By Susan Burke March
One of the most effective and enjoyable ways to understand a culture is to experience, taste, and appreciate its foods.
In Cuenca there are dozens of restaurants serving international foods…Italian, Indian, Japanese, Thai…even Austrian food can be found, and deliciously. But, Ecuadorian cuisine has its own flavors and ingredients, and for those who are in Cuenca to learn the culture, TerraDiversa offers a suite of food and cooking tours that for some are the highlight of their trip.
“Food tourism” or “culinary tourism” is one of the most popular travel trends. As reported in Skift.com, “travelers are hungry to explore behind the scenes of any given destination, and they’re using culturally specific food to discover the world like never before”. Food is the link to a culture’s history, the “rhythm of daily life”, and to the unique ingredients of a region. It’s a way to connect with locals, and to meet new friends. And food tours are really, really fun!
Last Easter, my husband and I signed up for TerraDiversa’s Cooking Fanesca in Cuenca tour. Fanesca is a rich soup traditionally prepared and eaten by households and communities in Ecuador during Holy Week — what an experience! It was far and above the best cooking class I’ve ever taken, and I’ve taken a bunch. I’ve cooked with professional chefs in New York City but never have I had more fun, or learned more about the local culture and ingredients than what I experienced here in Cuenca on this tour.
For this tour we met our guide Sebastian at the 10 de Agosto mercado, right downtown on Calle Larga. Sebastian is a fully bilingual and knowledgeable — we spent an hour in the mercado, perusing the aisles, chatting with vendors and enjoying the craziness and excitement of the market. We then walked to the kitchen of Chef Catalina Abad in the historic center of the city. Under her expert direction and guidance (and with the guide’s skillful translation) we students chopped and stirred as she explained the meaning and customs associated with each ingredient. When the soup was done, we all sat down together and had a wonderful meal, and congratulated ourselves on a job well done. I’m still smiling.
TerraDiversa Food & Culture Tours
TerraDiversa features an impressive variety of cuisine and travel tours — and they’re constantly adding new ones to their catalogue. All tours include a professional bilingual (English/Spanish) guide and transportation when needed, plus delicious meals and more. Cooking tours include a professional Ecuadorian chef plus an expert bilingual guide. The prices listed below represent cost per person for a private two-person tour. If you have larger groups, that is great! More participants mean lower prices. If you’d like to join up with additional people, just speak with the tour operator, and keep checking back with TerraDiversa: they frequently set dates for group tours with special rates, and you’ll find this and more by signing up for their monthly newsletter – subscribe here.
Cuenca Food & Cooking Tour: This tour is designed to put you up-front-and-personal with the vendors that make the mercados so interesting. The Mercado 10 de Agosto is a perfect place to learn about the foods native to the Andes. I like this market because it’s just my size…not too large so that I’m overwhelmed, but it has everything…fruit and vegetable vendors, meats, poultry, seafood, staples…and that’s just the beginning. Before the tour, you’ll choose your menu (choices are on the website), which will be your guide toward preparing a typical Ecuadorian meal, including a starter, a main course, and a dessert. You’ll tour the mercado with your guide, and after you’ve gathered all of your ingredients it’s a nice stroll through the historic city center to chef Catalina Abad’s kitchen, where you’ll have a hands-on experience cooking lunch and enjoying it together with your fellow students. Price: from $79, about 5 hours.
Cooking with Chili Peppers & Potatoes tour is ideal for exploring the flavors and tastes of Ecuador. If you’ve ever wondered how to prepare some of the many different types of potatoes in the mercado, or wanted to make your own aji, then this is perfect for you. You’ll visit the mercado to learn and experience the local culture and daily life of the Cuencanos who shop locally. You’ll visit a professional kitchen for a cooking class where you’ll prepare a variety of potato dishes including soup, filled dumplings and cakes and breads. You’ll also prepare different types of aji, (sauces) from varieties of fresh chili peppers and seasonings. This 5-hour tour is priced from only $47, with a minimum of 5 people.
Quinoa, known as the “sacred food of the Incas” is a gluten-free dietary staple of the Andes, and renown for its excellent nutritional profile. The Quinoa Cooking Tour begins with a visit to a local market with your guide, where you’ll learn about this traditional ingredient and other Andean products. Then you’ll move to a professional kitchen where your professional chef/instructor will teach you the secrets of preparing a variety of dishes that incorporate this delicious grain (did you know that quinoa is actually a seed, classified as a pseudo cereal? Read more here.) This 5-hour tour is priced from $58.
Dining al fresco is a feature of the Pampa Mesa tour, an excursion onto the banks of the Rio Tomebamba. A pampa mesa is a shared meal outside where people spread food out on a blanket, just like a picnic. Chef Gustavo Chalco is your host — he’s well known for creating novoandina (New Andean) food here in Cuenca. The tour starts in El Centro at the mercado where you’ll purchase your ingredients for the menu that you’ll choose. Then back to Chef Chalco’s restaurant on the river, to learn how to prepare dishes with unique flavors and ingredients of Cuenca. Price: from $69, about four hours.
Get ready for the Culture & Food in Gualaceo & Chordeleg tour! Travel to some of the most famous villages around Cuenca. Here’s your chance to sample local cuisine en route, including hornado (slow-roasted pig), tortillas de maíz or choclo (hot corn pancakes) and rosero (fruit punch), and for those intrepid travelers, don’t hesitate to try cuy (roast guinea pig…an Ecuadorian favorite). In San Bartolomé you will marvel at the custom guitars that have attracted musicians for generations. Chordeleg is famous for its fine filigree jewelry and ceramic pottery. Gualaceo has a fascinating mercado where you’ll learn about fruits (and sample them) unique to this region. You’ll visit the Ikat weavers in Bulcay — they are famous for using an ancient pre-Columbian tie-dye process… the quality (and prices) of their shawls, ponchos and blankets is outstanding. Finally, you’ll visit the most important orchid growing laboratory in Ecuador, Ecuagenera, and tour the facilities to learn about propagation and preservation of these gorgeous plants. Price: from $134, for the full-day tour including your private bilingual guide, all transportation and entrance fees, and food.
Take a trip into the past with the Sharing Saraguro Culture tour. Saraguro is an agricultural town whose people have preserved their distinctive traditions. Saraguro citizens maintain their traditional dress and ancestral rituals, and this tour is a truly unique opportunity to share in their special culture. You’ll visit weavers, ceramic artists, and jewelers, and organic orchards and farms. Lunch will be with a local Saraguro family where you’ll participate in Pinshi Mikuna, a sharing ritual. As with all TerraDiversa tours, a bilingual English/Spanish guide accompanies you, and the tour includes transportation, all entrance fees and lunch. Price: from $159 for a full-day private tour.
The Cajas Gourmet Experience is the ultimate way to learn about the culture, climate, and terrain of Ecuador. The Cajas National Park, just outside of Cuenca, has stunning landscapes, lakes, birds, and llamas! This tour is perfect for those who want to hike in the morning, then enjoy a gourmet lunch in your very own dining tent — the ultimate in elegant dining prepared for you by your own private chef. After lunch you’ll continue to explore the park, and the tour can be modified depending on your particular interests, or your fitness level. This full-day tour is priced from $210, and includes your bilingual guide, private transportation, and your gourmet lunch.
All TerraDiversa tours can be tailored to suit your needs, tastes, time frame, budget, and dietary requirements. As with all tours, the rates listed may be adjusted depending on the number of participants. Don’t hesitate to contact TerraDiversa to reserve your spot for the next food tour in Cuenca…I’m sure you’ll have as much fun as we did, and learn a lot too.
TerraDiversa is an experienced and certified tour operator providing private tours and group tours throughout Ecuador, Galapagos, Peru and South America. They offer a wide selection of activities including adventure tours, city tours, cruises, cultural activities and language learning.
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