Eating Cuy (Guinea Pig)
I had a guinea pig as a pet when I was younger as many children did. He was cute but scratchy and awkward to cuddle. His name was Snowflake, named aptly due to the dominant white splash on his otherwise chestnut forehead. Never in a million years would I have dreamed of eating my childhood pet, but here in Ecuador, it is a delicacy. Eaten mainly for special occasions and celebrations, the locals here breed the guinea pigs in their homes. Some free range within the house (which I find extremely odd) and others in hutches outside.
I put my childhood fondness and thoughts of little Snowflake aside as we edge ever closer to a small town that serves the delicacy year round, and prepare to eat like a local.
As we weave through the small streets of Selva Alegre, which translates to Happy Jungle, I start to become excited. There is not one tourist in sight, and the streets of this tiny town ooze with local character and charm. Beaten up cars that look like they have battled the ages retire to the street curbs, toothless women dressed in traditional wide brimmed hats, their shoulders wrapped in black shawls most likely woven from llama wool waddle down the quiet streets, as the colourful buildings that tower over them flake aged and weather beaten paint like giant dandruff.
Making a sharp left hand turn, we have veered onto a street of sizzling BBQ’s. Aromas of sweet meat float in the air, thick smoke clogs your eyes making them sting and water. These smoky BBQ’s are slowly grilling groups of cuy. They are roasting away like mini spits. Cuy is the Spanish word for guinea pig (pronounced cwee).
We pull up outside Picanteria El Hueco and a lady in a plain apron proudly rotates her cuy that have been stretched out along a thick wooden stick which provide the guinea pigs with an oversized chin, (American Dad style). Their little paws curled over, their long teeth still in place bucked and looking rat like. They are barbequed a golden brown, looking almost caramelised and a fresh pale cuy is placed onto the sizzling coals.
Fascinated by their grotesque look, and how their bodies are all frozen into the same position, I venture inside this local restaurant and take a seat. I look around the concreate walls. Pictures and cartoons of cuy line the walls with speech bubbles in Spanish stating ‘Eat me, I’m healthy’. Newspaper articles explaining how cuy is good for you also feature as well as photos that look like they are from the 80’s of local cuy breeding heroes.
The room is filled with locals. Young children stare at us strange white people, even the adults are confused as to why I am here. Tacky Christmas tinsels and other festive decorations hang from the walls. This restaurant looks like it is from the 60’s. In the corner, a modern drinks fridge whirs and hums away looking extremely out of place against the retro wood panelling and plastic ivy plants.
A plate is placed down in front of me with my cuy. Already cut up, he is sitting on a bed of potatoes in a spicy sauce. I pick up a small piece of skin in my hands and take a bite. Crunch. Just like well cooked pork crackling. Salty, crispy, and cooked to perfection. The skin is delicious.
I move onto the leg. The meat is the colour of rabbit, the texture of BBQ chicken but rich like duck. I pick away at my cuy until he is nothing but a skeleton. Delicious!
The locals peer on watching my reaction as I immensely enjoy their local specialty. The meat tears away from the bones easily. Being super salty a drink at hand is necessary to help you continue through your meal. The potatoes and spicy sauce are too much for me. I leave them to the side and as soon as I say I am finished, my driver and guide swoop in like prey to finish off my leftovers.
As we leave the restaurant, a cuy that has been butterflied like a sausage has now begun roasting on the BBQ. Apparently you can request to have them cooked in various ways?<
Definitely not something for everyone, but as a food adventurer with my taste buds when I travel, this was definitely an enjoyable local meal I would suggest to anyone looking for something traditional and authentic to enjoy whilst in Ecuador.
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