Off the tourist trail and about 86km inland from Machala sits ZARUMA, one of the prettiest little towns in Ecuador. It has the country’s finest collection of early twentieth-century timber buildings and is a charming place to wander around; steep, narrow streets are lined with brightly painted wooden houses and a gorgeous timber church, built in 1912, overlooks the central square.
Conquistadors first established a settlement here in 1549 to exploit the area’s large gold deposits, and their mines flourished until the eighteenth century when they closed down because the seams were thought to be exhausted. Yet almost a century later, a Quito geologist analysing local rocks discovered a high gold content, sparking another gold-mining boom in 1880. Mining continues but on a much smaller scale, as the gold deposits are running out.
You’ll find assorted mining paraphernalia at the captivating Museo Municipal, just off the main square, opposite the church, along with curiosities, including whale vertebrae, antique sewing machines, irons, phones and gramophones. You can also visit a disused mine, the Mina de Sexmo (Tues–Sat; free) on the outskirts of town (down the hill from the Hotel Cerro de Oro, then first right), where you don protective boots and hat and are guided round the tunnels.
Rounding out Zaruma’s attractions are the Museo Indígena Selva on Honorato Márquez beyond the bus depots, with its unsettling collection of insects, stuffed animals and desiccated snakes, and the public swimming pool set in a fantastic hilltop location above the town – a lovely place to head on a warm, sunny day.
The nearby towns of Piñas, 13km west, and Portovelo, a few kilometres south of Zaruma (both easily reached by bus from Zaruma), retain less of their historic mining character, though each has a good museum. In Piñas, the Museo Mineralógico Magner Turner, in the Barrio Campamento Americano (daily; $1; t 07/2949345), is one of the best mining museums in the country, and includes a large bunker, 150m of mineshafts and various mineral and gem exhibits. In Portovelo, the Museo Rubén Torres displays a modest array of antiques and pre-Columbian artefacts. Also in the region are several reserves managed by the Fundación Jocotoco (w http://www.fjocotoco.org), protecting vital forest habitat harbouring some 630 types of birds, many of which are restricted-range endemic species. The closest to Zaruma is Buenaventura, a 1500-hectare reserve beyond Piñas on the road to Machala, which features a 6km forest trail and a small lodge for visitors (over $121 including three meals); contact Mariana Arcentales for more information (e [email protected]) or Javier Roballo in Loja (t 09/7101536).