Hans, at Finca Sommerwind, was running a four day tour to the north west coast to areas less travelled. Would we like to go? Sure we would. Our philosophy is always to say yes to invites to do something, or go somewhere, unless it’s obviously a really stupid thing to do or illegal! We could have visited most of the same places by ourselves but it would be fun with Hans. We would be joined by Anton and Matia from Germany who were on honeymoon!
Like a bat out of hell
It was a long ride in the back of Hans’ old truck. The suspension has clearly seen better days and the less than ideal road surface in places along Ruta 10 made for an uncomfortable journey. Being squashed in like sardines and with a total lack of air conditioning didn’t help. Hanging my head out of the window, like a dog, didn’t help much either as the air is hot and humid. Hans is an, how do I put this politely, enthusiastic driver. Having lived in Ecuador for seven years he’s certainly adopted the local “like a bat out of hell” driving style. On the phone, steering one handed and hurtling into corners far too quickly is the order of the day. The scenery changes from one dominated by sugar cane fields to one of higher treeless mountains before we lose altitude once more as we get nearer the coast. We take a welcome break at Lita. Time to stretch our legs and try the cheese empanadas, with sugar! Having seen the massive areas dedicated to growing sugar cane we now have a better understanding of why nearly everything here comes with sugar.
End of the line
This area is not too far from the Ecuador/Colombia border. There’s a military checkpoint to check passports and to write our passing into a log book. I wonder what happens to that? No issues and everyone is friendly and courteous enough. On we press, still like a bat out of hell, until we reach the coastal town of San Lorenzo. Once a bustling port, San Lorenzo is a shadow of its former self and has an overall feeling of decay. The railway that used to take balsa wood to the port for export fell into disrepair many years ago and the tracks are rusting away. The town is surrounded by sea inlets and mangrove swamps. Long, narrow, open boats ferry locals between the small settlements. Hans stopped off briefly at a shop on the main road. It appeared he had some business to conduct here. Maybe this is why he was driving so quickly?
Next port of call was a chocolate growing farm between San Lorenzo and Las Penas. The whole area is mainly dedicated to chocolate and palm oil production. Nothing seems to be on a grand scale. Instead small farms make what they can from their small holdings. We’ve seen chocolate growing on many occasions, and even made our own chocolate whilst in Belize, but this seemed a little different. Ecuadorian chocolate is considered to be of high quality. Only 5% of all cacao beans grown globally are “gourmet” beans. About 60% of those are grown in Ecuador.
The cacao beans are removed from their pods and placed into sacks. The sacks, full of cacao beans and the pulp that surrounds them, are taken from the farm to a place where they are left for three days to ferment. This is the part of the process that we’d not come across before. In this heat and humidity, and as a result of being stuck in a sack, the slimy mess soon begins to ferment. And boy did it stink.
Next up comes the drying. Spread out on the ground, in the baking sun, it was somewhat amusing to see chickens scratching their way through what would, ultimately, be turned into food. We can only assume, and hope, that the beans go through a thorough cleaning. Most Ecuadorian cacao beans are exported. However, some local entrepreneurs have now realised that there’s good money to be made from making chocolate themselves.
A thirty minute drive would see us at our overnight stop at Las Peñas. A sleepy seaside resort hat seemed to have more hotels and restaurants then it did visitors. A refreshing swim in the pool and later a walk along the beach to a restaurant where we ate a huge plate of fresh seafood. Unfortunately, Hans had pre-ordered a vegetarian dish for Janette. Omelette, tomatoes and patacones. Janette doesn’t eat eggs as they upset her stomach, doesn’t like tomatoes so was left with the patacones, basically deep fried plantain. Not good.
Today was a fabulous day. An early start and a good breakfast and we were making our way to Borbon, again, at breakneck speed. Here we met our guide and picked up a boat that would take us to some infrequently visited places.
First stop was the island of Tolita, where we met Antonio. Antonio was extremely enthusiastic about the history of the island. He explained, in some detail, the lives and traditions of his ancestors. Somewhat amazingly, whilst on the beach, we were able to find numerous pre-colonial artefacts. I’m sure without Antonio’s guidance we wouldn’t have given the pieces a second glance, but there they were, right under our feet. There must have been hundreds, if not thousands of pieces. Over the years Antonio has built a collection of the best pieces he’s found and created a small “museum”.
Next stop were the magical mangroves in the ecological reserve of Cayapas Mataje. The mangroves are incredibly tall (claimed to be the tallest in the world) and dense. As we entered, the outboard motor now silent, we’re enthralled by the atmosphere. Quite dark, the sounds of insects and birds seem to be amplified all around as we glide along. Brightly coloured crabs line the banks and crawl their way slowly along the mangrove roots. The water is still and the reflections in its surface quite beautiful. We get the distinct feeling that this place hasn’t changed for hundreds of thousands of years. Wow, what a privilege to be here.
Next up was lunch at Limones, for some reason shown as Valdez on a lot of maps. It’s definitely Limones though because that’s what’s announced on their welcome sign, and they should know. Janette actually managed to get a pretty good meal here. A vegetable soup, a large avocado salad, rice, beans and patacones was a real feast. The only way to get to Limones is by boat. The community is small, maybe a few hundred and the only vehicles are a few small motorcycles and three wheel delivery motorcycles. Streets are largely dirt although one or two are being “paved”. Everything has to come in by boat. For me, Steve, this is a fascinating place and I could have stayed much longer. However, I would have to be satisfied with my short glimpse into a completely different way of life.
Coconuts, a major source of income around here
As we race along Rio Cayapas, maybe our boat “driver” has had lessons from Hans, it’s obvious that the main source of income around here is derived from the coconut. Dozens of small holdings, with wooden shacks and piles of coconuts at the edge of the river, bear testament to that. A brief stop at one of the small holdings gives us the opportunity to eat coconut at its freshest. The preference here is to eat the coconut flesh when it’s young, soft and slimy. We have to admit that we both prefer our coconut flesh to be aged and somewhat hardened as we would find it in the UK. The coconut water, however is delicious and refreshing.
Cocada – or, what shall we do with all that sugar and coconut we grow
The last destination on this wonderful day was a cocada producer. Cocada is a thick, sweet, sickly combination of sugar, coconut and peanuts. The peanuts, we were told, come from Brazil.
The production of cocada requires a lot of heat. Firstly, charcoal has to be produced, which can take as much as three days. Secondly, sugar cane is crushed to extract the juice. After sieving, the liquid is boiled for three hours to produce a sugar “honey”. Thirdly, coconut is chopped and roasted in a separate vat. When both honey and coconut are ready they are brought together and continually stirred whilst still being heated. Told you a lot of heat was required. The honey/coconut is being constantly tasted by an older woman who must be the “master” cocada maker. After a few more splashes of honey she declares herself satisfied with the mixture and fourthly, peanuts are added. More heating and stirring and the sticky mess is ready to be pressed into moulds, the final stage.
And that pretty much brought our fabulous day to a close. The evening would see us walk along the beach to a different restaurant. Having eaten well at lunch time Janette only had a light meal. On the other hand I took full advantage of the fact that we were next to the ocean and had more than my fill of seafood. I spent the night being sick.
The “train” at Alto Tambo
If we were all asked to draw a train I’m sure we’d all come up with something along similar lines. No pun intended :-). I bet none of the drawings would look anything like the so called “train” at Alto Tambo.
Steve was still unwell in the morning and skipped breakfast. Not like Steve at all, he must be bad. Today’s trip was on a train from Alto Tambo into the jungle but Steve was clearly not up to it and opted sleep in the truck instead. Fortunately a chap from Ibarra, who had planned to come on the train with us to inspect some trees, said he’d be happy for us to take photos for him. He very kindly took Steve back to the campground.
One hundred years ago, before the roads even existed, the train was the only link from Ibarra to the coast. With the arrival of the road the rail network became unprofitable and fell into disrepair. Today, there is a tourist train that runs from Ibarra to Salinas, but the rest of the track was largely left to the mercy of the jungle. However, a 17 km, just over 10 mile, section of track is serviceable, sort of, and is used by a community of miners and loggers who work in the jungle.
The track is in very poor order. Buckled, twisted and often totally undermined by land erosion, derailments are frequent. On these occasions manpower comes to the rescue. Planks of wood and a jack are used to lever the train back into place. In places the jungle is trying pretty hard to regain its territory. We brush past plants that have almost closed in completely on the track. Unbelievably there are two of these trains. At one point in our journey we moved into a “siding”. We asked what was happening and were told that another train was coming and that we’d have to wait. OK, how long. Forty minutes, came the nonchalant reply. Really, train congestion all the way out here!
In all we’d spent about five hours on the train. It was certainly a unique experience.
Arriving back in Ibarra at about 7pm we found Steve fast asleep. Still not feeling too well I think it was a good call he gave the train a miss.
You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t actually described the train. Well, I tried, I really did but I just couldn’t find the word. So, here are a couple of pictures. Does your drawing look anything like this?
We had a fabulous time on our excursion with Hans. Hopefully I’ve been able to convey some of what this special region of Ecuador is about. Until next time.
Steve and Janette