So I’ve been on my internship in Quito Ecuador for eight weeks now, and let me tell you it’s been a ride. This is my first real experience abroad and with that for the first time experiencing a different way of life, a different set of values, and different traditions, which all add to the culture that lives and breathes in Ecuador. Over the last eight weeks I’ve traveled to a handful of different locations. All of these places have given me a different perspective on what it means to be an Ecuadorian and how the land, people, and history have shaped the culture here.
On my first trip out of Quito I went to a small town named Mindo. Mindo is located two hours northwest of Quito. It is a small town that thrives off of the tourism from locals and travelers alike, though in years gone by this town was used as a hub for passing messages from town to town. Due to its location between the jungle and the mountain regions it made for a great location for tribes of each region to communicate between one another. I should mention that while here, time and time again Ecuadorians have spoken about the three vastly different regions of Ecuador. The Sierra, the Oriente (jungle) and the Costa. Even today there are many tribes that live in the ways of their ancestors and choose to not engage with the developed world. The town is centered around a quaint downtown where there is everything any small town in the USA would have; stores, shops, tourist actions all with their Ecuadorian flare. While visiting Mindo, the first stop we made was a butterfly garden. When I first heard we were going to a butterfly garden, I have to admit I wasn’t the most excited person in the world, but I was pleasantly surprised at what we found when we got there. This small garden was built around a small house. Like a lot of things in Ecuador the owners worked with what they had and created a beautiful garden filled with local vegetation unique to South America that felt like a sanctuary for butterflies and people alike. It was a great experience seeing what the local jungle had to offer in such a controlled location. Later in the trip we explored the waterfalls a bit further out from downtown; these waterfalls were tucked away in the jungle with many well developed trails to get to them. It was clear to see how much value the Ecuadorian people put in the natural world that they live in. The highlight of the whole trip was the cable car that was built to cross the canyon. Consisting of a few cables and a small basket large enough to fit six adults, it flies you across the canyon below, giving you expansive views of the jungle you were walking through just moments ago.
One of my favorite trips I’ve taken so far has been my trip to Cotopaxi. If you’re not familiar with the mountains down here, they are huge! It’s easy to forget that Quito sits at around nine thousand feet in elevation, so if you use this as a basis you can start to imagine how high these snowcapped mountains that sit right around the equator really are. Though the weather usually has Cotopaxi wrapped in a blanket of clouds on a clear day you can see how prominent it is in the Quito skyline. This massive mount’s peak is at just over nineteen thousand feet! And let me tell you, you can feel the elevation at the base of this monster. Now, the way that this tour was set up is that you stop for breakfast and lunch at a local bed and breakfast that seemed to be used for other travelers interested in exploring Cotopaxi and the surrounding area. This small bed and breakfast has a large dining hall where it seemed many tour companies take advantage of when feeding and showing their groups a different side of Ecuador. The wood work at this bed and breakfast was exquisite. This is something that I’ve noticed throughout Ecuador, when the time calls for a high level of craftsmanship the Ecuadorian artisans step up to the plate and hit a homerun. All the window frames, floors, and furniture were hand built with the dark wood that highlighted the views of the mountains and rolling hills in the surrounding landscape. Again, this bed and breakfast is a prime example of the how the Ecuadorians make the most of what they have around them to highlight one of the most valued aspects of the country, the land. Once we got to the mountain, the trail we took due to weather was a straight beeline to the cabin that acts as recovery station for people who are brave enough to attempt the climb or for mild adventures who want to take in the mountain without the excruciating climb to the top. This cabin was the end of my climb, though we did make an attempt to reach the glacier that we were told was a twenty minute hike from the cabin. Our attempt was cut short due to the strong winds that this area frequently suffers from. The wind was so strong that five feet into the trail none of the brave souls that wanted to reach the glacier could hear a word that was said even though we were less than a foot from one another. Needless to say, we turned around. It was a great experience though, to really feel how extreme the weather can be in places like this, it really shows you where the respect that the local people have for this mountain comes from, as well as the strength that the people of Ecuador have to have to settle in this harsh environment.
In the time that I’ve been here one town has constantly been described as one of the most natively traditional towns in Ecuador: Otavalo. I have now been to Otavalo three times and the thing that draws me back each time is, well a couple of things. It has the best Frittatas I’ve had here in Ecuador, and is has the open sky market. This market is absolutely huge. On Wednesday and Saturdays the market is extended into the surrounding streets, and these are definitely the days that you want to go. With this expansion the market nearly doubles in size. All the stands at the market are selling products that are made here in the local community. A lot of them are made by the Ecuadorians that are manning the stand. You can find anything from scarves to mugs in this market. I have to admit, between the amounts of people, size, and the variety of contents in the market, it can be overwhelming. At least it has been for me. Despite the high level of stimulation, this market is certainly the place to go for authentic souvenirs for loved ones back home. It’s also a great way to experience a place that holds older ways of life in high regard. In Otavalo there are still many people who participate in traditional medicine, as well as community building traditions, and due to the market the locals are used to engaging with foreigners. The Frittata. A very significant dish here in Ecuador. Consisting of fried pork, corn, potatoes and avocado each prepared in ways that have been used for hundreds of years. It is one of the most delicious meals I have eaten while being here. Here in Otavalo there is a restaurant that I made sure to stop by for lunch each time called El Indio. At El Indio all the food is prepared in an open kitchen at the front of the restaurant. You can see how your meal is being prepared before you even sit down, and you can tell that everything is made from scratch and prepared in a very authentic way. The pork is cubed, boiled, and then fried in a large curved pan, on the plate there is two types of corn one, mote, is boiled and if you can imagine what boiled popcorn looks like, you’ve got the idea. The best way I can describe the other corn served in this dish is if your familiar with Corn Nuts the end product of this corn is similar, yet with a much healthier and handmade taste. The crème de la resistance is the Llapingacho, which is whole potatoes that have been boiled stuffed with cheese and then smashed and friend until golden brown. The whole plate is really a delight to eat.
There are many more places to visit here in Ecuador and different experiences to help anyone understand how the culture has developed into what it is today. The insights I’ve gathered from the places I’ve been are difficult to really put into words. Every location I’ve visited has been the same and different from one another. Some constants I’ve seen are how the Ecuadorian people do the best with what they have no matter if it’s clothes to sell or furniture to build or the clothes on their back. It seems to be a common trait of the people here to constantly do their best with what each of them has to work with.