Five foods to try in Ecuador (besides guinea pig)


When discussing food in Ecuador, the most talked about meal is guinea pig, or cuy. But outside of butterflying cute cuddly rodents on a grill, Ecuadorians eat many other foods that are worth a try. From traditional to tropical, here are a few of the can’t-miss eats in Ecuador.

Llapingauchos: My personal favorite Ecuadorian food is llapingauchos, a traditional Andean potato pattie stuffed with cheese and cooked on a griddle until crispy and brown. Llapingauchos are typically topped with a fried egg and a few slivers of cheese and avocado, and served alongside carne de res (beef) and a delicious-looking salad that I would not dare touch for fear of contracting a parasite (it’s not recommended you eat uncooked vegetables from restaurants in Ecuador).

Pan de yuca: Made from the root of a tree, yuca is actually the third-largest source of carbohydrates for meals in the world. In Ecuador, it comes in many forms: in the rainforest yuca is grated and turned into a tortilla (pictured above), while in big cities there are plenty of fast food joints mixing yuca with cheese and baking it to make a bit-sized treats. Similar in size and consistency to a donut hole, pan de yuca is served piping hot so that the outside is toasty while the inside is soft and warm. Pan de yuca is usually enjoyed with sippable yogurt or coffee.

Choclo con queso: Translated as “corn with cheese,” its easy to guess what this meal consists of. Cobs of Andean corn, or choclo, have large kernels and taste less sweet than the corn sold in the United States. Ecuadorian cheese, on the other hand, is very fresh and moist with little flavor, much like tofu. Choclo con queso is often served alongside some earthy beans, making it a pretty nutritious meal.

Almuerzos ejectivos: Almuerzos ejectivos are fixed-price lunches that usually consist of a cup of fresh fruit juice, a bowl of soup, and a plate of rice accompanied by a piece of meat and/or beans (if you’re lucky, there will also be a small dessert). These lunches cost anywhere from $2 up, and the quality varies considerably depending on where you dine–a good tip is to see which restaurants are already populated with locals. Although sometimes criticized for being overly starchy and bland, within arms reach you will always find plenty of ají (hot sauce) to spice things up. More often than not, soups are served with a basket of popcorn or chilfles (plaintain chips) to be mixed in like crackers. Don’t be surprised to find a whole potato or a chicken leg in the bowl of soup. Although these aren’t the tastiest meals you’ll ever eat, it certainly gives you a real slice of Ecuadorian life.

Fresh fruit: This might seem like a no-brainer, but it would be a shame to visit Ecuador without trying the fresh tropical fruits available there. Although bananas, mangoes, and pineapples are popular, there are also some interesting varieties that are hard to find elsewhere–like guanabana (which tastes like a mix of strawberry, pineapple, and coconut), naranjilla (a mix between a tomato and an orange), and tomate de arbol (a sweet tomato that grows on a tree). Get them fresh at a market or from a cart on the street, or stop by a fruit stand and have them mix you up a fresh smoothie or shake.

Adventure vacation Guide 2012: Ecuador

Most Norteamericanos are hard-pressed to locate Ecuador on the map. Those familiar with this South American country the size of Colorado usually associate it with the (admittedly) spectacular Galapagos Islands. Yet Ecuador has so much more offer besides the Galapagos, and 2012 is the year to get your hardcore on. Why? Because the country’s adventure travel industry is blowing up–but it’s still affordable, especially if you opt for independent travel or book certain activities through domestic outfitters or U.S. travel companies that work directly with Ecuadorean guides.

Whatever your recreational interests, budget, or experience, odds are Ecuador has it: mountaineering, glacier climbing, and volcano bagging; trekking on foot or horseback; Class III to VI whitewater kayaking and rafting; sea kayaking, scuba diving, and snorkeling; surfing; remote jungle lodges and endemic wildlife, and agritourism. Need more convincing? Ecuador’s adventure tourism increasingly has an emphasis on sustainability. When it comes to protecting its fragile ecosystem and indigenous communities, Ecuador has become quite progressive for a developing nation, which hasn’t always been the case.

If you like a cultural or culinary component to your travels, there’s that, too. You can opt for an active, educational trip to indigenous-owned and -operated Amazonian eco-lodges, or play in the Pacific regions, which retain a strong Afro-Ecuadorean influence.

Agritourism is also hot in Ecuador, most notably at centuries-old haciendas, although there are also coffee and cacao plantation tours. Ecuadorean food is a diverse melding of indigenous and outside ethnic influences that’s regionally influenced: be sure to patronize markets, roadside restaurants, and street food stalls for some of the most memorable eats.

[flickr image via Rinaldo W]

Five fantastic (and mostly budget-friendly) Chilean wines available in the U.S.

chilean winesChilean wine–if given any thought at all–has historically been considered cheap plonk; the Gallo of the Southern Hemisphere.

Those days are over, baby. In recent years, Chile has become a contender with the wines of the more well-known Mendoza Valley in Argentina, just a very high-altitude hop over the Andes.

The central Chilean wine regions of Maipo, Colchagua, Casablanca, San Antonio, and Aconcagua Valleys (and their various sub-regions) are blessed with a Mediterranean climate; rolling hills; a lack of crowds and attitude; amazing diversity of varietals; affordable wines, and refreshing coastal breezes or stunning views of the nearby Andes. You’re not going to find all of that in Napa.

While in Chile last month, I visited a number of wineries in the above regions, and I was impressed by the quality of the wines. Modern Chilean winemakers are young, progressive, and well-trained, often in Europe or the U.S..

Below are five of my favorites, all of which are available here in the States. If you can’t find them at your local wine shop, they can be ordered online through your favorite retailer or via New York-based Puro Wines–the world’s first dedicated Chilean wine store.

All of the following wineries have tasting rooms open to the public; quoted prices are in U.S. dollars and may vary depending upon retailer.

1. Emiliana Organic Vineyards Eco-Balance Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Bio Bio Valley
This forward-thinking family vineyard practices organic and biodynamic farming, relying upon their resident sheep, alpacas, and poultry to do the weeding and fertilizing, but more modern sustainable business practices and employee-incentive programs are also at work. The Sauvignon Blanc is loaded with nectarine, white peach, and tropical fruit without being cloying or heavy. The 2010 is a steal at $8.99-$10.95; look for the ’11 coming soon.chilean wines2. Matetic Vineyards EQ Syrah 2007, Rosario Valley
This rural vineyard with a luxe, seven-room guest hacienda is in a sub-region of the San Antonio Valley. The Syrah is lush and velvety, with a blackberry nose and notes of leather and spice. At $35.00, one of the more pricey selections, but worth it.

3. Viña Undurraga T.H. Syrah 2009, Leyda Valley
Located in the heart of the Maipo Valley, this historic, 120-year-old family winery was founded by Don Francisco Undurraga, one of the pioneers of Chile’s wine industry. Cooling coastal fog cloaks the vines that yield this jammy Syrah, which features a hint of spice and vanilla; $29.00. If you happen to visit the winery, do not miss out on their Pinot Noir sparkling rosé ($14.99, but not currently available in the U.S.).

4. Viña San Esteban In Situ Gran Reserva Carmenère 2008, Aconcagua Valley
Located in the charming village of Los Andes, this small, friendly, high-altitude winery lies in the Andean foothills, an hour from Santiago. A short walk past the tasting room will take you to rocks bearing Incan and native Mapuche petroglyphs hundreds of years old. In Situ is their premium line; Carmenère, a member of the Cabernet family of grapes, is the signature varietal of Chile. Intense, full-bodied, and almost chewy, with dominant flavors of blackcurrant and tobacco; $16.00

5. Viña Indómita, Duette Chardonnay 2009, Casablanca Valley
This blindingly white winery sits grandly atop a hillside in the Casablanca Valley, 24 miles from Valparaiso and 54 from Santiago, respectively. You can tour the cellar, then hit the elegant restaurant post-tasting room. This Chardonnay has unexpected, intense pineapple overtones and is creamy on the palate with a refreshing finish; $19.99.

My trip was sponsored by Wines of Chile, but the opinions expressed in this article are 100% my own.

The Icon Wines of Chile with Michael Green at Gourmet Magazine

How to choose a reputable adventure travel company or guide

adventure travel companiesAdventure travel” is a nebulous term these days. But whether your idea of a thrill is a Class-III rapid or climbing Everest, there’s one thing that’s ubiquitous when choosing an outfitter: safety. There are hundreds of adventure travel companies worldwide; not all are created equal. There are key things you should look for when choosing a company or independent guide, whether you’re booking a three-week luxury trip, or a one-day backpacker’s special.

I’m not implying adventure travel in general is risky, or that most operators and guides don’t know what they’re doing. There are numerous certifications in place (they vary according to country) to ensure companies adhere to national and industry safety standards.

The following are tips on what to look for or avoid when choosing a company or guide, based on personal experience and what I’ve gleaned from the owners of several highly regarded adventure companies. I’ve done trips with each company, but I have no personal gain in endorsing them: I’ve just found them to be, among the dozens of outfitters I’ve used, the best of the best.

My sources include Mark Gunlogson, president/guide of Seattle’s Mountain Madness, a mountain adventure guide service and mountaineering school; Marc Goddard, co-owner/guide of Bio Bio Expeditions, a whitewater/adventure travel company in Truckee, California, and Britt Lewis, co-owner/guide of Austral Adventures, a custom travel company on the island of Chiloe, in Chile.

I’m also including a few horror stories based on guide negligence. That’s why, the first thing you should do when planning any kind of adventure activity or trip is…

Do your research
Even a brief online search will bring to light any serious breaches in safety or conduct. Safety doesn’t just apply to those who plan to scale the Andes or kayak the Zambezi. Even the tamest “adventures” require guides who are knowledgeable about the area and activity, and are currently certified in emergency first aid and rescue procedures.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Luis Fabres]

adventure travel companiesLest you think I exaggerate the importance of guide knowledge and research, the idea for this article germinated in 2003, when I was visiting Australia’s Kakadu National Park during the “Wet,” or monsoon, season. That time of year brings potential problems such as floods, but it was a widely publicized trial that made an indelible impression.

A negligent guide was charged in the accidental death of a 24-year-old German tourist who’d been killed by a croc, after the guide assured her group a swimming hole was safe. My own guide informed me that just weeks earlier, another company had tried to gun their small tour bus over a flooded waterway, only to have it overtaken and swept downstream. The passengers were eventually airlifted to safety (don’t let these things scare you off of Kakadu in the Wet; it’s absolutely spectacular, and free of crowds).

Australia of course, isn’t the problem. It’s just that crocs and corpses make compelling headlines. Sometimes accidents aren’t publicized, lest they impact tourism (In New Zealand, an operator confessed to me a rival company’s fatal bungee-jumping miscalculation a month prior, which put them out of business), and of course there have been dozens of mountaineering and whitewater-related tragedies on commercial trips on various continents over the years. Again, participating in these activities doesn’t make you likely to suffer a mishap. Are they inherently dangerous? Yes, but so is crossing the street, driving a car, or hiking solo.
adventure travel companies
What certifications to look for
This depends upon type of activity and country. Says Lewis, “If there aren’t national qualifications or certs, a combination of information is required for form an opinion about an outfitter. How clear and accurate is their literature or website, their answers to your questions, etc.?” I would also add, how long does it take them to respond to your emails or phone calls? A few days is standard, but if you find yourself having to follow-up repeatedly, move on.

Marc Goddard: Ask about the qualifications of each guide. If you’re doing a river trip, find out how many years the guides have been guiding rafts, and on which rivers. Don’t be shy about asking some serious questions: you will, after all, be entrusting them with your life!

Mark Gunlogson: The adventure travel industry has matured, and most activities now have some sort of industry standard. In the case of mountain guiding, there’s the American Mountain Guides Association certification for guide services. Level of first-aid training for guides is also essential to look for, and industry standards apply here, as well.

Signs you’re dealing with a good company or guide
Whether you’re planning a high-end holiday or making a walk-in query in a backpacker ghetto, there are questions to ask and things to look for that signify a solid company. Be aware that hostels and other backpacker-oriented locales are magnets for sketchy outfits. If it sounds too cheap or good to be true, it probably is. If the activity involves something potentially dangerous, don’t bite.

Gunlogson suggests asking the company what’s included and what’s not, so all services are clearly spelled out, including guide qualifications. But, he says, “In the end, sometimes it just comes down to how comfortable a person feels with the company and their interactions with them.”
adventure travel companies
Adds Lewis, “Ask a few simple questions about first-aid and emergency procedures. Do they appear to have a plan for unforeseen events? If you’re a walk-in, does their office have a fire extinguisher? Are their vehicles legal for tourist transport? Are the guides certified for the activities for which they’re assigned?”

I learned just how deadly budget guides can be while climbing Cotopaxi in Ecuador with a Mountain Madness guide. We were forced to turn back at 17,000 feet due to extreme avalanche danger. My guide was fully accredited, and his experience includes some of the toughest technical climbs in the world (For my part, I’d been conditioning for this trip for months, at high altitude, upon the advice of Mountain Madness).

We had returned to the refugio, an overnight acclimatization hut located at 15,000 feet. We saw a young, rowdy group of backpackers being shepherded out the door by their equally youthful guides; it was obvious from their attire they were attempting a summit. My guide, concerned, went and had a word with the other guides: They totally blew him off. I didn’t hear about a group of backpackers getting creamed in an avalanche that day, but that experience really clarified for me the potential for disaster posed by cheapie trips targeted at inexperienced backpackers. It’s not worth it.

On a related note:
adventure travel companies
Look for red flags
“If they’re farming you out to a local outfitter, it could be a red flag,” says Goddard. “But the big warning is if they don’t know who their guides are, or what their qualifications are.” Some companies do “outsource” to local guides or outfitters, It’s not always a bad thing, and in fact can be positive, because you get someone with insider knowledge and you support the local economy. It comes down to their qualifications and relationship with the parent company.

Gunlogson adds, “Ask about guide qualifications, number of years in business, and hidden costs regarding services.” A reputable company willingly discloses information.

Ask for referrals
Lewis suggests asking for past client’s emails, and contacting them about their experience. You can also look at reviews on sites like TripAdvisor.com, or search travel blogs.

Listen to your gut
If you have a bad feeling about a guide, it’s best to pay heed. On my same Australia trip, a certain American guide led us on an overnight bushwalk in Litchfield National Park. Amongst his many other transgressions, he endangered our lives by having us pitch camp on a narrow sandbar at the base of a waterfall-fed swimming hole (I actually voiced my concern, only to receive a withering look from him). Sure enough, a monsoonal downpour made the water level swiftly rise, leaving us backed into a rock wall. Fortunately, we were able to rescue our tents and gear, and the water receded before we had to swim for it. That’s when I learned to listen to my instincts regarding guides. My sensor went off immediately after meeting this guy due to his arrogance, but I felt obligated to do the trip.

Whether it’s a negative reaction to a guide, concern over the poor/worn quality of the gear, or the activity itself, always listen to your gut.

What to do if you have a bad experience
You have several courses of action. You can go to sites like TripAdvisor.com and travel blogs and write the company up (letting them know about it before taking any action). Says Lewis, “It depends on the country in terms of informing authorities. However, the power of the Internet is a huge reward to a good company and an effective way to punish an unsafe one.”

Adds Gunlogson, “Unless there’s injury and an obvious case of negligence, there’s not too much you can do unless you really want to spend the time and money to pursue it. In the end, word-of-mouth has a cathartic effect for clients if their complaints are ignored. Those companies that understand the power of a former client taking to the Internet do their best to mitigate any potential bad-mouthing, whether justified or not. It lets the client know that their dissatisfaction was acknowledged.”

I say: Playing devil’s advocate, I’ve found there’s usually one client on every trip who seems determined to have a bad time and find fault, even where none exists. DON’T BE THAT PERSON. No one likes a whiner or a complainer, and guides work long hours, under considerable stress. Don’t just sit on your butt: ask what you can do to help, be it chopping vegetables, loading gear, or finding firewood. If you have a legitimate complaint, by all means follow the advice provided above, but don’t go trolling for a refund or discount just to be an a-hole.

adventure travel companies
What are the refund policies?
Because shit happens.

Consider climate and seasonal factors
If you want to avoid a monsoon, snow, or inhumanly hot, humid weather, be sure to voice those concerns and do some research on your destination. It also pays to ask about or check on things like growing, spawning, or breeding season of pesky or harmful flora or fauna. Someone I know (her name is Laurel) paid through the nose for a snorkeling trip off a remote island in Southern Thailand. Imagine her surprise when she hit the water and discovered it was peak jellyfish spawn. She spent the remainder of the trip covered in painful, head-to-toe welts that made her the object of much mockery. Far more painful was the knowledge that the scam artists/snorkeling guides knew full well swimming was inadvisable.

Are they a green company?
It matters, and this philosophy also includes hiring locals whenever possible. Don’t let yourself get “greenwashed.”

Honestly assess your own capabilities
You don’t just put yourself at risk (of a bad trip, potential injury, illness, or worse); you jepordize the safety and well-being of other clients. If nothing else, you make your guide’s life hell. Please don’t if you can help it.

Do you trust your guide’s capabilities and judgement?
When you literally trust a guide with your life (and I can only say this about three of them), it’s a sign that that company is doing something right. Never have I been more impressed with guides than the two trips I’ve taken with Bio Bio; Mountain Madness follows a close second.


Consider travel insuranceadventure travel companies
If you’re doing some really hard-core stuff, will be in very remote areas, or have some existing health or physical conditions, it may be worth the extra expense.

Don’t forget to tip
Says Goddard, “I don’t feel tipping is mandatory; it’s done if you feel the guides did a good job. An average tip is 10% of the trip price, a great tip is 20%.” Adds Lewis, “The amount may also depend upon what country you’re in, but it’s always appreciated. Few, if any, guides do their job solely for the money [FYI, it’s not a high-paying job]–there’s a love of people, nature, or the activity that comes with it. But tips are welcome, as they’re a tangible “thank you,” and acknowledge a job well done.”

If you made it this far, consider yourself schooled. Here’s to safe adventures!

[Photo credits: crocodile, Flickr user jean-louis zimmerman; first aid kit, Flickr user 8lettersuk; warning, Flickr user psd; cash, Flickr user Todd Kravos; caving, Laurel Miller]

Top five things to look for in a travel doctor, and why you should have one

travel doctorsDespite writing about food and adventure travel for a living, I used to be somewhat blasé about the concept of travel medicine. Multiple incidents of Giardia/dysentery/traveler’s diarrhea/full-body outbreaks of mosquito and sand fly bites just taught me to carry a serious stash of antibiotics in my first-aid kit. At least I’ve always been conscientious about travel immunizations and educating myself about the primary diseases indigenous to my destination.

When you’re young and healthy, it seems silly to have a travel medicine specialist. Although this article is primarily directed at adventure travelers, odds are, the worst thing you’ll come home with is a backpack full of crappy souvenirs. But no one’s invincible, and should you require a specialist for something not responding to conventional treatment or with progressive symptoms, time is of the essence. Many “exotic” diseases progress rapidly, and can cause irreversible damage or death if not properly diagnosed and treated. Even with incurable diseases, the earlier you catch them, the easier it will be to manage symptoms and prevent them for worsening.

No, I’m not a doctor, although I come from a medical family. But I got seriously schooled after visiting Ecuador two years ago. After a fantastic month of adventure activities in remote parts of the Andes and Amazon Basin, I fell seriously ill the last day my trip. Two years of at-times crippling symptoms, 10 CT scans, five medical facilities, dozens of specialists, four surgical procedures, two surgeries, one cancer diagnosis, and near-medical bankruptcy later, I’ve become an expert at being my own advocate.

My infectious disease doctor believes that I contracted a form of bartonellosis called Oroya Fever after being bitten by sand flies. The good news: My health is currently stable, but we don’t know if the disease is in remission or not. But I have permanent cognitive damage, scarring or tumors on most of my internal organs, and intermittent arthritis. But believe me, I feel lucky.

I don’t want anyone to go through the health and medical nightmare I’ve endured, so I’ve compiled a list of essentials in a travel medicine doctor. Ergo, number one with a bullet:

1. Is he/she a travel or tropical medicine specialist?
Pre-bartonella, I used an internist as my GP/prescriber of antibiotics. If you can find an internist, gastroenterologist, or infectious disease doctor who is also a specialist in travel medicine, that’s a huge plus.travel doctors 2. Does he/she have personal experience traveling or practicing in developing nations?
There are a lot of practicioners who aren’t globally aware, so to speak. You can’t diagnose what you don’t understand, know about, or have first-hand experience with. Period.

3. Is he/she a good listener and empathetic?
It’s difficult to find these qualities in any doctor, especially in today’s medical climate. But it’s imperative to find someone you can communicate with, and who understands what you’re going through if you’re suffering from a mystery travel ailment. Don’t settle, even if you need to travel to another state or country to seek treatment (what stumps doctors here is often commonplace in the country of origin).

4. Does he/she have a good network of colleagues in multiple specialties (including travel/tropical medicine) to consult for additional opinions?
My current mantra is to seek a third opinion, from at least two different medical facilities. That, and to have a travel physician who actively consults colleagues and does additional research to assist with a diagnosis and/or treatment. My infectious disease doctor talked to specialists at a medical school in Peru on my behalf, and even tracked down a relevant medical paper from 1897 as he honed in on a diagnosis. And while I wouldn’t consider it a deal-breaker if the answer is no, see if your doctor is an active and participating member of the International Society of Travel Medicine.
travel doctors
5. Does he/she return your calls/provide you with email, pager, or office number so you can get in touch directly?
I’ve learned that a good doctor who is invested in your recovery will provide an open line of contact to address questions, concerns, and exchange pertinent information. Tip: Please don’t abuse this privilege. Physicians work insanely long hours, under constant stress. And don’t expect to hear back immediately if you leave a non-urgent message; be realistic. A couple of days, fine (many specialists aren’t in clinic every day). A week? Make a polite follow-up.

Whether or not you end up getting a travel doctor, the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT) provides loads of useful information, including a directory of global travel medicine clinics with English-speaking staff, and a destination-specific travel health planner. And depending upon what you plan to do on your trip, where you’re traveling, and your financial situation, you may want to invest in travel insurance.

[Photo credits: blood transfusion, Flickr user CarynNL;patient, Flickr user kk+; legs, Laurel Miller]

The Ultimate Travel First Aid Kit