Say Ecuador and most people think of the Galapagos Islands or Julian Assange. But look past the turtles and you will see that the country has a lot more going for it. From raucous party buses to volcano crater lodgings, here are five unusual and awesome reasons to visit Ecuador.
#1 Buses are makeshift discos
Forget clubs. Wouldn’t you rather step onto an open-air bus, donned with cheesy flashy lights and dance around to cumbia? Luckily in Ecuador, you can. Just jump aboard a chiva, a disco bus that will have you zooming around the city, singing songs you only half no the words to and waving at strangers in the street.
If you’re interested, you can rent a chiva for the night or hop aboard one with strangers. After all, what better way to meet people is there than being (ahem) trapped on the same hodgepodge disco truck? Add in some drinks, some glitter and you have just the right level of kitsch for a Saturday night on the town…on the road.
And unlike uber trendy nightclubs, nobody takes themselves seriously on a chiva. You won’t find ladies sullenly sipping cocktails. You won’t see polo-shirted men aloofly looking at their phones. What with all the garish red, yellow, green paint and spinning disco lights it’s hard for anyone to play it cool. Instead, you’ll find people calling out to “hola!” to anyone in sight, doing silly dance moves and toasting to la buena vida. By the end of the night, you’ll probably be doing the same.
#2 Fish is served with popcorn
Popcorn and fish. Popcorn and ceviche. Popcorn and prawns. In Ecuador, almost everything goes with popcorn – at least everything fishy. Grab a bite at a cervicheria and you realise popcorn, like corn, bananas and potatoes, is something akin to a staple.
You might be thinking, why is this a good thing? Well, aside from the pure novelty factor, there is something to be said for the unusual mix. Imagine salty, fresh popcorn dripping with fish juice. Imagine it melting in a steaming bowl of ceviche, topped with avocado and Spanish onion. Still not interested? Just munch on it as a side. Popcorn is delicious in any country, right?
#3 You can sleep in a volcano crater
It’s not often you wake up and see an unexploded dome of lava – unless you’re in Ecuador. Ecuador has 30 volcanoes just on the mainland and another 14 on the Galapagos Island. While some are active and strictly no-go areas, on others you can sleep right within the crater, like Pululahua, an inactive volcano that last erupted around 1500 years ago. If you’re willing to scale down the side of the crater, you’ll find small farms, dirt roads and a spooky church or two – all inside the mouth of the volcano. It’s like a town at the bottom of a teacup…except it’s at the bottom of a volcano. Once at the bottom, you can hike up volcano domes, go horse riding and get lost in the thick blanket of mist that covers the town come dusk.
But Pululahua is just one option. Maybe you want to camp at Quilotoa, a turquoise lake inside a mist-swept crater or spend the night in Cuicocha, another crater lake used by local shamans for spiritual cleaning. Take your pick. Go volcano shopping and find yourself the perfect crater crib.
#4 It’s OK to burn effigies
Say goodbye to your past demons by burning an effigy of yourself. In Ecuador, the New Year is celebrated as the Old Year, or Año Viejo. You make a dummy out of straw, newspaper, fireworks or whatever you can find and when the clock strikes 12 – boom! – you set it on fire. The idea is to destroy whatever held you back in the past so you can move forward in the New Year. It’s like a New Year’s resolution, only with fire.
But don’t stop at Año Viejo. From marching bands to rodeos, you can experience a wildly syncretic mix of modern and Indigenous ceremonies all year round. There’s the Yamor Festival in September, where people cover themselves with oil then jump into the chilly waters of San Pablo Lake to honour of the town’s patron saint, Nina Maria (the oil apparently helps with the cold). You can see the yumbada de Cotocollao in June, where demon-masked men dance to the death and are revived through song. Or come in November and let Mama Negra spray you with milk and water for good luck. There’s not a month in Ecuador where you won’t find people singing, dancing or setting something on fire.
#5 They have magic beans
OK so these aren’t the beans that will make beanstalks magically sprout from the ground. These are the beans that will a) make really good chocolate and b) make really good coffee.
Ecuador is one of the few places where you can you can find the “Nacional” variety of cocoa bean. This is a super rare, super special type of bean that dates back 5300 years. It is the queen of cocoa. It rules over Forastero, a common peasant bean found in 90 percent of chocolate bars, and is sought after by prestigious chocolatiers across the globe. You’ll find it in fancy Swiss and French chocolate wrapped in shiny silver paper. And of course, you’ll find it in Ecuador. Savour the sweet-hot taste of a Kallari bar with chilli and cinnamon or enjoy some creamy Pacari chocolate made from 80 percent cocoa. If you have a sweet tooth you will go googly-eyed with the choice – and taste – of Ecuadorean chocolate.
As for coffee, while Ecuador is often overshadowed by Colombia and Brazil, its local blends are just as boast-worthy. What’s more, a lot of the coffee comes from micro-producers, so when you buy ground coffee beans you’re helping small-time farmers. Need another reason? It’s delicious. It’s caffeine. And it goes well with chocolate. The fancy pants kind.
(Lead image: oliver hadfield/Flickr)
Melissa is a freelance journalist and travel writer. She has interviewed luchadores in Mexico, written guides on Patagonian ski lodges and can now be found, canelazo in hand, in Ecuador. For now.