Exploring new wonders of Ecuador’s western Andean flanks, part three
After one more pleasant night’s sleep in Salinas, we set off early in the morning again, to visit new and even more remote locations on the extremely pretty yet little visited province of Bolivar, in Ecuador’s western central Andes. Wacho, our driver-guide, picks us up and we set off towards the ancient village of Guanujo, some forty five minutes south of Salinas. The morning is a bit chilly and misty as we arrive into the quaint village, which boasts a more than 100 year-old church, with blue domes and whitewashed walls, arches and two lateral towers. Though it is closed and we cannot see the interior, we are told that it is quite impressive, replicating, at a smaller scale, the gold-leaf covered altars and walls of Quito’s magnificent colonial churches. The hand-carved wooden door is quite an artistic accomplishment…
We continue on the road that leads to the lowlands on the western strip of Bolivar’s province, bordering the coastal province of Los Rios. We will descend from Guanujo’s 9.000 feet of elevation, to just about 350 feet by the end of the day, on the interior coastal plains. The road is good, yet dizzyingly winding… However, the views are, once again, a succession of natural post-cards. From the typical high Andean moorlands and bucolic countryside, we begin descending steadily towards those magic and beautifully rare cloud forests, where lush vegetation, small cascades, waterfalls and small rivers carve deep gorges down below the steep and heavily vegetated cliffs. We stop several times to capture in photos the stunning view of a near-perfect layer of white clouds, kind of stubbornly stuck, right over the maze of river gorges, valleys and subtropical plateaus. For some minutes we imagine we are looking out an airplane’s window, rather than our Trooper van’s windows. We decide to call the sight, “the Sea of Clouds”; while a sharply pointed black mountain peak emerges ghostly over the layer of clouds, one more magic vision…..
An hour and a half after having left Guanujo, we have descended more than 8.000 feet and here we take a sharp turn to the north, leaving the main highway to use a secondary, yet reasonably well kept road, that will take us up again through a thick maze of subtropical, transition and cloud forests, teeming with dense vegetation, myriads of leafy bromeliads and some wild orchids, combined with patches of cultivated farmlands where the main products easily seen are bananas and plantain varieties; manioc, coffee, cacao, sugar cane and citrus fruits. An hour later we reach Mullidiahuan, a small and semi-lost settlement of colonists, some from the Andes, others from the coast, who have chosen to live on these secluded yet fertile lands. As we reach the main square, the villagers quickly look for Don Anibal, a man in his late-fifties, with his traditional hat, rubber boots, moustache and holding his machete, who soon shows up… He is the town’s tourism expert and will show us the area’s main attractions. After some fifteen minutes over a bumpy and muddy road we arrive at one of the many sugar cane mills which abound in the area. The place rapidly transports us to a century or more, back in time…. The mill is ran the traditional and totally artisanal way: either mules, horses or plain manpower move the rudimentary but sturdy wooden arms that spin the clockwise wheel which picks the sugar cane’s carefully cut chunks, crushes them, grinds them and emerges at one end as a slightly thick liquid, while the crushed fibers and waste are separated to be used as organic fertilizer… The liquid obtained will become, after an intricate process, either a very valued type of “aguardiente” or “fire-water” liquor, famous in the provinces’ well known Carnival festivities, or else to produce blocks of quality brown sugar blocks, as well as other sweets, artisanal-produced, mainly by the local women. Next we move to a complex of not very deep caves, where several archaeological pieces have been found. It is like a little “site museum”, just spontaneously arranged by Don Anibal and the villagers. The pottery and ceramic pieces look kind of eighteen to nineteen century; while some of the well carved stone utensils seem much older, possibly, I speculate, of Puruha origin, the name of a Pre-Columbian culture which inhabited the area, way before the Incas or the Spaniards’ arrival. Several small cascades frame the area adding beauty and mystery to the scene, while Don Anibal tells us fascinating stories and legends which, as everywhere, add the rich cultural touches and color to the exotic natural surroundings. Back to the center of the minuscule town, Don Anibal invites us to have lunch at his small and humble home, where his wife has prepared for us a succulent chicken broth, complete with a good piece of chicken breast, spices and peas. Another piece of chicken, accompanied by abundant rice and tomatoes complete the luncheon, as we say good-by to our warm and hospitable hosts, ready to continue our journey towards the coastal lowlands. That will be a new story to come later….