Saintly festival in Ecuador
GUINEA pigs were roasting on spits, alongside the stalls selling religious sweets, giant candles and drinks of spicy corn milk, as we strolled through the festive celebrations at the village of San Bartolome in Ecuador.
I couldn't help wondering what the saint - who had given his name to the village and in whose honour the three-day festival was being held - might think of this.
After all, Carlos, who brought us here, said he was "known as the patron saint of kindness to animals". And I'd have to say the gaping jaws and bared teeth of the little roasted rodents did seem to indicate that theirs had not been a gentle passing.
But then roasted guinea pig, or cuy, has been a delicacy for the people of South America's Andean mountains for centuries.
Just because we tend to think of them as cuddly little pets was no reason for us - or St Bartolome - to turn up our noses.
With this in mind I asked Carlos if I could perhaps buy a slice of guinea pig to see what they tasted like. "I am sorry but they won't sell you just a piece," he said. "You have to buy a whole one."
Since a single guinea pig apparently provides enough meat to feed a family of four and the asking price was $27 I started to change my mind.
Then a colleague said she had tried guinea pig in Peru and found it gamey and tough, Carlos chimed in with the observation that a stall was not really the best place to eat cuy, and I abandoned the idea.
Still, encouraged by the display of interest Carlos took us to a house in the middle of San Bartolome where guinea pigs were being raised for eating in a hut in the back garden.
"Our guinea pigs are very different to yours," he said. "Ours are much bigger. I think they probably taste better too. They have been bred for eating for many generations."
If I did want to eat guinea pig, he said, this was the place to come. "If you ring the woman of this house in advance she will prepare one for you. It is part of her business. I came here a few weeks ago and she prepared one for me and it was excellent. She is very good."
Unfortunately that wasn't an option because the woman wasn't home but there were plenty of other goodies to enjoy.
This was, apparently, the third day of the Festival of San Bartolome, a time when according to Carlos things usually quietened down, but the town, nestling peacefully in the bottom of a mountain valley, was still a hive of activity.
There were police roadblocks on all the routes, apparently in an effort to curb drunkenness, but it didn't stop people from neighbouring villages pouring in by the van and truckload.
The huge town square, in front of the church, was packed with stalls selling everything from fedora hats and animal balloons to piles of fruit and chunks of pork crackling.
Outside the church several women were selling candles so I bought a huge one and took it inside. The building was packed with people and the priest was talking but Carlos pointed out that most attention was on a portrait of Jesus known as The Lord of Miracles which had been responsible for several miracles.
A family sitting on the floor behind one of the massive pillars let me light my candle from theirs. I had hoped to place it alongside the hundreds of candles before one of the church's shrines but unfortunately the crowd was too thick. In the end I gave it to the family who had provided the flame.
Outside the festivities were even livelier. A brass band was playing and a few people were sufficiently encouraged to dance. A couple of strolling troubadours came by hawking their CDs. A man with a huge cloud of heart-shaped balloons did a roaring trade.
Then, to underline San Bartolome's interest in animals, we found a fortune-telling budgie doing a roaring trade too. Hand over US$1 and it jumped on your hand to get a taste of your psyche. Then it tapped its beak on two or three cards in a large pile. A human assistant picked out the cards and gave them to the customer.
One of our group paid his money and ended with four cards which, when interpreted by Carlos, seemed to indicate that life hadn't been entirely satisfactory to this point but better things could be in the offing. Not exactly glowing ... but a better prognosis than the budgie would have given the guinea pigs.
LAN Airlines flies daily to Santiago with onward connections to Quito or Guayaquil in Ecuador.
World Journeys has an eight-day Haciendas and History of Ecuador package visiting Quito, San Bartolome, Otavalo markets, rural craft villages, Cuicocha Lake and Cotopaxi National Park, with hacienda and other five-star accommodation, and local English speaking guides. Phone 0800 11 73 11 or see worldjourneys.co.nz
To find out more about visiting Ecuador visit ecuador.travel