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.
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 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!
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:
Cacao nacional – which is allegedly more tasty and generally of better quality but you can only ripe two times a year.
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.
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! 🙂
So you got bored with the city, your daily routine, your Starbucks coffee and unexciting, predictable lunch and you want to try something new? Obviously there are dozens potential destinations each having something unique to offer. But let me present a country when you can experience a great variety of things and you surely will not be disappointed.
Ecuador, located just 4.5 hours away flight from Florida, is surprisingly diverse and generally affordable for the Westerners. Being known for its pleasant climate, vivid culture and great food it has become a very popular holiday and retirement destination.
What attracts people to Ecuador? Here are 10 – very subjectively chosen – reasons to visit or live in Ecuador. Treat them as a teaser and not a complete guide.
1. The equator
Ecuador owns its name to its location. The equator line is a imaginary line which divides the Earth to north and south hemispheres. Points that are located on the equator have latitude of: 0° 0′ 0″.
Ecuador is one of 15 countries which lands are traversed by the Equator, but none of them has a name that would clearly mark that fact. 🙂
What are consequences of Ecuador’s location on the Earth? First of all the climate, of course. A climate typical for the equator zone is a tropical rainforest climate and obviously that applies to Ecuador too. A part of the country called oriente is indeed a rain forest with very high average temperatures and high humidity.
However, Ecuador has other parts too: sierra a stripe of land located in high Andes and costa at the ocean, so the climate can be very different. It’s commonly said that the city that has the best climate is Ibarra, located in the province of Imbabura at the altitude of 2200 meters above the sea level.
Ecuador celebrates its location at the equator line. Near the capitol city – Quito – there is a landmark called mitad del mundo (“the center/middle of the world”), where you can take a classic picture of half you being at the northern hemisphere and half at the southern.
Over disputes about the exact location of the equator line, a very smart Ecuadorian built his own mitad del mundo – few feet away from the “official one”. And there the magic begins…
You can see many tricks supposedly proving you are in THE spot. However, physics doesn’t back most of the tricks. It’s fun anyway…
Two times in the year, the equinox occurs (20 of March and 23 of September) . In places located on equator it means the sun is directly overhead (in the zenith) and you won’t be able to see your shadow!
The location on the equator also means that the day and the night have almost exactly the same length – 12 hours. No more dark winter days!
2. The nature
From warm blue Pacific ocean to chilly, snowy peaks of Andes. From humid and green jungle to cold, clear lakes in the mountains. From wild wolves and bears to colorful toucans, hummingbirds and turtles. Ecuador has it all.
The country has 4 regions and thus 4 climate zones:
Costa – the coast.
Sierra – the mountains.
El oriente – the rainforest jungle.
This means you can discover different types of fauna and flora without leaving the country.
The Galapagos are especially worth mentioning as it’s know of having numerous endemics – species that only live there, such as: Galapagos land iguana, Galapagos penguin, Galapagos tortoise or famous Darwin’s finches.
3. The cities
When you decide you are already full of nature, you can chill out in one of Ecuadorian cities.
Most of the major cities have a typical landscape of square blocks with a plaza in the center. Although you won’t find monuments as old as in Europe – of course – the city centers generally preserved the colonial architecture.
Quito – being the capital city – is home for many government offices. If you have some paperwork to do – like visa, residency or other – you will visit it anyway. On your list there should definitely be Cuenca with its large historic part, Guayaquil – the biggest city in the country and Salinas – the Miami of Ecuador. If you’re looking for a place to stay – Ibarra and surroundings will offer nice prices and potentially the best climate.
4. The culture
The government puts lots of efforts to promote the local culture of indigenas (indigenous people) as well as what’s left from pre-Spanish times. You will see traditionally dressed people walking by the streets (yes, they actually wear their clothes daily), you will have chance to taste traditional stuff (for instance famous Ibarra’s ice-creams, which supposedly were invented by indigenas) and try to say ‘Hello’ in Quicha, which is the native indigenas’ language, very different from Spanish, of course.
You will also hear the legend of the Blood Lake (Yahuarcocha) and learn about the Incas’ kingdom and sad history of Atahualpa – the last great Inca king.
Finally, you could try karaoke – which seems to be the Ecuadorian national sport – and see for yourself how bad they are at singing. 🙂
5. The food
Leaving the good old stuff behind, you will encounter new, sometimes exciting, sometimes baffling food.
You will try balls made of banana stuffed with cheese (“interesting…”), or deep-fried empanadas (“tasty!”) or mote (“essentially tasteless…”) not to mentioned all sorts of meat grilled directly on the streets.
If you like seafood perhaps you will become a fan of ceviche (a sort of cold soup or salad made of shrimps/prawns and lime juice) or encebollado (a kind of fish soup with onion and yuka). And of course you will able to try tasty crab or spiny lobster.
If you ready for extreme experiences, why not try cui which is essentially a grilled guinea pig… Or you can just stay with a soup – locro quiteño will be something more usual.
6. The ocean
The coast line of Ecuador has length of 2,000 km and offers sunny beaches, high temperatures and warm ocean. You can pick up a nice hotel just at the beach and enjoy the view and a fresh mojito in your panama hat.
Swimming, snorkeling, surfing or whale-watching – this is only a sample of what you will experience.
7. The mountains
If you’re not exactly the sea person, don’t worry – you won’t be disappointed. Having the longest continental mountain range in the world withing its borders, no wonder the mountains of Ecuador are something really special. The large part of the country lies in Andes, including some major cities, such as: Quito (2,850 meters above sea level), Cuenca (2,550) or Ibarra (2,225).
The Ecaudor’s top 3 highest mountains are:
Chimborazo (6,310 meters).
Cotopaxi (5,897) – which is also an active volcano.
Cayambe (5,790) – which is also the highest point on the equator and only point on the equator with snow cover.
Good news is most of the peaks can be easily climbed without special equipment.
And here’s a movie from climbing the Imbabura volcano – 4,630 m (15,190 ft):
8. The panama hat
If you thought the famous panama hat comes from Panama, you were wrong!
The original, the genuine, the unique panama hat is a national treasure. This very distinctive hat is hand-made of toquilla straw which is so strongly related to tropics was added to UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists on 6 December 2012.
So, why panama hat and not ecuador hat? Well, US president Theodore Roosevelt who was photographed in the hat while visiting the construction of Panama Canal which boosted the hat’s popularity. But, unfortunately, like the Ecuadorians say: “Panama stole the hat from us”.
It comes in a variety of qualities, fashions and sizes. It can cost anything from 10 bucks to 500-600 dollars depending on the quality grade. Those most expensive you’re supposed to be able to roll and pass through a wedding ring. Be it truth or not, if you’re for a panama hat, the city of Montecristi or Cuenca are your destiny!
9. The people
In Ecuador you’re gonna meet some really nice and friendly people! Generally, they’re more relaxes and open for a causal conversation, even if they don’t completely understand you. 😉
The greetings are typically quite long and include a series of questions such as “¿Como esta? ¿Como le va? ¿Como ha pasado?” (How are you? How is it going? How have you been?) . Or the very-ecuadorian “¿Que mas?” (literally: “What more/else?” in a sense: “What’s new?“) at which you can just say “¡Bien, no mas!” (“Good, nothing new!“). And all the people that live in a proximity of a mile will call you vecino (neighbour). 🙂
But be aware! While the Ecuadorians generally have lots of patience towards foreigners that try to speak Spanish, they are terrible English speakers. If you don’t speak any Spanish, you will find it very difficult to communicate. So better start now!
10. The bananas
Banana. What can be so exciting about banana? Well… first of all, there is no fruit that would be called just “a banana” in Ecuador (which btw. is number 1 world exporter of the fruit).
Think apples. In Europe they come in a great variety of styles, flavours and colors (if you don’t believe visit Poland – the largest producer of apples in Europe).
So, banana is like the Ecuadorian apple.
There are yellow bananas (called guineos) which are commonly known as “bananas”. They’re generally sweet, but they come in different sizes, different “angles” and different tastes. Some of them are sweeter, some of them smell a bit like raspberry and some are really tiny.
Then you have verdes which are green bananas used for cooking. You can make really good stuff out of them (see: 5. The food, for more details).
And finally you have maduros which are quite huge and typically grilled before eaten.
The best part is the prices: in a normal shop you can get a banana for 7-8 cents, but you can also buy a big, giant bunch for a dollar. The banana-eaters paradise.
Ecuador offers a unique combination of rain-forest jungle, high mountains and stunning coast line. The prices are affordable, the currency is US dollar and a tourist visa will allow you to enjoy the country for up to 3 months. Getting the residence is relatively straightforward (I’ll write about it soon), so you can even stay for good. True, you would need to learn some Spanish to survive, but if you are looking for a great adventure, Ecuador is definitely a place to consider.
Stay tuned for some other practical hints that will be posted soon.