…but thankfully I can still type.
Before I dish the deets on this South American utopia, I’d like to dedicate this post to my friend Alex, who guided me through Ecuador with her personalized recommendations of what to do while there (“No Lindsay, you would die if you tried to climb that mountain. How about you just stick to eating my favorite Ecuadorian foods instead?”), and Corinna, my loyal travel companion who thoughtfully carried around a rotting starfruit to prevent us from ever going hungry. Ecuador would have been a bust without the two of you.
As you can probably gather by now, I recently backpacked around Ecuador. It was an impromptu and uninspired trip in the sense that I bought my bus ticket a day before going, not entirely sold on the idea of crossing the border alone without a plan. I was merely going because it is so close to Peru and I had avoided it for far too long (what an incredible encumbrance it is to travel the world!). Adding to my reluctance was the fact that most people I know who have been to Ecuador have given the country’s food less-than-sterling reviews. How could I abandon Peruvian fare for the unknown, which could prove mediocre? I was suffering from separation anxiety just thinking about it.
I accepted the challenge though, and headed to Ecuador in search of some choice eats. Like any good adventure, my trip wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, particularly at the start. To be frank, day one was nothing short of a disaster. The bus ride from northern Peru to Loja, Ecuador is nine hours long, which would have been completely tolerable had I made suitable snack selections. I suffer from the rather grave affliction of having eyes that are SMALLER than my stomach, meaning I always underestimate the quantity of food I am capable of consuming on any given day. Furthermore, I never learn from my mistakes, which in this context means that no matter how frequently I travel, I never pack enough food to satiate myself. This time though, I thought I was SOOOO clever when I went snack hunting! I knew it wasn’t practical to hoard heaps of Peruvian food in Tupperware for the ride, so I settled on these new potato chips, which happen to possess the flavor of a Peruvian dish I cherish. While not the real McCoy, these chips were the next best thing. If Ecuador’s food turned out to be as lackluster as they say, I would at least come equipped with a tasty little tidbit of Peru.
To give you the rundown on the above package of chips (since you are probably DYING to know), I will tell you that they imitate the flavor of arroz con pato quite nicely, so Lay’s can pat themselves on the back for that. Each bag boasts about 20 chips and costs around 15 cents. Because my IQ is apparently lower than the bag’s chip content, I thought one bag would suffice for my nine hour trip. This is how I spent the bus ride to Ecuador:
Hour 1- Still full from the 10 pieces of bread I inhaled for breakfast.
Hour 2- Wake up from my first snooze sesh FAMISHED. Open my sole bag of chips (which I had accidentally fallen asleep on) to find a rather pathetic conglomerate of crumbs. Intelligently decide to ration the crumbs to one tongue-full an hour. Survival is key.
Hour 3- Dump entire bag of chips into my mouth. Self control just isn’t really my thing.
Hour 4- Stare longingly at the chocolate chip cookies the man next to me is enjoying. Lucky. Duck. Hang my head in shame at my desperation, when I fortuitously find some fallen chip crumbs on my boob and in the creases of my pants. Who’s the lucky duck now?
Hour 5- Discreetly turn the chip bag inside out and lick its entire surface area. It tastes like salty aluminum.
Hour 6- Turn the chip bag right-side-in, suction it over my nose and mouth, and deeply inhale the remnants of its scent. 60 times. It smells like wet, salty aluminum.
Hours 7-9- Contemplate whether my situation is hopeless enough to implore Corinna for her starfruit, but decide against it since we had just met a few hours earlier. Surely a lavish supper awaited us in Loja.
Needless to say, I arrived in Loja in rough shape. The worst of it was that for the sake of my new friendship, I had to pretend that I wasn’t unraveling at the seams from hunger. “Hey Corinna, do you want to drop our stuff off at the hostel and find something to eat? I mean, it’s just one of the millions of things we could potentially do tonight, but I am open to other suggestions. It’s not urgent at all, so take your time.”
The face of flexibility, that’s me. Now please excuse me while I go gnaw on my arm.
Corinna and I scoured the streets of Loja for an hour and a half, not able to locate ANY food or drink. By this point, I was inconspicuously surveying the gutters for discarded scraps, and still, NOTHING. Can you imagine living in a city, leaving your apartment at 7pm for a snack, and wandering the streets for almost two hours without finding even a morsel of food? It was my own personal hell. Just as I was about to expire, we came across a restaurant. I scanned the menu for something familiar with which to comfort myself, when I saw horchata listed with the drink offerings. YES! I ordered a large cup and salivated at the thought of the frothy, cinnamon-y goodness that is horchata. To eat, I settled on an overpriced plate of chicken, beans, and rice. Food has never tasted so good.
But wait a minute. What is this colorful little pouch?
A teabag? No. Unacceptable. I ordered a chilled, rice water horchata. My heart sank. I felt like I had crossed the Sahara on foot and ordered an ice-cold Coca-Cola, only to be served a cup of tepid water. You can’t label something “horchata” if you’re not going to serve the type of horchata that actually tastes good. That’s false advertising! Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s just unfair and maybe it makes me want to cry a little bit. What the waitress had served me was Ecuador’s own horchata (a pinkish tea, which in no way relates to the horchata I thought I had ordered). Ecuador and I were off to a rocky start.
In the country’s defense, it was closed-minded of me to believe that Mexican horchata was the only horchata that existed in the world. Ecuador’s version eventually grew on me, and I found myself craving it quite often throughout my trip. An infusion of up to 30 herbs (impressive, considering I can’t even list 10 herbs off the top of my head), it is usually served fresh as opposed to in teabag form, and it offers a healthy alternative to tea and coffee. It tastes a bit like a hybrid between Peruvian chicha morada, Mexican jamaica and Argentine te digestivo, which isn’t too shabby of a combo if you ask me.
Fortunately, day one wasn’t at all indicative of how the rest of my trip would unfold. Besides, had that menu mishap not occurred, horchata would have never become my go-to breakfast beverage. So what did I drink it with? I thought you’d never ask! Ecuador offers a host of breakfast foods that I fancy, and many of them are heavy, which I like. Most Latin American countries favor hefty lunches with smaller breakfasts and dinners, which I am not built for. After a heavy lunch I require a heavy nap (4 hours, at least), which somehow doesn’t really fly in the working world. For this reason (and many more), I appreciate Ecuador’s style.
In my opinion, the best Ecuadorian breakfasts can be found in the sierra. The local markets are always a good starting point. Many travelers shy away from indoor markets as the food served there tends to be cooked with tap water, but I have never been able to resist. Indoor markets open much earlier than restaurants, they provide a sure-fire window into all that a culture values, and they offer a high concentration of foods in one place. Ecuador has the cleanest and most orderly markets I have ever encountered in Latin America, so I had no qualms about frequenting them, nor do I hesitate to recommend them to you.
In Loja’s market, everyone seemed to be eating soup, so I followed suit. Whaaaaaa? Soup for breakfast?! What can I say? It’s a little habit I picked up in Peru, and I have come to prefer it over the oatmeal and cream of wheat I once loved on cold mornings. I find that soup warms you without settling too densely in your tummy, which is my kind of b-fast for sure. Word to the wise, though: Always know what you are ordering in Latin America, especially if you are not a fan of intestines and other such “goodies” floating in your broth. I can’t even tell you how many times I thought I was ordering meatball (albóndiga) soup, when I was actually ordering tripe (mondongo) soup. Actually, I know exactly how many times this occurred, but I am too abashed to share the number. All you need to know is what I told you earlier (that I never learn from my mistakes). You should also know that tripe soup tastes like vomit. In Cuenca, I opted for caldo de barrego, which is a zesty lamb soup prepared with lots of cilantro and a splash of milk. It does not taste like vomit, but instead, like heaven in my belly.
I always like to follow my savory meals with a little something sweet, like fresh fruit juice. Latin America has fruits you’ve never even heard of (and some you could probably live without, cue: noni), so if ever in a market, hop over to the juice section. I usually order whatever the special is, and I always ask whoever is attending me for pointers. This particular woman in Loja recommended mixing carrot, berry, and alfalfa juice. I thought alfalfa was guinea pig food, but I wasn’t above giving it a try.
Never fear trying fruits that are foreign to you, either, as I guarantee you will be blown away by some of them. Many of the fruits advertised as “fresh” in the U.S. could never compare to the truly fresh produce in other countries. I recently read someone’s bucket list online, and it included “Try 100 new fruits.” I thought this was a neat goal, particularly for someone who appreciates travel and food.
Farther north in a market in Cuenca, more breakfast delicacies allured me. Being even colder than I was in Loja, I ordered a piping hot tortilla de choclo (a thick corn tortilla) and a warm cup of morocho. Morocho is a drinkable porridge made of cracked corn, milk, cinnamon, vanilla, and other equally enticing ingredients. It tastes like a warm Panamanian chicheme. For those of you who haven’t tried that, I might compare morocho’s flavor to rice pudding.
Another filling favorite that can be found just about everywhere (though it is more commonly consumed on the coast) are bolones de verde con queso, which are fried balls of plantain and cheese. It’s difficult to find something SO healthy, yet so scrumptious . (I feel embarrassed about inserting that winky face, but I am going to leave it there as an exercise in humility.)
On the days that I wasn’t craving a hearty breakfast, I ordered a simple quimbolito (isn’t that word so much fun to say? Or am I just bored?). This is a spongy, subtly sweet cake that is cooked and served in a banana leaf. I love that quimbolitos are prepared like tamales, but lack the lardy consistency inherent to a tamale.
So, are you hungry for lunch yet? Good, me too. How about some soup for an appetizer? Heck, this potato-based concoction might fill you up enough that you won’t need a main course. But would you really be on this website if your stomach weren’t spacious enough for a second plate of food? Probably not.
The soup I refer to is locro de papa (potato stew), and it would be foolish for you to miss out on it. It is smooth and spicy, and blended with shredded cheese. Atop it are a slice of avocado and moist, Mexican-style queso fresco (fresh cheese). I hate to break it to you, vichyssoise, but you’re no longer my #1. I always thought you were a little stuffy, anyway.
If you are all souped out, why not try some mote pillo for a starter instead? This is a garlicky dish native to the countryside of Ecuador. To make mote pillo, hominy is sautéed with eggs, achiote, chives, onion, milk, cilantro, and garlic, of course. For such a simplistic dish, it is truly divine. If you can, order it in one of the restaurants right outside of Cajas National Park, and eat it with fresh trout you can fish for in one of the park’s 275 lakes. I would show you a picture of my catch, but I wouldn’t want to intimidate you with the meaty 4.5 inch trout that I cajoled out of the water with my mad skillz.
Now, for your main course, I propose two options that will undoubtedly wow you. If you are inland, you will notice pretty quickly that Ecuador resembles a 24/7 pig roast. It’s not uncommon to walk down a street that is overflowing with whole-hog roasters. If you dig pig as much as I do, you should stick a fork in that pork and gobble up as much as possible. It is definitely the most succulent I’ve ever had.
When given the choice of fritada (fried pork) or hornado (roasted pork), stick to the latter as its flavor is richer. Both can be ordered with llapingachos, which are cheese-filled potato pancakes. Do I really need to tell you what a good idea an order of those is?
Your second main course option hails from the coast and is known as ceviche de langostinos (shrimp ceviche). Perhaps you’ve heard that Peruvian ceviche is the best in the world and that it is not worth trying anywhere else. As a staunch devotee to all-things-Peruvian, I may have started that rumor. I really underestimated Ecuadorians though, as their ceviche is the bomb.com. I find it hard to even compare Peru and Ecuador’s versions considering how stylistically different they are. One is made with raw fish and lime, while the other contains cooked shrimp in more of a tomato base. Also, Ecuadorian ceviche is more like a soup than a solid plate of food, which puts it in its own category altogether. I love the range of flavors that it offers. The key lime makes it tart and tangy, while a bit of sugar and orange juice sweetens up the mix. Foodies will not be disappointed by its complexity.
As you can imagine, after breakfast and lunch, I usually wasn’t too hungry for dinner. I didn’t feel I was missing out on much, though, as I wasn’t especially enamored with many typical dinner dishes. Good snacks, however, abound in Ecuador, so I made a habit of snacking it up whenever and wherever I could. I stalked pan de yuca (a melt-in-your-mouth bread made with yucca flour and cheese) and ate it at least once a day. Baked goods (most of which are of superlative quality in Ecuador) topped my list as well.
Also, if ever in Ecuador and confused about what to do with yourself, it would behoove you to go eat some coconut. Most coconut products are made of fresh compressed coconut chunks, with barely any water or sugar added. Try the fresh popsicles and coco con leche juice. If you find yourself near a bakery called “Los Dulces de Benito,” indulge in the bien me sabe de coco (coconut cream sponge cake).
Coconut, are you actually a fruit or are you secretly a candy? I’d totally be munchin’ on some of you right now if you didn’t cost like 50 dollars each in the states.
It’s time for me to leave you, but not before I impart three last tips for exploring Ecuador.
1. If ever invited to drink something that looks like murky river water, say “YES!” This is mapanagua, a cocktail made from homemade aguardiente, sugar cane juice, and orange juice. Beware, it’s easy to forget you are drinking alcohol. And by “alcohol,” I mean the 29-60% alcohol content that aguardiente possesses.
2. Chat up street vendors about what they are selling. If they are making a living from peddling their products off of a collapsible table in the street, they’re probably selling something worthwhile. I like mango verde con sal (green mango with salt).
3. Lastly, just book your tickets to Ecuador already. Clearly (judging from the length of this post), I cannot sing it high enough praises. Sure, Ecuador can’t claim the famed Machu Picchu, Iguazu falls, or Patagonia. While it is home to the Galapagos Islands, that jaunt is too expensive for most people to splurge on. However, despite its aforementioned “limitations,” I have never had a better vacation. We have already established that the bad press about its cuisine is entirely undeserved. More importantly, though, Ecuadorians are the most benevolent people I have ever met. Where else would someone give you his house keys the day after you meet, extending an open invitation to stay for free in his apartment? Where else would a stranger take three consecutive days off from work to show you around a country he is so proud of? And where else would an artist lower the price of his painting by over 85% (practically giving it away for free) just because he gets a good vibe from you? Open your mind and heart to Ecuador, and I assure you it will charm you as well.
Tune in next time to learn a highly coveted recipe for one of the foods mentioned in this post!