Sunday, October 27, 2013

Cana Manabita - the cheapest way to get drunk (without going blind)

The local drink is known as Cana Manabita. This is the local sugar cane spirit, drunk in shots as trago or mixed with Coke and lime for an Ecuadorian twist on the Cuba Libre.

It sells in every corner shop for less than four dollars for half a litre.

There's no pretensions with Cana Manabita. No fancy brand names, no “secret ingredients”, no oak ageing, no baffling but oh-so-arty marketing campaigns featuring a film star just slightly past their sell-by-date. Simply, it's a bottle that costs the price of a Sunday newspaper and will get you pleasantly sloshed without going blind. In fact, that should be its marketing slogan.

Cana Manabita
Cana Manabita, it does exactly what it says on the tin... well that's if it says rat arsed in Spanish
Cana Manabita arrived in my life just in time. The Bombay Sapphire was running low and rum and I were going through a rocky patch. In short, I'd bought one of the comedy water melons from market and thought it would be a laugh to attach a siphon and pump it full of Ron San Miguel. The greedy melon sucked up a litre before I called time. I served the death melon as dessert after the tuna banquet and Lucy and I got quite merry. Tuna, rum, and melon do not a happy hangover make.

The Quechua word for a hangover is chuchaqui (chew-cha-kee) but its used widely across South America. Yo estoy chuchaqui is a useful phrase to employ when you just need some peace and quiet the morning after.

Anyway, a few days later we got our taxi driver onto the subject of Cana Manabita on the long and bumpy track to Los Frailes beach, his eyes lit with savage passion as he gleefully extolled the virtues of his local grog.

“It's very cheap,” he said. “For a few dollars you can have a very happy night. Open a second bottle and you can even have a dance.”

It's rarely cold at night on the coast, but up in the Andes you need something warm at night. That's where the Canelazo comes in. This is a hot, sugary drink with cinnamon and naranjilla fruit. It's a sort of South American take on Gluhwein – or more closely, the hot cider they drink in the USA.

Here is Lucy's recipe for the perfect canelazo.

  1. Boil two large sticks of cinnamon in one litre of water for 10 minutes until the water starts to take on the colour
  2. Peel four naranjilla fruits (just ask for them in your local Asda) and blend with a splash of the cinnamon water to the consistency of a road kill toad. Sieve the thick sauce to remove the seeds
  3. Add the naranjilla fruit (just ask for them in your local Aldi) to the boiling cinnamon water and stir through.
  4. Add half a cup of sugar to the canelazo – or to taste
  5. Add one shot of cana Manabita per person
  6. Serve steaming hot in mugs, preferably on a cold winter's night

    Naranjilla fruit
    Naranjilla (like you didn't already know). Just ask for them in your local Iceland
We served this recipe twice. First by a beach bonfire with our taciturn servant Jose – who gave it the thumbs up as he stared gloomily into the flames. Then again the following night at a party in a hippy house in Ayampe - everybody at the multinational gathering enjoyed it, including Colombians, Argentinians, Peruvians, a pair of Yanks and a sleepy French woman who was trying to kip on a hammock but the street dogs kept licking her face.

I gave the hippies delicious canelazo, they gave me guacamole and amoebic dysentery.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Festival de la Balsa Mantena: Salango

Every year Salango – a small fishing town south of Puerto Lopez - hosts a festival honouring the pre-hispanic people who lived on these Pacific shores. The ancient people were expert mariners and developed a primitive sailing vessel – essentially a single-masted, bamboo raft. It's not exactly a Viking longboat but it did the job. Apparently their nautical expertise caught the eye of the Incan empire, who were always on the look out for useful “allies” to befriend.

The festival begins with a meaty toot on a ritual conch shell. A man dressed as one of the indigenous tribe of Salango creates a small fire on the beach and recites an incantation. To encourage a bit of audience participation he invites six local children to help... 600 local children stampede towards him and he looks a bit like Simba's dad in the Lion King.

We can't get on with the festival until the fire is extinguished and it takes an age to burn. Finally it dies and the beauty contest can begin. Three girls from different provinces are competing against la mas bella chica of Manabi for the title of Mantena Bonita. Ever seen that episode of Father Ted with the Lovely Ladies competition? Basically, that.

First up is the local lass. She parades in front of the crowd burning with shame. Little wonder, she's dressed in a shell bikini and carrying some sort of urn with all the solemnity of a pall-bearer. She looks very young, I think, as she trudges past ignominiously. Next up is Quito's offering. She's older and walks more confidently but the expert eye (read – mine) can tell her heart's not really in it, probably a feminist. Then we have Miss Esmeraldas who's out of the blocks at full gallop. She swaggers, sashays and shakes her bum for an appreciative crowd. Finally it's Miss Valencia's turn but she's late so the judging begins without her. Then, at the eleventh hour, she arrives, adding the finishing touches to her make-up. She might as well have stayed back in Valencia because (SPOILER ALERT) she doesn't win – docked points for tardiness, I hope.

a Ayampe 069
Oh dear
The judges have no choice but to award first prize to Miss Esmereldas, largely because she was the only contestant who didn't undermine this illustrious competition, treating it with the dignity and respect it well deserves. However, as a final humiliating twist to the entire sexist farce the chief takes the microphone and announces that they wanted to award first prize to their local girl but because she was only 14 years-old (yes, 14!) they felt this overt sexualisation and her skimpy costume would rob her of precious childhood innocence. Poor girl, the waves of shame and embarrassment radiated from her like a nuclear blast. Why the judges didn't think to say something before asking her to parade around in front of 2,000 gawkers is beyond me. Afterwards there was time for photos and every teenage boy in the province rushed forward with their camera phones in hand (there is no Zoo magazine in Ecuador so Mantena Bonita is perv's gold for frustrated adolescents). The poor 14-year-old had to withstand this final humiliation before she was allowed to leave, presumably in tears.

The real highlight of the festival was the dancing but before this could begin there was the annual ritual of launching a reproduction of the sugar cane/bamboo raft (Balsa Mantena). Then we found out before the dancing could begin the bamboo raft had to sail all the way to the Island of Salango and back. Then we found out the bamboo raft wasn't a natural sea-farer and the wind was rather breathless that day. I went off for some lunch, when I returned the raft was still bobbing gently offshore, slowly taking on water. Some bright spark wondered if it wouldn't be cheating if they gave the raft a bit of a tow with their motorboat. Bless that bright spark. With the boat's mission complete it was finally time to dance.

a Ayampe 082b
For those in peril on the sea
First up were a black dance group from Esmereldas. They put on a racy and sexually provocative routine which they frequently interrupted for the female members in the group to grab a microphone and tease their male counterparts about the size of their manhood, their sexual athleticism and even questioning their sexuality. Homophobic? You bet. Then it was the men's turn for revenge. It was equally smutty... a bit of blue for the dads, but the kids in the audience seemed to love it the most. Shortly after this I was dragged on stage for some ritual humiliation. I think it's called twerking and I'm not very good at it.

a Ayampe 102
Oh dear, part two
a Ayampe 096
Wash your mouth out
The group from Quito danced re-enactments of city life from the perspective of the indigenous community. It was all drunkenness, lechery, nagging wives, husbands getting beaten with brooms, and the local rozzer (chapa in Ecuadorian slang) interfering with their dodgy street trading. In between dances there was some dialogue. I didn't understand the subtleties but according to Lucy it was a bit racist. Basically it was Mestizos taking the piss out of the Indian community, and impersonating them with exaggerated and inaccurate accents.

a Ayampe 120
Carry On Quito
It was a festival run with the ruthless Ecuadorian efficiency and keen sense of organisation I've come to admire. We arrived at 10am (the advertised start of the festival) only to find the organisers were still rigging the stage and lassoing a wire over an electricity pylon to cadge a bit of free leccy. The official festival announcer's first announcement was to ask if any member of the public had a schedule for the day's programme because he didn't have a clue what or when was happening. To express punctuality and sharpness in Ecuador, they say English time. As in: “I'll meet you at the airport at 11:30, English time.” I'm a victim of my own stereotype.

Salango doesn't have the bustle of its neighbour up the coast – there's no fish market, instead there's a giant factory where fish are gutted, packaged, sealed and sent far and wide. If you've ever eaten a can of tuna fish there's a fair chance it passed through Salango.  

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Puerto Lopez fish market

Puerto Lopez in Manabi is a fishy paradise. This dog-eared coastal town is home to the daily fish market. It's a shopping experience that leaves first-timers looking like the very fish being sold - that's wild-eyed and open-mouthed.
Horror fish at Puerto Lopez fish market, Ecuador
My face at the fish market
This is a world where antediluvian sea-life (that wouldn't look out of place hung from the ceiling of the Natural History Museum) sell straight from the boat for a few dollars; where teams of gnarled, knife-wielding gutters work tirelessly in the surf; and where you can barbecue the catch you've just bought in the vast open-air beach kitchen – and all this takes place without any respect for the encroaching tide.

From 5am each morning the fishing boats begin to arrive onto Puerto Lopez beach. By 6am it is already packed with a steady stream of fishermen bobbing offshore waiting patiently for their turn to unload.

Once a boat beaches itself – albeit ungainly and insecurely amid the buffeting waves - a rapid-response team from the beach sprints out to meet it. Several of the men make comic attempts to secure the boat with ropes while the rest balance large buckets on their shoulders, ready to collect the fish.

Puerto Lopez fish market
An entire industry ankle deep in the Pacific Ocean
The fishing boats are small and already look cramped – housing as they do about eight or ten fishermen. What is magical is the vast quantities of fish they contain, they must have hulls the depth of the Samaria Gorge to pack this much cargo.

The fishermen go to sea for two day stints, including a night in the ocean. Where do they sleep? The local fishermen we asked gave us a bemused look, uncertain the landlubbers weren't pulling his old sea leg: “On the boat of course.”

The rapid responders run to-and-fro through the surf like the most disappointing episode of Baywatch. Each man is bearing back-breaking loads of fish and, like Juggernaut, will trample to the foam all foolish enough to cross his irresistible course.

The scene is chaotic and the camera-clicking tourist should beware. It might all be taking place on a public beach but this is an industrial setting; there are fish hooks, lorries reversing, knives and buckets full of bloody guts – and that's without mentioning the creepy sea birds that look like pterodactyls (which I just spelled correctly at first attempt). In England you'd need a hard hat and high-viz jacket before they let you within fifty feet of this maelstrom.

Puerto Lopez fish market
Once the fish are unloaded the real trading begins. About two thirds of the catch are loaded straight onto lorries, vans or sorry-looking Chevrolet Sparks, who are wondering what they did to anger the motoring Gods to deserve this fate. This fish is destined for the packing plants, or bound for the bellies of highland Quito – where the only local fish is a type of anorexic trout. The fish is quickly boxed, packed in ice and driven away in a death cloud of black diesel smoke.

Now it's our turn. Except the canny local traders are already busy snapping up the best fish. There's no point competing with these chaps, they can eye a prize Corvina from 50 yards with a sharper eye than those terrifying pterodactyl birds (no spell check, twice on the trot).

The sellers place their fish on mats along the beach, inviting goggle-eyed tourists to inspect their wares (apparently, goggle-eyed tourists are their favourite customers). Clumsy Spanish, an English accent and not having a clue what fish is what or what's it's worth left me a slight disadvantage – but if I was getting ripped-off then it was the most pleasant scam I've been the victim of. For example, I paid eight dollars for a ten pound tuna (more about him later), five dollars for eight King Prawns the size of my head, five dollars for two purple fish of unknown vintage (an impulse buy), and the same again for a juicy corvina (sea bass). I managed to resist the temptation to pay two dollars for a squid who looked like he had only just given up a lucrative career in swallowing fishing boats whole – Cthulhu in a bucket.

I left the beach loaded with Neptune's treasures. To put it plainly, if my oil drum barbie was banking on a quiet night in front of the TV with a pizza and Strictly Come Dancing then it had another thing coming.

Once you've bought your fish you can take it to one of the gutting tables, there are about 30 operating furiously along the beach. It costs 50 cents per bag of fish. The gutters work ankle deep in the surf and are oblivious to the larger waves which sent me and the street dogs running for higher ground. The dogs mooch around desultorily, trying to look uninterested and innocuous; except they fail miserably and manage to look very interested and deeply suspicious.

Puerto Lopez fish market
Perfectly innocent... just soaking some rays... I don't even like fish
I was cradling my bag of precious fish like Gollum, but most of the locals take their catch straight to the smoking barbecues and spitting pans of the vast open-air kitchen, operating just metres from the sea. The cooks will serve you your fish, rice and plantain at a table in sight of the same boat that landed the catch. The local men were more engrossed in their tabloid newspapers, which are packed with more nudey girls than even the Sport would consider tasteful.

My cradled bag of fish would betray me with great embarrassment on the bus home. As I was teetering gingerly towards the front, in preparation for the military, rolling disembarking the drivers favour, a particularly tight corner sent my bag swinging over the head of a family of four. I hope it was only brine that leaked from withing, either way they all received a fishy shower that morning. My shame was so great I got off a stop early and walked.

Back to the ten pound tuna. That evening I barbecued it and - with a only little help from Lucy – managed to eat half a fish. That's five pounds of flesh we consumed. Granted some of its total weight included head, brains, bone and blood (most of which we'd dripped around the sparkling white floor of SuperMaxi only realising at the checkout we'd just drawn a grisly Hansel and Gretel route map of our shop – it was “Clean up team to aisle four please... and aisle five, six, seven and ten.”)

With some rude maths, I figured I'd probably eaten three pounds of tuna fish (not to mention the four plantain and cheese bolons, a generous tomato quinua salad, oh and the six bottles of Pilsner). Most people won't know this, but three pounds of tuna does not a comfortable digestion aid. I felt a bit like my old dog Jack after he broke into the fridge and ate two packs of butter, an uncooked chicken, six cherry yoghurts and an entire block of cheddar cheese – shrink-wrap and all. I could have wept, and if I had it would been with tuna-tinged tears. As I write, there are another five pounds of tuna wrapped in tin foil in the fridge like some shameful crime.

Puerto Lopez fish market
Pick a tuna

Tuna on a barbecue
Ten pounds of tuna feeling the heat
Puerto Lopez fish market is a refreshing example of just letting people get on with it. Proof that if you allow thousands of people to converge in a heady cocktail of trucks, guts, hooks, boats, ropes, dogs, knives, barbecues and pteradactyls (bugger) almost nobody will die... and if they do the tide will simply wash the bodies away, along with all the fish guts.

We've been going to the fish market a few times a week and there's always something new to see. However, when we went today it was clearly a special day. As we approached there was a strange atmosphere, a nervous excitement crackled in the air like static electricity. When we reached the fishing boats, which were beached further out than usual, it was obvious what was fueling the atmosphere.

Every boat contained about four or five enormous sharks. It was a shocking sight up close; their great tail fins; their uncanny smiles; and their terrifying jaws (even dead). The size of the fish was astonishing, perhaps twelve feet long and two hundred pounds. The sharks were being butchered on the beach and the blood ran like streams to the sea. When they sliced open the stomachs, fish the size of the enormous tuna I'd bought last week slithered out, barely digested. But all eyes were on the shark meat.

It seemed a tragedy that so many (perhaps 100) of these impressive creatures were dead on the beach. Lucy got upset at the sight.

The sharks are known locally as rabones. In English they're known as threshing sharks and are most easily identified by their enormous tails. A local fisherman told us how happy he was with the catch. “You could support a family for a week with one of these fish?” Lucy asked.

“No,” he said. “For a month.”

Each fish would sell at market for between $300 - $400. Not a bad day's work when you're unloading five fresh rabones from the ice. It's little wonder Puerto Lopez beach was buzzing with so much nervous excitement. There was going to be plenty of Cana Manabita drunk that day.

Thresher shark, otherwise known as rabones

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Quito: A City of Two Halves

Quito is a city of two halves. London might have a clearly defined North, South, East and West; Quito simply forsakes its wings. This snake of a city slithers between its mountainous barrier walls for miles on end.

To demonstrate just how narrow and long Quito is I headed to the top of the hill in Itchimbia - an excellent vantage point with Pichincha directly opposite.
Quito panorama, Ecuador
High-definition panorama of Quito, Ecuador
This image is composed of 72 RAW photos stitched together in Photoshop. On the left you can see the Virgen del Panecillo on the hill (marking the start of the south of Quito), in the centre is the Basilica del Voto National and in the right stretches away the high-rise office blocks and suburbs of the North.

One of the first things I was told about Quito was: "If Pichincha is on your left you're heading north, if it's on your right you're heading south - beware." 

Quito is famous for being one of the world's highest capitals – and you feel it. At over 2,800 metres, simple acts like climbing a flight of stairs leave you unnusually breathless, even brushing teeth vigorously can see you short of breath.

“I'm used to hills, I lived in Highgate,” I once said in ridiculous response to a warning about the ups-and-downs of Quito's topography. Now I'm not saying Swain's Lane was a breeze in first gear on my bike but compared to some of the inclines in Quito it's a positive plateau. Our Renault was panting like an asthmatic at the top of hill out of Cotocollao. So, given the gradients, it's strange how few motorists have perfected the art of the handbrake hill start in Ecuador.

The hilltop park of Itchimbia is home to Quito's Crystal Palace. This giant glasshouse was once the town's central market. It was designed and built in Belgium and shipped all the way to south America. As the city grew, the small glass market became obsolete. Rather than send it to the bottle bank, it was taken apart and rebuilt at the top of the hill where it now resides, housing cultural exhibitions.

Crystal Palace in Itchimbia park, Ecuador

In Praise of Corviche: Manabi fish cakes

Manabi is a coastal province of Ecuador. Unsurprisingly it's famous for the quality of its seafood. All the talk is about ceviche - the lemon fish broth with onions, parsley and chilies. You can even eat good ceviche in London. What I'd never tasted before is corviche, a sort of Ecuadorian fish cake. It's made with local fish seasoned with salprieta (local peanut salt) and wrapped in mashed plantain, the cake is then deep fried until it becomes a deep caramel brown. Corviche is delicious eaten with a squeeze of limon sutil and a healthy dollop of tongue-tingling aji.

I've been buying my Corviche from a very local shop just outside Ayampe. The service is relaxed and you can easily wait 20 minutes for a Corviche. They cost a dollar each and - considering how filling they are - it makes for a very cheap breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Corviche from Manabi, Ecuador
Corviche from Manabi

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of South American fruit

South American fruit is an esoteric world where the wise man treads carefully. Think of it like the game Minesweeper, random clicking only ends in tears, but cautious footsteps reveal the hidden horrors (and occasional gems) without losing a figurative leg (or a literal stomach lining). This list is a work in progress and – of course – totally subjective from the perspective of a confused European.

South American fruit... it's a minefield

The Good

* Babaco – Love at first sight. It has a green, waxy skin that yellows as the fruit ripens. There's a satisfying plumpness about a babaco, just holding one compels a powerful urge to smash this swollen monster into smithereens of pulpy juice... and if it didn't taste so good I'd have succumbed to temptation long ago.
The babaco has a star shape that makes it hard to peel, but it's well worth the effort. Inside is an overflowing juice factory (so make sure you've got a bowl handy to catch the liquid while you're skinning the fruit).
The flesh is slightly sour but a spoonful of sugar takes the edge off the tang. The fruit soaks up the sugar and you have the most delicious breakfast since man first topped a soft-boiled egg and served it with a platter of soldiers.
Tasting notes: a bouquet of peach, with low melon notes and a subtle citrus tang
What a star
Dulce de Babaco - ready to eat

Uvilla – You might know these by as Physalis Peruviana or Chinese Lanterns? Anyway, I snacked on these straight from a bush in El Tingo and – warmed under a midday sun – they were delicious. They come ready wrapped in lace-like parcels, so every fruit feels like Christmas morning.
Tasting notes: subtle floral notes with a crisp and satisfying bite

Maracuya – otherwise known as the Passion Fruit. It's a versatile fruit that can be added to juices – to sweeten and enrich the flavour – or it can be added to cheesecakes. Better still is the Maracuya Sour, a variation on the Peuvian Pisco Sour cocktail. All round, the Maracuya is a good egg.
Tasting notes: sweet, exotic nectar packing an explosive and lasting punch

Platano Rosado – it's a banana but it's red. This is the one and only trick of the platano rosado. Otherwise, it's just a firm and delicious banana. A solid performer.
Tasting notes: close your eyes and it's basically just a banana

Limon sutil – basically a tiny super sour lime. The concept of the lime doesn't exist in Ecuador, green or yellow they're all lemons. The limon sutil is one of the good guys for one simple reason – it's an essential ingredient for both ceviche and mojito (I.e – a great night)
Tasting notes: super strength sour lime

Taxo – like the French revolution, it's still too early to understand the impact of the taxo fruit. It looks like a squat banana and, once you've penetrated its shell and protective, woolly blanket, it contains hundreds of sour, orange seeds. It wasn't an unpleasant sensation, but it certainly challenged me. My “journey” was like an X Factor contestant – there were ups and downs but I gave it 110 per cent, and even drank a taxo milkshake. Still I couldn't arrive at a I'll give it the benefit of the doubt and place it with the 'Good' but let's consider it firmly in the relegation zone with next season in the lower leagues looking increasingly certain.
Tasting notes: sour and seedy
Taxo the confuser

The Bad

* El tomate de arbol – the locals love this. I drank it unwittingly in a hotel in Otavalo thinking it was orange juice and nearly spat it out across the fresh, white linen. “Why does my orange juice taste cheesy?” I couldn't work it out. The second time I drank it was in a batido (a South American milkshake - a very cheesy milkshake). It was like a fruity Petit Filous. The only time I can tolerate tomate de arbol is when it's served in the tongue-tingling aji table sauce – a salsa so packed with red hot chillies its cheesy flavour is burnt back to the fires of hell, from where it belongs.
Tasting notes: alarmingly cheesy

* Granadilla – another popular local fruit. Although the taste isn't so unpleasant as the tree tomato the texture is another story. To eat Granadilla you top it like a hard-boiled egg and slurp and suck its sloppy, seedy innards. I was reminded of that scene in the Temple of Doom where they serve chilled monkey brains to an hysterical Kate Capshaw.
Tasting notes: chilled monkey brains
Granadilla fruit from Ecuador
Chilled monkey brain
* Pitajaya – I had been promised big things about the pitajaya. It's a fruit of the Amazon region which The taste isn't revolting but it isn't particularly inspiring either – something like a sour apple with consistency of an overripe kiwi fruit.
Tasting notes: sour apple
Pitahaya fruit from the Amazon

The Ugly

* Tuna – this is the fruit of a cactus and I can honestly say I'd rather eat the prickly parent plant than snack on one of these orange-fleshed horrors again. It lies somewhere between an insipid melon and a rotten pumpkin. To make matters worse it's packed with crunchy, bitter seeds.
Tasting notes: a pumpkin melon
Tuna cactus fruit from Ecuador
Devil fruit

As seen on the Pan American Highway #1

Painting lines on the Pan American Highway
Painting the white line on the Pan American Highway
You see some strange sights driving on the Pan American Highway.
These workmen are painting the white line for the verge on a new stretch of road near Machachi. They're motoring along at a steady 20mph with only a red flag for safety. Miraculously, their line is straight as an arrow.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The best breakfast in Ecuador?: El Cafe de la Vaca

“The best breakfast in Ecuador!” Well, that's what I was promised at El Cafe de la Vaca, but is this dairy-cum-restaurant the cream of the crop?

El Cafe de la Vaca, Ecuador
El Cafe de la Vaca
El Cafe de la Vaca (Coffee of the Cow) is an isolated little restaurant on the Pan American highway, south of Quito. Conveniently it's just the right side of the toll road to Ambato, if you're driving down from the capital.

This is a working dairy and, hammering home the fact, you even walk through the milking room to enter the restaurant.

Breakfasts are its specialty and well-renowned. So much so that between 8am-10am you can struggle to find a table – lengthy queues aren't unknown. Fortunately, by the time we'd arrived at 11:30am for brunch, we had the place to ourselves.

I plumped for Desayuno de la Vaca – a veritable breakfast banquet that requires the stomach of a cow to finish in its entirety.

For $11 (USD) you get coffee, fresh juice, croissant, bread, biscocho (savoury biscuit), nata (clotted cream), blackberry jam, fresh white cheese, and my personal highlight huevos a la cazuela - a piping hot casserole of eggs, cheese, tomato topped with strips of ham.

If you're feeling brave, the restaurant serves glasses of house (read unpasteurised) cow's milk, freshly teased from the udders of the local herd.

Also on the menu are hamburgers, omelettes, trout, locros (potato soups) and salads.

The building is nicely finished with wooden beams and its cartoon cow logo is plastered, painted, printed and stitched on every available surface.

El Cafe de la Vaca, Ecuador
Colourful, cutesy cows abound
Service is snappy, but why rush when the views from the window are so stunning? The restaurant is nestled between the volcanoes Illiniza (to the front) or Ruminawi (to the rear) and there's even a paddock of horses to complete the postcard panorama.

Travel-weary children trekking reluctantly along the Pan American highway might enjoy a restorative rumpus in the playground, complete with zip-wire.

I was promised the best breakfast in Ecuador and El Cafe de la Vaca duly delivered.

El Cafe de la Vaca, restaurante, Ecuador
Panorama of El Cafe de la Vaca and a spookily empty Pan American Highway
I visited the original restaurant (Machachi) but its popularity has seen sister sites open on the Pan American north of Quito at Cayambe and the San Luis shopping centre.

For more information click here or call: 022-315-012

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Cross-dressing, Bible-bashing borrachos: La Fiesta de la Virgen de la Merced

I'd narrowly avoided a cavalry charge of cross-dressing Turks riding kaleidoscopic silk-clad horses – I was at La Fiesta de la Virgen de la Merced.

Turk transgender horsemen from El Tingo at La Fiesta de la Virgen de la Merced
Cross dressing horsemen coming through
The annual week long festival is a Pagan affair (despite its name and later approbation by the Catholic Church) celebrating Summer equinox.

Ecuador is in the middle of the world and on the equinox the sun is in the middle of the sky – it swallows shadows whole and bleaches everything you see. A friend had a sun dial in their garden and on September 21 it was necessary to spin it 180 degrees about face or else let it linger in shadow for the next six months.

The general flavour of La Fiesta de la Virgen is a simple mix of dressing-up, dancing, and drinking – lots of drinking.

No chance of rain - old man and woman sheltering from the sun at La Fiesta de la Virgen de la Merced
No chance of rain but the sun will soak you through
The tipple of choice was a bathtub brew of distilled sugar cane called Trago. It was dispensed liberally from skins worn about the waist like a handgun – and the Trago was no less deadly.

The generous locals don't need much encouragement to pour their fire water down the throats of visiting tourists. El Vikingo, your courageous narrator and conspicuous Englishman, was subjected to no fewer than ten Trago ambushes. Alcohol has numbed my lips before, but my teeth too! – that was a first.

Even motorists making their way back from church weren't spared the dentist's chair – revellers wouldn't let them pass until they'd doubled the drink drive limit. Taxi drivers too were hitting the Trago hard – I saw one bleary-eyed cabbie transform a simple three-point turn into a fifty-four point turn before finally saying “sod it” and abandoning his vehicle.

I was in Merced – a small rural town in a valley south of Quito. It's a largely indigenous area and the festival was filled with Indians wearing traditional clothing. My favourite outfit was worn by the Otavalenos – that's blue ponchos, white linen clothing, long pony tails (adorned with colourful ribbons) and all topped with a cheeky cherry of a bowler hat. The ponchos are thick-knit wool and it was 30 degrees under the sun, so extra marks awarded for stoicism.
Indian from Otavalo, Ecuador at La Fiesta de la Virgen de la Merced
He was trying to shake my hand - I was trying to photograph him - something's gotta give
Also in attendance were Los Morenos – who paint their faces black with boot polish like it was the 1920s – and the Zamarros, dandy cowboys, who wear comedy sheepskin chaps and iron their shirts a little too meticulously.
Morales in coastal dress at La Fiesta de la Virgen de la Merced, Ecuador
Boot polish and a white dress - what could go wrong?
Top of the pile were Los Turcos (the Turks), the cross-dressing horsemen I'd mentioned at the start of my piece. When Los Turcos arrived the entire town made way for their clip-clop procession through town. Their identities are hidden by creepy masks and the significance of their dress and symbolism has been lost in dark ages.

Turk transgender horsemen from El Tingo at La Fiesta de la Virgen de la Merced
El Turco at full gallop
Later driving out of town, Los Turcos overtook our car at full gallop. We gave pursuit and it was an extraordinary sight. I wanted to be in the saddle of the charging horse with the mountain air in my wig and the midday sun sparkling off the snowy summit of Cotapaxi.

Also at the festival I saw lots of people dressed as Ecuadorian soldiers or policemen – either wearing zombie-like make up or with their faces blackened. The indigenous population aren't the biggest fans of these particular institutions and this was mockery through mimicry.
La Fiesta de la Virgen de la Merced
Machete and trago - what could go wrong?
Its unfair to say the fiesta was a purely pagan affair – despite its Bacchanalian character. In the town's main square a vast open air mass was taking place – albeit interrupted by sporadic outbursts of rockets and fireworks. The Virgen de Merced also took pride of place in the procession through town, borne on the shoulders of local girls and a few chivalrous chaps.

The Catholics love a supernatural apparition of the Virgin – and La Virgen de la Merced is one of the Mary's many personae – in this case our Lady of Mercy. She originated in 13th Century Catalunya – during the darkest days of Islamic encroachment in the Iberian peninsula. The Virgin of Mercy has chimed with particular resonance in the New World, and nowhere more so than in La Merced itself.

Our Lady of Mercy is typically portrayed in white robes and with arms outstretched to the faithful. In La Merced locals had stuck dollar bills to her dress which presented a confusing cross-cultural image.

The Virgin Mary at La Fiesta de la Virgen de la Mercet
Our Lady of Mercy parades through town 
The soundtrack was provided by the many bandas de pueblo (village bands) – who struck up bouncy Sanjuanito, Pasacalle and Albazo tunes on trumpets, trombones and drums.
Trombone player at La Fiesta de la Virgen de la Merced
Trombonist giving it some welly with la banda de pueblo
On the menu – although not for this vegetarian still recovering from a bellyful of e.coli – were giant strips of crackling pork skin. The grim, black eyes of the roasted hogs stared back from every roadside stall and a dollar got you a generous slice of crispy flesh.

Pork crackling skin for sale at La Fiesta de la Virgen de la Merced
Tempted? A dollar a slice
Finally, it's not a South American fiesta without the humble borracho (our version of the pisshead). I was there on the final day of a week's worth of boozing and revelry so understandably there were casualties propping up bus stops or sleeping off a skin full of Trago in a storm drain. We rudely awoke one roadside borracho on arrival and he gallantly volunteered to guard our car – although it was much more likely he'd just be sick on it.
All got a bit too much - Borracho sleeping at La Fiesta de la Virgen de la Merced
Borracho borrachito paso el dia solito

La Fiesta de la Virgen de la Merced is a chaotic and colourful affair held together into a cohesive mass by the spirit of dance and revelry... and of course the spirit of the spirit Trago.

La Fiesta de la Virgen de la Merced Horsemen from El Tingo (known as the Turks), they dress as women at La Fiesta de la Virgen de la Merced

See the rest of the photos from La Fiesta de la Virgen de la Merced here