By Austin Bailey, World Ark editor
Photos by Dave Anderson
Families living along Ecuador’s coastline seek new livelihoods as the mangroves and the natural resources they provide dwindle. One family hinges their hopes on community tourism, opening their home to visitors wanting an authentic taste of life in the mangroves.
If you're visiting the island town of Muisne, Ecuador, you have only a few options for where to stay. Forget checking into a bland chain hotel; there simply are none. You could get a room in one of the barebones establishments near the town square if you don’t mind the constant bustle and honking of motorcycle taxis. Some of the beachfront hostels are nice, but they’re also lonely, all clumped on the seaside, a good haul away from the buzz of town.
The Chila family would rather you come to their house, a compound on the northern end of the island with a river view to the front and jungle at the back. Anyone willing to forego convenience for authenticity will find a clean bed at Cabañas Bella Vista, and the view really is nice. Even nicer are the hosts, who are eager to teach you about life on this diverse and unique island.
“The idea is to come get involved with the community, to meet people in town and get to know our family,” explained Lizandro Chila, the fifth of 10 siblings and the son who takes a lead role in running his family’s hostel.
You can get to know the special culture of the Mangrove people. Lizandro Chila, InnKeeper
Muisne’s charm comes partly from its unique schedule. Island life snaps to the whims of the tide. Some boating routes open only when the water is high, while many roads and paths on the island are fully submerged when the tide comes in. Houses on the edges of Muisne hover on stilts to stay dry, their front porches becoming diving platforms for children when the water rises.
The unique ethnicity of Muisne’s people is also a draw. The island is in Ecuador’s Esmeraldas region, where more than half of the population consists of Afro-Ecuadorians. Descendants of African people who escaped Spanish slavers centuries ago, today’s Afro-Ecuadorians retain distinctive cuisine, music and other traditions.
The Chila family’s compound is set up to give guests enough privacy to be comfortable, but with plenty of opportunities to mingle with their temporary neighbors. Sleeping quarters are private, but all meals are cooked and served in an open-air dining hall where everyone eats together. And if you want a reprieve from the tropical heat, you’ll have to join those who’ve already claimed their hammocks. William Chila seems to relish the opportunity to race up a tall ladder to pluck a coconut for anyone wanting to sip on coconut water.
Until fairly recently, the Chila family earned most of its money by harvesting wood and processing it into charcoal for sale. A few years ago they launched Bella Vista as an income source, since the mangroves that they and most other families in and around Muisne traditionally counted on for their livelihoods are being eaten away by development and pollution.
Descendants of African people who escaped Spanish slavers centuries ago, today's Afro-Ecuadorians retain distinctive cuisine, music and other traditions.
“Mangroves used to be all around the coast,” said Rosa Rodriguez, Heifer Ecuador director. “But now, the shrimp farms are devastating them.” Women who used to harvest hundreds of shellfish a day from among the mangrove roots have far fewer places to hunt, since more than half of the country’s mangroves have been toppled or polluted in recent decades. Now, these shellfish gatherers, known as concheras, report they’re lucky to come up with a fraction of their previous harvests and can no longer make a living on shellfish alone. People who fished or collected wood in the mangroves are also having to find new careers as natural resources disappear.
So in Muisne and the surrounding region, Heifer came in nearly a decade ago to support efforts to preserve the mangroves that are left and regenerate destroyed mangrove plots. At the same time, Heifer is broadening its scope beyond agriculture to help families who can’t rely on the mangroves anymore make a living in new ways, many of them tourism-related.
From the Mountains to the Sea
Heifer International currently runs six projects in Ecuador to help small-scale farmers, harvesters and entrepreneurs from Andean communities to the mangrove forests along the coast.
Some project participants are growing coffee and cocoa. Others are raising livestock, corn, beans and other crops using sustainable hillside agriculture practices to protect the soil from erosion. In the highlands, Heifer is helping alpaca farmers harvest high-quality fiber from their animals for maximum profit. Read more about our work in Ecuador.
Goals for Heifer Projects in Ecuador
- Promote sustainable agriculture and conservation
- Help farmers process their products to meet market demand
- Build larger, more robust markets for farmers and producers
- Advocate for food sovereignty so that the people have control over what they grow and eat
The Chila family got some starter money for Bella Vista from Heifer International and FUNDECOL, an Ecuadorian nonprofit. The first bungalow built for guests cost roughly $4,000, with half of the money coming from FUNDECOL. One of the Chila brothers, a shipbuilder by trade, oversaw construction. And the family harvested
the wood locally.
The family began hosting guests from France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Canada and Colombia, along with tourists from other parts of Ecuador who wanted to experience life on the coast. “Every time we get a group, we can do upgrades,” Lizandro Chila said. The money the family earned from the first guests’ fees
went toward the construction of another structure that boosted Bella Vista’s capacity so it can host more than 20 people at a time.
The rough wooden two-bedroom bungalow and the larger wooden dormitory available to tourists both sit up on stilts — think Gilligan’s Island meets Swiss Family Robinson — to avoid the occasional floodwaters from the Esmeraldas River, which flows between the island and the mainland. A raised dining room sits in the middle of the broad dirt courtyard, and a constantly shifting cast of skinny dogs trot through, sometimes stopping to nap or scratch.
Some of the Chila children are grown and have moved away, but half of them still live on the family compound, in a house attached to the entrance gate. The brothers and sisters help keep the hostel running by cooking, doing laundry and befriending guests. All meals are prepared and served in the thatched, open-air dining room, and guests are encouraged to wash up and come help in the kitchen. In fact, many of the people who stay at Bella Vista are culinary students from other regions of Ecuador, visiting to learn how to prepare unique Ecuadorean seafood dishes, like coconut shrimp soup and ceviche.
“You can see how we chop the fish and the onion. You can get to know the special culture of the mangrove people,” Lizandro Chila said.
The lifestyles of his family and neighbors are molded largely by the water and jungle, which inform what their houses are made of, how they make a living and what they eat. “You can see our interactions with our surroundings,” he said. “That’s fundamental to us.”
To learn more about Bella Vista, contact Lizandro Chila at firstname.lastname@example.org.