Rio Muchacho is an organic farm located some 17 kilometers inland from Canoa. ‘Organic’ has questionable validity in Melbournian circles, it seems everyone has a different idea on what being ‘organic’ means. We decided to go find out. A peaceful yet overly friendly Ghandi looking Ecuadorian man assisted us on our first night in Canoa to arrange the booking. Rio Muchachos conveniently has an office in town and it wasn’t long before we were due to start, 9am, the very next morning.
After a groggy start after an interrupted sleep due to nearby beach bars, we arrived late to the office to no real consequence and a few people waiting to begin their tours as well; among them, Amy, a girl we’d met in Puerto Lopez. We all piled awkwardly into the back of a ute and before long we were hurtling along the highway and soon after, a patchwork dirt road, en route to the farm.
We were met at the gate by Nicola, a NZ ex-pat and her Ecuadorian husband Dario. She was handful with two kids on her hips as we were guided into their open-air, thatch and wood house. The house seemed busy with workers, volunteers and guests all running around; we were kind of dumped along a long communal dining table whilst everyone else sorted themselves out. We were shown to our lodgings by a dreamy 60 something ex-pat UK woman, which happened to be above the main living room of the house, accessible by a steep and rustic looking set of stairs, that could prove fatal on a dark night. We were essentially staying in an attic. The angled roof stooped close to the top of your head, and opened out at each end to an open balcony and a window formed by a collection of strategically placed trunk and branch clippings. Beds were a knocked together bed frame with foam mattresses and tired old sheets. The room was completely open. Surrounded by tropical plants in a tropical climate with no mosquito nets. ‘OMG’ Rebecca mouthed to me. ‘Toughen up you baby’ I said to myself looking around at the spider webs over hanging my foam sleeping platform (hardly a bed). ‘Ahh we’ll be right, drop your stuff and lets join the tour’ I said.. not believing a word of it.
Dario took us into a thatch classroom constructed in the grounds out the front of the house. There he explained the curious bio-diversity that had us stumped from Day 1 in Ecuador. Essentially from where we were in Ecuador, we were right in the middle of two converging global currents, the Humbolt current from the south and the El Nino current from the Equator forms unique conditions that give Ecuador it’s bio diversity. It’s dry-forest regions and tropical forests living side-by-side. This gives the farm the unique ability to be able to utilise the conditions to farm a wide variety of crops. Not all crops would normally be sustainable under the variety of conditions however Rio Muchachos has developed several systems of farming to increase sustainability odds. Foremost to the plan are the beastly pigs kept solely for waste production. The farm is completely vegetarian and even the farms dogs must comply. Which is probably why the looked haggard and sick. The pigs are kept fed and happy, and their **** is collected and processed in numerous ways. Firstly it’s pumped through an artificial stomach, simulating digestion and separating the fluid and solid matter. The bi-products are methane gas which is produced in enough volume to support heating of water and cooking for up to 50 guests; electricity generation, and finally the solidish / liquidish bi-product is used as a power fertiliser. Any remaining waste is thrown in a pit to decompose over a period of about 45 days or so during which the digestible parts are picked out by chickens and redeposited in the pit. There’s 3 pits which are cycled as required to ensure a constant supply. For that really good compost you need a worm farm, and to ensure that the worms have plenty of soil and waste to work through you can place a Guinea pig farm above the soil and ensure there is a grate wide enough so that their waste can drop through. To top it all off, you want to make sure you play plenty of Ecuadorian salsa to the pigs and Guinea pigs to make sure they’re digesting efficiently.
We were then shown the guest toilets which are dry toilets, as in, there’s a wooden platform with a nailed on seat, and a hole which drops into a pit. Once you’ve deposited your donation, you can scatter it with saw-dust which completely absorbs the odor and begins the decomposition process. I was terrified to ask, but I supposed, nay assumed that they used that waste too.. for what I didn’t ask because we ate just about everything on the farm, but I’m pretty sure I read something about pupu and papayas. And we sure did eat plenty of papayas. DELICIOUS! Evidently human **** is a pretty poor fertiliser; I’d be more inclined to not use it for anything in that case, but I guess papayas don’t need a lot of love to produce decent fruit. Spiders must love it too cos we counted some 7 of them on the toilet door alone that night.
Grey water is filtered as well, and reused for washing dishes and that sort of stuff. Drinking water is extracted from a nearby well and rainwater, filtered and presented to guests.
After the introduction we took a small hike up the road and visited an ancient fig tree that looked like something out of Avatar. It was our first introduction to our guide Oscar, who would inevitably take us through the remaining days (which at that point, seemed like a century). Oscar spoke German, English and French, and a regional dialect of a remote Norwegian village. No he didn’t. He spoke Spanish and that was it. What a great way to re-enforce our learning. Thankfully, a fellow German tourist took the liberty of translating everything for us. Pride in the way I simply nodded knowingly ‘Tah.. yep.. of course’ my face must have read. Back near the house we ventured to the wood workroom and made ourselves some trendy coconut rings from the seeds of a nearby ancient coco-palm. Soon after we roasted some cocoa beans in a ceramic pan over an open fire, released them from their shells and ground them to make a rich chocolate sauce that we then poured over banana.
After a lunch at the communal table of yucca, rice, beans and a mysterious tea (designed to evoke more pupu from us, I’m sure).. it was the end of Day 1 of the tour and we said goodbye to our new found friends. We might have been a little clingy in the good-byes; I’m not sure, but we certainly did ask for a lot of Facebook details. But you know, being left with dreamy U.K woman, and ****-obsessed vegetarians isn’t really my idea of a great night in.
At least we had two fellow Aussies to fend off the dreamy U.K woman that night at dinner. Her bulging eyes and intense glare invoked when telling albeit amazing stories of travel in the region some 30 odd years ago. She’s written for just about every travel journal that’s even penned anything about Ecuador and ran her own tour agency, reportedly the first in Ecuador, for a bit before getting more involved in community work. Impressive stuff.
I shifted my pillow further down the foam mattress, away from the sloping wall of spider-webs. I was sleeping half-way down the bed, but at least I was minimising the risk of spiders dropping on my face whilst I slept. If I could sleep; I was doused in so much Aeroguard my nostrils twinged with every breath in; and still the mosquitoes hovered. Waiting patiently until I fell asleep. In the end I got maybe 3 or 4 bites but I was exhausted from the battle of maintaining a vigilance over them all night. Rebecca hadn’t slept much better.
But we had some horses to ride, and a waterfall to swim in, so lets crack on. First on the agenda was the harvesting of some ingredients for lunch. We visited the extensive and vast garden of fruits and vegetables and grabbed some carrots, turnips, lettuce and banana leaf.
Back at the kitchen, the resident master of the cocina prepared a wonderful lunch for us using the ingredients..We prepared the banana leaf by sweating it over an open flame and before we knew it we were pouring a beautiful rice and bean mixture into the leaves and wrapping them up to take with us on our 8 kilometer horse journey.
You know I reckon they should have be able to fashion anatomically moulded saddles by now. How long have people been riding and using horses? Given some peoples lines of work, they’d be in the saddle all day, so why not make it comfortable. I don’t know. But my saddle had a really thinly spread layer of padding covered by a thin strip of leather over a wooden base. Not all that comfortable on a jiggly horse like mine. Irrespective of that small inconvenience the trail was beautiful, intersecting with the river at times, closed in by nearby cliff edges and river reeds. Ecuadorian kids playing in the river screamed ‘Hola’, and parties of families danced along to Mr so-and-so’s stereo system; simply a speaker strapped to a ute, along the trail. We stopped at an abandoned house, formerly owned by local conservationist, now dead; we stopped on his verandah for our banana leaf lunches. It’s possible to use the fruits of the mate tree to fashion cups, bowls and spoons and we’d become accustomed to using this sort of tableware to eat. Actually quite efficient. By the end of lunch we were tasked to climb a steep hill through rainforest jungle (spiders) to chance a look at the local community of howler monkeys. We must have climbed up some 200 meters over a distance of less than 50 meters and sweating and wet at the top we clung desperately to the chance of seeing some cheeky primates.
‘No hay’ said Oscar.. Rebeccas face said it all. Her dicky-knee giving her all sorts of grief on the way up. So we simply ventured back down and climbed again onto the saddle for the trip back.
We’d been blessed with some serious midday sun so by the time we arrived at a nearby waterfall we were ready for a good swim. Unfazed by the potential for parasites and urinary tract flukes I jumped in and enjoyed the refreshing downpour of water, cascading over the rocks. Oscar wasn’t swimming and Rebecca didn’t bring her bikini so I swam by myself, doing all those cliche poses you do under waterfalls.
The second night we slept a bit better, perhaps adapting to our surroundings, though a bat did manage to get in the house at around 2:30am and flutter around hopelessly. The third day we got up, harvested some yucca from the garden and began to make a typical yucca tart. You can do this by first washing the yucca roots, grating them, squeezing the water from them, and then by combining sugar and natural colouring agent from another local plant you can them shape and bake the mixture into a delicious savory tart, At this point we were good to head down to the river at the bottom of the property an essentially watch Oscar dig under the river bank and lift fallen palm leaves in search of fresh water shrimp (or yabbies as we’d call them back home). We managed to find a couple of babies that we placed in a screw-top bucket that looked more like a bio-hazard container. I managed to completely lose a yabbie when I filled the so-called container with water so my starting score was -1. Oscar managed to fill the container with some serious contenders including what looked like a cat-fish. One of those freaky water-hopping tarantulas got such a fright when we moved some fallen palm trees that he ran right over to my hairy leg and hid.
We ran the catch upstairs where Oscar prepared a delicious sauce of oranges, sugar and some weird green stuff. After washing them they were thrown straight into the pan where they changed from a camo green to a bright orange in colour. Except the fish. I was tasked with saving his life, so whilst all this delicious cooking action was going on, I was frantically running down to the river, fish-in-hand, desperate to free a dying soul. After plopping him back in the water, he suddenly kicked to life and swam off up-stream to his awaiting children and sickly wife.
After a delicious snack of river camarones we prepared a facial mask from a local block of clay and aloe vera. I felt really gay but I must say, I had some fabulously smooth skin afterward.
At that point it was time to leave the farm, we were due to head back into Canoa to some more resistive bed materials and hopefully less mosquitoes. We had grown to enjoy our surroundings, despite the solitary shower we had during the time, which smelt like methane anyway. The owners were a little bit absent the whole time meaning we didn’t get to say a proper goodbye but we’d grown fond of Oscar, and his survival skills and jovial laughter.
Canoa then seemed luxurious as we again checked in at Hostal Bambu and I smashed down the greasiest, fattiest hamburger and liters of beer to compensate for the lost calories over the past few days