Tag Archives: Ecuador

Food in Ecuador

I’ve said before how much I love checking out food markets in new places. Aside from the eye-catching displays of fruit & veg, in South American countries like Ecuador there are often stalls hawking hot food and cheap set meals made from the market’s best produce. Generally, the prices are astonishingly low because the ingredients are so readily available – and I imagine long standing deals with the produce stall keepers are arranged.

It can work out cheaper to buy a three or four course market almuerzo at $2.50 (typically consisting of a hearty soup, fresh salad, some sort of chicken or meat stew with rice, potatoes and a spicy salsa, with a fresh fruit smoothie or fruit salad to finish) than to make a picnic back at your hostel.

Like the increasingly popular street food scene in London, hot food stalls in Ecuadorian markets are strictly no frills operations: you are given just a single spoon to eat with (forget being shy about using hands and teeth to do what a spoon cannot) and kiddie sized plastic furniture to sit on. The food is always hearty, simple and rustic – nothing fancy.

Some examples of typical almuerzo fare: a plate brimming with sausage, chicken, meat stew, rice, fried egg, salad and lapingachos (fried potato and cheese cakes)…

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Or yagauarlocro (potato soup with toppings of fried black pudding/blood sausage, crunchy onion and avocado). Love all the textures in one bowl…

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But friendly service costs nothing and is often provided with abundance – the stall holders are all jokes and smiles as they motion you to sit down, or invite you to stick your nose into their saucepans to see what they’ve got cooking. Condiments are always interesting – aji (homemade hot salsa) is often on the tables along with freshly cut lime wedges and diced onion.

As well as being a great way to stay within tight backpacking budgets, eating in markets lets you get away from the gringo joints and sample what locals really eat. It’s not unusual to be squashed in at a table where a toothless octogenarian cholita, a suited business professional and a gaggle of uniformed schoolkids are all slurping away at identical set meals.

It was a setting like this where we had one of the most enjoyable and visually memorable meals of our time in Ecuador, on the top floor of a grubby market in Cuenca.

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Pork is a big deal in Cuenca. I don’t know the exact recipe but it probably goes something like this:

  1. Get a bloody great big pig
  2. Blast it with heat until every inch of skin turns into thick, crisp crackling
  3. Plonk the whole thing out on a counter top – the head or a few of the legs will inevitably flop over the edges
  4. The serving lady must always be elbow deep inside the carcass to pull out the juiciest shreds of meat with her fingers
  5. The serving lady must also snap off samples of that insane crackling to lure people to sit at her tables
  6. Serve with potato cakes, maize, salad and a spoon

Markets are also a great place for breakfasts in the morning. In Ecuador, empanadas are not the Cornish pasty-like baked meaty treats you get elsewhere. Here they are more like donuts: fried until puffy, filled with mild creamy cheese and dusted with sugar.

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Great with a coffee, or a cup of morocho, a thick hot drink made of maize simmered in milk with cinnamon, cloves, sugar and raisins – a bit like rice pudding.

Another uniquely Ecuadorian take on the empanada is empanadas verde, made with mashed green plantain. These are uncooked, waiting for a quick flash in a frying pan…

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We kept seeing malta con huevo for sale at various drinks stalls in markets. After confirming that this does in fact mean “malt beer with egg” and is sometimes translated into the English “scrambled beer”, our curiosity was piqued enough to order a couple to try for oursleves. We watched in astonishment as the drinks stall lady filled a blender with an unlikely combination of ingredients. In went a bottle of pilsner, a slurp of alfalfa juice, a bit of borojo pulp from a packet (a sour fruit, pic below) and finally a raw egg to be whizzed together.

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The end result was peculiar but surprisingly drinkable – the earthy taste of beer somehow works with the grassy alfalfa. We both finished our glasses, albeit with looks of confusion on our faces. I think malta con huevo would be a great hangover cure – a filling meal in a glass, gentle on the tummy, with a bit of hair of the dog, vitamins from the fruit and alfalfa and protein from the egg. Only a drunkard could have invented it!

A less challenging drink commonly served in Ecuador’s markets is jugo or thick juices: fresh fruit blended with water or milk and sugar. Ecuador’s diverse ecosystems yield a wealth of native fruit and even the smallest stalls have dozens of options. Mark has developed a taste for tangy tamarino (tamarind) and my favourite is tomate d’arbol (tomatillo), a beautiful fruit with a taste which is hard to pin down – the seeds, internal structure and sharpness are reminiscent of an unripe tomato but there is also a delicate, fruity flavour a bit like melon.

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It seems to grow everywhere in Ecuador but I haven’t come across it before in the UK; I read that you can source the frozen pulp which would work in a blended juice but not sure if you can get the fresh fruits. Tomate d’arbol is also awesome in aji de tomate d’arbol – a punchy salsa made with the fruit and hot chillies. I have bookmarked this recipe to play with later.

Although Quito is miles from the coast, one of the specialities of the capital city’s food market is corvina (sea bass). This meal at Quito’s Mercado Central consisted of a huge slab of the fish served with ceviche (in Ecuador, ceviche is quite soupy, with lots of lime juice), potatoes and popcorn – all for $4!

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After the epic pork at Cuenca’s market, we ate another kind of pig; guinea pig or cuy is a delicacy in Ecuador as well as Peru. The friendly man who made us our Panama hats in Cuenca recommended a local place which specialised in cuy, Tres Estrellas.

It takes at least an hour to cook so you have to call in advance to avoid a long wait; although they are little creatures they are quite fatty so time is needed to get a really crispy skin.

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Ecuadorians think the best bit is the feet so we tried them – they taste like pub pork scratchings. We were slightly more squeamish about the head, which still had teeth intact…

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Ecuador grows some of the best cacao in the world and if you avoid the ubiquitous Nestlé bars, you can find really fine chocolate. We stocked up on some sublime bars at Quito’s Kallari cafe, which is linked to a small artisan producer in the countryside.

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The cafe also makes gorgeous tarts, cakes and brownies – we couldn’t resist sharing this gooey pud.

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Before I came to Ecuador I read this Guardian article which indicated that Ecuador’s food scene was behind Peru’s and eagerly snapping at its neighbour’s heels. Some of the country’s top chefs and foodies seem to be envious and indignant about Peru’s global culinary success and can’t help but compare the two cuisines.

But after a couple of weeks of happy, stimulating eating around Ecuador, I see no need for this anxious “keeping up with the Joneses” attitude – Ecuadorean food deserves to be more than just second fiddle to the popular Peruvian trend. It is hugely underrated and should be recognised in its own right.

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Mitad del Mundo: the equatorial line in Ecuador (it had to be done!)

I’m a little ashamed to say that Mark and I succumbed to the gringo classic, the cheesy shot next the line of the equator in Ecuador.

It’s not even easy to get to; we had to battle through crushing crowds of rush hour commuters on Quito’s metro bus (people here don’t bother with notions of queuing, letting people off before barging on, or waiting for the next one if a carriage is clearly packed). After more than an hour of this we finally reached the end of the line (Quito’s equivalent of Cockfosters). From there it was another 20 minute bus.

And it’s not even the REAL equator – Charles-Marie de la Condamine, the chap who proudly proclaimed to have measured the Earth’s equator in the 1700s, was out by around 300m. The true equator is up the road, on a dusty unmarked highway. So the gaudy monument is a tribute to overconfident scientific measurement more than anything else, and the yellow line is just…a yellow line.

Still, after coughing up $3 each, we had fun snapping a few photos…

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What a couple of suckers.

Amazon rainforest in Ecuador

We missed out on visiting the Amazon while we were in Brazil; a combination of time constraints and unwillingness to take expensive and side-effect inducing antimalarial drugs meant we headed no further north than Salvador.

Although the majority of the rainforest is in Brazil, many countries in South America lay claim to a slice of the Amazon, including Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Since Ecuador would be one of the last places we would visit in South America, we decided to take the plunge and head into the mighty jungle.

First stop towards the rainforest was Baños, a pretty town surrounded by waterfalls and mountains.

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I managed to get Mark to relax in the thermal spas that give the place its name for about an hour before he insisted on a five hour hike up to the highest summit.

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We met a very affectionate blue eyed llama on the way…

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The next day was the first of the two day tour we had chosen. With just a couple of days it is only possible to see the secondary jungle on the outskirts of the Amazon; going deep into the primary jungle requires nearly a week.

We still saw plenty in those two days though.

One of the first stops was a sanctuary which had many different species of monkeys and primates, like the chorongo and capuchin blanco.

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After that we visited a local indigenous community, where we learnt a bit about their culture and customs. A bowl of chicha was passed around – after we tasted the lumpy, sour, fermented drink we were told that the ladies of the community prepare it by chewing and spitting out mouthfuls of yucca. Apparently enzymes in saliva aid the fermentation process. An acquired taste indeed!

We were invited to have a go at shooting darts through a traditional blow gun. Here’s a scary looking picture of me lining up a shot, with scary face paint to match.

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That afternoon we had a short boat trip in a traditional canoe that would have tipped without the practised local man steering and keeping it steady.

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Once back on dry land, we hiked up to a viewpoint over the jungle, where there was possibly the world’s best placed swing.

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Both Mark and I had a go – click here for a video of me whooping like a loon on my first swing.

This video is Mark’s second swing; he bellowed some very rude words the first time and only just managed not to soil his pants on this go.

We also found some natural swings in the jungle later, on the way to a waterfall.

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At the waterfall, I did a spot of skinny dipping…

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…only joking!

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As it got darker, we were dropped off at the primitive jungle cabins where we were spending the night.

The next morning a couple of cheeky lion monkeys joined us for breakfast.

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We visited the massive boa constrictor which the local people inexplicably thought made a cuddly pet. Mark enjoyed grappling with it…

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Me, not so much…

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Then we made our way through the jungle to a lake, carrying a bundle of fish heads wrapped in banana leaves to help coax the caimans up to the surface.

It worked!

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After the caimans swam away, we did some more thrashing around in the jungle and learnt about some of the plants and their medicinal uses.

This tree is known as “dragon’s blood” – when a small incision is made in the bark, the sap drips out dark red as if the trunk is bleeding. When the sap is rubbed into skin, it becomes creamy and white. This is used as a remedy for stings and bites.

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Our guide Delfin picked some leaves, crushed them in his hands and made us inhale. The strong menthol like smell sent us both into a frenzy of coughing. Amusingly, he insisted this was good for you, especially if you were trying to get rid of a cough or cold.

Another time Delfin plucked a large leaf and told us to suck at the part which had connected it to the stem. We obediently did so, and tasted a pleasant sherbet flavour. Delfin stopped giggling long enough to tell us that we had just eaten a mouthful of “lemon ants”; the insects and their eggs have a sour fruity flavour. Honestly it was tasty – I’m sure it won’t be long before restaurants in London charge a fortune for specially imported Ecuadorian creepy crawlies.

Some of the plants were pointed out more for their ornamental value, such as my furry beak below. Maybe to make up for all the tricks he was playing on us gullible gringos, Delfin sweetly made us necklaces and headbands, as modelled by Mark.

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His speed and skill at stripping fibres from leaves and twisting them into strong cords, or quickly weaving lengths of palm into pretty patterns was impressive.

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Back to the main hut for lunch and the lion monkeys decided to get more friendly. This little one hardly left my lap. The moment I would stop scratching his tiny head he would squeak and nudge me to start again.

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Soon the other, less sociable monkey got jealous and started a play fight.

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Meanwhile a couple of the dogs rolled around in mock fight – all the animals seemed to be going crazy at once. Jungle fever indeed!

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(Note from Mark: how ugly are these dogs! One of them is missing most of his hair and the other has these wonky ears!)

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After our post lunch siesta, we went back out, this time to a different lake to look for turtles.

Mark went into Bear Grylls mode and got hold of an enormous water turtle.

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Lifting the 50kg beast was a challenge – click here for a video of Mark’s efforts.

This one was a more manageable size…

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Delfin found more than one type and stacked a water turtle on top of a ground turtle (a bit mean – Mark)

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With squelching boots we left the turtles behind (after making Delfin unstack them) to see what else was nearby.

Mark befriended a boar…

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Just as the end of the day was approaching, we heard an unusual high pitched cry. Delfin recognised this to be a tapir, so off we went in search of him.

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Such a beautiful and placid animal – tapirs are endangered so this guy is the only one around for miles. It’s quite sad as he was obviously lonely and followed us back down our path for ages, until the boar scared him away.

Next time I’m in this part of the world I will definitely leave more time to explore the Amazon – the two day exploration of the secondary rainforest gave us a taste of what the dense jungle of the primary rainforest has to offer.

Ecuador: home of “Panama” hats

We couldn’t help but feel a little blue after leaving the glorious Galápagos Islands. A spot of retail therapy was just the thing to raise our spirits.

Luckily, our next stop was Cuenca, Ecuador’s third largest city and a place famous for its Panama hats.

Pardon my ignorance, but I had always thought it safe to assume that Panama hats came from Panama.

How wrong I was: the classic white, black banded, wide brimmed headgear favoured by everyone from Roosevelt to Clarke Gable to Keira Knightley originates from Ecuador.

The confusion came when the hats were exported from Ecuador to other countries via Panama, so people incorrectly assumed they were also made in Panama. This misconception was encouraged when workers on the Panama Canal were issued with the practical sun hat.

In Ecuador this style of hat is known as “sombrero de paja toquilla“. Paja toquilla is the palm-like plant which produces the natural fibres used to make the hats. Ecuador’s coastal region has perfect conditions for these plants to grow.

We visited a renowned hat shop, Barranco, in the river bank neighbourhood of Cuenca. This place has been making and exporting hats for generations; they even supply Christy’s in Kensington.

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Attached to the workshop is a small museum with antique hat making tools.

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Amusingly, Mark has a tiny pin head while I’ve got a massive loaf, two sizes bigger than his. But then I have more brains to carry around, haha…

My brother had especially requested I get him a Panama hat while I was in South America (he’s a stylish fellow who knows one gets Panama hats from Ecuador).

They didn’t have a classic fine weave in his size in stock (like me, his head size is bigger than average). But the lovely Barranco staff insisted it would be no problem to make us the hat we desired that very afternoon. Even better, we were welcome to stick around and see how it was done.

The quality of the weave used is important. Not only does a finer weave have a more attractive finish, it is less likely to become misshapen or develop small holes.

Also, a finer weave is softer and more flexible, meaning you can roll it up in a slim box like below without worrying that it will lose its shape: ideal for travelling.

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Obviously a finer weave costs more to account for the extra labour (working this precisely requires extra skill and time) but you get what you pay for.

The cheapest hats are around $10-25 but they feel cheap, stiff and plasticky. When you spend upwards of $80 you get a weave that is guaranteed to last and can be rolled.

A cheaper weave on the left, a finer quality on the right:

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Super fine weaves are $150 – 200 (this is what we went for; my brother would expect nothing less and anyway, this is still around half what you would spend in the UK for the same quality).

However the finest, most expensive quality costs around $1,000 for the finished hat. I asked to see one and was flabbergasted – the fibres looked like they had been woven by microscopic elves:

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It takes five months for a mere mortal to make a hat of this quality, which explains and justifies the price tag.

The “raw” hats are woven by ladies on Ecuador’s coast, who learn the skill from as young as 8 years old. Barranco and other reputable hat makers buy directly from the weavers to ensure they get a fair price for their labour.

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Once in the workshop, the hats need to be trimmed, pressed into shape and finished.

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My brother’s hat was pressed five times in total, with water and natural glues used to coax the hat into the best shape during this process.

The brim was measured and traced before the excess was carefully trimmed away and the edges stitched.

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Finishing touches – internal and external bands, and the made to measure hats are ready to be worn.

Mark got one made for himself at the same time – he chose a natural finish with a brown band while I picked a bleached white hat and black band for my brother (it’s a fraction too big for me but I’m modelling the best I can!)

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What do you think?

A Glorious Week in the Galápagos Islands

I grew up on tales from my biology teacher father about the voyages and discoveries of his hero, Charles Darwin. I have always wanted to visit the Galápagos Islands, where Darwin’s observations of the shared traits and subtle differences of species which make up the diverse wildlife inspired him to develop the theories of evolution and natural selection.

Actually setting foot in a place I have known for my whole life via teachers, books, pictures and museum exhibitions felt like visiting the Promised Land.

Most people on the islands are Darwin geeks who care passionately about nature and conservation. But the Galápagos attracts all walks of life; even creationists come to marvel at the flora and fauna, some of which exists nowhere else on earth.

One guide we met believed that these islands were the Garden of Eden; the animals have a carefree life without fear of humans or other predators. There is even a forbidden fruit: the apple-like manzanilla, poisonous to humans but a key part of giant tortoises’ diet.

The main island of Santa Cruz is surprisingly busy, with 20,000 inhabitants – I had always pictured the Galápagos to be more of a wilderness.

We went to pay respects to “Char-less Darwin” as he is known here (my last name is always pronounced “Dook-ess” throughout South America).

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Although this statue was a respectable tribute to the local hero, in other places on the islands Darwin is depicted as a freaky Poseidon-like deity…

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There are several giant tortoise reserves around the islands, all committed to preserving endangered species and preventing another sad story like that of Lonesome George, who lived for decades as the last surviving member of his subspecies, and died recently without passing on his genes to any offspring.

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Thankfully, many tortoises are thriving at these sanctuaries. Mark and I were lucky enough to visit during feeding time, which only happens once every couple of days.

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It was quite hypnotic watching these ancient creatures creak over like grumpy old men, to munch painstakingly slowly at the leaves.

We were also allowed to check out the breeding area. Tortoise eggs are taken from their underground nests (mothers don’t miss them as they abandon their eggs once they’ve been laid anyway). The eggs are incubated until they hatch (fascinatingly, the sex of the tortoise s determined by the temperature of the eggs during incubation) and then the tortoise babies are kept safe from dangers like hungry rats and careless goats for the first three years of their lives. This ensures the babies have a much greater chance of reaching maturity and ultimately helps to keep tortoise population numbers up.

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Although much more wildlife exists on the more remote and less populated islands, Santa Cruz island is home to many sea lions, who seem to enjoy much of what the town has to offer. Sea lions snoozing on park benches, lounging in small boats, or begging for scraps at the fish market are a common sight.

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Similarly, the pelicans on Santa Cruz use the main harbour as a convenient lookout point before they dive for fish.

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Santa Cruz’s beach at Tortuga Bay is a fantastic place to spot marine iguanas.

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Usually the black reptiles can be found on dark lava rocks, but here, against the super fine white sand that looks and feels like talcum powder, they stand out beautifully.

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While we waited for a multi day trip to the more far-flung islands to become available, we went on a couple of day trips.

Isabella island has a lagoon which white tipped sharks use to sleep in. Although these sharks do not attack people, I was glad that we could see the lagoon from the safety of dry land.

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Dangerous or not, something about the way sharks move gives me the shivers!

The Galápagos islands have some of the best scuba diving spots in the world. As a diving novice I wasn’t allowed to go to Gordon Rocks (you need at least 30 dives under your belt before you’re deemed experienced enough to navigate the changeable currents). For the first time in months, Mark and I split up for the day: I went on a dive boat headed for the more manageable, but still excellent, dive site at Seymour while Mark went off to Gordon Rocks.

Although you’re virtually guaranteed to spot dozens of hammerhead sharks there, Mark was unlucky and saw none at all, but still saw plenty of white tipped reef sharks, sea turtles, rays and many types of big pelagic fish.

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Amazingly, a snorkelling excursion we signed up for at Kicker Rock on San Cristobal island was miles better than either of our scuba dives, or indeed most of the 70+ dives of Mark’s whole experience.

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The water was cool, clear turquoise and just brimming with wildlife: Galapagos sharks (which don’t bother humans unlike tiger or great white sharks), massive sea turtles, rays, and about a million different kinds of colourful fish.

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At one memorable moment we had to swim through the narrow channel of a gorge between two tall, sheer towers of rock.

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As the channel was only a couple of metres wide so it was a bit of a thoroughfare for sea creatures passing through. Because of the narrowness, the current of the water passing through was really strong and we had to swim hard to navigate the ebb and flow of the swell. It was incredible doing this with a snorkel mask on, able to see all these different species right under us, all swimming hard against the current like we were. It was like being part of a wildlife documentary!

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A motor boat took us between the three snorkel locations – at one point Mark and I were sitting on the bow of the boat as it roared past mini islands, through stunning turquoise water with the sun beating down and the wind in our hair, thinking of our friends slaving away at work back home…and how much they would hate us if they could see where we were!

The final snorkelling spot was one of a few places where we were able to play with sea lions in the water. So memorable!

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We managed to get a deal for a last minute, 4 day 3 night cruise. It may be more fitting to say “boat trip” as this poky thing, ironically named “King of the Sea”, is hardly the type of luxury vessel normally associated with the word “cruise”.

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It was big enough for some impressive jumps and divebombs from the roof though, and we had a fun, young group.

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Over the four days we visited the islands of San Cristobal, Española and Floreana. We saw hundreds of sea lions…

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There are about 28,000 sea lions living on the Galápagos, the same number as human inhabitants. They’re so chilled out around people that you can join them for one of their many naps…

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As well as black marine iguanas, some of the islands like Floreana have coloured species…

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I think the one on the bottom left looks like he is showing off full sleeve tattoos. Well ‘ard. Look at the chap on the top left, eating a discarded sally lightfoot crab shell (for the calcium, apparently).

Here are some which got away…

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After a few days in the Galápagos, we saw so many sharks while snorkelling that I stopped feeling uneasy about them. I love this photo – two white tipped reef sharks sleeping ON TOP of a ray!

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There are also huge flocks of blue footed boobies – apparently their feet become even bluer when it’s mating season, but they were pretty blue!

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Like the sea lions, they’re totally nonplussed by humans so you can sit and chill with them.

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Hundreds of them can be found around the cliffs of Floreana, where they circle overhead and dive down to pluck fish out of the crashing waves.

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The waves hit the cliffs with such force, the spray is as strong as a geyser. Sometimes unfortunate iguanas get shot 20m straight up into the air by the water!

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There always seemed to be a new type of bird to look at in the sky.

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Clockwise from top left: oystercatcher, mockingbird (Darwin had his eureka moment when studying the beak lengths of mockingbirds from different islands); albatross, flamingos, frigate bird (with its red chest puffed out to attract a mate), Galápagos hawk.

Although visiting the islands is famously expensive (flights, entry fees and costs of mandatory tour guides add up), we let our credit cards take the hit. Knowing this would be a once in a lifetime experience and that access is very likely to restricted in the future for conservation purposes made the eye-watering cost easier to bear – and the experience was worth every penny (and subsequent debt!)

Please can I stay forever and be a castaway, or a stowaway on a pirate ship?!

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