Monday, May 4, 2009

Caldo de Pata, Foot Soup

Crazy spring here in Ecuador.

Between flying back to the states for job fairs, finding work in Turkey, flying back to Ecuador to teach, flying back to the states for weddings, coming back to Ecuador for spring break, flying to Colombia for rock climbing, coming back for a night, and flying to the Galapagos to swim with sea lions and sharks; I'm exhausted! This weekend I think I'll try to summit Cotopaxi again just to get a little break from everything.

Last month my editor for the Ecuador Reporter either skipped town, or absentmindedly neglected to get his visa renewed before leaving for Canada. Depends on who you talk to, and how much money he owed them. Regardless, the paper is now in a bit of a flux, but they have continued publishing, just not online.

So, here's the simple text version of the latest BFB column. Next month will be my last column. Que pena!

The BFB…makes caldo de pata (foot soup)

Pata, or foot, makes a damn fine soup here in Ecuador. I was once slurping away greedily at a chicken soup served to me for lunch, marveling at its flavor when I spooned up a foot. I suppose the nails of the foot add flavor, not unlike the black eyed-peas and hog jaw that’s a tradition for those who live in the Southern U.S. However, the caldo de pata I’m talking about this month doesn’t come in a soup bowl, it comes in a swimming pool.
Living in a country nestled among active volcanoes, Ecuadorians are able to enjoy the silver lining to the constant threat of eruptions: an abundance of hot springs. These hot springs provide a place to relax, a place to absorb healthy minerals, a place (of course) to do your laundry, and a place to make your own gigantic batch of communal foot soup. As with so many things in life, the hot springs of Ecuador run the gamut, from pure opulence, to pure caldo de pata. The choice is yours.
The most well-known hot springs in the country are in the town that gives them away with its name, Bath. In Banos, the town revolves around hot tub culture. Hotels offer spa packages. Vendors sell swimsuits and blow-up floaties instead of alpaca scarves and blankets. Men offer to take Polaroids of you and your novia as you exit the springs, sucking in your Pilsner-gut. Best of all, the hot springs are as cheap as they come. Unfortunately, they are as caldo de pata as they come too. The pools are emptied every day, but their popularity should probably justify emptying them every hour. Get there early unless you want to spend most of your soaking time avoiding the floating back-hair from the guy in the Speedo next to you.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, is the posh Termas De Papallacta. This fancy resort, found an hour and a half outside of Quito, trades some “authenticity,” for a less “soupy” experience. The hot springs are as well tended as the gardens that surround them, and though the price is nearly triple that of Banos, the selection of pools, temperatures, and cleanliness trumps the price hike for most. If you really want to splurge, you can pay extra for the spa, where waterfalls, jets, and complimentary towels will make you feel as if you won the lottery. Of course, if Antisana peaks its snow covered face out from the jungle above the springs, you won’t need the spa to make you feel like the luckiest person on earth.
Finally, in-between the two on the pata scale, but winning big on the “off the beaten path” scale is Oyacachi. Oyacachi may be my favorite of the hot springs. It’s the little town that could; and does! Oyacachi is nestled in the remote valleys between Papallacta and Cayambe. Getting there requires an hour of travel on dirt roads, but the remoteness is what makes these springs so great. The springs themselves are surprisingly well made, and well kept. The sculpted rock walkways, waterfalls, and lilly gardens remind me of Pappallacta, but the price reminds me of Banos. The termas are run by the townspeople, who obviously see the hot springs as a means for the town as a whole to benefit. Artisans sell their woodcarvings, and lunch-spots have sprung up around the entrance to the springs. If you’re looking for luxury though, this is not your place. There is only one basic hotel in town, and the single restaurant serves trout and chicken, fried or roasted. But for those of us who prefer camping to down comforters, and fresh trout to chicken cordon-blue; then Oyacachi is our place. And try the chicken soup, just, try to ignore the floating foot.

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