Little Aussie explorer Avalon Minerals (ASX:AVI) is mixing it with the big boys (and girls) in the hunt for the next big copper-gold discovery in the world’s exploration hotspot of Ecuador.

Ecuador is home to the Cascabel copper-gold discovery made by Nick Mather’s Brisbane-based but London AIM-listed SolGold, with the former junior explorer now valued by at more than $850 million on the strength of the big copper-gold discovery.

Cascabel has prompted a modern rush of sorts in to Ecuador. Aussies that have made their way to the country include Newcrest and BHP. The pair had a bit of a scuffle over SolGold last year, with Newcrest emerging with a now 14.5 per cent SolGold stake for a cash injection of $US63 million.

BHP lost out with its alternative pitch to take control of Cascabel but has since done the next best thing by taking up ground positions in big-spending joint ventures elsewhere in the country.

Other Aussies to move in Ecuador include two Aussie mining billionaires — Andrew Forrest’s Fortescue, and Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting.

Among all the exploration action sits little Avalon with its 1.9c share price and $16.8 million market cap.

It might seem like the odd fellow out but there is some history to why it, too, is in the Ecuadorian copper-gold hunt at its Bramaderos project in the south of the country (Cascabel is in the north).

It turns out that Avalon’s chief executive Malcolm Norris was CEO of SolGold when it moved into the Cascabel courtesy of deal with Canadian listed Cornerstone Capital. Avalon’s deal to earn up to 85 per cent of Bramaderos is with Cornerstone.

Avalon’s hunt is in its early stages but it has at least started off with some “historical” results from the 1970s and early 2000s of interest.

They point to the potential for the sort of low-grade but big-volume copper-gold deposits which get miners excited because of their long life and major production potential.

This week Avalon reported encouraging results from preliminary geological mapping and rock chip sampling at Bramaderos.

Interest in the exploration effort will increase towards the end of the year when Avalon expects to have approvals for its first drill holes.

Before its push in to Bramaderos – it sits close to the Pan American highway – Avalon was best known for its Viscaria copper project near the century-old iron ore mining town of Kiruna in Sweden.

As Avalon’s current market cap suggests, the market has not been much interested in the project.

But the near 50 per cent surge in copper prices in the last 12 months to near three-year highs of $US3.07/lb has put Viscaria back on the radar.

When copper was back at $US2.07/lb 12 months ago, Viscaria looked too hard. But the copper price surge has changed all that.

Avalon is working on a pre-feasibility study and approvals to return Viscaria (it was a copper producer for 15 years until 1977) to production as a 20,000-25,000 tonne a year copper producer from a $US135 million development.

At a copper price of $US3/lb, Viscaria would be capable of generating $US50 million in annual earnings (EBITA).

It has been suggested previously that Viscaria could become the subject of a joint venture deal with a group capable of pushing the development along.

Copper’s advance to more than $US3/lb, and a shortage of “ready-to-go” copper developments around the world, will make the task of finding a joint venture partner all that much easier.

So it is one to watch, along with what unfolds at Bramaderos.

Rounding out the Avalon story is its early-stage gold exploration hunt in a lightly explored part of southern Finland.