A Message to My Manabi Roommate

Manabi gecko

Oh, little roommate clinging to the wall above my head

I hope your little suction cups don´t fail you

and bring you tumbling down into my bed.

There is enough room for two in this place,

but I´d appreciate if you stayed away from my face.

You’re so sweet and quiet up there on the wall,

just please, please, please don’t ever fall.

Clinging to the wall


Back in Guayaquil

Departing Miami

It is a grey overcast, but warm and bright Saturday. A few days ago, I returned from a very enjoyable month-long trip visiting family and friends. My return flights were pleasant and I arrived to a warm welcome (people and weather) in Guayaquil. It is nice to be back in Ecuador.

Tostadas con Jamon y Queso

I am sitting at the dark green tiled countertop of Las 3 Canastas (The 3 Baskets) at the corner of Chile and Velez in Guayaquil. Fresh cheese and ham sandwiches piled on small plates sit on top of one of the stainless steel shelves in the glass case in front of me. The rest of the shelves and countertop are lined with small silver platters or white plates stacked with bolón de verdes (balls of mashed plantains mixed with cheese), humitas (corn tamales), papas rellenas (balls of fried mashed potatoes stuffed with meat or chicken), tortillas de verde (mashed plantains filled with cheese), pastel de pollo or chorizo (puff pastry with chicken or pork sausage), quippe (could not find a translation, but am curious to know what it is) and torta de camote (sweet potato cake). Another glass case protects and displays a rich assortment of colorful fruits (cantaloupe, pineapple, peaches, papaya, strawberries, raspberries, watermelon and bananas). There are more fruits (apples, grapefruits, persimmons and tomato de arbol) stacked on layers of black shelves behind the register.

Tortillas, Papas Rellenas, Etc.

There are also fruits hidden from view, because I just ordered my favorite shake, guanabana, and don’t see the guanabanas. Once ripe, guanabanas deteriorate quickly, so they are probably stored in the refrigerator. Although guanabana is my favorite, I have tried many other fruit shakes, including mamey, naranjilla and mango. All are delicious.

Las 3 Canastas Fruit

Guanabanas (Annona muricata) are large pocked green fruits, typical characteristics of the cherimoya species and custard apple family to which they belong. Inside they contain black pea-sized seeds and a white custard-like cream. In other parts of the world they are also known as guyabano or soursop. Mamey (Pouteria sapota) is especially common in Mexico, Central America and the northern part of South America. It has a smooth beige brown skin and is a deep orangish red inside. Mamey’s taste reminds me of raspberries. The first time I tried it was six and a half years ago at a small roadside stand in Acapulco. It was my first trip to Latin America.

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soursop en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mamey_sapote en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naranjilla en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tree_tomato

The naranjilla (Solanum quitoense) has a reddish orange skin and resembles a greenish yellow tomato on the inside. It is a member of the tomato family. Quitoense refers to Quito, the capital of Ecuador. Though not one of my favorites, tomate de arbol juice is also quite popular in Ecuador. The egg-shaped tomate de arbol (Solanum betaceum) is also a member of the tomato family and comes in yellow and red.

Guanabana shake and fruit

Accompanying my guanabana shake is a small bowl of mixed fruit (cantaloupe, pineapple, watermelon, banana, papaya and peaches)) with yogurt and granola topped with a little brown sugar. In some parts, honey is used instead. This is my breakfast. It is absolutely delicious and all for $3.90.

Earlier, the line at Las 3 Canastas was especially long. The streets of Guayaquil are filled with thousands of people, including many out-of-towners. All ages and ethnic backgrounds from various regions of Ecuador are represented. They are gathering to demonstrate their allegiance to the president, Rafael Correa. More specifically, they are rallying and drumming up support for their president in the city of Guayaquil. This industrial port is Ecuador’s largest city with approximately 2,200,000 inhabitants. Guayaquil’s mayor is Jaime Nebot, a prominent Ecuadorian affiliated with one of the president’s opposing parties.

Voted into office on 6 December, 2006, Rafael Correa is the 56th Ecuadorian president and the seventh president Ecuador has seen in the past eleven years. The president belongs to the left-wing Christian party, Aliaza PAIS. PAIS means country and is also the acronym for Patria Altiva I Soberana, which translates to Proud and Sovereign Fatherland. Jaime Nebot has been mayor of Guayaquil since 2000 and is a member of the Partido Social Cristiano, the center-right Social Christian Party.

My hotel is in the center of town on one of the main streets, 9 de Octubre. This morning, I awoke at 7am to lively music and people sporadically raising their voices. When I looked out the window I was surprised to see only a few people on the street. Stages were setup alongside the road with enormous speakers reverberating a series of lively tunes. It was not long before the amount of people matched the noise level. Soon, speeches, parades and performances were in full swing. There was also a parade on Victor Manuel Rendon, the street parallel to 9 de Octubre.

By 9am, the downtown was teeming with people in lime green t-shirts reading, “35 PAIS, Patria Altiva I Soberana, Asamblea es Pais!” The number thirty-five represents Alianza PAIS, the president’s party. Other popular t-shirts are white with light blue writing, “Guayaquil apoya Correa, La Revolución Ciudadana Cumple un Año,” (Guayaquil supports Correa, the revolutionary citizens have one year behind them) and yellow t-shirts with black lettering emphatically stating, “Todos contra La Corrupción!,” which translates to “Everyone against Corruption!” Of course, on any given day, there are people sporting the Guayaquil Barcelona soccer team’s bright yellow t-shirts listing the team’s sponsors Banco Pichincha and Pilsener.

The indigenous Andean women wear long bright pink, green or blue skirts and neatly pressed white blouses. Countless strands of gold necklaces adorn their necks. The women wear brown or black loafers or black cloth sandals. Most indigenous men and women wear a dark felt hat. Men, women and children mill around eating plates of choclo (large-grained corn), pork and/or fruit. I walk by a large pile of small plastic bags filled with All Natural water, available free of charge for passersby. Almost every block is lined with a combination of uniformed members of the civil defense, military and national police. In some areas, there is a greater concentration of the latter two. It is a lively crowd and people are enjoying the opportunity to congregate and be entertained.

Ecuadorian Tagua Nuts


It may look like a coffee bean, chocolate, Jordan almond or caramel, but the tagua nut is actually the endosperm of a seed that comes from the palm species Phytelephas aequatorialis aka. Palandra aequatorialis, or the species Phytelephas macrocarpa. The locals call it cade (pronounced ka-day). The Phytelephas species are found in the lush lowlands of Ecuador, Colombia and Panama. In Ecuador, the primary tagua producing species are P. aequatorialis and P. macrocarpa. P. aequatorialis produces tagua year round, but the seed of the Phytelephas genus, in general, tends to be most abundant during the dry season, June-November. Along the coast between Santa Elena and Salango, where many of the seeds are harvested and the tagua crafts are made, the “dry” season is often accompanied by a light mist, garua in Spanish. Most cade prefer humid and shady areas, but the P. macrocarpa tolerates a dryer climate.


Phytelephas comes from the Greek words phyton, which means plant, and elephas meaning elephant. The white hard seeds of this genus are also known as vegetable ivory, a sustainable alternative to animal ivory. The ivories’ characteristics differ primarily in that tagua softens when soaked in water for long periods of time, while animal ivory stays hard. During Victorian times, tagua was used to manufacture decorated thimbles, dice and jewelry. Before plastic buttons became popular, tagua was a key material in the button industry. In the late 1800’s, factories in London and Birmingham imported two to three million nuts annually. During the 1920’s, 20% of all buttons made in the United States were made out of tagua. Today, Patagonia, Smith & Hawken and various fashion houses, especially from Italy, continue to use tagua buttons for their clothing. Ecuador is the only exporter of the tagua disks used to produce buttons. Annually, Ecuador exports approximately 100,000 metric tons of tagua. Vegetable ivory is also used to craft jewelry, tiny sculptures and in the design of home decoration products.

Tagua Country

Exotic birds chirp as the guide and I slosh down a muddy winding road into tagua country. The locals regularly make the trek into the damp forests to search for tagua ready to be harvested. Cade are slow growing, single-trunked palms that mature after fifteen years and grow up to forty-five feet tall with a trunk measuring approximately one foot in diameter. They often grow together in stands called taguales. The palm is dioecious, meaning that the male and female plants are separate. Male inflorescences emerge from the leaves and dangle like long thin pine cone textured sausages that eventually turn grey. The female flowering heads, known as mocochas or cabezas, are made up of approximately twenty segments called pencos, which resemble enormous irregularly shaped dark brown spiked strawberries. Every year, the female cade produces ten to twelve mocochas, each measuring about one foot in diameter. The penco segments are concentrically united, creating the mococha, which holds 100-200 individual tagua nuts.

Male inflorescence Mococha Penco

The germination of the tagua seed takes approximately eight months. Early in the seed formation process, the penco carries five or more large round clear gelatinous blobs safely cradled in a radial pattern in their individual natural round holders. Eventually, the gelatinous blobs harden and turn into hard creamy white seeds surrounded by a thin brown skin covered by a yellow fruit. The fruit is eaten by deer and rodents from the agouti species, locally known as guatuso, and the guanta, referring specifically to the paca (Agouti paca), the second-largest rodent (the largest is the semi-aquatic South American capybara). When the seeds ripen, the mococha falls to the ground. A mature cade is capable of producing 80 to 130 pounds of tagua nuts.

Gelatinous stage Yellow fruit Tagua encasement Tagua cross section

The tagua nuts are usually extracted from the penco at the site where they are found. They are then bagged in netting and transported by mule or bicycle to be dried and hardened for eight to twelve weeks.

Tagua Harvesters

The tagua is versatile and can be processed in various ways, depending on the design of the end product. The dark skin of the tagua is left on and polished for the chocolate or coffee bean look. Another technique is polishing the tagua until a lovely veined design is exposed, revealing the underlying creamy white seed beneath the dark tagua skin. The pure white stage is reached when the dark brown skin is completely sanded down. Most artisans use the creamy white seeds to craft the tiny tagua sculptures. As the tagua ages it turns into a warm antique cream color. Depending on the desired look, the white tagua may be fried, resulting in a caramel-like appearance. For this effect, the nuts are literally fried in oil in a frying pan. This technique is used primarily to make jewelry.

White Tagua

Each tagua nut style comes in small, medium and large sizes. The tagua size chosen by the craftspeople depends on the figurine being carved or the product being made. Larger animals may be carved out of more than one nut and assembled accordingly. Varying qualities of products exist. The craftspeople working with the organization Pro Pueblo have a fine reputation for crafting varied and exquisite tagua figurines, from leatherback turtles to white-tipped sicklebill hummingbirds. Pro Pueblo is an example of a fair trade non-profit organization working with Ecuadorian artisans to create high quality sustainable products using local materials. The process of harvesting, designing and creating products out of tagua provides people with jobs and cuts down on the use of animal ivory.

3 Pro Pueblo Rays


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

Midnight Surprise

Large Painted Locust

It’s midnight. The lights are out. I have spent the past sixteen hours doing the types of things you don’t remember at the end of the day. Normally I would pass out from exhaustion, but a three inch long insect has just landed in my hair. Within seconds the lights are on again and I am wide awake. It is grasshopper season and it appears one of these stealthy little beasts has made it into my bedroom.

The truth is the grasshopper may have gone unnoticed had I not reached behind the bed for my mosquito net. Mosquito season has passed, but there are still a few stragglers annoyingly buzzing around my room. The grasshopper was probably comfortably nestled into the mosquito net when I pulled his resting place out from under him.

This common Galapagos grasshopper is also known as the Large Painted Locust (Schistocerca melanocera). As described in Wildlife of the Galápagos, it grows up to three and half inches and is seen most frequently after a heavy rain fall.

It is incredible how far these grasshoppers can jump. Ten feet is a piece of cake. Once they enter a room they refuse to leave. You are usually left with four choices. The first, is to leave the room. The second, is to stay in the room and watch the grasshopper distractingly jump around, occasionally landing in your hair or on your back. The third option is to catch and release the little creature. This takes perseverance. Be prepared to leave the article that you used to catch the critter outside all night. The final alternative is to put the grasshopper out of its misery. Clearly, this option should only be used if the grasshopper has been injured. I usually opt for the third choice.

Back Again

Thanks to a very dear San Diegan friend for giving me a new computer. Now, I will be back on a steadier communication course. I would also like to thank a very good friend from Galapagos for lending me one of his computers during the interim.

Galapagos Sea Lion

Imagine swimming around underwater while being surrounded by five of these priceless faces. Several weeks ago, a group of friends and I took a tour to Floreana, where we went snorkeling at La Lobería. The sea lion rookery is a stone’s throw away from Floreana Island, the first Galapagos island to have permanent residents. It is the least populated island with approximately one hundred people. As we stepped off the dinghy onto the concrete dock of Puerto Velasco Ibarra, the island’s only village, we were greeted by a tiny baby iguana and his mother. It was a perfect welcome, especially for my friend visiting from Northern California.

Floreana’s history is filled with drama and intrigue, from the toothless Dr. Ritter and his ailing patient Dore Strauch to the Baroness Eloisa von Wagner Bosquet and her three lovers. Long before the arrival of this colorful cast of characters, Floreana was used as a port of call for whalers and pirates. At the northern part of the island is Post Office Bay, where to this day seafaring visitors deposit their letters in a wooden container and thumb through its contents to see if there are any letters addressed to others living in their part of the world.

After taking photos of the marine iguanas and hearing a bit about the history of Floreana, we took a leisurely thirty minute walk along a white sandy path to a quiet cove protected by volcanic outcroppings. At this point, we carefully climbed along a volanic rock face and inched our way around to a small channel, where we descended all of five feet into the cool rushing water. As the tide ebbed and flowed, we held our backpacks over our heads and crossed the channel to a tiny island with sunbathing sea lions lying along the beach.

We dropped our bags, put on our snorkeling gear and dove into the tranquil cove teeming with sea lions and the occasional sea turtle inconspicuously nibbling away at the algae on the rocks. I swam across the cove and started to reach the Floreana coastline when I found myself surrounded by five sea lions. They literally swam circles around me. One of them loved diving down and popping his little face right up in front of my mask. His bulging black eyes stared at me for a second or two before he began the game again. They followed me as I swam along. For the first time, I got a taste of what a zoo animal might feel like with countless people staring at it.

The main difference between turtles and tortoises is that sea turtles spend most of their lives in the water and tortoises are land animals. The primary difference between sea lions and seals are that sea lions have tiny ear flaps and seals just have small openings without the flaps. Galapagos has the Galapagos Sea Lion (Zalophus californianus wollebacki) and the Galapagos Fur Seal (Arctocephalus galapagoensis), the sea lion being the more common of the two. It is always a welcome surprise to see a quiet sea turtle bobbing around for food after interacting with the frolicking sea lions.

From the islet