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 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.

Point Break – Mompiche

Many people come to Mompiche just to surf the Point Break. In the season – November to April – this tiny remote fishing village that barely earns its spot on the Ecuadorian map, becomes a haven for surfers from all over the world. Hostels fill up, restaurants are teeming with diners, and the pristine beach is smattered with the bright sarongs of rapidly reddening sunbathers. Vendors walk up and down the white sand hawking fresh coconuts, tropical fruits and tasty ceviches. The rest of the time, it’s pretty quiet. Don’t be fooled by its reputation as solely a surf beach. Aside from surfing, there are many other activities and tours you can do in Mompiche.

Wakeboarding, Mompiche style when the wave-action is a little slow.

Wakeboarding Mompiche-style when the wave-action is a little slow on The Point.

Naturally, there are plenty of water sports on offer along the 7km white sand beach. Body-boarding and surfing aside, you can also go kayaking, snorkeling, sailing, motor-boating and fishing. All year round, you can see the colony of Blue-footed Boobies on The Point, as well as Brown pelicans, Great and Magnificent frigate birds and even the odd Pink flamingo. From June to September, during the annual migration of the Humpback Whales, local fishermen offer trips out to San Francisco Peninsular to view these enormous marine creatures as they make their way south on the Humboldt Current. Lucky visitors often see mothers and their calves playing in the sea as they travel past Mompiche bay. Frequently during the whale-watching season, leaping whales can even be spotted from the beach. On public holidays and fiestas, a para-sailing outfit sets up shop on the beach and sometimes there are bay tours on a catamaran.

If you’re not a water baby, but enjoy spending time on the beach anyway, Doña Fabiola offers horses for rent. Mompiche’s version of Mrs Doolittle, Fabiola takes very good care of her horses, as well as her ever-growing menagerie of dogs, cats, ducks, chickens, turkeys, geese and an abandoned calf named Anabel, which she hand-feeds thrice daily. The well-maintained horses are in lovely condition and can by hired by the hour or for a half- or full-day tour with a guide. There are two tour options: a leisurely walk along the beach and back, or a more adventurous tour through the mountains behind Mompiche, passing by lakes, through dense jungle trails and spotting plenty of wildlife. Depending on the fruit seasons, you can even pick and eat exotic tropical fruits directly from the trees.

You can also go with a Native Guide and hike along Mompiche’s fascinating river, learning along the way about all the exotic water plants, tropical fruit trees you didn’t even know existed, and the magical medicinal herbs the ancient Chachi tribes used and the modern locals currently use to cure their ills, also visiting the Secret Waterfall and taking dips in refreshing pools as you go. A hike along the river takes most of the day and is an education in Mompiche’s jungle flora and fauna in itself.

Miguel, who has lived in the mountains his whole life, takes half-day hiking tours through the jungle. With intimate knowledge of every tree, plant and flower, as well as all the species of wildlife in the area, hiking with him is truly an eye-opener. Sometimes he just stops mid-step. Using sign language, he tells you not to move. Then, straight away so as not to alarm you, he tells you to listen. And then he’ll point out the creature making the sounds he heard while you were noisily opening your water bottle. He will also protect you from any danger long before you even know it’s there. En route, he’ll cut coconuts out of the palm trees to drink and feed you with seeds and weeds, roots and shoots you did not even imagine were edible. Most of the trails are moderate to difficult. But even if you’re a novice hiker, and enjoy the solitude of the jungle, a trip into the wilds with Miguel is definitely for you!

If you are lucky, you can see families of Howler Monkeys in the trees along the path.

If you are lucky, you can see and hear families of Howler Monkeys calling from the jungle.

There are numerous hotels and restaurants of all grades and varieties, as well as kiosks selling freshly made fruit juices and milkshakes made from all the wonderful tropical fruits available in the area. The best “superfruit” juices to try are Papaya, Borojo, Jackfruit and Guanabana (Soursop). Bananas, naturally, are a staple food on the coast and fresh juice blended with a banana is more like a milkshake without the milk. Of course, just like everywhere there are reputable places to stay and eat – and some not so great. Some of the local delicacies not to miss are Corviche, Muchin, Encebollado, Encocado and Ceviche.

If too much action is not your scene, there are also some wonderful options that don’t cost a penny: a leisurely stroll north along the gloriously unpopulated white sand beach, followed by a spot of hammock-surfing and a siesta are also “activities” in which you can heartily participate while visiting Mompiche. If relaxation is your thing, shiatsu massage, relaxation massage and yoga are also possible in this tiny village.

A short hike southwards will take you to either the Cemetery on top of The Point, which has a spectacular view of the bay, or go further to Black Beach, a short cove covered in shimmering black titanium sand. Further south, the islands of Portete and Bolivar can be explored on foot (with a river crossing), or visit Jupiter by boat.

Towards evening, people-watching and sunset-gazing along Mompiche’s ever-changing beach-front promenade can also be extremely educational and entertaining, and also breath-takingly relaxing.

Sound good? Ask Footprints how to get to Mompiche.

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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