By Lance Brashear
When the Spanish came looking for gold in a small town in what today is southern Ecuador, they saw a geographic similarity to Portobelo, Panama, another gold-mining town so they christened it with the same name.
Portovelo, Ecuador — the locals opted for a “v’ instead of the “b” — sits just south of the larger town of, Zaruma, and together they became a center of gold mining during the Spainish era, from the mid-1500s until Ecuador’s independence in 1822.
The most famous gold mine in Zaruma once produced a 3.5 pound gold nugget, which was given as a gift to the king of Spain. Impressed with the gift, the King reduced the royal tax from one fifth, known as the “quinto real” tax, to a more generous one sixth, or “sexta,” en Spanish. The mine, therefore, became known as “El Sexmo,” and today it is one of Zaruma’s principal tourist attractions.
The gold mines of Zaruma also have their tragic side. Second only to Bolivia’s Potosi mine in productivity during the Spanish colonial era, the largest mines in Zaruma were places where indigenous workers were sent under ground to dig and not allowed to the surface again until they died.
Though the names of its towns and the gold mining activities are part of the Spanish legacy, they do not define the Province of El Oro, 50 miles southwest of Cuenca, the gold country of Ecuador.
El Oro is somewhat off the beaten path of traditional tourism in Ecuador and it is probably best that it stay this way, so as not to spoil the immense natural beauty and human cultural heritage, which are the real jewels of southern Ecuador.
El Oro has a geographic diversity which includes a highland region in the east (the location of Zaruma and Portovelo) and a rich coastal plain in the west filled with banana plantations. Though the capital city, Machala, and the port city of Puerto Bolivar (from where 85% of all the country’s bananas are exported) sit on the coast, it is the Archipeligo of Jambeli, with 14 islands and 10,000 hectares of mangrove swamp, which gives it an identity for natural beauty.
Jambeli is a puzzle of mangroves and beaches, carved up by a jigsaw of estuaries. Comprised of five large islands and nine smaller ones, two stand out to the visitors of coastal El Oro Province.
Costa Rica Island is perhaps one of the coast’s best kept secrets. Discovering its beautiful white sand beaches is done from small boats leaving from Hualtaco (also a great place to begin trying the seafood of El Oro).
The Island of the Dead (Santa Clara Island) has an enchanting mystique. Its outline has a human form and is the site of open sea fishing, diving for shipwrecked vessels, and whale watching, which all lend a certain Caribbean character to the Ecuadorian coast.
Moving to the mainland, Machala, the capital, is a modern city, connected to Puerto Bolivar, the export hub of the province. In September each year it hosts the World Banana Fair which selects a Banana Queen among contestants from all banana producing countries.
Huasquillas, sitting on the frontier with Peru, is a very commercial area due to the constant flux of travelers. But some of the great riches of El Oro are not the cities and towns, but what you find in between and all around.
The Puyango Petrified Forest near Las Lajas has countless fossil remains dating back more than 100 million years. They are found in the context of a great biodiversity that includes 130 species of birds.
Two other outdoor getaways which offer more opportunity for enjoying nature, are the Buenaventura Natural Reserve and the Manuel waterfalls. And for a taste of ancient life, the Yacuviña ruins, originally from the Cañari culture before being assumed under the Incan Conquest, is the most important archeological site in El Oro.
El Oro’s claim to fame, though, is by far those golden cities in the east, Portovelo and Zaruma. Zaruma was declared a national heritage site in Ecuador and has applied for international status through UNESCO, the United Nations cultural organization, for the more than 200 houses constructed around the picturesque town square during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The houses are characterized by a coastal architecture transplanted in the mountains (Zaruma sits at 1200 meters above sea level). They are wooden structures comprising decorative railings, lattices, and balconies. Many were built by miners relocating to Ecuador from the California gold rush, explaining the many Victorian architectural touches.
Gold comes in different forms, including flavorful, liquid varieties. In recent years specialty coffee has begun to appear throughout the country, but the southern provinces of Ecuador are known for some of the best tasting brew in the country, with Zaruma notoriously and traditionally considered the heart of coffee country.
And just as gold is often accompanied by other great jewels, the coffee of Zaruma is best served alongside the rich selection of traditional foods.
Bananas and plantains are the most abundant staples of El Oro and the most typical of dishes in each town seem to utilize them in soups and main dishes, whether along the coast or in the highlands.
Try a cup of Zaruma coffee with tigrillo, a grilled tortilla made from plantains. Sample the local “repe,” a small banana variety used to make a local soup, or taste “el largado,” a soup made from meat and platano molido (crushed banana).
A culinary journey through El Oro is not complete without “bolones de queso” or “bolones de mani” (plantain balls made with cheese or peanuts) – popular combinations of ingredients throughout the region.
In the El Oro Sierra, dishes such as seco de gallina criollo (chicken stew), fritada de borrego (fried lamb), and tamales and humitas resemble cusine from the north. And along the coast, ceviches, shell fish, shrimp, and crab accompany empanadas and arepas, assuring visitors that the search for gold in El Oro Province need go no further than the dinner table.