Less developed than Mitad Del Mundo, the entrance to Intiñan Museum (located closer to the real middle of the world as established by GPS) is tucked away off the side of the road. Walking across a bridge, the winding path led through some greenery before arriving at a gathering of modern buildings made to look like huts. Birds chirped as the breeze rustled the branches they were settled in.
From the central “camp” of huts, the paths led in a few different directions. At the insistence of my Ecuadorian friend, I tried a coconut ice cream bar as we ran to catch up with the rest of the group who had already started the tour. Our guide started with an introduction to some of the indigenous peoples of Ecuador, especially the tribes of the Amazon, many of whom have never made contact with anyone outside the jungle. He explained indigenous traditions and beliefs, going into detail about the importance of the womb in life and death, ending with a replica of a traditional tomb.
From there the tour group’s sense of balance was put to the test in a series of experiments displaying the unique effect of gravity at the equator. Our guide demonstrated the conflicting northern and southern forces by giving us challenges such as walking a straight line and balancing an egg on a nail.
Our next stop found us in the only structure not built specifically for the museum, a 140-year-old hut. Originally the home of local villagers, the last owner died at 110 and it became a new kind of home, one for artifacts and guinea pigs. The guinea pigs were kept in a pen in one of the corners of the structure. At first it might seem that they just kept them as pets, but as our guide explained, guinea pigs are actually a traditional delicacy in Ecuador. (I had the opportunity to try guinea pig in an appetizer at another point during my stay and liked it. It sounds cliché, but it really did taste similar to chicken.)
The last stop on the tour was one of the most interesting. A structure made of one cement wall with a thatched roof enclosed by three other walls of about chest-height contained an exhibit that offered a more in-depth look at life in the Amazon. While the second half was filled with plant and animal life found in the Amazon jungle, along the back wall of the first half was a series of bright murals that depicted the ceremony one Amazonian tribe would use to shrink heads.
Our guide narrated the murals, telling us about the process from decapitation to the use of hot stones to adorning the shrunken head on a necklace or spear. While I had seen mummies and skeletons in many other museums, the shrunken human head and ceremony to create it was something I had known nothing about before visiting Ecuador. It presented me with a new outlook on the role our bodies play in our identity and value, even after death, as tribal leaders would display the shrunken heads they had collected as a sign of strength and power.
As my group was getting ready to leave, a staff member informed us that we had forgotten the most popular stop on the tour, the chocolate cabin. Never one to decline an invitation for chocolate, I filed in with the rest of the group. It was a dimly-lit room that was immediately brightened by the enthusiasm of our new guide. He was both the most knowledgeable and passionate person I had ever met when it came to chocolate.
He instructed us all about cacao, including its role in the production of chocolate, white chocolate, and cacao butter. As it turns out, Ecuador produces 65% of the world’s highest quality cacao, which is the basis of chocolate. We tried some of the seeds, sucking off the coating, but not biting into the bitter seed. From there the seeds follow a process of being dried out and crushed into a powder that tastes like a very dark chocolate. It used to be that all of this high quality cacao powder was then exported to Switzerland and Belgium where it was combined with milk and sugar to create some of the world’s best chocolate; however, companies in Ecuador have now begun making this high quality chocolate themselves in a variety of flavors. At this chocolate stop, we sampled orange chocolate.
With the help of GPS, scientists were able to more accurately locate the center of the world and Intiñan Museum (a new exploration/education site) was established. Here $4 will get visitors a guided tour (in Spanish or English) of the area to learn more about the indigenous peoples of Ecuador, including their history and traditions through exhibits and demonstrations like the ones described above.
Pro Tip: Ecuador uses many of the unique ingredients to create flavors of chocolate you won’t find anywhere else, including rose-flavored chocolate!