Although it’s not well known, Zaruma Ecuador is famous locally for coffee, gold and tigrillo.
Zaruma is located in the highlands of the southern coastal region of Ecuador. It’s an enchanting village nestled in the hills of the West Andes.
It is surrounded by a stunning natural landscape that’s teeming with native biodiversity.
The city has an altitude of just under 4,000 feet, meaning views of the surrounding rugged scenery are generally gorgeous.
It’s one of the oldest cities in the country. It is widely renowned for having a rich history and cultural heritage.
The full name of this hidden gem is actually quite a mouthful: Villa del Cerro de Oro in San Antonio de Zaruma.
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Mining for Gold in Zaruma
It’s often said that Zaruma was founded by the Spanish back in 1595.
However, Indigenous peoples discovered gold in the area during the pre-colonial era and began to work in the mines.
This was a dangerous endeavor for the ancient peoples. But they were fueled by a desire for such a precious metal.
The Zaruma gold region later gained its independence from Spain in 1820. It fell into a depression after independence.
Though the rich deposits that the city was founded upon never really stopped being mined.
Gold mining is still the main economic source today for Zaruma, El Oro, Ecuador.
The stats suggest that about 10,000 people are directly or indirectly employed by this gold industry. And it produces over 10 tons each year.
The unfortunate side is that the mines can often create a lot of sinkholes.
This seems to be because the international companies who come into Ecuador don’t use proper techniques.
In the evening I noticed a beautiful haze just around dusk. Later I discovered that haze was dust from mining.
Thankfully I didn’t notice that affecting the air quality,
Locals are also at fault for illegally mining. One such infamous Zaruma sinkhole happened in 2022 when someone was illegally mining under their house and it fell.
Is Zaruma Ecuador Safe?
Travel in the El Oro province is not the safest. I haven’t explored a lot of it because it can be unnecessarily risky.
However, Zaruma is one of the safer spots to visit.
In Zaruma, while there is so much money from the mines and many people driving very expensive cars. The town is still very traditional with its architecture and food.
A fun fact though is that a lot of people actually came over from California and Europe during the gold rush. And so a lot of Ecuadorians here are blond and look European.
The younger generation of Zarumeños is far less interested in becoming miners than their parents.
Most go off to other cities in Ecuador to attend school and then return home from studying on the weekends. This is a big part of the tourism here.
For those that cannot make it home there are so many Zaruma cafes throughout Ecuador and around the world selling Zaruma coffee.
Why Visit Zaruma, Ecuador
Zaruma is a well-preserved, cozy city that can feel like stumbling upon a local secret.
The aesthetics of the town will transport you back in time. And the rich history will leave you filled with a sense of fascinated wonder.
Add amazing traditional cuisine and some of the best coffee roasts around, and it seems impossible not to stop into Zaruma while in Ecuador.
Zaruma is definitely a bit off the beaten path for most travelers. It’s also a Pueblo Magico, similar to what you’ll find in Mexico.
This basically means that it’s heralded for its cultural heritage. Locals here have managed to preserve their unique traditional way of life very well.
Zaruma, also commonly called Sultana del Oro, it is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Zaruma is famous for its colonial-style architecture.
Ancient building techniques of the 19th and 20th centuries have been well protected and restored with a ton of wood, which is typical of the Republican era.
The most recognizable characteristics are the intricate details, terracotta roofs, and brightly colored facades.
There are many well preserved wooden buildings in the centre of town that give almost a charming Wild West vibe to the town.
This region grows and harvests some of the best coffee in all of Ecuador. Zaruma coffee has become famous all around the world.
Across Ecuador (and even as far as Brooklyn) there are cafes specifically catering to Zarumeños.
As a people, they are so proud to be from their town and to have maintained traditional manners of living.
They also boast a diverse and delicious array of traditional sweets to try as well.
Things to do in Zaruma
The historical city center of Zaruma has steep and narrow cobbled streets. These make for a lovely way to wander around.
It’s a fairly compact and walkable town to explore on foot.
If you come at the right time you can find all kinds of celebrations taking place here, from food fairs to weekend markets to annual festivals.
The biggest tourist attraction are the mines. But I didn’t go see them.
Instead I wanted to try tigrillo here, a common Ecuadorian breakfast with mashed plantains, fresh cheese and egg.
I’ve had it many times but Zaruma is the birthplace of tigrillo, a hearty breakfast for the gold miners..
Here are some other great things to do in Zaruma:
The Municipal Museum is a must-see to learn more about why Zaruma is such a significant world heritage site in South America.
Many of the informational exhibits detail the role of mining activity in the cultural development of the region.
The collection contains over 2000 items including archaeological artifacts, religious art, and paleontological relics.
Mina El Sexmo
Mina El Sexmo is one of the most popular things to do in Zaruma. It is also the oldest mine in the Americas.
You can take a free guided tour of this legendary cavern to discover more about what makes this gold city special.
It’s conveniently close to the town center. Plus what’s more fun than walking down deep into the earth donning big boots and a silly helmet?
Sanctuary of the Virgen del Carmen
The Sanctuary of the Virgen del Carmen is a beautiful example of neo-classic Latin America architecture. If you’re not religious it’s still worth popping in.
Set in the square of independence, everything from the baroque style arches to the ornate grand altar and down to the brightly colored murals creates an eye-catching site.
Hiking in Zaruma
You can also explore the abundance of natural wonders this region has to offer by traveling only a short distance outside of town.
You can also walk up to El Calvario Hill to soak up the sweeping panoramas. You can even paraglide off of it if you’re feeling adventurous.
The canton is a tropical paradise. Be sure to check out some local waterfalls like Chaca Capac, Churro Blanco, and Huayaquichuma to get a taste of the magical Zaruma wilderness.
Best Zaruma Restaurants
In modern times, this republican-era city is known for its traditional gastronomic delights, artisan coffee, and traditional sweet treats.
You’ll find cozy, local haunts to try all over town, often that have been around for generations.
Regardless of where you go, it is obvious that this is a mining town the second you get your plate.
The portions are enormous, so order accordingly.
When first feeling those pangs of hunger, I recommend heading over to 200 Miles.
It’s one of the best eateries for trying the traditional cuisine that Zarumenos are famous for.
Go for the beef churrasco or the apanado here. Top it all off with some aji (Ecuadorian hot sauce), of course.
Next, Cafe Tigrillo is where all the locals go. This means that it’s more affordable than a few of the other popular tourist spots.
It also feels more authentic and has been around for over 40 years. Don’t let the hole-in-the-wall facade fool you, this place is the real deal.
They make their own roast called Cafe del Cerro and serve the best tigrillo you may ever eat.
This house specialty is a heaping plate of mashed plantain, eggs, sauced-up meat, and cheesy potato hash.
It’s filling, yet so hard to stop eating because it’s just that delicious.
You can also go for the bolon de mani, an especially good choice if you’re gluten-free or have a big hiking day ahead of you.
It literally translates to mean ball and is made from mashed plantain and peanut butter.
The Weather in Zaruma
Ecuador is a country of so many climates. I wear sweaters and pants in Cuenca. But 5.5 hours away in Zaruma I was sweating through a sundress and flip flops.
It’s best to visit Zaruma, Ecuador when the climate is warm and dry. The rainy season runs from mid-December to mid-May.
My favorite months tend to be from July to September when exploring this part of the country.
Some say Zaruma is Ecuador’s best kept secret, and a day spent among the quaint and alluring town full of friendly, proud locals has sure done a lot to convince me.
Getting to Zaruma
Taking the bus from Vilcabamba to get to Zaruma is surely the cheapest way to go.
You might hear that the trip will take about four hours, but it’s actually closer to six.
However, the route it follows is via Loja and the views along the way are absolutely spectacular. It feels well worth it if you don’t mind windy, unpaved roads.
A taxi trip wouldn’t be outrageous here either, taking around two and a half hours it will likely cost 60 USD.
To arrive in Zaruma from Guayaquil, the bus ride is slightly shorter, averaging around three hours.
It won’t cost very much and the scenery along the coast can be very beautiful on this journey as well.
You can also fly from the GYE airport to the Santa Rosa Airport from there and then take a cab to the city, which is roughly 30 miles away.
In-country flights tend to be pretty affordable in Ecuador too if you plan in advance.
Have more questions about Zaruma, Ecuador? Let me know in the comments below!