|I visited Zaruma with my wife during Holy Week (April 2007). This was only after days of arguing because she thought there was nothing to do there. She is almost right.
The bus journey from Guayaquil is advertised as five and a half hours and took us seven. Most of this extra time seemed to be spent heading out of Guayaquil and waiting in places around El Triunfo.
Zaruma perches on a hillside in the Vizcaya hills above the Yellow River in the south of Ecuador. In 2008 it was discovered that the refuse collectors were dumping the garbage directly into said river and the mayor, on assuming office and discovering this, did nothing because “there was nowhere else to put it”.
Fortunately rafting isn’t one of the activities on offer in Zaruma. The town is interesting for its history and collection of beautiful and well-maintained wooden buildings, mainly clustered around the church and elegant plaza.
Zaruma was founded to exploit the gold that lay in the ground underneath it. Indigeneous people had already discovered the gold before the Spanish arrived in 1586 and founded the modern town. They were later followed by British and French entrepeneurs and finally (US) Americans all seeking to get rich quick. After 1896 the US controlled South American Development Company pretty much took control of the town until 1950.
Although most of the gold has gone, enough of it and other minerals, principally quartz, remain to sustain a higher than average level of affluence in the town. The desperate poverty visible in other places is absent here.
When we first arrived in town, along a narrow street which winds upwards, my impression was only of the modern mix of cement and glass. The Piñas bus backed into a yard at an impossibly tight angle and we trudged up the street, settling on the first hotel we came across, the Blacio, accepted on the basis that it was a) $8 a night, b) clean c) the quickest way to dump our bags and go out and eat.
Pick-ups, hatchbacks, SUV’s and motorbikes tracked up and down the street while the pedestrians stuck to walkways, shaded or sheltered by archways in front of the two storey buildings. Rounding the final corner, the street branched steeply up to the left and opened out on the right into a fine plaza lined by colonial buildings. At the end of this space, stone steps curved up to the church doors. It is painted green outside and has a spectacular gold altar. It’s a shame that they made such a hash of faking the alcoves though.
That night we ate in the Zarumeño restaurant. It has a perfect location right in the centre under the plaza but it has the décor of a burger joint. It’s a shame that there is no really good restaurant yet in Zaruma – the food is adequate but no more. I had churrasco.
The next day we enjoyed a leisurely morning and then watched a parade, carrying a statue of Jesus on the cross up to the cathedral. A high proportion of the townsfolk were part of the walk and the rest were at the side watching. The statue was just your standard Catholic Jesus – covered in blood, but the people gave the parade a sense of special importance.
In the afternoon we strolled around the streets and up to the top of a hill which gives great views over the town and the dry hills stretching south. It’s a safe walk, at least on a Saturday afternoon when there are people playing football and volleyball and others enjoying the scenery at the top.
That night we ate at the Romeria Hotel – plastic chairs and standard seco de pollo.
On Sunday morning we had breakfast in the Cafeteria Central (all these eateries are on the main road up to the plaza). It was tigrillo and chancho and delicious, even with the sight of a fat woman stirring pans and hollering at her daughter in the kitchen.