June, 2016: One of my few regrets from my first trip to Latin America was not trying roasted guinea pig or ‘cuy’. Throughout the Andean regions of South America, roasted guinea pig is a delicacy that has been providing indigenous communities with an easily produced source of protein for centuries. And, according to Google, it would also appear to be making inroads to the U.S. food scene. While trekking Ecuador’s Quilatoa loop I finally got my feast of roasted guinea pig at the lovely Lulu Llama hostel in the town of Isinlivi. From seeing guinea pigs on sale in a bustling local market; to watching the Lulu Llama chef unceremoniously break the guinea pigs’ necks; to finally being presented with a platter piled high with roasted guinea pigs the whole thing was quite an experience. Here’s how it went down.
DISCLAIMER: If you’re a strict vegetarian or vegan or feel squeamish about the killing of animals for human consumption this blog may not be for you. For all else, hope you enjoy!
Roasted guinea pig: missing the boat in Baños
After our exhilarating and downright mind blowing cruise in the Galápagos, our next stop was the Andean regions of Ecuador. An eight hour bus ride brought us up from the coastal lowlands, past snow capped volcanos and into the lovely town of Baños. While sniffing around the town’s bustling central market, I was reminded of these furry morsels (AKA guinea pigs) when we passed them roasting over an open grill. While for non-meat eaters roasted guinea pig presents a somewhat confronting sight, seeing them crisping up over the open coals only inspired one thought for me…dinner! Alas though, we missed the guinea pig boat in Baños. We feasted on fragrant chicken soups with delicious Andean potatoes; we slurped on fresh lemon and ginger tea spiked with liberal portions of scotch; and we scratched the late night hunger itch with crispy pork crackling (chicharrones) over salsa covered corn. But, we discovered too late that roasted guinea pig was only available for Sunday lunch at a few vendors outside the market.
It wasn’t until staying at the gorgeous Lulu Llama hostel in the little town of Isinlivi that another opportunity presented itself. Every now and then on our travels we stumble upon really, really special hostels and Lulu Llama was exactly that. From the spectacular views across the valley to the wood fire stove burning in the lounge; the locally carved wooden furniture to the huge St Bernard dog named Balou; and, the delicious food cooked up by the delightful Gladys; Lulu Llama was bang on.
Roasted guinea pig: an assault on the senses at Saquisili market
We had only planned to stay one night at Lulu Llama. When we had the opportunity to head to the huge indigenous market at Saquisili we thought we should stay longer. The Saquisili market is on every Thursday and is an important trading and social event for the local communities. Chicken buses filled with colourfully dressed locals converge from all around to buy everything from home grown produce, to clothes or maybe a cure for impotency. Probably the thing that impressed us most though was the live animal trade. Vendors would line up forming human tunnels while their customers would walk through to poke and prod their potential purchase. There were ducks, geese and chickens; pigeons, pigs and sheep; goats, rabbits and turkeys; and of course there were fat little guinea pigs! You could buy goat milk straight from the udder or why not just strap a sheep to your back and take it home. I couldn’t help feeling a touch sorry for these creatures but at the same time enthralled at such a raw display of livestock trading. It also made me hungry!
Roasted guinea pig: a platter of guinea pigs at Lulu Llama
That afternoon when we got back to Isinlivi the staff at Lulu Llama asked if we wanted to get involved in some roasted guinea pigs. For USD5 each, Gladys the chef went and bought a sack of the little rodents, fat and ready for roasting. With unceremonious efficiency she snapped each guinea pig’s neck and then gave them a good stretch. It was a brutal but at the same time quick and painless death for the little animals. Before long they were in the oven roasting away. Two hours later we sat down at the communal dinner table as platters of quartered cuy were brought out. Their skin glistened golden brown with their little ears providing a crunchy treat. Their flesh was juicy and delicate and tasted somewhere in between duck and rabbit. The feast was completed with roasted potatoes, fresh green salad and a spicy peanut dipping sauce not unlike Indonesian satay. The whole meal was delicious.
The food for the rest of the hike didn’t go anywhere near comparing with Gladys’ roasted guinea pigs. But, the scenery only got better and better. The Quilatoa hike took us through cultivated valleys and past gushing rivers; through forests of eucalyptus trees and little isolated villages. Our final day culminated in a rather nerve wracking but breathtaking hike around the crater of Quilatoa lake. It was a fitting end to a glorious 4 days in the Ecuadorian Andes.
Roasted guinea pigs: logistics and other bits worth knowing
- Hiking the Quilatoa loop:
- There are a bunch of different ways you can hike the Quilatoa loop and we would definitely recommend seeking out some detailed directions first. Obviously if you’re happy getting lost in the mountains then go right ahead. For everyone else, check out the directions we used below, get in touch with Lulu Llama hostel in Isinlivi or check out blogs like Nomadic Bones.
- If you were really pushing it you could probably hike the whole loop in two days from Latecunga. It’s such a pretty hike though that if you have the time it’s worth taking a bit longer.
- We caught one of the regular buses from Baños to Latecunga and stayed the night there. The next morning we left our main bags in the hostel and took another bus to Sigchos from where we started our hike. Our summary itinerary was:
- Day 1: Bus from Latecunga to Sigchos. Hike from Sigchos to Isinlivi.
- Day 2: 5am bus from Isinlivi to Saquisili for the Thursday market (see note below)
- Day 3: Hike Isinlivi to Chugchilan
- Day 4: Hike Chugchilan up to and then around the Quilatoa crater. Collectivo from Quilatoa to Zumbahua where the we caught a bus back to Latecunga.
- Accommodation on the Quilatoa loop:
- In Latecunga we stayed in Hostel Sendero de Volcanes (USD30/night for twin room with shared bathroom) which was a really friendly, family run place. They let you leave your bags in a locked room for USD2.
- In Isinlivi we definitely recommend staying at Lulu Llama hoste (USD18/night/bed including awesome meals in very comfortable dorm).
- In Chugchilan we stayed in Hostal Cloud Forest which was also nice but not nearly as good as Lulu Llama (USD30 for private room with ensuite)
- What to bring for your Quilatoa loop hike: As you can stay in hostels / posadas each night along the trail there is no need to bring camping gear unless you really want to camp. We just brought small day packs with all the usual gear you need for a day out in the sun e.g. water, snacks and sun cream. It does get cold at night so bring something warm. Also worth bringing a rain jacket and obviously decent walking shoes.
- The Saquisili Thursday market is well worth visiting and can be reached on a 5am chicken bus which leaves from in front of the Isinlivi church. Buses back from Saquisili don’t leave until 3pm so be prepared for a pretty long day at the markets.
Roasted guinea pigs: Quilatoa loop detailed directions