SHEEP HEAD SOUP IS NOT FOR ME
At some markets in Ecuador i saw stalls full of sheep heads that were for sale. I am told that sheep head soup is one of the favorite local meals here and you can even buy the soup at the market if you wish to try this. Zumbagua or Zumbuhua which is near Cotapaxi is famous for this dish.Related to:
El Ultimo Hielero – The Last Ice Merchant
Twice a week Baltazar from the village Cuarto Esquinas walk up the slopes of Chimborazo with his donkeys, to the glacier. There he cuts large blocks of ice from the glacier. Each block weighs around 40kg and they are taken back down to the village on the donkeys. Each Saturday Baltazar goes to Riobamba to sell the ice at Mercado La Merced. He only gets $3 per block of ice. The ice from Chimborazo is considered to be of very good quality and it is used in the juices at the market. Before ice could be made in large quantities there were many more people working as ice merchants on Chimborazo, but now it is only Baltazar left. Baltazar is over 70 years old and he has worked as an ice merchant since he was 14 years. The work is very hard for little money, so it is good that he now days can get some extra money from tourists hiking to see him doing this old traditional work. I must say that it was very interesting to see and hear about this, but also a bit uncomfortable to watch someone doing such a hard work without working myself.
From Urbina we first drove to the village where Baltazar lives and we saw him making the donkeys ready for work. Baltazar’s house is situated on a hill and the view is stunning from there. When Baltazar set of with his donkeys we went with the car to higher altitude where we started the hike.
Delfin, who was my guide, told me that the hike usually takes three hours. After two hours we had to wait half an hour in a simple hut for Baltazar to catch up with us. It would have been too cold to wait higher up. It turned out that Delfin had driven the car a little bit further up than usual as he thought I was not going to be a fast walker, but I am. Anyway, Baltazar passed us and we continued. When we reached the glacier at 4800 metres baltazar had already started to work with his ice axe. It was very cold and windy, but Baltazar worked without gloves and without protecting glasses. It is a dangerous work as rocks covering the glacier where he worked could fall down. The ice blocks that he cuts are then covered with straws before they are put on the donkeys. In that way they are not only protected from dirt, but also from melting too much.
It was too cold and windy to stand still, so when Baltazar was working with the straws we left to start the hike downhill.
Because I was just one person with a guide the cost was $80 (July 2014).
When I did this tour I stayed at Posada La Estación in Urbina.Add to your Trip Planner
Paseo del Chagra, Machachi
Machachi is a town about 35 km south of Quito. It is situated on the west side of Panamericana, at an altitude of 2950 metres (so it can be quite chilly). It is a medium sized town with 12 500 inhabitants.
Just south of Machachi is Volcan Rumiñahui. Other volcanoes nearby are Corazon, Pasochoa and Sincholagua. A few tourists make Machachi their base when they climb those tops or visit Cotopaxi National Park, but I only visited for a few hours to see the traditional festival Paseo del Chagra.
Every year in July there is a big festival in Machachi, the Paseo del Chagra. The chagras are known for their good horseman skills and the Quechua word chagra has now begun to mean “Andean Cowboy”. At the annual festival in Machachi there is a parade where hundreds of chagras participate riding on their best horse. They are usually dressed in chaps (often made by llama fur), wool ponchos, a scarf a hat and boots. In the parade there are also traditional dance groups, dancing and singing.
At the festival there is also a kind of bullfight, well more like running with the bulls, where lots of young men run around in the same arena as a loose bull.
During the festival there is a lot of different street food available and also lots and lots of alcohol.
I did not here about the festival in Machachi until the same day it was happening, so I only visited a few hours from Quito. It was already afternoon when I arrived, but I saw part of the parade and had a glimpse of the running with the bull. I went inside the arena but at the first entrance they wanted to Charge me $5 for watching. I was not that interested and went to another entrance where I stood watching for while. Well, I’m glad I changed my plans for the day and went to Machachi when I heard about the festival because it was interesting to see this traditional Paseo del Charga.Related to:
- Arts and Culture
Ecuador is a large producer of cacao, but much of the cacao is sold to big companies in other countries. However, there is also production of high quality chocolate within the country from cooperatives and small producers, some are both organic and fair trade certified. The most common cacao bean is the Arriba bean.
When I was in Ecuador I tried some very good dark chocolate from Kallari, Pacari and Hoja Verde. They were all very good.
Here are links to those chocolate producers:
When I was in Mindo I went on a chocolate tour at El Quetzal where they explained the different steps in chocolate making and where we also did some chocolate tasting. If you get the chance to do something similar while in Ecuador I can recommend it.Add to your Trip Planner
Inti Raymi celebrations
The Inti Raymi festival is a festival celebrating the summer solstice and harvest. It is especially celebrated in the northern highlands and I had hoped to see some celebrations while I visited Quito in June 2012.
I had read in one of the newspapers that there was going to be Inti Raymi celebrations on Plaza San Francisco on Sunday 24th of June. At the tourist office they didn’t know anything about this, but I went there anyway. When I came to the square there were no signs of any activities. I asked at Tianguez if they knew anything about it but they didn’t, so I ordered a coffee at Tianguez and sat down, overlooking the square to see if any dancers would arrive, and yes, after a while they did.
Lots of dancers in colourful clothes arrived and they gathered below a stage in one end of the square. There they were dancing to traditional music while some ceremonies were taking place in the middle. Lots of people also came to watch.
If you are in Quito (or somewhere else in the north highlands) from June 21 and some days after, and you get the chance to see the Inti Raymi celebrations it is absolutely worth spending time watching.Related to:
- Arts and Culture
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 PailaRelated to:
- Food and Dining
Club or Pilsner?
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 DeadRelated to:
- Beer Tasting
Helado de Paila
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!Add to your Trip Planner
Día de los Muertos
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.Related to:
Traditional dances on Plaza Grande, Quito
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.Related to:
- Arts and Culture
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!Related to:
- Arts and Culture
Cuy - a local specialty
Forget the concept that guinea pigs are PETS, here in Ecuador they are FOOD. A specialty, as you will see on the price tag as "cuy" (as they are called here) are a rather more expensive treat for "ferias" and grand occasions, costing ca. 12 - 20 $. The taste is very similar to chicken.Add to your Trip Planner
Kiss on the Cheek
When you meet someone new or see someone you haven't seen in a while, a quick kiss on the left cheek is common. You don't even really have to kiss the person, just put your cheeks close together and pretend.Add to your Trip Planner
Definitely Try the Fruit
There is a wondrous diversity of fruits in Ecuador, much like everything there. These are fruits that you have most likely never seen or tried before, and they don't taste like anything you've had. From the tree tomato (tomate de arbe) to the babaco, they are a delicious addition to a trip through the country. So stop in, try some pies or jams or just eat them raw... you won't be disappointed.Related to:
- Food and Dining
In the market places, it is customary to haggle over prices. Some visitors have an issue with that, especially as the prices are pretty low to begin with. But it is part of the life here, part of the experience. I've had some people actually look a little shocked that I didn't make any kind of counter-offer, just accepted what they said. So, dive in and try to score some deals. Enjoy the experienceRelated to:
- Arts and Culture
- Business Travel
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