Ecuador is Awesome – Part 9

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Despite its small area, Ecuador constantly proves itself to be one of the most bewitching countries on the planet. The magnificent cross section of nature, cultures, geography, foods, activities, holiday destinations, people and languages all combine to assert this impressive little country’s status as a must-see destination in South America. Straddled either side of latitude zero, Ecuador never fails to amaze; from the Galapagos Island to the Coast, from the Sierra to the Amazon, nowhere else can one experience such incredible diversity. Maybe I’m biased because I live on the Pacific Coast but, over the last 30+ years, I have traveled through, lived in or visited 45 other countries on this planet, and Ecuador is the one place on Earth that has inspired me to grow roots and stick around for a while.

When I began to think about some of the wonderful things I love about Ecuador that I’d be proud to share with people who are thinking about visiting, or even staying for a while, I learned that many of my friends and acquaintances often felt the same way about the same things. Therefore, in the spirit of fairness, before I sat down to write this ten-part series, I asked everyone I know who lives now or has lived or traveled in Ecuador this one simple question: “What is/was the best thing about your experience of Ecuador?” This series of ten posts are all about what they said.

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Wherever you travel in Ecuador, whether you are in the Capital, or in a small Amazonian village, it’s very difficult to ignore the local chocolate. If you don’t see vast orchards of cacao trees growing for miles and miles on either side of the road you are traveling along, there are often long strips of harvested cacao beans spread out to dry on the warm bitumen, and even on rooftops along the roadside. Apart from existing right alongside all the raw cacao products Ecuador has to offer a truly dedicated chocolate connoisseur, from the newly harvested beans to the highly processed bars, every supermarket, every souvenir shop, every tourist district, and even at the homes of countless families, there is a massive range of locally grown chocolate produced from organic cacao beans, nibs and powder, to exquisitely flavored truffles filled with caramels, nuts and liquors, and simple chocolate bars; the darkest of dark to the milkiest of milk, and from the simple ground beans that are used to make Bliss Bombs, Brownies, Mud Cakes, and everything else in between. There is no doubt that Ecuador is a chocoholics wonderland.

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In Aztec times, the cacao bean was so valued, it was used as a form of currency, however there is evidence of chocolate beverages being consumed as far back as 1900BC. Fermented, roasted, and ground Theobroma cacao beans can be traced to the Mokaya and other pre-Olmec people in the lowlands of south-central Mexico. Christopher Columbus encountered cacao beans on his fourth trip to the Americas in 1502 when he and his crew stole a large native canoe that contained cacao beans for trade. During the 16th century, chocolate was transported to Europe for the first time. I’m sure the actual history is well documented. Here’s my version of how it all went down: I imagine a Spanish aristocrat aboard his galleon, trying the brew for the first time. A handful of crushed cacao beans boiled with water. Poured into a pewter mug. His first taste of hot chocolate; very bitter. He screws up his face. The servants don’t like it, each sneaking a taste in the galley, sipping delicately at the wooden spoon. Everyone below decks rejects it as awful. Undeterred, the aristocrat adds sugar. Stirs it into the hot liquid. Brings it once again to his lips. His eyes widen as he realizes his discovery. Closing his eyes, he purses his full round lips and sips again. His taste buds are overwhelmed by a sense of lush pleasure. Almost sinful. The servants nudge each other. Sugar. Of course. He wonders if he should share this culinary gem, then becomes concerned the authorities might not like it. He decides not to tell them about the sugar. Thus, initiating Europe’s historical, revolutionary and, at times controversial, “discovery” of chocolate.

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Where I live on the northwest coast of Ecuador, Doña Sara, one of the local characters and a very good friend, roasts her locally grown cacao beans the traditional way, in large clay pot over a slow coal fire. Countless times we have sat together chatting as she stirs the beans through a handful of ashes with a large wooden spoon, toasting them just enough so the skins crack and they’re ready to peel and grind. We spend the afternoon getting blisters on our fingers from peeling the hot beans, occasionally popping one into our mouths and chewing slowly to extract the bitter dark chocolate flavor. The beans are poured into the mouth of a hand-grinder and everyone takes a turn at the wooden handle, as Sara forms the rich paste into balls and sets them onto a tray. She sells them when they’ve dried. Even using this simple process, Ecuadorian chocolate can be transformed into the most delicious cakes, brownies, drinks and treats. There are at least two chocolate experiences that are definitely “bucket list” every chocoholic should try at least once. Be careful. These two activities are one way tickets to Foodgasm Central!

1. Suck the fresh white fruit from the seeds inside a freshly harvested cacao pod
2. Chew on a hot roasted cacao bean until it’s almost liquid, then bite on a fresh strawberry.

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The health benefits of organic locally grown and roasted cacao beans are numerous. Cacao is a rich source of antioxidants such as procyanidins and flavanoids, which many say have anti-aging properties. Cacao in particular contains high levels of flavonoids, specifically epicatechin, which is said to have benefits for cardiovascular health. There have even been scientific studies with Panamanian Indians which discovered significantly lower rates of heart disease and cancer among the natives, compared to those who do not consume cacao.  It is said that increased blood flow after the consumption of flavanol-rich cacao helps to improve heart and organ health, and also brain function. Of course, once sugar and additives are mixed with the raw product, and it becomes a highly processed food, those health benefits rapidly decrease. However, when you are in Ecuador at least, sticking to the delicious raw organic product in all its varieties is not that hard to do, and the next time someone tells you that chocolate is bad for your health, you can simply bite into a fresh strawberry and show them it really isn’t.

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For more ideas about what to do while you are traveling in Ecuador, get in touch with Footprints.

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Ecuador is Awesome – Part 8

Indigenous dolls

Indigenous Dolls at Otavalo Market

Ecuador is one of the most fascinating countries on the planet. The unique diversity of nature, cultures, geography, foods, activities, holiday destinations, people and languages makes this tiny country straddled either side of latitude zero a definite standout destination in South America. You might think I’m biased just because I have lived here for years, but I have also traveled through, lived in or visited 45 other countries over the last 30+ years, and Ecuador is the only country on Earth that has ever inspired me to build a house and grow roots.

When I began to consider some of the great things I love about Ecuador that I’d also like to share with people who are thinking about visiting, or even staying a while, I learned that many of my friends and acquaintances feel the same way about the same things. Therefore, in the spirit of fairness, before I sat down to write this ten-part series, I asked everyone I know who lives now or has lived or traveled in Ecuador this one simple question: “What is/was the best thing about your experience of Ecuador?” This series of posts are all about what they said.

Spice Market

Spice Market

We all agree that the markets in Ecuador are some of the best on the planet. Otavalo’s Indigenous Craft Market has a world renowned reputation and is the Number One destination for just about everyone who visits Ecuador. The indigenous Otavaleños are famous for weaving textiles, mostly wool, which they sell at the famous Saturday market. The largest market is held on Saturday; a maze spreading out from Plaza de los Ponchos, and stretching out through the streets all around. You can find is a vast range of brightly colored stalls throughout the market and also explore the local stores.

Wandering around the stalls selling handmade blankets, tablecloths, tagua jewelry, musical instruments, dream catchers, leather goods, fake shrunken heads, indigenous costumes, hand-painted platters and trays, purses, clothing, spices, raw foods, and spools of brightly dyed wool just to name a few, can become mind-boggling. A Dutch architect named Tonny Zwollo designed the original Otavalo market in 1970, using ninety mushroom-shaped concrete umbrellas with benches which quickly became known as Plaza de los Ponchos. But fantastic markets are not limited to Otavalo’s famous vegetable-dyed and hand-woven textiles. Many of the nearby villages and towns are renowned for their own particular crafts. The small village of Cotacachi is the heart of Ecuador’s leather industry. In San Antonio, where the local specialty is wood carving, prominent displays of carved statues, picture frames, and intricately carved furniture can be seen everywhere. Nearby in tiny villages, rainbows of flowers which are grown for export fill markets stalls and streets with irresistible perfumes.

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Grown for export, these seconds are sold at the market.

One of my favorite markets is Santa Clara in Quito. On three floors, vendors sell every kind of food you could never even imagine from fresh babaco to pickled pigs feet. There is a section for alternative medicines, rumored to be favored by witches. An entire floor is dedicated to fresh fruits and vegetables. Pitajaya can be found here, alongside the pineapples and dozens of varieties of bananas. Fresh green achocha sits between the snake beans and fresh broccoli heads. Upstairs, sliced octopus nestles beside a bucket of clams. A whole pig roasted over a spit smiles as we pass, beckoning us to come and sample some of the tender meat. Blenders whizz fruit and vegetables into healthy juices. It’s an assault on the senses in every sense, but well worth taking the time to visit for an hour or so. Whenever visitors come to Ecuador, the first place I take them is to Santa Clara where the sites, sounds and smells are an integral part of daily Ecuadorian life. Although much smaller, Cuenca has a fabulous fresh produce market too, with the entire top floor dedicated to local foods. I can recommend grabbing a plate of whatever smells wonderful and digging in.

The Banana Market

The Banana Market

All over Ecuador, there are markets in every town, usually held once a week, where vendors spread out their wares, from cooking pots to pan pipes, earrings to zapotes, live goats to blender blades, and everything else in between. Meeting the locals is definitely an essential part of the entire Ecuadorian experience, and one of the best ways to meet the people who carry the nation on their shoulders is by heading to the nearest market and striking up a friendly conversation. An old woman selling strawberries tells of her childhood in the mountains before electricity and potable water were even heard of in her village. A wizened man carrying a basket of peanuts says that his father used to get up before dawn every weekend to walk into town with the farm’s weekly harvest strapped to the donkey’s back to make it to market in time, a trail of small children tagging along behind. A little girl shows me her new dress, twirling and smiling as proud as can be. The bright dress is hand-made, embroidered by her mother. A lady selling papayas gives me a tip about growing achochas; they don’t like wet weather, she says, you have to plant them when it’s dry. A shy, giggling teenage girl asks to interview me in English for five minutes. It’s for her school project. We talk about my country. A trip to the market in Ecuador is not just about the shopping. It’s about the experience. It’s about integration and exchanging cultures. It’s about learning more about where you are, and understanding that these people are the essence of what makes it so. If you are in Ecuador, get yourself to a local market. You won’t regret it.

The live animal market

The live animal market

For more ideas about what to do while you are traveling in Ecuador, get in touch with Footprints.

The Freedom Train

The 30km track from Ibarra to Salinas goes through six hand-built tunnels

The 30km track from Ibarra to Salinas goes through six hand-built tunnels

After a leisurely breakfast at the hacienda in Otavalo, our driver took us along a newly built highway through villages and small towns on the way to Ibarra, at the base of the impressive Imbabura Volcano. Twenty-five minutes later, we arrived at the newly restored train station, renovated after years of neglect and disused railway services that began over a century ago. The train was an almost forgotten historic achievement until it was resurrected and enthusiastically restored by the Ecuadorian government two years ago. Our tickets had been reserved and purchased online several weeks previously, and we exchanged our payment receipt for a paper ticket at the Customer Service desk. Half an hour before departure time, we were called to board the Freedom Train (Tren de la Libertad) which celebrates both the freedom of the African slaves and Ecuador’s liberation from Spain. We alighted the charming colonial-style Carriage Number 207, a comfortable polished wood coach with adjustable upholstered seats – although slightly narrow to fit two larger western posteriors – and got comfortable. The air of excitement and anticipation throughout the carriage was tangible. We were accompanied by twenty giggling nuns, and four families with curious young children. Two other carriages, both painted bright red, were then boarded and the train driver tooted loudly, ready to go.

Before we departed from Ibarra, our guide Jaime introduced himself and, after a quick safety announcement, began to speak about the history of Ibarra and surrounds in both Spanish and English. Unfortunately, the English translations were a little shorter than the Spanish, and we heard less than half the information in English. When we commented about this to Jaime, he improved his translations. The train took us on a fun ride  through lush green valleys and towering volcanoes, and the arid Andean savannah lining either side of the Andean River, all the while descending from an altitude of 2,210m at Ibarra to 1545m at Salinas. On the route from Ibarra to Salinas the landscapes are as diverse as they are picturesque; one of the country’s most fascinating ecosystems extends over the protected páramo El Ángel, a high-altitude forest of [native Australian] paper-bark trees and wild expanses of intriguing frailejón plants. We chugged past farmland dotted with fields of cabbages, cauliflower, lettuce and broccoli where farmers tilled their fields with horse-driven plows, cattle pastures, hillsides covered in wildflowers of all colors and varieties, medicinal herbs and flowers, prickly pears, several species of cactus and many pretty flowering succulents, alongside sugar cane fields, as well as spectacular waterfalls and the historical cotton fields, and finally the long-abandoned cotton processing plant on the edge of town. Over narrow bridges perched breathtakingly high above the river, and through half a dozen hand-built tunnels ranging from 26m to 300m which threw us all into pitch darkness for a few moments, and we arrived in Salinas two hours later.

The first narrow steel bridge over the Andean River

The first narrow steel bridge stretches high over the Andean River and valley.

The wonderful Freedom Train excursion is complemented by an interesting community-tourism twist that allows the Afro-Ecuadorian residents of Salinas to demonstrate their culture and history through dance and music. We are then refreshed by a delicious glass of chilled cactus juice in the station cafe and have time to wander through the craft shop at the train station before heading into the town square with a native guide for a peek inside the local church, which is 189 years old, and the community produce store, founded by a cooperative of growers who produce jams, sauces, chocolates, nuts, liquors and natural ice-creams from their own harvests. After sampling the Salinas version of Pina Colada and buying an ice-cream each, we wandered through the streets to our lunch stop. The Northern Andean village of Salinas has a population of around 2000 inhabitants, all descended from the slaves of the Spanish conquistadors who were stolen from Africa to work the cotton fields. Most of the inhabitants carve out a living from agriculture; cotton, sugar cane, and fruit for wines and preserves, retaining many of their original African traditions such as the ‘bomba’ music and dance.

Lunch is served in a large restaurant on the edge of the village, overlooking the fields with views of the mountains behind. A traditional almuerzo (set lunch) offered a choice of soups and chicken or meat dishes with rice, as well as a fresh fruit juice and small dessert for $5.00 per person. Chatter filled the room as people discussed the journey so far with great pleasure and satisfaction. Our local guide returned to give us a tour of the Salt Museum where he made a fascinating presentation of the mining and production of salt from the nearby mines, demonstrating how his ancestors used age-old methods and antique equipment to extract the salt and the excess iodine from the final product. After a taste of Salinas’ mountain salt, we wandered back through town to the train station via another route to board the train for the return trip home. Jaime took a break from guiding for the trip back and many dozed as we passed by the same landscape filled with numerous species of bromeliads, flowering prickly pear and other colorfully flowering plants and grasses. Our driver was there to meet us and return us to the hacienda, something we were grateful for after a long but wonderful day touring the Northern Andes.

If you are visiting Ecuador, a train tour on the newly renovated railways is highly recommended.

Ecuador is Awesome – Part One

Green tree snake

Green tree snake

Ecuador is one of the most interesting countries on the planet. The incredible diversity of nature, cultures, geography, foods, activities, holiday destinations, people and languages makes this tiny country straddled either side of latitude zero stand out in South America. You might think I’m being biased just because I live here, but I have traveled in, lived in or visited 46 countries over the last 30+ years, and Ecuador is the only country that has ever inspired me to build a house and stick around for a while.

When I began thinking about some of the great things about Ecuador that I’d like to share with people who are thinking about visiting, I found that many of my friends and acquaintances feel the same way about the same things. Therefore, in the spirit of fairness, before I sat down to write this ten-part series, I asked everyone I know who lives now or has lived or traveled in Ecuador this one simple question:
“What is/was the best thing about your experience of Ecuador?” This post, and the following nine posts will be all about what they said.

The Jungles and Forests

In a country that is made up of half rainforest, whether it’s the lush cloud forests high in the Andean Sierra with bird sanctuaries and butterfly farms, the verdant  tropical rainforests fringing the Pacific coast filled with howler monkeys, sloth and Pecari tajacu, the wild jungles of the Amazon with the richest variety of flora and fauna on earth, or the moist highlands of the volcanic Galapagos Islands with its giant tortoises, the diversity of landscapes and ecosystems, and wildlife is equal to none.

With 3500 species of orchids, 1600 species of birds, and 415 amphibian species, not to mention mammals, reptiles, insects and marine creatures such as the unique Amazonian pink river dolphins, there is no shortage of fascinating wildlife and countless species of exuberant vegetation to observe in the magical wildernesses of Ecuador. In every corner of the country there is something fascinating to explore and discover, from strange pink caterpillars that will give you an electric shock. gigantic boa-constrictors capable of swallowing a grown man whole, healing shamans who will take you on a natural psychedelic journey to your inner-self, and traditional indigenous tribes who are the fiercest warriors around, as they shrink heads and eat delicious grubs right out of the ground. Critters you’ve never even imagined abound in Ecuador. Flowers and plants that are beyond imagination thrive in the jungles and forests.

Despite its remoteness, the Amazon is alive with people. plants, creatures and adventures just waiting to be enjoyed. Historically, indigenous communities of the Siona­ Secoya, Cofan, Huaorani, Quichua, Shuar and Ashuar have been able to maintain a productive subsistence within the existing ecosystems of vast Amazonian forest preserve, estimated to cover around 12 million hectares. The Amazon ecosystem, particularly its tropical jungles, is considered one of the richest and most complex communities of plant and animal life in the world.

Esaltamontes amazon-boardwalk-in-jungle achuar

Friends from all over the world, and from all walks of life, we all agree unanimously that the forests and jungles of Ecuador, and the vast range of indigenous peoples and their cultures and traditions, and the amazing wildlife, incredible nature, countless activities, wild and tame adventures and wonderful education they have to offer a visitor to the country, are definitely not to be missed if you are thinking of coming to Ecuador.

Footprints can take you into the highlands, rainforests and jungles of Ecuador and show you a wonder-world of nature and eco-fun.

Point Break – Mompiche

Many people come to Mompiche just to surf the Point Break. In the season – November to April – this tiny remote fishing village that barely earns its spot on the Ecuadorian map, becomes a haven for surfers from all over the world. Hostels fill up, restaurants are teeming with diners, and the pristine beach is smattered with the bright sarongs of rapidly reddening sunbathers. Vendors walk up and down the white sand hawking fresh coconuts, tropical fruits and tasty ceviches. The rest of the time, it’s pretty quiet. Don’t be fooled by its reputation as solely a surf beach. Aside from surfing, there are many other activities and tours you can do in Mompiche.

Wakeboarding, Mompiche style when the wave-action is a little slow.

Wakeboarding Mompiche-style when the wave-action is a little slow on The Point.

Naturally, there are plenty of water sports on offer along the 7km white sand beach. Body-boarding and surfing aside, you can also go kayaking, snorkeling, sailing, motor-boating and fishing. All year round, you can see the colony of Blue-footed Boobies on The Point, as well as Brown pelicans, Great and Magnificent frigate birds and even the odd Pink flamingo. From June to September, during the annual migration of the Humpback Whales, local fishermen offer trips out to San Francisco Peninsular to view these enormous marine creatures as they make their way south on the Humboldt Current. Lucky visitors often see mothers and their calves playing in the sea as they travel past Mompiche bay. Frequently during the whale-watching season, leaping whales can even be spotted from the beach. On public holidays and fiestas, a para-sailing outfit sets up shop on the beach and sometimes there are bay tours on a catamaran.

If you’re not a water baby, but enjoy spending time on the beach anyway, Doña Fabiola offers horses for rent. Mompiche’s version of Mrs Doolittle, Fabiola takes very good care of her horses, as well as her ever-growing menagerie of dogs, cats, ducks, chickens, turkeys, geese and an abandoned calf named Anabel, which she hand-feeds thrice daily. The well-maintained horses are in lovely condition and can by hired by the hour or for a half- or full-day tour with a guide. There are two tour options: a leisurely walk along the beach and back, or a more adventurous tour through the mountains behind Mompiche, passing by lakes, through dense jungle trails and spotting plenty of wildlife. Depending on the fruit seasons, you can even pick and eat exotic tropical fruits directly from the trees.

You can also go with a Native Guide and hike along Mompiche’s fascinating river, learning along the way about all the exotic water plants, tropical fruit trees you didn’t even know existed, and the magical medicinal herbs the ancient Chachi tribes used and the modern locals currently use to cure their ills, also visiting the Secret Waterfall and taking dips in refreshing pools as you go. A hike along the river takes most of the day and is an education in Mompiche’s jungle flora and fauna in itself.

Miguel, who has lived in the mountains his whole life, takes half-day hiking tours through the jungle. With intimate knowledge of every tree, plant and flower, as well as all the species of wildlife in the area, hiking with him is truly an eye-opener. Sometimes he just stops mid-step. Using sign language, he tells you not to move. Then, straight away so as not to alarm you, he tells you to listen. And then he’ll point out the creature making the sounds he heard while you were noisily opening your water bottle. He will also protect you from any danger long before you even know it’s there. En route, he’ll cut coconuts out of the palm trees to drink and feed you with seeds and weeds, roots and shoots you did not even imagine were edible. Most of the trails are moderate to difficult. But even if you’re a novice hiker, and enjoy the solitude of the jungle, a trip into the wilds with Miguel is definitely for you!

If you are lucky, you can see families of Howler Monkeys in the trees along the path.

If you are lucky, you can see and hear families of Howler Monkeys calling from the jungle.

There are numerous hotels and restaurants of all grades and varieties, as well as kiosks selling freshly made fruit juices and milkshakes made from all the wonderful tropical fruits available in the area. The best “superfruit” juices to try are Papaya, Borojo, Jackfruit and Guanabana (Soursop). Bananas, naturally, are a staple food on the coast and fresh juice blended with a banana is more like a milkshake without the milk. Of course, just like everywhere there are reputable places to stay and eat – and some not so great. Some of the local delicacies not to miss are Corviche, Muchin, Encebollado, Encocado and Ceviche.

If too much action is not your scene, there are also some wonderful options that don’t cost a penny: a leisurely stroll north along the gloriously unpopulated white sand beach, followed by a spot of hammock-surfing and a siesta are also “activities” in which you can heartily participate while visiting Mompiche. If relaxation is your thing, shiatsu massage, relaxation massage and yoga are also possible in this tiny village.

A short hike southwards will take you to either the Cemetery on top of The Point, which has a spectacular view of the bay, or go further to Black Beach, a short cove covered in shimmering black titanium sand. Further south, the islands of Portete and Bolivar can be explored on foot (with a river crossing), or visit Jupiter by boat.

Towards evening, people-watching and sunset-gazing along Mompiche’s ever-changing beach-front promenade can also be extremely educational and entertaining, and also breath-takingly relaxing.

Sound good? Ask Footprints how to get to Mompiche.