Today we woke up to the sound of birds singing at El Quetzel Restaurante, Hostyeria and Café y Chocolate in Mindo, Ecuador. Mindo is in the heart of the Rainforest in the northern hemisphere of Ecuador and for the past five years, the Audubon Society has named Mindo as the best place to birdwatch – in the world.
I got up early to SKYPE with my family and this time, sitting at the computer, I was visited by what I am almost certain was a baby scorpion. It’s becoming a bit of a theme now – me being the person who is coming in contact with venomous insects and otherwise.
After another delicious meal, of pancakes with chocolate syrup (derived naturally from the moisture that is lost during the fermentation process) and strong coffee, Don Victor, the farmer who cares for the gardens met with us to share some of the history of this pretty village. Victor shared that 20 years ago, one man in the community decided to pursue tourism. The funny thing about it is that most folks thought he was lazy. However, after some success, the townspeople recognized the value in attracting tourists – and the positive impact it was having on their village.
So, they began creating the infrastructure that would support tourism. And people from all over the world contributed at one time or another. The native people learned recycling and composting techniques from American people and slowly, they created a community that truly embraces tourists.
Victor then took us on a tour of the gardens behind our hostel and pointed a variety of medicinal herbs and plants that they grow and use in cooking and in chocolate. One tree in particular, the Guava is host to the Bromelia– a beautiful red blossom stalk that is home to a very poisonous family of tree frogs. In the past, the indigenous people used the venom from these frogs on the ends of their spears and arrows – to stun their prey.
We also tasted the Stevia plant (think the sugar substitute Truvia) and Ducamada, a herb that should be eaten before breakfast and is thought to help prevent cancer. Frank (our wonderful traveling partner) from Mindo Chocolates shared that they intend to blend this herb into a chocolate bar.
Frank continued our tour of their chocolate manufacturing process and I was amazed to see many household items that had been retrofitted for the purpose of grinding and processing cacao. For example: an old industrial blender was powering a homemade cacao-grinding machine. The process was a great example of bean-to-bar artisanal chocolate making. Currently, Mindo’s chocolate nibs are available at Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor.
At lunch, we had the opportunity to taste some of Mindo’s raw cacao product – combining the paste with chili peppers (grown in their gardens) and sugar to taste. It was muy deliciouso.
Our next stop was a 15-acre cacao farm in Puerto Quito, owned and operated by Dr. Pedro Sabedra. Deeper into the rainforest we went and as we traveled just 45 minutes, it got hot. Not just hot. Hot and wet.
Sabedra is a doctor by trade (working one day a week in Quito) but he’s a natural preservationist at heart. The good doctor’s energy is palatable and contagious. Not only that, the guy can handle a (very sharp) machete. Our group, accompanied by two large snake-sniffing German Shepard’s followed him on a rough path (hand-cut by machete) into the rainforest.
As soon as we ducked under the canopy of trees, it was like we had entered another place and time. All around us was dark, lush and green. The path we walked on was a bed of cacao leaves, teeming with spiders – which I decided to ignore. As we rounded the first curve, we came upon a bamboo tree the size of a two-story building. The stalks were easily larger than the circumference of my two hands and I could see that some had recently been cut. When I asked Pedro how he had harvested the giant bamboo – he smiled and told me “with a machete.”
Pedro’s approach to farming is much different from what we have seen previously. His trees are some of the oldest in Ecuador (one tree was 40 years old) and he prefers to leave the grove wild – allowing the native plants to grow and provide rich nutrients to his trees.
I asked Pedro about snakes (culebra’s) and he laughed and said that he had recently killed two. They were at his house now and “did I want to eat them?” WOW. A doctor-turned-snake-hunter.
We finished our walk through the farm and headed up to Pedro’s house where (as promised) he pulled out two dead snakes – a male and a female. Turns out these weren’t your average run-of-the mill snakes – they were X (ex-eh’s) – categorized as the third most deadly snakes in the world (behind the Mamba and Cobra). In true conservationist style, Pedro shared that he would not have killed the snakes but they had gotten too close to his house. In fact, awhile back he captured a python weighing hundreds of pounds that he planned to release, saving it from certain death at the hands of one of the neighboring farms. But when he returned to the container that housed the snake – it was gone.
Our visit to Pedro’s was delightful. He reminded me of the importance of the earth and all it’s creatures – even the venomous ones. And how simply we could all live – with much less at the same time – having much, much more.