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True Adventures in Ecuador

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Photo: Ian Allen

By the time I arrived back in Quito, the raw egg a shaman had smashed over my head in her house in Peguche was hardening into an uneven spiky gel, and like some disoriented punk rocker, I walked the streets of the Ecuadoran capital, preparing my excuses. The high altitude, I reasoned, had impaired my judgment, not to mention I’d lost my itinerary, which was at this point, a blessing, considering my journey was about to take me directly toward an erupting volcano, down the so-called river of piranhas, and into the care of a man who went into tourism at the suggestion of a tree.

The soothing equatorial sun dipped behind the jagged Andes, and I stepped into the Plaza Foch, in Quito’s hippest neighborhood, reeking of unknown potions. A cosmopolitan after-work crowd fanned out from the corner restaurants and bars. Cigarette men in ski caps paced the sidewalk, offering me their trays. Viva assange, read a graffito along a corrugated-metal wall. Badly in need of a drink, I spotted an open table and sat down to ponder what I’d gotten myself into.

For many travelers, Ecuador is something of a mystery. Bordered by larger neighbors—Colombia to the north, Peru to the south and east—and the Pacific Ocean along its western coast, the Oregon-size country is perhaps better known for things outside its mainland borders: the Galápagos Islands, 600 miles offshore, which account for a majority of the country’s tourist visits; and, recently, Julian Assange, the Australian Wikileaks founder, who took up residence in Ecuador’s London embassy, and whom Ecuador’s firebrand president Rafael Correa granted asylum. Such publicity illustrates a basic challenge. “Sometimes we meet with travel agents and they don’t even know where Ecuador is,” says Oswaldo Muñoz, a diplomat, hotelier, and longtime tourism-industry leader.

That may be changing, however. In the past few years, a concerted effort by public and private developers has gotten under way to turn Ecuador’s mainland into an ecotourism player, taking advantage of the country’s diverse topography—soaring mountains, tropical jungles, and pristine coastline—and the richness of its indigenous cultures. A new international airport, years in the planning, is slated to open this year. And in 2008, environmentally minded business leaders managed to push through an article of the constitution that gives inalienable rights to nature—a global first—creating a major roadblock for oil companies. This was no mean feat for a country that has been exploited for decades by big oil and continues to produce crude as its top export.

“There’s a saying, ‘You’re sleeping on an oil mine,’ meaning you’re lazy and stupid,” says Roque Sevilla, a visionary conservationist, hotelier, and former mayor of Quito who fought for the article. “But I’m an economist, and I believe tourism is more valuable than exploiting oil. It’s time we start developing the mainland in a way that makes sense.”

Despite the enticing sight of a hipster in a fedora hurrying a string bass across the street, I didn’t stay in Plaza Foch long. Itching from the nettles the shaman had smacked me with, I hailed a cab and was soon plunging and ascending the narrow, roller-coaster streets of old colonial Quito. As I passed the presidential palace, I thought about “El Loco,” the former Ecuadoran president who was removed from office in 1997 for “mental incapacity,” an event followed by a bizarre saga in which he holed up in the building as he and two other members of the government each claimed to be the country’s leader. Reading about this incident in my Brooklyn apartment, I had resolved to get inside the palace myself and had spent an inordinate amount of time drafting requests to meet with President Correa. I had even booked a room blocks away at Casa Gangotena, the stateliest hotel in town, owned by the former mayor, Sevilla. A palatial space with Egyptian-marble floors, soaring ceilings, and a postcard view of the city from its balcony overlooking historic Plaza San Francisco, this was where I emerged from my cab, praying the odor accompanying me would go unnoticed by Sevilla’s staff.

Sevilla was another man whose job description had induced me to request a meeting. A tall, Harvard-educated mensch with a thin mustache and a balding, oblong, Quito-shaped head, he had made a small fortune in insurance and mobile phones, and after his stint as Quito’s mayor, bought the country’s largest tour company, Metropolitan Touring, in 2001.

After opening the solar-paneled Casa Gangotena—one of the most beautiful colonial buildings in the country—to international acclaim, he is nearly finished with the country’s highest-profile new property, the eco-friendly Mashpi Lodge, deep in the Chocó jungle. Now his modest goals are to connect all of Ecuador with a network of trails, help get the country to a zero-carbon footprint by 2025, and introduce an E.T.-like bicycle into the jungle, where visitors to Mashpi will be able to fly overhead in order to, as he put it, “see the jungle the same way as would a toucanet.”

“People ask me, ‘Is there a strategy?’” Sevilla said, as if anticipating my question, while I took a seat at a long table in his spare, downtown office the following week. “But there is a strategy. It’s not just an idea.” He grabbed a marker and bounded over to a framed slab of glass that hung like a painting on the wall. On it were rudimentary sketches of buildings, and he enthusiastically added a coastline and a mountain range, with arrows pointing in the direction of the wind. “Why did I decide to invest only in Ecuador?” he asked me, but I only nodded, still in a food coma from the 32-course breakfast buffet I’d just finished in Gangotena’s baroque dining room. “Because I’m interested in protecting a specific kind of environment,” he said.

I did have some notion of what he was talking about. I’d driven to Mashpi a few days earlier, up into the Andes, through one-road towns where whole feathered chickens hung from the backs of motorcycles, cows stopped traffic, and church days were determined by the availability of itinerant pastors. Eventually we turned down a gravel road I was sure was narrower than my vehicle, and descended deeper and deeper into the dense, tropical Chocó.

Ecuador proudly proclaims itself “number four in the world for birds,” and of the 1,600-plus species found in the country, 900 reside in the Chocó; nowhere on the planet is denser with species of orchid. One of Sevilla’s business partners cried upon seeing the forest. The area was months away from being razed for timber in 2001 when Sevilla bought it. He spent the next 11 years fending off squatters (some of whom now work for Sevilla as guides and forest wardens) and persuading the government to agree to a unique development deal. Of the $8.5 million he spent on Mashpi, the government financed nearly a quarter, which will be sold back to the public as shares.

Not surprisingly, Mashpi isn’t your typical eco-lodge. Built with steel beams and glass, it looks like a modern loft building in SoHo, complete with spa and hot tub. When I arrived, the soaring glass-enclosed dining room—where my dinner that evening was interrupted by the thud of two herons banging into the 40-foot-high window—was buzzing with the bird and insect set. (A bee man was also on hand.) Designed as a research base as well as a tourist destination, Mashpi employs a staff biologist and hosts scientific projects such as one in a giant round butterfly tent in the jungle, where a few hours later, hawk-size moths swooped at me like bats. I spent the afternoon in tall rubber boots, traipsing through the wilderness, counting trogons and toucanets, and stomped back in the dark wearing a headlamp, its light illuminating a million spider eyes glowing blue. In the morning I examined the gondola, still under construction, that come May will carry guests a mile and a quarter over the forest to other trails. Meanwhile, hanging from another cable, the self-powered sky-bike prototype beckoned. I stepped up, strapped in, and began pedaling into the air, thrilled until I noticed the ground dropping off precipitously below and I had to cry for a guide’s assistance to backpedal to safety.

Crushed by the realization that I would never truly experience the world as a toucanet, I fell into a minor depression, sensing forces I couldn’t control. Then my driver spoke up. “I know a shaman,” he said. “An Otavalo woman.”

Clemencia lived in Peguche, a small mountain village outside the northern town of Otavalo, and, after making an appointment, we hit the road. The Otavalo Indians, with the highest literacy rate in the country, are often cited as exemplars of progress, having managed to preserve their traditions and still enjoy a good standard of living. Otavalo’s food and crafts markets are the most famous in Ecuador, and I killed time trolling the rows of vegetable and spice stalls, where women in gray hats sat behind tubs of fresh garlic and small men hurried past with stalks of the hallucinogenic plant ayahuasca on their shoulders like baseball bats. There were no gringos in sight, and, smiling, I pointed my iPhone at a woman selling meat. But she cursed and threw a handful of shelled nuts in my face.

We got back in the car and drove to Clemencia’s small cement home. A rotund woman wearing jeans and a feather hat, she had three packs of Lark cigarettes open on her table. The dirt-floored room was damp and lit only by candle. “Don’t take this too seriously,” she said in Quechua and Spanish, as my driver interpreted. “And this hat? I just wear this for show.”

Before I could stop her, I was shirtless and rubbing a long candle all over my body, which she then placed on her mantel and lit. A black sediment appeared on it and the flame, compared with the other candles around it, was minuscule. Clemencia looked stunned, and stared at it with her arms on her chest. “You,” she said at last, “are almost one hundred percent stressed.”

She turned up her boom box—playing an Otavalan hip-hop band with a singer who screamed throughout—and for the next hour, she spit in my face, blew fire on my chest, and spanked me with prickly branches, invoking the spirit of the mountains. “Dance with me,” she said, leading me around a straw mat. Then she hugged me and said I was moving through life with the parking brake on. I looked at my candle. The flame was soaring. So long as I didn’t bathe until morning or consume pork, fish, or caffeine for three days, I was to be healed.

“We may have to change our plans,” my driver said as we sat in traffic leaving Quito the following morning.

“I was thinking the same thing,” I said, fresh from a shower and tired of the road construction and our snail’s pace.

“I mean tomorrow,” he said. “Tungurahua is still erupting. We may have to take another route.”

An hour later, we pulled into Hacienda San Agustín de Callo, built on a 600-year-old Incan ruin, in the high plains below the snowcapped Cotopaxi volcano. I was overcome with exhaustion and fell asleep in my claw-foot bathtub next to one of three fireplaces in my suite. My living-room library held 12 volumes of large leather books, featuring press clippings about Galo Plaza, the uncle of San Agustín’s proprietor, Mignon Plaza.

A dashing, erudite woman with reddish-brown bangs and dark nail polish, Plaza tells me about her family. They are the Kennedys of Ecuador. Her uncle and grandfather were both presidents. Other family members were prominent artists, writers, and matadors. Over the years, Ecuador’s volatile politics and economy chipped away at the family fortune, and she opened her family estate to guests 15 years ago. “I never dreamed of being a hotel person,” she said as we drank Argentinean Merlot by candlelight in an ancient Incan ceremonial room. “But I was obsessed with restoration. That’s how I got money to fix the house.”

My driver had called Clemencia to clarify my fish restriction—it forbade only swimming fish, not shellfish—and, relieved, I dug into my plate of shrimp in olive oil, quinoa croquettes, and locro, a traditional potato-and-grated-cheese soup served with fresh avocado. Plaza suggested I stay for a month, but since I had only one more day, I went horseback riding with Martín, the hacienda’s head rancher and one of Ecuador’s finest bullfighters. We galloped through rolling farmland, stopping at a pasture owned by Plaza’s brother, where about 40 small bulls were grazing. “They’re being raised to be in the ring,” Martín said. “They can’t have any human contact until they are four years old.” There was one big bull nearby. “What about that one?” I said. Martín nodded in deference. “He was pardoned,” he said, a rare case in which the crowd votes to let a bull go. “He was too brave.”

The following day, from a warm pool at the hot springs in Baños, an adventure-tourism hub at the foot of the erupting Tungurahua volcano, I stared up. “You can’t see it,” said the American backpackers who were staying down the street at Hostal Erupción. One of them had been there a week and was sure. “The clouds haven’t moved,” she said. Around nine, I drove outside town to a spot next to a totem pole where a giant wooden macaw kept a lonely watch. Above me, the clouds pushed eastward, and in the clearing, Tungurahua’s peak appeared in the moonlight, followed by blast after blast of bright orange lava shooting into the sky.

Founded by the oil company in the 1930’s, the town of Shell is the kind of dump one might expect. Replete with dirt soccer fields, decaying cement homes, and starving street dogs, it appears uninhabitable except for a small airstrip, where the next morning I caught my six-seater into the Amazon basin.

Oil and the environment have clashed in this region for decades, and as I was assisted into a long canoe upon landing, I wondered what was in the brown murky water. “This is the Kapawari,” my boatman said, “the river of piranhas.” I remained quiet the rest of the way, the Jaws theme song playing in my head as a sweltering sun beat down.

When we landed at a wooden dock, I was greeted by Ángel Etsaa, an Achuar Indian wearing face paint, who escorted me down a walkway to a village of bamboo huts and hammocks on stilts in the river. “Welcome to Kapawi,” he said, speaking at a clip that suggested he’d never owned a calendar.

The Kapawi Ecolodge and Reserve is an experiment in sustainable ecotourism. Five years ago the original developers gave it back, as agreed, to the Achuar, who operate it and make up 80 percent of the staff. Meager profits flow back into the surrounding Achuar communities, which have been able to build schools; they allow lodge guests to visit. But with oil exploration continuing in the area—drilling, technically banned, has always found a way—and only 15,000 Achuar left on the planet, I couldn’t help pondering whether the place would be some kind of Atlantis in the near future, and I headed straight to the tiki bar and ordered a beer and browsed the bookshelf, torn between The Birds of Ecuador and Coups and Cocaine.

Etsaa took me to the boat again, and we headed downstream toward the larger Pastaza River, which eventually flows into the Amazon on its way toward the Atlantic Ocean. Howler monkeys moseyed across branches above us. A trio of pink river dolphins frolicked nearby.

Etsaa hardly seemed a hotel man, and I asked how it was that he’d gone into the business. He pointed to a tree. “This tree?” I said. Its branches towered above the jungle; its trunk was so thick, a truck could drive through it.

“The spirit of the jungle is called Arutam,” he said, “and it is especially found in the kapok tree.” At the age of 18, he went to a kapok near his village, two hours away, and did a tea ceremony, in which he fell asleep, hoping to receive a message. And he did. “Arutam told me, ‘Someday you will be a leader, work for your people, and receive guests,’” Etsaa said. He interpreted this to mean he was destined for tourism, and got special permission from his community to leave for school in Quito. Four years later, he returned, and he is now the administrator of Kapawi.

We took out our balsa-wood rods, about a foot long, and some thin nylon string. Onto the hooks went raw cow meat. We cast out and waited for the piranha. I had a bite, but no catch. Etsaa too. We moved to another location, where a shirtless man and his son waited with their lines in the water. “Anything?” Etsaa called out to him in Achuar. Nope. Finally we went back empty-handed, and as I lay in bed that night, I wondered what the tree would say to me if I asked.

“The vice president has to cancel your interview tomorrow,” my driver said as I picked up the phone in my room at Gangotena on my final night in Ecuador. I had forgotten that my maniacal attempts to meet with President Correa had finally resulted in an appointment with his number two.

“I’m going anyway,” I responded, but as I approached the palace in the morning, the streets were jammed because of the weekly changing of the guard ceremony. I ran toward a side entrance, but a swarm of army guards pushed me back. Spotting a woman with a badge around her neck, I yelled to her that I had a meeting with the vice president, and she ushered me into the building. I was taken upstairs and through the situation room to the balcony, where I was placed between members of the cabinet and guards with six-foot rifles. Below me in the square, the national marching band played “Hail to the Chief,” and I stepped toward the ledge and waved to the crowd, victorious.

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