Puerto Lopez, Ecuador – Coffee, Chocolate, Earthquake

“Everything can change in an instant. Everything. And then there is only before and after.”  (Phyllis Reynolds Naylor)

Puerto Lopez, Ecuador - Coffee, Chocolate, Earthquake

Never did it cross our minds that a beautiful Saturday morning in Puerto Lopez would turn into an unforgettable and, hopefully, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

We left our home in Puerto Lopez on the morning of April 16th, 2016 for a daylong tour of an organic farm, “Pomarrosa”, south of Puerto Lopez, close to the pueblo of Rio Chico.

We came back to Puerto Lopez just in time for a surreal experience – one that will remain etched in our minds forever.

More about the earthquake later – first, our tour of Pomarrosa.

After getting lost on a winding dirt road leading us through jungle-like vegetation, totally different from the near desert conditions close to the ocean, Pomarrosa appeared, Benito and Ricardo, our tour guides and farm operators, waiting patiently for our arrival.

Puerto Lopez, Ecuador - Coffee, Chocolate, Earthquake

We walked through banana trees, yucca plants, bamboo stalks, pineapple bushes, and cacao trees, enjoying the atmosphere of the laid-back lifestyle Benito and Ricardo are lucky enough to live and work in.

I did not know that bananas grow upside down – or that they grow weird flowers…

Puerto Lopez, Ecuador - Coffee, Chocolate, Earthquake

The bathroom, a separate building from the house, consisted of a raised building with two doors, and an open space underneath, where the waste, mixed with sawdust, produces an odourless compost. No water needed to flush these toilets.

Puerto Lopez, Ecuador - Coffee, Chocolate, Earthquake

Ricardo asked me to pull a yucca plant out of the ground to harvest a few roots for part of our dinner. Apparently, the plants only produce for a year and a half, then they’re pulled out, and the stalks cut up and planted. The yucca was delicious, by the way…

Puerto Lopez, Ecuador - Coffee, Chocolate, Earthquake

Did you know that cacao pods grow only on the trunks of the trees, not on the branches like you’d expect? After picking the pods, the beans are removed, dried, roasted, husked and ground. I will never complain about the price of organic cacoa or chocolate again! We took some home and mixed it with a bit of sugar – delicioso!

Puerto Lopez, Ecuador - Coffee, Chocolate, Earthquake

Puerto Lopez, Ecuador - Coffee, Chocolate, Earthquake

Benito’s wife and friends made lunch, which consisted of yucca and vegetable soup, chicken with rice, beans and plantains, fruit juice, cookies, and, of course, coffee and hot chocolate. A typical Ecuadorian meal – and delicious, with great company, in a perfect location – what more could we ask for?

After lunch, we husked, roasted and ground coffee beans. Sugar was added to some of the coffee beans before roasting. It melted and mixed with the beans. After cooling and hardening, the mixture was ground, producing dark coffee with little sparkles, and a strong flavour – even after adding milk, it remained almost black. The coffee/sugar brew was a little bitter for my taste buds, but the pure coffee was excelente!

Here’s a video of Benito separating the chaff from the coffee beans – good exercise! No high-tech equipment here…

Everyone helped to roast and grind the cacao…

Benito’s daughter helped to husk the cacao beans – and she liked being photographed…

Puerto Lopez, Ecuador - Coffee, Chocolate, Earthquake

Robin’s turn to stir the coffee beans…

Puerto Lopez, Ecuador - Coffee, Chocolate, Earthquake

The cacao beans are shelled individually after roasting…

Puerto Lopez, Ecuador - Coffee, Chocolate, Earthquake

After a cold beer and a fruit snack, we headed home to Puerto Lopez, very satisfied with our educational and fun day. At seven o’clock a magnitude 7.8 earthquake hit the coast of Ecuador, leaving over 600 people dead and tens of thousands homeless.

Even though the earthquake of April 16th didn’t hit Puerto Lopez nearly as hard as the northern coast, it was still a terrifying, unforgettable, surreal experience. It’s taken a while to sink in – we’re still not over it. We realize how lucky we are that our building didn’t collapse on top of us and that we chose Puerto Lopez to call home rather than one of the towns that were hit the hardest. Hundreds of people weren’t so lucky – there were no deaths in Puerto Lopez.

This is my account of our ordeal – I realize other people experienced much worse…

Even though we were about 200 km away from the epicenter, the power that was generated to Puerto Lopez was amazing. It was felt strongly inland also – the Andes mountain range actually moved and houses swayed. It was felt as far south as Peru and to the north in Colombia. There have been over a thousand aftershocks, many powerful enough to cause more damage. There are an estimated 30,000 people living in the streets with nowhere to go, their homes destroyed. Fortunately, we could move away to a new home…

One of the many buildings in Puerto Lopez that lost a wall or two…

Puerto Lopez, Ecuador - Coffee, Chocolate, Earthquake

We lived on the 2nd floor of a two-year-old, 3-story building. Just home from our organic farm tour, we were in our apartment when the quake hit. It started out as a little tremor, similar to two we experienced previously. Within a matter of seconds, the building started to move horizontally. Then it started to shake and sway – violently.

Robin and I were in different rooms. She ran down the stairs into the street, where the power poles were swaying, wires shaking, people screaming and crying. I didn’t know she went out, so I looked for her in our small apartment – which didn’t take long – before I left. By the time I got outside, close to the stairway, the building really started to rock and roll. I couldn’t stand up without holding onto the walls and stair railing. I heard dishes smashing, things falling. It’s hard to describe…

I was glad to see Robin on the street – even though she left me behind – told her to let me know before she runs outside during the next earthquake! The power went out sometime during the quake, so the entire town was in darkness. People were crying around us – the whole experience was surreal and indescribable.

We decided to go for a walk on the beach to relax. About half way there I stopped to talk to some neighbours who were packing up their car. They told us there was a tsunami warning! Really?? I guess we should have thought of that! We turned around and started walking as fast as we could toward the hills behind town, and met up with our neighbours, Alex and Veronica. They were heading for a friend’s house and asked us to come along.

On the way up the hill, in the dark, we encountered hundreds of other people in cars and mototaxis, in the back of trucks, or just walking or running – all headed for higher ground. The experience just kept getting eerier.

We made it to Paul and Susan’s house, well above sea level. There were lots of people there already, but they invited us to stay with them for the night. Thanks, guys! The power was out all over town, but Paul had a generator and an internet connection which he shared with everyone. Thankfully we were able to notify our families that we were OK.

Nobody slept much, if at all. People around us in the hills had fires for cooking and comfort. Alex and I walked to our apartments with flashlights around midnight to get our most valuable possessions – just in case. We went back to the building the next morning to assess the damage and get ready to move out – no way were we staying there another night!

The 2nd floor was damaged the most, our apartment the worst. All of the walls were cracked, chunks of concrete everywhere. There was stuff all over the floors, the bedroom dresser had fallen over, things fell out of the kitchen cupboards, the glass broke in a picture frame that somehow didn’t fall off the wall, the windows popped out of the living room window. Everything in the fridge fell over, but thankfully the beer didn’t smash – we needed one at this point!

Puerto Lopez earthquake April 16 2016

Photo taken after cleaning up the debris…packing our bags.

Thanks to our 2nd-floor neighbours from Alberta we found another place to live right away – they asked us if we wanted to share the apartment they found. Thanks, Alex and Veronica! Even though you claimed the bedroom and we got the fold-down couch!  

We packed up, scared of another quake or strong aftershock happening while we were inside, and moved to our new house – which was next to a four-story concrete building. The next day, as we were enjoying a cold beer on the deck, finally relaxing a bit, another strong quake happened not far from Puerto Lopez. The people in the big building next door ran out into the street, some crying – we weren’t long joining them.

Things settled down, with no apparent damage to either building. After another aftershock the next day, nights with very little sleep, seeing people sleeping on sidewalks, and hearing people crying, we decided it was time to move – as soon as possible. We just happened to luck into a house-sitting job for the month of May, so we hired a driver to take us to Giron.

Although Giron is a beautiful place with ideal weather and friendly people, we miss Puerto Lopez. We miss our new friends. We miss our nightly beach walks to watch the sun set into the Pacific. We miss the 50-cent mototaxis. We miss the beach cabanas and the laid-back way of life. We miss the bicycle vendors – especially the old guy with a bucket of shrimp between his legs yelling “Camarooooon” at the top of his lungs every morning at 7:00.

But we can sleep soundly all night now without the fear of being crushed or being swept away by a tsunami. Since we left, there have been hundreds of aftershocks, several large ones, some affecting Puerto Lopez. People are still nervous and scared…

We will never forget April 16th, 2016…

*Update Feb/21/2017. We have since moved from Giron to the small, southern city of Loja in the Andes mountains…more about mountain life in later posts…

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