Ecuador is Awesome – Part 9

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Despite its small area, Ecuador constantly proves itself to be one of the most bewitching countries on the planet. The magnificent cross section of nature, cultures, geography, foods, activities, holiday destinations, people and languages all combine to assert this impressive little country’s status as a must-see destination in South America. Straddled either side of latitude zero, Ecuador never fails to amaze; from the Galapagos Island to the Coast, from the Sierra to the Amazon, nowhere else can one experience such incredible diversity. Maybe I’m biased because I live on the Pacific Coast but, over the last 30+ years, I have traveled through, lived in or visited 45 other countries on this planet, and Ecuador is the one place on Earth that has inspired me to grow roots and stick around for a while.

When I began to think about some of the wonderful things I love about Ecuador that I’d be proud to share with people who are thinking about visiting, or even staying for a while, I learned that many of my friends and acquaintances often felt the same way about the same things. Therefore, in the spirit of fairness, before I sat down to write this ten-part series, I asked everyone I know who lives now or has lived or traveled in Ecuador this one simple question: “What is/was the best thing about your experience of Ecuador?” This series of ten posts are all about what they said.

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Wherever you travel in Ecuador, whether you are in the Capital, or in a small Amazonian village, it’s very difficult to ignore the local chocolate. If you don’t see vast orchards of cacao trees growing for miles and miles on either side of the road you are traveling along, there are often long strips of harvested cacao beans spread out to dry on the warm bitumen, and even on rooftops along the roadside. Apart from existing right alongside all the raw cacao products Ecuador has to offer a truly dedicated chocolate connoisseur, from the newly harvested beans to the highly processed bars, every supermarket, every souvenir shop, every tourist district, and even at the homes of countless families, there is a massive range of locally grown chocolate produced from organic cacao beans, nibs and powder, to exquisitely flavored truffles filled with caramels, nuts and liquors, and simple chocolate bars; the darkest of dark to the milkiest of milk, and from the simple ground beans that are used to make Bliss Bombs, Brownies, Mud Cakes, and everything else in between. There is no doubt that Ecuador is a chocoholics wonderland.

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In Aztec times, the cacao bean was so valued, it was used as a form of currency, however there is evidence of chocolate beverages being consumed as far back as 1900BC. Fermented, roasted, and ground Theobroma cacao beans can be traced to the Mokaya and other pre-Olmec people in the lowlands of south-central Mexico. Christopher Columbus encountered cacao beans on his fourth trip to the Americas in 1502 when he and his crew stole a large native canoe that contained cacao beans for trade. During the 16th century, chocolate was transported to Europe for the first time. I’m sure the actual history is well documented. Here’s my version of how it all went down: I imagine a Spanish aristocrat aboard his galleon, trying the brew for the first time. A handful of crushed cacao beans boiled with water. Poured into a pewter mug. His first taste of hot chocolate; very bitter. He screws up his face. The servants don’t like it, each sneaking a taste in the galley, sipping delicately at the wooden spoon. Everyone below decks rejects it as awful. Undeterred, the aristocrat adds sugar. Stirs it into the hot liquid. Brings it once again to his lips. His eyes widen as he realizes his discovery. Closing his eyes, he purses his full round lips and sips again. His taste buds are overwhelmed by a sense of lush pleasure. Almost sinful. The servants nudge each other. Sugar. Of course. He wonders if he should share this culinary gem, then becomes concerned the authorities might not like it. He decides not to tell them about the sugar. Thus, initiating Europe’s historical, revolutionary and, at times controversial, “discovery” of chocolate.

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Where I live on the northwest coast of Ecuador, Doña Sara, one of the local characters and a very good friend, roasts her locally grown cacao beans the traditional way, in large clay pot over a slow coal fire. Countless times we have sat together chatting as she stirs the beans through a handful of ashes with a large wooden spoon, toasting them just enough so the skins crack and they’re ready to peel and grind. We spend the afternoon getting blisters on our fingers from peeling the hot beans, occasionally popping one into our mouths and chewing slowly to extract the bitter dark chocolate flavor. The beans are poured into the mouth of a hand-grinder and everyone takes a turn at the wooden handle, as Sara forms the rich paste into balls and sets them onto a tray. She sells them when they’ve dried. Even using this simple process, Ecuadorian chocolate can be transformed into the most delicious cakes, brownies, drinks and treats. There are at least two chocolate experiences that are definitely “bucket list” every chocoholic should try at least once. Be careful. These two activities are one way tickets to Foodgasm Central!

1. Suck the fresh white fruit from the seeds inside a freshly harvested cacao pod
2. Chew on a hot roasted cacao bean until it’s almost liquid, then bite on a fresh strawberry.

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The health benefits of organic locally grown and roasted cacao beans are numerous. Cacao is a rich source of antioxidants such as procyanidins and flavanoids, which many say have anti-aging properties. Cacao in particular contains high levels of flavonoids, specifically epicatechin, which is said to have benefits for cardiovascular health. There have even been scientific studies with Panamanian Indians which discovered significantly lower rates of heart disease and cancer among the natives, compared to those who do not consume cacao.  It is said that increased blood flow after the consumption of flavanol-rich cacao helps to improve heart and organ health, and also brain function. Of course, once sugar and additives are mixed with the raw product, and it becomes a highly processed food, those health benefits rapidly decrease. However, when you are in Ecuador at least, sticking to the delicious raw organic product in all its varieties is not that hard to do, and the next time someone tells you that chocolate is bad for your health, you can simply bite into a fresh strawberry and show them it really isn’t.

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For more ideas about what to do while you are traveling in Ecuador, get in touch with Footprints.

Ecuador is Awesome – Part 8

Indigenous dolls

Indigenous Dolls at Otavalo Market

Ecuador is one of the most fascinating countries on the planet. The unique diversity of nature, cultures, geography, foods, activities, holiday destinations, people and languages makes this tiny country straddled either side of latitude zero a definite standout destination in South America. You might think I’m biased just because I have lived here for years, but I have also traveled through, lived in or visited 45 other countries over the last 30+ years, and Ecuador is the only country on Earth that has ever inspired me to build a house and grow roots.

When I began to consider some of the great things I love about Ecuador that I’d also like to share with people who are thinking about visiting, or even staying a while, I learned that many of my friends and acquaintances feel the same way about the same things. Therefore, in the spirit of fairness, before I sat down to write this ten-part series, I asked everyone I know who lives now or has lived or traveled in Ecuador this one simple question: “What is/was the best thing about your experience of Ecuador?” This series of posts are all about what they said.

Spice Market

Spice Market

We all agree that the markets in Ecuador are some of the best on the planet. Otavalo’s Indigenous Craft Market has a world renowned reputation and is the Number One destination for just about everyone who visits Ecuador. The indigenous Otavaleños are famous for weaving textiles, mostly wool, which they sell at the famous Saturday market. The largest market is held on Saturday; a maze spreading out from Plaza de los Ponchos, and stretching out through the streets all around. You can find is a vast range of brightly colored stalls throughout the market and also explore the local stores.

Wandering around the stalls selling handmade blankets, tablecloths, tagua jewelry, musical instruments, dream catchers, leather goods, fake shrunken heads, indigenous costumes, hand-painted platters and trays, purses, clothing, spices, raw foods, and spools of brightly dyed wool just to name a few, can become mind-boggling. A Dutch architect named Tonny Zwollo designed the original Otavalo market in 1970, using ninety mushroom-shaped concrete umbrellas with benches which quickly became known as Plaza de los Ponchos. But fantastic markets are not limited to Otavalo’s famous vegetable-dyed and hand-woven textiles. Many of the nearby villages and towns are renowned for their own particular crafts. The small village of Cotacachi is the heart of Ecuador’s leather industry. In San Antonio, where the local specialty is wood carving, prominent displays of carved statues, picture frames, and intricately carved furniture can be seen everywhere. Nearby in tiny villages, rainbows of flowers which are grown for export fill markets stalls and streets with irresistible perfumes.

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Grown for export, these seconds are sold at the market.

One of my favorite markets is Santa Clara in Quito. On three floors, vendors sell every kind of food you could never even imagine from fresh babaco to pickled pigs feet. There is a section for alternative medicines, rumored to be favored by witches. An entire floor is dedicated to fresh fruits and vegetables. Pitajaya can be found here, alongside the pineapples and dozens of varieties of bananas. Fresh green achocha sits between the snake beans and fresh broccoli heads. Upstairs, sliced octopus nestles beside a bucket of clams. A whole pig roasted over a spit smiles as we pass, beckoning us to come and sample some of the tender meat. Blenders whizz fruit and vegetables into healthy juices. It’s an assault on the senses in every sense, but well worth taking the time to visit for an hour or so. Whenever visitors come to Ecuador, the first place I take them is to Santa Clara where the sites, sounds and smells are an integral part of daily Ecuadorian life. Although much smaller, Cuenca has a fabulous fresh produce market too, with the entire top floor dedicated to local foods. I can recommend grabbing a plate of whatever smells wonderful and digging in.

The Banana Market

The Banana Market

All over Ecuador, there are markets in every town, usually held once a week, where vendors spread out their wares, from cooking pots to pan pipes, earrings to zapotes, live goats to blender blades, and everything else in between. Meeting the locals is definitely an essential part of the entire Ecuadorian experience, and one of the best ways to meet the people who carry the nation on their shoulders is by heading to the nearest market and striking up a friendly conversation. An old woman selling strawberries tells of her childhood in the mountains before electricity and potable water were even heard of in her village. A wizened man carrying a basket of peanuts says that his father used to get up before dawn every weekend to walk into town with the farm’s weekly harvest strapped to the donkey’s back to make it to market in time, a trail of small children tagging along behind. A little girl shows me her new dress, twirling and smiling as proud as can be. The bright dress is hand-made, embroidered by her mother. A lady selling papayas gives me a tip about growing achochas; they don’t like wet weather, she says, you have to plant them when it’s dry. A shy, giggling teenage girl asks to interview me in English for five minutes. It’s for her school project. We talk about my country. A trip to the market in Ecuador is not just about the shopping. It’s about the experience. It’s about integration and exchanging cultures. It’s about learning more about where you are, and understanding that these people are the essence of what makes it so. If you are in Ecuador, get yourself to a local market. You won’t regret it.

The live animal market

The live animal market

For more ideas about what to do while you are traveling in Ecuador, get in touch with Footprints.

The Freedom Train

The 30km track from Ibarra to Salinas goes through six hand-built tunnels

The 30km track from Ibarra to Salinas goes through six hand-built tunnels

After a leisurely breakfast at the hacienda in Otavalo, our driver took us along a newly built highway through villages and small towns on the way to Ibarra, at the base of the impressive Imbabura Volcano. Twenty-five minutes later, we arrived at the newly restored train station, renovated after years of neglect and disused railway services that began over a century ago. The train was an almost forgotten historic achievement until it was resurrected and enthusiastically restored by the Ecuadorian government two years ago. Our tickets had been reserved and purchased online several weeks previously, and we exchanged our payment receipt for a paper ticket at the Customer Service desk. Half an hour before departure time, we were called to board the Freedom Train (Tren de la Libertad) which celebrates both the freedom of the African slaves and Ecuador’s liberation from Spain. We alighted the charming colonial-style Carriage Number 207, a comfortable polished wood coach with adjustable upholstered seats – although slightly narrow to fit two larger western posteriors – and got comfortable. The air of excitement and anticipation throughout the carriage was tangible. We were accompanied by twenty giggling nuns, and four families with curious young children. Two other carriages, both painted bright red, were then boarded and the train driver tooted loudly, ready to go.

Before we departed from Ibarra, our guide Jaime introduced himself and, after a quick safety announcement, began to speak about the history of Ibarra and surrounds in both Spanish and English. Unfortunately, the English translations were a little shorter than the Spanish, and we heard less than half the information in English. When we commented about this to Jaime, he improved his translations. The train took us on a fun ride  through lush green valleys and towering volcanoes, and the arid Andean savannah lining either side of the Andean River, all the while descending from an altitude of 2,210m at Ibarra to 1545m at Salinas. On the route from Ibarra to Salinas the landscapes are as diverse as they are picturesque; one of the country’s most fascinating ecosystems extends over the protected páramo El Ángel, a high-altitude forest of [native Australian] paper-bark trees and wild expanses of intriguing frailejón plants. We chugged past farmland dotted with fields of cabbages, cauliflower, lettuce and broccoli where farmers tilled their fields with horse-driven plows, cattle pastures, hillsides covered in wildflowers of all colors and varieties, medicinal herbs and flowers, prickly pears, several species of cactus and many pretty flowering succulents, alongside sugar cane fields, as well as spectacular waterfalls and the historical cotton fields, and finally the long-abandoned cotton processing plant on the edge of town. Over narrow bridges perched breathtakingly high above the river, and through half a dozen hand-built tunnels ranging from 26m to 300m which threw us all into pitch darkness for a few moments, and we arrived in Salinas two hours later.

The first narrow steel bridge over the Andean River

The first narrow steel bridge stretches high over the Andean River and valley.

The wonderful Freedom Train excursion is complemented by an interesting community-tourism twist that allows the Afro-Ecuadorian residents of Salinas to demonstrate their culture and history through dance and music. We are then refreshed by a delicious glass of chilled cactus juice in the station cafe and have time to wander through the craft shop at the train station before heading into the town square with a native guide for a peek inside the local church, which is 189 years old, and the community produce store, founded by a cooperative of growers who produce jams, sauces, chocolates, nuts, liquors and natural ice-creams from their own harvests. After sampling the Salinas version of Pina Colada and buying an ice-cream each, we wandered through the streets to our lunch stop. The Northern Andean village of Salinas has a population of around 2000 inhabitants, all descended from the slaves of the Spanish conquistadors who were stolen from Africa to work the cotton fields. Most of the inhabitants carve out a living from agriculture; cotton, sugar cane, and fruit for wines and preserves, retaining many of their original African traditions such as the ‘bomba’ music and dance.

Lunch is served in a large restaurant on the edge of the village, overlooking the fields with views of the mountains behind. A traditional almuerzo (set lunch) offered a choice of soups and chicken or meat dishes with rice, as well as a fresh fruit juice and small dessert for $5.00 per person. Chatter filled the room as people discussed the journey so far with great pleasure and satisfaction. Our local guide returned to give us a tour of the Salt Museum where he made a fascinating presentation of the mining and production of salt from the nearby mines, demonstrating how his ancestors used age-old methods and antique equipment to extract the salt and the excess iodine from the final product. After a taste of Salinas’ mountain salt, we wandered back through town to the train station via another route to board the train for the return trip home. Jaime took a break from guiding for the trip back and many dozed as we passed by the same landscape filled with numerous species of bromeliads, flowering prickly pear and other colorfully flowering plants and grasses. Our driver was there to meet us and return us to the hacienda, something we were grateful for after a long but wonderful day touring the Northern Andes.

If you are visiting Ecuador, a train tour on the newly renovated railways is highly recommended.

Ecuador is Awesome – Part Three

When I began thinking about some of the great things about Ecuador that I’d like to share with travelers who are thinking about visiting, I found that many of my friends and acquaintances feel the same way about the same things. Therefore, in the spirit of fairness, before I began to write this series of ten articles, I asked my friends who live now or have lived or traveled in Ecuador this one simple question: “What is/was the best thing about your experience of Ecuador?” Here’s what they said:

Ecuadorian cuisine totally rocks. Ecuador’s geographical and cultural diversity allows for easy availability of a wonderfully vast range of fruit and vegetables, seafood and varieties of meat: domestic and wild. Restaurant menus from the Galapagos Islands and the Pacific Coast, the Andean Sierra and the Amazonian Orient offer a treasure trove of culinary delights to sample, and some also cater to many special diets including gluten- and dairy-free, diabetic and low carb, simply because of the nature of the range of foods available, and the dishes from which they are prepared. It may also interest you to know that Ecuador is GMO-free, although some of the larger produce growers do use toxic pesticides.

Fresh seafoods abound on the Ecuadorian coastline

Rock lobsters and other fresh seafood abounds on the Ecuadorian coastline

Several hundred species of potatoes are grown in The Andes, which is the original birthplace of the humble spud. The Incas treated potatoes so that they could be stored for many years, and the potato was valued not only as a good source of nourishment, but also as a measure of time, the unit being the length of time it took to cook one. So, you could say, “I’ll be there in four potatoes!”

The range of delicious tropical fruits in Ecuador is mind-boggling, from common bananas and pineapples to the lesser-known naranjilla and taxo, delightfully refreshing fruits you may never have even imagined. Not only is the list of tropical fruits longer than an iguana’s tail, there are also several different species of passionfruits, granadillas, melons, dragonfruits, mangoes, jackfruit, papayas, borojos, pomegranates, custard apples, bananas, guavas, tamarinds, and a massive selection of tree-ripened citrus fruits. A favorite of the locals is the fist-sized tomate del arbol (tree tomato) which makes delicious fresh juice and is sometimes used in tasty chili sauces. Another unusual fruit endemic to Ecuador is the babaco, which looks a bit like a papaya but tastes a bit like apple with a tropical twist when it’s stewed for a delicious dessert. Naranjilla, a small greenish orange fruit also known as lulu, also makes wonderful fresh juice, as does soursop, sweetsop and jackfruit. Thanks to the diversity of climates across the country, you can buy a range of tropical and temperate fruits such as pineapples and strawberries, both in season, from the same market on the same day.

Babaco is endemic to Ecuador and tastes like tropical apples when cooked.

Babaco is endemic to Ecuador and tastes like tropical apples when cooked.

Until the Spanish introduced cattle and sheep as sources of domestically farmed animals, guinea pig was the favored meat in Ecuador. Known as Cuy, it’s still an Ecuadorian delicacy. Whole charcoal-grilled guinea pigs with their teeth bared, eyes closed and paws intact are tasty and sweet, the smoky flavor reminiscent of barbecued pork, although there is not a lot of meat on one animal. Ecuadorians all over the country argue about the best places to eat cuy, some preferring Latacunga while others favor cuy from Ambato or Baños. There are times you might want to be a little careful about choosing wild meat dishes, because Giant Armadillo (now on threatened/endangered species lists) is offered in some eateries along the coastal region, along with Tatabra (Tayussu Peccari), Guanta (Cuniculus Paca), Perico Ligero (Pale-throated Sloth), Manta Ray, and also Pacific Green Sea Turtle.

Yucca is a staple food of Ecuador and can be found in soups, stews, patties and as a side dish.

Yucca is a staple and can be found in soups, stews, patties and as a side dish.

The wonderful soups of the highlands are probably more acceptable to European and American palates: Locro de papas, more commonly known as simply locro, a thick potato and farm cheese soup, is delicious and requires zero culinary courage to enjoy. Also tasty is yahuarlocro, a potato soup made with blood sausage, avocados and onions. Fanesca is a thick soup/stew made from fish, eggs, beans and a variety of grains, and is traditionally eaten over the period of Easter.

A favorite snack among Ecuadorians is llapingachos, potato or yucca patties made with cheese and onions, split and served with a salad of grated carrot and shredded cabbage. Also try empanadas: wheat flour or green banana pasties stuffed with cheese, shrimp, chicken or meat, and also corviche: green banana dough wrapped around a fish filling and fried. They’re very filling and can be found just about everywhere. Empanadas de morocho (corn meal) are usually filled with meat. The most typical Sierran cuisine includes fried or roast pork (fritada or hornado) served with white corn (mote), bananas, fried potato or yucca patties, popcorn and crispy pork crackling.

Roast pork, served with a smile, as well as corn, bananas, potato patties, salad and hot sauce.

Roast pork, served with a smile, corn, bananas, potato or yucca, salad & hot sauce.

Abundant with fresh seafood, tropical fruits and organic vegetables, the best cuisine in Ecuador is undoubtedly found on the coast. Competing for King of Coastal Cuisine would have to be Ceviche (Manabi Province) and Encocado (Esmeraldas Province).

Ceviche is fresh fish, shrimp, lobster, octopus, clams, mussels, or oysters marinated in lime and tossed with finely sliced onions, peppers and tomatoes, and spiced with fresh cilantro or wild chillangua. While rumor has it that best ceviches come from Province of Manabi, it is a popular dish throughout the country and indeed along the length of the Pacific coastline of South America. Sometimes it’s served with patacones (green banana chips), and sometimes with fresh popcorn.

Seafood in coconut sauce is a favorite dish along the coast.

Seafood in coconut sauce is a favorite dish along the coast.

Esmeraldas is famous for its fabulous encocados; meat or seafood simmered in a rich coconut cream sauce, made with the flesh of freshly grated coconuts and squeezed by hand. This dish is generally cooked with fresh ocean or river fish, rock lobster, slipper lobster, giant shrimp, crawfish, crab, or the superb blue mangrove crab, which is only found in the province of Esmeraldas. Other meats are sometimes cooked in coconut sauce, but the seafood varieties of encocado are more common. Some chefs make it soupy and saucy, and others make it thicker and creamier, but most agree that encocado is definitely a dish not to miss while visiting Ecuador.

Viche is a delicious soup of fish, crab, crawfish, conch and calamari with peanuts and bananas. Similarly, cazuela is a mixed seafood stew made with peanut sauce and green plantain bananas served in clay pot. Chupe is a delicious north-coast seafood dish with a wonderful combination of peanuts and coconut blended into the thick sauce. Another coastal specialty is encebollado, a hearty fresh tuna and yucca soup which is said to alleviate hangovers, is traditionally served for breakfast piled high with finely sliced red onions. And on just about every Ecuadorian table you’ll find a small dish of salsa picante (hot sauce) made with fresh chili peppers which can be anything from super-mild to tear-inducing-hot.

Encebollado: a staple for breakfast on the coast of Ecuador

Encebollado: a staple for breakfast on the coast of Ecuador

Unfortunately, for a country which produces the best coffee in the world, coffee is typically not well prepared in Ecuador. A national disgrace, coffee is often served in a concentrated liquid, to which you add hot water or milk, and most local hotels and restaurants prefer to serve instant coffee. Good organic locally grown and processed coffee is available from some of the higher quality hotels and renowned coffee shops in the larger cities. Good quality Ecuadorian chocolate, however, both in hot beverages and candy bars is relatively easy to find.

Cacao pods and Sweetsop picked from the trees in the jungle.

Cacao pods and Sweetsop picked from the trees in the jungle.

Ecuador is Awesome – Part One

Green tree snake

Green tree snake

Ecuador is one of the most interesting countries on the planet. The incredible diversity of nature, cultures, geography, foods, activities, holiday destinations, people and languages makes this tiny country straddled either side of latitude zero stand out in South America. You might think I’m being biased just because I live here, but I have traveled in, lived in or visited 46 countries over the last 30+ years, and Ecuador is the only country that has ever inspired me to build a house and stick around for a while.

When I began thinking about some of the great things about Ecuador that I’d like to share with people who are thinking about visiting, I found that many of my friends and acquaintances feel the same way about the same things. Therefore, in the spirit of fairness, before I sat down to write this ten-part series, I asked everyone I know who lives now or has lived or traveled in Ecuador this one simple question:
“What is/was the best thing about your experience of Ecuador?” This post, and the following nine posts will be all about what they said.

The Jungles and Forests

In a country that is made up of half rainforest, whether it’s the lush cloud forests high in the Andean Sierra with bird sanctuaries and butterfly farms, the verdant  tropical rainforests fringing the Pacific coast filled with howler monkeys, sloth and Pecari tajacu, the wild jungles of the Amazon with the richest variety of flora and fauna on earth, or the moist highlands of the volcanic Galapagos Islands with its giant tortoises, the diversity of landscapes and ecosystems, and wildlife is equal to none.

With 3500 species of orchids, 1600 species of birds, and 415 amphibian species, not to mention mammals, reptiles, insects and marine creatures such as the unique Amazonian pink river dolphins, there is no shortage of fascinating wildlife and countless species of exuberant vegetation to observe in the magical wildernesses of Ecuador. In every corner of the country there is something fascinating to explore and discover, from strange pink caterpillars that will give you an electric shock. gigantic boa-constrictors capable of swallowing a grown man whole, healing shamans who will take you on a natural psychedelic journey to your inner-self, and traditional indigenous tribes who are the fiercest warriors around, as they shrink heads and eat delicious grubs right out of the ground. Critters you’ve never even imagined abound in Ecuador. Flowers and plants that are beyond imagination thrive in the jungles and forests.

Despite its remoteness, the Amazon is alive with people. plants, creatures and adventures just waiting to be enjoyed. Historically, indigenous communities of the Siona­ Secoya, Cofan, Huaorani, Quichua, Shuar and Ashuar have been able to maintain a productive subsistence within the existing ecosystems of vast Amazonian forest preserve, estimated to cover around 12 million hectares. The Amazon ecosystem, particularly its tropical jungles, is considered one of the richest and most complex communities of plant and animal life in the world.

Esaltamontes amazon-boardwalk-in-jungle achuar

Friends from all over the world, and from all walks of life, we all agree unanimously that the forests and jungles of Ecuador, and the vast range of indigenous peoples and their cultures and traditions, and the amazing wildlife, incredible nature, countless activities, wild and tame adventures and wonderful education they have to offer a visitor to the country, are definitely not to be missed if you are thinking of coming to Ecuador.

Footprints can take you into the highlands, rainforests and jungles of Ecuador and show you a wonder-world of nature and eco-fun.

Foodies Guide to Ecuador

Eat your way around…

One of my favorite things about Ecuador is food. Admittedly, it took a while to see past the mountains of greasy white rice served at every meal and look at the rest of the plate. Like many people I know, I’m not fond of white rice and rarely eat it. I’m not a great meat-eater either, preferring seafood. Despite this, I have discovered over the five years I’ve lived here that Ecuadorian cuisine boasts some of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten.

One of the best ways to introduce yourself to Ecuadorian cuisine is visit a local food market. The range of exotic tropical fruits will blow your mind. Crate upon crate of vegetables you’ve never heard of are stacked high, and selling for a song. Magical aromas waft from the kitchens, enticing one to come and eat, even if you don’t understand what you are ordering. One of my favorite food markets is Santa Clara in Quito. Every imaginable food group is covered, from the humble Artichoke to exotic Zapotes, and everything in between.

Wandering amongst the stalls you begin to see the bones in the rich soup of Ecuador’s cuisine. Ignore the mountain of rice. In fact, you can “de-order” it with a simple phrase:

“. . . sin arroz, por favor . . .”

Bananas are a staple food in Ecuador

Bananas are another staple in Ecuador. Boiled green bananas. Fried green bananas. Mashed green bananas. Baked green bananas. Barbequed green bananas. Grilled green bananas. Chipped green bananas. Grated green bananas. Dried green bananas. Then, when they ripen, there are a million other ways to prepare the humble banana. And we haven’t even started on the vast varieties of bananas available; bromiches, dominiques, garrabanetes, chilenas, moradas. After years of rampant banana consumption, I could write a book about how to prepare, cook and eat bananas. I’d call it Going Bananas! Seriously.

While a native of the country cannot imagine a meal without rice, and may even exchange a glance with their compatriots at your supposed lack of appetite, they’ll compensate by putting an extra spoon of food on your plate to ensure you don’t go hungry or, even better, more grilled bananas. Bananas are served with many dishes, as patacones, chifles, maduro, and verde to name a few.

One of my favorite dishes is Encebollado: a fresh albacora and yucca soup served with finely sliced red onions and chopped cilantro, accompanied by Chifles: thin banana chips. A squeeze of lime and a dash of home-made chili sauce and breakfast is ready. Encebollado is a popular breakfast soup and there are plenty of eateries to slurp this hearty soup, surrounded by locals enjoying it too.

For me, a vital part of the food experience is getting to know the natives. While you don’t have to eat roasted suckling pigs, barbecued guinea pigs, armadillos in coconut sauce and wild pecari with vegetables if you don’t want to, pulling up a stool at a local eatery can often be more rewarding than the food itself. Apart from meeting some fabulous people, I discovered Muchin this way.

Muchin is a traditional coastal dish, baked bananas and fresh cheese wrapped in a bijao leaf and baked over hot coals. It can be eaten hot or cold, and the wrapper is biodegradable. In fact, food cooked in a leaf rocks! Tamales are up there too: green plantain banana wrapped around a filling of meat, chicken or seafood in a rich tomato sauce. These are wrapped in leaves and boiled. No rice required.

Another of my Top 10 is Corviche: green plantain banana patted into balls with an albacore filling and fried. After it’s cooked, it’s split and filled with salad and mayonnaise or chili sauce. I don’t do mayo, but pile on the home-made chili sauce. If you’re into chili, this is definitely for you! Two Corviche for a cheap and cheerful lunch or a snack is great tasting, nutritious and filling.

When you’re traveling along the volcano belt, vendors selling packets of fried hava beans line the streets. Buy some. These beat the nutritional value out of potato crisps by a long shot and your taste buds will thank you.

This list is far from complete. In fact, each great Ecuadorian dish needs its own post. I’ve not even mentioned Seafood Encocado or 100% cacao organic chocolate yet. Watch this space…

For Foodie Tours of Ecuador, get in touch with Footprints.

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The Magic of Cotopaxi

Cotopaxi

Cotopaxi

The 4WD picks us up early in the morning. We climb into the vehicle with the blankets of sleep still covering our faces. Yawning and floppy, we bump southwards out of Quito though the winding mountain range. Three and a half hours later, after stopping for breakfast somewhere along the Avenue of Volcanoes, we arrive at the Cotopaxi National Park Entrance where there are several stalls selling hand-knitted gloves, socks and balaclavas for anyone who has forgotten to dress warm. There are also brightly colored blankets, jackets and sweaters made from hand-dyed alpaca wool on sale. It’s warm at the entrance, the sun shines brightly, lighting up the snow-capped peaks of the surrounding volcanoes, the Illinizas (17,213ft) and Chimborazo (20,560ft),

Following a dirt trail that leads into the 36,000 hectares of pristine forests, rolling mountains, and serene lakes, as well as the treeless plains of the Andean páramo, which are also home to herds of llamas, wild horses, deer, and large lizards. On our way we see the Andean gull, blue-billed ducks, some large hummingbirds and a pair of (endangered) Andean condors circling high in the clear blue sky. We don’t see any pumas, spectacled bears, Andean foxes, or orange-headed caracaras that day, but are assured by our naturalist guide that they exist in the park. Shortly, we arrive at the Mariscal Sucre Museum and Visitor’s Center to drink a steaming cup of herbal coca leaf tea, which helps combat altitude sickness, and inspect the native garden in the grounds before checking out the relief map inside the tiny center, which also has a public bathroom at the back.

A quick stop to admire the reflection of majestic Rumiñahui (15,489ft) in the cold, clear waters of Limpiopungo Lake, and the spectacular view of snow-capped Cotopaxi on this brilliant sunny day leads into a photography frenzy when some rare black-faced Ibis and a small herd of llamas turn up to do a quick show.

The drive up to the carpark on Cotopaxi (14,924ft) reveals an incredible view of the surrounding plains and ranges, and our guide points out nearby volcanoes along the way. According to our guide, the Quechua meaning of the name Cotopaxi is Neck of the Moon, so called for the position of the volcano under a rising full moon. Dressed like so many Michelin men in many layers of wool and cotton, we spend the next forty-five minutes ascending the rocky path to the José Ribas mountain refuge (15,780ft) on the Cotopaxi snowline. At the yellow-roofed refuge, sipping more hot coca leaf tea, wrapping our freezing hands around the mugs to warm them, we’re not sure if we were lightheaded from bliss or the thin air at that altitude. For today, at least, we have no plans to climb to the summit of Cotopaxi (19,347ft).

In the Cueva del Búho (Owl Caves) great horned owls peek out from high above, blinking wisely as we eat a picnic lunch of home-made spinach pie, pasta salad and brownies, with brimming mugs of coca tea. Our guide points out native wildflowers as we lean against volcanic rocks and enjoy the warmth of the midday sun. After lunch, we’re off again, bumping over dirt trails until we come to Pucará El Salitre. After a snack of wild black currants from a nearby bush, we enter and explore the stoney ruins of this sprawling Inca military fortress which was used to monitor the movement of its armies and supplies, and keep look out for the enemy.

We leave the picturesque archeological site and drive over the grassy volcanic plain, spotting herds of wild horses and a flock of Andean gulls as we head towards Santo Domingo Lake via the Manantiales (natural springs). Inca stone walls surround the tranquil lake which gives us a glimpse of a traditional hacienda and boasts excellent views of the vast volcanic plateaus all around. The whole vista gives us a wonderful sense of feeling spiritually enhanced and celebrates our deepening love for the spectacular nature to be found in the Ecuadorian wilds.

Most of us are dozing lightly as we pull up outside the hotel in Quito at the end of the day. As we disembark, we fully understand the proud claim that Cotopaxi is the second most popular adventure destination in Ecuador. It’s definitely an unforgettable adventure.

Fancy a trip to Cotopaxi? You can take a day trip to visit the National Park and Volcano, or Climb right to the Summit!

Ask Footprints how!

Footprints Ecuador

  • Footprints Ecuador: Cotopaxi Tour
    Footprints Ecuador will help you custom design and plan your trip to Ecuador, inc. Galapagos Cruises, Island Hopping, Scuba Diving, and also travel on the mainland inc. Otavalo, Cotopaxi, Mindo, Quito, Cuenca & more. Take a Day Trip to Cotopaxi or Climb right to the summit!
  • LIKE” Footprints on Facebook
    Footprints offers personal one-on-one consultation to help you plan the trip of a lifetime to Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands with no-fuss itineraries making the most of your time and your budget, catering to your specific interests and requirements.