A Treacherous Search for Percebes
By Maxim Holland, Fixer
As a fixer you find yourself in some pretty strange situations, but it doesn’t get much stranger than clinging for dear life to a rock in the middle of the ocean off the coast of Ecuador while being pounded by wind and waves.
It all started, as these things usually do, with a short and unexpected email inquiring about my fixing services for the Ecuador episode for No Reservations. Literally moments before my girlfriend and I had just finalized plans and bought the tickets for a trip to Europe which we had been planning all year, but decided to put it all on hold so I could take the job. After all it’s not everyday you get to work on a show you actually enjoy watching and the extra dollars in the bank would make our trip that much better.
So three short weeks later I was in Salango, a dusty, damp little fishing village north of Guayaquil, on a mission to find percebes. If you’ve never heard of these small crustaceans, also known as goose barnacles, I don’t blame you. Except for a few crazed Spanish gourmands and two or three local Ecuadorian fisherman, no one ever has. Be that as it may there I was looking for someone who could show me where to get these little creatures known more for their annoying habit of only growing in the most precarious locations than for any notable culinary qualities. As Wikipedia puts it, percebes are “found only on exposed or moderately exposed coasts”. What they really mean by this is that they only grow on the most treacherous rocks exposed to pounding surf. It is this unique feature of Percebes that make them one of the most dangerous foods to collect (people have actually died collecting them) and one of the most expensive dishes on Spanish and Portuguese menus. It is also the reason why Alex and Emily thought they would make a great addition to the Ecuador episode.
After asking around at local shops and restaurants in Salango I was directed to Ivo Gutierrez, a local fisherman and diver turned tour guide, and the very next day set out with him and his brother on their boat to a small island in the middle of the ocean locally known as Isla del Aorcado (Island of the Strangled). Now if you think the name sounds ominous it is nothing compared to how ominous this jagged lonely rock looks as you approach it on a cold and stormy day, still I managed to conceal my fear and act like I was having a ball. Eventually we cut the engines and dropped the anchor about 300 feet from the island and surveyed the shore to decide on the best access point to get on to the island. At this point I should mention that, although I grew up in the mountains of Peru and rarely got my feet wet as a kid, I have spent a fair time at the beach and am comfortable in a swimming pool. It is also worth noting that I am built like a rake and consider 3 push-ups an intense workout. Ivo on the other hand is built like a submarine and if he were any more amphibious, he would have webbed fingers and toes. Still I was on a mission and determined not to go back empty handed so when Ivo dived into the water I ripped my glasses off and bravely fell in after him. From there things went from bad to worse. Getting out of the water and onto the island took all of my limited rock climbing know-how combined with a helping hand from Ivo. Crossing the island barefoot was painful and slow. Taking photos of Ivo collecting the percebes without my glasses and shivering like a leaf while being pounded by waves was practically impossible and probably pointless. Still I made it out alive and only slightly bruised and it is exactly the kind of story that will over the years become more and more exaggerated and one day will be perfect to impress my grandchildren with.
As for the percebes, all I can say is they are tasty but, unless the sun is shining, the sea is dead calm and you are an amour clad amphibian with sturdy footwear, don’t bother collecting them yourself.