Ecuador // The northern lowlands and coast //

Santo Domingo de los Colorados and around

Getting to and from the major transport hub of SANTO DOMINGO DE LOS COLORADOS is far easier than finding anything to do once you’re there. The city is encircled by a ring road linking a number of fast radial roads – east to Quito, north to Esmeraldas, west to Pedernales, southwest to Manta, Bahía de Caráquez and Portoviejo and south to Guayaquil via Quevedo.

When the road from Quito was completed almost fifty years ago, the door was unlocked to large tracts of forest, which were rapidly felled to make way for intensive agriculture, notably the enormous banana and oil-palm plantations that contribute a significant chunk to the national economy. Since then, Santo Domingo has grown at a phenomenal rate and is by far the most important commercial centre in the northern coastal interior. Its narrow, crowded and polluted streets – although recently improved after an injection of civic cash on being made the capital of the new Santo Domingo province – hold few attractions to sightseers, though the town does make a serviceable base for seeing nearby forest reserves, the last remaining pockets of coastal tropical wet forest, most of which have accommodation, guides and trails.

Birdwatchers on their way to these reserves might consider taking the old road from Quito to Santo Domingo via Chiriboga. It’s a little-used dirt track (4WD recommended) servicing the Trans-Ecuadorian Oil Pipeline and passes through various transitional forests containing hundreds of bird species as it plunges from an altitude of 3000m before joining the main road from Alóag near La Unión del Toachi at 1200m. There are few facilities on this road, but you can stay at the rustic Bosque Protector Río Guajalito scientific station set amid five square kilometres of forest, home to the rarely seen hoary puffleg hummingbird (t09/5872237, [email protected]; reservations required). There’s a thirty-person dorm ($15 per person including meals) or you can camp for $5 per tent.

The only thing really worth a look here is the market along Avenida 3 de Julio, west of the main square of Parque Zaracay; it’s busiest on Sunday, but bustles all week with locals buying food, clothes and other goods – though the covered section, thronged with butchers, isn’t for the squeamish. The streets get even more crowded during the July 3 fiesta for Santo Domingo’s cantonization, when an agricultural fair packs the recinto ferial exhibition hangar opposite the Zaracay hotel.

In the 1960s, tourists began coming to Santo Domingo to see the Tsáchila people, whom the Spanish labelled Los Colorados, meaning “coloured” or “redheads”, due to their bowl haircuts pasted down with bright-red achiote dye. Although the city takes part of its name from this Spanish moniker, these days you’re unlikely to see any urban Tsáchila wearing traditional dress or sporting their celebrated hairstyles – except for the stereotypes on local billboards and statues. The destruction of the forests around Santo Domingo has had a deep effect on the Tsáchila, the majority of whom have been forced to abandon their traditional way of life. The seven remaining Tsáchila communities are in the environs of the city. You’ll see roadside signs for Tsáchila curanderos, shaman healers who now offer their services to outsiders, along the way to Quevedo, and the Ecomuseo Etnográfico Shino Pi Tsáchila, a museum explaining the culture and history of the people, is in the Búa community, 15km from Santo Domingo on the Chone road. You can visit some communities with tour agencies in Santo Domingo, such as Turismo Zaracay, 29 de Mayo and Cocaniguas (t02/2750546), and at the Zaracay hotel, which also offers tours to local forest reserves and an oil-palm plantation.

Although a huge amount of lowland forest around Santo Domingo has been flattened for farming, pockets remain within striking distance of the city. Pressure to develop “unproductive” land – a euphemism for forests – has been considerable since the late 1950s, as colonists eyed more space for banana, palm and cacao plantations. Under government statute such undeveloped areas were up for grabs to anyone who intended to make them “productive”, a policy that led to the destruction of more than ninety percent of Ecuador’s northwestern forests. A handful of conservationists were nimble enough to buy forestland and set up their own private reserves, which are now among Ecuador’s last coastal tropical wet forests in the Chocó bioregion.

Nurturing astounding wildlife diversity, these forest reserves are located in several areas: between Alóag and Santo Domingo; at the Bosque Protector La Perla, on the road to Quinindé; at the private Reserva Biológica Bilsa, adjoining the little-explored, state-run Reserva Ecológica Mache-Chindul, west of Quinindé; and at the Bosque Protector Río Palenque, on the Quevedo road.