Cuenca, Ecuador

Cuenca, Ecuador

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Food Phobias Part 2 of 2 ( Plus St. Bernard Poop and IRS Crackdown)


I'm dividing this blog entry (which is already Part 2 of 2) into two further subjects:
  1. Walking to the Market - for those who do not want to see the "Meats" section, and
  2. Meats - probably the real reason you are reading the blog today!  If you don't want to see pictures of live and dead animals, don't read this part!  I'll warn you before the "gross" photos.
There are a lot photos in this posting.  Click on a photo to enlarge it.


Our street, Los Pinos (The Pines) is a rather short street that ends at the Tomebamba River.  Cuenca has 4 rivers, and the Tomebamba is the largest and most well known of the 4.  There are nice walking paths that follow the river, and lots of green spaces as well.  

When Tom lets me get a St. Bernard (hint, hint) the green area on our street is where HE (not me!) will let the dog go poo!

When we walk to the city's largest open market, Feria Libre, we cut across the green area.

A hibiscus tree in the green space - it is beautiful!  I'm putting this photo first so that it shows up on the blog advertising. Trust me, you would rather see this than the guinea pigs!

High end clothing store in the lobby of our building.  You may buy the clothes on credit - 3, 6 or 9 months!  Not entirely convinced that the brands are legit...

A new addition to our lobby retail, a chiropractic office just opened this week. 

When Tom lets the St. Bernard poo, he'll have to clean up the poo!  Sonny and I will be taking a nap!

The green space along the Tomebamba at the end of our street.
The Tomebamba at the end of our street.  It has been raining in the mountains; therefore, the river is getting high and turbulent.

As many of you know, I was an Internal Revenue Agent for years. As such, I have no sympathy for those who cheat the system or think the rules don't apply to them.  Several in my family are also accountants, and we all share this viewpoint.   Well, down here, the Ecuadorian IRS (SRI) plays hardball.  If you are caught cheating or not following the rules, they will lock you down, and place VERY LARGE signs on your house or business.  Sort of "Scarlet Letters" for tax violations.  To make the punishment even more severe, the business is required to keep paying the employees even though they are not working!

We've seen the signs all over town.  This is a picture of the restaurant directly across the street from our building.  The SRI found that they were not issuing the proper receipts (eg: not reporting all of the income) so they shut them down a few days ago.   According the signs, they may re-open on the 27th of this month - a 6-day penalty.

They started busting up the street to make way for the tram just a couple of blocks from us.  The line is in varying degrees of completion all around the city.  Traffic around the market is terrible now!


In my last post, I talked about how food cleanliness issues are dealt with here.  This post is all about my phobias when dealing with meats:  how they look, how they are stored, and how they smell.

SIDE NOTE:  This week, the local papers have been covering reports about the cleanliness of the city's many markets.  There are sanitation rules in place here, and the city is starting to crack down on violators.  The vendors claim that the city has failed to keep up with maintenance at the markets; therefore, many of the rules cannot be carried out.  The market buildings are indeed in need of repair and cleaning.  Knowing Cuenca's "get things done" approach, I'm sure there will be vast improvements coming soon.

Back home, like millions of other Americans, we bought our meat from the supermarket. Beautiful pieces displayed in Styrofoam trays with tightly wrapped cellophane covers.  You had no idea that it was once a piece of a living, breathing animal, and millions of us like it that way!  We were far, far removed from the reality of that piece of meat, and we liked it!

Here in Ecuador (like most other places on the earth) things are "different."  Sure, we still buy our meat in Styrofoam trays with tightly wrapped cellophane covers in refrigerated meat cases in the grocery store, but we are in the minority.  Most Ecuadorians buy their meats from the many open-air markets.  Typically, the markets are very organized:  produce vendors in this area, crafts in that area, etc. The area's largest such market, Feria Libre, is just a couple of blocks from our house.  I absolutely love to walk around Feria Libre and watch the people.

Approaching Feria Libre.  There are street vendors as well as sidewalk vendors that surround the main building.

Vendors on the sidewalk as we approach the market.

A vendor selling popcorn balls and (non-alcoholic) jello shots.

More sidewalk vendors.

Too bad this one turned out fuzzy - typical scene of old women selling a few goods on the sidewalk.  ....right next to lingerie!

More sidewalk vendors.  In this area near an entrance, they are selling everything from blender parts to produce to toilet paper.

Tom (toward the right) standing near "our" produce lady's stall. The kiosk behind him makes keys.
Our produce lady.  Tom actually got her to smile - she's a tough cookie, but she's starting to warm up to us Gringos!  I hate that the photo turned out so dark because her produce looks like a painting!

Tons of baskets at this vendor.  I want them all, but she's mean, and scares me!

These are NOT adult dresses - they look like they would fit a 3-year old!

Typical of the indoor booths - this one (like many, many, many others in this section) sells shoes. It was too dark inside to focus correctly.

Feria Libre is an enormous complex of open fields, street vendors, and open-sided buildings.  You can buy nearly everything at this type of market:  clothes, electronics, produce (most of which we have no idea what it is!) auto parts, baskets, handicrafts, pots & pans, fabric, pets, small animals (chickens, guinea pigs, rabbits, ducks)......and meat.  Lots and lots of meat!

This is where I had to learn to put aside a lot of my food phobias.....

WARNING:  Turn back now, if you don't want to see the photos!

(I should point out that is is quite possible to completely avoid the "meat section" of these markets)

No, the meat at these markets is NOT sold in little Styrofoam trays!  It is found piled on the ground, hanging from hooks, or sitting on counters.  Nothing is refrigerated.  Piles of intestines are stacked here/there.  A cow's leg, or hoof, or head may be sitting next to a stack of skinned guinea pigs.  You'll see freshly killed chickens (still dripping blood from the chopped off legs!) stacked on the ground. Did I mention the piles of intestines?  Livers and tongues may be displayed next to a full pig on a roasting spit.  Half of a cow will be hanging on a hook. We've seen feral cats helping themselves to some of the low hanging intestines!  It is like a vegetarian's idea of hell!

A trip to any "meat section" of such a market is not for the faint of heart!  The sight of slaughtered animals, blood and guts (literally) is not something I was used to seeing in my sanitized grocery store world!  Believe it or not, I could handle the sights far better than I could/can handle the smells.  As I mentioned, there is no refrigeration and very little ventilation in these markets.

Because the city is cracking down on sanitary conditions in the markets, the vendors were quite anxious when they saw my camera.  Out of respect for them, I didn't take photos of their booths with the meat.  This photo is from, and shows how many of the meat stalls look here.  Now, just imagine about 50 such booths at Feria Libre, and you get the picture! 
(This photo is from  

We see this truck every time we visit Feria Libre.  It is full of chickens being delivered to the vendors inside (and outside)  Hundreds and hundreds of chickens in that little truck!

Notice the kitten in with the rabbits on the left. He was tied to the crate with a string to keep him from escaping.  He was so cute!  This vendor is also selling puppies, ducks, turkeys, birds, you name it.

Boxes and boxes and boxes of live crabs in the "seafood section."
If the livestock is slaughtered at 8AM, brought to the market by 8:30AM, then sold to the customer by 9AM, then I could see an argument for no refrigeration.  What exists, however, are row upon row upon row of stalls selling the exact same meat.  There's no way all those stalls sell all their meat within a safe "no-refrigeration" window!  

These markets are very crowded with both people and merchandise.  That means as you walk down the aisles, you are going to be up close and personal with the meat and blood.  Again, with my food phobias, this was very tough to do!

We do not buy our meat in these markets.  Instead, we stay in our comfort zone of the grocery store.  I think most ex-pats do the same thing, although we know a few who do buy their meat at the markets.   

Like a lot of world, Ecuadorians don't waste much of an animal.  You'll see dishes that contain stomach, feet, brains, organs, etc.  

As many of you may know, guinea pigs ("cuy") are a delicacy here.  It is a very expensive ($30) dish in restaurants, even though you see cuy everywhere here.  Here are some BEFORE, DURING, and AFTER photos of the cuy in the markets here:


DURING (notice the bucket of intestines next to the stool)

AFTER.  Roasting the cuy on large spikes. They only remove the intestines and fur.  Everything else gets cooked.

So I'm getting used to seeing the raw meats in the markets.  I don't know if we'll get to the comfort point of actually buying our meat in them, but I'm at peace with the fact that the meat is there in my face.

When we eat out, I don't order anything containing chicken if I think there is a possibility of the chicken having bones - just like I did in Charlotte!  I don't order soup unless I know it is vegetarian.  I don't order cuy!

So far, my phobias and I coexist quite well in Cuenca; however, I know that sometime, somewhere, I'm going to be presented a plate with bones, skin, shell, etc. and then I'll crack!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Food Phobias Part 1 of 2


Some of you may already know about my (many) food phobias!  For those who don't, I'll point out just a few of them.  The point of these next couple of blog entries is to explain how I must face those phobias on a daily basis here in Ecuador.

Avoiding my food phobias was much easier back in the US.  Menus were in my native tongue; therefore, I could easily navigate my way around an unfamiliar restaurant.  I could ask the server questions that were geared toward my phobias.  I had a certain comfort level that what I was eating wasn't going to set off triggers.

OK, so what are my phobias?  Those cute "my food can't touch" or "I have to eat everything in a clockwise direction" pale in comparison!   These are my top four:

1)  No bones.  My food cannot contain bones - plain and simple.  Bones remind me that it was once a living, breathing animal.

2)  Nothing in its "natural state."  Similar to bones.  My food cannot look like it did when alive.  Fish and seafood fall into this category.  The thought of a whole fish on my plate makes me want to throw up!

3)  No skin.  "Peel and eat" shrimp, lobster, chicken - you name it.  No skin, shells, etc. will be on my plate.

4)  Cleanliness.  You already know I'm OCD about cleaning, and I expect the same with my food sources.

With phobias 1 through 3, you would think I would be a vegetarian!  Truth be told, we don't eat a lot of meat.   .....which is a good thing considering what we see in Ecuador!

I'll go backwards, and start with "CLEANLINESS" as that is what most newly arrived ex-pats notice right away.  I said "notice" but what I really meant was: "smacks you right in the face!"

It's smart to keep a certain level of awareness when dealing with food - especially when living in a foreign country.  There are parasites and bacteria that our American-raised bodies are unfamiliar with.  Most of those unfamiliar bugs are harmless, and others can cause serious illnesses.

As you may know, fresh fruits and vegetables are plentiful and cheap here in Ecuador.  You can buy them everywhere - from the super grocery stores, to open air markets, to vendors on the street corners.  What you don't know is:  Where were those berries grown?  What was the fertilizer?  How were they stored prior to this retailer?  Sure, these were legitimate questions everyone everywhere should be asking, but we just took for granted back home. 

Here, we've seen crates of produce being hauled in the back of pick up trucks......right under a cow and surrounded by a few goats.  Those animals have probably relieved themselves on the long trip into town, and the floor of the pick up bed is now a cesspool of nastiness.  ...and my strawberries are swimming in it!

Nearly all ex-pats wash all produce prior to eating.  I don't mean "wash with water," as we did back in the States.  Here, we soak all produce with a cleaning product prior to eating. Here is the product we use.  

A cap full with 2 liters of cold water.  Let soak for at least 5 minutes, then rinse with water.  It's become our routine, and we don't even think twice about it.  We did notice that after soaking, the produce doesn't seem to stay fresh for much longer; therefore, we've learned to soak just prior to using the food.  Things like bananas (where the peel/covering isn't consumed) do not get washed.

Our "unwashed" produce stays in the plastic bags. The washed produce goes into our counter top bowls or baskets.  That's how we keep track of the process.
"Unwashed" potatoes still in the plastic bag.
We know we are covered at home, but what about at a restaurant?  Was that lettuce washed?  Were those strawberries (with all of those divots!) properly cleaned?  To be honest, it's a crap shoot.  At the more expensive restaurants - and/or those frequented by other ex-pats - we tend to let our guard down and eat the produce.  So far, we've been lucky, but I'm sure we're on borrowed time!

As a general rule, we avoid the "street food" vendors here.  As our guts get more used to the bacteria and bugs here, we'll probably start to partake (it smells really good!)

The eggs here are not sold (nor stored) refrigerated.  They are absolutely delicious, and we eat a lot of them!  It took us a while to get comfortable with the idea of not refrigerating our eggs - that's what we've been taught to do.

Unrefrigerated eggs.
Many ex-pats eventually get "a parasite" from eating a contaminated food item.  Many Ecuadorians do as well.  Think "Montezuma's Revenge" (so we've heard!)  The treatment is usually as bad as the symptoms.  These are the most common pills taken over a 2-day period.  We went ahead and bought them for our medicine cabinet because we heard that by the time you need them, you are certainly in no condition to go out and buy them!

SIDE NOTE:  Yes, we drink the tap water here - BUT ONLY IN CUENCA!  Everyone recommends bottled water outside of Cuenca's reach.  Cuenca's water treatment facilities have won several international awards, and the water tastes really good, to be honest!

Even with my phobia about cleanliness, I can easily handle the washing of the produce.  Dealing with the meat here in Ecuador is another thing altogether!  Back home, we bought our meat in nicely wrapped, sanitized packaging from refrigerated cases in the supermarket.  That's not always the case here in Ecuador!   Stay tuned for Part 2:  Meats.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Day Trip to Ingapirca

This week, we went on a day trip to Ingapirca.  It is Ecuador's largest set of ancient remains.   Here is a Wikipedia link to read more about it.

Ingapirca is about 2 hours north/north east of Cuenca.  It is in the neighboring province (state) of Canar, and is at about 10,000 feet.

We met our small (16 people) private tour group at one of Cuenca's many neighborhood squares.  All but 1 of our fellow passengers currently live in Cuenca - the other was visiting a friend who lives in Cuenca.  From there, we boarded a bus for the drive to Ingapirca.  The roads were in great shape (albeit a bit winding and quite steep) and it was a nice drive.

The weather at 10,000 feet ranged from nice to cold to hot - all within a few minutes!

There's a lot of history at Ingapirca.  The new museum is scheduled to open next month.  The museum will house artifacts as well as 11 mummies found at the site.  Cool and creepy!  The main mummy was a high ranking female, surrounded by 10 of her servants (who were drugged, then buried alive!)  Their burial spot is shown below.


Our tour bus (and Tom with fellow passengers)  I resisted the urge to write "WASH ME" on the back of the dirty bus!

The nice Welcome Center.
A reconstructed house using both Canari and Inca design elements.  Notice the slanted/angled  doorway.  It was an Inca-inspired design to withstand earthquakes.

The inner half circle represented the moon.  The outer half circle represented the sun. They worshipped both the sun and moon.

Our guide pointing out where the 11 mummies were buried. The upright stone is a sundial.
This is part of the Inca Road, a long stretch of roadway connecting much of South America.  Notice the small aqueduct on the left hand side.  Imagine the work it took to pave a road through South America centuries ago!

More of the Inca Road.

More of the Inca Road.

On the way to the Sun Temple.

This rock was used as a lunar calendar.  Each hole represents a phase of the moon.  28 holes represented 1 month in the Inca calendar.  

The Sun Temple.  No mortar was used - only precisely cut and stacked stones. Oddly, the greenish shade of the stones is something that happened when a university in Quito (capital city) tried to "clean" the stones in 2009!  21st Century stupidity met with 15th Century artistry.

Look how tight the joints are!

In the Sun Temple. Our tour guide is explaining how the sun came in through a door (in front of him) and lit up one of the 4 "windows" behind him.  Each solstice lined up perfectly with one of the windows, thus, everyone knew when the season started.   

On the other side of the 4 seasons windows are these 3 windows. Sunlight coming through the doorway on this side hit one of the 3 windows, thereby indicating when crops should be planted or harvested.  The middle window was the summer solstice.
Another shot of the perfectly stacked stones of the Sun Temple.

Looking back at the ruins from a walking trail. The trail led to the Inca face below...

Notice the "face" in the rocks?  The Incas did!  HINT:  He's looking to the right. His eyelashes are palm plants.  Spooky!

A very old adobe building along the walking trail.  Some locals living along this trail are (illegally) selling ancient artifacts they dig up in the area - arrowheads, clay pots, etc.
On our return trip to Cuenca, we stopped at a small town named Biblian (named after the Bible.)  Most of the town's residents live in the US or Spain.  High above the town sits a church built into the mountainside.  Our bus struggled to make the climb!

That's the church way up there!

On the rooftop looking down.  Would make a great jigsaw puzzle!

Looking down at Biblian.

See how the church is built into the side of the mountain?

The church is really, really high up!

Yesterday, the pandas next door had a birthday party. Very cute!