Monday, September 28, 2009

Agua Blanca

The road into Agua Blanca. Seeing such a pathway, you might wonder just where it is, and to where it may lead. These are the just the kinds of questions I'll be answering, so you're in luck! Because this is part two of my recollection of last summer's trip along Ecuador's ruta del sol.

Where we left off before, Nancy and I had just climbed onto a bus which went barreling into the misty hills that constitute the northern reaches of the Cordillera Colonche, dividing the country's lush and prosperous agricultural land from its dry central coast. As diverse as Ecuador's many ecosystems are, places like these, for me, represent this country best. Green, steaming hills all around, covered by wild, relentless vegetation from top to bottom. I suppose it was a vision like this that filled my mind when I first dreamt of Ecuador, and first impressions such as these, even when conjured by one's own imagination, are hard to let go. I can also imagine that the first people who spoke languages like English and Spanish to land in the area were greeted by sights and sounds like those found here.

As the bus rolled along, en route to Puerto Viejo, we passed through several villages like Pichincha, El Progreso, San Placido, and Alahuela. The bus made a few stops in these little settlements, little more than strips of wooden cabins and shanties built along the narrow highway. So small are these towns that they share their schools between them, and at one stop what appeared to be the entire student body of the local high school piled on board, packed in tight until the next town over. Also boarding was a woman and her daughter, who had a small tropical bird in her charge. The bird, looking a bit over-handled and bereft of much of its original plumage, was nonetheless clearly the beloved pet of the girl, who kept it perched in her small hands, and did her best to protect it from the mob of people all around her, casting her eyes nerviously around at all the lanky teens looming over. Luckily for her, a young man gave up his seat in the front row, and the mother, daughter and bird all fit in snugly.

So it went until the next village. Nancy and I secure in our seats, surrounded by the sea of uniformed teenagers rocking with every curve, the boys doing their best to let the movements of the bus send them into the nearest girl. Nancy remarked how healthy and happy they all looked, and attributed it to the impeccable climate we found ourselves in. I pointed out that they probably don't look so happy when they're on their way to school rather than on their way home, but I couldn't deny how beautiful and undisturbed the land was, all around us, nor how alive the air felt. Neither too hot nor too cold, the humidity contributing a freshness to the air absent at the higher altitudes we were accustomed to, and the untouched surroundings themselves contributing a like freshness to our spirits.

When we arrived in Puerto Viejo, we changed buses at the terminal and were soon back on the road to Puerto Lopez, by way of a little town named Jipijapa. Passing through both of these towns, we got enough of a look to pique our curiosity about them, but not enough for us to actually get off the bus and spend any time there. Puerto Lopez and the beach were definitely much more on our minds, and these two places were too far inland to tempt us into checking them out, despite the obvious intrigue of a place called Jipijapa.

By the time we got into Puerto Lopez, the sun was going down and we were on a bus with standing room only. Tucked into the aisle, hanging on to the luggage rack with every curve in the road, I did my best to get a look at the landscape, and maybe a look at the ocean. I had noticed on the previous bus how our surroundings had quickly become dry and sandy upon leaving the mountains, but now, ducking to get a look out the low windows, I saw the trunks of trees girding the road on both sides.

Finally the bus pulled to the side and a lot of the people onboard got off, the two of us included. We found ourselves on the curb of a wide, dusty road with low buildings on each side. In the dusk, it looked like a scene out of an old western. As you might expect upon disembarking from a bus in a small, tourist town like this one, a few locals approached us and started trying to sell us stuff. In this case, the offer was for lodging, and the prices were plenty cheap. But we reckoned there was still enough daytime to wander around a place as small as this, and take a look at our options for the night on our own.

Indeed we did find ourselves a nice place, and after a walk along the shoreline and something to eat on the beach, we retired to our room and watched Ecuador's own Jefferson Perez earn Olympic silver for his speedwalking prowess.

In the morning, we got a better look at our choice of lodging:

And then we went back down to the beach for breakfast:

Thusly fortified, we decided to make a trip for the day to a place in el parque nacional Machalilla we had heard about, called Agua Blanca. We didn't know what to expect from it, other than that it was in a national park, and so ought to afford us a walk in nature, and that the road in was just about 10 minutes outside of Puerto Lopez by bus.

And so we walked back over to the town's dusty main strip, bought some fruit in the market there, and hopped on a bus heading back the way we had come. We told the bus driver where we wanted off, he charged us a quarter each, we saw the first ten minutes of a Van Damme movie, and just like that, we were there.

Here you can see the peculiar landscape that is inland Machalilla. The dry riverbed, while not actually conveying water along the surface, still bears it underground. Hence the green riparian area seen all along its wide flood basin. As I discovered in New Mexico, even dry rivers are still wet, as can be divined by the presence of big cottonwood trees lining the intermittent streams of the high desert. While there are no cottonwood groves to be found in Ecuador, the principle is the same, where this lush greenbelt is thriving amidst the desert. Also like the mountain drylands of the southwestern U.S., higher altitudes bring more precipitation down to earth, and so you can see the desert sandwiched between subsurface moisture and thick cloud cover above. The higher reaches of the surrounding hills, smothered as they are by these nimbus banks, harbor yet another ecosystem, a cloud forest perennially hidden from below.

Our hike brought lots of cacti, donkeys and songbirds onto our path. The cacti and birds were no surprise, but the sight of donkeys made me wonder just why there was grazing going on in this national park. The answer soon began to reveal itself:

This wooden hut with a banana plantation for its backyard was one of many dwellings we came upon as we entered the comuna de Agua Blanca. Here we had found an intentional community of sorts, dating back to the early 20th century, before this area's designation as a national park. We soon learned that the people of Agua Blanca, which proved to be a thriving village of several hundred residents, were organizing tours throughout their portion of the park, and had also turned some of its land to their own use, including agriculture and herding of donkeys and pigs. Living in the desert as they are, they also were diverting water for irrigation of their small scale farming. This water was high in sulphur and thus unsuitable for drinking, but it looked like it brought up their produce just fine, and also provided one other benefit for the villagers, and for visitors like ourselves:

A sulphur spring. Good for swimming, even if it turns any metal you might be wearing an amber yellow. Also good for the skin, apparently, as a number of people dove to the bottom of the shallow pond for fistfuls of brown-black mud which they spread all over their faces and entire bodies. Near this place, considered sacred to the people of Agua Blanca, as our guide told us, they also hold temazcal ceremonies, which I've described in previous stories.

That leads me to the spiritual, and political, side of this community. First, I ought to mention that the current residents of the area are far from the first.

Here lie two people buried together in a funerary urn. What is known about these people? According to the description card, these two might have died anywhere over the span of more than 700 years. But the culture lived on until after the arrival of the Spaniards, and it was the people living here who were among the first that Europeans met in the area. This particular civilization, however, was the last of at least a half dozen cultures who had influenced this area before the modern era.

The people living in Machalilla today have endeavored to portray a connection between themselves and the ancient cultures of this place, from comparisons of photographs of the present day residents to faces on ceramics that they've discovered, to a true reverance for the ancient people's traditions and ruins. Having now visited Agua Blanca, seen some of its practices, and spoken with a few of the villagers there, I can say that I have a respect for the way of life they have cultivated. That said, I can also see the conflict that exists by virtue of a modern village operating within a national park.

The interesting mix of ecosystems I described above is peculiar to this park, which contains the overwhelming majority of these types of forests. In fact, of all of Ecuador's coastal area, only 1% of that area is dryland forest like this. However, this range of forest once encompassed one quarter of Ecuador's western lowlands, and it is probably by virtue of its protection as a national park which has allowed it to remain here in the midst of encroaching agriculture and development on all sides.

It can't be denied that the activities of the village of Agua Blanca are also impacting what's left of this ecosystem. Having been in the area before it became a protected zone, they've got a right to be here, but it's to their credit that they've worked as actively as they have with a worldwide coalition of NGOs and governmental organizations alike in order to assert their presence in a positive way. Amongst the inevitable effects of humanity existing inside of a place meant to be wild, there is a palpable sense of conservation to be found throughout the village. One that is bolstered, in my view, by the naturalist philosophy inherent in this community's own brand of spirituality.