So having survived the hell bent and stomach churning drive through the Andes, we finally made it into Loja! Our driver, dead tired turned and asked us where we were staying(like he didn't know we hadn't made any reservations!) I nudged my wife telling her to explain our predicament, he said no worry he knew a place, Hotel Libertador! I rolled my eye's as we drove up the narrow street and a scrawny looking security guy with a escopeta(fire arm) helped us in with the bags. Our driver recieved his pay, leaving us with a wave and very tired looking eyes(I wondered if he would take the same route next time, and was he driving back or staying in a 4*** hotel like us?)!
We made it into our room and the bed felt good even though it was a bit cramped, no worry I nodded out in seconds!
The next morning we had a typical hotel buffet breakfast, I said no to tamales(I never say no to tamales!) Instead I had some anise tea and a soft roll. On a sad note, bread hasn't made great strides as far as an artisan trade here, I was Jonesing my sourdough bad!
As usual with no guide book(we left it in Guayaquil), we let our selves venture a bit around the town. Our first encouter with the natives so to speak! My brother-inlaw was out of his element, this is foreign soil of the serranos(pejorative for mountain dwellers),and he is a coastal man(mono-pejorative for Guayaquileno's). Here it is cool and the people are leftists he said! Could of fooled me there were two churches at least two blocks away from each other, non-descript and very poor, the Spanish had taken most of the gold I think when they left! As if by coincidence and sheer luck I ran into the fellow who founded most of this region, Capitan Alonso De Mercadillo. None one seemed to know much about this guy, I assume by his outfit he came with a sword and did some nasty things, yet here was his statue!(we would meet later!)
So as not to upset my sensitivity, my wife and brother-inlaw left the two churches after a prayer and some candle lighting; both of which had some real goulish crucifixes with JC looking like he had just left a Mel Gibson set. That was some serious violence, between the piety and dire poverty of the poor asking for alms I had enough religion!
We headed for the food market!
Food my sanctuary
The market of Loja is organized and colorful. We first set into the vegetable section, right away I started to snap pictures of food, asking politely before I shot. I remembered my mistakes in Paris(thanks David ) the ladies who had allowed me to take pictures were then themselves framed in my lense!
The array of colors and smell was inspiring as a chef.All I needed were my knives, a stove and a kitchen!What surprised me about such a humble town was the cleanliness of the market and the real pride and friendly faces I met. My brother-inlaw a one time "Rey de bolon"(bolon typical dish of plantain) in Guayaquil, described to me the different fruits and vegetables. With each picture of the women in the stalls he showed them the instant images of themselves as they giggled, probably musing about the silly guy taking pictures!
With my mind in food my nose caught the wiff of coffee being ground.Known for primarily exportation of bananas.Ecuador produces a small yield in comparison to Colombia or other coffee producers. Ecuadorian coffee though has a special distinct taste of rich and flavorsome beans, each region having a proud esteem for it's own particular bean and roasting style! The coffee that was being ground in a home manufactured grinder had a smokey aroma that immediately got me in the queue for a few pounds!
We then crossed through the market, already starting to bustle with morning business.A familiar sign appeared on the otherside(red meats), indicating we were going to see some butchering! I seem to recollect some book I have at home about Great French chefs and how one in particular said that most cooks should learn to butcher or at least recognize the animals they cook, that book was written in the early 70's! As a chef I see my share of dead mammals, this was an eye opener,faint hearted and Paris Hilton types should perhaps skip this page! This reminds me of alot of old Flemmish painters still lifes, and yet I was comfortable with both sight and smell.Today's cooks, home and pro alike I believe, have no clue about what real food is.They mostly get packaged prepared peices of meat in plastic covered containers in supermarket styrofoam, even a weird tampon looking pad which I still haven't figured out it purpose in the package?
If ever the time to get scared it was now! I thought how hungry I was and knew lunch was not far off, with trepidation and weak stomach! We looked around and bought some local sweet treats, mostly panela laden with some fruit paste or peanuts.We returned to the hotel with our bags and made very quick plans to visit some local sites, on the itinerary, Vilcabamba,Cisne.We hired a quick talking young taxi cab driver, haggling over fare(he was a decent guy, and hell he drove a lot!) we finally proceeded to Vilcabamba first.We followed the road down out of Loja, the air was cool and suddenly it changed to a hot humid valley with some undercurrents of mountain air. Our first stop the zoo, a few interesting animals, then a local tourist shop, lot's of Americans and Euro's floating around looking very eco-touristy in this non-descript town, my wife quipped that she didn't see any of the legendary old people, I said "there taking a nap!" We stopped for a quick shot of guarapo that this guy was selling.The heat was intense and so was the drink.
The man selling the nectar of sugar cane,was also as interesting as his product.He and my brother-inlaw conversed a bit and he took out a pitcher that had some strange looking branches, roots and leaves covered by some strange dark liquid.He claimed it had medicinal value, none of the locals needed doctors when they had this elixir! After an explanation like that my brother-inlaw was sold, anything to relieve his asthma, hell there were coca leaves in that there imbibed guarapo! He offered me a sip, after saying that it was rather bitter and nasty, I thought better and declined, I felt fine! He bought a bottle and we were off.Winding back up the mountains to Loja we decided lunch was in the sights, where and what should we have? The driver called in on his radio for good locations, my fellow travelers chimed in about trying cuy. Needless to say I was going to have to bite the bullet and partake, couldn't hide behind my gringo 1st world chicken ass and avoid it! A few laughs over the cb and we found a real mecca for the delicacy, I started sweating and inquired if there was anything else on the menu?
Too be continued.......