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Just over two weeks ago we had a visit with the members of the Go Now Be Free Tour. Jody Treter, the guide, wrote about it here. Jody and I met up through a visit over a year ago to our shop by Mimi Wheeler, of Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate in Michigan. Mimi had come down to visit Ecuador and meet with Miriam, the recipient of GoBe’s first microloan. I also helped Mimi arrange a visit to the plantations belonging to my friend, and connoisseur/grower of some of Ecuador’s finest Nacional cocoa beans.

The group came over to the workshop in the morning, and I gave them a brief but thorough introduction to cacao in Ecuador, discussing most of what you’ve read here on this blog. We got into CCN-51, Nacional, and other arcane topics surrounding Ecuadorian chocolate.

In the afternoon, I took them over to Fundacion y Desarrollo, a major NGO here in Ecuador involved in Fair Trade Certification as well as promoting “Super” cacao. I hadn’t really known they were so involved in this project, but learned a great deal about it.

Two North American acquaintances of mine have been the pioneers in the “super cacao” project. They began by selecting the very best cacao trees they could-by best I mean those that are most disease resistant and with the highest yields. The project started through the observation that in any area where cacao is grown widely, there always seem to be a few trees, out of many, that produce more cacao than usual and also are more disease resistant. These two men began by propagating these high yield trees and planing them. It turns out that they are getting absolutely incredible yields in the very first years.

Conservacion y Desarrollo has been working with farmers throughout the country to not only gather and propagate seedlings from “super cacao” trees, but to then take the trees and study their genotypes closely. Instead of a costly, multi-year project whereby scientists could be sent into the field to search out and study the trees, C&D has recruited thousands of farmers to select their best trees, and then turn them over to be studied and analyzed. The ultimate aim of the project, through identifying and propagating high-yielding cacao trees, is to combat poverty by helping farmers increase their income and produce better cacao, and ultimately, better chocolate.

Circus Tickets

I love the rag-tag, gritty, miserable looking circuses that travel the megalopolises and small towns and villages of Latin America. It’s been a while since we’ve seen one, but there’s one just down the street now. It’s called Circo Azteca. This was not Cirque du Soleil; in fact, it was the poorest circus I’ve ever seen, but entertaining nonetheless. My last few experiences in Latin American Circuses were better. I saw the Hermanos Gasca circus in Nicaragua, and became a participant when the Gaucho from Argentina decided I’d be the perfect candidate to demonstrate his skill with bolas, a traditional weapon consisting of two rock hard balls attached to the end of a leather strip, which are spun around at high speed. These he used to knock a cigarette out of my mouth, as they swung past my face within a hair’s breath of my nose.

Tomatoes in Tumbaco

Urban Gardening Plot

We bought our tickets early, $2 each for front row seats. I guess you could equate the quality of the circus with the price of the tickets, though in my mind, this little flea circus “Circo Azteca” was just about as entertaining as the multi-media, overwhelm-your-senses Barnum & Bailey’s productions they do nowadays. They just didn’t have big screens, didn’t hold it in a major sports arena, and didn’t have massive lights, noise, and colors going on for $85 or more. They also held it in a vacant lot near the center of town. Next to the small sawmill on the lot they were growing some tomatoes among construction debris and trash-I found this little urban patch rather enterprising.

Modern Advertising Vehicle

Advertising-In The Most Traditional Sense-Still Useful in Ecuador-And Unregulated

Since there is not a lot of internet access in private households (and not a lot of regulation) the traditional advertising vehicle was parked just out front, with loudspeaker securely attached to the roof. There are no police to stop you from blaring whatever message you’d like to from loudspeakers attached to your car, so this is a pretty frequent means of advertising throughout Ecuador.

Next to the trailer and parking area was the ticket window.

Entrance to Circus

Circo Azteca Entrance

Ticket Window at Circus
The floor was the grass of the vacant lot, and the seats were cheap patio chairs made of plastic like the kind you can pick up at your local Wal-Mart. The tent was full of holes and missing stitching in many places.

Circus Tent

When we got inside just past the guy collecting our tickets, another man stopped us and told us we’d be undercharged and we needed to pay another $2. Wonderful customer service. We didn’t have much choice but to pay up; there wasn’t a manager or anyone to complain to. The whole circus might have had 15 employees in total.

Man in Green Tights on Big Cloth

Man on Sheet

There were only three main acts of any kind of major skill. These included a man who knotted himself up and down a giant sheet hanging from the circus tent, a girl who did all kinds of things with hula hoops, and a woman who balanced barbie dolls, umbrellas, and other things on her chin.

The whole show was 2 full hours, even though it started a half hour late. The circus clowns joked about planning to move on to Bogota, Colombia for their next show, but not having enough money to do so just yet. I can believe it.

Flying Hulas

Girl Catching Hula Hoops

Balancing Thingamajiggy for Balancing

Girl Balancing Table on Her Chin

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Last weekend we headed out towards the town of Cayambe, about 45 miles north of Quito. The “fabled” castle we went to see, located just past the turn-off towards Hacienda Guachala, is well-known by many locals, and is far off the beaten path. It’s not fully completed and has been under construction for 10 years. Supposedly, the story is-like so many others-that the owner has run out of money without being able to finish construction. The owner, by the way, is a dentist from Loja, one of Ecuador’s southernmost provinces. 

It’s not actually open to the public, but if you know the way up the cobblestone road to the gate and you offer the lady gatekeeper a couple of bucks, she’ll let you in. When we were there, at least 20 or so more visitors were also there too; the owner should finance construction by charging to come see it. 

Lions at the main entrance.

It’s a gaudy, ostentatious attempt at something like the Palace of Versailles, with a bunch of frightening and egregious Greco-Roman sculptures scattered throughout the grounds. These include a large chariot with horses, nymphs playing in fountain, Poseidon, Mermaids, Centaurs, and others.

Inside the unfinished main building, which is supposed to become a hotel, there are nude sculptures in the greco-roman style. But what really makes absurdly bad statues even worse, is that they are made of concrete and then painted in some olive green paint. The bodies are totally disproportionate and the detail leaves just a bit to be desired. 

The buildings are located on several acres nestled back in the woods, which are increasingly rare in this part of the world. The whole place, despite not being abandoned, has that spooky, something-hiding-in-the-shadows feeling. The buildings are fully constructed, but there are no windows, handrails on the staircases, or finished floors, and the empty buildings echo. Birds are nesting in the cornices of the buildings, and trash lies scattered in some of the far corners of the rooms. Construction materials like wood, wire, steel rebar, and other items lie scattered about and the pace of deterioration is definitely outpacing construction, so it’s looking more old than new. Moss grows on the stairways at the building entries. 

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At the back of the property is an abandoned house with some interesting plants growing on the roof, and an area that looks like it’s been untouched for 50 years. Wildflowers grow abundantly, the grass is nearly waist high, and an adobe wall slowly crumbles away from the wear of rain and wind.

We spent the last two weeks split between Northern and Southern California, meeting with potential clients, working on launching our website, logistics and other issues.

I attended the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco last week. There is a lot of chocolate out there, and a lot of fancy packaging especially. It’s heavy on the attention-getting factor, with a lot of pop, shine, and glossy finishes. Personally, for our products we’ve tended towards a more subdued look that reflects the natural qualities of our products; I know aesthetics and looks often sells the product, but my personal philosophy is that it’s what’s inside that really counts. There’s no greater disappointment than beautiful packaging with only a mediocre product inside.

Jeff Davis of Food Fete graciously invited me as a guest to the Food Fete, which is held separately from the Fancy Food Show but at the same time each year. I entered a beautifully decorated event venue, with several already known small companies making speciality foods as well as a number of newcomers to the scene. The atmosphere was laid back, festive, and casual. I was able to meet and chat with several members of the food press, mostly from the online world, as well as meet several small company owners and hear their stories. There’s a nice writeup about it

In Southern California, I met with an independent coffee roaster based in San Diego who has taken great interest in the Aequare line of chocolates. His is the kind of venue we’re looking to sell our chocolates in; small, independently owned shops who have a story of their own, and can appreciate ours.

Just after Christmas we went to Hacienda Primavera, which is located about an hour and a half from Ibarra. The nearest settlement is called Gualchan, which is about five minutes down the road from the Hacienda. The Hacienda itself is located high in the cloud forest along a dirt road that supposedly ends some hours later in a remote spot on the border with Colombia. It’s a pristine area with violent muddy rivers, beautiful waterfalls, lots of jungle and few settlements.We arrived late in the afternoon and it was already raining. Unfortunately, this was to be the case for the two full days we did stay-we cut our stay short by a day since there seemed to be no end to the rain.From the website, Hacienda Primavera appears to have numerous activities to keep you busy despite its remoteness. However, due to its remote location and very laid back atmosphere, as well as constant rain during the winter season, it may be more difficult to find things to do than the website might imply.If you’re seeking a pristine, very mellow, isolated setting with no TV, Internet access, or other disturbances, this is the place to be. The nights are filled with the sound of rain, bugs, and little else. If it’s clear, which it was for a few hours each morning,  the views are spectacular.If you like to hike along tropical streams, get muddy, and see beautiful waterfalls, you can do it here. You can also ride horses into the hills, and then usually you have to leave the horses and go by foot to reach some of the more remote waterfalls and other places. They mention mountain biking on their website, but I didn’t see any mountain bikes. And they have a pool, but is was quite chilly and is probably only comfortable during the summer months when it doesn’t rain-and then the sun is surely scorching. The Autoferro, which is a bus adapted for rails, isn’t functioning because the rails have been damaged and have yet to be repaired. The food was decent and fresh, nothing spectacular, nothing to complain about. Usually typical Ecuadorian fare, french fries, fresh peas and carrots, rice, and tilapia or chicken served one way or another. Fresh juices, but microwaved and then toasted bread like slabs of rubber for breakfast, along with eggs and diced ham or bacon, as you desire.Well, check out the photos below.

Northern Ecuador Trip Dec 2007
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Welcome to Destination Ecuador!

Welcome to Destination Ecuador! My family and I have been living in Ecuador for the last four and a half years. We’ve dealt with the worst kinds of red-tape, searched out or ended up making hard-to-find ingredients ourselves, imported equipment for making chocolate confections, learned the import-export business...Continue >>

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