Shopping at a local marketplace in Ibarra

Most of business in Ecuador is about selling and buying. And what is a better place to do this than a local marketplace?

Let me present you how the local market in Ibarra is. Actually we shot this at two different markets that are close by (Mercado de la Playa and Mercado Amazonas).

The marketplace in Ibarra, Ecuador
The marketplace in Ibarra, Ecuador

Here is how it is inside…

There are some prices mentioned in the video. Below prices of some other products:

  • avocado – 3 or 4 pieces for $1
  • tomatoes – 7 or 8 pieces for $1
  • passion fruit (maracuyá) – 6 pieces for $1
  • carrot – ~1kg for $0.50
  • a pineapple – 1 piece for $0.50
  • a bunch of bananas (12-14 pieces) – $0.50
  • eggs – 10-12 cents
  • a decent machete – $4.50

There are no fixed prices though. You ask: “Give me tomatoes for 50 cents, please.” and they give you something… Most of the fruit/vegetable sellers don’t have scales. The secret is to find the vendor that sells the most for the price. 🙂

At the cocoa farm

Ecuador is the top 7th cocoa producer in the world. Where and how is it grown? How do the fruits like? Can you be a cocoa farmer in Ecuador? Let’s go on a cocoa farm tour with Miguel, a fellow farmer.

The whereabouts

Miguel’s finca (finca is, in Spanish, a piece of land, a property where you can grow something) is located in Esmeraldas province, an hour drive from the city of Esmeraldas. It’s technically the coast, but the original flora there is similar to rain forest with less humidity.

The farm location
The farm location

The main advantage of the location is obviously the fact that plants grow rapidly. Miguel told us you can see how branches are longer and leafs are bigger just within few hours – it’s amazing! The coast area is a perfect place to grow cocoa.

There are – unfortunately but inevitably – disadvantages. First of all the temperature. How hot it is? Well, it’s difficult to say, as the farm is located far from a major city for which temperature records would be available. But it is hot. 🙂 Here you have the average temperature for Esmeraldas, the capital city of Esmeraldas province. Note that the farm is located deeper in the land, so you’ll need to add few degrees to it. Also, remember the temperatures on the graph are averages, which means in the midday it gets significantly hotter.

There are also venomous snakes and spiders, and a species of giant ant. The ant is not a life threat, but the bite hurts dramatically…

That’s why you have to be prepared not only for work, but also to just visit the place. Although it’s hot you have to wear overshoes (galoshes), a hat and have at least 2 liters of water with you… A mosquito repelent (preferebly with DEET) and sunscreen won’t hurt too. And machete! Don’t forget to buy one before the trip!

The beginners' jungle kit :)
The beginners’ jungle kit 🙂

How to prepare the land?

When you buy a land to grow something, what you typically have initially there is jungle. Jungle means a very dense, concentrated flora – it’s nothing like northern forests. It’s just a green wall.

So, what you first need to do is to grub the forest. This process typically takes 10-12 months. To do that you hire men from the nearby villages and they start the work.

What you do next is you make few announcements in the nearby villages that there is wood available at your land. The locals are very much interested in wood they can get for good price. So they pay you some money and they take the wood away.

What’s left – low quality wood, dry leafs, branches etc. – you burn. And after almost a year you’re ready to grow you plants.

How does a cocoa tree look like?

A cocoa tree isn’t very “tropical” by the first look. It’s a 2-3 meter high tree with long green leaves. Every tree has to have a free space around it – at least 3 meters of diameter.

The cocoa fruit is yellow or orange-red (depends on the kind) and it has spindle-like shape. The length is about 20cm (8 inches). Inside there are beans and that is how the cocoa powder (and then chocolate is made). The beans are covered with a white, soft membrane that can be eaten (it’s sweat and delicious).

There are basically two kinds of cocoa grown in Ecuador:

  1. Cacao nacional – which is allegedly more tasty and generally of better quality but you can only ripe two times a year.
  2. Hybrid kinds – which are of less quality but also less demanding and you can ripe many times during the year.

In the photos in this article and in the movie you see the hybrid types.

The business

For the first cocoa harvest you have to wait at least two years. This is the time needed for the trees to grow and start producing the fruit. But nobody wants to wait for the money that long, do they? That’s why in the meantime you grow less demanding plants, mainly papaya. You can also let the local people grow corn are whatever they need. In exchange they will do some work for you.

The good news is papaya grows very quickly and you can expect first fruits after 5-6 months.

After the harvest you have two options: you can just sell the fruits or the beans to cocoa producers. They will take care of cleaning and drying the beans. This options is less-work – less-money option. Alternatively you can dry it yourself.

When you drive through Esmeraldas you can see a sheets of fabric just laying at the road with cocoa beans on them. Looks like the roads are the best place to do it (maybe because they absorb heat quickly?)

There is still plenty of land to buy. If you plan on becoming cocoa farmer, Ecuador is the place to go! 🙂

And finally a summary movie. Enjoy!


Ecuador’s treasure – the panama hat


If you were to mention 5 things that were truly Ecuador’s, the panama hat will be definitely one of them. But why are they called panama, if they’re made in Ecuador? What are they made from? And – most importantly – why are they so shockingly expensive? Let me explain…

The history and the name

Back in the history century the hats were known by the place of purchase instead of where they were produced. And in the 19th century the gold seekers were coming to California through Isthmus of Panama where they were purchasing hats imported from Ecuador. Yes, the genuine panama hat is made exclusively in Ecuador, but unfortunately Panama stole the name…

The hats gained much popularity through their exposure at the world’s fair in Paris in 1855. It was something completely new and exciting for the fashion-centered French.

But the most iconic moment in the history of panama hat is pictured in this photo:

President Roosevelt and the construction of Panama Canal (public domain)

The hat’s popularity went through the roof and by 1944 the panama hat had become Ecuador’s no. 1 export item. The stylish light-color hat would be always related with tropics ever since. But of course Panama Canal didn’t help changing the hat’s name… So, unfortunately for Ecuador, their most precious good would be always known as panama hat.

How it is made

The main material for panama hats is the straw of the plant called carludovia palmata or, more common, toquilla.

Carludovica palmata or toquilla (photo by: Jeff deLonge, Creative Commons)

The process of forming the hat is rather laborious and it can take up to 6 months! You can already have idea about the price level, right?

The hat itself comes in a number of different shapes – as the raw material is molded by a press. The most common shapes are: fedora and borsalino.

In Ecuador there are essentially two places where they made original panamas: Montecristi and Cuenca, but Montecristi’s hats are supposedly of better quality (and of higher price, of course). On the other hand, there is a really interesting panama museum in Cuenca worth visiting. In Montecristi you will find a many shops with huge variety of hats. We visited one of them to ask some questions.

First of all it seems that the local people who manually produce the hats never finish them. Instead they form the a raw shape and sell it to the shops where they finish off the hat and finally form them. Here’s an example of a raw material:

A local Montecristi salesman demonstrates a raw, unfinished hat
A local Montecristi salesman demonstrates a raw, unfinished hat
This is how complicated it is to produce a panama
This is how complicated it is to produce a panama

As mentioned, the whole process of forming a hat may take up to 6 months and it’s completely manual! It has to be expensive. But what does the price really depend on?

How much is it?

As always, it all depends on quality. The quality is defined by the number of weaves per square inch. The more weaves, the better quality. Generally, there are categories:

  1. Fino
  2. Extrafino
  3. Superfino

Here you have a table characteristics and prices:

Panama hats quality matrix
Panama hats quality matrix

As you can see the real panamas start from 14 weaves per inch, but they can go up to 34 which are really, really tiny and the texture is almost as fine fabric. For a $60 you can have a panama, but if you are for a real deal, prepare at least $200-$300 (I’ve heard they can cost triple the original price in US or Europe). It’s said that a high quality panama could be rolled, put in the pocket and no harm will be done. It’s that flexible and durable. Well, I haven’t tried with mine…

How do you measure the quality? The owner demonstrated a small tool for counting the weaves:

Counting the weaves with a special tool
This one is just “fino”

When you’ve chosen the quality and the model you can now add a nice color ribbon that suits you and all you have to do is… pay. Yes, it’s much, but it’s definitely worth it. A good quality panama will last for years and it’s a stylish gadget that will never be outdated. And if you need a souvenir from the equator – ironically – you don’t get anything more Ecuadorian than a panama hat. 🙂

PS. The data in this article is from December 2014. In 2015 the prices went up heavily. The sellers mention bad year for the toquilla harvest. Well, maybe. But be prepared to spend at least 50% more…