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.
Looking for more Eat Like a Local experiences? Download the Crooked Compass Travel App to book or for further inspiration.
This category of tours involves light trekking, walking, cycling, rafting or kayaking for a few hours each day with a small amount of inclines and declines. You will require a reasonable level of fitness and good health to participate. It is important to note that due to the nature of some of our trips, they may take place in remote areas (with basic facilities) and can involve long travelling days on various modes of transport.
Suggested preparation : At least 3 months prior to departure, it is recommended that you undertake aerobic exercise (this may include jogging, cycling or fast walking) for 30 minutes, three times a week. It is also advised to walk on variable terrain and in variable weather conditions. For a cycling adventure, road cycling twice a week is recommended and for adventures which involve paddling and kayaking, it is important to gain confidence and rhythm rather than speed prior to departure.
This category of tours involve trekking, kayaking and cycling for period of 6 to 8 hours a day at a fairly consistent pace. Ideal for people looking to slightly increase the heart rate. For our moderately rated tours, you must have a good level of fitness and also be in good health. It is also important to be prepared for variable weather conditions. Altitude may also come into play. This category of tours may involve visiting remote areas where facilities can be quite basic. Accommodation may also involve camping, homestays or basic accommodation where facilities may not be considered of western standards. To enjoy this style of travel, it is suggested for travellers to have a reasonable level of fitness and health, a positive attitude, as well as a fairly active lifestyle. An open mind is also required.
Suggested preparation: At least 3 months prior to departure, it is recommended that you undertake 45mins – 1 hour of aerobic exercise, three to four times a week. Some potential exercises that could be beneficial include hill walking with a backpack on over variable terrain and weather conditions, as well as running and cycling dependent on the activity you plan on undertaking.
This category of tours involves trekking, kayaking, cycling or other adventure activities in remote areas for up to 8 to 10 hours a day. It is important to note that with the remoteness of some regions comes a variety of other challenges such as variable weather conditions, accommodation as well as facilities. You must have an excellent level of fitness and good health to be able to partake in this category of tour. You must have confidence in your own ability and be in good physical condition. Includes extended periods of endurance.
Suggested preparation: At least 3 to 4 months of strenuous exercise, four times a week. When preparing for treks it would be beneficial to participate in hill walks with a weighted day pack (approximately 5-8 kg) once a week for aerobic fitness and strengthening of leg muscles. It is also important to do this on variable terrain to prepare for challenging adventures. When preparing for cycling adventures, regular bike riding (at least 4 to 5 times a week for 1-4 hours is essential). It is also important to cycle on uneven surfaces or even participate in other aerobic exercises such as running or swimming to build up strength and stamina. Altitude may also be a factor in these tours.
This category of tour often involves extreme trekking, cycling or other extreme adventure activities. It is important to expect remote and poorly defined tracks and to be prepared for variable weather conditions for 10 to 12 hours per day (may sometimes be more depending on weather and altitude). These adventures are suitable for travellers who have prior experience in strenuous travel and activities, are extremely fit and have excellent health. It is also important to note that some of the terrain on these adventures will involve trekking in snow, at high attitude levels and may require technical equipment.
Suggested preparation: It is important to note that physical fitness should be an ongoing activity, commencing around 5-6 months prior to departure, or even before if you have no prior fitness. Exercise should focus on building maximum endurance and stamina. Four to five hard sessions of 40-60 mins per week should be completed and can include exercises such as going to the gym, running, swimming or cycling to focus on building aerobic stamina. It could also be beneficial to prepare by hiking on rough terrain, in extreme weather conditions or partake in altitude training.