Tag Archives: ecuador

empanadas de Xavier

baked_empanada_bite

When people find out that my boyfriend is from South America, they often want to know if he has a sexy accent. Unfortunately, I’m not sure. When we first met, his voice definitely seemed different. But now that we’ve been together for a while, I don’t notice any accent. His voice is just his voice.

Since I’m not with the guy for his accent, I have had to find other benefits of dating a foreigner. That’s become Ecuadorian food. Xavier doesn’t cook much, but when he does, he knocks it out of the park. For one, he makes the best fried eggs I’ve ever had. And he’s been known to make tilapia with a lime-onion sauce, which is just awesome. But mostly, I have been trying to learn his comfort foods. I started with something that I loved eating in Ecuador: locro de papas, which is a potato soup loaded with avocado and cheese. (It is even better than it sounds!). Next came something that I’ve been promising Xavier for years. The boy adores empanadas, and I promised to make some for him. But for some reason, they eluded me.

I was a little nervous about tackling empanadas because I didn’t know where to begin. An empanada is not a universal thing. There are as many kinds as there are types of sandwiches! Seriously. You can make the pastry shell out of almost anything. Flour, corn, rice, or even green plaintains. The filling options are similarly endless. You can go sweet, by using fruit or fresh cheese. Or you can keep things savory with meat and olives. Or you can mix the two! A popular Ecuadorian empanada is stuffed with cheese, but dusted in sugar after it’s fried. Xavier had his heart set on meat empanadas. I couldn’t find any that looked good. Most incorporated things I don’t care for, such as olives.

Fortunately, my future sister-in-law saved the day. I sent her a Facebook message and she replied with a recipe for empanadas de carne, or meat. It was in Spanish, so I clarified a couple of things with Xavier so we could make these to the letter. The results were excellent. I can assure you, although they might be somewhat traditional in South America, olives are not missed.

If you’ve never made empanadas before, there’s a little bit of an art to it, but it’s simple once you find a rhythm. Before you do anything, make sure you have some white rice on hand. You can quickly throw a little on the stove to simmer, or just have leftovers. Meanwhile, you’ll saute a mixture of ground beef, carrots, peas, and spices.

beef_peas_carrots

When the beef is browned, reserve the mixture in a separate bowl.

empanada_fillingNext, you’ll saute garlic and onion together until they’re soft. You’ll add rice to this mixture, infusing those grains with tons of flavor.

garlic_onion_rice

Mix all of that together with the beef. There’s your filling.

empanada_filling

Okay, here’s where things get interesting: assembly time! The easiest way to do this is to set up a workstation. I use a cutting board. Have a sheet pan ready for your finished empanadas. I’m right-handed, so I use that hand for scooping filling, folding pastry, and crimping. My left is just support. Have a bowl of egg wash and a bowl of filling handy.

Working with one at a time, place an empanada shell on your workstation. Use your fingers or a pastry brush to paint the edges of the circle with egg wash. Moving quickly so the egg stays moist, place filling in the shell. I try to keep the meat towards the shell’s center, but it’s easier said than done.

empanada_fillingCarefully fold the pastry in half, keeping the filling away from the edges. It may take some practice, but once you get used to the motion, it’s easy to keep things tidy. Use a fork, if necessary, to poke and prod filling back inside.

empanada_foldingWhen things are folded nicely, use the ties of a fork to press the pastry’s edges together and crimp them decoratively. You could skip this step, but I think it does a great job of sealing the empanadas while making them pretty.

empanada_forking

When they’re ready to go, brush them lightly with the remaining egg wash. That will help them turn shiny and pretty in the oven. Yes, these are baked to keep them on the healthy side. Look how cute they are, ready for their tanning session!

empanadas_for_bakingThey will emerge about fifteen minutes later, golden brown and crunchy outside, with tender filling within.

empanadas_baked

Bite one open. If you like things spicy, pour some hot sauce inside. Enjoy.

empanada_ajiYou could call these authentic Ecuadorian empanadas, because they came straight from Ecuador. But it’s important to remember that anywhere you try empanadas, they’ll be made a little differently. This is our version. I think the important question to ask is, are they good? Are they worth it? Well, I wouldn’t want to embarrass my Ecuadorian by disclosing how many of these he ate. Let’s just say yes, and yes.

Empanadas de Xavier
15 medium empanada shells (until I master these, use this Ecuadorian blogger’s recipe)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 carrot, chopped finely
1/2 pound lean ground beef
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 cup peas, shelled if fresh or frozen
1/2 onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup white rice, cooked
1 egg, beaten

In a saute pan over medium heat, heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil until hot, then add the carrot. Saute until soft but not browned. Add the beef, salt, cumin, paprika, oregano, and salt to taste. Cook until browned, using a wooden spoon or spatula to separate the chunks as finely as possible. When browned, add the peas and allow the mixture to cook together. Remove and place in a bowl that has some extra room.

Now would be a good time to preheat your oven to 400F.

In the same pan, add the remaining oil, the onion, garlic, and salt to taste. Saute over medium-low heat until the ingredients almost melt into one another. Add the cooked rice to the pan and let it all cook together for a couple of minutes, stirring occasionally to mix things up. Add this onion-rice mixture to the bowl with the meat. Mix it together.

Take your empanada shells and fill them according to the photos. Working one at a time, moisten the edges of each shell with a little egg wash. Spoon a heaping tablespoon of filling into the middle. Fold the shells in half, using the tines of a fork to seal the edges.

baked_empanada_whole

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On Mastering a Second Language

When I was a baby, my parents spoke to me only in English, so naturally I grew into a child who could only speak English. And as it went, that never really changed.

After seven years of Hebrew school, I could read the Hebrew language and understand a few key words. But immediately after cashing in my Bat Mitzvah, the comprehension disappeared to the point that it’s like I never learned anything at all.

Spanish was a little different. Thanks to some great teachers over five years of high school and college classes, I found myself enjoying the learning process and actually picking up some of the language. My conversational skills held up when my family traveled to Costa Rica senior year of high school; while far from fluent, I could converse haltingly with just about anyone. And with the help of a small flask of coffee liquor in La Selva, my first real one-on-one Spanish conversation took place with an overnight security guard named Antonio. The more I drank, the more Spanish I spoke. We poured our hearts out on that jungle night and I understood everything he told me. It was nothing short of miraculous. I’ll never forget Antonio and I hope that he was able to overcome his intimacy issues.

Aside from brief interludes of travel, until recently, my life had been mostly conducted in English. It’s hard to maintain a language when you never speak it. After my last Spanish class in 2005, my limited knowledge started to fade away.

My boyfriend’s first language is Spanish, but we met in English, which he speaks perfectly. Shortly afterwards, when I told him I could speak a little Spanish, he was delighted. He came at me with a barrage of words so fast and intense that I could only respond with… “┬┐Que?” And from then on, we stuck mostly to English. Unless, of course, we were drinking. Or texting – the iPhone’s international keyboard has a remarkable capacity to help with pesky accent marks or misspellings.

The more I texted, the more I realized that I really do know a lot of Spanish words. But my ability to follow them spoken aloud was limited. What good is a language if you can only write it? It looked like my future in Spanish-speaking places would consist of walking around with a notebook and pen, writing notes to anyone I wanted to talk to. After I met some of Xavier’s family for the first time, it was hard to imagine anything else. They spoke mostly in Spanish, and although everyone in the group spoke slowly so that I could follow, I still found myself hopelessly lost. If I tried to contribute something to the conversation, all I received were strange looks – I’d completely missed the point. Lesson learned: real-life conversations don’t work well when you’re filling in the blanks a la Mad Libs. The only way I could converse was one-on-one at a snail’s pace, or when fortified with alcohol.

Clearly, more practice was necessary.

The next year, we arrived in Ecuador. Despite the fact that I’d spent a year listening to Spanish music, watching every Spanish movie that hit Redbox, and constantly attempting Spanish conversation with my native-speaker roommate, things were confusing. As anyone who has learned another language knows, the line to understanding is best crossed with deep attention. If you pour all of your focus and concentration into following a conversation, you will be amazed at your prowess and understanding. “I do know this!” you will marvel to yourself as the lively conversation blossoms around you.

After about six minutes, you’re mentally exhausted. Your gaze bounces around the group, following the speakers, smiling when they do, frowning when things get serious, just trying to stay engaged – and then you realize you’re just going through the motions and your only thoughts are in English and they’re something like “oh, no. I don’t get any of this!” because all of the words have become strange sounds. You mentally slap yourself awake, re-engage, lock onto the conversation. Wait, what’s that word? You ask someone quietly, hoping it will make you look good: you’re comprehending enough to have caught a word you don’t know in the midst of everything. “Laverde? Oh, no, la verde – the green one.” Yeah, you knew that. Facepalm. It’s over. Maybe tomorrow you’ll try again.

The other problem is that lots of people want to practice your language. You’ll try your best to converse en Espanol and they reply without a second’s thought in English. While this is incredibly helpful and comforting during those times of mental exhaustion – and those times are numerous – sometimes you just want an immersion. You want to be forced to speak the language, because only speaking it constantly will make you fluent.

When I was actually able to speak Spanish , I realized just how many random words I have picked up from living with a native speaker – and not all of it’s good. The first incident happened when we were in the car with a group of family members. Driving into Quito, a motorcyclist cut us off and Xavier had to jam on the brakes. Everyone was jostled a little bit. Always happy to comment on a traffic situation, I muttered something that we say frequently around the house, thinking it meant “dumb motorcyclist!” There were gasps. The word was actually an incredibly crude way to refer to a part of the male anatomy. Fortunately, this was the second day that we were spending with Xavier’s mom – so it wasn’t like that was her first impression of me, or anything.

Another day, we were pulling out of a parking garage and I opened our car window to give the attendant a tip. “Here, juebon,” I called to get his attention – I’d heard this word often when Xavier talks to his friends. In context, it sounds like “dude” or “buddy.” Well, when everyone gasped and then cracked up laughing, I learned it actually is referring to a bodily orifice.

Lesson learned: learning words in context is great, but be sure to clarify their meaning before using them yourself.

One of my goals for 2012 was to improve my Spanish. How am I doing?

After our trip, I’d say much better. But there’s a long way to go.

locro de papas receta/recipe

I was in Ecuador and, thanks to food poisoning, hadn’t eaten a solid meal for approximately 60 hours. Jello and crackers were all that I’d been able to keep down. When we arrived at Xavier’s dad’s house for lunch, I was toeing the fine line between real hunger and abject fear of eating.

We sat down for the meal, beginning with a primero of ceviche de camaron: shrimp in a mixture of lime juice, tomato, and onion. It’s served with popcorn, which adds just a little bit more crunch. I ate tentatively, enjoying the food but still scared of retribution from the gods of food poisoning. Next came mellocos, tiny potato-like vegetables with a texture that can only be described as slimy at first and slimier still as you chew. They definitely weren’t my favorite. We also tried habas, boiled fava beans that are dipped in salt and squeezed out of their shells with your fingers.
Then came the next course, and all of a sudden my appetite returned with a vengeance. It was soup. But not just any soup. Steaming-hot potato soup and on top, a huge slice of avocado. Within, slivers of queso fresco melted into the creamy mixture of broth and potatoes. Is there a person in existence who can resist a bowl full of potatoes, cheese, and avocado? Avocado is like the bacon of the vegetable world. It makes everything better. And when the flavor of avocado is dancing around your mouth with little bursts of cilantro over a lush background of potatoes and melted cheese? It’s perfection. Locro de papas… a revelation.
I finished my bowl quickly and made a huge dent in a second before I was too full to continue. The soup was so good that I refused to let anyone take it away from me. For the next few hours, I waited impatiently for the feeling of fullness to subside; as soon as it did, I launched myself mouth-first at the remaining soup. It was that good.
Before we left Ecuador, I tried another version of locro at a restaurant in the Cotopaxi region. It was great, but much thicker than homemade soup I’d loved. It was more like loose mashed potatoes. In my opinion, locro de papas is best when its texture is distinctively broth, enriched with potato. When we got back home to Atlanta, I made it my mission to recreate the bowl of my dreams. Using what I learned from Xavier’s stepmom about her recipe and all the recipes I found on Google, I came up with a my own version. And after we had sampled my creation, even my Ecuadorian roommate agreed that it was a taste of home – “better, even.”
It’s not hard to make. Here’s what you’ll need.

There are two ingredients that might be unfamiliar: annatto seeds, and queso fresco. For the annatto seeds, if you don’t see them marketed by Badia brand in the spice section of your grocery store, you can definitely find them at an ethnic grocery. It’s also sold as a powder. Queso fresco, or fresh cheese, seems to be pretty popular these days. It’s in the Mexican section at the Kroger next to my house. But you can likely find it at an ethnic market.
You might also notice that those potatoes are of the ginormous mutant variety. Here’s one next to an iPhone to demonstrate how huge they are. Apparently potatoes are on steroids these days.

Anyway, you’ll make a pretty orange-red base for your soup by heating the annatto seeds in vegetable oil. After you strain the solids out, you’ll saute diced onions in that red oil.

Since the oil is so brightly colored, it can be hard to tell when the onions have changed color and are tender enough to proceed. Just wait until they start bubbling a little bit. That’s usually a good indicator that they’re nice and soft.
You’ll add cumin and salt to the mix, then water and potatoes. Lots of potatoes.

Having misjudged the quantity of soup you’d be preparing, you will find that the mixture threatens to overflow from the saucepan and sabotage your freshly cleaned stovetop, so you’ll have to curse loudly and switch to a huge Dutch oven at this point. Or… not.
The potatoes will simmer until nice and tender, then you’ll mash them against the sides of your pan with a wooden spoon. The idea is to completely pulverize some so that they dissolve into the soup, getting it nice and thick. But you’ll want some pieces to stay chunky, for texture.
Then you’ll add milk and cilantro. The soup will simmer for another ten minutes, thickening into amazingness from the effects of dissolving potato. I may have let mine simmer for about 20 minutes while we walked to the store to swap Redbox selections. The additional time really helped to thicken things. As it wasn’t even close to the loose mashed-potato texture of before, I loved it. But some might prefer their soup to have a clearer delineation between broth and potato. Keep an eye on your pot, and taste throughout so you can stop cooking when you like the texture.
Every recipe I’ve found in my research calls for adding cheese at this point as well. In Ecuador, we were always served cheese on the side so we could add as much as we wished. For your own soup, it depends how gooey you prefer your cheese. If it goes in now, it’ll be nice and melty. If you wait, it won’t be as soft, but there will be fun little nuggets of cheese in your bowl.
We have reached the most important part of the recipe. All of your work until now comes to fruition at this moment. Ladle the locro into bowls. Top with cheese (if you haven’t already) and sliced avocado. Enjoy!
Here’s the recipe.
Locro de papas
serves 4-6 as entree, 8-10 as appetizer

2 tsp annato (achiote) seeds
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 white onion, diced
1/2 tsp cumin
2 1/2 tsp salt
7c  water
3 1/2 lbs Russet or Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and chopped
1c milk
6 oz queso fresco, cubed
Small handful cilantro leaves, minced
Avocados to taste, for garnish


In a small saucepan over very low heat, heat the annato seeds and vegetable oil. When the oil turns red and simmers, remove from the heat and let it rest for 10 minutes. Strain out the seeds with a fine-mesh sieve; you can throw them away.

Heat the oil on moderate-high in a large saucepan. Add the onion and cook until tender, stirring frequently – approximately five minutes. Next, add the cumin and salt; cook for about a minute, stirring frequently, then add water. Bring to a boil. Add potatoes, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook until potatoes are tender – about 30 minutes. When tender, mash potatoes into the broth until potatoes are mostly dissolved, but there are still some small chunks; you want the broth to stay thick and creamy, but studded with pieces of whole potato.

Stir in milk, cheese, and cilantro. Raise the heat to medium high, letting it all simmer together for another 5-20 minutes (depending on how thick and puree-like you want it). 

Remove from the heat, top with avocado, and enjoy!

And as always, all photos are mine (but a couple were snapped by the ever-supportive and helpful Xavier!).

The Food of Ecuador

To read more about my trip to Ecuador, check out these posts:  One, Two, and Three.

The amazing food we ate in Ecuador deserves its own post… so here it is.

We began our edible adventures on a day trip from Quito to Ibarra. Fittingly, breakfast was first. I didn’t get any pictures of the biscocho cookies that we dunked in dulce de leche. But here you can see queso de hoja, fresh stringy cheese that’s pulled apart and eaten with your fingers. It’s saltier, tangier, and much more flavorful than the Polly-O sticks I loved as a kid.

After a long morning of navigating winding mountain roads, we stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant further north. This was my introduction to fritadas. Fritadas are chunks of pork that are boiled, then deep-fried. They are incredibly delicious and decadent beyond belief. The outside of the pork, crispy from frying, yields to a tender interior that melts in your mouth. While fritadas are boiled with onions and spices, intense porkiness is the only flavor you’ll notice or need.

We also sampled choclo. I grew up in South Jersey and spent my summers eating farm-fresh corn on the cob. If you have a similar background, choclo will be familiar. The corn, a large-kerneled Andean variety, is boiled and eaten off the cob with fresh cheese. It’s milder than North American versions, and not quite as sweet, but unmistakably still corn.

Fritadas getting tender
The table: choclo, cerveza, fritada
Open kitchen
Other diners seemed surprised that I was photographing here, and my camera drew many curious glances. Fritadas, usually served casually like fast food, isn’t particularly noteworthy for most Ecuadorians.
Here’s a billboard that we passed after we left our first taste of fritadas behind. Can you identify the meat that La Josefina is serving? The one in the top right corner of the billboard? Here’s a hint: you might have shared your home with one.
That is cuy, or as it is known to most people in the US, guinea pig. It’s served roasted and whole, but if you’re looking for a description of how it tastes, you’re out of luck. You’ll note that instead of a photograph of cuy on my plate, I’m just showing you a photo of the billboard. Despite my adventurous palate, we didn’t eat any cuy on my trip. When I asked, my hosts were less than enthusiastic about taking me to find it… and since I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about trying it, I didn’t press the issue. Maybe next time!
Once we reached Ibarra, we stopped for empanadas. Empanadas in Ecuador are like falafel in Israel or pizza slices in New York; every offering tastes just a little bit different and is special for its own reasons. This version of empanada was stuffed with assorted vegetables and served with spicy onion-laced aji sauce.

Our next stop was for more fritadas, this time in Ibarra. We devoured more fritadas, tiny whole boiled potatoes, and a concoction called llapingacho that might have been my favorite bite of the whole day. Mashed potatoes are formed into patties around fresh cheese, then cooked on the griddle. If you like cheese fries, you’d love llapingacho.

Potato, fritada, fried choclo
Llapingacho

We were stuffed close to bursting at this point, but we stopped for ice cream anyway, because there’s always room for ice cream. Especially when that ice cream is helado de paila, a specialty not just of Ecuador but the city of Ibarra.

You can see my cone below: a mix of moro and coco, or blackberry and coconut. Stealing bites from other people’s cones, I tried guanabana, leche, frutilla, tamarindo, and taxo flavors. Everything was unfamiliar, fruity, and wonderful.

The ice cream was more like a sorbet in texture than the ice cream that I’m used to. Thanks to Google, I figured out why. In the photo below, you can see wooden bowls. They are filled with ice and a copper bowl is placed on top. Inside the copper bowl goes sugar and fruit pulp. Your friendly Ibarran ice cream maker will use a spatula to stir as he or she spins the bowls atop the ice, adding beaten egg whites after everything starts to freeze. The result has a creamy texture and rich flavor, but is light and refreshing without dairy.
Pailas
All of the exciting eating took its toll. That was Sunday. On Monday morning, at approximately six A.M., I woke up and was sicker than I’ve ever been in my entire life. It was pretty terrible, and I can only hope that the experience served to fortify my interior armor so that I don’t get sick on our next trip.
Let’s jump to Thursday, when we went on a zip-lining excursion to the jungles of Mindo. En route, we stopped for lunch. According to my hosts, the restaurant’s specialties were their meat and fish platters. Always happy to follow local advice, I ordered the trucha, or trout. Here, there was a misunderstanding with our group: someone thought that I wanted something else for lunch, and let’s just say that trucha can sound like another word in Spanish, a word that’s a very crude reference to a certain part of a lady’s anatomy. While I’m a proponent of consenting adults engaging in any behaviors they see fit, it was delightful to receive a plate containing a family-friendly entree. Not that I was expecting the restaurant to provide me with a hooker or something.

Anyway. Fried trout! French fries! An ensalada of the freshest, juiciest tomatoes! Rice! And to squeeze over everything, lime that wasn’t pale green inside, but golden orange. It was a delicious lunch. I ate so much that I could only try a few bites of Xavier’s food, the other specialty of the restaurant. Beef pounded thin, breaded, and fried, it tasted like an Ecuadorian response to wienerschnitzel. Times like these make me wish we really were what we eat. Like a cow, I’d love to have four stomachs to hold as many lunches.

On Saturday, we headed to Super Maxi, which seems to be the hot grocery store in Ecuador. The goal was to purchase lots of fruits so I could try flavors that we can’t get at home in the US. There were so many different kinds that I have no hope of remembering everything without having written it down. But I did take photos of the colorful fruit.

Our last big meal in Ecuador was ceviche. We had driven past this place nearly every day that we’d been staying in Cumbaya, so I was excited to finally try it. Plus, seafood is my absolute favorite food, so that was a bonus.

It was a beautiful day to sit outside and feast. Our appetizer arrived first: a plate of assorted fried things: fish chunks, shrimp, and calamari. For dipping was a sweet and spicy aioli-type sauce served in a hollowed-out tomato. Cute and delicious.

The ceviches were pretty good as well. We ordered cangrejo, or crab, and camaron, also known as shrimp. I’d always thought that ceviche was raw fish in lime juice. But Ecuadorian ceviches are usually made with pre-cooked seafood. Because they don’t rely on acidic ingredients to “cook” the shrimp, these varieties are tomato-based and sweet. The briny, tender crab was a hands-down favorite, although the shrimp was great too.

Now that we’re home, I have plenty of ideas for bringing Ecuadorian food into our Atlanta kitchen. Keep your eyes peeled for locro, or potato-cheese soup, coming your way soon.

Ecuador! Part Three



To catch up on the trip to Ecuador, you can read Part One and Part Two.

We left off completely soaking wet in the jungles of Mindo, after ziplining through pouring rain. Let’s fast-forward to the next morning, wherein everyone was dry and comfortable. The kids were at school, so the adults decided to go on another adventure. Our destination? Cotopaxi, a volcano about 17 miles south of Quito. Although at 5,897m tall it should have been visible from within the limits of Quito, it had been incredibly cloudy all week and I hadn’t gotten a glimpse yet.

Here is what I knew about Cotopaxi as we headed out to explore: it is Xavier’s favorite mountain of all time. We are going to climb it some day. It looks like this:

Photo taken by Xavier

Here is what I know about Cotopaxi now that I have explored Wikipedia: it is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. It last had a major eruption in 1903, but there was some minor volcanic activity in 1975. It’s apparently pretty easy to climb, making it an ideal target for novice outdoorsmen such as ourselves.

After driving for an hour or so, we reached Cotopaxi National Park. The roads deteriorated rapidly at this point. The trip was much more exciting when we drove through random waterfalls.

We paused for a few minutes to tour a little museum, take a couple of photos, and ready ourselves for the great ascent. Just kidding – we weren’t going to hike, but drive up as far as we could. From here, when the clouds shifted, we could see the snow-dusted peak of the volcano.

Group shot
Driving up

After driving another ten minutes or so through the rocky roads of the park, we reached a large valley directly underneath the volcano. There, we stopped, because we spotted wild horses. Cameras were withdrawn and utilized frequently. I skipped around the valley, frolicking with the horses only to rapidly feel dizzy and out of breath (hey, we were 3,800m/12,500ft above sea level and oxygen was scarce). The sun peeked out and we took more photos. It was such an amazing hour: we were completely alone with our silence and the snow-covered tiptop of Cotopaxi flashing at us from behind the clouds.

Amidst all the beauty, we got a little silly. Some cute shots were taken of Xavier and I, and his brother and sister-in-law. And there may have been some dancing, but I’ll never tell. What happens in Cotopaxi, stays in Cotopaxi.

Unfortunately, the weather really blocked the views that we had been longing for. Although we could have driven for another hour or so, getting closer to the summit, it would have been pointless. The peak would remain hidden under all the clouds. So we decided to check out a lake that was just a little further up the path, and then head out for some food.

The lake was beautiful. But as we were enjoying the view, I noticed a man descending the mountain on horseback. It reminded me of a photo that Xavier took at Cotopaxi a while ago, one that I’d always loved. Here’s his photo:

My boyfriend takes amazing photos.

And here’s the one that I took, making the most of my conditions:

The man was very nice. He even offered to let me sit on his horse for a few minutes. Despite all of the warnings I’d had to not touch animals while abroad, I couldn’t refuse.

Our drive back down the mountain was uneventful, but the views were fantastic.

Volcano in the background

On the way back to Quito, we stopped for lunch and had te de coca. According to the package, te de coca is supposed to stimulate digestion, wake you up, and provide numerous other health benefits. We definitely woke up after drinking the tea. I would recommend it. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to buy any te de coca to go, so that experience must remain in the mountains of Ecuador for now.

The next day was, unfortunately, the last in Quito. We still had many items on our to-do list, though. A few were gastronomical: we purchased many fruits that you can’t find in the States, and went out for ceviche. Then we went to watch Xavier’s brother Christian play soccer. I had a great time capturing sports action shots with my zoom lens.

And finally, we went to Mercado Artesenal, a marketplace in Quito where vendors sold handmade goods. We had a great time and by the time we were through, I had been completely spoiled by everyone around me and gifted with tons of awesome stuff. I was decked out completely in handmade Ecuadorian stuff. In spite of my local attire, I had a hard time bargaining with the merchants to get the best deal on the lone necklace that I purchased – my Spanish is passable, but my thick accent gives me away as a gringa.

“Wait, you’re taking my picture?”

From there, we were out of time. We went back to the house to collect our stuff, had a quick dinner, and then Xavier and I were dropped off at the airport. Going home was really sad, especially as we bid farewell to the large group seeing us off at the airport. We’d had an amazing trip. I feel incredibly lucky to have met and been welcomed so warmly by Xavier’s extended family; every time I think about that, it makes me smile. I can’t wait until we have another chance to visit Quito, reunite with everyone who I met and loved, and explore more of the beautiful country of Ecuador.