Typical cowboy culture in the western United States is characterized by an outlaw state: Cowboys as rulers of a time where law and order scarcely reigned and bandits were brought to justice by horseback vigilantes. But deep in Ecuador, cowboy culture is alive, formed long before the cowboys we know best, and more spiritual than our western counterparts. Based on a culture rooted in reverence for the land and worship of mountains as gods, Ecuador's (cowboys) have a culture entirely their own, one formed by the entrance of Spanish conquistadors, but later adapted uniquely to the native culture of the Ecuadorian Andes.
Chagra culture is not just an ethnic classification—it's a way of life in the countryside. The cowboys get their name from the Quechua word , which relates to the cultivation of the land. By managing the cattle (known as bravo bulls in the area), the Chagras' culture is a natural identity that focuses on the breeding and use of horses in every day life. And with this life comes a unique culinary culture, where natural resources are the name of the game.
Crops flourish in the Andean highlands: Potatoes, quinoa, corn and beef are integral to the Chagra diet. Jorge Perez—owner of Tierra del Volcán, which comprises a system of lodges in Cotopaxi National Park— grew up with Chagra culture and Andean cuisine, and he still uses his family recipes in the lodge he currently runs today. In a land where more than 3,000 species of potatoes grow, Jorge crafts his menu to reflect the culture in the area, as Hacienda el Porvenir inhabits one of the most beautiful areas in the entire Andean range. Here, typical cuisine includes beef made into a jerky known as charqui: The meat is dehydrated, salted, and smoked. Trout is caught locally, and fava beans round out every meal.
Jorge's farm rests just beneath Volcán de Cotopaxi, where a steady stream of men on horseback can be seen roaming the fields at any given hour of the day. "The Chagra culture is part of our identity," Jorge says. "It's part of our pride." And Jorge works to maintain the local culture by both preserving and maintaining the Chagra lifestyle through the promotion of rodeos, lasso competitions, cattle drives, and most importantly, the cuisine that keeps this ancestral tradition alive. "We pride ourselves on the quality of our local dishes, which use mainly local ingredients, like the huckleberries that grow wild on the slopes of the Volcán Rumiñahui," Jorge says. "It's impressive the amount of different products that we have access to in order to create an explosion of flavors for every taste."
My first taste at Hacienda el Porvenir exudes the warmth of the region. Jorge greets me with a welcome gift, known as canelazo, signifying the locals' manifestation of care, kindness, and respect. Canelazo is a hot, sweet drink made from canela (cinnamon sticks), panela (whole sugar cane), and aromatized naranjilla (a fruit related to the tomato), which grows in the cloud forest of Ecuador. The drink is often served with aguardiente liquor for an extra kick, and Chagras traditionally drink their canelazos with the added liquor as a warm respite from a day in the cold Andean highlands.
From warming stews to thick chowders, you can almost always find a hearty soup on every kitchen table in the Andes. And with due reason: The air here is misty. There's an infinite chill to the atmosphere, which creates the majestic sense of the land. Mountains cascade into one another, and rolling clouds create a tumbling mysticism, which I'm sure adds to the culture's reverence for nature. It's easy to believe in something so beautiful—I could. And the Chagras roam this landscape and its mountains for long periods of time, needing meals that are easy to cook and also serve a purpose: to warm up.Locro soup is on the menu for lunch, and just like canelazo, it epitomizes the climate of the Ecuadorian Andes. This hearty potato soup is made thick with cheese and served alongside popped kernel corn, sliced avocado, and more cheese, perfectly seasoned with chives, parsley, and coriander, with the optional dash of ají, a spicy sauce made from red chilies. "For me, locro soup has the taste of home," Jorge says. "It is this special consistency and flavor that reminds me of my grandmother's house. It's a connection with my identity and my cultural essence."
The popped corn that tops the locro soup, known as , is a popular snack by itself. The kernels are dried, tossed with oil, then toasted in a hot skillet until they're browned and crunchy. In addition to being an excellent soup topper, cancha is also served as a pre-meal snack at most dinner tables in the area. In the mountains, Chagras enlist both locro soup and canelazo as their nourishment, as both can be stored for long periods of time, making them hard to go bad and easy to transport. "Soups are a specialty in the Ecuadorian Andes. It's our comfort food," Jorge says. "They are filling, simple to cook, and very nutritious—but overall delicious. And it's incredible, the amount of different soups that you can find here."
Even though the Chagra cuisine is technically centered around foods that store the longest, it's still some of the most delicious I've ever had. It's real, with no additives, and it's symbiotic with the landscape, something that's harder and harder to find these days."Ecuadorian cuisine is a very good example of what Ecuador is: diverse, authentic, and connected with its origins," Jorge says. "One of the reasons to travel is to have new experiences, and food is no doubt a very important part of it."