Coming to Ecuador I was determined to spend some time working on a permaculture farm. I read all the post on the Workaway and WWOOF website, but in fact it was my language school in Quito that mentioned Rio Muchacho in Canoa. I looked it up and it included all ingredients I was looking for. Organic farming, permaculture courses, artisan and other skills, tropical jungle, and last but not least, proximity to a beach!
From Canoa to Rio Muchacho
When I arrived, small beach town Canoa welcomed me with a heap of trash in the streets, loud music, and bad pizza. All just the last remains of carnaval, the next day things would get better. Rio Muchacho has an office in Canoa, where tourists can book tours to the farm, and buy handmade products, like eco paper. After registering here, a car took me 30 minutes away into the tropical forest, to the community of Rio Muchacho where the farm is located. Here I was warmly welcomed by Nicola and Dario, and 4 other volunteers.
Wild Boy River
Rio Muchacho Farm is both a farm and an eco tourist destination, offering 1, 2 and 3 day tours. We often had people visiting, from Ecuadorian families, and school trips, to curious backpackers. The farm has been around for almost 30 years, and the farm is just a small part of the total land. The total area is huge, and the intention is to preserve and regenerate the land with ecoagriculture, organic farming and permaculture techniques. The name ‘rio muchacho’ or wild boy, refers to the river, although when I was there it was a mere trickle just up to my ankles. Rain was needed!
As volunteers we each had our own cabin, with pretty much open windows to jungle life. Bats swoosh through at night, and I was happy with my mosquito safety net. There are dry toilets, a solar heated shower, and even all cups, bowls and cutlery are made from the fruits of Mate trees! (After large tour groups I was told that often meant a few hours of cutting out new bowls, as they would be taken). We worked about 7 hrs daily, feeding pigs, chickens and horses in the morning before breakfast. After we would be creating compost, digging, planting, harvesting. Some days were very tiring because the humid heat would take your energy. We also got little permaculture lectures in between work. Our food was vegetarian, local, and very tasty. For example fried plantain balls with peanut butter, yucca bread (yum) rice, veggies, and so on.
Nicola and Dario have the cutest twins, which did seem to overwhelm them at times, and paused some of their other farm activities. It also isn’t the cheapest of volunteer options, as we paid $70 a week and worked 7 hrs a day. I was very happy with my choice though as both were super knowledgeable in permaculture and ecoagriculture, so I learnt a lot.
A super efficient Japanese technique of creating compost in 10 days. We layered the compost from charcoal, dry leaves, and manure from the pigs and horses, and generously sprinkled this throughout with molasses water – the sweet by product of cane sugar. This mix is like a big compost lasagne. We turned this 2 by 2m pile daily, and used the compost when planting.
The worms in the worm beds were fed with mostly horse and pig manure. To gather the worm compost you create a ‘worm trap’ so all the worms go to the ‘food’ in the middle. You can then scoop up the fresh worm poo without taking any of the worms out, and you have a super powerful compost.
Planting Banana trees, Tomatoes, and Other Fruits and Veggies
Simple and satisfying work! Seeds were first planted in cups with one of the compost types from above. Then they were placed in the nursery, so they could gain in size and strength. As a rule of thumb a seed is planted as deep as 1,5 it’s size, so the tiny seeds just get dropped. After a week or so, depending on the seed, we would plant them in the huerta, again with compost. (A plague of nasty African snails made all the work more challenging, as they ate everything, and are hard to get rid off.)
Double Banana Circle
This must be one of the highlights of permaculture design, and it was a real team effort. We planted two banana circles. The inner circle had rice planted inside, and was then filled with water . The banana circle itself was interspersed with coffee and peanut plants. Between the inner and outer circle we planted beans. This type of companion planting provides a ton of benefits for all plants, for example shade by the banana plants and soil protection by the beans.
How to Prepare a Chicken
Yep, from beginning to end. Only one day we ate meat, and that day we got to learn how a chicken is killed, plucked and cut into all the edible parts. Something every meat eater should know, or do themselves at least once! Every part was used, and I know now that happy chickens make for quite chewy chickens.
There are plenty of cacao plants in this region, and making chocolate is obviously a fun and rewarding thing to do. The cacao seeds are taken out of the pods – which by the way have very tasty fruit! They are then dried and fermented over a number of days. Then the seeds are roasted and ground, together with a decent amount of cane sugar. Trust me, sugarless raw chocolate is not easy to digest. The end result is delicious and best enjoyed with fresh banana!
Cultural Wednesdays and Canoa Weekends
Other workshops on our Wednesday afternoons – cultural Wednesdays – were making jewellery from Tagua seeds, also called the ´ivory of the jungle´. We made eco paper from recycled paper mixed with banana leaves, baked some serious chocolate oat cookies on a traditional fire oven, and ventured out to the enormous strangler tree. Weekends off were celebrated in surf town Canoa, with fabulous sunsets, surf lessons, happy hour Banana Coladas and Mojitos, and regeaton dancing with the locals. Yes this was fun!
Volunteering or Visiting
Needless to say Rio Muchacho offered me a great experience, and I would highly recommend volunteering, if you are not afraid to work in kind of a hot climate. Or just visit for a tour if you are just curious. Rio Muchacho also offer courses such as month long permaculture intensives, in case you want to learn more after your Permaculture Design Course (beginners welcome too). Thanks for a fantastic experience to Nicola, Dario and my friends Gentri, Lucas, Jan, Dimitri, Diane, and the local farmers that helped us do all the hard work!
More about learning Permaculture wherever in the world in my article Permaculture, Antidote to Throwaway Culture.