Over the Volcanoes and Through the Ruins
25 years after his no-frills honeymoon in Ecuador, Scott Spencer returns to cruise the Pan-American Highway in style. Mind the potholes
In the spring of 1972 I went to Ecuador on a journey—barely planned and even more barely financed—with my college bride and a close mutual friend. We left our entry-level New York jobs and rode with the Indians and their animals in cramped, multicolored buses, driven by prayerful teamsters who stopped every 20 miles or so to prostrate themselves before the various saints and Madonnas commemorating spots where fatalities had occurred.
Last June, in the company of a wonderful traveling companion, I revisited some of the places I had seen on that first trip. I was curious to discover whether I'd changed more than they had. Back then, I had taken most of my meals in charcoal-scented, mysteriously silent open-air markets and slept in two-dollar hotels with unreliable electrical power and warm drinks. Now I would be eating in the very best restaurants and staying at posh country inns. Most important, I would be getting nowhere near those little death-trap buses. We would hire a car and do our own driving.
It wasn't as if we hadn't been alerted. That one shouldn't rent a car in Ecuador was common knowledge, almost as common as the warning not to drink the water. The roads are terrible, and the penalties for mishaps involving a pedestrian or another car are said to be draconian, or at least they used to be: prison first, questions later. But the ground we planned to cover—from south to north through Ecuador's spectacular sky-high alley of Indian towns and simmering volcanoes—could be fully appreciated only by land.
If renting a car could be called our first mistake, then choosing our little Korean Hyundai was our second. We picked it up in Guayaquil, a gloomy, vaguely threatening Pacific port where dust and high humidity manage to coexist; an exotic nowhere that could make even a young eco-tourist with a backpack full of trail mix feel like a character in a William Burroughs novel.
As soon as we found our way into the countryside, the landscape became astonishing: orchids in the trees, bamboos waving in the warm breeze, wildflowers pulsating purple and red, moving us the way Bach organ music does in a Gothic church. We were heading toward Cuenca, which is about a hundred miles southeast of and nearly two miles higher than Guayaquil. Cruising comfortably along on the blacktop road, I was thinking, This isn't so bad. We passed miles of banana plantations, marked off by fences bearing familiar supermarket names such as Dole and Chiquita. We later realized that these companies were probably a major factor in the maintaining of the nearby roads: Ecuador is still in many ways a classic 19th-century banana republic.
Though Ecuador's location on the equator gives it what is essentially a perennial spring, we were there in June and it was election time. The Ecuadorans seem as intent on their electoral politics as do the people from my old neighborhood in Chicago, where voting day has an intensity somewhere between that of the World Series and an appendectomy. While we were there, 17 parties were vying to head the government. Competing with the riotous colors of the vegetation was a constant barrage of brightly painted campaign posters advertising the various presidential candidates.
In the lead was the rather aristocratic Jaime Nebot, whose membership in the country's ludicrously rich ruling elite was no secret to anyone. Nebot's closest rival was a former mayor of Guayaquil, Abdala Bucaram. According to an official at the consulate, Bucaram fled the country a while back when facing embezzlement charges, then returned to Ecuador claiming that he had been the victim of false arrest while in Panama and had been held prisoner by CIA agents, all female. He had made love to all of them with such vigor and expertise that they wound up unconscious. He had then made off with a fighter jet; while flying it back to Ecuador he was shot out of the sky. As he tells it, he ejected himself from the burning craft, flapped his arms, and flew all the way back to Ecuador. (The election was close enough to necessitate a runoff, in which Bucaram was elected president; less than a year later, the congress deemed him mentally unfit for the job and replaced him.)
Beguiled by the relative comfort of the road those first few hours, we proceeded down the Pan-American Highway at a leisurely pace, open to any opportunity to get off the beaten path—blissfully unaware that all of Ecuador is off the beaten path. Thirsty, we stopped at a roadside stand where heaps of pineapples and bananas were on display. There, while his wife cored and sliced our pineapples, a small, powerfully built man with the broad features and barrel chest common among the indigenous Ecuadoran people, looked on as his two palm-size children studied their primers.
Though the weather in the Ecuadoran Andes is generally temperate, it's evident why the people of these mountains once worshiped the sun: when it disappears behind the clouds, the temperature can plummet 20 degrees in an hour, sinking one's spirits with it. The Ecuadorans protect themselves from these moments of utter bleakness by surrounding themselves with as much color as possible. Wildflowers cover the meadows like picnic blankets; cultivated flowers in pots crowd around the humblest wood-and-tin huts. The colors of Ecuadorans' ponchos, serapes, skirts, and scarves suggest a profligate love affair with vibrancy and hue. Looking at them is an aerobic workout for Anglo eyes: emerald green, flaming purple, neon blue, all in busy geometric patterns, all thrown together with the abandon of a painter seized by genius.
Despite its great beauty and rich culture, ecuador contains tragic poverty. When I first visited, I was experiencing my own (Yanqui-style) privations: my college bride and I had $2,000 left over from our wedding gelt, which we had vowed to make last a year. We never stayed in a first- or even a second-class hotel, and we never took a plane or an air-conditioned bus, nor did we ever buy so much as a piece of fabric at an Indian market without exhaustive price comparisons followed by bouts of feverish bargaining. We never ate a meal at a restaurant where they accepted or had even necessarily seen a credit card. To reinforce our frugality, we kept a little spiral notebook in which we recorded nearly every penny we spent, on bus fares, Inca Kola, postage, skewers of meat, and No Bite (a prophylactic against bedbugs, pronounced "no-bye-tee"). Ultimately, we were unable to keep our vow to travel for a year, and we headed north after 250 days, not because we had run out of money but because my wife, a small, slender woman in the lushest of surroundings, was suddenly down to 81 pounds. A few years later, when our wedding vows fell as short as our travel vows, that notebook filled with our daily expenses accounted for in nickels and dimes became our only hotly contested piece of community property.
Now, middle-aged and relatively affluent, I navigated our hired car toward Cuenca. As we ascended into the Andes, the canopy of trees was replaced by hardy purple lupine, moss, lichen, and orange duster flowers. Unlike most major mountain ranges, the Ecuadoran Andes are not a continuous series of crests. They are separated by valleys as extensive as the mountains themselves, so you alternate between being high enough to look down at the clouds and being surrounded by peaks. The effect is of a world from which there is no respite, no escape.
The violent topography also provides insight into Ecuador's persistent poverty: the core of its indigenous population lives in an environment where agriculture is almost impossible, a land of sharp angles, thin air, racing clouds, and stony soil. Driving through the Andes, you cannot help noticing that most farming is done on steep mountainsides, while the fertile flat land between the mountains, where it seems the heaviest concentration of crops should be planted, has only a few cows grazing here and there. This is a direct result of a very large loophole in the country's so-called land reform program.
Responding to the urgings of President Kennedy and hoping to stem the tide of Communist revolution that many thought would sweep over post-Castro Latin America, Ecuador's ruling families agreed to part with a portion of their vast landholdings. They kept most of the land where the terrain was not exceptionally steep, however, with the agreement that they could hold on to it as long as they put it to agricultural use. Letting a small amount of cattle graze hundreds of acres of prime farmland is considered putting it to agricultural use, and so the Indians continue to plant their crops at 70-degree angles while a few elderly cows wander over some of the country's most arable terrain.
When we reached cuenca, we were dusty and thoroughly rattled by the Pan American Highway's cavernous potholes. Finding our hotel, the Oro Verde, added a full hour to our trip; but we made the best of it, admiring Cuenca's colonial architecture, the whitewashed buildings, the red tile roofs, the serpentine cobblestone streets. When we finally staggered into the hotel's modern, leafy lobby, we learned there was no record of our reservation. Before we could begin howling, though, a large-boned, glamorous woman quickly assured us, "But you are home here." She gave us each a small glass of amber liquid, which we tossed back without bothering to inquire what it was. It turned out to be apple brandy, and we gratefully accepted refills as we made our way toward hot showers, cable TV, and a patio with a view of a small artificial lake dotted with what may have been artificial ducks.
The next day, the hotel arranged a guide for us, a pleasantly erudite man named Eduardo Quito. We wanted to meet some artisans, so Eduardo took us to an iron forger's workshop, where we watched a Cuenca craftsman hammer scraps into locks and keys of lacelike intricacy. Then we went to the village of San Bartolomé, where the specialty is handmade guitars. We sat in a cool cottage where local woods were being bent into shape and mother-of-pearl was carefully inlaid along the frets. Then we were off to the village of Gualaceo to visit makers of panama hats. Somewhat illogically, Ecuador is the world's main producer of the panama hat, and Gualaceo revolves around this cottage industry. At the church in the central plaza, Jesus himself is portrayed in a stained-glass window wearing a panama hat.
When I mentioned to Eduardo that I owned a few old carved wooden santos, he veered off onto a pebble-strewn path, and we soon found ourselves climbing through fields of flowers and corn to a tidy house on stilts, surrounded by belladonna, where an elderly man spent his days carving passionate approximations of the Crucifixion. He greeted Eduardo heartily, welcomed us with considerable graciousness, and, after showing us around his house (five scarcely furnished rooms, redolent of wood and flowers and paint), invited us to see his work in progress. He was mixing paints in a little pink cup from a child's tea set, trying to come up with the properly expressive shade of red to show the blood seeping from Christ's wounds. He handled each tube of paint with the fanatical care that comes from scarcity and from the knowledge that one's profit margin is as thin as onion skin.
The morning we left cuenca it was cool and foggy. We were heading north, through Riobamba and on to the mountain settlement of Otavalo. But heading due north in Ecuador is no easier than finding your way out of that maze in The Shining.
The "main road" seemed to disappear and reappear like the Cheshire cat's grin. As we ascended into layers of damp clouds, Indian women carrying loads of firewood or tending flocks of sheep crossed suddenly in front of us. At times, the haze was so thick we could only hope that there was actual road ahead and that we were not driving off the edge of the highway. Luckily, there was little motor traffic—primarily hulking Coca-Cola delivery trucks en route to unmapped villages, villages where electricity to refrigerate the bottles had arrived only within the past few years.
Throughout Ecuador, old haciendas have been turned into guesthouses, and we were booked into them at 150-mile intervals between Cuenca and Otavalo. On our way to Hostería La Andaluza, near Riobamba, we detoured to Ingapirca, Ecuador's most important archaeological site. The remains of a settlement built by the Incas, it is still largely intact. We bought an admittance ticket from one of the site's two employees, and then a bent and toothless old man energetically waved us into a parking space, though ours was the only car in the lot.
It was a great privilege to wander through in privacy. The silence was so profound, we felt as if we must have been breaking some kind of law by being there. We ambled down each pathway, examining the crumbling 500-year-old walls of temples and storehouses, all erected with that Incan genius for mortarless stonework. In our solitude, it was easy to indulge fantasies of having discovered a lost city.
From Ingapirca we drove to the village of Guamote. It was market day there; but since the action begins in early morning, and we didn't pull in until 4 p.m., we worried that we might have missed it. Trucks were leaving the town's center, filled with brightly bedecked Indians carrying pigs and sheep and huge quantities of food that they either had just bought or had failed to sell.
We may not have been there for the market's peak hours, but there was still plenty of life in the streets. Near the abandoned train tracks at the village's southern end, we found ourselves in a crammed and festive labyrinth of booths, carts, and blankets, where hundreds of Ecuadoran farmers sold fruits and vegetables, pins and needles, pots and pans, mouthwash, lambs, piglets, potions, and hot meals of beef, carrots, and potatoes. In the Andes, the market is as integral to the Indian way of life as the New York Stock Exchange is to the life of corporate capitalism. And for people who spend most of their time working isolated patches of land, going to market is also a social occasion. It's a chance not only to buy and sell goods, but also to visit one another, to exchange stories. In places like this, it strikes me what a gross oversimplification it is to think of Ecuador as merely poor. Our own post-industrial longing for community makes these markets seem enviable.
As far as we could see, we were the only non-Indians in attendance; but our appearance seemed to excite neither animosity nor extreme curiosity. We bought a few items—oranges, a couple of embroidered belts—and tore ourselves away so that we wouldn't be on the Pan-American Highway past nightfall.
And then: our first glitch. After hours of successfully negotiating potholes, I ran over a depression in the road that was as deep as the kiddie end of a swimming pool. The car shook as if we had been hit by artillery, and a moment later the shredded rubber of our blown tire was lapping like 10 rubber tongues against the road. There was no village nearby; we hadn't seen a public telephone since we left New York. My most fervent wish was for there to be a spare tire and a jack in the trunk—and there was. (Had there not been, I would probably still be in Ecuador.)
I'm not the type to exaggerate the difficulties of changing a tire, but changing a tire at some 12,000 feet above sea level could one day be an Olympic event. The physiognomy of the indigenous Andean people has evolved so that they can walk long distances at a sharp incline in the thin mountain air. They are compact, with powerful muscles and jumbo lungs, whereas I am the product of hundreds of years of irony. By the time the car was raised off the ground, my shirt was soaked with sweat and my breath was coming in little sonic bursts: I felt like a machine made by an unsuccessful inventor. The concerns with which I had come to Ecuador—that not traveling on the cheap would separate me from the reality of the country's daily life—gave way to a far larger issue: that I would be found dead at the side of the road.
I'm not an expert on cars, and for all I know the Hyundai may be a terrific machine, but I doubt that its engineers had the Ecuadoran Andes in mind when they designed the perky little sedan. Perhaps taking its cue from my own battle in changing a tire, our car began exhibiting alarming signs of failing health, and soon driving it was an exercise in undermined confidence.
Eventually, we bumped our way into a small mountain village. There was no garage, no mechanic; and even if we could have found a phone, whom would we call?Our presence was apparently a source of speculation. Knots of teenage boys in dark ponchos, smoking and drinking Cokes, looked at us with suspicion. A woman hurried a sheep out of our way, her body language suggesting fear, as if we might attempt to steal her flock.
A few miles after that, our Hyundai's engine became as quiet as the stones of Ingapirca. On our right was a rock-laden, nightmarishly unstable mountainside, on our left, a drop of several million miles. I thought for a moment that the car was making a kind of throbbing noise, until I realized that was the sound of my heart beating between my ears.
"Scott?" my companion said. I shook my head and turned off the ignition. The world beneath a car's hood is the dark side of the moon as far as I'm concerned: all I could hope for was that if I let the engine "rest" for a few moments, the difficulty would somehow take care of itself. "Scott?" she said again, this time investing my name with more anxiety than I thought a word with only one vowel could hold. I raised my hand in what I imagined was a masterful gesture. We sat in silence for a minute, and then I turned the ignition key. To our immense relief, the engine started and we continued on our way for another mile. Then the car went dead again.
We proceeded like that for another hour—stalling, letting the car "rest," and starting up again. Then suddenly whatever armor of affluence we wore was stripped away, and the countryside and its inhabitants had never seemed so beautiful or mysterious. We rolled through another little village, breathlessly high in the southern sky, where goats and sheep poked aimlessly through the town. Our fear began to subside as we realized that the slowness and even the uncertainty of our progress was heightening our senses like a drug. It seemed as if we had been given a backstage pass to the pageant of life. A burst of cerulean uniforms as a grammar school opened its doors. A copper-skinned woman sitting on a stone stoop, in her lap a lamb whose frown exactly mirrored her own. Fields of wildflowers bright as fresh paint in the sunlight. Snowcapped volcanoes pushing their shattered peaks through the clouds.
Naturally, we did not perish on that Andean slope—the car somehow resumed behaving and managed to make the rest of the trip—but those hours of wandering in a seemingly dying vehicle reminded me that, for all its diminutive size, its lack of clout in international affairs, and its relative obscurity in the world of tourism, Ecuador has the power to shake you loose of your credit cards and hacienda reservations. Unlike so many places, Ecuador is a country you can't buy your way out of. There is no golden ghetto of Hiltons and Harry's Bars and Benettons. You must take Ecuador on Ecuador's terms.
There aren't four distinct seasons in the Ecuadoran Andes, so the weather is quite comfortable year-round. The downside: temperatures fluctuate throughout the day, and the skies are never uniformly sunny. I found the ideal garment for adapting to the weather changes was a hooded Gore-Tex jacket. Ecuador is rather informal, so it segued from hikes to restaurants to churches.
The hacienda-style hotels where we stayed were charming and romantic, but Ecuador is not renowned for exciting cuisine. The non-gourmet carnivore will be content in the nicer restaurants, where there is an emphasis on grilled meat—though few will return home wondering why there aren't more Ecuadoran bistros in U.S. cities.
Grand Hotel Guayaquil Calle Boyacá at Calle 10 de Agosto, Guayaquil; 593-4/329-690, fax 593-4/327-251; 160 rooms, doubles $125. An adequate, if spartan, high-end hotel. Roulette, slots, and blackjack are available in Guayaquil, as in all of Ecuador's major urban areas, so some might find it more entertaining to stay at a hotel with a casino, such as the Unihotel (407 Ballén; 593-4/327-100, fax 593-4/328-352).
Hotel Oro Verde Avda. Ordóñez Lazo, Cuenca; 593-7/831-200, fax 593-7/832-849; 80 rooms, doubles $125. It's not going to win any architecture awards, but Oro Verde is friendly, immaculate, very well managed, and comfortable. The food is good, too—especially the pizza, of all things.
Hotel Crespo 7-93 Calle Larga, Cuenca; 593-7/842-571, fax 593-7/839-473; 41 rooms, doubles from $48. Utterly colonial and utterly romantic, with a lovely view of the Río Tomebamba, which runs through the old city. Bring a Spanish phrase book, as the staff didn't seem entirely accustomed to English-speaking guests. The restaurant is pretty, but the food is dreary.
Villa Rosa 12-22 Gran Colombia, Cuenca; 593-7/ 837-944; dinner for two $24. A converted colonial house, with tables in the spacious courtyard. The food is excellent—peasant-style soups, simple grilled meats, nicely chilled Chilean wines—and the service is, if anything, too attentive.
Hostería La Ciénega Near Lasso, midway between Cuenca and Otavalo; 593-3/719-052 or 593-3/719-093, fax 593-3/ 719-182; 34 rooms, doubles $40. One of the best hacienda hotels, with beautiful gardens, sweeping views, and even its own small chapel. Guest rooms are pleasant and airy, and the food is simple, but fresh and wonderful.
Hacienda Cusin San Pablo del Lago, Imbabura, Ecuador; 593-6/918-013, fax 593-6/918-003; doubles $80 per person, or $160 per person when all meals and activities are included. See the description.
Hostería La Andaluza Pan-American Hwy., just north of Riobamba; phone and fax 593-3/904-223; 28 rooms, doubles $38. Housed in an imposing, faintly gloomy 16th-century hacienda; but the friendly staff and the pool table helped compensate, as did the view of the volcano El Chimborazo out our room's French doors. The hacienda's former stables make an atmospheric dining room.
Travel Survival Kit: Ecuador & the Galápagos Islands (Lonely Planet)—A comprehensive guide for the independent, budget-minded traveler.
Climbing and Hiking in Ecuador by Rob Rachowiecki and Mark Thurber (Bradt Publications)—Detailed descriptions and trail maps for high-altitude ascents and easy walks along Inca trails.
The Conquest of the Incas by John Hemming (Harvest)—While it is centered on Peru, this history of the clash between Spanish conquistadors and the native Incas has several sections on Ecuador.—Martin Rapp
On the Web
Lonely Planet Destination Ecuador (www.lonelyplanet.com.au/dest/sam/ecu.htm)—Solid basic information with maps and a slide show. In addition, the Travellers' Reports section provides updates and tips from people who've been in the country recently.
FunkyFish Ecuador Guide (http://www.qni. com/~mj)—An environmentally conscious on-line guide that has terrific travel logs and links to helpful maps and "factbooks."—Nicole Whitsett
Don't Miss: A visit to Cotapaxi National Park, to see the terrifying but benign Cotapaxi volcano.
Don't Miss: Hacienda Cusin
You drive down a cobblestone street and cross a dubious plank bridge to reach the 17th-century Hacienda Cusin, just outside the town of Otavalo. On one side of the road lies what must be the world's most productive rose farm; on the other, the ponderous gate to the Hacienda's courtyard.
The 39 rooms are beautifully furnished in antiques and South American textiles, and the food is delicious. Since the inn raises its own produce using drinking water for irrigation, you can dig into those magnificent Ecuadoran vegetables you were afraid to eat before. During dinner, a staff member builds a fire in your room to provide a bit of fragrant heat in the cool night.
The gardens are astounding, brimming with orchids, poppies, amaryllis, and more. To our utter joy, there is a squash court, as well as a corral where the inn's horses wait for any guests who would like to explore the countryside. Another welcome detail: a few resident dogs who will consent to short-term adoptions during your stay. The dog of our choice slept in our room and followed us on long walks and horseback rides.
Hacienda Cusin San Pablo del Lago, Imbabura, Ecuador; 593/691-8013, fax 593/691-8003; doubles $80 per person, or $160 per person when all meals and activities are included.
Driving Ecuador, Worry-Free
To replicate this trip, minus the anxiety of potholes, vague signage, and unreliable vehicles, ask a tour operator to set you up with a driver and guide. All the companies mentioned below can arrange for drivers and guides alone; however, you'll save a significant amount of money with a package. You'll get the best deal by going with the hotels the operator selects; you can also substitute your preferences and pay the difference. The rates listed are based on double occupancy; none include international airfare.
Adventure Associates 972/907-0414, fax 972/783-1286. Sample package: four-day drive that takes you from Quito to Cuenca; $726 per person, including guide, meals, and hotels.
Holbrook Travel 800/858-0999, fax 352/371-3710. Sample package: nine-day drive from Quito to Cuenca; $1,228 per person, including hotels, most meals, guide, driver, and flight from Cuenca back to Quito.
South American Fiesta 800/334-3782, fax 770/516-5753. Design your own three- to seven-day land tour; $140 a day per person, including driver and hotels.
Wildland Adventures 800/345-4453, fax 206/363-6615. Sample package: eight-day drive from Quito to Banos, with lots of hiking—past banana plantations and up volcanoes—along the way; $1,404 per person, including lodging at colonial-style haciendas, most meals, and guide.