From the Peru-Ecuador border of Huaquillas to Guayaquil it is a couple of hours’ drive; I reckon the distance is some 250 kilometers. I had checked my guidebooks and it seemed that the first part of our travels in Ecuador wouldn’t be the most interesting.
I was wrong.
I found a brochure from our previous visit to Ecuador about a petrified forest, inland from Huaquillas and decided that this might be an interesting detour. This detour led to another, and a couple of surprising stops in between.
Our 5-hour trip to Guayaquil turned into a 3-day exploration.
From Straightforward Travel in Ecuador to a Slow-Travel Mode
A fellow overlander once remarked that he didn’t have to see everything to which I sort of automatically responded, “Neither do I.”
But later I thought, “I don’t?”
Well, we don’t have to see everything in the sense that I don’t keep a checklist. On the other hand, we love to see and experience a lot of different things. This 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 more to explore. It’s not without reason we spend so much time in each country (generally speaking, the maximum time that our visas allow).
Taking off-the-beaten-track trails doesn’t always bring interesting moments though. I remember that during our previous visit to Ecuador, we drove a couple of detours and were disappointed. We had driven many 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!
This time there were three amazing stops along the way:
1- 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 over 100 million years old? Can you imagine those kinds of numbers? I can’t. They’re old, that’s for sure.
Puyango was formerly a sea; the oldest fossils correspond to marine organisms. This sea dried up, populated with forests and animals, organisms that after hundreds of years, due to great natural events were buried underground. Finally, by geological movements typical of the Earth’s crust, these remains came to the surface again forming an invaluable sample of the remote past of the planet. The most recent fossils found are 60 million years old and the oldest fossils reach 500 million years.~Wikipedia
The petrified trees are Araucarias (Araucaria
As a bonus spotted a number of birds (there are 150 species of birds here).
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.
Practical Information on the Petrified Forest of Puyango
- The Petrified Forest is about 100 km south of Machala, near the Peruvian border, and four hours south of Loja.
- Locally the forest is called ‘El Bosque Petrificado de Puyango’.
- The dry season runs from June to November.
- There is a museum on-site, but it was locked when we were there.
2- The Old Gold-Mining Town of Zaruma
We could have known that a provincial name such as El Oro has a reason – Gold. And why didn’t that ring a bell when we saw the scarred landscape with clear signs of mining going on? It was only after a day of strolling Zaruma, an old gold-mining town, that we realized that this name was not only related to the past but to the present as well.
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
Villa Real de San Antonio del Cerro de Oro de Zaruma – Zaruma, for short – was founded in 1549. Downtown Zaruma is characterized by steep, narrow streets with wooden buildings with balustrades and arcades. This was all very lovely but the real surprise came when we learned we could visit two mines.
The first was a mina artesanal, and where no machinery is used. We drove uphill for three kilometers, part of which was Zaruma’s first road. Indigenous people lived here 1400-1200 before Christ and already dug gold. The Spanish entered the settlement in 1536 through this path, which was followed by Jews and later English, French, and Americans who all wanted to profit from the gold.
We stopped at the Miranda Alto Mine where we met Saul. He started working here when he was 15 and did the job with some 35 others. They worked for a boss and thus received a salary. It gave less stress than at some other places where workers were paid by the amount of gold-containing stones they carried out, Saul said. The company had a physician and they worked from 8 am to 3 pm.
The work was better than before, he said. No more child labor and you could work in the mines only when you were 18 years old. Even though women used to work in mines a lot too, they were better protected by the law at well.
It was an interesting visit, for sure.
We visited the tourist mine of El Sexmo as well, even though these organized sites aren’t really our thing. Having said that, to walk 500 meters into a 2.5-km-long tunnel which had mined for 500 years was impressive.
Practical Information on Zaruma & Gold Mines
SexmoGold Mine is the main reason to visit Zaruma. Most of the mine is closed to visitors, but the 500-meter long tunnel is impressive to see. The mine lies just outside downtown Zaruma.
- Miranda Alto Mine isn’t a site for visitors but around Zaruma you will find a number of locally run mines. Give it a try if you like, and see if people are willing to share their stories to get a better idea of what their lives are like.
3- A Banana Plantation
It was time to move on. We took the narrowest roads we could find. We stopped in Malvas to check out the paintings on the ceiling of a church I had seen in a brochue, 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.
Additional Reading on Slow Travel in Ecuador
- Geocaching In Ecuador – Another Way of Slow Travel
- Slow Travel – Does it Really Matter Where You Are?
- How Can Birds in Ecuador Remind You of the Airlift in Berlin?
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.
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.
Originally published in 2017 / updated in 2020
Travel in Ecuador – Recommendations
- Bathing in Luxury at the Hotel Casa Gangotena in Quito
- Horseback Riding to Ancient Pyramids At Hacienda Zuleta (Ecuador)
- Why the Galápagos Islands Are Worth a Visit (and how you can visit them)