What did I learn: ECUADOR

Guayaquil – Source

I feel like I haven’t fully given Ecuador enough of a look, I’ve only barely skimmed the surface. However, I started this month with pretty limited knowledge of the country (Bolivar, the Galapagos, and ceviche, basically) and I’m glad that I’ve gotten to at least a slightly better understanding.

Ecuador has some incredibly talented artistic output – Jawbone by Mónica Ojeda was one of the few horror novels that succeeded at being so deeply disturbing that it genuinely gave me nightmares. Dark, multi-layered plotlines also show up in Ecuadorian films – both My Time Will Come and Ratas, Ratones, Rateros were excellent.

I only got a brief taste of Ecuadorian music, but Pichirilo Radioactivo, Nicolá Cruz, chicha dance mixes, and Daniel Lofredo Rota’s lost tapes all mix traditional Latin and Andean music with modern beats in innovative and fun ways.

As for Ecuador’s history and politics, the Ecuador Reader added a lot of nuance and highlighted the geographic and political divisions in the country. I also learned about serious historical and political issues, like the many wars with Peru, the collapse of Gran Colombia, the perpetual reliance on cash crops, modern overtourism and environmental damage to the Galapaos. However, there were also slightly ridiculous events, like clowns in office, international spats with comedians, and the extreme anti-goat prejudice of Project Isabela.

Ecuadorian cuisine is something I want to keep on exploring. Maiz toastado was really fun to make, and I got to try Ecuadorian produce like naranjillas, guayusa, and tamarillos. A lot of the recipes I went for relied on tart fruit as a flavour profile, including colada de avena, mango ceviche, and fresh aji sauce. There’s lots of other flavour profiles in Ecuadorian food, like chaulafan de pollo, but I love sour flavours, and getting to cook with all this fruit was delicious.

All in all, Ecuador has been a beautiful and interesting country to learn about, and I wish I could have given it a deeper look, especially more into music, wildlife, and Indigenous culture in Ecuador – a month is so limiting!

ECUADOR: The Ecuador Reader

When I covered Chile last year, I came across The Chile Reader – turns out there’s a whole series of these useful books on different Central and Southern American countries. The Ecuador Reader is a great big tome of short primary and secondary documents following through Ecuador’s history – historic letters, poems, academic texts, travel journals, and more, all with explanations giving historical context and tying it all together.

As a smaller country that’s been pulled into different neighbours’ orbits (especially Peru and Colombia) and one with three extremely different regions – the coast, the highlands, and the Amazon, Ecuador doesn’t really build up the same coherent national narrative that Chile does. Instead, those internal and external tensions make up so much of Ecuador’s story – and how politics, capitalism, labour and Indigenous movements try to bridge those gaps.

The influence of Indigenous people in Ecuador’s history is particularly interesting – about 25% of the modern population is of Indigenous origin, while another 50-60% are of mixed European and Indigenous background. However, like most other places in the Spanish Empire, Indigenous people were so thoroughly marginalized that for a while they were not even counted on the census or as citizens. That drove a lot of separation from identity and a process of “othering” that still is not undone.

ECUADOR: Podcasts

Cotopaxi, seen from Quito – Source: Malcolm Surgenor

Like the month I covered Chile, I struggled to find a lot of Ecuadorian podcasts in English, and I unfortunately don’t speak Spanish. Mainly these are podcasts about Ecuador, but there’s some really interesting interviews (and music!) in here. Another good one that I included in my post about the Galapagos is Radiolab’s report on the islands.

The Voyages of Tim Vetter: Ecuadorian Food and Culture with Abel Castro – A good interview with Ecuadorian restaurateur Abel Castro – they go over Ecuadorian cuisine in all its regional glory, plus unique Ecuadorian ingredients like naranjillas. Castro is based in New York and also touches on how to provide real authentic Ecuadorian food to a North American audience without compromising it – Americans turn out to have a weird aversion to eating corn on the cob in a sit-down restaurant.

The New Yorker: A Pandemic Tragedy in Guayaquil – Ecuador was hit hard and hit early by the pandemic, with the news picking up stories of bodies in the street in Guayaquil. This reporting (in podcast and article form) by Peruvian-American journalist Daniel Alarcón covers the awful start of the pandemic in Ecuador, the bureaucratic and systemic breakdown, and the human toll. Thankfully, Ecuador has been able to mobilize an impressive vaccination campaign, but the disruption and increase in violence and crime has created new challenges.

NPR: The Lost Tapes Of Caife: A Vintage Ecuadorian Record Label Revived – An interview with Daniel Lofredo Rota, a musician and producer in Quito about his discovery of long-lost recordings from the 50s and 60s from his grandfather’s record studio, how he has become a musical archivist through this, and how this valuable look into Ecuador’s musical past influences his own music now. A playlist of some of the records is available on Soundcloud.

BBC: 1995 Peru-Ecuador Border War – A look back at the 1995 war, including old media excerpts and recollections from officers who fought in the final Peru-Ecuador war.

Feel the Night Podcast – A US-based Latin music DJ podcast, with specials focusing on Ecuadorian chicha. Chicha is the Andean name for cumbia: upbeat folk tunes and rhythms, mixed into dance music (it’s also a local corn beer). These are incredible workout playlists, it’s hard to run on the treadmill without wanting to dance. Check out Episodes 396, 272, 261, 191, and 134 for some great Ecuadorian jams.

ECUADOR: By drone

Join me on a neat little trip by drone, starting in Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador and a major trading port.

Then the beautiful rugged Andes in the middle of the country, and Quito, located high up in them:

Then down past the volcanoes into the Ecuadorian Amazon forest of the interior:

And to come back as far as you can go in the other direction, and watch the sea turtles from above in the Galapagos:

ECUADOR: Ratas, Ratones, Rateros (1999)

Source IMDB

Ratas, Ratones, Rateros (“Rats, Mice, Thieves” – sometimes translated just to “Rodents”) is a 1999 film following a teen boy, Salvador, already teetering on the edge of delinquency, as his hardened criminal cousin Angel comes to hide out with him from hitmen. Angel is charming, street smart, and absolutely dedicated to a headlong plunge into drugs, crime, and oblivion, and drags Salvador, his friends, and his family down with him. It’s got the great combination of a violent, fast crime drama, but that catches you on the real-world consequences. The film won awards in Latin America and worldwide, and as screened at film fests like Venice and TIFF. If you’d like to watch it, it’s up on Vimeo with English subtitles.

ECUADOR: Jawbone by Mónica Ojeda

I will argue, straight up, that Jawbone by Mónica Ojeda is a horror novel that women can get through (though not unscathed), but most men just would not be brave enough to handle.

It’s a multilayered psychodrama, starting with a schoolgirl kidnapped by her teacher, and unwinds a teetering and uncomfortable tale, building on different times, different narrators, different writing styles, slowly piecing the story together. A group of teen girls at a good school start working themselves up into a collective madness, as their teacher fights with her own inner demons. It builds on campfire horror stories, Lovecraftian horror, creepypastas, and cults, all of this tied into primal urges, puberty, human bodies, trauma, and mothers and daughters.

Think of the vulnerability and instability of puberty and teens as a girl, but writ large into psychological horror. I thought it was an astoundingly good book, and it so unsettled me that I am never going to read it again – and I mean that as a compliment.

ECUADOR: Snacks and maiz tostado

I really struggled finding exported snacks from Ecuador – I checked multiple Latin and South American groceries in Ottawa and Calgary, plus online. Ecuador is a major food exporter, however, and trip down my local grocery aisle had bananas, mangos, yellow dragonfruit, melons, and more all from there. However, these are generally grown as cash crops for export – about 25% of the world’s banana crop comes from Ecuador. I was hoping instead to find some snacks that were more genuinely “Ecuadorian”.

Ecuadorian cacao – This isn’t an Ecuadorian company, rather it’s a British one that sources high-end cacao from single origins like Ecuador. Cacao used to be Ecuador’s major cash crop (and is an indigenous plant to the region). The country was the main world producer until the market crashed in the early 20th century. Cacao is still grown there, but the focus is on smaller amounts at higher quality. However, Ecuador mainly exports the cacao, it’s turned into chocolate elsewhere. As for this bar itself, it’s just a really nice dark chocolate, with a nice bit of depth from the sea salt.

GuayusaGuayusa is a herbal tea that’s related to yerba mate, and almost the entire world’s guayusa crop is grown in Ecuador. The dried leaves smell very green and herbal. Mild tasting tea, kind of like an earthier green tea, and feels like it should be bitter but isn’t. It’s hard to get an exact comparison for how caffeinated it is, but most sources average it around the strength of black tea, with the upside that unlike tea, it can be steeped for a long time without going tannic and bitter.

Tome Tropical Fresa – I am not 100% certain if this pop is truly Ecuadorian or if it’s something made for the export / ex-pat market – kind of like Brio not actually being from Italy. If you do know, please let me know in the comments! It’s an intensely sweet strawberry-flavoured pop, but with enough acidity to keep it from being too cloying.

And now a snack that’s really Ecuadorian, instead of just an export good (admittedly the corn itself is from a Peruvian brand).

Maiz tostado is a type of Andean popcorn, made with cancha corn (a wide kernel corn variety). It’s also made with chulpe, a slightly thinner variety of corn – they may just be two different sizes for the same thing, since cancha and chulpe seem to get used interchangeably.

Regardless, this is a really fun and easy recipe (from Laylita’s Recipes) – just have a lid handy for when they start to pop! It’s kind of like inside-out popcorn, fluffy on the inside and crispy on the outside.

ECUADOR: Real life on the Galapagos Islands

Lonesome George in 2006 – Source

The Galapagos Islands are famous for being an incredible untouched wilderness with some of the rarest and most endangered species in the world; species that gave Darwin the insight into developing his theory of evolution. These islands were uninhabited by humans initially and only visited by whalers and explorers until the 19th century, when it was annexed by Ecuador.

The human impact on the Galapagos’ ecosystem has been immense – the introduction of goats (leading to Project Isabela and the use of Judas goats), invasive species and diseases, consumption of tortoises and other wildlife for food, permanent human habitation, the massive tourism industry that has grown over past decades, climate change, and plastic pollution.

Radiolab made an incredible podcast on the reality of the Galapagos – asking how and if conservation can actually work, and if we can ever really return nature to a “primeval” state. They also touch on Lonesome George, goats, Darwin’ finches, but also the politics in Ecuador, including with voters permanently living and working on the Galapagos. Listen here.

For those living on Galapagos, the reality isn’t too rosy either – there’s deep poverty and a sense of being ignored by the central Ecuadorian government, while trying both to support a livelihood and not destroy the wilderness that provides this livelihood.

As for the rare and varied wildlife itself, there’s a lot of classic and current documentaries, with the BBC / David Attenborough ones clearly setting the gold standard for nature docs. However, I wanted to share a REALLY old school one from the 60s, narrated by Prince Phillip, of all people.

ECUADOR: My Time Will Come (2006)

My Time Will Come (sometimes translated as When My Time Comes) is a 2006 Ecuadorian movie that absolutely hit that sweet spot of dark and bleak while catching you in the action. Even the first few scenes, which have almost no dialogue, take you on an absolute ride of who the characters are and their relationships.

The movie centres on Arturo, a doctor in a hospital morgue, struggling with his own isolation from his family, loneliness, and trauma. The different people he autopsies have their own storylines, intersecting with each other in their last hours alive – an unsuspecting migrant shot while roped into a crime, the victim of that crime, the woman’ lover murdered by her husband, while the woman is upstairs in the hospital at her injured son’s bedside. It hits home for Arturo when he performs an autopsy on a young man who turns out to be his own brother’s secret boyfriend – leading to intergenerational family conflict and reinforcing the isolation and trauma stalking the characters.

It’s a brilliantly done movie. It’s one of the few films I’ve seen that really hits on the fact that there are no “background characters” in real life – everyone is just as fully human and complicated, with their own histories, motivations, and goals. It also is a brutal criticism of the violence, corruption, and disconnection of Quito at the time, and is underpinned by the reality that death is often sudden, pointless, and leaves gaping holes in the lives of the bereaved.

The whole film is up on Youtube with English subtitles.

ECUADOR: Colada de avena con naranjilla

I know Ecuador has a really varied flavour profile to their cuisine, but I keep on gravitating to the tart fruit recipes – there’s so many great choices! I’m making colada de avena, a strained oat drink, drunk hot or cold, often made with fruit. There’s a whole bunch of different ways to make it across South America; I’m trying one with naranjilla fruit.

Naranjillas (also called lulo) are sour fruit that has a flavour somewhere between lime and rhubarb (they’re related to tamarillos). I can’t get any fresh in my part of Canada, but frozen pulp works fine for this recipe. Recipe from Laylita’s Recipes. I went for a bit less panela, but it’s still needed as it’s a very tart fruit.

The long simmer with the cinnamon sticks made my kitchen smell heavenly. I tried the colada hot off the stove – it’s very thick, sweet and sour, with a good cinnamon aftertaste. It sticks to your ribs and is very warming (and warm! the consistency keeps it hot for a long time, so be careful sipping).

I also tried it cold the next day for breakfast, it’s like a nice smoothie. I think I’m going to make some more variations on this recipe. There’s a lot of delicious tropical fruits that are native to Ecuador, so I picked up a few other packs of frozen pulp to try in coladas: sapote (mamey), banana passionfruit (curuba / taxo), and guava (which is called guayaba in Ecuador, because confusingly a totally different fruit is called guava there).