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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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.