Helado de Paila is a particular sort of ice cream made in the north of Ecuador. It is made not through churning, as is usual, but instead prepared in a wide metal pan (a bit like a wok) which the ice cream maker spins on a bed of ice. The fruit juice, with I think just a little cream added, freezes in the pan through the contact with this ice. The result should be a thick creation somewhere between a sorbet and ice cream.
We had Helado de Paila twice while staying in Quito. The first time was in the long-established Heladaria San Augustin in the old town, where the waiter helpfully brought us a plate of small taster spoonfuls so we could make our choice. These were mostly flavoured with various local fruits, many of them unknown to us on this, the first day of our trip. I was tempted by taxo, a type of passion-fruit, but in the end chose guanabana, which reminded me a little of lychees, and naranjilla, a green bitter orange that I found refreshing. Chris tried mora, the local blackberry-like fruit, and chocolate. He was disappointed with the latter, and indeed all of the flavours seemed a little watery, which made me wonder why Helado de Paila is so celebrated (and indeed why this establishment is so highly rated). But the next day while out and about with our friends Betty and Marcelo we stopped at a roadside heladeria in Nayon, where I had a much stronger flavoured and very refreshing cone of taxo flavoured Helado de Paila.
My next tip is about some of the delicious fruit juices that we had all over Ecuador!
The Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead is commemorated in Ecuador as in many South and Central American countries, although not to the same extent as in Mexico perhaps. Its observance is strongest among the native people, the Kichwa. The festival falls on 2nd November, which was during our visit to Cuenca, and we saw lots of stalls, mainly near the Iglesia del Carmen, selling these typical decorations in white and purple which people were buying to decorate the graves of their relatives when they visited them for the celebrations. It is the custom to pay these relatives a visit on this day, much as you would if they were still alive – take them a gift, enjoy a meal (usually a family picnic on or next to the grave) and maybe play some favourite music while reminiscing about days gone by.
One element of the festival that is peculiar to Ecuador is the consumption on and around the festival time of colada morada and guagua de pan. The former is a thick drink (or some would say a thin porridge) made from purple maize and Andean blackberries, flavoured with cinnamon and other spices and served hot. The guagua de pan that typically accompanies it is a (usually sweet) loaf shaped to look like a swaddled baby. Guagua means baby or small child in the native language, Quechua, and pan means bread in Spanish, demonstrating the dual nature of the origins of the custom, mixing native and Roman Catholic beliefs. We saw lots of these breads for sale in the markets we visited in Otavalo and Pujili, and many restaurants sell both guagua de pan and colada morada in the days running up to the festival. I tried the latter in a coffee shop in Cuenca and rather liked it.
My next few tips describe some of the landscapes of Ecuador that I especially liked, starting with the volcanoes of the Andean range.
I had read quite a lot about Ecuadorean cuisine and was keen to try some of the local delicacies. Luckily we found that most restaurants served the traditional cuisine, even if they had a few international dishes as well, and we were able to “eat local” most days, at least while on the mainland. Some of the dishes I most enjoyed included:
Locro de Papa – a popular and delicious potato soup which (usually) has a chunk of avocado and slice of white cheese floating in it. The cheese reminded me a little of haloumi in texture, and because it did not seem to melt into the soup as most cheeses would. I had this several times during the trip, e.g. for lunch in Raymipampa restaurant on the Parque Calderon in Cuenca. Soups generally are good here, and I also enjoyed a quinoa soup at the restaurant in the Termas de Papallacta, a great pumpkin soup at Tambopaxi Lodge in the Cotopaxi National Park, and a lentil soup in a community-run restaurant right by the crater of Quilotoa.
Empanadas – little stuffed pastries which are found all over South and Central America. Here in Ecuador there are several variations, depending partly on where you are in the country. We were mainly in the highlands, where empanadas de morocho are popular – the flour is made from ground corn and the filling is usually meat-based. We also had empanadas de viento a couple of times, which are made from regular flour and stuffed with cheese. In Guayquil, on the coast, we had empanadas made with plantain dough and stuffed with cheese.
Ceviche – the South American classic but here done slightly differently. There is much more sauce than I have had elsewhere and it reminded me somewhat of gazpacho. I had several – all slightly different and all delicious. There was a great shrimp ceviche in a restaurant in Cotachi near Otavalo, a super mixed seafood one for lunch one day on the Angelito which cruising the Galápagos, and even a vegetarian version made with palm hearts in the restaurant at the Termas de Papallacta. It is usually served with a dish of popcorn which you drop into the bowl (a bit like croutons with soup) and which soaks up the lovely juices – wonderful!
Llapingachos – potato patties with a melted cheese centre, fired or grilled until brown and crispy. They are usually served with sausages or grilled meat, avocado, fried egg and maybe corn. Chris had these early on in our trip and we were both very impressed, so looked for them everywhere and both had them several times!
I was less impressed by the humita I tried in a Quito restaurant, though it’s possible I got a poor example. Humitas consist of fresh ground corn mixed with egg, sometimes cheese and other flavourings, wrapped in corn husks and steamed. They can be savoury or sweet. The one I had (at a small café in the Archbishop’s Palace complex in Quito) was savoury but was so bland in flavour that I could only enjoy eating it once I had covered the corn with generous spoonfuls of aji, the chilli sauce that is provided just about everywhere in Ecuador.
I was also not a particular fan of mote, white boiled corn kernels served as a side dish with meat, which again I found rather too bland for my taste. Other typical dishes which we did not get to try include hornando, a whole roast pig (though we had plenty of pork dishes) and cuy, roast guinea-pig – not through any unwillingness to experiment but we never actually saw it on the menu in any restaurant we visited (I think that mostly it is served in specialist places).
My next tip is about one particular typical food, a type of ice cream called Helado de Paila
The Andes are still very much a barter society. The local markets are full of not only colorful images and intense smells but also a cacophony of noises and not all of them are coming from the livestock. People yell to announce what they are selling but what makes the most commotion are people arguing over prices or what they quite vocally consider an unfair trade. It can become quite heated but we never saw anything come to fisticuffs. Oh, and pigs squealing another competitor for most dissonance but then again their fates are probably worth all the uproar!
Ecuadoreans are far more likely to drink beer with a meal than wine, and although they do produce a little of the latter we never saw any in any of the restaurants we visited – only Argentinean and Chilean wines, and occasionally an expensive import from Europe. We were told that only the most up-market restaurants might have local wines, and although we ate in some nice places clearly none were good enough! In any case, we were happy to drink beer most of the time, and luckily there are two good local beers, Club and Pilsner. Both are similarly priced and widely available, though a few of the cheaper bars we went in only had one, usually Pilsner. Our friend Marcelo had a strong preference for Club and we were inclined to agree with him, while not seeing such a marked difference as to make either unacceptable!
There are in fact two varieties of Club, known as green or brown according to the colour of the bottle. The latter is a more recent introduction which the brewery claim is a superior drink, but which Jose Luiz, our guide in Otavalo and Cotopaxi, claimed was just a marketing ploy!
Next tip: Ecuadorean celebrations for the Day of the Dead
On New Year's Eve all people in Ecuador are celebrating the beginning of the new year with a lot of firecrackers and an amusing custom of burning dolls. They have been prepared many days ahead and they can be seen at every corner being sold, or in front of the shops dressed as real people. They are waiting for their moment of sacrifice which will give people a great enjoyment. They are life-sized dolls filled with sawdust or newspapers or any other flammable material, and wearing real clothes according to the person they represent. The head is covered by paper masks. Most of the times they represent unpopular politicians or celebrities, athletes or even cartoon figures. Sometimes even members of the family , but in this case they are burned for luck and not as a punishment...Before they are burned they are beaten by the “displeased” Ecuadorian giving a lot of fun!
On New Year's Eve besides burning the famous dolls, Ecuadorians, mostly men, are dressed as widows in black clothes, tights and a black shawl and stop cars and people in the street asking for money. They are supposed to ask for money for their husband's funeral but they have to perform a dance before they get the money. Obviously they are not so sorrowful about their “husband's”death. This goes on on New Years Day , too . Cars are stopped by a rope raised across the street and can not go unless money or candies are given. The “widows” perform short dances which really funny as most of them are ...men.
People around Tigua have painted drums and masks used at festivals for many generations, but it was not until the 1970s that they started to make paintings to sell. It all started when a foreigner was interested in buying an old drum from Julio Toaquiza, a young man from the area. He later got the idea to paint on flat canvases made by sheepskin. And as it turned out well he taught his relatives and neighbours how to paint as well.
The Tigua paintings are very colourful and often painted on sheepskin. The motifs are scenes from different Quichua legends, festivals and religious ceremonies. It is also common with scenes depicting the daily life, like farming and weaving, of the people in the high Andes around Tigua. The condor, sheep or llamas are common animals in the paintings and in the surrounding landscape the Vulcan Cotopaxi can often be seen.
When I hiked to Tigua, from Quilotoa, I had hoped to visit the community gallery in Tigua, Galería Tigua - Chimbacucho. Unfortunately Tigua is a very spread out community and I was many kilometres away from the gallery when I reached Posada de Tigua where I was going to stay. The gallery is situated at Km 53 along the Latacunga - Zumbahua road.
But Tigua paintings, of different quality, can be found in galleries, souvenir stores or at markets all over Ecuador. And when I saw the painting in the picture, in a shop in Quito, I knew I wanted to have that one. It reminded me very much of the week when I hiked in the Quilotoa area and one morning in Quilotoa the sun was shining in the same position over Laguna Quilotoa as in the painting and the two tops of Iliniza Norte and Iliniza Sur could also be seen behind the rim of the crater. Now it hangs on the wall just above my computer!
Ecuadorians have a fun little custom - on your birthday they like you to "morder el pastel" (bite the cake). This basically means they gang up on you and shove a cake into your face. Don't worry, you'll still be able to eat your cake too - they usually make two cakes, one for eating and the other for shoving!
If you are in Ecuador over New Years, you'll probably get a chance to see the local custom of burning effigies called "anios viejos". These are normally made with paper mache and usually depict unpopular politicians or old people. They burn them as if to say "out with the old, and in with the new" and it is thought to bring good luck.
New Years 1993-1994, I was in Santa Rosa, on the coast and we toured the streets checking out all the effigies shortly before midnight. Then, it began to rain and we dashed inside. So we saw the effigies, but no burning.
Carnival is celebrated over 3 days, usually in Feb or March, to welcome the onset of Ecuador's rainy season. This is a prime example of a festival with indigenous roots that has been transformed somewhat by catholic tradition. It has elements of Mardi Gras (parades, colorful clothing, dancing in the streets) mixed with something unique to Ecuadorian culture: the throwing of water! Pretty much wherever you are during this time, you are likely to get hit by water ballons. (Kids sure love them! ) But the highland city of Guaranda, south of Quito, is carnival central. This is the "new orleans" of Ecuador, where locals are especially exuberant, adding flour throwing into the watery mix.
It's also traditional to drink lots of "chicha", an alcoholic beverage made from corn.
If you don't want to get drenched during Carnival time, go to Ambato. Water ballons are outlawed - instead they have the Festival of Fruits and Flowers, which is colorful and interesting in its own right.
If you are in Quito during the first week of December, you might want to check out a bullfight. December 6th, the anniversary of the founding of Quito, is a huge party - with dancing in the streets (esp. to the tradtional song "Chulla Quiteno") and parades. On each of the 8 days leading up to Dec. 6th, there is a morning bullfight and an evening bullfight in the main "Plaza de Toros". This is a very interesting experience. Outside you can buy wine or beer in plastic baggies (no cans or bottles allowed inside the arena) - which certainly makes for an interesting atmosphere.
All Souls Day, on November 2nd, is an important day for Ecuadorians. It is also a good time to visit a cemetary, which I found to be quite different that what I am used to in the states. Many graves are actaully set in towers of concrete boxes. During my exchange year, I went with my host family to lay flowers on some anscestors graves in Riobamba. There were tons of people at the cemetary doing the same - very colorful and culturally interesting.
One Saturday night in Quito, after dinner, I saw there was a lot of people on Plaza Grande. Someone told me there was going to be a performance below the cathedral so I also went there to have a look. There were several dance groups performing folkloric dances from the highlands. It was really nice to see, and I stayed for an hour. You can see a short video of the traditional dances here.
It was a Saturday night and I don’t know if they have these performances on Plaza Grande often at weekends or if it was because it was the 25th of June, and it had something to do with the festivals celebrated between the 21st and 29th of June, the Inti Raymi and San Juan and San Pedro festivals.
On new Years, one of the popular traditions in Ecuador is the traditional "Quema del Ano Viejo" which means Burning of the Old Year. Many people start to design and create these dummies (Anos Viejos) late november, which are made from paper or wood and filled with a lot of fireworks and explosives. The imagination go beyond the limits at the time to create these dummies; You can find everything from goverment people to the most popular cartoons and sport personalities. This is considered an art and as you see in the pictures, people make a living of this. At midnight neighbors, family and friends get together to say farewell to the old year by burning them on the streets.
Traveled thur Quito on a Eco Tourism trip. The Marriott was unforgetable. Beautiful hotel in every...more
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Av. de las Amazonas, Banos, 2000, Ecuador
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