ECUADOR: A WHISTLE-STOP TOUR

PRE-COLUMBIAN ART AT THE NATIONAL MUSEUM, QUITO
PRE-COLUMBIAN ART AT THE NATIONAL MUSEUM, QUITO

Guayaquil is a frenetic city in the south-west corner of Ecuador. We’ve come here in the hope of shipping our car to Panama, where we intend leaving it during our visit to Europe. But the dark arts of the global logistics business are proving murkier than ever. Believing we have set the wheels in motion, and that our container will be waiting for us on the dock in a months time, all set for a voyage northwards, we set off for a tour of the country.

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MOUNT CHIMBORAZO  6,268 METRES

Once again we cross the Andes range, passing close to Mount Chimborazo, at one time thought to be the highest mountain in the world. The great German explorer Baron Alexander Von Humboldt attempted to summit this volcano in 1802. He reached a height of 5,897 metres before he and his party had to descend, due to the amount of blood pouring from their noses. No doubt Humboldt was in his element. He loved nothing more than self-experimentation, after which he made copious notes concerning his bodily reaction – the more gruesome the better. (More here on Humboldt’s South American adventures HOW TO CATCH AN ELECTRIC EEL pdf) The volcano was eventually conquered by that doyen of the Alps, Edward Whymper, who said high-altitude sickness was merely a build up of the gases within the body, and was always mystified why no one wished to share his tent.

From the high plains we descended to Riobamba, where the folks like nothing better than to kit themselves out in kinky chaps. “Ride ’em, cowboy!”

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From Riobamba we descend even further, dropping down to the Amazon…again. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea down here. The atmosphere is hot, humid and sultry. It’s like breathing through a damp cloth…and then there’s all these damn beetles. And yet, swinging in a damp hammock, I have to say there is something peaceful about all this greenery. At dusk the forest comes alive with screeching, whirring and clicking, and the fire-flies glow green in the gathering darkness. We go to Jatun Sacha, a centre for research providing education on the humid, tropical rainforests of the upper Rio Napo. Jatun Sacha means “Big Jungle” in Quechua, and so we decide to go for a wander in it, discovering how many rather large and colourful spiders live in this big jungle, constantly weaving their webs across the trail. We take with us a booklet of instructions so as to learn something along the way, finding a tree known as the “Moral Bobo”, and several plant species variously called “Suru Panga”, “Hens Blood” and “Hot Lips”. It rains heavily during our jungle trek, so we’re quite wet when we get back. Nothing really dries here. I can well understand how you would rot in a very short time.

CAMPING AT THE JATUN SACHA RESEARCH CENTRE
CAMPING AT THE JATUN SACHA RESEARCH CENTRE
HOW TO STAY HEALTHY IN THE JUNGLE
HOW TO STAY HEALTHY IN THE JUNGLE
WELCOME TO "HOT LIPS"
WELCOME TO “HOT LIPS”
BRAVING THE JUNGLE
BRAVING THE JUNGLE

From a soggy 400 metres altitude we head back to the high ground, cresting a summit of 4,100 metres before the morning is out, where it is cold and arguably even wetter than the jungle – what a country! We head up to the north, but heavy cloud has settled on the mountain tops, (the rainy season has begun) making driving all the more precarious at high-altitude. The Ecuadorians are a nice bunch, until they get behind the wheel of a car. They will overtake in the face of oncoming vehicles, on a sharp bend, in dense fog and through a curtain of rain. Maybe part of the problem lies in the ancient belief that everything is imbued with a spirit, and that if they bless the ‘spirit of the car’ all will be well. They flash their headlights to let you know they are coming – whether you can do anything about it is entirely irrelevant. Buses and fuel tankers are some of the worst culprits of this ‘blind overtaking’. There are many roadside crosses. We once passed a driving school which contained hundreds of cones and a mock-up of a service station, so they are well versed in driving round cones and filling up the car. Everything else is left to chance.

learning-to-drive_2 (www.kzoz.com)

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CROSSING THE EQUATOR

We head to Quito, capital city of Ecuador. Of all the South American cities Quito boasts of having the greatest density of colonial buildings. I can believe it. It is simply stunning, particularly the Jesuit churches where, inside, you stand agog at their splendour.

QUITO
QUITO
QUITO
QUITO
QUITO
QUITO

After our few days in Quito it’s time to return to Guayquil and look for another shipping agent, because the first one seems to think we are carrying a hoard of Inca gold, and they want every last ounce of it. On the way we pass Cotopaxi Volcano.

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COTOPAXI VOLCANO 5,897 METRES

And we even managed a spot of fishing during a bivouac beside a river.

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SEARCHING FOR THE CORRECT FLY

Back in Guayaquil we arrange a meeting with a second shipping agent, who seems to think we are not only carrying a hoard of Inca gold, but also the keys to the Bank of England. This lot make our previous experience of shipping a car from Ghana feel like a rather genteel tea party. We’ve had enough of being taken for mugs, so we’re off. Unfortunately we can’t leave the car here in Equador, so we must find another solution, which may well lie to the south of here. Yeeha! Peru, here we come – again.

THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS

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I think the most striking thing about the Galapagos Islands is how cool all the animals are. Nesting birds gaze into your eyes, sea-lions gawp through your goggles, penguins swim past your nose and giant tortoises hobble over your feet. Even the reef shark that darted out of the mangroves and scythed past Christine’s legs didn’t bother to take a chunk out of her toes. Since the archipelago gained protected status a Zen-like calm appears to have descended over its inhabitants. Though it was not always so. When the Bishop of Panama, Tomas de Berlanga, drifted of course in 1535 he promptly began chomping his way through the locals. He penned a letter to King Charles of Spain to tell him ‘…the birds are so silly that they didn’t know how to flee and many were caught by hand.’ Even Charles Darwin wasn’t beyond a juicy tortoise steak.

In the Galapagos even the sea-lions get to man their own fish stall
IN THE GALAPAGOS EVEN TH SEA-LIONS GET TO OPERATE THEIR OWN FISH STALL
Blue-footed Boobie
A BLUE-FOOTED BOOBY DEEP IN THOUGHT
Post Office Bay. Floreana Island
THE POST BARREL AT POST OFFICE BAY, FLOREANA ISLAND. SAID TO HAVE BEEN ESTABLISHED BY CAPTAIN JAMES COLNETT IN 1790.

Attracted by the hordes of gold the Spanish were hauling from the New World, pirates began establishing themselves along the Pacific Coast, in order to raid the Spanish vessels running between Peru and Panama. The Galapagos, with its abundant supply of tortoise meat, became a favourite place to resupply the larder. Tortoises can survive for months without water and so live tortoises could be stored in the vessels’ holds without any need to feed and water them. By 1790 the pirates had been replaced by the whalers. Captain James Colnett was commissioned by the British Government to investigate the possibility of establishing a sperm-whale fishery based in the islands. The whalers were a hungry lot. During the 19th century it’s thought that they ate some 200,000 tortoises. The post barrel at Post Office Bay was a place where sailors could deposit their post and vessels returning to Europe would call by to collect the mail to take it back with them.

MV Santa Cruz
MV Santa Cruz

For our six day trip of the western islands we joined the 72 metre MV Santa Cruz, carrying 80 passengers. We had wanted to take a smaller boat with less passengers but the weather at this time of year is pretty choppy. During our passage from Isabela Island to Santa Cruz Island the glasses, cups and books on the bedside table were sent flying across the cabin, so we were pretty happy to be on a bigger ship.

Floreana Island
FLOREANA ISLAND

Today there are some 30,000 inhabitants living on the islands. Tourism is the principal employer, followed by fishing and farming. Some of the earlier settlers were a curious bunch. An Irishman by the name of Patrick Watkins was marooned on Isla Santa Maria in 1807. He grew vegetables which he traded for rum with passing ships. For two years he remained as drunk as a lord, finally stealing a small boat which he crewed with five slaves and sailed to Guayaquil. He arrived alone in Guayaquil and the fate of the slaves was never known. In 1891 Manuel J cobos established a sugar factory on San Cristobal. He employed jailed mainlanders and minted his own coins. 13 years later he was murdered by his staff. In the 1930s three groups of German settlers arrived on Floreana. One was a baroness who brought three lovers. The other was Dr Friedrich Ritter, who had all his teeth pulled out to avoid dental problems. The third to arrive were the Wittmers of Cologne. One by one the settlers died in strange circumstances. The baroness and her three lovers simply disappeared. Dr Ritter ate a chicken and died two days later. The only ones to survive were the Wittmers. Margaret Wittmer died in 2000 at the age of 95. I don’t think she was murdered. Her children run a small hotel in Puerto Velasco Ibarra.

Marine iguanas. Who needs a guard dog with this lot around?
MARINE IGUANAS. WHO NEEDS A GUARD DOG WITH THIS LOT AROUND
A Frigate bird doing his best to attract a mate
A FRIGATE BIRD DOING HIS BEST TO ATTRACT A MATE. (AS IF!)
Sea lions doing what they do best: chilling out
SEA-LIONS DOING WHAT THEY DO BEST: CHILLING OUT
Land iguana
LAND IGUANA
Tribute to Lonesome George who died last year
TRIBUTE TO LONESOME GEORGE WHO DIED LAST YEAR

Lonesome George was quite a famous tortoise. David Attenborough loved him. Sadly he died last year, the last of his lineage. Apparently they brought him from the island where he lived to the Charles Darwin Research Centre in the hope he would mate with the three lusty females they placed him in a pen with. But George was too fat to do anything other than nibble a bit of lettuce and so they put him on a six month diet, which did wonders for his sex-drive. However, being the human equivalent of several hundred years old, unsurprisingly he was firing blanks. No matter how long the eggs remained buried, nothing popped up from the ground. So, after all this dieting and the sex and the disappointments, George dropped dead – which should have told the scientists a thing or two. Hardly had George been laid to rest than the folks at the research centre imported a new stud from America. His name is Super Diego and things are going just swell. 2000 new tortoises have been created in the research centre (not all of them Diegos). A great success! How many tortoises can the islands support? I never asked. I’m sure the scientists have it all under control.

'Super Diego'
HERE’S ‘SUPER DIEGO’ MULLING OVER HIS LUNCH
MV Santa Cruz
A ZODIAC FROM MV SANTA CRUZ
Tortuga Bay. Santa Cruz Island
TORTUGA BAY. SANTA CRUZ ISLAND
Karaoke night
KARAOKE NIGHT
Dusk over Isabela Island
DUSK OVER ISABELA ISLAND (AND A SLEEPING SEA-LION)