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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.