The Howler monkeys were a bust. We could hear them grunting high up in the Royal Palms, and we smelled their excreta (similar to the “apples” a horse will leave as it makes its way down the street in a parade), but except for some moving fronds, no sightings. It wasn’t a complete surprise since a group of school kids, 20 or so, set out less than a 1/2hr before us. What with their screams, shouts, and other teenage vocal discharge, this pretty much sewed up any chance for a primate encounter on this day’s outing.
So, as the family from Wisconsin, our guide Eduardo Meneses, and I made our way back to our driver Freddie and the van, I figured it would be a good time (I had dropped back to last in line) to relieve myself of the morning’s coffee. We had been walking for an hour and previously riding a 40′ motorized canoe for 2hrs before that, so now was as good a time as I was going to have. But the Chonta snake, Chironius carinatus, stretched out in the understory felt differently.
Bashful Bladder is a not uncommon urological condition that many males confront during our lifetimes. Often it can be outgrown as a man matures. Yet in an instant, I reverted to childhood as that snake and mine stared each other down. At the time, I didn’t even know that it was a Chonta, and though it didn’t look particularly venomous, it also didn’t look particulary pleased either.
And it wasn’t about to give ground at that point, based on its rearing its head along with about a foot of its 5ft long body. While I learned later that not only is it non-poisonous, and full-grown can become twice that length, at this point in my life herpitological taxonomy was not high on my list of must-do’s. Ever so slowly backing away I watched its 2 bright yellow longitudinal stripes slide into the brush in the opposite direction. Walt Disney was never like this!
Fortunately, our next stage, lunch and then a tour of a cacao farm, was far more lighthearted. Ninfa, the daughter of the farm’s owner, and a high-energy recent college grad, was our hostess and guide. After our main course of Pollo Seco, a regional chicken dish, she brought out a Stars-n-Stipes cake in our honor to celebrate the 4th of July.
Later she walked us through the land her great-grandfather had cleared 100 years before. By most chocolate experts, Ecuador is recognized as producing much of the world’s best bean, and the “Champaign” region of Ecuador’s best was only a short distance down the highway from where we were sampling this fruit. Ninfa took us from germination to seedling to grafting to the eventual harvest of the 1/2 dozen varieties her family grows.
She then demonstrated the advantage of 4 days of sun drying the seeds over oven-baking (less chance of mold and a better, richer flavor), and finally the roasting which transforms a fruity tasting pulp into what we know as nibs. These are ground into a cocoa butter which she mixed with her family’s crop of dragon fruit, and mango juice, and produced an amazing drink that became even more so with a bit of aged rum.
The whole day spent with Eddie, the owner of Guayaquil, A Guided Visit Tour Guides, was a wonderful exposure to the Guayas Peninsula. Eddie is a native of Guayaquil and his love of place is ever-present in his interactions with the network of farmers, fishermen, street shills, museum staff, and others he works with to show us the life here beyond the popular tourist guidebooks.
Earlier that day, while we glided through the mangroves very similar, and yet also very different, from the Florida biomes I’ve visited previously, we saw how the province and the central Ecuadorian government are working to halt further wetland destruction. The country’s 4th largest source of income is the harvests from shrimp farming and this industry has been the biggest threat to mangrove stands along the coast.
Many areas in the Guayas Peninsula have been reclaimed from those same shrimp farms and now the trees, crabs, and other elements of the original habitat are returning. But it’s still an uphill fight. It takes time, and curious tourists, to help more Ecuadorians see that saving and revitalizing the natural habitat can be as profitable, or in many instances more profitable than monoculture crop production. Next time you head to the Galapagos, stay awhile in the Guayas Peninsula and it will benefit us all.
But enough of this heat and humidity, an hour ago I plunked down the princely sum of $4.40 and bought a bus ticket to Zaruma, the original capital of El Oro Province. El Oro was originally named for the pre-Inca, then Inca, and finally the Spanish Colonial gold mines in the hills and mountains that spill into the sea, at the Peruvian border. Now the gold comes from bananas, and Ecuador leads the world in banana export. With a lock on the European Common Market, and a major share in the US and elsewhere, Ecuador means bananas and bananas mean Machala, the current provincial capital.
When I started my tour of the country after leaving Quito, Machala was high on the list. But with the chance to visit the Amazon Basin having become a reality, Machala lost my custom. I’ve been told not to regret this since the city has no tourist facilities, but I was essentially told the same about Guayaquil and found quite the opposite. Perhaps getting to or from the Galapagos I can make amends and find the time to visit the “ugly” port of Machala.
Seeing the port of Machala, which transits so much of Ecuador’s wealth, really is of high interest to me. And when people tell me that there’s really nothing of interest, nothing to see, I simply cannot accept their notion of what matters. Immersive diversion (hanging out in tourist bars, standing in lines for tourist attractions, etc.) is not what I consider touring. I want to know what/where/how a country works. Machala is a place where that happens.
And so is Chimbote, Perú. When I was in Lima I learned that Chimbote is the country’s largest fishing port, which like Ecuador’s bananas at Machala, makes Perú tick. So in a few months, after I’ve been run out of Ecuador, I’ll start to plan for the smelly fish-capital of Perú, and visit another town “of no interest.” But next is the mountain-sided mining town of Zaruma.
Well it’s now 8hrs later and I’m ensconced at the Hotel Zaruma Colonial and sitting out on a restaurant balcony enjoying both the end of daylight and my first meal since breakfast at 7am; I’m famished. I’ve only seen a small bit of this small town, but it looks like fairyland: most of the houses are wood, a rarity in Ecuador. This is the direct result of a disastrous earthquake nearly 200 years ago that totally destroyed the town. In rebuilding, the town leaders decided to abandon the plentiful stones nearby and harvest trees from the surrounding forests.
So. I’ve had 8hrs of sleep, saw the town square after sunset (top photo, really!), and now I’m off to the mines. But after breakfast, please…