Ruta del Spondylus is the coastal road that runs over 600km from Playas to Esmeraldas, named for a type of mollusk that inhabits the waters of the Pacific Ocean and has a beautiful shell that appears in shades of yellow, orange, red and purple.
Up to five thousand years ago, on the Santa Elena peninsula, the spondylus was prized as an important symbolic object used to make the famous Valdivia figurines and funeral masks. As well as its beauty, the shell’s value was linked to the difficulty of obtaining it: free divers had to descend up to 26 meters underwater to find the mollusk. As ancient coastal cultures started to venture across the ocean, they adopted the spondylus as a type of currency. With the Spanish conquest, the shell lost much of its importance, but efforts have been made in recent years to reclaim the spondylus as a symbol of Ecuador’s coastal communities, many of whom are direct descendants of the pre-colonial inhabitants. In this spirit, the decision was made to rename the Ruta del Sol, the Ruta del Spondylus.
Many visitors travel without stopping between Salinas and Montañita, the two most renowned Santa Elena towns, but there are a number of hidden gems that are well worth a visit.
The beach fringes an iridescent blue: a sea that glitters against a sunny sky, with an intense color that captivates our gaze from the car window. We have barely left the Capaes condo project behind, which marks the end of Ballenita (Little Whale), a small (and growing) Salinas suburb, dominated by its deep-blue sea. A dip in these warm waters is a pleasure. Leaving Salinas, we pass through Ballenita (Little Whale), a small (and growing) Salinas suburb, where a dip in the warm waters is a pleasure. Farallón Dillon is the classic place to stay, where you can enjoy their famous fried bolón. You can also visit the beautiful secluded beach by not detouring towards Farallón, into the neighborhood of Capay, where you’ll find more frugal lodging like Koko Pelli or Villa Aura (you must book ahead of time on AirBnB). Ballenita’s recently revamped central park also offers good food at a corner restaurant: Peruvian ceviche is the specialty.
Here begins our journey and, as we leave the urban area, vistas of twinkling open ocean accompany us along the Ruta del Spondylus and delight us at every curve of the road.
One of the first towns we reach is Palmar, home to a remarkable project, Fundacion Neo Juventud. Founded in 2003 by a group of students, the foundation involves local youth in issues of environmental conservation, health and cultural identity. Palmar has 50 hectares of mangrove, the biggest stretch in this part of the province, and young people have been trained to give guided tours in kayaks and fishing boats (in high tide) or on foot (in low tide). As well as all four types of mangrove (red, white, black and yellow), visitors will see nesting birds.
Fundacion Neo Juventud has also trained youths to offer HIV prevention talks, which so far have been delivered to 11,000 people, and manages an oyster farm on the beach. Other projects include two community-owned pizzerias (great for something to eat following a tour of the mangrove); reforestation of abandoned shrimp farms; and a youth center where training is provided in graphic design.
The village of Colonche, 6 km inland from Palmar, feels like the edge of the map, as if the new paved road that reaches town had brought modernity to a place unprepared to forget its past. Representing this past is the village’s remarkable wood church and high tower. It’s worth making a stop to walk through its cool interior, with its intricate crisscross of wooden beams.
Colonche has a unique attraction, the Zoológico Rapaz Lana, a rescue center for birds of prey. Here, injured birds such as hawks, eagles, vultures and owls are nursed back to health and, wherever possible, released back into the wild. Those that can’t be liberated become life-long residents, such as Lolo, a pygmy owl with a damaged wing. Some of the birds are trained in falconry, the ancient art of hunting with raptors. One beautiful Harris hawk is being trained to catch pigeons in the Salinas undercover market, where they have become a pest. The center is run by a local couple, Erick Diaz Moran and Marcela Alvarez Cantos, who have designed an environmental education program focused on the birds.
Villages with a history
There are few sheltered bays on the Ruta del Spondylus, but Ayangue, just north of Palmar, is a notable exception. Attracted by the calm waters, families flock to the horseshoe-shaped, white-sand beach at weekends, but it’s usually quiet mid-week. Activities include snorkeling, paddle boarding, banana boats and whale watching (June to September). There is also a PADI dive shop, Ray Aguila, especially worth a visit September-October when it is possible to dive with giant manta rays. The numerous seafood restaurants on the beach are all part of a women’s association. There’s not much here for vegetarians, but most places can make up a plate of rice, salad, chifles (plantain chips) and menestra (lentil stew). After the restaurants close at around 7pm, a number of residents set up barbeques in the streets.
There are some great places to stay in Ayangue, including family-owned, environmentally conscious Muyoyo Lodge (www.muyuyolodge.com) and the beautiful Nautilus Casa de Mare (www.nautilusea.com), where the restaurant offers Italian and Peruvian cuisine upon reservation.
A couple of kilometers north of the turn off to Ayampe, the village of Valdivia is known for being the home of one of the oldest settled cultures recorded in the Americas. Ceramics made by the Valdivians, who lived in the area between 3500 and 1800 BC, are found in museums all over the world. Considering this, the Museo Valdivia is a relatively humble affair, probably because the best pieces are on display in city museums. Different rooms house artefacts made by the various cultures that inhabited the Santa Elena peninsular from the Valdivians to the Spanish conquest. There are several examples of the famous Venus of Valdivia female figurine. See Facebook @museovaldiviaoficial or contact +(593 9) 93 60 3187 for more information. In Valdivia, local ceramicist Antonio Orrala makes replicas of the Venus of Valdivia and masks that are good souvenirs.
Between Valdivia and Libertador Bolívar is Playa de Bruja (Witch’s Beach), where it’s possible to go paragliding/parapenting. See http://opeturmo.com or Facebook @ParapentePlayaBrujaEcuador for more information.
Crafts and color
Libertador Bolívar is the place to come for handicrafts made from native materials such as paja toquilla (a palm used to make woven straw hats), tagua (vegetable ivory), banana stalk fiber, bamboo and wood. Stores lining the Ruta del Spondylus sell a wide range of hats, baskets, table mats, lamps, handbags and home décor items, all made by local artisans. Libertador Bolívar also offers the widest selection of hammocks in the province, which makes it a colorful village to drive through.
Right on the Ruta del Spondylus in Libertador Bolívar is Casa del Sombrero, a family-owned hostel with a restaurant and bar on the beach. The décor is bright and colorful, with furniture hand-painted by a young local artist. At the beach restaurant, which is filled with plants and hammocks, specialties include coconut shrimp and ceviche. Bodyboards and kayaks are available for rent. Carlos Floreano, who runs the hostel with his wife Monica, can take visitors to see his organic farm, where he grows lemons, oranges, pineapple, avocado and plantain. He is a font of information about the local area. See www.lacasadelsombrero.info or contact +(593 9) 93 49 1185 for more information.
If you come on the right day and climb the flight of steps that leads up the hill behind Libertador Bolívar, you’ll find a true undiscovered gem. Here, three generations of women use an enormous wood-fired clay oven to make corn crackers according to an ancestral recipe that was taught to the grandmother by her grandmother. These crackers are a specialty of the village and only four of the giant ovens still exist in the area. The women bake the crackers for three days every week, selling them on foot in the surrounding villages on the other four days. They also make chifles (plantain crisps).
Neighboring Libertador Bolívar to the north, Cadeate has long been the village of bread bakers, but all except one has converted to a gas fired oven. Only Lorenzo Figueroa of Panaderia Jaquiline still uses a traditional wood-fired clay oven. Catch him in a quiet moment and he’ll happily explain that he learned to make bread from the village elders when he was 10 years old, getting up at 1am to bake and then make an 18-kilometer round-trip journey on foot to sell the bread in Dos Mangas.
The small, peaceful village of Manglaralto was named for its beautiful mangrove (literally translating as ‘tall mangrove’). As well as the long, quiet beach that stretches all the way to Montañita, there are a couple of great places to eat. For a panoramic view of the mangrove and excellent local cuisine served by a friendly family, head to Punta Manglar. The menu offers typical coastal dishes such as ceviche and grilled fish, but the specialty is bolón (a butter-fried ball of mashed plantain with cheese or ham, best served with fried eggs). There are a number of vegetarian options, including a burrito.
Another wonderful option is Pizza Di’Alegria, a wooden cabin in the middle of the village that opens on weekend evenings to offer truly delicious pizzas. The friendly local owner started his business with a mobile pizza oven on a tricycle before establishing a more permanent establishment. Popular with locals, it’s a welcoming hive of activity.
On Sunday mornings in Manglaralto there is small organic market in the park, which is one of the best places in the area to pick up artisanal items such as raw cacao, coffee and honey. A street food vendor offers corn in every incarnation, including crackers, tamales and humitas wrapped in leaves, and hot grilled gorditos de maiz filled with cheese. The vendors, who come from the small inland village of Sitio Nuevo, also sell organic fruit, vegetables and eggs.
Nightlife in Manglaralto is practically non-existent, but in high season there is a charming, rustic bar open on the malecón. Ocaso, owned by two welcoming young locals, has great cocktails and spectacular views of the long stretch of beach to the Point in Montanita. It’s a perfect place to check out the sunset.
Tours de manglar en Palmar con Neo Juventud
Book tours via Whatsapp two days ahead +(593 9) 86 41 9183:
+593 98 641 9183 / +593 99 329 7031
Centro de Rescate Conservación Rapaz Lana
The center is open daily from 10am-4pm and is free to enter, though donations are welcome.
+593 99 674 3105
FB: Centro de Rescate «Conservación Rapaz Lana»