Category Archives: rock walls

La Ducha Caricola- The Snail Shower

The Inspiration

So this is the story of how we decided to build a spiral shower out of rocks. And then, because I am a construction junkie, exactly how we did it.

When we first came to Vilcabamba, we were guests at the bioreserve  Rumihuilcos for a few nights. Rumihuilcos was once featured in the New York Times in the Seventies as part of an article about how people live longer in Vilcabamba. Apparently there are more centegenarians on the hoof here than is average, and one of the possible causes is the idea that the feathery Huilco leaves, like in the name Rumi Huilco, filter the air.  Anyway, there was a charming picture of our hosts’ children hanging out the windows of the stilt house where we stayed, just above an outdoor shower built of river stones in a spiral shape. I was struck with the beauty and practicality of the design.

The spiral means that you don’t have to have a door, which would decay without a roof, since you just walk in and disappear from sight, and the river stones are readily available, pretty, and feel nice on your feet. I decided that having a spiral shaped outdoor shower would be very Vilcabamba, and would also free up some bathroom space in our small house. My grandmother had an outdoor shower which was attached to a very cold artesian well, wonderful during the steamy Maryland summers, but the stall was made of wood and usually had a few wasps nests in it, which made showering risky. We wanted a structure that would be more open and easy to clean, so we decided we would build the initial shape with edge-on brick and just sheathe it with flat round stones. I had also seen a shower like that in Africa, with a pattern of pebbles around the drain so you didn’t slip.

Getting Started: Foundation and Plumbing

We started by selecting and leveling the spot, measuring a circle big enough for me to spread my arms. Edgar hammered in a stake, tied a string to it, and traced a shape like a big snail.  He must have been great in geometry class. We installed a drain and brought in the hot and cold water lines from the house system. Then he made slip forms out of strips of flexible plywood, and filled them with closely fitted mountain rocks.

note the rocked in slip form as we begin to run wheelbarrow loads of cement into it.

Once the rocking in was done, the  empiedramiento, he and Francelin mixed rough mortar and filled it, leaving 3/4 inches of space for the stone tiling from the lip of the drain to the cement floor.  In screeing the floor level, Edgar somehow managed to achieve a gentle grade down to the drain (regillo) so that not only shower water

but even rain water would all drain perfectly. We ran a two inch PVC pipe from the drain out the bottom of the shower wall, headed in a downhill direction. Later I attached two 45 degree elbows to drop the drain pipe low enough to bury, and ran it out into the garden below the house, using about 20 meters of two inch PVC pipes that I perforated with shallow saw cuts along the bottom.  I used up some leftover pipe as well, and zagged around the flowerbeds with 45’s. I dug a 10 inch deep trench which was partially filled with gravel. I found that once some of the gravel was in the trench holding the pipe in place, it was simpler to pour the gravel over the pipe, as it would vibrate itself into the middle of the stones, I then filled the trench by raking in small rocks out of the soil, and then smoothing soil over everything using a leaf rake.

The Brick Wall

Edgar traced the final line for the wall, using a nail on a string tied to a central nail to score the line for the inner showering area, and then using the inside wall as the midpoint.  We brought in bricks and he and Francelin built the wall, leaving space for the plumbing.  We decided to leave a little porch at the snail’s opening. I began collecting stone; hand sized for the walls and smaller for the floors.

spiral shower

We decided that the bricks could go on edge, which is the thinnest, fastest way to lay them, since we would be cladding the thin brick wall with cement and rocks, and there was no load going on top.

Bricks were laid on edge, and went up fast. Notice the cut left for plumbing.

Using the ancient body-measured, builds-itself method, we decided the the wall was high enough when I stood in it and knew the shower head wouldn’t bang into a tall person’s head. It was time to start applying stone.

Cladding the Wall With River Stones

After measuring the total length of the wall, we bought 20 meters of 2 inch plastic hose to use as a handy flexible guide for laying the stone. (Note the mixed measurements which are common in Ecuador. Viente metros, dos pulgadas.)  In retrospect, we could have used thinner hose. The flat round river stones I chose were thinner, and we ended up using more cement than we had to. We nailed the hose to the wall along the top and the bottom.

Notice the hoses nailed in place as guide.

Holding a scree bar against the hoses, we could check the straightness of the wall,  ensuring a uniform look, or, as the guys would say, que se queda bonita., which means the same as “so it will turn out nice.” The stones were wetted down and attached to the wall with a 1:1 cement to fine sand

Using a scree bar to check that the stone cladding is of a uniform thickness

mix. After they were fitted to the wall, they were tapped into level with the others, brushed clean with a paintbrush, and left for about a half and hour before cleaning again.  Watching Edgar, I learned to lay the stones out and search for a particular shape that would fit into the space I had.  My favorites are the oval blue stones; slate that broke into a regular shape and then was worn oval by fast moving water over the centuries. The slate is so blue. Walking along the river I sometimes find what wore off; balls of gritty, dark blue clay in the sand.


We used a lot of stone, so we ended up making the shower the go-to filler project when we were stuck on another project, waiting on materials, etc. Everywhere I went, my eye was coveting the smooth, bluish stones. If I had a minute, I slung a rice bag over my back and went along the river searching for stones that were just the right size and shape. I added variation with the strange, nodule-like white quartz, the glittery brown granite, and even the odd green rock from the beach.  Big flat stones inserted sideways into carefully chiseled slots in the brick made perfect shelves for shampoo, razors, etc.

I learned that certain rocks are called lloronas, like the famous Chavela Vargas ranchera, “weepers.” First I understood it to mean that the stone contains iron oxide and would weep rust onto the wall, and then I understood it to mean a rock that is more porous and retains moisture when the rest of the wall is dry. I wonder if it gives new meaning to the song. Rocks are to these Andean people as snow is to the Inuit.

That’s as far as we got- I’ll finish this chapter when we get going on the shower again!

Nibbling at the Edges

Staring at the formless void of the entire job, my husband looked a bit bleak. I had spent hours imagining various landscaping ideas. But as our friend Bill Salomon said of housebuilding, in the end, it builds itself. Form follows function. One day at a time, Poco a poco. Whatever.

We decided on two driveways; one upper one lower. The bottom entrada needed a ramp, so we made one using a bulldozer. That created the need for two retaining walls.  “Huh, that looks messy and if water comes down that gully it will erode the driveway. Bet some rocks would help.”

The first one I built myself, laying one rock on top of the other, puzzling out how they fit together solidly until somehow it became a sitting height wall. Then we backfilled it and started planting.

Francelin looked at it, smiled kindly, or maybe smirked,  and started making more walls where earth might otherwise slide or an edge needed tidying.  Needless to say, his are much finer than mine, especially since he can maneuver rocks weighing  more than he does with the delicacy and precision of a Japanese netsuke master, using only his hands and a large baretta.

I walked in one day and there where there had been only a weeded slope was a tidy little bench terrace. So I filled it with walking iris, succulent flowering sedum, and pineapple plants. Then we put in a massive dry rock wall to hold the driveway, and it seemed logical to terrace and put in a bed to use the earth that had been between the rocks.  The place that is windiest seems a good place for lavender, but further in, I need to start some things to eat, like kale and lettuce, and then there need to be some things to hold the slope, and my friend has some coffee plants that a client is ripping out, that are bigger than mine. A jump start on having our own coffee. So bit by bit the area around the road in is taking shape.

Thanks to photographer Gloria Davis