Glutton Onboard: Guayaquil’s small packages

Guayaquil’s famous Las Penas neighborhood

In a bid to make myself as irritating as possible to my husband’s family, I have made it a personal mission to try at least one food item from every stop (except for Easter Island, which has nothing). Although a 3-day rest in Manta afforded a generous number of opportunities for dining on land, the 6-hour pit stop in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s biggest city, necessitated a sort of economy of ambition. I thought up what I could sample on the go as my tour group inevitably lumbered on ahead of me, and my thoughts alighted on one of Ecuador’s most famous street food snacks: empanadas. Originating in Portugal and Spain, these “hand pies” are filled with anything you like, from meat to cheese to a mix of both, a convenient mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack. Portable and presumably ubiquitous, I could simply pick up a few from a chain restaurant or neighborhood store, and that would be that, my local food ambitions quenched.

Our tour focused on wending its way through “Las Penas”, a colorful favela settled in the mid-17th century on the upper reaches of the city, overlooking the river. Making one’s way to the top, much like at Bangkok’s Golden Mount, affords a view of the entire city, as well as of the turquoise waters beyond. But first, one must pick their way up the 444 steps that make up the ascent through the neighborhood.

Sadly, empanadas were not as accessible as I had originally thought — at least when compared to McDonald’s, KFC, Doritos and Cheetos. Dismayed, I briefly considered picking up a popsicle instead, but knew that I would wimp out and end up with a flavor like blackberry instead of something that I had never tried before, like soursop. Soursop is something I’d seen (and hated) before in Brazil, but taxi (banana passionfruit) and lulo were fruits that I had never had the chance to try, even in Colombia.

So thanks to my cowardice, I held off, and around the 250th step or so, was promptly rewarded with a bewitchingly delicious scent — something like meat and onions — as well as this sign:

But when entering into the alleyway, the empanada vendor was nowhere to be seen. A woman sitting across from the doorway, next to a sign advertising “bollos”, advised me to knock on the door. I promptly did, and was met with a cacophony of barks from the dogs inside. I was surprised that this woman did not try to persuade me to try her bollos instead, because at that point, I was ready to.

Eventually someone did show up, if only to persuade the dogs to stop barking at me, and I asked if empanadas were available. She looked back inside to ask, and then said to me, “Queso only,” which was fine with me, if only because I thought I could just pick up a few of them and then hurry back up the steps to join my tour group. She asked me how many, and I showed her my handful of Ecuadorian coins: 3 Ecuadorian dollars and an American quarter in all. She nodded and said “7” and I, exhilarated with my upcoming haul, nodded back.

So when that same woman emerged from the back of the house with a bag of flour, I realized, oh, I’m going to have a wait a while. She gave us a couple of chairs and a table on which to rest our elbows, and then promptly disappeared. The same woman who had urged us to knock in the first place smiled a bit mournfully. “Everyone wants empanadas today, not bollos,” she told a passing neighbor. I made a mental note to Google “bollos” when I got back to the ship’s WiFi.

I could tell my daughter was starting to get antsy when, with her superior data provider, she googled “How to ask how much longer in Spanish?” (It’s “Quanto tiempo mas”, in case you were wondering). But it ended up not being necessary. Once we had risen to inquire, two paper bags full of empanadas individually wrapped in paper napkins emerged from the kitchen, and with a smile and a nod, my daughter and I set out to try to rejoin our party.

They were nowhere to be found, not even the very oldest members. If it hadn’t been for the neighborhood inhabitants, and for the fact that it was the only group foolhardy enough to climb all the steps to the top, Nicha and I might still be in Las Penas to this day, presumably setting up our own empanada shop closer to the bottom of the staircase. But friendly denizens directed us in the general direction, and, although my legs at times felt like they were giving out and I thought I might end my world cruise with a heart attack on the steps of Guayaquil, we did end up finding our group, at the very top of the steps, of course.

Nicha and I celebrated with an empanada each, overlooking the view of the city:

Ecuadorian cheese is special in that I really can’t pinpoint it, and I eat a lot of cheese. It’s stretchy like mozzarella, but tart like young goat cheese, and uniquely suited to filling up an empanada or livening up something stodgy like a fried green plantain ball. Of course, the rest of our empanada haul was devoured by my husband’s family.

It was only later, when I got back to the ship, that I Googled “bollo” and discovered that they were tamales made with green plantains and filled with fish or meat. They were probably the smell that had directed us to that alleyway in the first place. It’s become my new goal to return to Guayaquil, if only to revisit that old woman and her bollos.


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2 responses to “Glutton Onboard: Guayaquil’s small packages

  1. I love this post. And empanadas!

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