Coloring the Coast

There’s a tiny town on the Pacific coast of Ecuador poised to fulfill big dreams.

The big dream was seeded by Shell Spivey, a former banker who emigrated to Ecuador eight years ago from Arkansas. He and his wife, Marsha, a CPA, moved with plans to live in a beautiful, tranquil country by the water.

They found La Entrada, “The Entrance,” a sleepy fishing village of 850 inhabitants, a handful of restaurants and no hotels. Villa de los Suenos was born. The Spivey’s bed and breakfast, House of Dreams, is highly ranked on Trip Advisor and popular with expats. With just five rooms and a casita – all with ocean views, the Villa offers an intimate, personal experience. Breakfast is complimented with local bakery delicacies served with an expansive ocean view that never ends.

But this story is about something bigger than the Spiveys retirement plan. It’s about an American couple giving back to the community that welcomed them. It’s about two people making a difference in a fishing village that ekes out its subsistence dependent on Mother Nature. It’s about leaving a place better than you found it.

After launching their B&B, the Spiveys immersed themselves in the community. They volunteer at the orphanage, where Christmas now is a bonanza. Marsha helps shepherd little ones through a ballet class, then helps out in choir. Both spend time and funds to aid senior citizens. The Spiveys even formed a support group, the Friends of La Entrada, as a grassroots effort for expats to sponsor projects in health care, education and other basic needs.

They tackled their first major community project, the rebuilding of the town’s Catholic Church, with hours of research and planning to create the region’s first destination wedding chapel. With a beautiful white chapel featuring an exterior wall of floor-to-ceiling glass highlighting spectacular ocean views, the Spiveys were confident renters would flock to La Entrada.

“After the government took over the project, they told us there was not enough money to build the glass wall that would allow the Pacific Ocean to be the church’s backdrop.

Shell told them the glass could not be eliminated,” Marsha recalled. “He asked an interpreter to tell the contractor, ‘God wants the front wall to be glass.’ The contractor looked down and got quiet. Then he said ‘Then God can come up with the $15,000.’ ”

Marsha said her husband negotiated the price down to $12,000 and launched a crowd funding campaign. The funds were raised just in time to pay for the glass.

While work continues to expand and equip the church, which has already hosted weddings and other celebrations, the Spiveys turned their attention to the town.

That big dream Shell had? It is to colorize the tiny town’s 128 buildings. Then, muralists from throughout the country will be invited in to produce as many as 50 murals. By brightly painting the town, Marsha explains, La Entrada will become a one-of-a-kind tourist destination. Travelers will want to see the beautiful artwork, spend some money, and maybe stay awhile.

It hasn’t been an easy process. Some buildings are in such disrepair they must be torn down. Other residents must replace bamboo walls with concrete. All exterior walls are first plastered, and then painted in vivid colors with contrasting trim. Only then are volunteer artists invited in to paint murals. Homeowners must agree to the makeovers, then to help protect the artwork. Painters of 23 murals so far committed to return to maintain the murals, which are virtually unprotected in the harsh seaside elements.

All of those improvements come at a cost. Some has been raised by the Spiveys and some provided through donations and discounts on paint by Sherwin Williams and Unidas in Ecuador. Unidas was the first to donate the paint and a group of community representatives picked the most colorful complementing colors from their color charts.

Homeowners choose from the varied pallet of colors, but cannot paint their homes the same color as their neighbors. Homeowners provide the labor, so patience is sometimes key, and some require more convincing than others that ALL sides of their home must be repaired and painted. Some wanted to paint the street front and be done. But in some cases, the backs of homes overlook the main streets, Marsha says. She points to the side of second-story adobe wall. That WILL be painted, she says with determination.

In addition to the colorization of the town, plans call for new restaurants, stone ovens on the town square for cooking street food, and artisan shops. La Entrada already is home to at least two artisans, a jewelry designer and a painter/sculptor. The jeweler, Armando Asuncion, also serves as the community president. Asuncion’s workshop also serves as a school for aspiring jewelry makers. Well-respected for his trade and leadership, Asuncion is a spectacular role model at 26.

The painter, Darwin Ruiz, specializes in bright acrylics of ocean life and Ecuadorian natives. His whimsical sculptures are built of car parts and other found mechanical pieces. The Spiveys are hoping to work with the Ministry of Tourism in Ecuador to help provide training and workshops for residents interested in learning artisan trades.

The community’s vice president, Benito Pincay left La Entrada at 16 to earn his culinary diploma in Guayaquil. He became a pastry chef and worked 12 years for four top hotels in Guayaquil then returned to his hometown to establish a now well-known bakery. With two other locations on the coast, Benito’s Bakery brings customers from cities three hours way looking for his delicious cakes and pineapple turnovers. I can speak with authority here – my chocolate birthday cake was divine and the pineapple treats were breakfast favorites.

It is exciting to think a return visit next year may reveal a flourishing small town that is self-sufficient in providing for the needs of its 15 fishing families. In a place where few children expect to complete their education, much less go on to college, the dream of American expats could mean huge opportunities for the next generation.

As dreams go, this one is tangible and achievable. As Yoko Ono said, “a dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.”

Nabón’s Hidden Treasures

Mike had no interest in a tour that included a stop to admire antique dresses.

What we didn’t know is that these dresses were no ordinary antiques.

The main square of Nabón and the village church.

We were touring Nabón, a small canton about 71 kilometers, or 44 miles, southwest of Cuenca. We had already admired the centuries-old millhouse and spent a memorable lunch at Laura’s Casa y Arte, better known as “Chinita’s Wonderland.” Now we were stopping in town to admire the unusual plaza filled with architecturally shaped trees, visiting the nearby church in Charqui and exploring a local orchid farm.

A mountainous chain of peaks just over 9,800 feet above sea level surround the lush green village of Nabón canton. Less than 13 years ago, the town was declared a National Cultural Heritage. The Ministry of Education and Culture that awarded the title cited the area’s unique, rustic landscapes and historically based roots as the seat of pre-Hispanic societies. Indigenous roots are still present in most of the canton, such as the Chunazana, Shiña, and Rañas, who still speak their indigenous languages.

Nabón also is home to archaeological remains of settlements for the Cañari and Inca. During the Inca Empire, Nabón became Tambo (Place of Rest), as a stop of the chasquis, Peruvian messengers who ran with messages and information from Ecuador to Cusco in Peru.

Predominantly Catholic, the canton houses several churches that honor patron saints. In the 120-year-old Charqui Capilla, we are introduced to the Virgen Del Rosario, a title given the mother of Jesus. The church is a living museum, housing the most important of the hundreds of intricately sewn gowns used to adorn the Virgin Mary and the baby she holds during annual festivities. Other smaller communities nearby also serve as storage houses for the dresses. The gowns are changed weekly, with the exception of the 40 days leading to Easter when the Virgen is stowed away.DSC_0369.JPG

The 120-year-old Charqui Capilla where the Virgen’s dresses are stored.

The tradition of providing the antique dresses began in 1949. A family, known as the prioste, is selected to prepare a celebration for the village. The main religious celebration is celebrated in honor of the Blessed Virgin of the Rosary on the last Sunday of May or the first Sunday of June. The prioste, along with the parish priest, is charge of the organization and celebration itself, including contracting for fireworks, providing games, dances and other cultural events

The family also is charged with creating a dress for the Virgen. In the early days, the dress was created by the family members, painstakingly sewn by hand, each bead and sequin carefully placed and stitched in place. The tradition continues today, although most families contract the work.

Some of the dozens of handmade gowns hanging inside the church.

Surprisingly, these intricate and priceless dresses are hung throughout the church. Some, including the oldest one, are placed on benches near the altar. Others are stuffed into an old wooden wardrobe at the rear of the church. All are available for handling. They range from velvets to satins, adorned with beads, sequins and complex lace designs. It is an honor to be chosen, our guide tells us, and a challenge to create the next beautiful gown.

Somewhat chastened and very much in awe of local tradition, we left the church and headed for the orchid farm.

Laurie and Mike inside the Nabón Orquideareo.

The Nabón Orquideareo is a small, thatched roof building housing more than 200 species of orchids. The architecture of the Botanical Garden “Orquideario” maintains ancestral values, which is why its construction is composed of typical materials from the village, such as quarry stone, wood, straw, and reeds.

Visitors are invited to stroll among the gorgeous blooms, each more delightful than the next. One thing we have come to love about Ecuador is its appreciation for these fragile flowers. With its location on the equator and temperate conditions year-round, Ecuador is a perfect place to grow orchids.

Some of the exotic varieties of orchids in the garden.

We finish the tour with a trek to the mountaintop above the orchid farm. The views are breathtakingly beautiful. On one side of the mountain, the village of Nabón sprawls lazily from one end to the other, as far as the eye can see. On the backside of the mountain, a more pastoral scene emerges, farming plots dotting the landscape into the valley.

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Mountaintop view over Nabón.

It is another successful foray into Ecuadorian living for us. Even if Mike didn’t think he was interested in antique dresses.

Exploring Nabon: The Last Great Stone Mill and “Chinita” in Wonderland

DSC_0373Laurie Paternoster and Mike Churchman in Nabon, Ecuador.

Nabon, Ecuador, is a quiet village just 70 kilometers from Cuenca, where history and fantasy meet.

High in the Andes Mountains, in a bowl surrounded by 9,000 foot peaks, Nabon offers a quiet, simple life.  A small canton of about 16,000 people, it is known as a “matriarchal village,” as most of its male inhabitants historically have left to find jobs in bigger cities, returning home after weeks or months away.

Like most Ecuadorian towns, the square is the central meeting spot fronted by a historical church. On a recent trip organized by local businesswoman Sole Riquetti de Gould, we met colorful residents, explored a historical mill and had lunch at a secluded mountaintop home that challenged the imagination.

So how historical can a grist mill get? Try 400 years! The old mill house is known for producing sweet flour that is used to make some of the best-tasting tortillas around. And it’s run by a pair of 80-somethings.

1. Las Hermanas Maldonado. 2. Power source for mill. 3. The 400-year-old millhouse.

Known as Las Hermanas Maldonado, the sisters are the last of the family that has run the mill since 1618. Like their ancestors before them, the sisters ground grains carried in from the nearby road into flour. With no direct descendants to run the mill, they worry about its future. It is the last watermill-powered stone mill in Ecuador.

For now, a lone young woman traipses the 700 meters from the main highway with loads of grain. She opens the gate from the nearby fast-running stream and urges the lumbering mill into action. Millstones come in pairs. The base stone is stationary. Above the base stone is the turning runner stone that actually does the grinding. Grain is fed by gravity from above down between the stones where it is ground. The flour exits the stones from the sides where it is gathered up and bagged.

Once again I am entranced with this country’s age. Gristmills used to grind corn, wheat, and other grains into flour and meal were a common sight in the early United States. But the first recorded North American gristmill wasn’t built until 1621, in Jamestown, Virginia. There are still operating grist mills in at least 30 states.

The sisters walk gingerly around the old millhouse, showing us where the water flows from the stream directly under the mill. They apologize for not opening the gates to show us the aging millstones at work. The sisters say they are too old now, afraid of falling or getting hurt. They take us to their nearby hacienda where we sit and visit. Soon, it is time to leave the idyllic setting and move on to our next adventure.

 

1. Mike examines the grain shoot. 2. Water turns the wheel under the millhouse. 3. An ancient wheel.

That adventure is lunch in Fantasyland. In fact, it is known as Laura’s Casa y Arte, but it might as well be known as “Chinita in Wonderland.”

The owner of Laura’s Casa, Chinita Vintimilla, is a bundle of energy.DSC_0406

Chinita Vintimilla

Five years ago, Chinita and her husband decided to leave the noise, bustle and vehicle-polluted streets of Cuenca for the peace and quiet of the Andes Mountains. There they found seven acres of green, fertile land ready to receive her vision.

That vision is a playful approach to life. Their home, shop and assorted out buildings are decorated with found objects and others lovingly handmade. Every tree boasts a secret surprise, from heavily planted wooden planters to tinkling mobiles singing in the breeze. And they are no ordinary planters and mobiles. Look closely to find miniature figures tucked among the greenery. The mobiles might be made of utensils, shock absorbers or even keys, depending on the artists’ whim.

Laura’s Casa y Arte, with two of the whimsical touches on the grounds.

And whimsical she is. Strong and seemingly serious, Chinita’s weathered face creases into smiles when visitors compliment her handiwork. “It keeps me busy” she says brightly.

Visitors are welcome in her fairyland daily from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. For $1, you can stroll throughout the property to your heart’s content. Then, there is a possibility of a delicious meal – in our case an incredibly hearty chicken soup with a variety of homemade sauces. To top it off, we enjoy luscious ice cream, with an apple fritter and chocolate sauce.

We walk through the garden, past the massive wall of nesting pigeons and under the low-hanging, flowering arch to a sitting area overlooking the mountains. From that point, we see the Chasqui tambo, or meeting point, in the distance. We hear about the Nabon area’s importance as a communications crossroads for Peruvian runners hundreds of years ago. These runners, called “chasquis,” were the messengers of the Inca Empire. Agile, highly trained and physically fit, they were in charge of carrying the quipus, messages and gifts up to 240 kilometers per day through the chasquis relay system. Quipus were devices carried by the runners and consisted of a main cord, with attached varicolored, knotted cords. They were used by the ancient Peruvians for calculating and relaying stories or information. DSC_0374.JPG

The tambo is the bump in the mountain, center of photo.

The tambo we can see in the distance is a high mountain featuring a large concave rock peak. The relay station was one of many along the South American route used for the chasquis to stop at and transfer messages to the next chasqui. There were different sizes and levels of tambos and each one was assigned a different use. The use of the tambo – such as meeting place or shelter – depended on what route it was on and who was allowed to use it, but the majority of them were just to pass the messages along.

We leave the sitting area to explore the grounds. Just beyond the lookout point is a tot-sized table set for imaginary tea time. The trees are filled with whimsical bird feeders and plant holders. Nearby, there is a door ajar, leading into a round hut. It beckons the visitor to explore. Inside are hundreds of dolls – all types, materials, colors and sizes – whose clothing, and sometimes bodies, all are handmade by Chinita. There is still more to see.

Above and below, features found at Laura’s Casa y Arte.

Outside there are rock-paved pathways, plants of every description, handmade critters tucked among the shadows and hand-carved benches strategically placed at viewpoints. Even the fencing appears artistically arranged, using rough cut wood poles at odd angles.

Finding our way back to the main house, we are struck by the assortment of iron implements tacked to the walls. Inside the randomly attached buildings, every corner is filled. Antiques are stacked high on shelves and in corners, hand-crafted keepsakes strewn across tables and inside cupboards. Old, musty books fill shelves above and racks of toys crowd shelves below. Everything is for sale.

There is a small chapel, too, its doors flung open to visitors. Inside, with space enough for a few, there is an altar and a place to pray. There are dogs and ducks and chickens and roosters vying for attention and mingling underfoot. Chinita’s home is charming. Her world is enticing. The experience is one that should not be missed.

When our eyes have taken in as much as our stomachs, it is time to go. It seems fitting that, as Chinita waves goodbye, there is a giant rainbow spreading across the sky. We found the pot of gold.

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