Agua Blanca: Legacy of the Manteños

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On the banks of the Buenavista river valley there once reigned the chiefdom of Salangome, one of the most important aboriginal population centers in the province of Manabí. They belonged to the Manteño culture, who shared a comercial, fraternal bond with the Huancavilca culture. This powerful commercial alliance was made up of the communities of Tuzco (Machalilla), Sercapez (Puerto López), Salango and Salangome (Agua Blanca). More than six hundred settlements testify to its grandeur. Together with the chiefdoms of Jocay and Picoazá to the north, Salangome was one of the most important city-states in the Pacific coast. Today, just over three hundred people preserve the legacy of their ancestors in this, their territory.

Ceramic remains can be found all over the area of Machalilla, including Agua Blanca.

The modern history of the ancestral community of Agua Blanca (Salangome) begins with the archaeological explorations of the Scotsman Collin McEwan. In the late 1970s, the explorer worked with Ecuadorian archaeologist Presley Norton, who, together, put the ancient cultures of Manabí on the map of history.

Archaeologists began their studies on Isla de la Plata, but it was the number of archaeological pieces belonging to the Salangome culture that would constantly attract them like a magnet to this place.

A central attraction of the community of Agua Blanca: ceremonial burial remains.

More than 650 stone structures, one after another, were studied. Little or nothing was known of their origins. The archaeological project that McEwan directed for more than a decade was well received by the local community, who now proudly have become keepers of this knowledge. The studies were accompanied by an organized social structure that resulted in the success of this community tourism project. In 2020, Agua Blanca was named Magical Town (Pueblo Mágico), one of four on our Pacific Coast.

Much of the locals now live off tourism. There is not much agriculture in the area. “It’s our own decision,” says Paúl Martínez, president of Agua Blanca. “They wanted to evict us a long time ago, but now we manage our own territory,” he continues. More than 9,000 hectares within the Machalilla National Park are included in the comunal grounds, which begins at the foot of the Chongón-Colonche mountain range.

The forests protected by Agua Blanca, in seasonal transition from dry to wet…

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A Manteño stronghold

Agua Blanca has its own museum. In it, we find models of traditional houses. The structure is almost identical to those of today, it is rather the construction materials that differentiate them. For example, the tagua and ivory wood ceilings cannot currently be used due to their scarcity and conservation status. The houses, with high ceilings, were about fifteen meters high, with a surface area of about fifty meters. The bamboo covered with clay serve as pillars of the present day museum, just as was customary in the days of old Manabí.

In Agua Blanca architecture replicates ancient Salangome constructions.

More than a thousand archaeological pieces give life to this jewel of Manabi’s ancestral history. Each one tells stories from different periods, from the Valdivia (the oldest civilization known today in the entire American continent) to the Manteños (present at the arrival of the Spanish), to whom the inhabitants of Salangome belonged. The way to identify each piece is the color. “The less reddish ones belong to pre-Inca times,” explains Rolando Asunción, a local community guide. Likewise, the tumbago (alignment of gold and copper) of the handicrafts also give clues to what era they belong.

Archaeological findings have shown that societies along the Buenavista River were highly advanced and organized.

In addition to being expert builders and craftsmen, the Salangome community was also very connected to its spirituality. In the museum, find stamps decorated with motifs of their flora and fauna that they used to ‘tattoo’ their body with during ritualistic ceremonies. For Plinio Merchán, shaman of the community, this was a decision to self-define their culture up until today. Rites such as the June and December solstices are still practiced to worship the sun and its provisions. But, without a doubt, one of the most sublime acts of his spirituality was the people’s connection with death.

As you leave the museum, a display of burial urns –buried almost two meters Deep– reveal an amazing cultural practice. The inhabitants of Salangome were placed vertically in vessels and in fetal position, as they believed that this was the proper way to ascend to different spiritual planes. They most probably believed in some form of reincarnation and for this reason they were buried with their favorite clothes. Pottery and clay were so resistant and well-crafted that they remain intact despite the soil erosion. At secondary burials sites we see two or more people buried together.

The archaeological museum of Agua Blanca is a must-visit site in the province of Manabí.

An oasis of volcanic origin

Despite all the archaeological wonders, the natural ones are quite the match. The sulfurous lagoon is one of the most emblematic natural icons of the area. In fact, it gives the community its name. Usually, one finds a white layer over the water at dawn, which disappears when the waters are moved. With a maximum depth of four meters, grayish mud found all along the base of the lagoon is used by visitors. These mud baths can last about ten to fifteen minutes before you rinse it off. They say its good for the skin, for blemishes and pimples. Locals claim that the lagoon has always been thee and that it comes from an underground volcanic tunnel with a large concentration of sulfur.

The sulphuruous water at Agua Blanca offers curative properties.

This relaxation area offers, in addition to the mud treatment, other spa and massage services. Most of these treatments are performed with extracts of Palo Santo, which grows abundantly in the area. Its benefits include relief from headaches, body aches and stress. Palo santo is also used as menthol, an essential oil or incense. For those who seek more intense experiences, you can also engage in a temazcal ceremony.

The community spa is a great place to relax and restore your chakras!

Visitors can couple the visit with a hike in forest trails of San Sebastián Hill and to the “monkey tree”. Two of the most important trees in the province live here: ceibos, which can live for more than three hundred years, and carob trees, which grow up to twenty-five meters underground, an almost poetic quality, since the tree flourishes the drier it gets. In the 1970s, one of the most ruthless droughts in Manabí decimated the vegetation. Paradoxically, thanks to the endless rains of the El Niño Current and the hard work of reforestation by the community, the environment preserves its astounding flora and fauna.

“My father used to cut down the trees, but little by little he understood that that was not the way to go,” says community vice president Humberto Martínez. It has been a daily endeavor to educate and make the community more aware and community conservation and tourism has flourished, making Agua Blanca one of the most important sustainable destinations in the Ecuadorian Coast. Currently, the community is part of the World Base of Territories of Life, being the first in Ecuador and South America. The legacy and way of life protected by the people of Agua Blanca is a tribute to Manabí’s aboriginal cultural resistance, a source of pride for our country and a wonder of the world.

Forest trails leading to the “Monkey Tree” and San Sebastián hills.

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