The north coast and lowlands, lying west of the Andes and north of the road from Manta to Quevedo, are among the most culturally – and biologically – diverse regions of the country. A few hours by bus away from the highland chill seems to put you in another universe – one of steaming forests bursting with exotic plants, birds and animals, giving out to long sandy beaches bathed by a warm ocean. Even the people seem different; you’ll notice a much more relaxed and uninhibited atmosphere than in the sierra, further enhanced by a unique blend of Afro-Ecuadorian and indigenous Chachi and Tsáchila cultures.
Of the several routes to the northern lowlands from the sierra, the old road from Quito to the coast, the Calacalí– La Independencia road, passes through some of the best birdwatching territory in the country, including the village of Mindo and a handful of excellent private reserves protecting some of the last remaining cloudforestsin the western Andes. Another road, which should be completed by the time you read this, will run broadly parallel between Otavalo and Quinindé, opening up communities and cloudforests hitherto too remote for casual visits. The main arterial route heads from Quito to Santo Domingo de los Colorados, set amid a broad sea of banana and oil-palm plantations, but skirts a few tropical wet forests too, including the little-explored Reserva Ecológica Mache-Chindul, which protects coastal hills swathed in impenetrable forests. From Santo Domingo a network of paved roads connects the major coastal centres of Esmeraldas, Pedernales, Bahía de Caráquez, Manta, Portoviejo and Guayaquil via Quevedo. The northernmost coast can be accessed by the fast, paved highway from Ibarra to the isolated port of San Lorenzo, lost in a knot of mangrove swamps; this road has largely replaced the famous old railway route, now defunct except for short fragments. Unlike the dry and scrubby shoreline to the south, the much lusher north enjoys high levels of rainfall, especially during the wet season (Dec–May), when monthly precipitation averages 300mm, but can easily reach 600mm; this can mean road washouts and travel disruption, so plan ahead.
A hundred kilometres down the coast from San Lorenzo, the rough oil-refining port of Esmeraldas lies just north of the area’s best-known beach resorts, the biggest and brashest of which is Atacames, famous for its bars and nightlife and jam-packed during summer months and holidays with serranos seeking sunshine and warm waters. The less-developed beach centres are a bit further afield, including the car-free sand-bar island of Muisne, 40km down the coast, and the laid-back surfing zone of Canoa, more than 150km south; between them, many tranquil, deserted beaches and hideaway hotels dot the coastline. At the southern end of the region, Bahía de Caráquez is an elegant resort town and a good base for visiting mangrove and tropical dry forests, and the lively port of Manta is the area’s economic powerhouse.
Few injustices can be more galling than having your nation’s most famous export attributed to another country, yet this is what Ecuador has suffered with the “Panama hat”. In the mid-nineteenth century, straw hats from Ecuador were traded in Panama along with vast quantities of other goods and quickly became a favourite with gold prospectors and labourers on the Panama Canal. It was precisely the question “where did you get that hat?” that started the association with the country of purchase rather than the country of origin – an error that was cemented when it was introduced to Europe at the 1855 World Fair in Paris as the “Panama hat”. The indignant words “Genuine Panama Hat Made in Ecuador” are now stamped on hats in an attempt to reclaim sovereignty over the product without upsetting the world-renowned name.
The tradition of hat-making probably goes back a long way in coastal Ecuador; Valdivian ceramic figurines from as long ago as 4000 BC seem to be wearing pointed straw hats. The first conquistadors also wrote about the broad, wing-like hats the locals wore, calling them toquillas, after toca, a Spanish word for a wimple. The Spanish soon began to wear them to stave off the sun’s glare, praising their lightness, coolness and even their ability to carry water, due to the hat’s ultra-fine weaving, but changed the shape into more conventional European styles. In the 1830s, factories employing more modern methods were set up in the highlands around Cuenca and Azuay and slowly began to surpass the traditional weavers on the coast. The hat reached its apogee as a fashion icon in the 1940s, when for a short time it became Ecuador’s top export.
The straw, nicknamed paja toquilla, grows between Panama and Bolivia, but only the conditions in Ecuador’s Manabí and Guayas provinces provide a suitable material for hat-making. The toquilla plant can grow up to 6 metres high after three years, but the best leaves are newer shoots harvested from around the base in monthly cycles. The leaves are split, cleaned, boiled, sundried and bleached with sulphur powder, then cut into straw. Weavers, mainly rural villagers from Manabí and Azuay provinces, get to work early in the morning or late at night, both to avoid the sun, which stiffens the straw prematurely, and so it’s not so hot that their hands get sweaty. The brim is woven and tightened and the excess straw trimmed before the hats are washed, dried and softened with a mallet, while more sulphur powder is beaten into the fibres to bleach it before another final trim. The hats are then pulled over wooden blocks and ironed with more sulphur powder, then blocked into final shape by hand, which is more of an art than it sounds; most hats are now steam pressed by machine into shape in a few seconds. The making of a highest-grade superfino takes several months and as many mastercraftsmen, the last experts of a dying art; perhaps it’s no wonder the very best hats can fetch more than $10,000 in the US.