In a corner of the central square, in this cacao town of Los Ríos, Ecuador sits a miniature replica of the Eiffel Tower, standing as a silent witness, to the splendor in this region during the cocoa boom, when French was spoken, people dressed in the latest European fashions, and all the haciendas were adorned with crystal chandeliers and fine imported porcelain.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the harvests of aromatic Arriba cacao generated enormous fortunes, the French capital was considered the center of culture and fashion—and, due to its sophistication, this coastal area got the affectionate nickname of “Little Paris”.
French was the obligatory language of the Ecuadorian cacao elite in all their social gatherings, its use was maintained until the 1950s. Returning from their European trips, the rich brought with them new ideas and novel technologies, such as cinema—one of the first in Ecuador was built here. The rivers were the backbone of the region, the haciendas were built on the water and the cacao drying tents were installed near the banks. Life revolved around the coming and going of laborers, merchants, and visitors aboard boats on the network of the rivers flowing into the Guyas, then out to the Pacific through the merchant city of Guayaquil.
Still today, you can see hundreds of the old haciendas, built with fine wood that has survived the onslaught of time. Great old houses that keep the memory of their glorious past with traces of beautifully painted murals, spacious halls with faded brocades and thick bamboo structures that resisted the constant humidity of the tropics, contrasting with the economic ruin that ended this grand lifestyle when the cacao plantations became sickened with a plague that collapsed exports during a time of already falling prices due to the effects of the First World War.