Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The long, winding road to Zaruma

Zaruma.  A beautiful town in the province of El Oro, tucked deeply within the green mountains of southern Ecuador.  Far enough away from any other major tourist destination to remain largely unknown to many travelers, it took me more than three years of living in Ecuador to finally make my way there.  With less than a month left in the country, though, we decided that one last road trip to a place neither of us had ever been would be a fine farewell.

We planned to leave Cuenca on a Saturday afternoon.  Time enough to have a quick lunch downtown after Nancy's final class.  I had already finished teaching a week prior, and thus we embarked on our trip unemployed and with no particular leads on jobs once we left Ecuador.  A potentially ominous beginning to a weekend getaway, and yet neither of us were particularly worried about such things as work.  After all, we were now officially on vacation, and what better way to enjoy vacation in South America than to get on a bus and go somewhere new?

The ride to Zaruma from Cuenca begins along the highway to Machala, which we both knew well.  I had been as far along it as Girón half a dozen times for various reasons.  Nancy had traveled up and down its length as far as Santa Isabel countless times since she was a little girl, in tow as her family made the rounds as young teachers in Ecuador's rural schools in the area.  She knew it well enough to begin to sense that something wasn't right as the bus made what I had assumed was a routine stop to drop off and pick up passengers on the side of the road just beyond Santa Isabel.  I too began to rouse myself from the half-sleep I had learned to fall into during long bus trips, as I picked up on the nervous tone of an increasing number of voices sounding from around the bus. 

I couldn't see much from where I was sitting, but apparently the driver was attempting to haltingly maneuver our bus down a road which had been washed out by a landslide.  That's not a particularly rare occurrence in a country built upon mountains of loose topsoil, where it is common practice to build farms and highways right on the open faces of hillsides.  Many techniques have been applied to reinforce the roads that twist their way around unlikely geographical contours, but give them enough time and rainfall and sooner or later they'll all go tumbling down the hill.

Apparently, the one we were headed down had done just that, and the driver was obstinately pressing along it.  I'm thankful I couldn't see just how close we had gotten to going over the edge, judging from the kinds of language issuing from the mouths of my fellow passengers.  Maybe the litany of voices in protest grew to enough of a crescendo to finally persuade the driver, or else we just got too close to rolling down the mountain for his personal sense of safety.  Either way, he threw it in reverse and resignedly headed back up the way we came.  Until the bus pulled off onto a side road, which was apparently a detour to where we were going.  And so we began wheeling our way around this loose dirt path never intended for bus traffic, and I occasionally glanced out the window to see how close we got to the edge.

That road, simply put, is not safe.  A look further along reveals at once how steep the hillside is below, and how loose is the rock, sand and gravel making up the terrain itself.  The total lack of any sort of guardrail, combined with the traffic coming from the other direction (not pictured) and the haste of the driver trying to make up for lost time will complete the sense of impending death for most people, I think.  To say I had never felt at risk on buses in Ecuador would be a lie.  But after my first few trips with no incident, I had learned to go along for the ride without worrying too much about my safety.  This particular trip admittedly put me on edge, though.

In the end, I found myself thinking the same kinds of thoughts that I always did on what I considered a dangerous bus ride.  The bus wouldn't be turning around, and we certainly wouldn't be getting off of it in some show of protest, in the middle of nowhere.  And telling the driver to slow down would either have no effect, or would just get him more frustrated.  Plus, as I've seen before, there are often passengers on board who thank a driver at the end of the journey for getting them to their destination sooner by driving faster (read: recklessly).  And so who was I to add my voice to the speculation already whirling around the bus.  When would we arrive at our stop?  When would the main route be opened back up?  Was this an official detour, or were we headed down an unknown route?

These concerns were soon replaced by new ones, as the bus stopped yet again.  Looking out the window, I saw a line of vehicles ahead of us.  Several passengers began to get out of their seats and leave the bus to check out the situation, and eventually curiosity got the better of me and I did the same.  A quarter of a mile up the road, heavy construction equipment high above the road was busy shoveling tons of dirt and rocks down, directly onto our path.  A sight like that made it very clear that we wouldn't be going forward anytime soon, and as I walked back to the bus, a line of vehicles had already formed behind ours.  We were stuck where we were.  I climbed back on board and curled up with my wife and daughter to the green, flickering glow of a poor copy of a Jackie Chan movie, dubbed into Spanish and showing on the built-in bus TV.

That movie had ended, darkness had set in, and an extended reel of Jackie Chan bloopers had begun before we started moving again. Earlier, I had gotten off the bus once more to check the progress of the road work, and saw that the dumping of dirt and rocks onto the road had stopped, and a new set of equipment had begun clearing it off and loading it into dump trucks.  An earth moving operation beyond my understanding.  Nonetheless, we were back on our way, and half an hour later we got back onto what Nancy recognized as the road to Machala.

We arrived in Machala that night around 9pm, having left Cuenca around 3.  A trip to Machala can normally be made in three hours according to our understanding, and we had hoped to be in Zaruma in about three hours more.  But travel plans must sometimes change, and instead of spending our first night in Zaruma, we found ourselves a hotel in Machala and called it a night. 

The next day we were back on the road. 

The ride to Machala, by any route, will inevitably take you from the cool heights of the Ecuadorian sierra down to the perennially steamy coast.  The ride to Zaruma takes you back up the mountains again, albeit not to the same altitude as Cuenca.  Along the way you pass through countless villages during that fascinating transition in climate and terrain.  Every small town brings a stop, a change in passengers and a sudden wave of vendors with baskets full of homemade snacks and plastic sacks filled to the brim with iced tropical juices.  Pan de yuca, pan de maíz.  Fresh oranges with the tops sliced off for easy access to their juicy interiors.  Corviche, cocadas, papipollo, plátano con queso.  And the list goes on.  Yum!

So many small towns come between Machala and Zaruma, all of them tiny, squeezed into spaces between leafy banana plantations or else clinging improbably to the side of a mountain, all of them brick and concrete buildings huddled around a tidy town square.  So many, that you begin to wonder between naps if Zaruma will be any different.

Then the bus stops again, and people start getting off.  More people, until the seats are nearly empty.  Finally, you hear the driver say "servidos," and you know you're not going any further, at least not on this bus.  So you must be there.  You get off the bus, on a street like this one, and you realize that after all, amongst so many other nondescript towns sprinkled throughout the valleys of southernmost Ecuador, Zaruma is different.

Small and remote enough to receive few international travelers busy checking South America's hot spots off the list in their guidebooks, Zaruma is missing the gratuitous tourist shops and hostels.  It has still managed to catch UNESCO's watchful eye, who are considering it for admission to its growing list of World Heritage sites. 

With some luck it will receive that noble designation while still managing to stay off the tourist's radar, and the next time I go back some of the faded glory of its oldest buildings will have been rightfully restored, without having been turned into the next high-dollar bed and breakfast.

A stroll around the winding streets of Zaruma's historic center carries you through neighborhoods that were never quite like those of other towns in Ecuador.  Houses built in a style not unlike those you might find in Cuenca, yet unique for their ground floor portales supported by columns.  Plus, they're all made from wood rather than adobe and brick.  Cobbled streets rambling up and down hills and sewn together by narrow walkways rather than the endless square blocks of other old Spanish settlements.  Maybe there were other places like this in Ecuador, strewn out across hills and carved from wood, like Guayaquil's Santa Ana, but most of those have burned down.  But so far, these remnants of Zaruma's past have managed to survive, protected by their isolation and by the stewardship of generations of the thoughtful holders of the deeds to these classic buildings.

Our own stroll around town was led by our stomachs, arriving in Zaruma around lunchtime as we did.  I had heard from friends who had visited Zaruma before that I ought to try the coffee, and the tigrillo.  Several consecutive semesters of teaching 7am classes turned me into a coffee drinker, and while I was enjoying a respite from work at the time, the need for caffeine still lingered on.  We were deep within Ecuador's coffee growing region, and the fame of Zaruma's coffee was second only to Loja's around the country, so I was determined not only to sample it while we were there but to bring some fresh roast back home with me as well.  Fortunately for us, every restaurant we walked by had tigrillo and coffee on the menu posted out front, so neither would be hard to come by.  The real question was which place to try, and ultimately we decided that location was the key.

We found a restaurant in Zaruma's town square, surrounded by some of its most well-preserved historic buildings and - like every square in every town I've ever visited in Latin America - a church.  The service was slow but it was only the second day of our extended time off work, so we were in no hurry.  While we waited we observed that the students of the Catholic schools in town appeared to be celebrating their confirmation, as dozens of young people in their uniforms gathered on the other end of the plaza near the church. 

Then, our food came, two plates heaping with deliciously chewy steamed and fried green plantains.  I love green plantain, and the texture of these was the best I'd tried at any restaurant.  On top was a generous helping of cheese melting from the heat of the starchy banana dumplings.  So that was tigrillo.  On the side was a nice, greasy pork chop.  There was nothing fresh or leafy on that plate, nor would we eat anything like that throughout our stay in Zaruma.  We got our vitamins and minerals from the fresh juice served with every meal, and otherwise filled up on tigrillo with every meal.  The coffee came at the end, and was as strong and rich as I'd hoped.

We didn't get up right away after we ate, but once we did it was to explore the city some more.

We had no real agenda throughout our stay in Zaruma.  We knew there were sights to see outside of town, and that you could hire a driver to take you around to them.  But we were there to do nothing more than wander around on foot and enjoy being on vacation in a beautiful and quiet town.

Every street was on a hill, and every corner led to four new streets of lovely buildings to see.  Some have been ushered into modern times with grace, and a hats-off bow to their origins.

Others sit with their paint peeling and windows broken, revealing with their sheer size a once-portentous purpose, and now waiting silently for one fate, or another.

Zaruma's historic section isn't huge, and the further you get from the center of town, the fewer the historic buildings become, outnumbered increasingly by uninspired, modern cement construction.  But eventually we wandered up a road until we left downtown and didn't turn back towards it, opting instead to see where it would lead us.  It was our fortune to have chosen a road that led to one of Zaruma's nearest tourist sites outside of town.

We had found El Sexmo, a now-defunct mine dug out in search of gold.  Gold is why Zaruma was given royal designation by Spanish king Felipe II in the 16th century, and is the name of the Province El Oro itself.  El Sexmo refers to a Spanish system of colonial taxation, in which the sixth part of all wealth exploited from the colonies would be owed directly to the Spanish crown.

We wandered up to the closed gate of the mine - now museum - late on a Sunday afternoon, but the children playing outside assured us it was still open and that we ought to ring the bell.  We rang it, and a quiet young woman came down to meet us.  While looking at no one in particular and saying softly that it was already after 5pm, she invited us in.  We told her we'd be happy to just have a look around, take a few pictures, and be on our way.  But as she walked with us up to the main buildings, she told us about an introductory video she could show us, and that we could take a self-guided tour of the mine shaft, if we were interested.

After we had seen the short video and learned about the mine, the woman returned to invite us again to walk into the mine, if we wanted to.  We didn't want to impose, and told her we'd just walk around the grounds for a few minutes.  After we'd walked around a little, a group of twenty or so university students from Quito had wandered up and were gearing up for a tour of the mine themselves.  The woman came back again and quietly insisted that if we wanted to see the mine, we ought to go ahead of them and avoid the commotion of so many people inside the mine.  So finally, we took her up on her offer.

We put on the prerequisite rubber boots and hardhat and headed for the mine:

Wife and babe (who didn't like wearing a hardhat), and some college kid.

The mineshaft led half a kilometer straight into the hillside.  Or so we were told.  We wandered back as far as this mannequin in a hardhat, and decided that once you'd seen a hundred meters of a mineshaft, you'd probably seen it all.  Plus, we could hear the troupe of college kids tramping their way noisily into the depths of the hillside behind us, and decided to head back before they caught up with us.

A gold mine in the literal sense, and the reason for Zaruma's very existence and prosperity.  Were Zaruma's streets once full of saloons and shoot-outs, like the boom-and-bust towns of the Old West?  Chances are it was more of a miniature Potosí, with Spanish criollo nobility trying out their new titles and doing their best to have their mansions built in the latest European style.

By the time we made it back into town, the sun had set and the streetlights had come on.  The next night we'd be back home already, and soon we'd be preparing for Christmas and our last weeks in Cuenca.  Zaruma was the first of many different kinds of goodbyes we'd be saying to Ecuador in the coming weeks, a chance to travel around some of its beautiful small towns and countryside one more time before our travels took us somewhere new.  Traveling gives you a lot of experience in saying goodbye, as it carries you into and out of the presence of other people and places.  Never knowing what the future may hold, we often ease the sense of loss we feel from a departure by speaking of how and when we'll see each other again.  So it was, that night in Zaruma, that we talked about going back there, someday.