During another week of summer vacation, I decided to take the opportunity to travel far from my home and explore 
the southern part of Ecuador.  

First, I wanted to visit the popular tourist destinations of Loja and Vilcabamba.  Both cities lie in a deep valley on the western front of the very remote Podocarpus National Park (see a previous post on January 13, 2019).  Loja is considered a very cultured city where arts and education are highly prized.  My friend Ava and I spent about two days here wandering the streets, enjoying the churches, colonial plazas and mountain views.  We even found a public library with kids actually reading.  
That’s the first I’ve seen in this country!
The public art and architecture is beautiful in Loja!

Next, we headed about an hour south to visit Vilcabamba.  The village of Vilcabamba garnered fame in the 1970’s when it was reported that in this “Valley of Longevity”, it was common for residents to live well beyond 100 years.  Locals attributed this to the water and their healthy lifestyles and tourists from around the world flocked in numbers to visit and stay for awhile.  As more people came, Vilcabamba also became a haven for anyone who wanted to get off the grid, integrate into some spiritual cults or try out some hallucinogenic medicines offered by local shamans.  Today, many researchers have debunked the myths of longevity, but it’s still fun to bathe in the waterfalls or drink from the metaphorical fountain, and imagine.  Or, it’s equally fun to sit in the town square, listen to the variety of international languages, and people watch the mix of young backpackers, 
hippie move-ins and authentic Ecuadorian locals.  It’s a very interesting town.  

But Ava and I had really come to town for another reason.  We had reserved a couple of nights at a yoga retreat center (for $9 / night!) and were looking forward to some peaceful relaxation, healthy food, a swimming pool, some hiking trails, and a $22 full body massage!  It was two days of heaven. 
I enjoyed a morning hike among the hills…
…and gazed into the beautiful Podocarpus National Park
Hammocks for lounging and free yoga with a view… it was a nice place to rest awhile!
After our respite, I hopped a bus and headed west.  In the south-west corner of Ecuador lies the Province of El Oro, which translates as “The Gold”.  It is here that the Sierra Mountains simmer into beautiful rolling hills splaying out into Peru and the coast of Ecuador.  First stop, Zaruma!
Over the past year, I’ve heard from many people that “Zaruma is so cute! You have to see it.”  It’s true.  This sweet little city nestled at about 4,000 feet in the mountains did not disappoint.  To walk its covered wooden boardwalks and wander the labyrinth of steep streets clinging to the hillsides, 
was like stepping back in time.  Really, it reminded me a lot of restored 
Colorado mining towns, as they have a similar history.  

The church was built in 1912 and overlooks the main Independence Plaza. 
In the mountains around Zaruma, gold, silver and copper are king.  According to Wikipedia, and other websites and historic videos, there are currently about 180 mining companies in the area that employ around 10,000 people directly or indirectly in the mining industry.  This produces approximately 9-10 tons of precious metals per year.  The majority of these mines are considered small-scale artisanal mines, mostly owned by locals.  However, this wasn’t always the case.  
Initially, Zaruma was inhabited by the Cañari and then the Inca peoples.  But the Conquistators arrived and then Spanish Explorer Alfonso de Mercadillo officially founded the city in 1595.  Some researchers claim that in the period between 1536-1820, Spain benefited from approximately 
2,700 tons of Zaruma’s gold, while over 10,000 enslaved workers lost their lives.
By the turn of the last century, international interests had discovered the mines, especially American and Canadian companies who continued to exploit native workers for their profit.  Diseases and accidents in the underground tunnels were rampant, and during the 1930’s and 40’s, the Ecuadorian government started to demand more of the profits while worker strikes demanded more pay and better working conditions.  By this time, the largest veins started to run out, so the foreign investors left too.  Unfortunately, they left quite a mess.  Due to a long-standing tradition of using mercury in the mining process, local rivers are heavily contaminated causing problems for human health and agriculture practices downstream (including in Peru).  And it’s not getting better.  Nowadays, this mining district is home to a multitude of processing plants which also process ore from other areas in Ecuador.  The rivers still run yellow.  Health issues are frequent.  But it comes as no surprise that resistance towards the destructive mining practices is generally absent, because mining is the dominant source of livelihood in this area. 

I visited one mine in Zaruma, now a museum, to gain a 
better understanding of the life of an underground miner. 
Back in town, I didn’t hear anything about the negatives of mining.  The local people paint a good picture for the tourists of a romantic era gone by.  And today, Zaruma is known for its 
good mining jobs, republic-era architecture, and traditions.  They are very proud that their city 
has been a candidate as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  

Zaruma is also known for its Tigrillo, a dish of mashed green bananas, scrambled eggs and cheese.
I topped this off with some of their famous coffee as well. 
Zaruma really is a picture-postcard kind of town.  I had so much fun exploring the historic streets and staircase alleys, admiring all of the carved and painted wooden balconies and the nooks and crannies created by the steep hillsides.  The people were so friendly and wanted to share their love 
for their town.  Zaruma is definitely one of my new favorite spots here in Ecuador.