TASTE OF THE PLACE: INDIGENOUS CHOCOLATE AND NEW ANDEAN DISHES
DIG IN: As a culinary draw, Ecuador has long lived in the shadow of the larger, more food-popular Peru, which has influenced the chef Nobu Matsuhisa and upscale chains like Sushi Samba. But its neighbor to the south is the unsung South American country, refreshed by a string of investments. In the capital of Quito, some $500 million has been spent to renovate the Spanish colonial quarter of 16th-to-18th-century churches and mansions, and to remodel the Mariscal International Airport. Now boutique hotels and trendy restaurants have moved in, creating a thriving base from which to stage a progressive feast in the highlands nearby, where a dramatic new train route and a design-centric eco-lodge aim to draw explorers deep into the heart — and appetite — of the Andes.
HOW TO EXPLORE: Immerse yourself in historic Quito at the 31-room Casa Gangotena housed in an art-filled art deco/art nouveau mansion opposite cobblestoned Plaza San Francisco. Here, chefs guide tours to local markets, bodegas, and boutique flour mills, picking up ingredients for an Ecuadorean lunch of fish stew or fried pork. Metropolitan Touring, Ecuador’s largest tour operator, was behind the hotel as well as the new Mashpi Lodge, three hours from the capital in a virgin rain forest of towering trees cloaked in mist and teeming with tropical birds, howler monkeys, and pumas. Between rides of its aerial bike that runs along a cable into the canopy, guests can enjoy dishes conjured from spices, chiles, and leaves from the surrounding rain forest. Metropolitan manages the transiting between the hotels and also guides guests to the new Devil’s Nose train track that switches up and back along an Andes rail, a trip that includes lunch in a 300-year-old hacienda and winds up in the colonial highland town of Cuenca, home to lively cafés and craft shops.
BRING BACK: The Ecuadorian company Republica del Cacao set out in 2004 to save the cacao variety known as Arriba in the Manabi, Los Rios, and El Oro provinces, a floral and fruity variety that goes into their single-origin dark chocolate. It now comes in hot chocolate mixes and liqueurs, but its claim to fame is the province-specific chocolate bars. Its rival, Pacari Chocolate also sources from small organic farms.
CAN'T MISS MEALS: In Quito, head for the Sucre National Theater above which resides Theatrum Restaurant & Wine Bar. Sip pisco sours while overlooking the plaza below before digging into grilled grouper, squid with creamy rice, and beef carpaccio with greens, parmesan, black-olive tapenade, and eggplant caviar. In Cuenca, head to Tiestos Café Restaurant for beef tenderloin medallions, shrimp soup, and walnut cake. Las Monjas (011-593-7-282-2750) serves New Andean dishes focusing on upscale indigenous cuisine such as locro (potato soup), hot-pepper shrimp, and steak with quinoa.