An ooey, gooey mess dripped from finger to finger. I had to act quickly, performing delicate hand acrobatics, to prevent the sugary confection from falling on the ground. But I was in heaven.
Or, more correctly, I was back in El Paso, Texas, just six years old. I was standing on a chair in the kitchen, with my mom and brother, laughing as we pulled taffy between us. Literally, a sweet memory!
Now, I was at Hacienda Santa Marta, deep in the breathtaking Cajas National Park nestled in the Andes of Ecuador. A guest of Martha and Tony Camp, I was on a sugar cane harvest tour, savoring every moment.
The road to the Hacienda is not for the feint-of-heart. Something like Disneyland’s “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride,” it includes two hours on mountainous, rocky dirt roads. But on arrival, you forget the journey to embrace – with all your senses – the goal.
Hacienda Santa Marta is perched high on a mountainside overlooking verdant green valleys pocked with fluffy white clouds. As far as the eye can see are flowers, fruit trees, and the greenest of trees, all covered by an intangible blanket of peace.
Fragrances range from blooming flowers to the citrusy bite of the shot of mapanagua the 153 proof white rum distilled from sugar cane, laced with lemon juice. The feel of the woody, peeled sugar cane in your hands contrasts the subdued sweetness we sucked into our mouths.
The Camps came to Ecuador 10 years ago in search of a dream. He wanted orchids in the cloud forest. She wanted a colonial house.
They found both in an abandoned 1800s plantation in San Gabriel de Chaucha. Historically known for its Trago, or white rum, the plantation is far off the beaten path. Ironically, it was christened with the same name as its owner – Marta – hundreds of years ago.
No one is sure how it got its name, but Martha comes from the Bible, the sister of Mary and Lazarus. According to the Hacienda’s website, the siblings were among those persecuted as followers of Jesus Christ in the first century AD. The trio was set adrift on the Mediterranean Sea without paddles and finally made landfall in Southern France.
“They debarked in a small village that was being tormented by a fire-breathing dragon that torched their crops and land. The people huddled inside their homes in fear of the dragon,” the website reports. “Martha, with the power of the Holy Spirit, slew the dragon and set free the citizens to return to prosperity and fullness of life. Martha is the only female dragon slayer in history. She is also the patron saint of homemaking and housekeeping.”
The Camps spent three long years restoring the Santa Marta Hacienda to its glory. And restored it is. The couple rebuilt and created additions with handmade adobe bricks, sun-dried on site. Forgoing modern farming implements, the field workers use machetes to harvest cane, the solitary fire-tender slowly stirs sugar mixtures in a giant copper kettle and yoked bulls stamp endlessly in a circle to grind the sugar cane.
The Hacienda produces a variety of sugar cane products: guarapo (cane juice), chicha (fermented cane juice similar to beer), miel de cana (cane syrup, and panela (natural brown sugar).
Our tour left Cuenca at 7 a.m., winding through the Cajas along the back roads. Arriving at the Hacienda a couple of hours later, we were met by Martha’s beaming smile and a taste test of sugary-based drinks and liqueurs. Afterward, we tried our hands at the machete and learned how the cane is replanted from a simple whittled stalk.
One volunteer fed cane into a central cylinder while another encouraged the bulls, used as draft animals, to power the grinder.
We were amazed by the ancient-looking, ragtag still that delivers a stream of alcohol via a cane chute.
Then we were called back to the main house to enjoy a gourmet lunch created by Martha using the vegetables, fruits and meat of her own lands.
The unique excursions are $60 and include transportation from Cuenca. The Camps are planning additional excursions soon.
Chaucha is quickly gaining a reputation among specialty coffee buyers as having some of the best high altitude Arabica in the world. The Camps’ next tours focus on their coffee crops. Visitors will have taste tests, experience picking coffee, learn about processing techniques, enjoy a gourmet lunch and relax in the orchid garden. Tours return to Cuenca at 7 p.m.
Soon, the Camps hope to offer a hike through their cloud forest in search of orchids. Tony has identified more than 100 species already. He will lead hikers along an ancient Canari road, past stunning waterfalls, and close to a local sacred site. After a picnic on the shore of the Rio Malacatos, the hike returns through the cloud forest on a mission to spot local birds.
Another planned tour will focus on artisanal cheese making. Visitors will enjoy a refreshing batido or leche de tigre and an opportunity to milk a cow. They may participate in the cheese making process and sample a variety of cheeses, before enjoying the traditional gourmet lunch.
For those wanting to extend their adventure, the Camps offer overnight accommodations. They have two guest rooms for rent, ranging from $20 to $40 nightly, with discounts for extended stays. Meals are extra.
The Camps currently have limited space available for a Sept. 20 coffee tour. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, see the website at haciendasantamarta.com