Category Archives: Manabi

Intertidal Gumdrops

Actinia edena

Beachcombing is especially fun when one stumbles across something new and unusual. These odd little red wine-colored gumdrops clinging to this coastal rocky outcropping are known as beadlet anemones (Actinia equina) and are found in various intertidal regions of the world including the central coast of Ecuador. The anemones I saw in the past were doughnut-shaped with retracted tentacles that were more visible, so anemones did not immediately come to mind when I saw these along the Manabi coast. When exposed to air, beadlet anemones retract their tentacles completely to conserve moisture and protect themselves. Underwater, their plant-like tentacles resembles succulent leaves.

Sea anemones are unusual creatures belonging to the invertebrate Cnidaria phylum. Cnida, also known as nematocysts, are stinging cells characteristic of animals in the Cnidaria phylum, which includes jellyfish and corals. These stinging mechanisms are used for protection and to stun and capture prey.

Beadlet anemones are aggressive little creatures that are easily provoked. A mere brush of another anemone’s tentacle will cause the anemone to expose specialized surface protrusions, known as acrorhagi or blue beads, which release stinging cells (nematocysts) as soon as they come into contact with their neighbor. This attack is often repeated until the beadlet anemone’s neighbor drops off the rock. Visible wounds appear as a result of such attacks.

These soft gelatinous polyps are carnivores and scavengers, eating crustaceans such as small crabs and copepods as well as dead larvae and crustacean remains. Beadlet anemones are found in the northeastern part of the Atlantic and in waters with a minimum salinity of 2.8% and temperatures ranging from 2˚F to 28˚C.


Ever Wonder Where Cashews Come From?

I love cashews, but, honestly, I never thought about how they grow, until my neighbor reached into the back of his produce-filled pickup truck and handed me an unusual gala apple-colored fruit with a little black nose sticking out of the top. The cashew apple is actually not considered a true fruit, but a pseudofruit. Of course, even after taking a bite, cashews didn’t immediately come to mind. When my neighbor told me that in some parts of the world people only eat the nuts, it became obvious that the little black nose was actually more cashew-shaped.

Cashew trees, Anarcardium occidentale, are native to Brazil and belong to the Anarcardiaceae (Sumac) family. Other well-known members of this family are the pistachio and mango. The word cashew is derived from the Brazilian Tupian language’s word for the plant, acajú. The Portuguese call it caju. In the 16th century, the Portuguese introduced the cashew tree from their Brazilian outpost to Mozambique and India to control erosion. The cashew’s commercial value wasn’t realized until the 19th century, when it started being planted in various tropical regions, including other parts of South America. More than 90% of the world’s cashew supply comes from Vietnam, Nigeria, India and Brazil. The United States, Netherlands and Germany are the primary cashew nut importers.

In Ecuador and Central America, the cashew apple, marañon in Spanish, is squeezed for juice or eaten fresh. In the El Salvadorian kitchen, it is commonly used in salads mixed with other fruits, such as apples and mamey. Generally, the seed (cashew nut) is discarded. In the United States and Europe, cashew nuts are commonly served alone, roasted and salted, as a tasty snack. In Thai cuisine, cashews are added to chicken and the Indian cultures mix cashews into salads, vegetables and lamb dishes. The cashew apple, which reminds me a bit of a persimmon, is also delicious, but the nuts are still my favorite.


Hi, my name is Manteñito and I’m a Nazca Booby. Sometimes, the other fledglings call me Big Bird. I’m pretty outgoing and enjoy getting to know new people. When the photographer took my photo I followed her down the trail and tried to start up a conversation, but my parents wouldn’t stop yelling at me until I returned. Oh well, when I get older, and can fly, I will be able to do what I want.

My parents and I live on the Escalera Trail on La Plata Island, located approximately twenty-four miles northwest of Salango, a small coastal fishing village on the Ecuadorian mainland. The Escalera Trail is a fairly urban area, as far as bird habitats are concerned. Our species always lives in colonies. Most of my relatives live on La Plata Island, either on the Machete Trail, to the west, or the Escalera Trail on the eastern part of the island. I also have quite a few relatives living in the Galapagos. The Escalera Point area is fairly quiet, so we do well here. Occasionally, we see people, but not as often as our cousins on the Machete Trail, which is the trail most tourists take on La Plata Island. The Machete Trail is only a 2.5-hour walk as opposed to Escalera’s 3.5 hour walk.

You’re probably wondering how we got our name. The “booby” part originates from the Spanish word bobo, which means fool or clown. We are an easy-going, comical type of species and our parents do this funny mating dance. All of these reasons are why they call us bobos. Nazca is a region and town in southern Peru named after the ancient Nazca culture that occupied that area between 300 B.C. and 800 A.D. It also refers to the Nazca tectonic plate under the eastern part of the Pacific Ocean, to the west of South America. The northwest corner of the Nazca Plate includes the Galapagos Islands. We are named “Nazca” Boobies, because our species is located primarily in the Nazca Plate region.

Sula granti is out Latin name. For a long time, we were considered a sub-species of the Masked Booby (Sula dactylatra), but, recently, we were declared our own species. One physical difference is that we have orange beaks and the Masked Boobies have yellow beaks. Our genus name, Sula, means “valley of the birds” in the Honduran dialect of Usula. We belong to the bird family Sulidae, which is made up of boobies and gannets. We all live near the coast and are called plunge-divers because we drop down from the sky like a missile and dive anywhere from three to six feet into the water to catch our meal. Our efficient diving technique allows us to catch the fish before they even know what hit them. “Granti” probably refers to the name of a researcher who studied us. By the way, humans also have a Latin name, Homo sapiens. Homo means man and sapiens means wise or knowing.

My Older Cousin

The Nazca species is fairly united and generally lives in colonies near the sea, but fishes further offshore than, say, the Blue-footed Boobies. Our parents build our nests inland on flat unvegetated ground. So, when there are heavy rains and the plants grow like crazy, like earlier this year, real estate is at a premium. Many adults build their nests on or very close to the trail. Fortunately, the tourists are usually considerate and walk off the trail through the vegetation, around us.

After we are dropped out in the form of an egg, our parents take turns keeping us warm until we emerge, approximately forty-two days later. Of course, when we hatch we don’t know how to fly, just like humans aren’t born walking. During the time we are learning how to fly we are called fledglings, similar to how human babies are called toddlers, while they are learning to walk. In order to fly, we need to takeoff from the edge of a cliff. So, there are many well-worn paths leading to cliff edges.

Me and My Mom

Our moms usually lay two eggs. One egg is a backup, known as an “insurance” egg. If the first-born is healthy and isn’t snatched up by a local predator, such as a sea gull, it is the only chick fed and nurtured by the parents. The second hatchling only has the opportunity to live if the first-born doesn’t survive. If the first-born makes it, our unfortunate sibling is abandoned and left to die. It’s a jungle out there and, in our world, it really is survival of the fittest. On a brighter note, both our parents are dedicated to raising whoever remains until we are capable of being independent. Generally, we require 100-120 days of constant care before we can venture out on our own. As with humans, there is a high divorce rate among the Nazca species. Over 50% of Nazca females eventually end up with another mate after a few breeding seasons, so we have lots of stepbrothers and stepsisters.

Me and My Parents

Curiously Delicious Caimito

Caimito Inside

The other day my neighbor brought by lemons, oranges and caimitos (Chrysophyllum cainito) from his orchard. I already envisioned the fresh squeezed juice from the lemons and oranges, but the caimitos were something new. My curiosity got the better of me, so I immediately sliced one in half and scooped out the slippery fruit inside with a teaspoon. The skin is inedible. It had such a unique and delicious flavor that I continued until I finished all three. The property where I am living also has caimito trees, but they aren’t ready to eat yet.

A caimito (pronounced “kai-mee-toe,” with an emphasis on the “mee”) looks like a dark fig on the outside, but then, when you slice it open, it resembles a white creamy plum with a black coffee bean-like seed inside. The taste reminds me of cherimoya. The white sappy substance is probably responsible for making your lips sticky. It’s not an unpleasant stickiness, but more like a tacky tape feel, which goes away after a few lip smacks. The caimito belongs to the tropical Sapotaceae family and is also known as a star apple. When cut in half transversely, rather than lengthwise, the white part of the fruit reveals a star shape.

Unripe Caimito

A Message to My Manabi Roommate

Manabi gecko

Oh, little roommate clinging to the wall above my head

I hope your little suction cups don´t fail you

and bring you tumbling down into my bed.

There is enough room for two in this place,

but I´d appreciate if you stayed away from my face.

You’re so sweet and quiet up there on the wall,

just please, please, please don’t ever fall.

Clinging to the wall

Ecuadorian Tagua Nuts


It may look like a coffee bean, chocolate, Jordan almond or caramel, but the tagua nut is actually the endosperm of a seed that comes from the palm species Phytelephas aequatorialis aka. Palandra aequatorialis, or the species Phytelephas macrocarpa. The locals call it cade (pronounced ka-day). The Phytelephas species are found in the lush lowlands of Ecuador, Colombia and Panama. In Ecuador, the primary tagua producing species are P. aequatorialis and P. macrocarpa. P. aequatorialis produces tagua year round, but the seed of the Phytelephas genus, in general, tends to be most abundant during the dry season, June-November. Along the coast between Santa Elena and Salango, where many of the seeds are harvested and the tagua crafts are made, the “dry” season is often accompanied by a light mist, garua in Spanish. Most cade prefer humid and shady areas, but the P. macrocarpa tolerates a dryer climate.

Phytelephas comes from the Greek words phyton, which means plant, and elephas meaning elephant. The white hard seeds of this genus are also known as vegetable ivory, a sustainable alternative to animal ivory. The ivories’ characteristics differ primarily in that tagua softens when soaked in water for long periods of time, while animal ivory stays hard. During Victorian times, tagua was used to manufacture decorated thimbles, dice and jewelry. Before plastic buttons became popular, tagua was a key material in the button industry. In the late 1800’s, factories in London and Birmingham imported two to three million nuts annually. During the 1920’s, 20% of all buttons made in the United States were made out of tagua. Today, Patagonia, Smith & Hawken and various fashion houses, especially from Italy, continue to use tagua buttons for their clothing. Ecuador is the only exporter of the tagua disks used to produce buttons. Annually, Ecuador exports approximately 100,000 metric tons of tagua. Vegetable ivory is also used to craft jewelry, tiny sculptures and in the design of home decoration products.

Tagua Country

Exotic birds chirp as the guide and I slosh down a muddy winding road into tagua country. The locals regularly make the trek into the damp forests to search for tagua ready to be harvested. Cade are slow growing, single-trunked palms that mature after fifteen years and grow up to forty-five feet tall with a trunk measuring approximately one foot in diameter. They often grow together in stands called taguales. The palm is dioecious, meaning that the male and female plants are separate. Male inflorescences emerge from the leaves and dangle like long thin pine cone textured sausages that eventually turn grey. The female flowering heads, known as mocochas or cabezas, are made up of approximately twenty segments called pencos, which resemble enormous irregularly shaped dark brown spiked strawberries. Every year, the female cade produces ten to twelve mocochas, each measuring about one foot in diameter. The penco segments are concentrically united, creating the mococha, which holds 100-200 individual tagua nuts.

Male inflorescence Mococha Penco

The germination of the tagua seed takes approximately eight months. Early in the seed formation process, the penco carries five or more large round clear gelatinous blobs safely cradled in a radial pattern in their individual natural round holders. Eventually, the gelatinous blobs harden and turn into hard creamy white seeds surrounded by a thin brown skin covered by a yellow fruit. The fruit is eaten by deer and rodents from the agouti species, locally known as guatuso, and the guanta, referring specifically to the paca (Agouti paca), the second-largest rodent (the largest is the semi-aquatic South American capybara). When the seeds ripen, the mococha falls to the ground. A mature cade is capable of producing 80 to 130 pounds of tagua nuts.

Gelatinous stage Yellow fruit Tagua encasement Tagua cross section

The tagua nuts are usually extracted from the penco at the site where they are found. They are then bagged in netting and transported by mule or bicycle to be dried and hardened for eight to twelve weeks.

Tagua Harvesters

The tagua is versatile and can be processed in various ways, depending on the design of the end product. The dark skin of the tagua is left on and polished for the chocolate or coffee bean look. Another technique is polishing the tagua until a lovely veined design is exposed, revealing the underlying creamy white seed beneath the dark tagua skin. The pure white stage is reached when the dark brown skin is completely sanded down. Most artisans use the creamy white seeds to craft the tiny tagua sculptures. As the tagua ages it turns into a warm antique cream color. Depending on the desired look, the white tagua may be fried, resulting in a caramel-like appearance. For this effect, the nuts are literally fried in oil in a frying pan. This technique is used primarily to make jewelry.

White Tagua

Each tagua nut style comes in small, medium and large sizes. The tagua size chosen by the craftspeople depends on the figurine being carved or the product being made. Larger animals may be carved out of more than one nut and assembled accordingly. Varying qualities of products exist. The craftspeople working with the organization Pro Pueblo have a fine reputation for crafting varied and exquisite tagua figurines, from leatherback turtles to white-tipped sicklebill hummingbirds. Pro Pueblo is an example of a fair trade non-profit organization working with Ecuadorian artisans to create high quality sustainable products using local materials. The process of harvesting, designing and creating products out of tagua provides people with jobs and cuts down on the use of animal ivory.

3 Pro Pueblo Rays


Festival de la Balsa Manteña

La Balsa

Last Friday, I went to the Festival de la Balsa Manteña in Salango, a small fishing village in the central coastal Ecuadorian province of Manabi. Balsa means raft in Spanish and is also the name of a strong, but light, wood of which many of the rafts are made. Balsa wood is also used as an insulator and for building models, Ping-Pong paddles and surfboards.


Manteño is the name of one of the two cultures that inhabited the central Ecuadorian coastal region from 1000 A.D. until 1534, when the Spanish took over. The other culture is the Huancavila. The names are commonly hyphenated, Manteño-Huancavilca, since the two cultures were contemporaries. The Manteño occupied the coastal region of Manabi, north of the Santa Elena Peninsula up to the coast west of Santo Domingo de los Colorados. The Huancavilcas inhabited the Santa Elena Peninsula. The Peninsula was just declared its own province a few days ago. Last week, the Santa Elena Peninsula belonged to the Guayas province to the East.

Five thousand years ago, the Valdivia culture started using small balsa rafts to fish and conduct long distance trade with northern Peru. The Valdivia culture originated on the Santa Elena Peninsula and is one of the oldest American cultures. They occupied the central Ecuadorian coast from 4000 B.C.-1100 B.C. and are one of the first cultures in the Americas to settle permanently and start making ceramics. During the Manteño-Huancavilca period, there were balsas of all sizes. The most common rafts had five large logs strapped together. Others were constructed with seven or nine logs. Some balsas were even large enough to hold up to fifty people. The smaller rafts were usually used for fishing while the larger rafts were used to transport merchandise and people. The sketch below nicely illustrates the design of a typical balsa raft.

Based on a study done by the Royal Spanish Navy in the 18th century, the balsa rafts are just as capable of sailing in adverse conditions as any other ship. One of the main advantages of the balsa raft is that it does not drift off course easily. This is due to the raft’s guara steering mechanisms. The guaras are approximately nine-foot long boards that measure one and a half feet wide and are positioned vertically between the main beams at the head and stern of the raft. Up to five or six guaras are used per raft. Pushing and pulling the boards in and out of deep water keep the boat on course.

Sixty years ago, on 7 August 1947, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl and five crew members set out from the port of Callao in Peru for the Polynesian Tuamotu Islands in what is undoubtedly the most internationally famous balsa vessel of all time, the Kon-Tiki. Their goal was to prove that there is a real possibility that the Pre-Colombians crossed the Pacific in a vessel as primitive as a raft made of balsa wood. After taking 101 days to make the 4,300-mile voyage, Heyerdahl proved that such an extensive journey via balsa was indeed possible.

Salango Balsa Manteño Festival

Sixteen years ago, several archaeologists working at various sites in and around Salango teamed up with a group of locals to kickoff the first Balsa Manteño Festival. The idea was to revive a part of the ancient cultural heritage that began to disappear in 1534 when Francisco Pizarro conquered the Incas and declared Ecuador a Spanish colony. Once a year, on 12 October, the festival brings together the Salango community to celebrate and share their rich cultural history with interested visitors from far and near.

Chorrera Princess Sun Princess Shell Princess

At the Balsa Festival there are a variety of activities throughout the day including dancers from local schools and the neighboring northern province of Esmeraldas (emeralds in Spanish). All the performers are dressed in traditional garb, be it beautiful skirts and tiaras nicely crafted out of seashells or brightly colored flowing dresses.

Esmeraldeñas in Blue Esmeraldeños in Red Esmeraldeña in Yellow

Of all the princesses, two Balsa Manteña princesses are chosen, one from the elementary school aged group and one from the high school aged group. The winners are photographed on the balsa raft after its return voyage from Salango Island, a small island perhaps a mile off the coast of Salango.

Balsa Manteña Princesses

I was lucky enough to know one of the princesses and her mother, who is a teacher at the Salango pre-school founded by the person I am working for and his wife. After the event, my little princess friend gave me the lovely shell tiara that she and her Mom made. It is now displayed on my desk.

My Princess Friend

The smell of grilled chicken and pork sausages wafts through the air as people talk and mill around looking for what to eat next. The beach and waterfront street are teeming with people eating curly sausages on sticks and holding plates of grilled meats with rice and minestra (beans or lentils). Many are sipping coconut juice from straws popping out of the top of coconut shells.

Curly Sausages

Housewives turn into entrepreneurs for the day and sell regional specialties on the side of the road or at food tents on the beach. One gentleman said his son and his son’s classmates were cooking to raise money for a fieldtrip to Baños, an Ecuadorian town at the foot of the Andean volcano Tungurahua, known for its thermal baths.

Roasted Meat Grilled Meats and Platanos (green bananas) Fried Goods

At around 4pm, the performances come to a halt as everyone takes a break. People walk around and take time to sit and talk with their friends and family. Kids chase each other around on the beach and build sandcastles. In the evening, there will be more music and dance.

Playing in the Sand

I decide to call it a day and head for the bus stop. An elderly woman sits down next to me with a giant clear plastic bag halfway filled with small bags of chips. She is on her way back to Puerto Viejo, the Manabi capital, approximately a 2-hour bus ride away. The woman explains how she regularly travels by bus to Quito (a 20-hour round trip bus ride) to pickup the giant plastic bags full of smaller bags of chips. She sells the chips at various festivals and events in the Manabi province. A bag sells for 35 cents.

Guess where I bought my chips?