Our Visit to a Sustainable Organic Ranch.
When our family looks for day trips and travel excursions, we do so with two young children in mind. Our children are small, just 2 and 4 years old. Family friendly activities are important for the pleasure of each of us, yet we strive to find unique and adventurous attractions. Life in Ecuador is a bit different in terms of tourism resources. Unless you want to hit the big tourist traps, there are not a lot of resources for off the beaten path type destinations. The locations are certainly here, but it takes a lot of digging and prodding, and reliance on locals to find out about lesser known locales.
Recently we set out to find an attraction in a rural setting, with plenty of interest for both us and the kids alike. This was the first of such an outing for us, in Ecuador, and we really had absolutely no idea what to expect. The ranch was not a recommendation from friends, but was a place that I stumbled across online quite awhile back. It was indeed a bit tricky to find, but the temporary disorientation through the rural landscape of Manabi was both charming and well worth the effort.
Rio Mucho is an organic ranch located just inland from Canoa, on a heavily wooded expanse of several hundred acres. It’s a bit of an oasis for the weary traveler, a respite from the hustle and bustle of the cities and tourist sites. This charming sustainable farm is a must-see for the eco traveler, vegan traveler, traveling families, and anyone who might be looking for an in-depth look at the lifestyle of rural Ecuador. The ranch provides affordable day trips, overnight packages with sleeping accommodations and incredible farm to table food experiences.
We had such a wonderful day full of adventures and unique insights about sustainable living and life, that it’s hard to believe it all happened in just one day. We embarked on a day trip nearly a month ago, and our kids still have not stopped talking about it. I never imagined that the day’s activities would be as child friendly as they were, the ranch went above and beyond the call of duty, to ensure that the day as was memorable for our children, as it as for us. Quite honestly, we can hardly wait to return again.
Upon our arrival, the owner and tour guide led us into the ranch’s communal area, an outdoor space with sustainable play equipment, hammocks floating from the trees, a bamboo playhouse, gardens, and the most fabulous open to the elements kitchen and dining room I have ever seen. It felt like home from the moment we stepped within the gates, and we were instantly captivated by the nonchalance, accept-you-as-you-are vibe that envelops the grounds. Children and backpackers, ranch hands, and free range animals flitted about the place, like butterflies freed from captivity into a humble reserve. It is a peaceful place, with little rigor or regard for schedules and itinerary. The ideal circumstances for our little ones, a place welcome to explore at will, yet with the potential to invite more depth at just a moment’s notice.
And so we did, we sat back and relaxed, and watched as the kids devoured every ounce of the setting. As our kids tumbled through the tire obstacles and climbed up the dangling ropes of an epic tree swing, our host graciously brought us the best coffee in the world! Served up in a shell from the seed of the matè tree, the black roasted coffee is grown and ground right there on the premises of the ranch. The land was formerly used as a coffee plantation in the heyday of the region’s trade, but experienced a quick and tragic decline as the neighboring country of Columbia stole the limelight some thirty or more years ago. Abandoned but not dismantled, many of the coffee bushes still thrive on the forest floor, beneath the towering native trees that have since claimed the land.
As we neared the bottom of our matè cups, we contemplated an extended walk through a meandering dirt road with several trickling river crossings. Our host mentioned that while the walk wasn’t strenuous, with toddlers, it could take upwards of an hour to explore and return. Luckily for us, since our move to Ecuador, our kids have been subjected to walking several miles every day. We knew it wouldn’t be a big deal, and we were sure it would be worth it when we learned that it would reward us with the opportunity to view a majestic, old fig tree. The walk was charming, and we were delighted when several of the resident children begged to hop along with us on our hike.
Our youngest (just 2 years old) squealed with excitement as he learned that he was about to embark on his first journey through the spooky forest; a real live jungle indeed! Oh, but it was so much more! Prior to the first river crossing, we were advised to remove our shoes or risk get them wet. At first, our children declined and opted to be carried across the trickle via Daddy, while I tiptoed behind. But then they saw how the local kids fared, running barefoot through the slippery rocks and beyond, through the dirt road, and even right into the forest. From then on it became a challenge for them, to see just how far they could get along with their bare soles smacking against the earth.
We crawled through barbed wire, hopped around cow patties, and stepped on the stones past several rushing streams. All before climbing up a hilly, densely wooded terrain with scarcely a path to follow. We brushed branches from our faces, and spiders from our toes, and quite suddenly found ourselves beneath the spindly trunk of nothing less than a fairy-tale tree. The whole lot of us spent a good amount of time there, at the base of this majesty, admiring the sheer size and mesmerizing green color of the trunk and branches. We poked sticks into the crannies and peered inside the crooks, seeking whatever it was to be sought. And then, we climbed! First my husband to the top, then each child a little way up, and then, finally me. From the second my toes pinched onto the slippery bark, I channeled my inner youth, and sped to the lofty first nook, as if I were my eight year old tree climbing self, all over again. I beamed down at my family, feeling the grin spread across my chin. I felt like a fairy up there, tiny and agile, and magical up in that fabulous fig tree.
We trotted the long, winding path all the way back to the base of the ranch, arriving just in time for lunch. Hungry, thirsty, and ready for respite, we piled onto the long wood, picnic tables beneath a palapa shelter. We were thrilled to find company there, several backpackers and ranch hands, all gathering together for a midday break. It was fabulous and fascinating to make small talk with these travelers from all corners of the earth. For the most part, they were wanderers seeking ecotourism and vegan travel destinations. I’d never even considered the existence of either! The conversation was unique and like-minded and we were so inspired by the numerous women solo travelers. We gobbled up the delectable organic, farm fresh offerings on the table, and anticipated the upcoming tour of the inner workings of the ranch.
Not long after our children jumped from the benches, they engaged in pretend ranch life among the other kids in the bamboo play hut. We had to yet to see this much independence in them, and we cherished the moments of their freedom, allowing them to explore and imagine to their fullest capabilities. Awhile later, we got the call for feeding time, the hour devoted to serving the livestock. Our children, still barefoot, traipsed through the maze that led us through pig pens, a hen composting site, guinea pig apartments, and even a worm garden. They were thrilled to get their hands dirty, mashing up the sloth for the organic pigs, a meal of oats and molasses! Giggles were incessant as they bravely pushed their buckets full of muck into the mangers. Then, they happily chased the hens past their prospective hiding places beneath hibiscus plants and banana trees. We trotted through the garden-like encampment for the livestock, as my husband stayed behind to get educated on the system used by the ranch to create their own propane gas.
When we exited from the working side of the property, we stopped to stroke a saddled horse, patiently waiting for some afternoon riders. As we whispered our promises to spend more time stroking her, we caught wind of a communal activity happening back at the kitchen site. Our tour guide mentioned that it was nearly time to begin making chocolate, and would we like to participate. For us, it was a unanimous vote established in a nanosecond. All four of us are perfectly willing to devour as much chocolate as you will let us, and we’d been waiting for the perfect opportunity to indulge in the infamous Ecuadorian chocolate.
The ranch cook started the preparations by establishing hot coals from a midday bonfire. Then we watched as whole, raw cocoa beans were added to a wooden skillet, and set to rest over the searing embers. Each of us took turns tossing the beans around, eager to be immersed in the intoxicating aroma of roasting cacao. It smells like everything you imagine it should, in one fell sweep. The scent is of love and richness, of holidays and home, of ice cream syrup and brownies, of childhood and romance. Imagine the darkest, sweetest chocolate you’ve ever tasted; and then multiply it times a million. And that is just the scent of it; there are no words for the actual experience of eating it.
After the careful dance of tossing the beans about, without burning or spilling them, we had to endure the agony of waiting for them to cool. The steaming bowl was set aside, to collect the passing breeze. We all vied for the spot closest to the waft, each of us hoping to be the one to taste the first edible piece. But, alas, there was much more to it than that. Once the pieces were deemed touchable, all of us gathered at the table to peel the shells, much like the way one frees peanuts from their skins. A pain staking, time-consuming task; of patience and perseverance to not be the one who pops some in her mouth. Then, back to the kitchen they went, to be ground up into a fine dust much like coffee, into what most of us know as cocoa powder. And simple as can be, after all that complexity, the Cook poured it into a pot with nothing more than a heavy dose of sugar and big splash of milk. We watched as the pot bubbled and gurgled, and then thickened to resemble the best of any brownie mixes. And then it was finally ladled out and dalloped over freshly cut papaya, served to us steaming in individual wooden bowls. It was impossible to wait another second, to avoid getting burnt by the steaming goop. But, burnt lips and tongues aside, the chocolate was divine, incomparable to anything existent in the modern, processed world. I’m sure it would be absolutely impossible to replicate a taste so rich and fresh and genuine. I’ll be the first to tell you; chocolate will never be the same.
In the midst of the roasting, and peeling, and boiling, it seemed that several hours went by. And in those moments we allowed ourselves and our children to get lost in time. We had little concept of the minutes or the parts of the day. The whole experience was so natural, warm and inviting, we had the feeling as if we’d been there a hundred times before. It was something like meeting old friends in new places, a strange familiarity between folks that have similar souls. We even rode the horse, as if she was our own, taking turns climbing aboard the sleek, soft saddle. Happily letting her lead us down that windy rural road. Our kids have little exposure or experience with horses, and often show strong signs of hesitation. But, on that day, each jumped on with ease, as if reuniting with an old friend.
Every moment of the day was incomparable to any other experience we’ve had thus far in Ecuador. We felt so genuinely appreciated and welcome, that it was quite hard to return home. We found ourselves fumbling and fidgeting as the sun began to fall, signaling the end of our time at the ranch. We inquired about camping, and even considered looking further into the accommodations. But, in the end, we climbed back into our truck, with promises to each other to make our return soon. As we bumped down the long lane back to the highway, our little ones drifted off to dreamland with happiness and dirt smeared on their faces. A sure sign of a successful day!