I have few remaining vices in life. I don’t smoke, drink, use drugs, gamble or even eat meat, but when it comes to chocolate I am a self-confessed addict, so when master chocolatier Jeffrey Stern left a comment on my blog inviting me to “come by for some chocolate and to learn about the fine flavor cacao industry in Ecuador,” I could barely contain my excitement. Of course I was interested in his story – how a young man from San Diego ended up owning a gourmet chocolate factory in Ecuador – but I must confess it was the prospect of free samples that had me in a taxi, bound for his factory, the morning after arriving in Quito.
Stern came to his passion quite accidentally. He arrived in Ecuador fresh out of college in 1994, newly hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Two years later, disenchanted with the integrity of foreign aid work, he returned to the United States with his Ecuadorian wife, Maria, and went back to school to pursue his interest in culinary arts. After graduating in 2002 he worked for restaurants, catering services, and as a personal chef, but it was his part time position in a chocolate shop that changed his life forever. “I got really interested in chocolate and started playing around with other methods and creations,” says Stern.
About that time, he and his wife and two children decided to come back to Quito for a visit. “At the time I had no idea that Ecuador is the world’s largest producer of fine grade cacao,” Stern admitted. He checked out the local chocolate stores looking for new ideas and soon learned that Ecuador was the leading source of Arriba Nacional Cacao, a native bean that produces the world’s most flavorful chocolate. Shortly afterward the couple decided to relocate to Quito and open a gourmet chocolate factory that they named Gianduja Chocolates.
I arrived mid-morning and knocked on the steel door marked only by the address Stern had provided. He buzzed me in and met me at the door of his tiny shop, from which emanated the most heavenly smell on earth – melted chocolate. Maria and the firm’s only employee were hard at work, placing chocolate ganache squares on metal rollers that carried the bonbons beneath a drenching machine in a scene eerily reminiscent of the famous “I Love Lucy” episode. When the chocolate-coated bonbons bounced out the other side, small squares of plastic known as “transfers” were applied to the top of each piece. Some transfers sport multi-colored designs in cocoa butter; the plastic is pressed into place on top of the hot bonbon and peeled off when the chocolate has cooled, transferring the design to the candy. In this case, however, Stern was using a transfer with a geometric design that left a checkerboard design on the finished chocolates.
An hour into the interview and tour, my mouth was watering and I was beginning to wonder if samples would be offered. Something in my face must have given me away, for Stern suddenly grinned and asked, “Would you like to taste one?” He handed me a bonbon that could not be sold because the transfer had accidentally been applied upside down. “It’s one of our specialties, blackberry pate de fruit (a jelly made from the local Mora berry), topped with a milk chocolate ganache and enrobed in 70% dark chocolate made from pure Nacional cacao beans.” My eyes rolled back in my head and I almost swooned. It was the best chocolate I have ever tasted. Read More
If you’re looking for a party, don’t go to Puerto Lopez, Ecuador. The loudest noise I heard during my week stay in this tiny coastal village was a rooster crow and many of the shops that cater to tourists were closed during the week. But after eight days of cruising in heavy seas around the Galapagos Islands, I needed a quiet place where I could drop anchor and let the ground stop rocking. Puerto Lopez turned out to be the perfect choice.
I arrived in darkness after a five-hour bus ride, took a 50-cent moto-taxi to my hotel, dragged my weary carcass to my room and collapsed into bed. The next morning I wound through spectacular gardens at Hosteria Mandala to the main lodge and sank into a chair on the wrap-around deck. Spread before me, as far as I could see in either direction, was a stretch of pristine golden beach dotted with precisely planted palms spaced perfectly for hammocks. I sighed contentedly and kicked off my shoes.
This sleepy little fishing village located in the center of Ecuador’s coastline is best known as a gateway to other attractions. A short ride to the north are beautiful Los Frailes Beach in Machililla National Park and the indigenous community of Agua Blanca. I visited both in one day, starting with Agua Blanca. Residents of this communal village are all descendants of the Manteña Culture that inhabited the area from 800 AC to 1532 A.C. They provide personal tours of a small museum that houses a collection of artifacts dating back to 3500 B.C., all of which were discovered in archeological digs around the area. After the museum, a half-hour walk through brittle forests and a bone-dry river bed led to an unexpected sulfur lagoon, the last remnant of an eroded volcanic caldera. Gratefully, I stripped down to my swimsuit and began spreading mud from the bottom of the spring on every square inch of exposed skin. The slate-colored clay dried quickly in the sun and I jumped in the warm water to wash it away.
Later that afternoon, refreshed from my swim and sporting silky smooth, baby soft skin, my moto-taxi driver whisked me to Los Frailes Beach, part of the greater Machalilla National Park. At the end of a short sand path I mounted a low rise and a surveyed a perfect crescent of white sand. A lone sun umbrella, gleaming sea-foam green in the dazzling midday light, canted toward the ocean at the edge of the surf. I sank into the powdery sand and wriggled my toes, reveling in the feeling of having the exquisite beach all to myself.
Another day I headed south to the tiny fishing commune of Salango and its small but impressive museum, the first in-situ museum in Ecuador. Its extraordinary collection of authentic pottery and artifacts tells the story of pre-Columbian peoples who inhabited what is today known as the Spondylus Route. As early as 3500 B.C., coastal inhabitants valued the Spondylus shell for its vibrant red color, diving to great depths to find the coveted mollusk. Initially used to craft elaborate necklaces and highly polished ornamental pieces, Spondylus eventually was as highly valued as gold is today. In addition to being great divers, the ancients of Salango were excellent navigators. Abundant sources of balsa wood and the cultivation of cotton allowed them to develop elaborate balsa wood rafts, in which they sailed from the southern tip of Chile up to present-day Acapulco, diffusing their new ideas and technologies to the diverse people with whom they came into contact and spreading the use of Spondylus as a currency. Read More
While my words may have painted an intriguing picture of the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, there is nothing like video to get a true feel for a place, so I’ve put together a video of many of the animals I saw during my recent cruise and set it to music. Hope you enjoy.
Ecoventura kindly hosted the author’s visit to the Galapagos in Ecuador. However, the receipt and acceptance of complimentary items/services received will never influence the content, topics, or posts in this blog. I write the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In this case, I highly recommend Ecoventura, not only for their excellent facilities and the smaller, intimate size of their yachts, but also for their devotion to conservation.
After five days of sailing and shore visits to eight different islands, our naturalists suddenly announced that we hadn’t yet “seen” the Galapagos. Though the islands are famous for uber-friendly sea lions and Blue-Footed Boobies that perform a unique dance as part of their mating ritual, they are best known for their giant land tortoises. Even the name of the archipelago derives from these behemoths. The first humans to visit, 16th century Spanish sailors, dubbed the islands Galapagos, a reference to a type of saddle that resembled the shells of the tortoises. The name stuck and so did the fascination. No visit to these remote volcanic islands is complete without seeing these giant lumbering creatures.
The following day our yacht anchored off Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz and we boarded a bus for the lush highlands where the giant land tortoises spend most of their year. Stepping quietly through thick grasses, we approached the slow moving creatures from behind so as not to startle them, since they are one of very few species in the Galapagos that exhibit a fear of humans. Considering that their original numbers, estimated to have been in the 250,000 range, were reduced to a mere 3,000 as a result of uncontrolled hunting, it is amazing that they tolerate our presence at all. Most withdrew into their shells as we drew near but a few continued to munch contentedly on the thick, juicy grass and one even stuck its neck out all the way to check out my sister when she squatted down nearby.
Later that same afternoon, at the Charles Darwin Research Center, we learned about ongoing efforts to save the various species of Galapagos tortoises, two of which are already extinct and an additional two that are still in severe danger of extinction. In 1965, on Santa Cruz Island, the Charles Darwin Research Foundation began a breeding and repatriation program for the giant tortoises of Pinzón Island. Over the ensuing years, efforts were expanded to include threatened populations on other islands, including Española, where the population of 15 tortoises had remained static for a number of years.
When the government decided to eradicate the invasive population of rats on Española they removed the remaining tortoises to the Research Center, hoping a controlled environment would induce them to reproduce. But all efforts failed; for some reason the males refused to mate. They had almost given up hope when the San Diego Zoo called with an unexpected bit of news. Read More
I have always felt an affinity with wild animals and they, likewise, seem inordinately attracted to me. On a visit to the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York this summer, a black racer snake crawled across my foot. On safari in the Serengeti of Africa we encountered a lion sleeping with his head hidden behind a rock. I politely asked him to sit up for a photo. My guide’s snigger turned to amazement when the lion sat up regally and looked directly at me. After snapping a few photos I thanked the huge male and he laid back down.
Of all my wildlife encounters around the world, none have been more astounding than those with sea lions in the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador. Sea lions have a reputation as curious animals who often investigate divers. Last year in Mexico a family of sea lions checked me out from a respectful distance as I snorkeled in the cold blue waters off the coast of La Paz, Mexico. But in the Galapagos, these sleek brown animals collected by the hundreds on beaches and lay across trails, completely indifferent to humans. On land it was usually not a problem to maintain the six foot distance required between man and animal, though at times our diversions took us through boulder fields and prickly vegetation. In the water, however, it was another story.
Can’t view the above YouTube video about sea lions in the Galapagos Islands? Click here.
Video by Bret Love and Mary Gabbett, courtesy of GreenGlobalTravel.com
One day my sister and I snorkeled around a point and swam into a cove surrounded by submerged rocks where a lone sea lion frolicked. He torpedoed back and forth and swam circles around us, inching ever closer. We twisted and turned, trying to keep him in view, but he was just too fast for us. I popped to the surface and yelled for the rest of our group to join us. Instead of being threatened by our larger numbers, the sea lion seemed energized. Time and again he broke the surface for air and nose-dived to the bottom. Playfully, he began exhaling as he raced around us, encasing us in a cylinder of bubbles that began as giant oval pockets and broke into a million swirling, iridescent pinpoints that slowly rose to the surface. Though I don’t have an underwater camera, one of my fellow writers did and he very graciously allowed me to show the above video.
Later that week, rather than snorkel or kayak, I opted for a trip to a gorgeous white sand beach on Chinese Hat. After a swim in the crystalline turquoise waters I settled down on my towel and was soon fast asleep. A shout from our naturalist, Ceci Guerrero, woke me up. “Bobbie, get up. Don’t touch, just look.” (with three Barbaras on the trip, I had been dubbed Bobbie). Two young female sea lions were waddling up the sand toward me. Curious, one of them touched my thigh with its nose while the other went around my back side. I turned to follow the antics of the one at my rear, unaware of what was happening at the shore, until Guerrero yelled again. “Watch out Bobbie! Look behind you.” A giant bull had chased away a young male and herded these two young females onto the beach, intending to add them to his harem. Sensing that I was a new threat, he rose from the ocean and headed toward me. The ensuing series of photos taken by Ceci show what happened better than I can put into words.
Our panga motored to within a few feet of a nondescript crescent beach backed by jagged, guano-encrusted rock cliffs. Though it looked like a thousand other beaches, its unremarkable appearance didn’t temper my excitement, for this was Darwin Bay on the island of Genovese in the Galapagos Islands, one of the most iconic natural destinations in the world. I hopped out into calf-high water and followed our naturalist up the sand trail and into an arid landscape of prickly pear cactus and dense mangroves. Balls of brilliant white fluff peered out from nests that were little more than vague piles of sticks heaped in the mangrove roots. Juvenile Great Frigatebirds, Nazca Boobies and the rarer Red-Footed Boobies examined us with curiosity but made no attempt to flee or even hide, though they were close enough to reach out and touch. Galapagos Doves with red feet and startlingly blue eyes hopped around on the ground, indifferent to our intrusion. On the rocks, pairs of Swallow-Tailed Doves trained red-ringed eyes on us as they preened, while Yellow-Crowned Herons raised their distinctive head feathers as they stilt-walked through iridescent turquoise tidal pools.
The Galapagos Islands are famous as the place where Charles Darwin developed the theory of evolution by natural selection during his voyage aboard the HMS Beagle in 1861-65, but they enjoy a near mythical status as a sanctuary for exotic animals that have never learned to fear humans. Indeed, during our walks around Genovese and on every subsequent visit to other islands in the archipelago, the animals seemed completely unruffled by our presence. Piles of marine iguanas basked in the sun, paying no heed as we squatted down to film them spitting excess salt from their bodies. Ages-old mating rituals were performed, as if for our pleasure: Male Magnificent Frigatebirds puffed up a red sack around their gullet and spread their immense wings, while Blue-Footed Boobies raised their colorful feet in a dance designed to woo females. One afternoon we spotted an enormous Short-Eared Owl napping in a lava crevice; as we gawped he perused us through yellow slitted eyes, raised one giant claw to scratch, then nonchalantly went back to sleep. Sea lions frolicked with us and marine turtles munched on seagrass as we snorkeled. Even the schools of tiny silver fish, who turn collectively as if sharing a single consciousness, seemed less skittish in the Galapagos, daring to touch my extended hand.
Prior to arriving in the Galapagos I believed that its animals were unafraid because they had never been threatened by man. My assumption could not have been more incorrect. In 1535, Fray Tomas de Berlanga, a missionary whom the King of Spain had named Bishop of Panama, was sailing home to inform the king about lands recently conquered from the Incas. Off the coast of what is now Colombia, they were becalmed and forced to drift with the currents. On March 10 land was finally sighted; they had discovered the Galapagos. Berlanga later provided His Majesty with the first written account of the islands:
“…since the ship had only enough water for two days, it was agreed to lower a boat and go ashore for water and grass for the horses, once ashore, nothing more was found but sea lions and turtles and tortoises so large that each could carry a man on top of itself, and many iguanas that are like serpents. On a second island, there were the same conditions as on the first (…) many birds like those from Spain, but so silly that they didn’t know how to flee, and many were caught by hand…”
Man, the greatest predator the Galapagos have ever known, had arrived. Read More