Ecuador Adventure

The following is an edited version of Richard McGuire's blog of his trip to Ecuador in February 2006. It has been rearranged into normal chronological order.

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Monday, January 30, 2006

Why Ecuador?

The two questions I'm asked most are "Why Ecuador?" and "Where's Ecuador?"

The second of these is easier. Most people know Ecuador is "somewhere in Latin America" and they guess that people there speak Spanish. Those with a little more geographic knowledge know that the name "Ecuador" comes from the Spanish word for "equator", which gives a pretty good clue to its whereabouts. Ecuador lies on the equator on the Pacific coast of South America, and much of it is taken up by the highlands of the Andes mountains. Its eastern part is a low-land tropical rainforest that forms the headwaters of tributaries of the Amazon River. And yes, most people speak Spanish, though a substantial number speak Indian languages like Quichua, as their mother tongue.

Why Ecuador? is harder. In the 1970s, when I travelled through Central America and into Colombia, I heard many great things about Ecuador, but I ran out of money before I got there. In particular, it has a rich indigenous culture, with some of its inhabitants descended from the Incas. It also has a tremendous variation in flora, fauna and terrain for a country about the size of Colorado. Mountains, jungles, tropical lowlands, and thousands of species of birds, plants and animals are all found in a very small space.

There's also the practical side. Rather than plunk down $800 on a plane ticket to see Mexico again, I thought I'd spend a few dollars more and go somewhere new. Once there, budget hotels are $10 - $15 a night or less, compared with three and four times that in Mexico. Though far from perfect in Spanish, I'm comfortable in it (more so than French) so it's nice to visit a country where I speak the language, but can improve my skills at the same time.

People ask if it's dangerous. Travelling anywhere can be dangerous, especially in poorer countries. But compared with Colombia, where guerrillas often hold gringos for ransom, and where there are drug wars, or Peru, with its remnants of the Tupac Amaru and Sendero Luminoso guerrillas, Ecuador is reasonably safe. I've assured my colleagues that the Shuar Indians no longer make shrunken heads of their visitors, and have taken up more benign pursuits such as eco-tourism. And although I may swim in the odd piranha-infested lake, it can't be any worse than the piranhas in Ottawa.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Quito - old and new

Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is a city of some million and a half surrounded by mountains. Located at an altitude of close to 10,000 feet, it takes a little getting used to breathing the thinner air, though it's less extreme that way than La Paz, Bolivia.

I'm staying at Hostal Casa Sol, a charming house with wood floors built around a small courtyard with a few trees. It's painted various shades of orange, I guess representing the sun, after which it is named. It's located in Mariscal Sucre, the newer part of town, an area filled with tourist restaurants, services, and an Internet cafe (or two) on every block. This is the amazing thing about modern Latin America -- the Internet is everywhere, as are related services like cheap phone calls to the rest of the world by VoIP (voice over Internet protocol). These places charge 8 cents a minute to the U.S., while traditional telephone service costs dollars. Cellular phones are everywhere. I attribute this to a kind of technological leapfrog effect in third world countries. Traditional phone service is so crappy that people just leapfrog over that technology and adopt the newer more efficient.

Farther down the valley -- a good walk -- is the old town, the historic centre. It's a typical colonial Latin American city with cobbled narrow streets, centuries-old churches, and large plazas (public squares) where people just hang out and watch life go by, read the paper, or feed the pigeons. I spent most of today exploring the old town on foot.

 

1. Shoeshine boys, Plaza San Francisco. 2. Feeding the pigeons, Plaza San Francisco.
3. Flowers on a balcony. 4. La Ronda
5. News stand. 6. Balconies.
 

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Town of Eternal Youth Vilcabamba, Ecuador

Vilcabamba is generally known for a couple things -- supposedly its people live to very old ages, and it was also one of those towns on the South American hippie trail.

The pleasant climate and moderate elevation, along with the mountains surrounding it may be the explanation for both these phenomena. Although science has questioned some of the claims about this being the valley of eternal youth, stories persist about people still enjoying sex into their 90s and older.

I'm staying in a little thatched roof cabin perched on the side of a mountain, with hammock on the porch, and a view overlooking the mountains, trees, birds, flowers and a few other huts. It's at the end of a long dirt road that winds up the valley of the raging Rio Yambala. In fact the sound of the river and the chirping of birds is all I hear from my cabin.

The guy who runs the place, Charlie, is an American, and his wife, Sarah, is from England. I asked Charlie how long he's been here, and he said 18 years. Then he corrected himself -- 28. Apparently some gringos came in the 70s and just never left. It's easy to see why.

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