IMG_3629As we began our dissent, I could see several volcanoes surrounding us, and in the distance, the Amazons.  Flying into a 3rd world country is indescribable.  I was partially nervous, mostly terrified, and overwhelmed with excitement.  By the time we landed, the sun had set.  We were told by our teacher that our host families would be waiting for us at the airport and she’d see us tomorrow.  I imagined a cute little family waiting patiently at the baggage claim but it wasn’t like that at all.

IMG_3622My host father arrived alone to pick me up and was yelling my name in Spanish amongst a huge crowd of people.  Before I had time to process things or introduce myself, he was making his way to the car with my bags.  He told me his wife and daughter were waiting back at the house and a bunch of other stuff I couldn’t understand.  This was my first language-immersion experience and to say the least, I was ill-prepared.

Strong Black Coffee

We made our way onto the streets of Quito where there are no lane dividers, and people vaguely follow the rules of the road.  There was graffiti on almost every building – which my host father would explain to me was a form of uncensored artwork.  When pulled up to the apartment complex, it looked more like a prison. Four towers were connected internally with one entrance and one exit. We spoke to the security guard, got my bags from the car, and headed up to the apartment.  We were greeted with hugs and kisses from my smiling host mother. She had prepared a light dinner of fruit, strong black coffee, and bread.  We all stayed up late getting to know each other, discussing politics, religion, our families…they were so kind.  Before I knew it, I had made it through my first night.

Eating Ecuadorian TIP #1:  Prepare for a superior detox 

IMG_3342A combination of the altitude (approx. 10,000 feet above sea level), proximity to the Equator & the sun, and the superior ecosystem of the Amazons makes Ecuador the holy Mecca of detoxing.  My skin, hair, nails, as well as my internal organs went through some crazy changes during my stay.

I’ve had sunburn before but an entire layer of skin peeled off of my face like a sheet, and my hair was more oily/vibrant than normal.  Any trace of acne cleared up within a day or so of my arrival, I did find it quite a bit harder to breathe there…I think it was the combination of my asthma, the altitude, and pollution in Quito; breathing was much easier outside of the city.

Jungle Juice

Each morning my host mother prepared a new tropical juice. Carrot-mango-papaya-tomato and blackberry were my favorites.  She also kept our kitchen table piled high with fresh fruit.  These were some of the most colorful, flavorful fruits I’ve ever had.

The orange fruit that resembles a grape is a marispo, plucked from a tree at the zoo.  The orange fruit that’s filled with what looks like fish eggs, is a granadilla – my favorite fruit in the world.  It tastes something like the dragonfruit flavored Vitamin Water with tiny jello coated pumpkin seeds.  The fuzzy white fruit encasedIMG_3823 in a shell is called guaba, referred to as the ice-cream-bean in English.  It tastes vaguely sweet with the texture of a thick cotton ball.  You can eat the furry skin but it has a huge seed in the center – in my opinion its a lot of work for a little reward. Over the next few days I  saw volcanoes, road horses, visited the thermal springs, went to the zoo, saw the countryside, the mountains, the Amazons, and did as the locals did.

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NO BAR

The nightlife in Quito is awesome around December/January, I guess because a lot of people are on holiday.  We met people from Cuba, Argentina, & Australia.  The bartenders are also professional salsa dancers and actually audition for their job (kind of like the bartenders in Miami).  One night a fight broke out at a club I was in and the police stormed in with full riot gear and gas to break up the crowd.  The gas was pretty weak but it was terrifying nonetheless.  Luckily I was with my 21 year old host sister and she explained that because Ecuador has no national military, the police are heavily armed.  They are responsible for keeping the peace because there is no higher authority.  This was the only time I felt like I was in a 3rd world country.

Down Home Cookin’

Each day I had delicious meals prepared by my host mother.  She was an excellent cook.  I am accustomed to overdone or underdone food, but everything was cooked to perfection.  All of the veggies and seafood maintained natural flavor and moisture, her seasoning was superb, and her culinary creativity, inspiring.

Below we have “Sopa Espinacas.”  To put it simply, spinach soup…with queso and french fries.  This is the best soup I’ve ever had, and I love soup.  My host mother gave me the recipe which I’ll post on here so you can try it at home!  The rice dish is just shrimp & rice.  She used saffron infused rice, green bell peppers, peas, carrots, avocado oil, and some incredible seasoning.  This was also the first time I had a plantain.  So simple, yet so delicious.  Looks like I also caught a glimpse of the fruit basket piled high!

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TIP #2: Learn to love your fruits & veggies

Ecuadorians are excellent at using what the land provides.  There are commercialized products available in the city, but for the most part, Ecuadorians have a very wholesome diet.  It’s likely because of this that high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and cancers other than skin cancer are uncommon. Ecuadorians typically have a light breakfast; bread and coffee with a piece of fruit, maybe some queso, and once or twice a week, scrambled eggs.  Lunch is the largest meal of the day, followed by something like soup dinner.  My host mother would prepare lunch ahead of time and come home from work as an engineer to serve it to our family.  This took a lot of getting used to because in the US, dinner is our largestIMG_3396 meal.  I often went to bed starving because I missed lunch or grabbed a small snack in town.  Luckily there was always and abundance of fruit to fill my stomach.

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Language Barriers

Once, my mother and I had a miscommunication about how I liked my tuna.  I told her I liked my tuna in salad with eggs, relish, mustard, etc.   Well that doesn’t exist in Ecuador, so she served it to me in scrambled eggs at breakfast.  It was actually quite delicious, strange, but delicious.  She served me quail eggs with something like cold mashed potatoes, tomatoes, and green beens.  I also had some delicious tostada (fried corn), green beans, eggplant, and broccoli.  I’m not a big fan or tostada but the veggies were so crunchy and fresh.  That eggplant thoughhhhhh…I have no clue how she cooked the eggplant but it was everything!  Thus far I’ve talked about some pretty familiar dishes fruit juice, rice with shrimp, …but don’t be fooled, I had the culture shock of my life in the mountains.

Paulo Coelho

“Be brave. Take risks. Nothing can substitute experience.”

TIP #3: Be open-minded

It is important to try the traditional cuisine of a culture.  Not only will it fast-track your understanding of that culture, but it may also give you a renewed appreciation for your own culture.  In the mountains of rural Ecuador, people live a more traditional lifestyle.  Most restaurants serve Ají salsa, an orange sauce that resembles sweet & sour.  You may second guess whether you want to try it because it’s usually just sitting out on the table, rather than in individual packages.  Trust me, just try it!  It’s refreshing and delicious, unlike anything you’ve tried before.  Another one of the country’s most popular foods is chicken foot soup.  Yes, literally chicken feet served in chicken broth.  I wasn’t too fond of it because there is so little meat on the foot it was hardly worth the effort.

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Another local delicacy is something called cuy.  My childhood friend used to have one named Barney that she microwaved…maybe she was more aligned with the rest of the world, but that’s another story.  In the US, they’re a little rodent turned pet.  But in Ecuador, they’re fine dining.  Say hello to the guinea pig.  An entire guinea pig can cost upwards of $20, while the average meal only costs about $4.  In the mountains, people have 20-30 guinea pigs running around their tiny little homes.  They taste a lot like chicken, but more gamey.  It was a cultural experience to say the least; I’ll stick with the fresh fruit next time.

TIP #4: Beware of the street food

Some of the street food is incredible.  IMG_3390Especially the plantain chips and 25 cent empanadas sold on the public buses.  HOWEVER, there is no regulation on street vending.  Many locals feed their families by selling food to tourists.  I  encountered a woman selling snails and decided to try them.  She showed me how to suck them out of the shell, and then when it was my turn, I realized they hadn’t been cleaned or cooked ***shrieks***.

I’m sure you can imagine the look on my face.  I’m hoping she did some sort of ceviche marinade using acidity to cook them, but I’ll never no.  I’m just grateful I didn’t contract an intestinal parasite!  I also was sold an under-ripe plantain that had been grilled on the street.  They were nothing special.  However, the woman who sold it to me was.  She grabbed the plantain off the grill with her bare hands, which were filthy, and placed it in a napkin.  See the thing is, in Ecuador, you’re lucky to find a public restroom.  Much less one with soap or toilet paper.  So her filthy hands were a lot more dangerous than eating fruit that had been removed from its skin.

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3rd World Starbucks

I also encountered one of the greatest franchises in the world in Ecuador.  Let me introduce you to Juan Valdez Cafe.  If you like coffee, or chocolate, or both…you must try this in your lifetime!  Juan Valdez is 10x better than Starbucks in my opinion.  It’s like fusing the freshness of cuban coffee and the rich flavor of german chocolate.  There, I also tried a quimbolito.  It’s basically a mildly sweet pastry, made with cornmeal and queso, topped with raisins, then wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed.  I cannot begin to describe the deliciousness of these puppies!  The texture is also unlike anything I’ve every tasted, so light and airy…kind of like cotton candy.

TIP #5: Don’t order typical American food

I’m sure the best Chinese food is found in China, and the best Italian food, in Italy.  Thus, buying American food in Ecuador is a bad idea.  I ordered chicken and french fries – the chicken was average, and the fries were the consistency of green beans.  The pizza was also pretty tragic, but the tomatoes on the pizza were delicious!  I ordered fish and potatoes, expecting something breaded and fried.  I ended up with an entire fish, head an all, served on a block of wood.  After I got over the presentation, I actually enjoyed it a lot!

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Overall I would rate this eat-cation 4.5 stars.  I love fruit & veggies and Ecuador had a plethora of them.  The only reason I didn’t give it 5 stars is because most of he food lacked visual appeal.

Ecuador is an incredibly scenic country with equally beautiful people.  It has one of the greatest volcanic densities in the world, and some of the best coffee!  As if that’s not enough of a reason to visit, the Amazons, the Galapagos, and the Andes are right next door. Ecuador is definitely one for the bucket list!