On its way south to the border 244km away, the major coastal highway from Guayaquil passes one of the most important mangrove estuaries on the coast, the Reserva Ecológica Manglares Churute, where you can arrange to take boat rides through the swamps or walk in the surrounding forest. Further south, the road slices through endless banana plantations as you enter the country’s banana-growing heartland. Ecuador didn’t start exporting the fruit until 1945, but the boom that followed was so dramatic the crop became the country’s most important agricultural export within two years, and has remained so ever since. A large portion of banana cultivation occurs in the province of El Oro, whose capital Machala is the main service centre of the industry. It’s a busy, workaday town holding little of interest, but does serve as a handy base for trips to the charming hillside town of Zaruma, 86km east, and the petrified forest of Puyango, 100km south. It’s also a convenient stop on the way to Peru, a one-hour bus ride south; most travellers choose to spend the night here before crossing the border at the dusty, ramshackle town of Huaquillas.
Accommodation in Machala is quite pricey for what you get, with not a great choice on offer. There are a couple of decent budget places and if you’re willing to indulge, you can treat yourself to the luxurious Oro Verde.
Buses to Machala drop passengers at the bus company’s depot; most are a few blocks east of the central square, an easy walk to the city’s hotels. There’s a Ministerio de Turismo information office on the mezzanine of the Edificio Mil, Juan Montalvo and 25 de Junio (Mon–Fri 8.30am–5pm; t 07/2932106). The city centre is entirely walkable on foot, but if you need a taxi you can flag one down around the central square, or on any of the main arteries such as 25 de Junio or Vicente Rocafuerte; journeys within the central core cost $1.
Ecuador exports more than four million tonnes of bananas yearly, making it the biggest producer of the world’s most popular fruit. Most of Ecuador’s bananas are grown on private, medium-sized plantations, effectively controlled by a few huge companies, namely US-owned Dole and Chiquita, Del Monte and Ecuador’s own Noboa. With an 18-kilogram box of fresh-picked plantation bananas selling for $3–4, the trade is a highly profitable business.
Ecuador’s extraordinary success in this sector is due in large part to the appalling pay and working conditions of its labourers, who are among the worst paid in the world. For a full day’s labour (12–15hr), the typical banana worker can expect a salary of just a few dollars, perhaps enough to buy two or three bunches of the fruit in a Western supermarket. Such meagre wages also have to cover outlay for the workers’ own tools, uniforms, transport to the plantations and drugs should they fall ill or have an on-site accident. Most can’t afford housing and must share small rooms on the estates or live in squalid, jerry-built shacks.
Only one percent of the country’s 250,000-strong workforce is unionized and most workers are effectively denied the right to form unions or bargain collectively; instant dismissals are common for any involvement.
There are more than three hundred varieties of banana, but the most commonly grown is the Cavendish. Since all Cavendish plants come from the same genetic source and are cultivated in close proximity to one another, pests, mould and disease can quickly wipe out a plantation, so the crops must be regularly sprayed with pesticides and other chemicals. Many workers complain of pesticide poisoning; throughout the 1990s Ecuadorian crops were treated with DBCP, a highly toxic chemical thought to cause birth defects, infertility and liver damage.
To compete with Ecuador, other countries’ producers are forced either to degrade conditions for their own workforce or relocate – in other words, Ecuador is winning the race to the bottom. Supermarkets seem content to turn a blind eye to workers’ low pay, non-existent welfare and even child labour, which has been documented on Ecuadorian plantations. Consumer awareness is one way to counter such corporate inaction, as is the use of alternative products such as organic and fair-trade bananas, which give workers a much better deal. In Machala, UROCAL is the organization most involved with such projects and staff are happy to show visitors around its members’ farms, as long as you cover any costs incurred and preferably make a donation for their time. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Machala’s dining scene holds few surprises, though a good range of fresh fish and seafood can be found in nearby Puerto Bolívar, a fifteen-minute bus ride away. There are few decent bars in town and you’ll find a large modern club, Twister, at Km1.5 on the road to Pasaje, or a younger crowd at La Ego on Tarqui and Rocafuerte.
With no central bus station, Machala’s various bus companies operate out of their own mini-terminals, most of which are clustered together a few blocks east of the parque central. Key destinations include: Huaquillas, on the Peruvian border (serviced by CIFA, Guayas and Bolívar, and Ecuatoriano Pullman, Colón and 25 de Junio); Piura, in Peru (CIFA); Guayaquil (frequent service with Ecuatoriano Pullman, as above, and various others); Cuenca (Transportes Azuay, Sucre and Junín); Loja (Transportes Loja, Tarqui and Bolívar; those going via the village of Alamor can drop you at Puyango for the petrified forest) and Quito (Panamericana, Colón and Bolívar, and Occidental, Buenavista and Olmedo). For the gold-mining village of Zaruma, take an hourly bus with Cooperativas TAC, on Colón between avenidas Rocafuerte and Bolívar, or with Transportes Piñas, on Colón and Avenida 25 de Junio
About 45km southeast of Guayaquil on the road to Machala is the prominent visitor centre of the Reserva Ecológica Manglares Churute, which protects 350 square kilometres of mangrove swamps. They’re best viewed on a boat ride through the labyrinthine estuaries and channels that thread through the mangroves, whose dense tangle of interlocking branches looms out of the water. Originally covering a much larger coastal area (many were cleared to make way for shrimp farms), the mangroves are part of a unique ecosystem providing a habitat for many different fish and crustaceans and more than 260 bird species, including the purple gallinule, muscovy duck, pinnated bittern, glossy ibis, roseate spoonbill and horned screamer, now only found here in western Ecuador. Occasional sightings have been made of Chilean flamingos (Jan–Feb), and bottlenose dolphins (June–Nov) are frequently seen frolicking around the boats.
From the visitor centre, a rudimentary path (1hr) leads inland for a walk along the slopes of Cerro El Mate, a low hill with a lookout point, to Laguna El Canclón, a wide, grey lake encircled by low-lying hills and rich in birdlife. Another path, Sendero La Cascada (2hr), takes you through dense, dry forest by some enormous royal palms and up the slopes of a hill covered in lush vegetation. Snakes, guantas and howler monkeys – which you’re more likely to spot if with a guide – inhabit the dry and humid forests. The path is at the end of a track branching west from the coastal highway, 5km north of the visitor centre; guides can take you there in a jeep.
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, 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 2,649 hectares reserve beyond Piñas on the road to Machala, which features a 6km forest trail and a small lodge for visitors. Contact Lorena Córdova for more information (firstname.lastname@example.org / email@example.com).