March 12, 2013
“Faces From Afar” is an ongoing series in which Off the Road profiles adventurous travelers exploring unique places or pursuing exotic passions. Know a globetrotter we should hear about? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s healthy. It smells and tastes like sweet tropical butter. It can be used hot or cold, on food, in your hair and on your skin. And it’s readily available throughout the coastal tropics.
Yet almost nobody in Ecuador uses coconut oil.
Instead, vegetable oil saturates the local culture as the cooking grease of choice. It is sold in giant bottles for several dollars and used by the pint for frying plantains, potatoes and meats, and Ecuadorian kitchens and street food stalls sometimes reek of stale, burned oil. But one American man is striving to invent a new culinary tradition here. Carl Nordeng has lived in Ecuador for several years and for the past 18 months has been doing something industrious and novel: He’s making and selling coconut oil in the little, picturesque village of Vilcabamba. Nordeng uses wild coconuts harvested from trees near the northern town of Esmeraldas, and his facility, consisting of a small collection of equipment, is situated in a grove of mango and avocado trees that provide shade in the early and late hours of the day.
Nordeng first visited Vilcabamba about five years ago. In his early 30s at the time, he was a health aficionado interested in natural healing and cleansing methods. He met a woman here whom he would eventually marry, and he began returning regularly, from his home in Washington State. Nordeng wasn’t infatuated with local cuisine. He found it bland and too greasy, and he also felt sure that refined vegetable oil—a staple component in Ecuadorian pantries—was having negative effects on the nation’s health. Diabetes is a leading killer and crippler of Ecuadorians, and Nordeng blamed the prevalent fried foods. In the interest of maintaining his own health during his sojourns to Ecuador, Nordeng cooked frequently—and he rarely returned from the United States without a few jars of coconut oil, which has shown effective as an antifungal agent, strengthens the immune system and can help the body positively manage its insulin levels—a point relevant to a diabetes-stricken nation like Ecuador.
“It was the foundation of my diet,” Nordeng says, adding that he could not find the product in Ecuador and that he was not willing to give it up.
After only several trips with an extra-heavy suitcase, Nordeng began to research the possibilities of making coconut oil himself in Ecuador. Upon learning that it wasn’t particularly challenging—the trick is simply to eliminate the water from the flesh and then squeeze out the oil—he soon went the next step and began to make the fragrant white coagulate in his kitchen in home-sized batches. He tried several methods until settling on his current system—a simple three-step process of grinding, toasting and pressing. He built his own equipment and, 18 months ago, sold his first bottle under the label “Oro Blanco.” Today, Nordeng grinds out 20 liters of coconut oil daily. All is sold within Vilcabamba, mostly to North American and European tourists but also to a growing number of locals.
Nordeng says he hopes to expand sales to Ecuadorians, but at $15 a jar, Oro Blanco oil is currently far too expensive to be a household staple in Ecuador, where the average salary is $7,500 per year, according to Average Salary Survey. Nordeng is now paying more than $1 per coconut and splits and scrapes clean as many as 250 per day. He says he is trying to secure a source of quality fruits from Peru, where the cost may be less than 20 cents per coconut.
Even if he can reduce the retail price of his product to just several dollars, Nordeng wonders how easy it will be to convince locals born and raised on foods fried in pans of vegetable oil to make the transition from one oil to the other.
“It would be hard to instill coconut oil into centuries of tradition here, but based purely on the flavor, it seems like it shouldn’t be a deterrent to people,” Nordeng says. “It’s not like we’re trying to sell them something gross.”
Nordeng labels his coconut oil “cold-pressed extra virgin.” This means that the oil is extracted without the use of heat, which can damage some of an oil’s natural compounds. The label also specifically guarantees that the oil is from fresh coconut flesh—not derived from secondary coconut byproducts, like the compressed “cakes” of coconut shavings that come from Nordeng’s press by the dozen each day. He may eventually provide these for bakers or granola bar producers, but for now his neighbors use the gritty—and, frankly, delicious—waste material to feed to their animals.
Coconuts, of which there are hundreds of varieties in the species Cocos nucifera, occur throughout the earth’s tropics. Coconut oil is commonly used in Pacific island communities, as well as in southern Asia. In Ecuador, coconut palms grow from the coast all the way to a mile or more of elevation in the Andes, as well as in the Amazon basin. The fruits are very popular as snacks; street vendors nick a hole at one end, insert a straw and sell the fruits for a dollar to customers who drink the water and, occasionally, take the trouble to crack open the coconuts and access the rich flesh that clings to each shell’s interior. But coconuts rarely get as far as the kitchen here.
In the United States, too, where coconut oil sales are booming, the product had to overcome a negative reputation, for it had been pinned as a culprit in widespread health problems—a reputation that still persists. The major argument against coconut oil has been its saturated fat content—though this particular fat is lauric acid, said by many to be one of the “good” saturated fats. This food blog, Organic Facts, discusses coconut oil’s effects on levels of cholesterol, of which some are considered “good” and others “bad.” Coconut oil, according to nutritionists, increases the good cholesterol and decreases the bad.
Nordeng notes that the legend of longevity in the valley that he has called home for five years is “a myth,” as discussed in “Off the Road” in February. Nordeng says many people leave the village before they reach old age, while others die young.
“People are literally killing themselves here by using tons of this rancid vegetable oil,” Nordeng says. “I’m providing an alternative.”
February 26, 2013
Long before there was guacamole, California rolls or the Super Bowl, there were avocados. The species–Persea americana–is native to Mexico and Central America and has been widely planted and naturalized in the Caribbean and South America. While vast orchards of trees–most of them genetic duplicates of the Hass variety and several others–grow in the world’s main regions of production, like California, in places less affected by the homogenous sprawl of commercial agriculture, hundreds of different varieties exist. In Ecuador, avocados of endless shapes, colors and sizes are sold in the central town markets. Certain varieties are favored and cultivated widely, but the spectrum of avocados here is almost as varied as the people who grow them. For avo advocates, such a selection of varieties makes touring the local markets a source of intrigue and offers a fine opportunity for a varietal tasting of the fruit that was once called “poor man’s butter.”
But the systematic food scientist hoping to set the table for an organized tasting also must know the names of his samples–and, unfortunately, the avocados of Ecuador elude such labeling. That’s because different varieties of avocado either don’t have names or because the vendors simply don’t know what they’re selling.
“This is just an avocado,” the vendor tells me carelessly at a market in Loja.
“But look,” I counter. “Those over there are different, and those, too, are black, not green. And some are tiny, like limes. There are many, many types, and they have names. So, what is this one called?”
She shrugs and laughs at her friends, who seem amused by my insistence and the pen and paper in my hands.
“Green avocado,” she says.
Other vendors commonly name their avocados as “Guatemalteca”–meaning Guatemalan. This, however, is not a variety name but a broad category of avocados that includes many varieties. Vendors have shown me Guatemalteca avocados with green pebbled skin, shiny, black, smooth skin and polished lime-green skin. I have seen Guatemalteca avocados both big and small, and I have tasted ones with watery, fruity flesh and fatty, thick, rich flesh.
I have pointed out these differences to fruit dealers who give this simple label to all their avocados, and they have answered, “Oh, that is Guate-negro, and that is Guate-verde, and that is Guate-pequeno. But that’s not important. Four for one dollar!”
Actually, it is important to get variety names straight before a tasting–and only occasionally are vendors helpful. In the town of Paute, about 30 kilometers northeast of Cuenca, I stopped in at the central market, having been told that some very fine avocados are grown here. I saw nothing especially remarkable–mostly just small to tiny avocados, both green and black, with thin, brittle skins and oily flesh. But one saleslady named her avocados as “Pautena.” Fresh data! I hungrily scribbled down this name–probably given to a local variety, born in this region and named for the town. Problem was, her avocados were all different sizes, colors and shapes, yet she insisted they had come from the same tree.
So, with proper names on them or not, here are some avocados you may taste in Ecuador.
Guatemalteca A word commonly heard in avocado conversations in Ecuador, Guatemalteca is the name applied to numerous avocado varieties by the vendors who sell them. This becomes a point of frustration for one trying to differentiate the varieties by actual name, yet to avocado experts the label carries a seed of truth. For the Guatemalan avocado is one of three subspecies of P. americana (the other two are the Mexican and the West Indian). Guatemalan avocado trees generally produce large fruits with pebbly, thick skins and fatty flesh. But there are hundreds of varieties of this subspecies, but never did I get much past the blanket term “Guatemalteca.” The avocados I found carrying this label had skins ranging from thin, shiny and black to thick, pebbly and green. Flesh was usually on the delicious and creamy, though a few Guatemalteca avocados were of the watery sort. I licked my spoon clean, confused every time.
Costeno An elongate, smooth, light green skinned avocado, the Costeno–if it really is the Costeno–has light, low-fat flesh that is fruity and mild. Such avocados are often reserved in Ecuador for use in sweeter preparations–such as blended with milk and sugar–but for many tasters, avocados like the Costeno will lose out when compared to the rich, fatty avocados of a proper Californian guacamole pot.
“Negro” With no given name beyond its color, this small, shiny fruit has skin that appears almost like asphalt–a mottled, blackish-brown. The flesh is nutty but plain, slightly bitter, and just a little watery. Be warned that the same avocado may be called a Guatemalteca.
Lojano I found this avocado in Cuenca, at a fruit stall on the east side of town. A very large and elongated avocado, with smooth shiny green skin, its flesh was a unique yellowish-orange and of buttery, fatty consistency. The Lojano was one of the very best I tasted–and four of these giants cost only a dollar. Praise Ecuador!
Criollo Another smooth-skinned, lime-green avocado like the Lojano and Costeno, the Criollo was found in the basket of a street vendor in Loja. The pit is huge and the meat lacking both in quantity and oil.
Pautena The town of Paute, in the mountains east of Cuenca, is renowned by some locals for its avocados, which may be grown nowhere else. The leading form seems to be a small, shiny black avocado not much larger than a golf ball and with dense, sticky flesh.
Other avocado names you may hear in Ecuador:
Mantequillo, nacional, paisano.
Peru–Another Place to Hunt:
The markets of Peru yielded some spectacular finds, of avocados both strangely shaped and of tremendous size. In the northern towns, one may find avocados weighing about four pounds and the size of footballs. In Huarmey, watch for a vendor in the central marketplace with a basket full of avocados shaped like cashew nuts.
Almost an avocado: The coyo is a green, pear-shaped fruit that hangs from large tree that belongs in the same genus as the avocado. The fruit is not commercially cultivated, but the intrepid searcher who asks questions and knocks on doors may find their way to a coyo tree. I, for one, did not. Good luck.
February 20, 2013
In the Valley of Longevity, in southern Ecuador, visitors find the quiet and legendary town that has inspired travelers for decades—Vilcabamba. Once just another of a thousand beautiful Andean villages, this community of about 4,000 people is today one of the hottest destinations for outsiders seeking their own little piece of Shangri-La. The town, of affordable goods and productive soils, promises new life—not to mention long life—for both vacationers and expats, and in the past two decades Vilcabamba has become an uncanny magnet and New Age watering hole for soul-searchers dabbling in everything from agriculture to shamanism to hallucinogens.
But as one nears the village center along a cobblestone road that diverges from the highway, the legendary Vilcabamba seems too quiet for its reputation. Dozens of people sit idly in the square—well-to-do tourists, hippies with dreadlocks and bead necklaces, a few locals, men with week-old scruff and worn sandals—all of them waiting, it seems, for things to happen. As I cycled into the plaza, a friend of mine from Cuenca, Mick Hennessey, from Utah, was seated on a plaza bench, alertly watching the slow activity. He saw me and waved. “There’s nothing much going on here,” he said, seemingly reluctant to make such a decree so early. He had arrived only three hours before me by bus. “Sure is pretty up there, though,” I said, pointing at the mountain ridges surrounding this Valley of Longevity, so named for its supposedly high concentration of centenarians.
Another tourist, Nathan Resnick—an American currently living in Cuenca—spent several days in Cuenca hiking in the hills between nights at the Rendezvous guesthouse. He was glad with what he found.
“I was expecting a lot more and was pleasantly surprised that it didn’t exist,” Resnick said.
The town is surrounded by fantastic green ridges on the skyline and lush woods that make a paradise for backpackers, botanists and bird watchers. It is also the last chance for food and gear before entering Podocarpus National Park just to the east—home to bears and wild cats and countless bird species.
But according to some locals, Vilcabamba is unable to meet the needs or hopes of many who visit each year.
“People come here to solve their problems, but they never actually leave anything behind and so they bring all their baggage with them,” one man—a Canadian who has lived in Vilcabamba part time for a decade—told me about a block from the plaza, after we met and shook hands in the empty street. And so, he went on, health problems and mental maladies accumulate here with the immigrants. In particular, he said, conspiracy theories and UFO reports saturate local gossip. This interview by Uncornered Market of a resident Vilcabamban reads almost like a transcript of our conversation.
I quickly detected a very dark shadow hanging over the town. Only three days earlier, a woman had been raped on a trail in the woods just northeast of the town—the third such incident in just weeks. The alleged assailant was reportedly still at large. This January 25 blog post on Passionfruitcowgirl describes a dramatic attempted rape in what the author calls “Evilcabamba.” Another blog, Patryantravels, published a post last August titled “Paradise Lost,” which dwells on the steady rising tide of crime, both petty theft and physical assaults, that have damaged the pretty face of Vilcabamba. Among these recent events is the dramatic kidnapping for ransom that occurred in September on a nearby mountain trail, where a honeymooning couple was assaulted by three armed men wearing masks. The man was ordered to return to the town, retrieve several thousand dollars and deliver it back to the bandits, who said they would otherwise kill his wife. The couple survived the encounter—though the town’s reputation has taken a blow, and attentive eavesdroppers here can pick up on conversations in every direction about robbery, rape and the absence of the police.
Even as long ago as the 1970s, things seemed too good to be true in Vilcabamba. National Geographic, among other publications, had reported an unusually high number of centenarians in the village, but Dr. Alexander Leaf, of Harvard Medical School, was growing skeptical of villagers’ claims to be well over 100—and in one case as old as 134. He called upon two American professors to come help determine the truth. They did, and in 1978, after pressing villagers for information and facts, Richard Mazess of the University of Wisconsin and Sylvia Forman of U.C. Berkeley released their findings. The entire legend of long life was no better than myth—and as bad as outright lies. There was not, they reported, a single person over 100 in the Valley of Longevity. The average age of supposed centenarians was actually 86 years old, and one man who claimed to be 127 years old in 1974 was actually 91 at the time.
The blur between fact and fiction in Vilcabamba may—or may not—have something to do with a local hallucinogen called aguacolla, made from mescaline extracted from several dozen species of cacti in the genus Trichocereus, collectively referred to as the San Pedro cactus. T. pachanoi is the most commonly used for medicine and (let’s be honest) sport. Shamans and village doctors have used the cactus for ages, and the drug today, though illegal in many countries, is provided by licensed shamans and in the Andes is a popular draw for tourists seeking the journey—trip, that is—of a lifetime.
“What was it like?” I asked an American man on the plaza who had partaken in a group experience the night before at $70 a head. He was waiting for a cab, planning to head back to the camp for anther go. “I’m still trying to figure it out,” he said, seemingly thrilled as he hoisted his suitcase to the curb and waved to a taxi. “All I know is there was a whole lot of vomiting.”
“That sounds amazing,” I said.
As the website for Sacred Medicine Journey, a local shaman service, advises its prospective participants, “You may feel some discomfort, but the benefits are worthwhile. Remember that this is not recreational.”
The floodgates to weirdness seem to have opened wide in the 1960s with the arrival of the late Johnny Lovewisdom and his followers. Lovewisdom was an off-kilter spiritual guru and leader who was drawn to Vilcabamba by the “longevity” legend. Born as John Wierlo, Lovewisdom practiced a variety of unusual lifestyle diets throughout his life. Among his lasting legacies was his advocacy of a raw, fruit-only diet, though he eventually allowed yogurt and other fermented items into his body. Lovewisdom, who reportedly struggled with a number of uncommon health problems, also advocated water-fasting, sun diets and breathanarianism, which holds that humans can subsist on spiritual energy alone.
“A woman told me in town to be careful here because there is so much negative ‘energy’ in the air,” laughed a young German man as we ate breakfast at the campground kitchen of Rumi Wilco Eco Lodge, the cheapest place in town at $3.50 for a tent site. He was leaving that day for Peru via the Zumba border crossing just 80 miles south. The man was a skeptic of the Vilcabamba lore, and unlike thousands before him, he was not seduced by the village’s call.
Though the continuing crime wave and growing insider disenchantment with Vilcabamba have darkened the village, the innocent weirdness introduced by Lovewisdom remains. One morning in the driving rain at Rumi Wilco, a tall and lanky Dutchman—a raw foods fruitarian, it happened—undressed to his underwear on the lawn between the kitchen and the guest cabins and began a bizarre and comical calisthenics routine, punctuated by clumsy overhead jabs of the arms and poorly postured yoga stretches. He finished his workout with several minutes of running ten-foot-wide circles through the mud—one more eccentric seeking grace and happiness in the Valley of Longevity.
The sky remained gray for several days, and if there were people here who really could subsist on sunshine, as the eccentric Lovewisdom believed possible, they were probably thinking about a sandwich. And if they believed everything that the local mythology promised, they would almost certainly die younger than they hoped to, in the beautiful little village of Vilcabamba.
February 14, 2013
First, there was sugarcane juice. Then came distilled cane liquor, dribbling out of a steel pipe.
And somewhere in between was the stuff I was interested in: fermented sugarcane juice touched by the ethanol-making labors of airborne yeasts and containing 8 to 9 percent alcohol by volume. But fully fermented cane drink with 8 or 9 percent alcohol by volume is not easy to find in Ecuador. I have been on the lookout for this stuff since Day 1 in Ecuador a month ago, when I began seeing extensive sugarcane fields, and I have yet to land a used plastic soda bottle filled with the beverage. The clear liquor—90-proof stuff, or thereabouts—whether commercially bottled or sold out of kitchens in Inca Kola bottles, is easy to find. Ditto for the raw, algae-green juice, which comes gurgling out of hand-cranked cane grinders on street corners in almost every town and is sold for 50 cents a cup.
The only way to go from raw, sweet juice to hard, throat-raking liquor is to ferment the juice’s sugar using yeast, then distill this sugarcane “wine” into the hard stuff. In Vilcabamba, at last, I knew I was getting close to this almost theoretical product when, in a grocery store, I found homemade vinagre de cana. Vinegar, like hard booze, is a product derived directly from fully fermented juice, or malt water like beer wort. So a local household, it seemed obvious, was engaged in the cane juice industry.
“Who made this?” I asked the clerk.
She directed me to a home several blocks away where, as she said, a man fermented cane juice and sold a variety of cane-based products. I cycled over, but the man’s wife answered and said they only had distilled liquor, which may be called punta or traga. I bought a half liter for $2 after making sure that it was safe to drink. I mentioned the tragic scandal in 2011, when dozens of people died from drinking tainted distilled alcohol. “We drink this ourselves,” the woman assured me.
Before I left she said that in the next village to the north, Malacatos, many people grew sugarcane and made traga and that I could find fermented juice there. But I had already done the Malacatos juice tour the day prior, while riding through on my way to Vilcabamba from Loja, without luck. At every juice shack I visited, the proprietor said they had none but that they would make some overnight and that I should return in the morning. They all spoke of a drink called guarapo—fermented cane juice.
This sounded almost right—but not quite. Because I know from experience making beer and wine that it takes a solid week or more for a bucket of fruit juice or sugar water to undergo primary fermentation, the vigorous bubbling stage that turns 90 percent of a liquid’s sugars into ethanol. Brewers and winemakers cannot make their products overnight.
I learned more about this matter in Vilcabamba’s eastern outskirts, just outside the entrance to the village zoo. Here I found a woman selling cane juice under the business name “Viejo Luis,” who, it seemed, was her husband. I bought a liter of juice, then was treated to a taste of guarapo fermented for one day—a sweet-and-sour rendition of fresh cane juice. At the risk of sounding crass, I got straight to business: “Does this guarapo have alcohol?” I asked. Yes. “How much?” A tiny little bit. “I want more.”
To better explain myself, I asked the lady to tell me if this was correct: “First, there is juice. Then, you ferment it to make alcohol. Then, you distill it to make liquor.” She nodded and smiled with a genuine sparkle, pleased, I think, that I recognized the labors of her business. “OK, I want the middle juice—the juice with alcohol. Not fresh juice, and not punta.” She nodded in understanding and said that if she were to leave this one-day fermented guarapo for another week, it would contain as much alcohol as a strong beer. She even said she would sell me a liter for $2—if I came back the next weekend.
This wasn’t possible—but she did have another fermented product ready to sell—chicha de hongos. That translates into, roughly, “fruit beer of fungus.” She poured the thick, viscous drink through a sieve and into my plastic bottle. I had a taste immediately and complimented the rich and buttery green drink, tart like vinegar, and teeming with an organism she said was tivicus but which most literature seems to present as tibicos. This fungus-bacteria complex turns sugary drinks sour, thick and soupy and allegedly provides a wide range of health benefits. She assured me it was an excellent aid for facilitating digestion.
Meanwhile, I hatched a plan. I took my liter of Viejo Luis’s cane juice to the village bakery. “Can I have just a tiny, tiny, tiny pinch of yeast?” I asked in Spanish. The young man came back with a sack the size of a tennis ball. “That enough?”
Plenty. I took the gift and, on the curb by the plaza, sprinkled a dusting of yeast into the bottle. It came to life overnight. I reached out my tent flap in the morning and unscrewed the cap. It hissed as compressed CO2 exploded outward. It was alive! First, there had been juice—and in a week, there would be sugarcane “wine.” I tended the bottle through many rigorous days, of bus travel and shuttling luggage into hotel rooms and cycling over high passes with the bottle strapped to my pannier. Every few hours for days I gingerly loosened the cap to release the accumulating CO2, the telltale byproduct of sugar-to-ethanol fermentation (methanol, the dangerous form of alcohol that infamously makes people blind or kills them cannot be produced through fermentation). Finally, after five days, I lost my patience. The bottle had been falling off my bike every few hours for two days as I bumped along the dirt road between Cuenca and Santiago de Mendez, in the low Amazon basin. The juice was still fermenting, but I was ready to drink. I gave the bottle an hour in my hotel room so that the mucky sediments could settle to the bottom, then drank. The stuff was a grapefruit yellow now, with a bready, yeasty smell and a flavor reminiscent of raw, green cane juice but less sweet and with the obvious bite of alcohol. I had done it—connected the dots and found the missing link. Or, that is, I had made it myself.
Quick Cane Trivia
- Sugarcane is native to Southeast Asia.
- Consisting of several species, sugarcane is generally a tropical plant but is grown in Spain, some 37 degrees from the Equator.
- Sugarcane yields more calories per land surface area than any other crop.
- Sugarcane first arrived in the New World with Christopher Columbus on his second voyage across the Atlantic, when he sailed to the West Indies in 1493.
Other Local Wines to Taste in Ecuador
If you should visit Vilcabamba and have any interest in wine and fermentation, spend 20 minutes in a small store and tasting bar called Vinos y Licores Vilcabamba. The shop specializes in locally made fruit wines—including grape, blackberry and papaya. The shop also sells liquors made using cane alcohol and a variety of products, like peach and cacao. Most of the wines here are sweet or semi-sweet—and you can put up with that, go in, meet owner Alonzo Reyes and enjoy a tasting. He may even take you to the rear of the facility and show you the fermenting tanks, containing more than 5,000 liters of wines, as well as the cellar, where scores of three- and five-gallon glass jugs contain maturing wines.
The Name of a Dog
I must concede that I spoke a few days too soon in last week’s post about troublesome dogs in Ecuador and the owners that sometimes neglect them. I joked about the unlikelihood that a scruffy street mutt down here might be named Rex, Fido or Max. Well, 11 kilometers south of Sucua on the Amazonian Highway E-45, a dog came trotting out to meet me in the road. Its owners called it back. Its name? Max.
February 12, 2013
A crisp, clear stream flows out of Cajas National Park on a 20-mile circuitous route down to the town of Cuenca—but few fish live in these wild waters. Yet the Quinuas River Valley it forms is a hot destination for sport fishermen. They come by the hundreds each weekend, mostly from Cuenca, seeking the most popular game fish in the world: the rainbow trout.
“What kind of trout live in here?” I ask a young man who serves me coffee at Cabana del Pescador, the campground where I have stayed the night. I am only curious how locals refer to the species Oncorhynchus mykiss, which is native to North American and Siberian streams that enter the Pacific but has been introduced to virtually all suitable habitat on earth. In Ecuador, the species first arrived in the 1960s.
“Normal trout,” he says.
I aim to catch a few fish today and have them for dinner, but I move on, up the road, looking for a happier place to fish. The pond here is muddy, surrounded by concrete and a chain-link fence. Trouble is, I won’t find much better. This valley, though populated by a few wild trout in the streams and lakes of Cajas National Park, is a busy center of aquaculture. Trout farming is generally considered a clean and sustainable industry, though it isn’t always pretty. For a stretch of seven or eight miles downstream of the park, nearly every roadside farm has a handful of concrete-banked pools on the premises, fed by stream water and swarming with trout about 12 inches long.
Up the road, after passing a half dozen possible fishing sites, I pull in to one called Reina del Cisne, at kilometer 21. It is a restaurant and sport fishing “club,” as the sign tells visitors. I have coffee—Nescafé, as always—inside. When I am finished, I ask if there is an opportunity to fish here, and the teenage waiter beckons me to follow. “It’s 50 cents to rent a pole,” he says. “Then, we weigh the trout, and you pay $2.25 per pound.” The biggest fish in the ponds out back are more than ten pounds, he tells me.
He pulls one rod from a heap of several dozen—a broomstick-like pole with a stout line tied to the end and a silver barbed hook at the tip. He quickly mixes up a bucket of bread dough to use as bait, drops a hunk into a shopping-style woven basket and hands me my tackle.
“What kind of trout are these?” I ask, still fishing for local lingo.
“Salmon trout. They have red meat,” he says. He adds, “Good luck,” and returns to the restaurant.
For an angler who has fished in the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada and Alaska and New Zealand, this is a sad comparison, and I feel a strange desire to either cry or laugh hysterically. This would make a perfect opportunity for kids, but I know what real fishing, in real waters, is. Here, I have three ponds to choose from—two of them rectangular, concrete basins, the other a muddy, oval-shaped pool 30 feet across with grassy banks. I flick a piece of dough into this most natural-appearing of the options. Several trout dart from the murk as the white ball vanishes in an instant. I bait my hook and fling it into the middle of the pond, slightly embarrassed that I am participating in what locals advertise as pesca deportiva—or “sport fishing.” A similar flurry of fish attack and strip the hook. I re-bait and try again and this time hook instantly into a feisty rainbow. I drag it in and onto the bank, whack it cold with a stick and drop it in my basket. One down, and in another five minutes I have a second fish. I could take more but, frankly, this isn’t fun or engaging. A year ago exactly I was cycling around New Zealand, casting flies at wild trout six times this size and immeasurably more thrilling to catch—wary, elusive, picky and beautiful. The challenge of enticing one to strike made success an accomplishment. Best of all was the experience of being there, fish or none, standing in crystal clear waters surrounded by green meadows and the tall peaks of the Southern Alps. Indeed, fishing is largely about interacting with the environment, and if one catches no trout on an expedition into the mountains, something else is still gained.
But no matter how big a fish one may pull from a concrete-lined pond, using dough balls for bait, the experience feels as hollow as shopping in a supermarket. While I’m here, I hope I might tangle with an eight-pounder, but no such beast shows itself. I wonder if perhaps they tell all guests that giant trout live in these ponds to encourage business. But back inside the restaurant, my hosts show me the de-boned meat of a 14-pounder caught the day before. The meat is thick and heavy and a delicious-looking salmon red. I ask what the trout eat. “Natural food,” owner Maria Herrera tells me.
Down the road, at kilometer 18, I visit a government-run fish hatchery. I roll down the dirt drive, across the stream on a wooden bridge and up a short rise to the facility. I introduce myself to two men in yellow slickers, ankle deep in a muddy concrete basin full of thrashing foot-long trout. The station director, Lenin Moreno, tells me that more than 8,000 adult fish live here. He and his colleague, Ricardo Mercado, are currently trying to get an exact head count in a tank swarming with, they guess, about 300 fish. They take a break and show me to the laboratoria—the hatchery. In the trays and tanks of this covered, concrete-walled facility, 1.3 million juveniles are produced each year and sold to aquaculture operations in four provinces, Moreno tells me.
Outside, they show me a rectangular basin teeming with huge rainbows, green-backed, red-sided beauties that remind me of the two-foot-long giants of New Zealand. Visitors may come here to buy these trout, Moreno tells me. The fish go for $1.50 per pound.
I ask if the meat is red like salmon. “No—it’s white,” Moreno tells me. “But at the fish farms they feed the trout pigment.”
This doesn’t surprise me. The rainbow trout I grew up on were generally white-fleshed fish. Only occasionally on family camping trips as we cleaned our catch would we discover with excitement that the trout had natural pink meat, which tends to be richer and fattier than paler flesh. But in Ecuador’s many fish markets, I have not yet seen a trout fillet that wasn’t colored like salmon, and I’ve suspected all along that this attractive color (which I’ll admit has drawn my wallet from my pocket more than once) was artificially induced. I recall seeing the fillet of a trout caught in New Zealand just outside the outflow of a Chinook salmon farm that was clearly affected by such pigment—probably either synthetic astaxanthin or canthaxanthin, both used in most commercial salmon farming operations (and the latter of which may cause retinal damage). The trout had presumably been eating pellet feed that escaped from the salmon pens, and the meat was partially colored, patchy red and white like a tie-dyed shirt. Yuck.
I poached my farm-caught trout in cheap Chilean Sauvignon Blanc at my hostel in Cuenca, just off the main street of Calle Larga. The meal was fine and exactly what I had been aiming for when I plunked that ball of dough into the pond at Reina del Cisne. But the fish didn’t quite taste up to par. Because although pink-fleshed trout are a sure catch in the mountain fishing ponds of Ecuador, something else, less easy to describe, native to places like Montana and British Columbia, may evade you with every fish landed.