Monthly Archives: October 2007

Festival de la Balsa Manteña

La Balsa

Last Friday, I went to the Festival de la Balsa Manteña in Salango, a small fishing village in the central coastal Ecuadorian province of Manabi. Balsa means raft in Spanish and is also the name of a strong, but light, wood of which many of the rafts are made. Balsa wood is also used as an insulator and for building models, Ping-Pong paddles and surfboards.


Manteño is the name of one of the two cultures that inhabited the central Ecuadorian coastal region from 1000 A.D. until 1534, when the Spanish took over. The other culture is the Huancavila. The names are commonly hyphenated, Manteño-Huancavilca, since the two cultures were contemporaries. The Manteño occupied the coastal region of Manabi, north of the Santa Elena Peninsula up to the coast west of Santo Domingo de los Colorados. The Huancavilcas inhabited the Santa Elena Peninsula. The Peninsula was just declared its own province a few days ago. Last week, the Santa Elena Peninsula belonged to the Guayas province to the East.

Five thousand years ago, the Valdivia culture started using small balsa rafts to fish and conduct long distance trade with northern Peru. The Valdivia culture originated on the Santa Elena Peninsula and is one of the oldest American cultures. They occupied the central Ecuadorian coast from 4000 B.C.-1100 B.C. and are one of the first cultures in the Americas to settle permanently and start making ceramics. During the Manteño-Huancavilca period, there were balsas of all sizes. The most common rafts had five large logs strapped together. Others were constructed with seven or nine logs. Some balsas were even large enough to hold up to fifty people. The smaller rafts were usually used for fishing while the larger rafts were used to transport merchandise and people. The sketch below nicely illustrates the design of a typical balsa raft.

Based on a study done by the Royal Spanish Navy in the 18th century, the balsa rafts are just as capable of sailing in adverse conditions as any other ship. One of the main advantages of the balsa raft is that it does not drift off course easily. This is due to the raft’s guara steering mechanisms. The guaras are approximately nine-foot long boards that measure one and a half feet wide and are positioned vertically between the main beams at the head and stern of the raft. Up to five or six guaras are used per raft. Pushing and pulling the boards in and out of deep water keep the boat on course.

Sixty years ago, on 7 August 1947, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl and five crew members set out from the port of Callao in Peru for the Polynesian Tuamotu Islands in what is undoubtedly the most internationally famous balsa vessel of all time, the Kon-Tiki. Their goal was to prove that there is a real possibility that the Pre-Colombians crossed the Pacific in a vessel as primitive as a raft made of balsa wood. After taking 101 days to make the 4,300-mile voyage, Heyerdahl proved that such an extensive journey via balsa was indeed possible.

Salango Balsa Manteño Festival

Sixteen years ago, several archaeologists working at various sites in and around Salango teamed up with a group of locals to kickoff the first Balsa Manteño Festival. The idea was to revive a part of the ancient cultural heritage that began to disappear in 1534 when Francisco Pizarro conquered the Incas and declared Ecuador a Spanish colony. Once a year, on 12 October, the festival brings together the Salango community to celebrate and share their rich cultural history with interested visitors from far and near.

Chorrera Princess Sun Princess Shell Princess

At the Balsa Festival there are a variety of activities throughout the day including dancers from local schools and the neighboring northern province of Esmeraldas (emeralds in Spanish). All the performers are dressed in traditional garb, be it beautiful skirts and tiaras nicely crafted out of seashells or brightly colored flowing dresses.

Esmeraldeñas in Blue Esmeraldeños in Red Esmeraldeña in Yellow

Of all the princesses, two Balsa Manteña princesses are chosen, one from the elementary school aged group and one from the high school aged group. The winners are photographed on the balsa raft after its return voyage from Salango Island, a small island perhaps a mile off the coast of Salango.

Balsa Manteña Princesses

I was lucky enough to know one of the princesses and her mother, who is a teacher at the Salango pre-school founded by the person I am working for and his wife. After the event, my little princess friend gave me the lovely shell tiara that she and her Mom made. It is now displayed on my desk.

My Princess Friend

The smell of grilled chicken and pork sausages wafts through the air as people talk and mill around looking for what to eat next. The beach and waterfront street are teeming with people eating curly sausages on sticks and holding plates of grilled meats with rice and minestra (beans or lentils). Many are sipping coconut juice from straws popping out of the top of coconut shells.

Curly Sausages

Housewives turn into entrepreneurs for the day and sell regional specialties on the side of the road or at food tents on the beach. One gentleman said his son and his son’s classmates were cooking to raise money for a fieldtrip to Baños, an Ecuadorian town at the foot of the Andean volcano Tungurahua, known for its thermal baths.

Roasted Meat Grilled Meats and Platanos (green bananas) Fried Goods

At around 4pm, the performances come to a halt as everyone takes a break. People walk around and take time to sit and talk with their friends and family. Kids chase each other around on the beach and build sandcastles. In the evening, there will be more music and dance.

Playing in the Sand

I decide to call it a day and head for the bus stop. An elderly woman sits down next to me with a giant clear plastic bag halfway filled with small bags of chips. She is on her way back to Puerto Viejo, the Manabi capital, approximately a 2-hour bus ride away. The woman explains how she regularly travels by bus to Quito (a 20-hour round trip bus ride) to pickup the giant plastic bags full of smaller bags of chips. She sells the chips at various festivals and events in the Manabi province. A bag sells for 35 cents.

Guess where I bought my chips?


Memories of San Cristobal

San Cristobal Sunset


The past three months, I have been involved in a project on continental Ecuador, but I could not bear the thought of continuing the blog without writing about my favorite Galapagos island, San Cristobal. In May, a friend from California visited and we went to a variety of places, including San Cristobal.

Sus and Sunset

People from the islands are often surprised to hear that San Cristobal is my favorite island. It is one of the least visited islands. San Cristobal’s Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is the capital of Galapagos, which is a province of Ecuador. I have always taken the daily speedboat shuttle from Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz Island, to get to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. It is usually late afternoon when you pull into the harbor. After checking into the hotel, there is just enough time to walk back down to the wharf and catch the sunset.

San Cristobal boardwalk

They recently completed a lovely new boardwalk along the harbor. It is quite impressive, well-crafted out of wood with various places to sit and watch the sea lions and birds. The wharf is landscaped with native plants. Families and friends stroll up and down the boardwalk as they look out to sea and stop to watch the barking sea lions.



We stayed at the Hostal Mar Azul, two blocks up from the wharf. It is conveniently located, clean and fairly quiet. They don’t serve breakfast, but the next morning, my friend surprised me with a delicious miso soup, a sesame almond bar and a hot cup of green tea. As the sun was going down, we walked along the wharf and went to get a bite to eat at La Playa restaurant, renowned for its delicious ceviche.

Ceviche is a common dish found along the coast. Hygiene is of utmost importance in the preparation of ceviche, so it is important to find a reputable restaurant. In Puerto Baquerizo Moreno this restaurant is called La Playa. To make ceviche, you submerge chopped up bits of fresh raw fish in lemon juice and leave it to marinate for at least two hours. Then, you finely chop red onion, green pepper, tomato and cilantro. Once the fish is marinated, the vegetable mixture is added. Traditionally, this dish is served late morning with a cold beer and chifles (fried plantains) or popcorn.


The next morning, we walked along the malecon (wharf in Spanish), continuing north of town to the nicest of the Galapagos interpretive centers. The center has a wealth of information on the islands’ history, flora and fauna. There is also a beautiful view of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. After, we walked up the trail behind the interpretive center to Frigatebird Hill. On the way back into town, we stopped by Mann Beach and watched the sea lions playing in the water, and the lava lizards scurrying up and down the dark lava boulders flanking the beach.

view from San Cristobal interpretive center

The next day, the owner of Mar Azul recommended a father and son team to guide us around the highlands. We visited Galapaguera, the Galapagos National Park’s tortoise breeding center, and El Junco, the only Galapagos freshwater lake. The weather was drizzly in the highlands, so we descended down to El Mirador (the lookout point in Spanish), where we had a sweeping view of the island with Leon Dormido (sleeping lion in Spanish) in the distance. Also known as Kicker Rock, Leon Dormido consists of two rocky outcroppings jutting out of the sea. It is worthwhile taking a speedboat ride there to go snorkeling. On a previous trip, I saw a group of fifteen spotted eagle rays and a 10-foot long Galapagos shark swimming below me.

After enjoying the view from the Mirador, we followed a narrow path to a tiny church lodged into the rocky hillside. Before we descended into the church, we passed a small alter with Mary and baby Jesus encased in glass. The inside of the church was cave-like, but had a large opening where the light streamed in. It was truly unique and what one would imagine a Galapagos church might look like.

Mary and Baby Jesus Father Son Team Mirador Church

Heading back out onto the main road, we passed coffee and banana plantations. Coffee, bananas and other crops, are grown in the highlands of San Cristobal, Isabela and Santa Cruz islands. On our way through the highland town of El Progreso, we stopped and climbed up into a treehouse, which can accommodate approximately four people in a rustic, Swiss Family Robinson like setting. We had fun swinging on the rope dangling from tree. I sat inside an enormous tire, also hanging from the tree, and they spun me around until I didn’t know which way was up. It reminded me a bit of the teacup ride at the amusement park (thankfully, not in the Galapagos).

Tree Swing

Our last evening, we walked along the malecon again and went for a bite to eat at Pizzeria Bambú, at the south end of the malecon. After, we met some friends at La Playa restaurant. One friend is working on a mosquito monitoring project and two others were gathering data on the blue-footed boobie (a bird) reproductive habits at Punta Pitt, on the northeast part of San Cristobal.

The next morning, we got up at the crack of dawn, packed our bags, and headed down to the wharf to catch the daily speedboat ride back to Santa Cruz Island. It was a beautiful morning and the harbor was as smooth as glass. While the boat was preparing to pull away from the dock, a baby sea lion jumped up on the back of the boat to say good-bye.

Good-bye San Cristobal