Goodbye 2014

We’ve had a pretty exciting year. How’s that for an understatement? I can’t say that 2015 will reach the same heights, but maybe that’s a good thing – here’s looking forward to a calmer new year, one filled with friends, family, and no shortage of good stories. Thank you so much for following along!


How to Bargain – A Beginner’s Guide

We were on Lavalle Street in Buenos Aires, chatting with a money-changer. I say, “we’ve got $500 in $100 dollar bills, what kind of exchange rate can you give us?” He responds that $1 USD: 14.10 Peso is the best he can do. Sheena counters by saying that we had a better offer further down the street. What was the offer, he asks. And at the same time, Sheena says “14.50” (not true), and I say “14.20” (totally true) – completely torpedoing our leverage.

I’m terrible at bargaining. I’m not sure what it is, but I suspect mostly a lack of practice. It just wasn’t something culturally present when I was growing up, and I fear it will probably never be instinctual. Sheena, on the other hand, is great, but not always willing to play the game. I mean, there’s only so much haggling you can do down here before you feel like you’re taking advantage of your stronger currency more than is warranted. In short, we are far from the perfect team.

The first time we really had to confront bargaining was in the Galapagos. We had arrived a week before high season started and we were positioned to get some deals on day tours and inter-island ferries. Puerto Ayora was short on tourists and high on tour companies. We even lucked out and had a great coach in our hostel – Seamus from Ireland. His most valuable advice was to make a plan, and slowly reveal your cards; don’t give away all of your leverage in the first round. This turned out to be pretty solid, and most likely obvious, advice.

We would go around to the tour offices and I would enter alone, asking for the price of one tour. Then we would surprise them with the fact that we wanted two, and should therefore be entitled to a discount. We were successful in getting $5-10 discounts off the official price using this method. But if one surprise is good, three would be even better, right? With inter-island ferries we actually needed 6 passages. Bargaining down the individual price with the buying power of 6 allowed us to save $30. But it took time. Back and forth for 10 minutes, and agreeing to go on certain days, before they buckled. I wouldn’t say I was giddy, but it was nice to have secured the same price that Seamus was able to get the day before.

Knowing what kinds of things are on the table for bargaining is also super important. When we arrived in Ecuador, we really hadn’t ever considered bargaining down the price of a hostel room. A Frenchman staying at our hostel proudly shared with us the (much lower) price he was paying for equal accommodation. Asking if you can have the room for less than the quoted price seemed impossible to us at the time. But if you see that the hostel is not full, and you have paid no deposit, it certainly does no harm to ask.

Helpfully, the same Frenchmen mentioned that in Colombia you could bargain for just about everything, including buses. Armed with this information, we entered bus terminals confidently, calmly going from one desk to the next, playing the prices quoted off of each other. I suppose it helped that Colombia seemed to have buses with empty seats, going to any desired destination, at just about every hour of the day. They had no leverage.

So, for you novices out there, here are my official tips and tricks: 1) Always make a plan by figuring out where your leverage lies. 2) Ask around, and never assume the price is fixed. 3) Have fun with it – people tend to respond positively when you are joking around, or display a good attitude. And as a last resort, try to lower the price one more time by saying, “not even for your [insert nationality here] friend?”

Eating Ecuador

Nearing the end of our two-month sojourn in Ecuador, I noticed that I was not ordering a menú del dia (set menu) with the same boredom and apathy that I had felt before leaving Peru. Having never heard anything about Ecuadorean cuisine, we were pleasantly surprised by its variety and tastiness. As evidenced by Craig’s encebollado rating guide, there were several dishes that we never got sick of.

So what was the difference and why was Ecuador so much more palatable?

It’s hard to say exactly, but I think one of the reasons was that Ecuador, like Peru, has many regional cuisines (coastal, Andean, jungle), and throughout our stay, we seemed to pass through a lot of them in such a variety as to make it interesting. Another difference was, in Peru, when we searched for restaurants and checked out their set menus, they almost always had the same five choices listed. In Ecuador, the set menus did not give as many choices, but from one restaurant to another they varied quite a lot–pescado de jugo in one place, seco de pollo next door. The soups that come with all set menus also seemed more diverse and flavorful than the constant potatoes and carrots in chicken broth that we seemed to be faced with over and over in Peru.

But who cares about that, right? All anybody really wants to see is pictures of food!

Our first encebollado, in the central mercado of Cuenca. This cost $1.50, and the most we paid for it throughout the country was about $2.50. You can see why we felt we could eat it often.

Tables laden with sweets lined the plaza de armas of Cuenca. They looked incredibly appetizing but, unfortunately, some of the choices were quite stale.

Chirimoya was described to me as tasting like Skittles. I also read that a good way to eat it was to freeze it and then eat it like ice cream, since its flesh is so soft and creamy. We tried it, but weren’t huge fans. It wasn’t enough like Skittles to enthrall me, apparently.

I cannot for the life of me remember what this dish was called, but it was very popular on the coast. I don’t even remember what kind of fish it was. Craig preferred his pescado frito to be in boneless filets, but I enjoy whole fish. It’s satisfying to pick the bones. Those refried plantains were also very popular on the Southern coast, but we didn’t encounter it at all further north.

Bolon de verde, a ball made of plantains and then deep-fried (lots of things are deep-fried in South America, I’ve noticed, although perhaps not quite as many as in the South of America–har har). This was one of Craig’s favorite things, and while I have become thoroughly sick of Andean cheese (a slab of which sits on top of the bolon) and its strange tang, Craig still doesn’t mind it.

Desserts and pastries were also fairly yummy in Ecuador. I was wondering why Craig wasn’t as impressed by this particular treat when he exclaimed in realization, “Oh, the cup is made of chocolate!” Then he showed the proper respect.

We unfortunately tried llapingachos only a few days before we left the country, but still managed to fit it in twice. The name refers to the fried potato cakes (which were amazing), but the sausage and fried egg weren’t to be sneezed at either. A delicious combination that I wish we’d discovered earlier!

As for the junk food, I have to say I was rather astonished to be mostly satisfied (this could have been partly because of the giant care package my best friends sent me from California, though). Soon after we arrived, I noticed that there were bags of Ruffles chips in every store. “No way,” I thought. “It couldn’t be the same.” Having been disappointed too many times to count during this trip, I didn’t get my hopes up very high, which was lucky (or not really, I suppose) because the Ruffles were fairly disappointing. Their crema y cebolla (cream and onion) flavor didn’t even come close to the American version. But patience is its own reward, and I finally found a chip that actually resembled my beloved Sour Cream ‘n Onion Ruffles. They were called Sarita Rizadas and the sabor crema y cebolla was great!

So Ecuador satisfied on all food fronts, and we left happy campers. Perhaps we’ll try and make encebollado ourselves sometime at home… I’d like to encounter it again someday, and I just don’t see a cevicheria opening up anytime soon in Seattle.

And that concludes our food tour. There were many set menus consumed without pictures taken, and many meals that we cooked ourselves. It could be that, as we’re expanding our culinary talents, we’re not finding it as necessary to eat out as much, and thus have unwittingly varied our consumption ourselves. But Colombia awaits, and I’m looking forward to eating it as well!

Encebollado Rating Guide

Ecuadorean food has been the best so far in south America, and hands-down the best dish in this country is encebollado.  It’s a albacore strew, with cassava and plenty of onion (cebolla is in the name after all).  It’s usually served with fresh limes, chili sauce, cilantro and some sort of accompaniment (popcorn or chifles, for example).  The dish is a staple of coastal Ecuadorean cuisine, but it can be found just about everywhere in the country by looking for a Manabí or Esmeraldeña restaurant.

After extensive research, sampling this dish about a dozen times, from the Galapagos to the highlands, I present my official encebollado rating guide.

  • Broth (3 possible points): Sometimes the broth isn’t hot.  Sometimes it’s only luke-warm.  For me, this will cost a point.  The remaining two points are for general quality of the broth; I don’t think I’ve had a broth I didn’t like, but some are just better than others.
  • Cassava (2 possible points): Is the cassava warm all the way through?  How big are the chunks?  Smaller chunks are better, and usually solve the former problem too.  The cassava is always cooked ahead of time, and added to the broth when serving.  I’m not sure how the cassava is cooked, but some definitely do this better than others.  Sheena hates the cassava and actually ordered her last one without it… sacrilege!
  • Fish (2 possible points): Like the cassava, the fish is precooked and the quality can vary quite a bit.  Size also matters here, with more points going to stews with smaller pieces of fish.
  • Accompaniment (1 possible point): the chifles, or fried banana or plantain chips, and fried/salted corn kernels are my favorite.  The popcorn… not so much.  The best scenario: receiving all three and trading popcorn for kernels with Sheena.

There you go, eight possible points for the perfect encebollado.  And have I found a perfect one?  Indeed I have.  Maybe a couple.  The stew in Bahia de Caraquez was amazing, and the one in Baños had me coming back for seconds, but hands down the best was in the Otavalo central market.  Everything was perfect, including the atmosphere.  Sitting at a tiny counter in the noisy market, you could watch them make every bowl and chat or watch a soccer match while you ate it.  Congratulations Otavalo!

Quilotoa Circuit

Eager to stretch our legs (or at least I was), we took our guidebook’s recommendation and started off on the Quilotoa Circuit from Latacunga.  Very similar to Colca Canyon in southern Peru, this circuit involves hiking relatively short distances (10-12 km) between small towns in the gorgeous Rio Toachi Valley.  In typical fashion, our trip started off with a hitch, as it appeared that the 9:30 am bus to Quilotoa Crater left about 20 minutes early… after waiting an extra hour, and meeting a super nice Colombian couple, we were off.  Even though our bus was very clearly labeled “quilotoa”, we were unceremoniously kicked off at Zumbahua, and told to get into a pick up truck which would take us the remaining 20 minutes.  It was a tough squeeze, but we managed to get about 20 people into this truck.  Victor, one half of the Colombian couple, laughed it off as typical “latin disorganization.”  He informed us that we wouldn’t get a break from it further north either.

Volcan Cotopaxi from our hostel in Latacunga

On the truck ride we met an 18-year old German girl who didn’t know much about Quilotoa, she just thought it sounded like a nice destination.  Not at all prepared for the freezing temperatures up at the crater (4,000 meters) she was easily convinced that it was a poor idea to stay the night at the top… we invited her to join us on the hike down to Chugchilán, but not without a sense of foreboding (see the infamous ‘bob’ episode).  Merit turned out to be pleasant company for most of the time we were together, but we did have to make certain “allowances” for her age.. would we have been like this traveling at 18?  Honestly, I can’t imagine undertaking a trip like hers at that age.

Quilotoa Crater

The route to Chugchilán wasn’t clearly marked, but with the end destination mostly in view, we managed to get ourselves to the Cloud Forest Hostel before dark.  The hot shower and filling meal were amazing, but really the accommodation on the whole was way above expectations.  You don’t expect to have a private bathroom, dinner and breakfast for only $12 per person, even in middle-of-nowhere Ecuador, but that’s exactly what we got!

Hiking out of the Rio Toachi Valley

Merit caught a 4 am bus back to Latacunga, so we were on our own for the second day of hiking.  Another 11+ km to reach Isinliví, and another descent and ascent into the Rio Toachi valley.  The weather was nearly perfect on this day and we really took our time, stopping often to soak in the scenery.  The general feel of the trek had us thinking of Colca Canyon a lot, but the countryside was more similar to the Sacred Valley of the Incas.  In Baños, we had met a Catalan/French couple who called off extra days on the circuit after hiking this portion, because “the scenery was too similar to Colombia and we were tired of it.”  As baffling as that is, I guess it makes me pretty excited for Colombia!

Getting ready to descend into the valley again – speaking with a nice local at the viewpoint

With plans to stay in a certain hostel in Isinliví, we were told en route that the Tiata Cristobal was equally great and much cheaper ($13 per person), which made our decision to switch pretty easy.  We ended up being the only guests that night, and enjoyed an incredibly nice dinner and evening next to the wood burning stove, a private room and bathroom and an equally great breakfast.  Since no one was there (and the town seemed pretty quiet in general), we asked if it was low season.  Our host said no, that tourism in general had been down this summer, and that she blames the World Cup in Brazil.

The view from Taita Cristobal

The best news we received in Isinliví was that the bus back to Latacunga on Wednesdays left at 7 am!  We had been told it would be a 4:30 am departure so this was just perfect news.  The bus ride also turned out to be one of the most scenic I’ve ever been on.  We climbed for 45 minutes to reach the Paso de Guingopana, leaving the morning sun-soaked Rio Toachi valley, and were greeted with stunning views of Volcan Rumiñahui and Cotopaxi.  No pictures of that journey here (the camera was under the bus), but I’ll leave you with one from the previous night.

The Milky Way (or Via Lacteo) from Isinlivi

Baños de Agua Santa

Sheena and I were fortunate to get the last two seats on a direct bus from Otavalo to Ambato.  In order to catch the bus, we had to go out to the Panamerican Highway in the morning and wait with fingers crossed… whew.  I can’t imagine waiting on the side of a major highway in the United States, hoping a bus will stop for us and have seats available, but this kind of thing has become normal.

Not a bad location..

Our final destination on the day was Baños de Agua Santa, or Holy Water Baths, which is located an hour beyond Ambato and so named for the naturally-heated thermal pools in town.  It’s a popular spot for foreigners and Ecuadorans alike, and is the self-proclaimed adventure capitol of Ecuador.  You can whitewater raft, zip-line and bungee jump, which I suppose gives you a right to that title.  We’re mostly enjoying sleeping in (the rain usually doesn’t stop until noon) and hiking up the nearby hills.  We haven’t managed to see Volcan Tungurahua yet, but we’ve heard and felt it a few times.  It has been one of the more active volcanoes in Ecuador over the last 6 months, and tends to spew ash and set off minor tremors most every day.

Hiking down from La Casa de Arbol

Renting bikes for the day, Sheena and I started down the valley for 20 km, making stops at various waterfalls along the way.  The amount of cable cars and zip-lines that crossed the valley at each attraction was surprising.  We didn’t feel brave enough to attempt a zip-line (or maybe didn’t want to spend the money), but we did take a cable car down to the one of the waterfalls, which was equal parts amazing and nerve wracking.

Agoyan falls – ziplines and cable cars criss-cross the valley

Taking the cable car down at Manto de la Novia waterfall

Pailon del Diablo