Early morning activity in Puerto Lopez begins with the fisherman returning to shore with their catch and the fish market that ensues. Fish are crated, weighed, sold and grilled as the sun rises and frigatebirds cruise around. A handful of village businesses are also impressive from a sustainability standpoint.
A couple beachfront hotels cater to the more eco-minded tourist, included the Ecuadorian owned Punta Piedrero Ecolodge and Camping (where we stayed), and the European-owned Hosteria Mandala. The former helped close down an illegal sea cucumber operation, which exported this Chinese delicacy and had unlawfully built a plant on the property before the Ecolodge was constructed. The latter hotel partnered with other organizations to move a whale skeleton from a nearby beach and make it into an educational display.
Another noteworthy business venture is the palo santo industry, which makes products commonly used in folk medicine from the heartwood of the tree. El Artesanal has a small manufacturing facility on the outskirts of Puerto Lopez where they product palo santo oil, incense and scented soaps. The company also has a sustainability mission. The products must be made from the wood of dead trees, so the company doesn't contribute to deforestation and cuts no live trees. El Artesanal also has a nursery for saplings and helps with reforestation efforts near Puerto Lopez.
Pacha Chocolate Boutique is run by a French-Ecuadorian couple who gives chocolate tours and uses regionally-harvested cacao to make bars, nibs and brownies. It is a great opportunity for people from colder climates to learn about the chocolate-making process, including a visit to a cacao farm.
Some tourists with looser itineraries volunteer at Clara Luna, a nonprofit organization that offers education-based programs in the local community. Many foreigners are tutored in Spanish and volunteer for the after-school programs for children, which offer English language instruction and other activities. My young daughter served as an 'assistant' for several of their classes.
There is also an indigenous community in Agua Blanca within Machalilla National Park that sustains itself largely from the $5 per person that is collected to visit. A guide leads visitors through a museum, ruins, a mud treatment and a therapeutic sulfur lagoon.
With all the ecotourism activities in Puerto Lopez, what's not to love? Two sticky issues stand out. The first is the lack of infrastructure to support the growing tourist population, and even the locals. Although the government recently invested in a multi-million dollar dock, there is no state-run water treatment facility in the area, and waste is pumped from the houses into trucks and taken off-site for 'treatment.' There are also insufficient water resources, requiring water to be trucked in for much of the year from rivers. Hotels pay $40 for a large truckload of water and $80 to treat their waste.
You'll also notice a lot of litter around town, most notably on the beaches and in the local stream. On my stroll along the beach today, I saw pieces of coral wrapped in plastic debris. And stray plastic bags greeted us during our afternoon swim. A walk through the fish market reveals some seemingly illegal activity, as a hammerhead shark and other protected species are carted off, but poverty and access to global markets can motivate the breaking of laws.
A restoration effort seems to be underway on the local stream, where mangrove trees were planted and a nice walkway with bridges was constructed. This project, however, is plagued by litter -- with discarded fishing nets, bottles and tires clogging the area.
Although I love watching my two young children engage in creative play on the beach, it is sad watching them make 'birthday cakes' out of discarded styrofoam bowls, with a plastic soup spoon serving as the candle.
Image Credit: Le Minh Vu
Sarah Lozanova is a regular contributor to environmental and energy publications and websites, including Mother Earth Living, Green Builder, Home Power, and Urban Farm. Her experience includes work with small-scale solar energy installations and utility-scale wind farms. She earned an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School and she resides in Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage in Midcoast Maine with her husband and two children.
Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.