The sounds of prehistoric dinosaurs bellow through the air. Looking up, I see a flash of three noisy howler monkeys leaping across the treetops. Their territorial roar is said to be the loudest sound made by any land animal in the world. Then the stillness of the forest is disturbed again by the raucous calls of a flock of chachalacas. We are at the Pacoche Lodge & Reserve, an animal sanctuary only 16 miles south of Manta, the second largest port in Ecuador.
The road to Pacoche
The short ride along the west coast from Manta to Pacoche is almost worth the trip itself. The traveler is able to experience three distinct microclimates: semi-arid desert with expansive beaches; a transition area of dry forest with some bushes and vegetation; and the rich, humid jungle of Pacoche, which sits on a hill overlooking the coastline.
Upon my arrival, I meet twenty-something Carolina Toapanta de Salgado, who from all appearances is the innkeeper. A circular, light-filled, windowed room, framed in dark wood, serves as both a welcome center and dining area. It is perched among the trees adjacent to two austere cabins that boast running hot water, fans, and views of the forest. The lodge and common area are diminutive in relation to the rest of Carolina’s domain.
Carolina and her husband, Diego, oversee and protect the property encompassing some 20 acres of the surrounding 27-acre Pacoche Forest in Manabi province. Trained as a biologist, Carolina was educated in Ecuador’s capital city of Quito. As part of her program, she studied the endangered chachalacas in Costa Rica, and when she returned decided she wanted to live in Manta (her mother’s birthplace) to help preserve the natural and animal resources of her country.
“For my birthday, I went searching for land. When I found the spot here in Pacoche, I knew it was meant for me,” she says.
The purchase was a stretch financially but the land was previously owned by a friend of her aunt, which enabled Carolina to negotiate somewhat reasonable terms. With a bank loan and additional financial help from her parents, she and Diego (trained as a chef) built the lodge as they simultaneously began building their life as a married couple. Over the past three years, they created trails in the dense forest and marked them for their visitors, who hail from other parts of Ecuador, South America, and far-flung countries around over the globe.
An uncommon wildlife sanctuary
Some 41 species of mammals live in the forest, including 3200 monkeys, as well as more than 200 species of birds, and various reptiles and amphibians. Visitors at the lodge are asked to speak in low voices in deference to the animals. Even birds feel safe enough to come close to the guests.
The semi-wet ground vegetation includes orchids, flowering bromeliads, other ornamental plants, and the toquilla palms that are used to weave Panama hats, which contrary to their name originated in Ecuador.
Only a small number of cruise shops dock at Manta each year and tourism is limited to the dry season between October and May. To cultivate business, the young couple established ties with local guides and tour agencies; small groups now visit Pacoche Lodge from 13 of 16 ships that docked there during the year of our visit (2011).
Carolina’s dad comes to help out when visitors arrive for half-day trips from the ships. Guests also arrive by car, or by plane at the small airport in Manta — usually because they’ve read about the preserve on the internet or have heard about it from friends.
Authentic demonstrations on the property highlight local traditions that could easily be forgotten as young people move to large cities in search of more highly paid employment. A woman prepares fresh mahi-mahi ceviche; a man carves vegetable ivory from the nuts of the tagua palms; women weave Panama hats from the split fibers of the toquilla palm using only their hands as tools; and men use a trapiche mill to extract juice of the sugar cane for processing into a cane-based alcohol.
Saving the earth and preserving traditions
Carolina and Diego hope to maintain this ecological sanctuary and the traditions of their ancestors for generations to come. Because of the depressed economy, however, she worries that the interests of industry may trump environmental conservation. “The government is building an oil refinery only eight kilometers from the forest,” she says.
As a way of educating others and giving back, she invites young children and adult volunteers to Pacoche from the local community to learn about the importance of protecting the earth’s sustainable resources.
IF YOU GO:
The flight time from Quito to Manta is about 1⁄2 hour.
Pacoche Lodge is located on Ruta del Sol, Via Manta-Puerto Cayo, Carretera E 15 Km. 582, Bosque de Pacoche, Manabi, Ecuador, about 1⁄2 hour by taxi or bus from Manta. Cabins are rent with meals included in the price.
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