The little-known past of Valdivia lies half-hidden in the dry countryside along Ecuador’s southeast coast, noticable only to a discerning eye or found in collections gathered into small museums.
Zipping up Ruta 15 along Ecuador’s southwest coast with our guide was an eye-opener for Gary and me. We had heard little about this part of Ecuador and were excited to be seeing it through the eyes of a long-time Guayaquilano.
From Guayaquil north the terrain had changed rapidly from verdant green to cactus and ceibo and then to savannah. This area is known as the Libertad Peninsula, where the great forests that once dominated are now only grasslands.
All around us were seas of grass. What looked to us like a bare landscape hides a rich history and ancient relics from some of this land’s earliest cultures, brought to light by our guide.
Discoveries of an Ancient Culture
A 6000-year-old civilization once thrived here. Few people know this, but if you watch for kilometer marker #89 and look to the right, you can see a berm built by the Valdivia culture. Ruy learned about this site from an archeologist friend.
The people of Valdivia were great hydrologists. They had no rivers running through this part of the country, so they devised berms, or albarradas. These horse shoe-shaped embankments were used to catch run-off during the rainy season and store it for use during dry periods.
Water entered from the side and accumulated as in a basin. Then the side could be tapped for irrigation.
The culture of Valdivia arose in Ecuador about 3800 B.C. The Valdivians were traders, not warriors. They domesticated plants and animals, made pottery and exchanged goods with Mexico and the Andes.
Visit one of several local museums for more information and relics of the Valdivia era.
Here in the Libertad Peninsula people grow grapes, light green and dark burgundy colored ones. The land is nearly all savannah—dry, yellowed grasses this time of year–and banana plantations. Houses are small brightly-painted split bamboo, built on stilts. We passed a turnoff to the left that leads to a Valdivian excavation twelve kilometers further. I made a note to explore that road on our next visit.
Now is the cooler season on the Ecuador coast and Ayampe. Soon the whales will be making their appearance here, from June until October. They come in riding the cold Humboldt currents from Antarctica.
Making Mud Monsters
We sharply to the right down an asphalt road that shot in a bee line into the flat, arid countryside. There was not much to see in any direction. Sitting way out in nowhere, all alone, is Telesforo Villacres, billed as “hot medicinal waters.” Another sign called it Banos Terminales de San Vicente.
We each paid our $2 for a mud bath and thermal soak in the hot springs, changed into our bathing suits and headed for the building in the back of the complex. There we found a large mud pool out in the open.
Several slightly human figures were lounging around the edge or submerged in the depths. These slick black humanoids were pretty scary looking, like monsters from a horror movie, but soon we three looked just like them.
I gingerly made my way into the slimy slough, feeling sharp rocks with my feet, so I kind of floated and drug my way along the top of the mud, then covered myself from head to toe with it. I spread handfuls of the black goo all over my face and hair, forgetting that it contains minerals that would burn my eyes, so I had to keep my eyes shut until I dug the mud away from them. The mud smelled good, like, well, minerals. . .
We walked around the pool to dry off in the sun. I growled at a little boy sitting in a lounge chair and staggered toward him. He only looked at me calmly but pretty soon he was growling and stalking his family like a miniature Frankenstein.
It didn’t take long in the hot sun before we began to dry and crackle and look like poorly-made pottery. After showering off we enjoyed leisurely soaks in two of the mineral springs, one warm and the other warmer, but not really that hot. The second one is apparently bottomless, but the bubbles keep pushing you back up and away from the pool’s center, so it’s impossible to get very far down to investigate the depths.
Signs posted in the bottomless pool suggested silent meditation, but several rotund Ecuadorian men in the pool kept up a loud and lively discussion. The only way to find any quiet was to float on my back with my ears underwater. Ahh, peace and silence at last!
Next time we can have a steam bath with aromatic herbs like eucalyptus, hierbaluisa and rosemary for $3 or a $4 sabila (aloe vera) massage.
Leaving Telesforo Villacres, we were only about one hour from Ayampe if we took a nearby shortcut to the right and bypassed Salinas. But we wanted to see Salinas and prove to ourselves that we really can find those special food items and other necessities that many gringos just can’t live without. The seclusion of beach life is fine for a while, but what happens when I get a craving for Pringles?
Salinas is a city of about 150,000 people if you also include the populations of the nearby towns of Santa Elena, Libertad and Ballenita. The beginning of Ruta del Sol, or Route of the Sun, Salinas has a large university, a good hospital, two oil refineries and a port dotted with wooden boats. There are tall condominiums that appear vacant during the week but fill with happy revelers and sun-worshippers on weekends and holidays.
Driving along Aveneda Segunda eventually brought us to a large shopping mall filled with enough loot to satisfy most any gringo’s desperate need for shoes, tools, clothes, greeting cards, jewelry or a bank. Just about everything you could desire for a proper material life is right there under one roof.
I found a toy store, nail kiosk, surf shop, optometrist, beauty shop, pharmacy, two phone stores, a play zone for kids, food court and best of all—Supercines 6. General admission is $3, retired is $1.50.
The mall contains the Hyper Market, a very large grocery store that tries to provide everything on earth. Along with groceries it also has hardware, garden tools, bathroom fixtures, really nice casual clothes and bathing suits, shoes, cosmetics, paint, appliances, gift wrapping, movies, even motorbikes!
Really good news is that a new 4-lane highway is under construction from Salinas north. This will reduce the one-hour drive from Salinas to Ayampe by about 15 minutes and make the trip far less bumpy. Right now it is still 2-lane with the 4-lane slated for completion in approximately six months.
Ruta del Sol
Ruta del Sol, or Route of the Sun stretches all the way north to Esmeraldas, near the Colombian border. Not exactly PCH along the California coast, but you can still put the top down and glide along at a fair clip, unlike the poorer quality roads from Cotacachi to Esmeraldas which are full of potholes.
A String of Tiny Towns Dots the Coast
These towns appear very much alike, but each has its own characteristics. Markedly different from the clean and orderly landscape we began with out of Guayaquil, these villages are chaotic, cluttered and seem pieced together without much forethought.
Salinas is dry with very little rain. After Salinas the next town is Capaes, with cute all-white houses, good surfing but a dangerous undertow. People only go there in the summer.
The shortcut road near the thermal baths ends up near a gas station in San Pablo, the next town north. This small fishing village has thatched cabanas on the beach and kite surfing. The beach is good and you can walk far out into the ocean.
The highway travels very close to the beach along this stretch.
There are lots of both active and abandoned shrimp farms and salt evaporation lakes for making sea salt. Morton Salt partners with a company here. The farm-raised shrimp, though not as tasty as ocean shrimp, is carefully tested and contains no antibiotics.
There is a beach with pink sand nearby but we didn’t stop to check it out. The government intends to make this area a major tourist attraction and there is plenty of roadwork going on.
Next is San Pedro, site of a once-vibrant Valdivian civilization, but now just a dusty fishing village with ramshackle buildings. Tourists will have little reason to stop here.
But the next town, Simon Bolivar, is an amazing success story. Once very similar to San Pedro, this town is literally cleaning up its act.
My next blog will highlight the amazing difference two foreign foundations have made in Simon Bolivar and another nearby village in only a few short years.