Embracing the New Year in Ecuador

Feliz Año Nuevo! Happy New Year! Ecuador’s custom to welcome in the New Year is “out with the old”. I’m waiting to see what “in with the new” will be.

The old is symbolized by papier-mâché  masks and large characters called monigotes which may represent anything real or imagined. These are effigies of well-known figures, Disney-like characters, or creatures from another world and can be six or more feet in height and elaborately decorated. They are stuffed with paper, cardboard, sawdust, or other materials and sometimes dressed in old clothes. A person may make his own mask or character or more likely, purchase one already made.

The masks and effigies offer visual delight to old and young alike. They are put on display in front of homes and businesses, anywhere along the street, or in parks and other public spaces. At midnight, they are ignited to burn away the bad things of the current year. They must be completely burned to prevent  any of the year’s displeasures from returning. While they burn, one custom is to jump over them 12 times to wipe away all bad things encountered each month. This can be a little dangerous, especially if the characters are filled with firecrackers.

My own neighborhood park was a site to behold with many of these characters on display for the evening burning. It was difficult to get close while individuals were assembling  their displays, but I attempted to get some pictures from behind the fences. When the evening came, there was constant noise from firecrackers and a band broadcasting all over the neighborhood until 5 o’clock in the morning.

Today, there will be piles of ashes all over the streets and parks. I will step over these and go looking for what is new in the New Year.

Fact: Another custom is to eat 12 grapes at midnight
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Hats Off to Ecuador

Of some 139 styles of hats today, only one is named for a country – and it’s the wrong country! I refer to the Panamá hat. This hat originated in Ecuador and continues to be made by Ecuadorians, though there are some international knockoffs. The best Panamá hats are made in Montecristi, a town in the coastal lowlands, where about 70 families continue to intricately hand weave the finest hats. The second most important town for the weaving of these hats is Cuenca.

Across and down the street from the 10 de Agosto Mercado is the Panamá Hat museum. There are two major steps in making a hat: weaving and blocking. The best Panamá hats are woven with the Toquilla straw growing in the coastal wet lands. The best of the Montecristi hats may have as many as 3000 weaves per square inch and take up to 8 months to weave. The cuenca and the brisa are two types of weave, the former producing a herringbone pattern while the latter shows a small diamond/square pattern.

Blocking the hat gives it its shape. The traditional Panamá is a fedora-style hat with a central dent in the crown, which appears pinched at the front while the brim may vary in width. At the museum, large machines are used for blocking. On display are hundreds of hats of varying styles and even colors. It has been said the the finest of these hats, the superfino, has such a tight weave it can hold water and even be rolled up and passed through a wedding ring. I wouldn’t recommend this.

If these hats are made in Ecuador, why are they called Panamá hats? There seem to be three reasons.

  • The hat originated in the Spanish colonial days of what became Ecuador, and by the 19th Century, Ecuador needed an expanded market for selling its local products. The hats, along with coffee and chocolate, were shipped to the more developed country of Panamá which had become a hub for international shipping. This resulted in the hat being called a Panamá hat. By 1944, it was Ecuador’s largest export product at 4.3 million hats leaving the country.
  • The second reason the hat got coined Panamá was due to the gold rush men on their way to California. These men traveled from Europe and the Eastern US through the Panamá Canal to get to the Western US. When they got to Panamá, they realized they would need a hat to protect them from the sun. There they found a lightweight brimmed hat would do the trick and referred to it as the Panamá hat.
  • The third possibility for the name of the hat is attributed to President Theodore Roosevelt who was seen wearing one on his 1906 visit to the Panamá Canal. This became a fashion statement for men, and they quickly bought the hat and called it the Panamá hat. Men such as Orson Welles, Humphrey Bogart, and Gary Cooper wore and helped popularize the hat. Whatever the reason, the name for the hat stuck and continues to be known  today as the Panamá hat.

It took a lot of hats to reach the 1944 export figure, however. By 1850, 2,000 hats had been made in the Cuenca area. A big moment for the hat came in 1855 when the hat was introduced at the World Exposition in Paris. This caused a quick rise in shipments to Europe, resulting in a half million hats leaving Ecuador. But a major mistake was made at this exposition: there was no mention of the hat being produced in Ecuador, leaving Europeans believing it was created in Panamá.

Other countries have gotten on the bandwagon producing look-alike hats using wood, wheat, and even palm leaves. Don’t be fooled by these. A true Panamá hat using  toquilla straw will show a flowering out in the weave from the center top of the hat. This is a genuine Panamá hat and you should be proud to wear it.

Fact: The Panamá hat is sometimes called the Johnny Depp hat
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The Cost of Food Shopping in Cuenca

You will save money when you grocery shop in Ecuador. Prices for local products are often substantially below those in North America. This is a result of the lower cost of living in Ecuador. The average monthly salary in Cuenca is $753.00 a month, with many earning $450.00 a month. Some items are subsidized by the government; others are  priced lower in order to accommodate the low average salary.

Alicia Erickson has researched food costs in six major Cuenca stores  in April 2022 (https://yapatree.com/cuenca-grocery-shopping-options-compare-lower-cost-of-living/). Her figures below are based on one pound, except where noted.

Proteins                               

Chicken     $1.25
Beef             $2.80
Pork            $2.00
Fish             $1.25
Shrimp      $3.00

Produce   

Onions        $0.40
Tomatoes  $0.40
Apples         $0.73
Potatoes     $0.30
Pineapple  $1.00 (1)

Staples                                             

Sugar          $0.45
Spaghetti $1.00
Flour           $0.47
Rice             $0.50
Beans         $0.80
Quinoa       $1.50

Miscellaneous

Box Wine    $5.00
Eggs (30)   $3.50
Milk (1L)    $0.70
W. Bread    $1.00 (loaf)
Honey         $1.00 (small jar)

Comparisons with the Mercados

Local Tiendas                28% higher
SuperMaxi                      61% higher
Other large stores       29%-55% higher

Last week at my Mercado, I bought a head of lettuce and a cauliflower, 3 green peppers, 3 white onions, 2 cucumbers, 1 humongous zucchini, 2 carrots for a total of $3.50!

Clearly, shopping in the mercados is the most cost-effective way to obtain groceries. Hence, their popularity. 

Fact: Unrefrigerated milk is sold in cartons on the shelf
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Food Shopping in Cuenca

The cost savings when purchasing food can be great when you know where to shop. As in cities of similar size, Cuenca is blest to have several options for shopping. These include the city markets (mercados), the chain stores, the local mom and pop shops (tiendas), and the street vendors.

There are five large mercados scattered around Cuenca. The largest of these i s the Feria Libre, an overwhelming market in size and number of products for sale. One of Cuenca’s popular tour operators gives us a tour of this market. He offers a commercial opening but continue watching to see the scope of this  popular market.

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h6rDIwya0ZA).

The other four mercados offer similar merchandise but on a smaller scale (see last week’s post at  https://wp.me/pdrVMz-ia). This is the mercado where I usually shop as it is the closest for me (a 25-minute walk).

Large local chain stores in Cuenca serve all the residents. One of the popular stores is the SuperMaxi, a large American-style grocery store popular with ex-pats. For five years, this chain has been building a MegaMaxi at a cost of 36 million dollars. It is due to open in 2023 and will be similar to a Walmart. Which brings us to another super store: Coral. This chain has six stores in Cuenca, from small to large; it is owned by Walmart. There are a few more large chain-type stores.

The local tiendas are the most numerous grocery outlets in the city. Many of these are too small to even enter. They have a counter across the doorway where you ask for what you want. The advantage of these tiendas is convenience for last minute shopping, and a place where you can purchase small quantities (such as a cup of flour). They are not to be overlooked.

The choice of shopping outlets is yours. You may choose for convenience, price, or location. Like many Ecuadorians, you may also need to shop at several of these in order to find all the products you want. Shopping in Cuenca is an adventure. Next week, I will discuss the costs and comparisons  of shopping for groceries.

Fact: Ecuadorians juice some fruits instead of eating them
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Herb, Hornado, or Haircut

Do you need a fish head, a wooden spoon, an exotic herb, a hornado, or a haircut? In Cuenca, you need to head to 10 Agosto Mercado in the El Centro, an authentic Cuenca market, where you will these items and many more than you can imagine. You must experience the sights and smells of this colorful market. Although it is open 7 days a week, it is best to go on a weekday when it is running full tilt.

When you approach the Mercado, you will find many vendors in front with their goods spread out before them or in a wheelbarrow. Wend your way through them and up a few steps and you are in the entry way of this large mercado. Ahead is a partial wall to block the elements from coming into this covered market.

You will first see piles of food stuffs along either side of the walls. Here you will find stalls of organic items in large baskets. Suddenly, you find yourself in a large courtyard-type space. Ahead is a decorated elevator with escalators on either side. Below one of these escalators stand indigenous women beating their clients with sage leaves as a purification rite.

Moving forward from the courtyard-type space are rows of meats, fruits, beans, and vegetables. Ride the escalator up to the second floor and these rows are duplicated. In addition, you will find multiple products for sale on individual tables: bags of various nuts, fruit drinks, more herbs; there are also Chinese imported products, wooden spoons and other wooden utensils, and even a couple of vendors offering a haircut for $2.50. Not to be outdone by the food products are rows containing clothing, shoes, and hats.

The prepared food smells will draw you back toward the escalators. Along either balcony side are individual food vendors offering you an inexpensive meal of typical Ecuadorian fare with tables opposite for your use. At the end of these food rows in a larger eating area are more food choices. Here you will find the hornado, a whole roasted pig served with boiled local corn kernels, mashed potato balls glazed with homemade sauce, and fresh salad mix. The pulled pork meal will melt in your mouth. This $4.00 meal can be topped with a glass of coconut milk or a fruit drink for another $1.00.

The 10 Agosto Mercado has been around since 1954. A trip to El Centro would not be complete without visiting this amazing “grocery store”.

Fact: Ecuador has some 40 large and colorful native mercados
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Fly Me to the Moon

Want to go to the moon? Don’t have the time for a long trip? Well, the trip gets shortened if you leave from Ecuador. Yes, Mount Chimborazo in Central Ecuador is closer to the moon than Mount Everest which sits between Tibet and Nepal. If you say ,“No way!” you’d be wrong.

Mount Chimborazo

The facts are Mount Chimborazo is 20,000+ feet while Mount Everest is 29,000+ feet, so Mount Everest wins while Ecuador loses. Not so fast. The world is not a perfect sphere. Below the equator there is a bulge around the middle of the earth running through Ecuador, Kenya, Tanzania, and Indonesia. If you were to stand on this bulge, you would be about 13 miles closer to the moon than if you were standing at either the North or South Pole.

Pixabay.com

A number of mountains jut up along this bulge: Mount Kenya, Mount Kilimanjaro, and a bunch of lesser known mountains in South America. This bulge is not a perfect bulge, as bulges go. It just so happens Ecuador’s Mount Chimborazo is plunked down on a high point on the bulge, making it actually closer to the moon than Mount Everest. The calculations were done by now deceased Dr. Joseph Senne, former univesity professor and civil engineer. His measurements have been authenticated by the director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Mount Chimborazo is a stratovolcano, defined as cone-shaped with steep sides. On a clear day, it can be seen 90 miles away. Despite its claim to fame, it is not the tallest mountain in Ecuador. There are also many taller mountains in the region of Argentina/Chili and even in Ecuador itself. However, Mount Chimborazo is the closest to outer space due to its location on the bulge.

Mount Everest – Pixabay.com

Mountains, such as Everest and Mauna Kea in Hawaii, are some of the tallest mounts in the world, but they sit further from the equator and consequently in a lower stratosphere. Think Mount McKinley (Denali) in Alaska. It’s quite far from the equator. So, Mount Chimborazo wins hands down for being the earth’s closest mountain to the moon.

Are you ready for your flight to the moon? Come see us in Ecuador and we’ll give you a send off.

Fact: Chimborazo’s last known eruption is believed to have occurred around 550 A.D.
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Latin American Cuisine Doesn’t Get the Credit it Deserves

Reprinted with permission from Cuenca Highlife, Sep 27, 2022 [edited]

By Carrie Dennett

Back in August, I wrote about how I wouldn’t promote the Mediterranean diet like I used to. One reason is that the heavy emphasis on this way of eating – although delicious and nutritious – rejects other traditional ways of eating, also. It’s delicious and nutritious, but it hasn’t benefited from being highlighted by research. Take Latin American cuisine, for example.

Like the Mediterranean [diet], “Latin America” ​​is not a monolith. It is quite diverse, consisting of Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and South America – countries influenced by Spanish or Portuguese colonization that began centuries ago.

While there are common threads, the cuisines in this part of the world can be strongly regional, reflecting the blending of influences from the … natives, their colonizers, and enslaved Africans. In her stunning book, “The South American Table,” food writer, cookbook, and culinary historian Maria Baez-Kejak describes South American cuisine as “a unique cuisine that I believe has no equal in the world.”

From Cuenca Highlife, 9/27/2022

Unfortunately, I’ve noticed a common non-Hispanic misconception that Latin American cuisine is less than healthy — too high in carbs and fat, and too low in vegetables. Ironically, because I’ve also seen diet/wellness culture … cherry pick some traditional Latin American foods like “superfoods” – avocado, chia seeds, quinoa, coconut milk, cashews, and oat milk – while demonizing other traditional foods, like corn, white rice, and potatoes. No matter that corn is a whole grain, potatoes contain a lot of nutrients, and a cup of brown rice contains only one gram more fiber than white rice.

It is easy to get an idea of ​​a culture’s cuisine from what we see on restaurant menus (including fast food menus), although this usually does not reflect what people from that culture eat and cook at home on an average day. For example, soups (sopas) and stews (caldos) are important in Latin American cuisine, but most Latin American restaurants do not feature them.

In the United States, we are often used to meals that contain separate sources of protein and vegetables, such as grilled chicken with broccoli. With Latin American foods, mixed dishes are more common, and vegetables are used as a basis for flavor and as a garnish, so it may not be clear how many vegetables you’re eating.

Beans, soups, and stews can be cooked with sofrito – most versions start with onions and/or garlic, then other ingredients like tomatoes and bell peppers are added – then topped with fresh sauce or raw vegetable garnishes, such as shredded cabbage, radish, carrots, or onions. Sauces, another important ingredient in Latin American cooking, are often also made from aromatic vegetables. There may also be a serving of pickled, fermented, or grilled vegetables on the side.

Pixabay.com

When I visited Buenos Aires, Argentina, nearly 14 years ago, I had a little whim when quite a few restaurant menus had salads like what I ordered at home. But the grilled vegetables were plentiful. (As I learned from Maricel E. Presilla’s James Beard Award-winning cookbook, “Gran Cocina Latina,” there are Latin American salads — they’re not just the leafy green combinations you’re used to.)

From Cuenca Highlife, 9/27/2022

When I visited Ecuador a decade later, I was much cooler about the food.

We can learn a lot from Latin American food, including how to use vegetables as flavor and how to incorporate more beans – a great source of protein, fiber and other nutrients. Like every food culture, Latin American food culture is nutritious and delicious, and it’s worth celebrating.

Fact:  Ecuadorian food is as diverse as its landscape. 
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Shrunken Heads Found in Cuenca

A collection of shrunken heads rests alongside one of Cuenca’s main thoroughfares. They lie in state at the Pumapungo Museum and Archaeological Park, a beautiful edifice housing exhibits of early Ecuadorian  history. Pumapungo means door of the puma.

The museum has over 5000 exhibits with rooms devoted to art displays ranging from the Baroque to the contemporary. In 2019, the museum exhibited 37 works by Salvador Dali, his first presentation in Ecuador. Traveling exhibits also occur regularly. In addition to art, there is a collection of 5,000 cassettes of film and musical performances.

Out in the “backyard” is the Archaeological Park of about 10 acres filled with the ruins of the northern capitol of the Inca civilization. The Incas captured the area originally known as Tumebamba from the Cañari tribe in the 1400s. About 1525, an epidemic wiped out many Incas, and the remains of the city were destroyed by the Inca’s civil war. Much of the ruins lie buried beneath the city of Cuenca, except for those making up the Archaeological Park.

The Spanish arrived in the 16th Century and used many of the ruined stones to build their own homes and churches. Those stones exist today throughout the city. The Central Bank of Ecuador acquired the ruined property in 1981 and began to recover the old city of Tumebamba. The city sat upon a high hill and down its sides. The Inca, a highly religious people, held beliefs of a heaven, earth, and hell. An Inca had only to look up to see a heaven above the clouds while living hill top. Down the side of the hill was the entrance to the underworld, a long tunnel which served as a mausoleum, seen today behind a locked gate.

The bottom of the hill served as the agricultural  grounds, where today there are more than 230 species of plants. There is a large pie-shaped birdhouse with each piece of the pie housing a native bird which was prized by the Incas. A pond collects the mountain water and distributes it along a 590.5 foot aqueduct the Incas used to irrigate their crops. Midway, there is a ritual bath built out into the shape of the Southern Cross.

Like Cuenca itself, the archaeological park is a UNESCO-supported site, open daily (except Mondays) at no charge. This is one of Cuenca’s must-visit sites.

Fact: Spanish settlement began in 1557
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Is Cuenca Safe?

Among the largest cities in Ecuador, Cuenca is considered the safest. Petty theft and vandalism do exist, though. Unfortunately, crime is up from last year. This may be due to the conditions left by Covid-19.

Cuenca’s population is roughly half a million. The growing number of crimes in Cuenca this year are 5 domestic abuse incidents resulting in death, and other violent deaths numbering 21. These murders log in at almost 6 per 100,000 people. This compares favorably with the murder rate in the United States. Search out any major US city and you will find the rates much higher.

So, is Cuenca safe? Well, yes and no. Based on the numbers just cited, the answer is yes. However, smaller crimes do exist. As you would in any city, you must be cautious and observing wherever you are. Physical and verbal attacks are low; attacks based on religion, gender, nationality and skin color are particularly low. Because of these low crime rates, Cuenca has a safety rating of 78 during the day and a moderate 45 at night.

Large crimes are usually drug related. Drugs passing through Ecuador are far more prevalent than drugs originating in Ecuador. If you are not involved in the drug scene here, you will be relatively safe. The good news is Ecuador’s national government has made drug trafficking one of its major priorities. The bad news is the country simply doesn’t have enough personnel or money to adequately enforce this priority.

Cuenca, on the other hand, is working hard to keep its city even safer. The locals have always been the focal point for providing safety by the police. Since tourism is a large element in the makeup of Cuenca, a newly instituted team of 31 multilingual tourism police have been put into place. Twenty-nine of these are on duty every day, focusing on the tourist locales.

Most of these officers are on foot, which allows tourists to easily approach them for any help they need. They have even been known to climb the steps the the Cathedral tower to protect any tourists there. Some officers have been given bicycles for greater mobility and wider coverage. These officers are on duty 7 days a week. “I believe this program will expand,” said Fernando Aguirre Cordero, former  local province governor and politician. “The idea is to have more police officers. This is the best way to make tourists to feel safe as they travel around the country, including Cuenca.”

Fact: Ecuador is the only country in the world named after a geographical feature (the Equator)
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We’re at the Top

We made it up all those steps! Now we’re at Calle Larga (Long Street). If we head left for about 3 blocks and turn right, we can take an angled street up to the heart of El Centro and arrive at Parque Calderon. This square block park was modeled on Versailles and once hosted bull fights. It is like a wagon wheel with spokes radiating to the edges. Always a busy place, people mill about, sit on benches and people watch. A few vendors have their wares on carts.

The buildings around the park show off the history of Cuenca. On one side is the Old Cathedral, now an historical museum. It was constructed in 1557 over some Inca ruins. A pipe organ proudly sits on an upper balcony and was reached (no longer by the public) via a circular staircase. I’ve been told that this organ hasn’t sounded in 100 years. What a shame.

Let’s cross the square to the New Cathedral. Ground for this active cathedral was broken in 1885 and the building completed in 1975. Due to an  architect’s structural error, the towers are truncated, as they can not hold any more weight. However, three giant domes in striking blue and white glazed Czechoslovakian tile hover over the cathedral and have become the city’s visual apex. Inside, the profusion of gold on the baldacchino glares against my camera. Gold has been mined here since the days of the Incas. To my dismay, this cathedral lacks a pipe organ.

Crossing to another corner, we will find my favorite building, the Palace of Justice or the old courthouse, constructed in classic French architectural style. It was originally built for the University of Azuay, Cuenca’s province. Today, it is used as an educational school for the legal profession. There is an art exhibition on the first floor, but if we walk up to the second and third floors, we will see that this building is designed around an open courtyard, gaping to the elements in one section. I hope you will be as dazzled by this interior as I have been.

Wandering around El Centro, we will see a number of plazas. Cuenca has not skimped on open spaces, be they plazas or parks. Near the square is the Plaza de las Flores (Flower Mart), overflowing with beautiful fresh flowers. We can choose from prearranged bouquets or create our own. Let’s go a little further to the Plaza de San Francisco where the traditional Latin town name is spelled out in large letters. It is customary to have your picture taken in front of the letters, and if I have to do it, so will you. Around this plaza are many vendors, selling clothing, household goods, ceramics, ironwork, chinaware, rugs, and the list goes on. The scene is colorful with the Cathedral towers looming over.

Pixabay.com

If we have the time, we can just wander up and down the cobblestone, one- way streets and view all the little stores and restaurants. You will be amazed at how many of these hole-in-the-wall stores exist and, with so many, how they all stay in business. Maybe we’ll take this walk another day.

Fact: For a flavor of El Centro: https://youtu.be/a4bh5z3uG-M 18 minutes
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