Photo of The Day #71, Panaderia Deluxe at The Oro Verde Hotel Guayaquil

As I stumbled down to the coffee shop in the lobby of The Oro Verde Hotel, I told myself the trip to Ecuador was just beginning and I needed to just have coffee and something healthy, in a manner of speaking. I had no idea I would encounter such a plethora of sweet items that challenged my desire to remain healthy. After all I was on a 5-week trial run to see what the real cost of living in Cuenca was for a month. I knew my fiend Efrain of Mio Tours would be there soon and I had to make a decision.

 

Assorted Sweets for Anytime of the Day

Assorted Sweets for Anytime of the Day

 

I decided I would eat healthy when I got to Cuenca and settled into my condo. To heck with being healthy, when all this was staring me in the face. Not only was I pondering the quantity and assortment of sweets to ingest, I actually had serious debates with myself about the assorted sandwiches and salads displayed in this case below. Decisions should never be made when you are hungry! I knew this and also was very familiar with the process of having Mio Tours (You Tube Link) drive me to Cuenca. I knew full well that we would stop at a restaurant my friend Efrain favored in Puerto Inca. The lunches with juice and soup run around $3.50 per person and are very tasty.

 

Sandwiches and Ready to Eat Items

Sandwiches and Ready to Eat Items

 

Then of course another challenge is the magnificent bread they prepare all over Ecuador and since it is so inexpensive you want to buy every type of loaf available and see what is in line with your tastes and what isn’t. Down deep I knew I couldn’t buy more than one type of bread at a time and would have to wait until I got to Cuenca and shop at Maria’s Alemania Bakery. This bakery has the absolute best breads in the world, bar none!

 

Loaves and Loaves of Fantastic Bread / Pan

Loaves and Loaves of Fantastic Bread / Pan

 

Oh how I wanted to box up one of these whole cakes and take it with me to the Condo. I could then bury my face in all that sweet goodness and eat like a pig! No one would see me and no one would know. So why not you ask? Because rather simply put, I have to live with myself and couldn’t do this without totally stressing out! Oh well maybe next time. I absolutely love all the Panaderias in Ecuador and they make very delicious goods. Most are so inexpensive it is almost embarrassing. This shop was nothing really out of the normal and is fairly representative of the bakeries in Ecuador. One of life’s small pleasures and I can’t wait to get back to Ecuador and eat my fill of sweets! Waistline? What waistline? I can always walk it off in Cuenca! After all it is situated at around 8500 feet above seal level and that takes more than a little effort when you are my age.

 

Take Home Cakes and Other Sweet Delicacies

Take Home Cakes and Other Sweet Delicacies

 

 

 

 

 

The Chocolatier

Heading out of Cuenca early last Wednesday morning, we passed the Feria Libre Market. This is the biggest market in the city and one can wonder for hours, bartering, looking and touching everything from quinoa, rice, fish, pork, to fruits and vegetables. It is a magical place. I could not believe the amount of activity at this time of the morning. People were unloading trucks and carrying merchandise to their stalls.

 

We headed out to the lower portion of Azuay Province. I displayed the geographical lay of the land in my Banana blog, but one item I didn’t show you is below. It seems that a large portion of the chocolate beans are brought up to this region from the Coastal growing area and the beans are laid out to dry in the sun for two days. They have to be brought in at night to avoid the moisture in the air and placed back on the concrete drying beds again the next day. They are then bagged 100lb bags and transported to their processors.

 

Cacao Drying Beds in the Dry Area of Azuay Province

Cacao Drying Beds in the Dry Area of Azuay Province

 

We did the banana tour and headed 30 minutes away to Santa Rosa with the Cacao Plantation’s owner in our car. We had time to discuss why he had resumed his cacao business seven years ago and Byron Trujillo Erazo told us it was simple mathematics. The chocolate industry was booming and he wanted to get back in it again after a forty-year lay off. We arrived at the Casa Ostrica and it was similar to what I expected. It had a tropical look and was filled with all kinds of plants and flowers that one would expect in a tropical setting. This is an example of the orchids growing on the entry poles that line the driveway. Amazing in my opinion!

 

Orchids Growing on the Entry Poles

Orchids Growing on the Entry Poles

 

The resort was constructed with a great deal of bamboo, which grows in large clumps on the Plantation and is used for a majority of the wood needs. This photo is what you see as you enter and arrive at the lodge. There are little cabanas all over the resort. I am guessing the resort can handle about 75 people at one time. Enough of this talk. Let’s head out to the Cacao Plantation ane see the process in action.

 

The Casa Ostrica Lodge

The Casa Ostrica Lodge

 

As you enter the Cacao section and look ahead all you can see is a plethora of trees filled with varying colors of the Cacao seed pods. The bright red ones are the ripe pods and are ready for harvesting. Each day the workers journey through the Cacao trees and harvest the ripe seed pods for processing.

 

One Red Seed Pod Ready for Harvest

One Red Seed Pod Ready for Harvest

 

Our guide showed us the method used to harvest the pods. He had a huge machete and I had no reservations about letting him do the cutting. Knowing how much a klutz I am, I figured it would very easy for me to lose a finger or two and I let him do the job.

 

Harvesting the Seed Pod

Harvesting the Seed Pod

 

He then started the process of cutting the seed pod off and making the delicious fruit inside available. A lot of people are more than likely not familiar with the fact that the huge seed pod has fruit that surrounds the interior smaller beans.

 

Staring the Process of Harvesting the Fruit

Staring the Process of Harvesting the Fruit

 

He hacked into the seed pod and tore away a section of the outer shell. The seed pod is actually quite hard and he does not hack gingerly. I know I would slip and hurt myself, if it was left to me. I had an idea what the interior looked like, but had no idea of the taste. There is a white fruit that surrounds the beans and this has to be removed to get to the beans. The guide gave us a sample and I was floored. Once in my life have I had such a delicious morsel of fruit. That was in the Philippines when I tasted Mongusteen for the first time. I was addicted immediately. I scooped out about half the beans and ate them one at a time as we walked the Plantation. I cannot describe in mere words how wonderful the beans fruit tasted. It made the whole day worth the drive, etc.

 

Interior Cacao Beans with Fruit

Interior Cacao Beans with Fruit

 

Normally the beans are taken up to the drier climate and sun-dried for two days, but they had a quick way to dry the beans and that was using a wok like skillet over a bed of coals. You stir the beans over the heat until the outer shell becomes brittle.

 

A Shortcut to Drying the Beans

A Shortcut to Drying the Beans

 

When the beans are ready you individually shell each bean. At first it seems a very daunting task and I couldn’t get it right. I kept breaking the beans apart and not harvesting solid beans. I tasted one of the beans after shelling and it was very bitter. I couldn’t believe that this would turn out to be a tasty treat. One of the ladies helped me and showed me how to snap the bean which left you with the entire bean in one piece. A much better step and saved the beans.

 

Diana Shelling the Beans.

Diana Shelling the Beans.

 

The next step was to place the beans in a contraption that had been used for a long time and physically break the beans down into chocolate. I though, okay once through the grinder and it would be a piece of cake. Oh contraire. I had to keep scooping the chocolate residue back into the grinder and re-grind the concoction about six times. By the ends of the process I was hot, sweating and thankful I had my Tilley Hat to block out the sun from my face. The young lady broke down and the crew got her a hat, as she was starting to sunburn. By the time we got through I was worn out and my arms ached.

 

Nomadic Texan Grinding the Beans

Nomadic Texan Grinding the Beans

 

After I finished the grinding it was time for a chocolate drink. This photo shows that they do not waste the seed pods and use them to serve the drinks in. One also receives a dark chocolate bar from their cacao plantation and the illustration shows a cross-cut of the seed pod.

 

Interior of the Seed Pod, Candy Bar and a Chocolate Drink

Interior of the Seed Pod, Candy Bar and a Chocolate Drink

 

Okay I had worked up an appetite and it was time to eat a traditional meal from Casa Ostrica. Obviously Mr. Erazo wanted us to taste ostrich and that was what we were served along with rice, salad and fried plantains. I have taken a liking to the plantains and didn’t think I would. For the record the ostrich tasted just like beef to me. The others thought it had a gamey taste. Before the meal they served us a hot chocolate drink made from the chocolate shavings. It was so good I had to have a second cup. It also acted to drive my temperature down as the Green Tea in Asia does. Caught me off guard.

 

Traditional Meal of Ostrich, Rice, Salad

Traditional Meal of Ostrich, Rice, Salad and Fried Plantains

 

I talked with my wife Kim prior to our trip and she asked me to bring back some of the cacao beans if at all possible. I obtained a bag and literally scooped the remaining beans from the wok like pan over the BBQ and let them cool down. They gave me the large ball of chocolate from all my efforts and I will try to bring it home. Wish me luck as I am not sure they will allow this to enter the US. We will see. Please cross your fingers for me. I hope I can and that way my family can sample the dark chocolate. I wish that there was some way to bring home a seed pod and let Kim try the taste of that fruit. It is one of the highlights of my trip to Ecuador.

 

My Chocolate Ball and Cacao Beans for Kim

My Chocolate Ball and Cacao Beans for Kim

 

I am thankful that Mio Tours allowed me to accompany them on this fabulous trip and I learned so much about Bananas and Cacao. This El Oro Province is amazing and you drive and drive through a vast amount of banana plantations, the number one export of Ecuador, but you also are privy to all kinds of fruit trees growing wild alongside the highway. For the purposes of full disclosure both Mio Tours and Tilley Hats are sponsors. Regardless I have to say that this a fabulous tour and tasting the Cacao fruit is worth the entire trip. I also have to say a tour of Casa Ostrica is a fabulous way to spend a day in Ecuador. If you get the opportunity to take this tour, jump on it! Saludos mi amigos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes We Have Bananas

We left Cuenca early Wednesday morning not knowing what to expect or how the day would turn out. We (Mio Tours and I) were exploring a new tour opportunity and I was very anxious to investigate what lay ahead. The only drawback was it was a 3 to 3 1/2 hour trip and if the road is not in good repair, which it wasn’t, it could be a challenge to this old man! I had a positive attitude none the less as I really wanted to see the insides of a Banana Plantation and a Cacao Plantation. More on the Cacao plantation in the next post.

 

Desert Area Between Cuenca and Santa Rosa

Desert Area Between Cuenca and Santa Rosa

 

We drove through a bevy of various terrains and road structures from great asphalt and concrete highways to rock paths being made into a highway. Some were very rough and required a slow progress and almost 4 wheel drive terrain. After going through a desert landscape that reminded me of Arizona, SW Utah or NW New Mexico we finally came out of the foothills of the Andes and hit the coastal geography.

 

Banana Trees Growing Right Up To the Jubones River

Banana Trees Growing Right Up To the Jubones River

 

We left Azuay province and entered El Oro province which is a tropical coastal region and has a plethora of Banana plantations. In fact it contains more Banana growth than anywhere in the world. There are literally Banana trees beside the highway for miles and miles. We picked up our host Byron Trujilo Erazo in Pasaje a town of about 100K population. Mr. Erazo was the owner of the 40 acre Banana Plantation we were touring and joined us for the 10 minute ride to his Banana Plantation.

 

Entry of the Banana Plantation

Entry of the Banana Plantation

 

As we entered the Plantation I was awestruck by the quantity of Banana trees and was curious how many bananas he produces. Mr. Erazo told us that he gets 700 boxes of bananas per acre and harvest bananas three times a year. You do the math. I also asked who he sold his bananas to and he told us Chiquita Brands. He told me he has 16 full-time employees that live on the plantation and a massive amount of part-time help as needed.

 

Typical Stalk Ready for Harvesting

Typical Stalk Ready for Harvesting

 

We arrived an area that serves as a processing and shipping center and I was stunned by the amount of stalks of bananas hanging and ready for cutting. I learned that they let a parent tree grow and when the second generation starts to come up they pick the strongest offshoot and destroy the remaining shoots. This way the trees maintain appropriate sunlight and all continue to produce bananas all year-long.

 

System to Transport Banana Stalks to the Shipping Center

System to Transport Banana Stalks to the Shipping Center

 

The system they used to cut the stalks and transport them to the ship[ping center consisted of a set of poles in an upside down horse shoe type construction. Underneath these poles ran a strong wire that the farmers would slide the stalks along until it got to the central warehouse. It saved many a back I am sure and was faster, so more bananas could be harvested.

 

Washing Tanks, Conveyor Belt and Shipping Station

Washing Tanks, Conveyor Belt and Shipping Station

 

The warehouse consisted of various tanks that the bananas are dipped in to remove the dirt and insects before packing. They then are dried and placed on a conveyor belt. The final step is putting the individual banana groups in the boxes, after they have been separated from the main stalk. The groups average about 12 bananas. It is quite an operation and because of a miscommunication we did not get to experience the actual cutting and processing of the banana stalks. Next time I am sure we will participate and he explained that they only process ripe stalks on Wednesdays and Thursdays. So the tours have to be on those days going forward. I also missed out on the Banana Cake that will be part of the tour. Darn!

Humitas, Quimbolitos y Tamales

After a day of walking around Cuenca and photographing the amazing architecture, one builds an appetite. My friends at Mio Tours introduced me to this rather small eating establishment in Cuenca. It is locate off Gran Columbia on calle Presidente Borrero before you get to calle Simon Bolivar. You really have to look for it as it only serves about 12 people at a time with a total of 5 tables I believe. As you walk the street you see this blackboard operating as a identification for the restaurant.

 

Sign on the Exterior of the Restuarant

Sign on the Exterior of the Restuarant

 

 

Each item is warmed and served in a banana leaf, that is fairly sticky with the sweet sugar applied to the item oozing out of the leaf. You have to unfold it and this is a messy operation, but drives your senses wild as the aroma of the item erupts from each serving. You are offered either coffee or tea to drink with your meal and I chose tea. I am not really a soft drink person and know the dangers associated with their regular consumption. Coffee in the late afternoon keeps me up late at nights anymore.

 

Banana Leaf Wrapping for All Three Items

Banana Leaf Wrapping for All Three Items

 

The item served first was a Humitas and was my favorite in the long run, as I am a carnivorous individual and like my protein from meats. The Humitas has pork inside and is swathed in the sweet corn meal that all of the products are wrapped in. It also includes a slice of egg, a few bites of vegetables and a couple of slices of chili peppers on top.

 

Humitas

Humitas

 

The ritual one goes through to eat these fantastic morsels and indigenous mainstays is unique. One squeezes a lime on the item, adds a little Aji which is the Ecuadorian version of salsa and takes their spoon and dives in to this sweet and tasty morsel.

 

Aji and Lime

Aji and Lime

 

 

The next morsel served was a very sweet and typical item that I imagine has been around for centuries and is basically just the corn meal folded into the banana leaf with out any stuffing. This is the Tamale and is not associated with the typical tamale filled with meat in Mexico and the US. Kim and Learned this on our trip in March of 2013.

 

Tamale

Tamale

 

 

The third and final item served was a Quimbolitos. It is a Tamale that is stuffed with raisins and has a few extra unidentifiable flavors. It is also has a sweet flavoring and resembles the Tamale. In my photo you can plainly see the raisins in the item and can imagine the wonderful taste.

 

 

Quimbolitos Stuffed With Raisins

Quimbolitos Stuffed With Raisins

 

All of this costs under $2.00 US and I promise you will leave this establishment full. I could not add another item and having sampled the three variations I will (and have) go back and only eat the Humitas. That is unless someone else is buying and I don’t want to hurt their feelings! Ha! I was not able to capture the lady’s name that runs the restaurant, but I did manage to take her photograph and this is her. Notice she is smiling as most of the people in this wonderful country do consistently!

 

 

Owner of the Restaurant

Owner of the Restaurant

 

As I have about three and a half weeks left in Cuenca I am sure I will stop by again and sample her wonderful Humitas, Quimbolitos y Tamales. Saludos!

 

 

I love this food! Stop Taking my Photo!

I love this food! Please Stop Taking my Photo and Let Me Eat!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Road Most Traveled

 

Every time I visit Ecuador I fly into Guayaquil and stay over night. There are no “direct” flights to Cuenca from current airline operations. I can either fly back to Quito spend the night and then fly into Cuenca or I can stay overnight and take a shuttle to Cuenca the next day. At my age the Quito route is about 25 hours total and too taxing on my body. So I opt for the shuttle from Guayaquil. Besides, I would miss all the gorgeous scenery if I flew into Cuenca.

 

Mangos Growing Wild

Mangoes Growing Beside the Road 

 

I always know that I can count on my friends at Mio Tours to insure my safety and guaranteed arrival. Lately some of the more illegal shuttle companies have been falling into trouble with the government militia, as they are not official and have not secured the appropriate licenses to transport individuals along this route. I would caution you to investigate this issue and make sure your shuttle service is licensed. Other wise you just might be stranded alongside the road, as a few tourists have been lately.

 

Toll Booths at Puerto Inca

Toll Booths at Puerto Inca

 

The road is nice and there are a few tolls, but you go from sea level basically to a high of about 13,000 feet in the Cajas National Park. Along the way you pass many items of interest. The current road is great, but the Ecuadorian Government is widening  the road to four lanes and it will be a smooth ride from Guayaquil. We usually obtain lunch in Puerto Inca about and hour into the ride and the special is $3.00 per person.

 

Government is Improving the Highway and making it Four Lane Like an Interstate in the US

Government is Improving the Highway & making it Four Lane Like an Interstate in the US

 

 

You pass through many small towns that have various methods of shuttling their population around and one can only guess what the experience is like. Unless you have been to Asia and are familiar with the Tuk Tuks, then you are very acquainted with this system. The taxis vary in color and structure, but are usually built in the same manner and have the same open door look for passengers, with a motorbike front for the driver.

 

Tuk Tuk Like Taxi in Rural Area Towns

Tuk Tuk Like Taxi in Rural Area Towns

 

As you move into the more remote areas you see a different style of taxi as pictured below. They run around the countryside on motorbikes and shuttle the locals back and forth to their homes along the dirt roads. It is difficult for me to imagine there is enough business for this many “taxis”, but apparently its a lucrative operation.

 

A Form of Taxi for the Locals at the Base of the Andes in the Country

A Form of Taxi for the Locals at the Base of the Andes in the Country

 

 

You also find open fish markets where the locals buy their fresh catch. The fish are transported from the coast and made available to the locals for a reasonable price. It is a very unique approach and has been the same for all the years I have visited Ecuador. I just would like to see a little ice under the fish for safekeeping.

 

Local Rural Fish Market

Local Rural Fish Market

 

 

We always stop at several random spots so that I can take photos and this one is a reflection of the valley below and the cloud structure that covers Guayaquil at higher elevations. One begins the ascension and starts to have indications of altitude by ears popping, etc. The vehicle struggles a little more and doesn’t have the same get up and go as it does at sea level, but it is more than adequate to navigate the Andes. After you rise above the clouds (yes that is at a very high elevation) the view is magnificent and the skies are clear. Many photo opportunities exist at this altitude and the guides from Mio Tours always stop when I ask to take photos or if I need a bathroom break.

 

 Looking Out Over Guayaquil

Looking Out Over Guayaquil

 

As you hit the continental divide in Cajas National Park, you know its all downhill from there and you will be in Cuenca within an hour. The anticipation starts to rise and my thoughts increase as the wonderful city approaches. I am and always will be, totally in love with this city, its people, its culture and its lovely food. The great thing about driving is it gives you three and a half hours to prepare yourself and anticipate how wonderful it is to be in Cuenca. I wouldn’t have it any other way!

 

Day Two Road to Cuenca and Cuenca 2013-03-08 011 30X30 Blog

 

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