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ECO-RESORT OFFERS A GENUINE BACK-TO-NATURE EXPERIENCE

One of the hot trends in the travel industry is the expanding lineup of "eco-resorts." These new hotels and lodges seem to be putting out signs anywhere there is an open patch of forest or jungle.

In reality, few eco-resorts come close to earning the title they market under. Worse, according to many experts, these same operations are often a detriment to the very environment they are heralding.

Most properties offer the same pricey package. They have a 10-minute nature trail, some recycling bins, wildlife posters in the bedrooms, and an occasional lecture or slide show in the evening. Every morning a Land Rover hauls camera-laden tourists off to wander some nearby preserve where hand-fed monkeys and birds put in a scheduled appearance. As often, a local family is paid to look poor before the entourage, pose for pictures and share some tortillas.

It was with that vision that while traveling through the mountains of South America last winter, I became interested in reports of a resort that not only stressed sensitivity to the environment but addressed the whole range of social, cultural and political aspects of tourism. It was called Hosteria Alandaluz, located near the village of Puerto Rico on Ecuador's Pacific coast.

And thus, a few months later, armed with only basic research and the advice of strangers I had met at the airport, I found myself back in Ecuador on an adventure of questionable pedigree. I was riding a rickety old bus north from the port city of Guayaquil, heading into the primitive wilds of Manabi Province and hoping to discover something there that would elevate my low regard for the concept of eco-tourism.

Like much of South America, prior to the arrival of the Spanish, this area was home to a flourishing civilization with cities in excess of 20,000 people. But the land was overtaxed and clear cutting of the forests set off a cycle of drought, floods and erosion that left much of the coastal plain a dry, barren wasteland. The lessons learned were hard ones and only today are being addressed.

In 1989, two cousins from the village of Puerto Rico, a college professor and the mayor, concluded tourism was a sustainable industry here that could provide jobs and income if done with care and a plan that put the environment first. They preached a communal concept intending to reclaim the land, involve all their neighbors and create a self-contained business that taught "harmony, a respect for nature's laws, a sense of community and responsibility."

Later that year the first 10 cabins of Alandaluz were built on a bluff overlooking the sea. They were the result of the most enlightened thinking and design in ecologically efficient construction and built of only local, easily replenished materials.

Alandaluz was never advertised or hyped when -- or since -- it opened. It turned out to be a case of "build it, and they will come," according to Marcelo Vinueza-Rojas, one of the founders. And people did come, in evergrowing numbers.

The sudden popularity forced the Alandaluz community to explore even more ambitious avenues of environmentally friendly construction and management as they expanded the facility and their philosophy. Today, it is not just a successful resort, but an educational outreach program that extends a hand not only to guests, but all farmers and land holders in the region, sharing the concept and vision.

My arrival at Alandaluz was unimpressive. The bus left me off on the side of a deserted road, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Resort guests expect an ornate lobby, taxi cabs, bell men and manicured gardens. I carried my bags down a long dusty driveway, through an inauspicious bamboo gate. Instead of meticulous landscaping, I was met by a wild and fragrant little garden crammed full of herbs, spices and a handful of protective flowers.

Beyond the garden sat a series of large compost bins and a row of composting pits topped by small marker flags. Everything here is recycled, composted or reused, I would learn, including -- shudder -- the toilet waste. On the opposite side of the entry is a complex of small concrete pools where the gray water from the showers, sinks, laundry and kitchen are sanitized and recycled for use in watering the gardens and orchards. Nothing goes to waste here.

Guests have a choice of accommodations, and it's a tough decision. Cabanas Veraneras are spectacular beachfront rooms in a grouping of three tall bamboo towers. Santa Rosa is a village of small individual cottages literally buried and consumed in a huge tropical garden of flowering vines and fruit trees where the variety of birds and butterflies will astound. Up on the hill sits the original 10 Cabanas Colinas, a row of super eco-designed cabins with lofty views of the coast and a steady cooling sea breeze. There is also a honeymoon suite built literally as a tree house and a small campground with basic cabanas and tent sites for the budget minded.

As a beach aficionado, I chose Veraneras and did not regret it. The wide, spotless expanse of beach was almost my private domain, and the roar of the surf lulled me into a state of euphoria as I rocked to sleep in a patio hammock.

All the main structures are designed with high-peaked thatch roofs that make the most of natural light and are turned in such a way to scoop in the breeze and blow out the occasional insect. This makes air conditioners, fans and daytime lighting unnecessary. Everything is made of bamboo, local bricks, cane mat, and beach sand stucco.

Even the furniture is bamboo -- grown on their own farm, and shaped in the adjacent community workshop. Each piece is ultimately covered with largely hand woven, local fibers. My shower was solar heated -- no problem so near the equator -- and the elevated second floor composting toilets were designed in such a way that there was amazingly no trace of odor.

Though you would expect such utilitarian features to result in quarters more like a monk's chamber at some desolate monastery, the final product was actually comfortable, attractive, and quaint to a fault. Better, I never felt a moment's guilt in the vein of the ugly American, pillaging and using up what the locals could least afford to share.

Dining here is another extravaganza. This is not five-course gourmet, so service is simple and the menu basic. As there is no place else to go, everyone dines together under a giant bamboo palapala in a garden full of flowers. The food is raised organically, using compost and recycled water. Vegetarian is in, but abundant fresh seafood caught by community members and the few pigs kept about to dine on kitchen waste appear frequently as options. A colorful mud wattle oven fueled by wood and charcoal does the baking.

No little praise -- during the course of a week this may well be the best dining I have ever enjoyed. Everything is natural, seasoned with spices grown on the grounds, and prepared by native cooks unspoiled by high-brow culinary schools. The key to it all is freshness. Everything we ate was picked or plucked within the hour and it tasted that way!

Admittedly, other then laying around the beach or getting into a hot volleyball game with some twentysomething backpackers, there is not much to do on site. For those who like to read, bask and be left alone, that's perfect.

One operation worthy of a visit is the adjoining workshop where bamboo and gudua cane is seasoned then made into building products and furniture for here and for resale. For most guests, after a tour of this, the Alandaluz community, watching the laundry in action, exploring the gardens, peeking in at the different fascinating cabanas, touring the nursery, and looking over the composting and water-recycling systems -- they have covered much of what there is.

Further afield, one "must-do" trek that is a long hike or shorter truck ride is to the annex at Cantalapiedra. Here, the community keeps a 20-acre organic farm and orchard. They also work extensively on raising bamboo for community use and for nursery stock for others in the region to replant and restore the denuded river valleys.

A handsome three-story bamboo guesthouse sits in the middle of the gardens at Cantalapiedra, and meals are cooked and served to everyone in an open pavilion. Alandaluz guests can enjoy visits of an afternoon to three days. There is fishing, hiking trails, bird watching, great scenery and fine hammocks with views of the mountains for those long siestas. Not surprisingly, many visitors actually enjoy pitching in and helping with the farm chores in exchange for lessons in botany and organic gardening from the workers.

Many who come to Alandaluz also like to get out and really explore the countryside, and that works out well as the resort sits right at the entrance to the huge Machalilla National Park. "Pacarina," the community operated guide service will arrange a variety of outings including pristine beaches, historic ruins, hikes through the mountains past unspoiled native villages, farm home stays, horseback riding and boat trips to Isla de la Plata (Silver Island). Pacarina can also arrange more complicated backpacking trips, diving, fishing and mountain bike treks all with native guides and small-group, low-impact strategies.

Isla de la Plata is one all-day trip that shouldn't be missed. Part of the park is a two-hour boat trip offshore. There, visitors see and photograph sea lions, assorted boobies, whales in season (June to November) and will hike past a myriad of other interesting life forms. Many biologists claim the variety of wildlife far exceeds what is seen on the much more expensive and heralded visits to the Galapagos Islands.

Alandaluz means "winged city of light" in Spanish. It offers a healthy, alternative community where the goal is to create a totally self-contained, environmentally sound and self-sustaining product where the local community is not exploited. While it remains a work in progress, it already raises the bar on eco-resorts and restores my faith in the concept. If you don't mind the journey, the stay is highly worth it.

Travel information

Getting there: American and Continental fly to Guayaquil. Stay overnight since flights arrive late, then rent a car in the morning. It's a four-hour drive. Regional buses departing Guayaquil are the most economical if you are a hearty traveler and speak some Spanish. Change to the local collectivo bus on the Santa Elena Peninsula and they drop you at the entrance. Passports or special shots are not needed to enter Ecuador, but two good forms of legal identification are required.

Costs: Getting there from the airport will cost $16 round trip via bus. Car rentals, reserved in advance from the United States start at $350 a week. Hiring a private ride can be $100 each way, so it is best shared with a small group. You might also try hooking up with a local travel agent sending a bus tour to the park, in which case you can negotiate more economical passage. At the resort, a full American meal plan is an astounding $8 a day. Juices are free -- beer and booze extra. Beachfront rooms are $26 a night while hilltop or garden cabanas fetch $23, and add about $10 for a double. Camping style cabanas with full linen service are as low as $8 a night, and its $3.50 to tent. Credit cards are not accepted so bring cash. Pack and take everything you might need as this is a very isolated location.

Reservations: The resort has an office in Quito. Write to Hosteria' Alandaluz, c/o Pacarina Agency, Baquedano 330 y Reina Victoria, Quito, Ecuador. Telephone is 011-593-2-505-084. Fax is at 011-593-2-543-042. You can also email them at alandalu@ecuanex.net.ec -- in English is OK, but Spanish gets a quicker response. When it is working, more information can be garnered from its Web site at www.qni.com/~mj/alanda/alanda.html

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