Food in Ecuador is amazingly homogenous, but very cheap and healthy. The main dish consists of rice and a choice of chicken, beef or shrimp. They also eat a lot of papas fritas or french fries. All meals are accompanied by a salsa like sauce caused aji, who's main ingredient is a particular species of tomato that grows high up in the mountains called tomate de arboles. Mixing these small tomatoes with onions, cilantro and several spices create a very tasty condiment that varies with each restaurant and family recipe.
Meat is normally served in very small portions as it is quite expensive. On the coast, fish and shellfish are quite cheap, popular and prepared in a large number of variations. During our stay, there was a red tide caused by an El nino off the western coast, so shellfish was not being served, but this occurrence is very rare.
There is also a growing number of restaurants run by foreigners which can be very good, but mainly visited by tourists. They make a nice break in the rice and chicken monotony, and conversations with expatriates are always enlightening.
Crafts and Souvenirs in Ecuador
Ecuador is a land of little export, but the local people produce many handicrafts and jewelry which are quite inexpensive and beautiful. The primary products are crafts made from balsa wood, wool, straw and silver.
Wool tapestry from Ecuador
Most stores in Ecuador specialize in one type of product. The wool stores only carry sweaters, tapestries and blankets. Very thick, wool sweaters go for about 8 USD each, where the same imported sweaters cost about 60 USD in the U.S. The wood stores are dazzling. Inside these stores are hundreds of birds and other carved animals of varying sizes painted with vibrant colors. Other stores are filled to the ceiling with an amazing variety of woven straw baskets.
The best value in Ecuador is quite possible the silver jewelry. This can be bought from an actual jewelry store (Joyer�a), where it is very expensive, but a bit safer with regards to quality. The other place to purchase jewelry would be at a city market, which are normally held on the weekends in the town square. Be very careful buying any jewelry at the markets to notice the sheen of the silver (it shouldn't be cloudy, but also not too shiny), and especially the number marking which signifies the percentage of silver. A good percentage is 950 out of 1000. At the market, they'll often design the jewelry to your specification, so there is more flexibility. In the famous and large market of Otavalo, I paid about 25 USD for a 95% necklace with turquoise stones mixed in and a silver charm.
Small paintings are usually sold by Indians walking through the streets, and they can actually be bothersome after a couple of days. They will frequently approach tourists at restaurants or other places where people stand still. It doesn't take long to see older women selling small necklaces, bracelets and Chiclets gum with the same approach. Travelling in a third-world country requires one to say no - politely and frequently.
Wandering the streets is a great way to get exercise and learn a lot about your surroundings. Studying guide books and maps for hours is a good place to start, but often the information is outdated and a little too mainstream. It's often more exciting to orient yourself with the town and search out the local places. This requires traveling off of the main strip. After all, that's one of the reasons to choose Ecuador - it's off the beaten track.
Another way to get good information is by talking with fellow travelers or locals. Often, getting information from locals shopkeepers works best after purchasing something. For example, stop at a local dive bar and have a beer or two. Make some small talk with the bartender or shopkeeper (usually the owner also) and ask them where to buy a good sweater or have a good meal. This isn't always foolproof. Often times they will direct you to their cousin's place of business, but everything good involves a risk.