ZARUMA, Ecuador – With a past rooted in gold mining and a present highlighted by excellent coffee and experiential tourism, Zaruma, a city in the southeastern province of El Oro on the Andean ridge of Vizcaya, is one of 22 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Ecuador.
The city, founded in 1539 by gold-seeking Spanish conquistadors, clings to a mountainside with narrow streets that zig-zag around many buildings of historic value.
Zaruma and the nearby city of Portovelo became mining centers under Spanish rule and thousands of gold shipments were sent to Europe from here.
Officials and residents are now determined to make Zaruma renowned in different ways by boosting tourism in this coastal region.
One promising business is “experiential tourism,” which allows visitors to know and enjoy the city as if they were locals, Zaruma Mayor Jhansy Lopez said.
Experiential tourism, or homestay tourism, lodges visitors in family homes rather than hotels or inns.
Residents are the key to this project because “it is the residents’ hospitality and warmth in their attention to the tourists that draws visitors to that experience,” the mayor said, adding that the program was sponsored by the Tourism Ministry’s “Viaja primero Ecuador” campaign.
Many of Zaruma’s houses, listed on the cultural heritage register, open their doors in the evenings with cozy bars and coffee shops, where visitors can learn about the city’s history as told by the people who live and work here.
A large and well-lighted tunnel leads tourists into the Sexmo mine, now out of operation, on slippery ground along the railway that hauled tons of ore out of the area.
A guide explained that from the 150-meter (495-foot) deep mine, gold, silver and copper were extracted and during just one year, in 1950, a U.S. company mined some 3,000 tons of minerals.
Lopez said this direct experience of the city and its people appeals to foreign tourists, especially French and Spanish visitors, who seek to learn about the region’s myths and culture.
Ranchers in the region have joined the program, offering hospitality in a rural setting that shows additional features of the Zaruma area.
The mayor said Zaruma offered many advantages for tourists coming from Peru since, as a border town, it provides lodging options for neighbors.