After spending 3 days in buses making our way from Bogotá to the Ecuadorian border, we arrived in Quito on a rainy Saturday night. We barely missed the festivities of “Quito Days”, which took place earlier that week and consisted of live music, parties, and street festivals. Our host in Quito lived on the top floor of a 4-story apartment building located in a quiet neighborhood in the north. Her apartment offered a wrap-around balcony with 360 degree views of the city below, and also served as a serene workout environment for us during our stay. Quito’s public transportation is extremely affordable ($0.25 per ride) and very user-friendly, offering both local buses and a metro (bus line).
We waited for a sunny day–usually it was clear in the morning before clouds rolled in during the afternoon–to explore Quito’s Centro Histórico (the old town). The Spanish influence on the architecture was immediately recognizable, yet beautifully unique. With its narrow, bustling streets, restored colonial architecture and lively plazas–built centuries ago by indigenous artisans and laborers–Quito’s old town is a marvel to wander, steeped in history and cast in legend, where the more we looked, the more we found. It’s a magical area, full of hollering street vendors, ambling pedestrians, tooting taxis, belching buses and whistle-blowing policemen trying to direct traffic in the congested one-way streets. We visited the Plaza and Monastery of San Francisco, the Plaza de la Independencia (or Plaza Grande), La Compañia de Jesús, several churches, La Basilica del Voto Nacional (from the gothic period), and even toured the president’s home, El Palacio de Gobierno, which had recently began to offer tours for the public.
We took full advantage of Alejandra’s kitchen by cooking every meal at her place–except for the occasional panadería (bakery) indulgence–which afforded us ample time to get to know our host. Alejandra currently works for her family who owns a livestock (cows, pigs, chickens, and yes… guinea pigs) feed company and farm land in Puéllaro, a village just north of Quito. Her father raises hens for their eggs and her brother recently purchased a hacienda where he raises cows for milk he sells to Nestle.
We had the pleasure of visiting her and her brother Alvaro in Puellaro for one night. The town is an hour and a half directly north of Quito and the landscape quickly turned desert like and mountainous with a hot and dry climate. While Alejandra was working we went to the family house up the road from her store and relaxed in the spacious home elaborately decorated with ranching antiques. At our request, she ordered 3 guinea pigs (cuy, pronounced cooey) for us to dine on that evening at the family estate, following a tour of the farm and new quinoa crops on horseback.
As unappealing as guinea pig sounds, it is considered a delicacy in Ecuador typically reserved for special occasions, and we had to try it. The de-furred cuy was washed, salted, and rubbed with garlic and pepper before being placed on the barbecue to grill for an hour or so, until the skin is crispy. In highland Ecuadorean cities, the cuy is placed on a skewer and slowly rotated over hot coals until the perfect crispy skin is achieved, and sold for around $30 in a restaurant.
We fully indulged in occasion, and tasted the heart, liver and kidney fresh off the grill, before plating the cuy alongside a salad of fresh greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and peppers. While it was difficult to get passed the head and claws, the meat is actually pretty decent, and tastes similar to dark meat chicken. Sorry for all the vegetarians out there, you must be appalled, especially because Ryan ate the face, ears and brains (the parts most cherished by Ecuadoreans). We prepared for the cuy by imbibing several beers and washed the rodent down with a little Johnny Walker from Alejandra and Alvaro’s father’s stash.