Why 5 Days on the Road Instead of 5 Hours? – Slow Travel in Ecuador

Miranda Alta Mine in Zaruma.

Miranda Alta Mine in Zaruma.

From the Peru-Ecuador border of Huaquillas to Guayaquil it is a couple of hours drive; I reckon some 250 kilometers. I had checked some guidebooks and other tourist info and it didn’t appear that there was much of interest along the way.

I found a brochure from our previous visit to Ecuador about a petrified forest, inland from Huaquillas and decided that this might be a nice detour. This detour led to another, and a couple of surprising stops in between.

Our 5-hour trip to Guayaquil turned into a 5-day exploration.

Do I Have to See Everything?

Recently a fellow overlander remarked that he didn’t have to see everything to which I sort of automatically responded, “Neither do I.” But later I thought, “Don’t I?”

Well, we don’t have to see everything in the sense that I don’t keep a check list. On the other hand, we love to see and experience a lot of different things. Which means: leaving the tourist trail – or, more apt in our situation: the overlanders trail (in South America that’s pretty much the Pan American Highway). There is nothing wrong with tourist trails or overlanders trails, mind you, it’s just that there’s so much to explore. It’s not without reason we always spend so much time in each country.

Slow travel in EcuadorGoing off the main track doesn’t always bring interesting moments though. I remember during our previous visit to Ecuador we drove a couple of detours and were disappointed. We had driven a lot of kilometers for nothing. Such is life. But if you don’t try, you won’t find out, won’t you?

This time we struck it lucky!

The Petrified Forest of Puyango

There are three major petrified forests in the Americas: one in Arizona (US), one in Argentina, and one in Ecuador. The latter likes to claim in its brochure to be the oldest but I didn’t check that fact. Truth be said, how many zeros do you need to be the old? Does one more or less really make a difference? Trees that are 100 million years old? Can you imagine those kinds of numbers? I can’t. They’re old, that’s for sure.

The petrified trees are Araucarias (Araucaria angustifolia) which we have seen in Argentina and Brazil, but which no longer grow here due to climate change. The petrified forest has been protected since 1987. Wooden walkways meander among the trees and we enjoyed an early morning walk along collections of fossilized tree trunks and as a bonus saw a number of birds.

Puyango Petrified Forest, Ecuador (©photocoen)

Petrino tree, or pretino tree.

Petrino tree, or pretino tree.

The region was beautiful and peaceful. We had found a quiet camp spot behind some military ruins and decided to stay for the day and camp another night.

The Old Gold-Mining Town of Zaruma

Nice sculpture somewhere along the way.

Nice sculpture somewhere along the way.

We took minor roads through the interior to a small town called Zaruma. This is El Oro Province, and the name says it all: gold. The indigenous people extracted the precious metal before the Spanish came, the Spanish exported huge amounts of it, which was followed by Americans (20th century). Today gold is mostly mined by Ecuadorian enterprises and individuals. People sometimes actually live on top of their mines!

Downtown Zaruma, Ecuador (©photocoen)

Camping on the plaza.

Camping on the plaza.

Downtown Zaruma is characterized by steep, narrow streets with wooden buildings with balconies and arcades. This was all very lovely but the real surprise came when we learned we could visit two mines; one run by a company and another by an individual – which they call mina artesanal, and where no machinery is used.

We happily stayed another day for that. To make the visit complete we did visit the tourist mine of El Sexmo as well, where we could walk for 500 meters into a 2.5-kilometer long tunnel which was mined for 500 years!

Una mina artesanal.

El Sexmo Goldmine.

El Sexmo Goldmine.

A Banana Plantation

Time to move on. We took the tiniest roads we could find. Stopped in Malvas to check out the paintings on the ceiling of a church I had seen in a brochure, and stumbled upon this somewhat oddly placed old airplane.We meandered through the mountains, green all around us, but after we hit the 2,100-meter-high-pass the road ran into the mist. It was scary driving for a while, not seeing more than 5 meters ahead of us and having some close calls with oncoming traffic.

We meandered through the mountains, green all around us, but after we hit the 2,100-meter-high-pass the road ran into the mist. It was scary driving for a while, not seeing more than 5 meters ahead of us and having some close calls with oncoming traffic.

Malvas, Ecuador (©photocoen)

Cacao.

Cacao.

The weather cleared and the natural surroundings were replaced by endless cacao plantations – we have never seen so many cacao plants together – and banana plantations. Something caught Coen’s eye. He stepped on the brakes, drove back, turned left and stopped at the entrance of a plantation.

A group of people was harvesting bananas and processing them. We met Olmeo, the owner, and he showed us around the plantation while explaining the process of his high-quality bananas that are all exported to Europe. All men, and one woman, took pride in their jobs and enjoyed showing what they were doing.

Banana Plantation in South Ecuador (©photocoen)

Checking out the plantation with the owner.

Checking out the plantation with the owner.

Banana Plantation in South Ecuador (©photocoen)Coen remarked that this was exactly what we love about our travels. He had been part of a tour group in Costa Rica once when visiting a banana plantation. Sure he got to see part of the production, but all visitors had to keep a distance and the workers weren’t too excited about sharing their stories (because they had to do it 10 times a day, I guess).

It just doesn’t come close to stumbling onto such a place and receiving all this kindness and hospitality while learning so much in the process.

And that’s what we call slow travel, and this is why we love it.

Additional Reading

All photos by Coen Wubbels. Follow him on Instagram here and here.

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