Before heading back north, I used the last days of my vacation to travel to the furthest southwest corner of Ecuador, near the Peruvian border.  I wanted to visit a couple of Peace Corps friends and learn what I could about this very different environment.  As my bus dropped quickly out of the Sierra, the warm, humid air of the coast came blasting through its windows. Then, the land flattened out into a sea of banana plantations surrounding the cities of Santa Rosa and Machala.  

It is here, where my friend Chris (from Buffalo, NY) has made his life for the past year.  I had such a good time hanging out with his host family while we helped them decorate their street for an upcoming festival.  Host families are our lifeline to the community and Chris is really lucky to have such a loving and generous family, too.

Chris’ host grandparents make their money by fishing and making the 
most yummy empanadas for sale from their bicycle cart. 

I, of course, made fast friends with all the
cousins and neighbor kids. 

Then I went on to visit my friend Bridgette (from Twin Cities, Minnesota) who lives in Machala.  At 240,000 people, Machala is the 5th largest city in Ecuador.  Because it is surrounded by fertile agricultural flat land and has a naturally deep port, it is considered one of the 
Banana Capitals of the World.  Its other major exports include shrimp, cocao, and coffee. 

Driving around this province is like being in a tunnel of banana plants,
as far as the eye can see. 

Exactly what makes a Banana Capital?  According to my web research, Ecuador is the world’s biggest exporter of bananas and Ecuador’s bananas accounted for approximately 40% of the total bananas produced in 2017.  “In 2016, Ecuador exported 215 million tons of bananas, baby bananas and green bananas worth US $110 million, mainly destined for Russia, the US, EU, Turkey and China.”  And much of the banana harvest leaves through the Port of Machala. 

Banana ships waiting in the Port of Machala

While I was there, I really tried to visit a banana plantation.  I’m so curious to see how it all works.  No luck.  A nearby plantation that gave tours is currently closed to tourists.  But in my research, I came up with this short slideshow about banana exports.  I found it very interesting, and you may too:

Bridgette and I took a short boat ride out to the island of Jambelí.  This is the beach playland for the people of Machala, and it is part of an archipelago of mangrove islands.  More on that later….

After a morning at the beach, I returned to the mainland for more exploration.  In my wanderings of the Port of Machala, I came upon the fresh-off-the-boat fish market.  It became immediately clear to me that I was the only woman at the market besides two women cooking some fresh fish soup and another selling crabs.  At the coast, the machismo attitude is readily apparent and I wasn’t completely comfortable walking into this rougher environment.  But I took a deep breath and continued on, 
using my best “Can the Gringita take a photo?” persona.  

It worked.  I walked block after block taking several photos and peering into the many warehouses.  The other end of each warehouse opens directly onto the ocean, where the fishing boats pull up to the dock and unload.  A man caught me trying to take pictures from the street, and he warmly invited me into his company’s warehouse to better understand the operation.  

He explained to me that each warehouse on this street is a separate company who hires their own fisherman to fish all night or during the early morning (depending upon what they want to catch).  The fisherman have to travel one to two hours out to sea in these small boats.  I was amazed at the amount of fish only in today’s catch!  It’s true, he said, some days are very good.  Fisherman earn a generally good living when the fish are coming in.  But when there’s no fish, nobody gets paid.  In answer to my other questions, he assured me that all the fish were legal and that they only fish in Ecuadorian waters because there are a lot of “fish police” checking on them.  When their hull is full, the fishermen return to port to 
unload crates of fish into their company’s warehouse. 

Here, the fish are sorted and weighed.  

He explained to me that some crates are dumped immediately onto ice to sell later, while others are shipped out immediately to other parts of Ecuador, Peru and even the United States. 

As I stood talking to the workers in this fish export business, I watched a guy pull up 
and start loading raw fish into his trunk.  No crate.  No plastic.  No ice.  Just fish. 

After petroleum, bananas and shrimp are Ecuador’s second and third largest exports.  
So of course, I saw huge crates of shrimp going out the door as well. 

But where are they getting all of this shrimp?  Is it being caught in the ocean, or harvested from a farm?  A little more research clued me into the rest of this story.  Here is a video of a shrimp farm in Ecuador.  After the helicopter takes off, you only need to watch about 45 more seconds to get the idea.

I had no idea shrimp farms could be so expansive.  In my research, I learned that at one point, Ecuador was the fourth largest shrimp producer in the world, and the largest in the Western Hemisphere, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.  Then Thailand and other Asian countries jumped into the industry.  Currently, Ecuador, Brazil and Mexico combine to provide 25% of the world’s shrimp catch.  Ecuador is the 4th largest supplier of shrimp to US markets.  In 2017, Ecuadorian shrimp farms produced 438,000 metric tons of shrimp, earned over $3,000,000 for the economy and provided 100,000 jobs.  Wow!  But these huge farms come at what cost?  Google helped me find a lot of research on this as well.  I found out that it’s a worldwide trend to convert wetlands, coastal mangrove forests and salt marshes to shrimp ponds.  And in Ecuador’s south coast, 83% of the wetlands, mangrove forests and salt flats have already been converted into massive shrimp farms.  

Mangrove forests, just like the ones I saw on the islands off the coast of Machala.  I already knew that mangrove forests, wetlands and salt marshes provide important habitat, and a natural means of water filtration, storm protection and flood prevention for coastal areas.  But my research has helped me understand that we are destroying these important ecosystems to feed our love for shrimp. 

And then I read something else.  In the northern coast of Ecuador, “some 6000 inhabitants rely on the mangrove forests for their livelihood.  However, changes brought about by new developments, such as African palm culture and commercial shrimp farming, are having an impact on the mangrove ecosystem.  Research found that fishing and cockle gathering are the most important economic activities, with 85% of the households depending on them for as much as 75% of their household income.  And this industry represents a significant source of income for women.  In contrast, the 3000 hectares of shrimp farms in the north coast employ only 0.6% of the locals.  Furthermore, construction of shrimp farms has led to the destruction of cockle-gathering grounds and damage to agricultural land.” 

And then I remembered, I saw some cockles or “conchas negras” at the Machala market as well.

I don’t live on the Ecuadorian coast, nor do I know anybody who makes their money from the cockle industry.  But I came upon this short photo essay which helped me understand more about the subsistence life of cockle gatherers, and the importance of the cockle industry for many coastal families.

It’s a different world than we live in.

It’s so important for me to know where my food comes from, and that what I choose to eat makes a difference in our world.  It makes a difference in the lives of others.  


On my 15-hour bus ride back home to the north, I thought about something that locals are always saying to me: “Ecuador is a small country, but it is mighty.”  Not only does this small country have a considerable presence on the world’s food stage, but its strength is in the hardworking people who are mighty as well.