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.

Going to the Birds

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Ex-Farmer-cum-Birdman, Angel Paz, owner of the Paz Bird Refuge in Mindo with a Giant Antpitta.

We wake up at 3.00am, yawning and stumbling around in the dark, getting dressed in warm clothes and trying not to wake other guests at the hotel, but not succeeding very well as we kick the furniture and stagger noisily down the stairs. The manager has thoughtfully left us a packed breakfast in the fridge. We retrieve the bag and then mumble unintelligibly to each other, rubbing our arms to warm ourselves while we wait for our driver, the steam from our breath clouding in the chilly air. Segundo shows up a few minutes late and we finally take off, rattling down the narrow winding track towards our destination. Headlights bounce all over the place as we navigate through mountain streams in the battered 4WD, going slowly on the bumpy road. It rained during the night. The vehicle slips and slides. Catching a few extra winks of sleep enroute is impossible.

“Oh no!” exclaims Segundo in the dark, cursing under his breath, before pulling up abruptly in the middle of the muddy track.

We have a flat tire. Wondering if we will still make our pre-dawn appointment on time, we work quickly together to change the tire, some of us shining flashlights on his work, others undoing the spare tire and rolling it to the front of the car. The road is slick. Just as he pulls the old tire off the studs, the jack falls over. Segundo moves it to another spot and jacks up the car again. This time, it stays. We help him to lift the new tire and fasten the nuts to the studs. He lets the car down and checks the studs again. After ten minutes driving, he checks them again. The clock is ticking. We don’t want to miss our appointment, but we do want to make it there in one piece. We arrive at the appointed meeting place less than a minute after our guide arrives. Everyone whispers in the dark, as if afraid to break the magic of the night before it’s time.

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Following our native guide, and some wildly dancing flashlights, we make our way down a very narrow slippery track. Just barely keeping our balance, we silently follow Angel Paz, a local ex-farmer and hunter who became a passionate birdman, to the edge of a small cliff as the first grey light of dawn begins to break. Angel indicates we should stay still and remain silent. The ghostly outlines of the trees begin to take shape in front of our eyes. Then, a strange clatter begins in the trees. We can’t see the birds yet, but we can certainly hear them.

As the light increases, just on sunrise, the bizarre red heads of the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock appear in the branches as they dance and chatter, all competing for the affections of the plain brown-colored female. The Rupicola Peruviana is one of only two species that live in the neotropics. The noisy mating display goes on for over half an hour, the birds leaping about on the branches, chasing each other off, calling and dancing, until the female chooses her partner. Suddenly the forest is quiet again. We trudge back to the 4WD and head up the hill to another location, snacking on our packed egg sandwiches along the way.

Another hike down a steep slope takes us deep into the forest. Angel goes slowly, shushing us with a finger to his lips.

“There it is,” he whispers, pointing to a tree branch high above our heads.

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The White-Faced Nunbird dances along the branch, hopping back and forth, searching for breakfast. Angel tells us it’s a rare species that many birdwatchers have yet to spot. We have no trouble watching this avian treasure as it flits from branch to branch for a few minutes. Leaving it to find sustenance, we head back up the path, our guide whistling and twittering as he walks. On the way, a Rufous Potoo hides itself on a branch, blending into a tree. We nearly miss it, but Angel points it out with a green laser light.

“Shhh!” says Angel, stopping mid-step with his arms wide. We freeze. “There!” he whispers, barely making a sound as he points to the underbrush.

The Moustached Antpitta is hard to see at first, camouflaged in the thick undergrowth. Then, he hops around, digging worms from the ground just under the path. He flits back and forth, “hohoho”ing as he feeds on rich proteins. We silently observe as one of the most vulnerable species sings and eats.

Further up, Angel sets out breakfast for some Green Toucans. Slicing bananas and placing them on tree branches, he offers the birds almost 30 ripe plantain bananas. We sit back and wait, once again silent and unmoving in the early morning. Soon, the tree branches are buzzing with activity as Crimson Rumped Toucanets compete with Toucan Barbets, Blue Winged and Black Chinned Mountain Tanagers, until a couple of Sickle Winged Guans come in to hog the breakfast offerings. Fluttering and chirping, the birds come and go, feasting on the ripe bananas.

“Look!” says Angel, pointing up into the trees, where a red-breasted bird with a yellow head, a green coat and a black tail rests. The Quetzal. There is silence in the hide as the bird comes closer, easily spooked by the slightest movement. We freeze. Sitting just a few feet in front of our eyes, the Golden-Headed Quetzal pecks at the fruit. Cameras click. Then, it’s gone. On the ground, a pair of White-Throated Quail Doves waddle around, picking up the scraps dropped by the toucans.

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We continue along the rough track, heading upwards until Angel stops us again. A rare Giant Antpitta gathers worms in her beak to feed her offspring. She jumps back and forth, stuffing food into her mouth and then vanishes to her nest in a nearby tree branch, returning a few minutes later to eat her own breakfast. Nearby, an Ochre-Striped Antpitta dances on a branch, swinging its hips from side to side, assessing the danger. “Huewee! Huewee!” It sings. We don’t move. No one speaks. Soon, they both disappear.

At the top of the path, hummingbird feeders are attracting a number of species: Velvet-Purple Coronets, Fawn-Breasted Brilliants, Rufous-Tailed Hummingbirds, and the shimmering Andean Emeralds, amongst several others whizzing by too fast to identify. There are 137 species of hummingbirds in Ecuador and we spot at least a dozen of the 49 species in the region. After a feast of raspberries picked from the vines behind the hide, we trek up the final part of the path to dine richly on a traditional Ecuadorian breakfast of Bolon (green plantain banana balls), sweet Empanadas (cheese pastries) and aromatic local coffee, before heading back into town feeling sleepy but satisfied by our early morning adventure.

Interested in Birdwatching Tours in Ecuador? Ask us how.