back them up wasn’t really an option.  However, we thought we’d pretty much covered the bases…

When did the theft occur? Our best guess is that it happened on the bus from Guayaquil to Manta.

The first suspicious incident happened when an official looking man asked us to move from our assigned seats to more inviting seats towards the front of the bus which we complied with.  However, the rightful passengers appeared shortly and requested their assigned seats. At this time an official in the uniform of Riena Del Camino, the bus line, assisted us and back we went to our original seats.  Both times our attention was divided between picking up our backpacks and gathering up the items we had removed and then stumbling along the narrow aisle while curious onlookers watched.

The second suspicious incident happened when I noticed that my pack had fallen on its back by my feet and was slightly pushed under the back seat rather than leaning against the bus side on my left where I’d first placed it.  Thinking that the bus movement had shifted its balance I moved it upright again without checking the contents.

The important questions are: “What have we really lost?”

  • One of two of our fairly new computers with the contents mostly backed up and recoverable. One of two of our small cameras with over half of our photos of the amazing Galapagos.
  • Our “travel virginity.” In return we gained the realization that we were singled out as vulnerable targets.
  • And, maybe, our faith in the travel gods. Our future journeys may always include less trust in the people around us.  We’ll be more watchful, more guarded and possibly more suspicious.

    photo available from http://www.canstockphoto.com

    photo available from http://www.canstockphoto.com

We live a minimalistic lifestyle as long-term travelers with each item carefully selected and chosen.  But the loss of a computer and camera is much more than the loss of a few of our possessions.  It’s about the diminution of our confidence in ourselves and the people around us who we had formerly greeted with open smiles and trust.

Something’s changed.  Call us less naïve and complacent…. and tally up a small win for the dark side.

By Anita and Richard

 

 

 

Going Up Country

Both of us remember as kids piling into the family station wagon for Sunday drives to “see the scenery” and we both had the same thought: “B-O-R-I-N-G!”  Fast forward to present day and it’s readily apparent how much we’ve changed.  A road trip is a cornerstone of travel and the thought of a day spent exploring new towns and countryside can leave us with a sense of giddy anticipation. north of Manta

We headed north of Manta through a series of small “don’t blink your eyes or you might miss them” towns.  Because we’ve found that this area of Ecuador seems to be very aware of its image and protective of its environment, we were surprised when piles of garbage and random trash appeared dumped beside the road for a stretch of a few miles.  We spied a large landfill off to the side, servicing the large military reservation in the area, along the otherwise scenic route and once we left it behind we began to enjoy the views again.  Our favorite trees, the ceibos, appeared and we began wending our way through the low hills.row crops

As we moved inland from the coastline we began noticing small farms of row crops, many with solitary or multiple workers bent over their tasks – stoop labor. Among the offerings we recognized were onions, maiz, pole beans alongside banana and plantains.  Picturesque rice paddies appeared with egrets scattered here and there in the shallow water near workers standing in the mud, hunched over and laboring at the work of tending their crop as in years gone by. Rice paddies

We arrived in Bahía de Caráquez, with an estimated population of 20,000.  As a coastal town situated at the mouth of the Río Chone, it’s a popular vacation destination for residents of Quito and Guayaquil and has begun to attract foreign visitors and retirees as well as investors in the last decade.  Tourism is a significant source of income and, with its high-rise condominiums and hotels located along the waterfront, this new, vertical construction has earned Bahia the nickname of “Little Miami.” Numerous fishing boats, pleasure boats and yachts of various sizes were moored at Puerto Amistad near the bridge which crosses the Rio Chone.view of Bahia from San Vicente

Because it’s a small town there’s not a lot to see but we had a terrific time looking for and taking pictures of the colorful variety of tuk-tuks and pedicabs. There is talk that a new mall with a modern grocery will be coming soon and this will reduce the need for the frequent trips to either Portoviejo or Manta for some basic shopping.

pedi-cabtuk-tuks galoreWe crossed over the Los Caras Bridge, admiring the boats on the bay and drove through the small town of San Vicente which appeared to be largely ignored by tourists and no comparison to its wealthy neighbor. Here, as elsewhere through our journey, we noted the widespread use of bamboo as a construction material for houses, shops and many examples of split rail picket fences.bamboo construction

bamboo fencelongitude why not latitude?) signPassing by occasional roadside signs that counted down our longitude we reached our final destination, a little fishing village named Canoa (0°28’59.9″S 80°27’04.5″W).  Maybe because it was mid-afternoon or low season the few streets seemed almost deserted although it’s a popular tourist destination. Shops and small eateries lined the sandy street adjoining the huge expanse of golden beach that sold beachwear, souvenirs and basic groceries.  Surf lessons for beginners and intermediates were advertised and there were several of the obligatory surfboard shops and hostels as well.mainstreet Canoa

And finally, it was time to feast on some amazingly fresh and cheap seafood at a little thatch-roofed beach restaurant while we admired the view of the Pacific Ocean, bluffs off to either side and scattered fishing boats along the quiet and almost empty beach.Canoa BeachCanoa Beach

By Anita and Richard

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wooden Ships: The Boat Builders of Manta

wooden beautyWooden Ships, the song performed at Woodstock by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and featured on their first album, may well be remembered by many members of our generation. The ballad came to our baby-boomer minds when we first viewed the magnificent wooden yachts and fishing boats in various stages of construction, tear-down and refurbishing.  All the overhauling and building is taking place in dry dock on the sands near Playa Tarqui here in Manta.cleaning and repairing the hull wooden ships

There does not appear to be a great deal written about these craftsmen or the work of the shipbuilders on the beach adjacent to the fish market. Manta, with an estimated population over 300,000, still feels like it’s not much more than an overgrown fishing village although it’s now a major exporter of tuna and other seafood within which a financial sector has flourished. So it’s logical to assume that the profession of building wooden ships has been known and practiced for generations, if not for centuries.a slow process of repair

The current craftsmen still rely on hand tools. Chisels, hammers, adzes, awls, knives, machetes, nail sets and the like are wielded to work the wood to create ribs, hulls, decking, super-structures, etc. Some of the wooden beams and planks are machine milled but not to uniform dimensional lumber. The individual boards are selected one by one, measured and cut separately to match the adjacent plank and the gaps between are sealed by caulking. The beam and ribs are chosen for the grain with a natural bend being required and are slowly shaped so the main supports, to the extent possible, are intact pieces of lumber and not ones “sistered” or jointed.erecting the hull

To seal the spaces between the planks, the fibers of de-husked coconuts are used. These tough strands are roughly woven into a fibrous rope held taut between two men while being worked to form a sinewy caulking that is later covered by water repellant sealers.

Photo by Al Eisele of MantaExpatsOnline

Photo by Al Eisele

Photo by Al Eisele of MantaExpatsOnline

Photo by Al Eisele

As a concession to modernity, a limited assortment of power tools are used in the construction including small chain saws. Some of the wooden ships and yachts, which are covered in fiberglass, require powered grinders and buffers for a finished application. These, alongside the Asociacion de Carpinteros de Manta of which the craftsmen are members, show that this native industry has kept pace with the times.fiberglass cover on the hull

almost ready!It’s been decades since the release of the song Wooden Ships; we’ve aged and changed and could even use some refurbishing of our own. And yet we have little reason to believe that much has changed here on the beach in Manta. Certainly the fiberglass coverings, the chainsaws and the associated electrical accoutrements are a more recent addition. But it’s not hard to imagine that the profession of building ships is passed down through the generations from father to son.  And there’s much to be said for the refurbishing of those ships that have been used well and meticulously restored to their former incarnations allowing them to go to sea once more.ready to be refurbished

By Richard and Anita

Special thanks to Al Eisele of mantaexpatsonline.com for permission to use his photos.

 

A Town By Any Other Name…

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.

Welcome to MontecristiHat 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.

original Montecristi "Panama" hats Montecristi hatsAnd 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.

Cathedral & FounderNot 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.

woman potterkitschy ceramicsStatue 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

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!

Corn Town. The last pueblo, and most pleasing to the ear, was Jipijapa, traditionally spelled Xipixipa. Pronounced “Hippy-Hoppa,” the mere mention of the name invites a smile.Jipipapa

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.Parque Central

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.CeibosIt 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.ceibo in velvet

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

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