Southern Exposure 5: Day 10, Ecuador

After a day at sea we arrived in Ecuador at sunrise on October 24, the morning after the Nats won the second game of the World Series from the heavily-favored Astros. Thankfully I am able to watch on the ship’s television. Inning Seven will go down in the history books.

At 6:30 in the morning the Zaandam tied up alongside a long pier across from two Mexican naval vessels and  near a vast harbor with scores of moored fishing boats. This port town in Ecuador is called Manta, a city of about 200,000 and very different from Panama City. There are no high rises here, and most buildings are old, some quaint, but most mundane. Our excursion began at 7:30 and took us as quickly as it could directly out of Manta on a winding two-lane country road along the coast. The only road near  where we were which appears on Google Maps is “Pan American15, ” but it is hard to believe what we were on is major highway. The narrow road took our bus loaded with two dozen passengers from the ship up and down steep hills for a drive taking over two hours. We passed through a dozen or so small villages– settlements, really—and one small fishing village. Our destination was a large national park about 50 miles to the south along the shore, which was home to one of the county’s largest “dry forests.”

The real story of the morning for me, however, was what we saw along the way. Embry and I have seen first hand a lot of poverty in the world. We have visited remote settlements  in Tanzania and Kenya and in India and Southeast Asia where people live in makeshift homes or huts along dusty roads, often without power or fresh water. We were not aware that villages like this dominated this part of South America, but here they were, staring us in the face. Every settlement we passed along the way consisted of homes similar to those we saw in the jungle in Panama but even more bleak. This may have been due more to the surroundings than the homes themselves. Instead of a luxuriant rain  forest with blue skies overhead, the houses we saw along this lonely stretch of road in Ecuador were surrounded by gray bushes and shrubs covered with dust under a steel gray sky. Our guide,–also very good, like the one yesterday, knowledgeable and easy to understand– pointed out that this part of Ecuador was just coming out of its winter season when it does not rain and all the leaves fall off the trees and shrubs. This was the “dry forest,” the main attraction of the tour. In the mist and under the dark gray morning skies, to us it mostly looked like a wasteland and another reminder of just how hard scrabble life is for a lot of people on the planet Earth.

The other thing that he pointed out was that Ecuador is one of the most climate-diverse countries in the world with dozens of microclimates. Not only is most of the country mountainous with peaks well over 10,000 feet, Ecuador  also includes the Galapagos Islands. 

On our way out we drove through a cloud forest with fog and mist and along occasional fields of green. Most of the time though, everything was gray and dreary.   When we arrived at the national park, except for two police cars, our bus was the only vehicle in  a parking lot that could accommodate at most about 50 cars. Though overcast the area was beautiful in a haunted sort of way with towering cliffs and a wide, sandy beach surrounding an inlet from the Pacific. Most of us in our group took off our shoes and walked along the two mile-long beach for an hour or so before hopping back on the bus. A couple of Scots and two younger guys from our group jumped in the chilly water and paddled around, later insisting that it was really not all that cold.

The trip back brought us to a small archeological site in a  deserted valley served by a trickle of water which when the rains come in several weeks will turn into a raging river. Our two-mile  hike along the riverbed took us through several banana farms and small huts occupied by subsistence farmers. Emaciated goats, horses and occasional pigs roamed the area. At one point when the trickle in the riverbed emptied into a small pool, we saw a dozen or so women  washing clothes and a couple bathing. This is a part of Ecuador that I suspect few tourists see. You could not call it representative of the whole country because Ecuador is so diverse in terrain and climate. The bulk of the population of this small country, smaller than any other country in South America except Uruguay and about half the size of France,  lives in the mountains in and around Quito. At an altitude of almost 10,000 feet Quito has a metro population of  over three million in a country with a total population of only 15 million. It is too bad that we will not be able to go there. It is the second highest capital in the world and the closest, large city to the equator. It is also too bad we will not get to see the Galapagos Islands.

In stark contrast to the poverty we observed as we inched along on the winding two-lane road, we had lunch on the top of a coastal mountain overlooking the sea at a small, upscale resort with outdoor tables surrounding a swimming pool and a hot tub perched at the edge of a cliff. The food and service were excellent and another reminder that vast disparities are a way of life here. 

On our return the sun finally burned through the gray clouds and mist and turned the gray Pacific Ocean into sparkling blue. The dust covered shacks that we passed on the way back did not seem quite so bleak as they did going out, but it will take more than blue skies to transform lives of toil and, what would appear to me anyway, with more than their fair share of misery.

I suppose that a shortcoming of this cruising adventure is that we will see so little of the countries we visit and our experience will be superficial, just skimming the surface. This is surely a fair statement to which I reply that just a touch is better than nothing. Tomorrow another day at sea and then our first of three stops in Peru.

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