You have to open your eyes wide: darkness prevails and you barely distinguish the banana trees that line the path. The smell of garlic, orange, different herbs is everywhere. At the end of the road, a woman in a pink top is digging, using a large shovel that makes a clang… again and again. It is the only sound that cuts through the silence in all of Zapotillo. It’s not witchcraft. It’s magic.
Miss Elvia places the shovel aside. She carefully removes the banana leaves that surround the large, heavy disc, and then she lifts it. The smell is stronger as the coals, placed inside the hole in the ground, crackle. Elvia takes out a pot and carries it back to the house. The table is set, the diners are ready. With a motherly hand, she distributes the contents of the pot in equal portions and the Chivo al Hueco (Goat in a Hole) is served.
The flavor of this traditional dish — whose recipe has been passed from grandmother to mother and mother to daughter — is indescribable. Elvia confesses one of her secrets: while the guard dog takes care of the goats, the latter feed only on faique seeds. It’s the only way to make the flesh taste this good, she claims.
Zapotillo’s main square.
The area is known as the land of the Guayacanes: trees famous for their spectacular blossom: the entire landscape for miles around turns ochre almost overnight, like a Tinkerbell fairy tale. Zapotillo’s ecosystem is dominated by tropical deciduous forest. So for the rest of the year, the landscape is dominated by thorny trunks, waterfalls that run dry for months at a time, venomous snakes and the worst threat of all: the león, the locals’ name for the slinky puma.
In the area known as Cazaderos (where the Chivo al Hueco is prepared) lives “Berraco”. Berraco isn’t exactly friendly. As Rufino Gallo (who has known him for many years) says, “he is prejudiced.” Seeking him out is not easy; you must be careful: one easily confuses the road with the swamp. Rufino hits the water with his machete while shouting “Berraco” over and over again. Sometimes he comes out alone; sometimes he’s accompanied by a mate: a 2-meter long caiman with hypnotizing, black eyes. Rufino’s dogs bark nervously, always standing behind their master, beating their tails.
Seven km from Zapotillo (here we recommend Los Yahayros restaurant, with coastal-style dishes) it’s time to wallow in the Inca Baths in Mangahurco (25 km from Cazaderos), three circular pools formed over the rocky shore. There are also natural pools via El Limo, on the road that connects Mangahurco with Puyango (80 km away, of which only 16 km are paved), an ideal site for hiking on trails, amid crystalline lagoons and fossils.
A site not to miss for nature lovers in El Limo is the Ivory Forest or White Forest (bosque blanco), 200 protected hectares of Palma de Cade, from which the vegetable ivory tagua is extracted.
The fossils we see here are the curtain-raiser for what awaits in Puyango and its Petrified Forest, 2,659 hectares full of marine fossil deposits, huge trees and wood literally turned into stone. You’ll find remains that date back 65 to 120 million years… to the Cretaceous period. Puyango is located 45 minutes from the city of Alamor, between the provinces of El Oro and Loja, which alternate the reserve’s administration every two years.
The most curious detail of this forest is that unlike other petrified forests in the Americas, there is still life here. Araucarias from 65 million years ago lie next to huge petrines that it would take six people to hug. The turquoise-tailed lizards, scampering squirrels and shy deer alongside fossilized leaves and molusks offers the perfect dance between life and death.
Visions from Puyango’s petrified forest.
One hour from here — passing through Alamor — lies Pindal, through which all the main roads pass. We recommend Hosteria B & Z as the ideal place to rest, gather strength, relax, sleep and eat before continuing, with the bonus of a swimming pool, recreational areas and excellent service. Find it on the Troncal de la Costa, next to the natural pools, where a dip in the beautiful waterfalls beckons. Listen to the water flowing, feel the sun on your skin and let yourself be… an experience that invigorates body and soul.
To the east of Pindal, you come to Celica. In a matter of 30 minutes, one passes from the warmer coastal environment to Andean foothills, with kapok trees and corn plantations; the temperature begins to drop and the landscape turns ever greener.
Celica is called “La Celestial”, which makes sense when you visit Puerta del Viento (The Wind’s Door), on Huayrapungo Hill. Here, a plaque commemorates the historical plane crash that killed Ecuadorian President, Jaime Roldós (1981). Spot the plaque with a replica of his last speech.
Born in Cangonamá in 1912, Naún established his home in Sozoranga. He loved the land and the entire province without borders. He protected and fought to defend the rights of its poor farmers. He was killed in 1935 by a military brigade sent specifically to catch him, and did so as their explosives erased part of the cave in which he was hiding with two of his thieving friends. His crime was to have stolen from the rich to distribute the booty among the poor. He learned from the best: he was close to Quito’s Aguila (“Eagle”), Chivo Blanco (“White Goat”) and Pajarito (“Little Bird”), all famous bandits of the time. Naún Briones, the Ecuadorian Robin Hood, lives on in the tales told by the locals. His figure is a redeemer of lost causes in a time when the great landowners possessed half the world and even greater inequities made him the epitome of provocation, vindication, righteousness. In fact, one of Ecuador’s most important literary works of the end of the last century relates his story magnificently: “Dust and Ash” (Polvo y Ceniza) by Cañar-born Eliécer Cárdenas. The paradox of Naún is transcendental: a desire to change the rules of an unfair game in a world where the most vulnerable always lose.
As the sun begins to set, the clouds soften and the light turns from golden to mauve. The moon rises just in front of the sun. The sky stretches out before us in fabulous harmony. For a moment, king and queen, crown the heavens. While the hill remains silent, a battalion of clouds inch across, making Huayrapungo a planetary balcony.
In Celica, a place where time seems able to break away from space exists: the Megalitos de Quillusara. A sign directs you to several contiguous circles formed by stones, some with a stone at the center, others without. It is thought that these formations — whose sizes vary between 50 centimeters and 3 meters — were a ceremonial site for ancient civilizations.
Some stones brandish petroglyphs that have not yet been deciphered; others have curious shapes reminiscent of iguanas or men. They point to the southeast or the northwest. Between the stone circles, a path winds, marked by white stones on both sides, a vision to fire the imagination if ever there was one.
Our adventure has taken us far, and we must give a good end… with Macará’s meat ceviche. Yes, you read it correctly. This route started with a fascinating dish and ends with another. 63 km from Celica, on the main road to El Empalme, you detour right to Macará. In the central market, Alcira Rodríguez and her Cevichería Alcirita (stall # 5) is ready to prepare this traditional dish. The meat is lightly-cooked over a bain-marie and sprinkled with lemon, coriander and onion. A unique taste and texture you’ll be savoring for hours.
The Pindal pools.
Out here in these far-flung lands, at this point you are free to go in any direction you wish. But we do recommend taking the main road connecting Macará, vía Sozoranga, Cariamanga and Gonzanamá. On this journey, according to the locals, death hides behind the hills and pounces on unaware drivers. If you feel a sudden jolt of cold as you drive, get your eyes back on the road!
Upon reaching Gonzanamá you can head Catamayo and Loja, or take the detour right (southeast) along a part-dirt road that connects with Malacatos and Vilcabamba, passing through Purunuma.
As we drive, it seems that a diaphanous veil has been drawn across the landscape, Only people who have ventured into these lands know what it looks like: the crumpled mountain range northeast of Loja. One feels small and humble before this sight. The wind seems to quote the words of writer Fabrizio Caramagna: “Some places are enigmas. Others, explanations.”
Photos: Jorge Vinueza