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.

flowers

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.

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.