The FLNA is massing on the border with Colombia; coca farmers are rioting in neighboring Bolivia; and I am having dreams about erupting volcanoes as we descend under a moonlit sky into the Quito airport. A night landing in Quito is about as good as it gets … You descend and fly 20 miles straight through the Avenue of Volcanoes, which line either side of this long, thin plateau that the city is built on, high above sea level but nestled in the notches of dozens of dormant and active volcanoes. The moon seems so close you could almost reach out and touch it. Boy, is that ever a tortured cliche! My apologies.
Anyway, a few days in Quito allowed us to see it all: the Old City, the New Town, the churches and cathedrals, the restaurants and the street foods. Soup is big in Ecuador and lunchtime “soup-erias” are packed, especially the good ones like Motes de Magdelena (aka “MdM”) in the New Town. Motes are the large steamed corn kernels that seem to float in every bowl or get spooned onto every plate in this country. At MdM I devoured the roasted and grilled meats – there’s no menu in reality, rather despite the menu, you take whatever is being cooked that day – piled high in a bowl with motes, avocado, salsa and limes. The avocados in this part of the world are the best you will ever try.
Ceviche is one of the national dishes, and while the ceviches in Esmeralda on the Pacific coast are insanely good, Quito is one of the few mountain cities where the seafood is as good as you will find anywhere. Little “cevicherias” competed for my snacktime dollars with the small empanada stalls and roasted pig vendors that dominate the landscape. Here’s the skinny: Look for three or four teeny Ecuadorian grandmas all chatting and rolling circles of dough, and turning them into puffed and fried cheese, and raising stuffed half-moons dusted with cinnamon sugar. Oh, lord, is it amazing!
The small town of Otavalo is home to the largest outdoor market in South America, and on the way there, we stopped and ate some cuy, the “other” Ecuadorean national dish, i.e., barbecued guinea pig. Suffice to say the tufo that everyone brags about here, that is, the sweet sticky essence that lingers on your fingers after you have polished off a couple of these little rascals, is not only a culinary curio, but also a hallmark of a good slow-roasted critter. Most roadside stalls serve them marinated for a day in garlic and orange juice before being grilled to perfection. I was more surprised at how much I loved this dish than most any other I have eaten in the last five trips. The quality of the meat, the sweetness and crispy mantle of the skin after a wood-fired few hours of cooking, and the traditional accompaniments of steamed potatoes and avocados makes for a memorable meal.
Like Morocco, the soil, sun and mountain valley microclimates make everything that is grown in Ecuador taste better than almost everywhere else I have eaten quality fruit and produce. Because of the equatorial climes, there are tropical fruits being grown just a few miles downhill from the traditional four-season varieties. On one side of Otavalo, there are orange groves and mountainous tropical temperatures; on the uphill side, snow-capped peaks, pine trees and apples. It’s unbelievable … which makes the farmers market there singular to say the least, and if that isn’t enough to get you all gushy in the wee-wee, the town has a global reputation for knitwear that historically is more important than the produce grown here. Buy lots of sweaters – you won’t be sorry! We stayed the night at the Hacienda Pinsaqui, a 300-year-old plantation house where every room is heated by three or four fireplaces tended by an exuberant staff and the food and wine list is spectacular. This is a place you won’t want to miss when you visit Ecuador.
The next day we took off for Coca, a town on the Napo River from which we would make our way into Sacha Lodge to hang with the Pilchi Indians and spend four days in the Amazon jungle. Coca used to handle one flight a week from Quito, then one a day, now eight … just another example of the human impact and degradation of the Amazon jungle, which here in Ecuador is disappearing at the rate of 3 percent a year. At this pace, in another 30 years, it will be gone. Sacha Lodge is half a day’s speedboat ride up the Napo. Then you trek through the jungle and paddle across Lake Pilchicocha to get to the front door. Sacha Lodge was built entirely by hand by native builders, and every single stick and stone came in “by shoulder,” down the river in long canoes. The five-star lodge experience here is unique in this part of the world. Each family, group or individual, if that is the way you are traveling, is assigned a guide for your stay and a luxury house in the jungle that is all yours for the duration. You eat all the meals in the lodge with your guide. Efrain Hernandez was mine, and I spent all day with him and Donald, our native guide.
Effy knows everything there is to know about everything, in a big picture way, and Donald knows the rest. For example, we hear a series of calls and clicks in the jungle. Effy says they are howler monkeys, toucans, aguti (a giant rodent) and pygmy marmosets. He is right, but Donald is the one who can find them and bring us to them without them being spooked. He can predict weather, hunt and fish in a way that I have never seen before, cook for two or 200, and though he is only about 5 feet tall and 100 pounds, he basically paddles, portages, and hauls all the gear for seven of us 24 hours a day. He is one of the most remarkable men I have ever met, and one of the great joys of my life was spending four days in the jungle with him.