March 8, 2013
I had only $40 in my wallet, but cash doesn’t help a person much on the freezing Andean tundra. Instead, my most valuable assets at the moment were two beers, some quinoa and two avocados for dinner—plus a riveting book about the hunt for a man-eating Siberian tiger by John Vaillant. Tent-bound life was good here in the high country. My hands were numb, but I was camped under the roof of a sheltered barbecue hut, and I dared the volcano to give me all the weather it could muster. The mountain seemed to answer. Wind and clouds swirled off the white, freshly dusted slopes, and rain began to fall as darkness crept on, but I stayed dry and cozy. It seemed very strange that millions of people dwelt just a few miles away in Quito, Ecuador, yet I was the only person on earth camped that night in Cotopaxi National Park.
The next morning was foggy and bit with such cold that I couldn’t get moving until past 9. When blue patches of sky gleamed with the promise of a warm day, I started cycling, and by the time I had reached the foot of the mountain, the sun was out in force, though the wind ripping across this barren plateau remained bitterly cold.
A group of Germans stepped off a tour bus at a roadside trailhead, aiming to spend the morning hiking around Laguna Limpiopungu, a shallow lake on the high plains just under the summit. When they learned I had biked to this remote spot, they gave me a round of applause. I was a bit confused and embarrassed, and I deflected the gesture with a wave of my hands.
“I met a Mexican man in Quito who had spent a year on his bike,” I told them. “And I met a British couple in Cuenca who were halfway into an 18-month trip. And I met a Colombian man in the Amazon who was walking to Argentina. I have been here two months, and my trip is about over. This is nothing.”
Cotopaxi National Park is barren and wildly beautiful but not very extensive. Sadly, I was out of the park by 1 p.m.—but more volcanic giants and frigid high country remained ahead. There were the massive peaks of Antisana, Cayambe and Pichincha, lands where camping was free and money good for only the barest joys of life—coffee, food and wine. I rolled north via a dirt road, which shortly turned to cobblestone, and as I came slowly over a rise, I abruptly saw my final destination in the distance: Quito, that beautiful but monstrous city encased in a basin by classic cone-shaped volcanoes. After weeks of traveling through rural, mountainous country of similar stature and poise, I had to wonder how and why the village that once was Quito had ballooned into such a behemoth.
With permission from the owner—plus a payment of five bucks—I camped that night in a soccer field in the Quito suburb of Sangolqui. I had $35 left—then $20 after buying food and wine the next morning. I set my sights on Antisana National Reserve and I started again uphill, against the rush-hour traffic flowing toward the capital. The scent of the city faded, and quietude returned as I ascended into the high, windswept valleys and plains that sprawled beneath the landscape’s centerpiece, the three-mile-high Volcán Antisana. At the park entrance, an employee assured me, after I asked, that I could camp at the end of the road. When I arrived, however, a group of bundled up men at the Ministry of the Environment refuge said the opposite—that there was no camping here.
“Why did that man tell me there was?” I asked, frustrated beyond my ability to explain in Spanish. I was 20 kilometers from the nearest designated campsite (Hosteria Guaytara, outside the park) with the sun slipping behind the peaks and my hands already numb within my alpaca gloves. The men recognized my dilemma. “It is not permitted but we can let you stay,” one said. He offered me a cabin of my own—but I chose to camp under a thatched roofed shelter in back. I was half frozen by the time I slipped into my sleeping bag and put my quinoa on the stove. I uncorked a bottle of Malbec from Argentina, and sweet, sweet coziness set in. I was camped for the first time in my life above 13,000 feet—13,041, exactly—and it was the coldest night of the trip.
At just past dawn, I was pedaling along the gravel road again. Like some wretched tramp in a Charles Dickens story, I jumped off my bike and pounced on a 10-dollar bill in the road, jammed against a rock and ready to sail away with the next gust. What a miracle! I was back to $30. I descended to the main highway, turned right and started uphill toward Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve, which would be my last dance with the high country. At sundown, still below the 13,000-foot pass and fearful that I might be sleeping in the rain behind a roadside gravel heap, I stopped in at a restaurant at kilometer 20, in Peñas Blancas, and asked if I could camp. The landlady took me to the balcony and spread her arms across the property below. “Wherever you like,” she said. “Can I pay you?” I asked. She waved the back of her hand at my offer. I went down and scouted for a spot amid the mud, gravel, dog poop and broken machinery, and, when it was dark, slipped into a relatively clean shed. A large animal was busy at some task in the attic, rattling the corrugated metal roof and a pile of lumber, and I zipped myself into my tent. For breakfast, I bought coffee and carrot juice, thanked the woman again and headed onward up the grade—with $23 in cash and no ATM for miles.
At the blustery pass was a sign reminding travelers to beware of a local imperiled species—the spectacled bear. The animals are rare throughout their Andean range, from Venezuela to Argentina, and their numbers may be dropping. Yet they are the pride of many locals, who wear hats or shirts bearing the animal’s image—distinctive with its panda-like face.
In Pampallacta, a thermal hot springs resort town, I spent $2 on fruit, $2 on cheese, $1 on a small bag of oats and—I couldn’t resist—$8 on a liter of wine. That gave me $10 left. I would have to camp somewhere, and I returned up the highway, toward Quito, to a resort on the north side of the road. Here, in the woods, I found a Swiss Family Robinson-style compound with $5 campsites. The owner said that for $6 I could stay in a cabin. He pointed to a wooden shack in the nearby canopy—the sort of treehouse that little boys dream of. I took it. I handed him a ten, and he handed back $4. This would have to carry me back to Quito over two days—but wait! I recalled some loose change in my panniers, and later, in my cabin, I unpacked my gear and liberated 67 cents. Such money can buy days’ worth of bananas in Ecuador. I felt renewed and secure. I lay on the floor, set up the cook stove and started dinner. I spread out my map and, from Cotopaxi to Quilotoa to Baños to the Amazon, I remembered the journey. After all, there was little left to look forward to. I had two days left until my airplane took off.
Dawn arrived in a grim shawl of fog and rain. I hurried through the dripping trees to the restaurant and spent $2, and three hours, drinking coffee. $2.67 cents until Quito. If I camped in Cayambe-Coca that night, I would have to pay nothing—but I had heard from a ranger that the campsite, at roughly 13,600 feet, had no shelter or refuge. “Aire libre,” he told me. Open air. It would be freezing—and wet. I rode uphill and stopped at the same summit I’d crossed the day before. The rain showed no sign of relenting. The turnoff to the park campground was a road of mud and rock, and it disappeared uphill into the freezing mist. I said goodbye to the mountains and pushed ahead. The highway tilted forward, and away I went, downhill at 30 miles per hour.
There was no satisfaction in replenishing my wallet at an ATM in the suburban town of El Quinche. As that machine sputtered and spat out a wad of crisp twenties, the sweetness of the past two weeks seemed to melt away like ice cream dropped in the gutter. I had spent those days searching for food and places to sleep amid incredible scenery. It had been a frugal–but pure and gratifying–way to spend a vacation. Now, with money again, there was no effort, no hardship and no reward in my activity. With an acute sense of disgust, I paid $13 for a hotel room. I would not shiver at night here, and no animals would tromp about in the darkness. I would soon forget this hotel and this lazy town, and I would think nothing of them 24 hours later while I gazed out the window of the airplane upon the wilderness areas of the Andes, at the cold and rocky high country where money is often worthless, and every day and night priceless.
March 4, 2013
Ecuador has done a tremendous job of preserving its wild places. More than 20 percent of the country is protected within more than 30 parks and reserves, some of them quite vast. In a nation as compact as Ecuador, what this translates into for travelers is beautiful national parks, one after another, like stepping stones through some of the world’s most astounding scenery.
In the Andes, many of the giant volcanoes have their own namesake national park, and from south to north one finds Sangay, Chimborazo, Llanganates, Iliniza, Cotopaxi, Antisana and Cayambe-Coca, to name several. These protected areas essentially demarcate what is known as the Avenue of the Volcanoes, or Volcano Alley—and it’s this route that I followed on my final march northward, toward Quito and the finish line of the international airport.
Here, my adventure finally came alive. I had spent weeks floundering—either resting my injured Achilles tendon or, later, undergoing anti-rabies treatment at a hospital following an unpleasant dog encounter. During this time, I often lay in bed, read books, iced my heel and wished for the freedom of the hills. But I finally fell into the familiar rhythm of bicycle touring as I pedaled uphill from Puyo to Baños, a 3,500-foot climb that leads from the Amazon basin to one of the most esteemed tourist towns in Ecuador—and, even better, to the foot of Tungurahua, the three-mile-high mountain that has been spewing smoke and ash for several months. Like most of the peaks along Volcano Alley at this time of year, Tungurahua hid within a ceiling of clouds, and I only caught a glimpse of the triangular peak one night in the light of the half moon when I peeked out my tent.
Though the Panamerican Highway bisects the Avenue of the Volcanoes, contriving routes to avoid this congested, smoggy artery brings one, as a matter of course, into some of the finest hiking, cycling and adventuring country anywhere. The land is hilly and green, and in places rugged and dangerous. I spent one afternoon ascending from the town of Pillaro into Llanganates National Park, home to the 10,792-foot Cerro Hermoso and, at the end of the long and difficult road, Laguna Pisayambo. The asphalt turns to dirt as the road steepens near the park entrance. The wind wails here, across treeless slopes, and cyclists and backpackers will find a cozy surprise—a refuge free for public use at the park entrance, at nearly 13,000 feet. I arrived at dusk, and two employees welcomed me, fed me and offered me the use of the hot water, the stove and a bed. But I chose to camp outside, and as the cold night came on, the lights of the city of Ambato 4,000 feet below flickered and shined like a million stars. Hidden in the darkness across the valley was Chimborazo’s 20,564-foot summit—often advertised as “the closest point to the Sun”—but I couldn’t see it, and never did, for it remained buried in clouds.
The next day I crossed the Panamerican Highway and headed west, for the much-loved but little-known Quilotoa-Sigchos basin, where I would spend a week exploring what might be the best cycling region in Ecuador. Right out of the town of Latacunga, the road goes up. To non-cyclists, this may sound like the worst of possibilities, but for me and many of my fellow cyclists, climbing is the reason we own bicycles at all. It’s on those uphill grades that we feel the heat of our own blood and the pace of our hearts. Climbing, perhaps, reminds us we’re alive, while million-dollar views take shape behind us. The road out of Latacunga ascends to some 13,000 feet before leveling off on a broad plateau of Andean tundra, then descends into a beautiful valley peppered with farmhouses and tiny villages, and a camping site called Posada de La Tigua. Here, the owners may try and talk you into taking a room for $35. Just camp. It’s $3.50, and you can watch the stars of the southern sky.
Onward, and the dramatic ups and downs, the friendly people, and the green hills make smiling out here as natural as breathing. In Zumbahua, a pair of video-journalists with a Quito-based cycling club, BiciEcuador, interviewed me and asked how I liked this area.
“The best of Ecuador,” I said.
The pride and joy of this region is Lake Quilotoa. There is an adjacent town of the same name—a little community of indigenous people fortunate enough to be located on the edge of a dramatic crater. Here, travelers find a vista that makes the jaw drop and clunk against the sternum. Lake Quilotoa lies almost 2,000 feet below, and from these heights one can see the wind ripping the jade-green surface. Hikers popularly walk around the crater’s rim and may follow a trail down to the water’s edge. Here, some people camp, and I saw tents pitched on a beach straight below me. The quiet, dusty village of Quilotoa will probably become either one of the hottest, or one of the most underrated, tourist destinations in Ecuador. But in February it is a strange place. It is the slow season, and there are more hostels than tourists. Nearly every building, in fact, is a hostel—perhaps 15 of them—and more are being built. The town is clearly still developing its tourist infrastructure, for among all the hostels, and even in the large visitor’s center, there is no internet—no WiFi, and no plug-in connections. Several other establishments in Quilotoa, meanwhile, sell artisanal crafts and woven items of alpaca wool. Chilly gusts of wind sweep through the quiet streets and remind one that the elevation here is almost 13,000 feet. A pair of locally made alpaca gloves for $5 are a worthy buy.
Travelers who continue north from Quilotoa will find a downhill run to the friendly little village of Chugchilan, set on the slope of a steep and forested canyon. I took note of several hostels here, then continued through the village and took a side road uphill, following signs to a nearby cheese factory about 2,000 feet straight up, on a foggy mountaintop. The sign at the gate advertises the fact that this little operation uses Swiss technology. What? Flavorless Andean queso fresco isn’t good enough? (I actually quite enjoy the local mountain cheese.) I took away a pound of mozzarella and continued on a scenic loop that would bring me back to the village. “Did you manage to find the cheese factory?” a rusty red-faced man with a wide smile and a huge machete asked me. I had never seen him before, but he knew why I was here. He spoke with a strange accent, for he was among many folks here whose native language is the indigenous Quechua.
The people in these mountains were some of the politest I’ve ever met. Turkish hospitality is famous but can be overwhelming with insistent offers of tea and food. In the Andes, it’s all smiles and hellos and respectful distances. The children, especially, are marvels of manners and courtesy. They almost never fail to call out a friendly greeting, and they have several times proven incredibly articulate and thoughtful in helping me find my way through a complicated road network to my destination.
“It is 40 kilometers to Isinlivi,” a boy said to me one afternoon on a dirt road circling through the high hills. “On a bicycle, that means you’ll be arriving after dark. You must find a place to camp before then.” He was no more than 8 years old.
I stayed in Chugchilan at the Cloud Forest Hostel (reviewed here by Globe Trotter). They offered dinner of fried plantains, chicken and rice, but I cooked quinoa and eggs in my room and studied my map, mesmerized by its language of dots, lines and triangles. There were so many route options, so many villages, so many valleys—so much to see. I was only 60 kilometers from Quito as the condor flies, but I saw that I could have spent weeks traveling the dirt roads that crisscrossed this tiny region. I had only a week left, however. Where would I go? Was there time?
Ecuador may seem little, but it’s bigger even than the imagination.
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February 20, 2013
In the Valley of Longevity, in southern Ecuador, visitors find the quiet and legendary town that has inspired travelers for decades—Vilcabamba. Once just another of a thousand beautiful Andean villages, this community of about 4,000 people is today one of the hottest destinations for outsiders seeking their own little piece of Shangri-La. The town, of affordable goods and productive soils, promises new life—not to mention long life—for both vacationers and expats, and in the past two decades Vilcabamba has become an uncanny magnet and New Age watering hole for soul-searchers dabbling in everything from agriculture to shamanism to hallucinogens.
But as one nears the village center along a cobblestone road that diverges from the highway, the legendary Vilcabamba seems too quiet for its reputation. Dozens of people sit idly in the square—well-to-do tourists, hippies with dreadlocks and bead necklaces, a few locals, men with week-old scruff and worn sandals—all of them waiting, it seems, for things to happen. As I cycled into the plaza, a friend of mine from Cuenca, Mick Hennessey, from Utah, was seated on a plaza bench, alertly watching the slow activity. He saw me and waved. “There’s nothing much going on here,” he said, seemingly reluctant to make such a decree so early. He had arrived only three hours before me by bus. “Sure is pretty up there, though,” I said, pointing at the mountain ridges surrounding this Valley of Longevity, so named for its supposedly high concentration of centenarians.
Another tourist, Nathan Resnick—an American currently living in Cuenca—spent several days in Cuenca hiking in the hills between nights at the Rendezvous guesthouse. He was glad with what he found.
“I was expecting a lot more and was pleasantly surprised that it didn’t exist,” Resnick said.
The town is surrounded by fantastic green ridges on the skyline and lush woods that make a paradise for backpackers, botanists and bird watchers. It is also the last chance for food and gear before entering Podocarpus National Park just to the east—home to bears and wild cats and countless bird species.
But according to some locals, Vilcabamba is unable to meet the needs or hopes of many who visit each year.
“People come here to solve their problems, but they never actually leave anything behind and so they bring all their baggage with them,” one man—a Canadian who has lived in Vilcabamba part time for a decade—told me about a block from the plaza, after we met and shook hands in the empty street. And so, he went on, health problems and mental maladies accumulate here with the immigrants. In particular, he said, conspiracy theories and UFO reports saturate local gossip. This interview by Uncornered Market of a resident Vilcabamban reads almost like a transcript of our conversation.
I quickly detected a very dark shadow hanging over the town. Only three days earlier, a woman had been raped on a trail in the woods just northeast of the town—the third such incident in just weeks. The alleged assailant was reportedly still at large. This January 25 blog post on Passionfruitcowgirl describes a dramatic attempted rape in what the author calls “Evilcabamba.” Another blog, Patryantravels, published a post last August titled “Paradise Lost,” which dwells on the steady rising tide of crime, both petty theft and physical assaults, that have damaged the pretty face of Vilcabamba. Among these recent events is the dramatic kidnapping for ransom that occurred in September on a nearby mountain trail, where a honeymooning couple was assaulted by three armed men wearing masks. The man was ordered to return to the town, retrieve several thousand dollars and deliver it back to the bandits, who said they would otherwise kill his wife. The couple survived the encounter—though the town’s reputation has taken a blow, and attentive eavesdroppers here can pick up on conversations in every direction about robbery, rape and the absence of the police.
Even as long ago as the 1970s, things seemed too good to be true in Vilcabamba. National Geographic, among other publications, had reported an unusually high number of centenarians in the village, but Dr. Alexander Leaf, of Harvard Medical School, was growing skeptical of villagers’ claims to be well over 100—and in one case as old as 134. He called upon two American professors to come help determine the truth. They did, and in 1978, after pressing villagers for information and facts, Richard Mazess of the University of Wisconsin and Sylvia Forman of U.C. Berkeley released their findings. The entire legend of long life was no better than myth—and as bad as outright lies. There was not, they reported, a single person over 100 in the Valley of Longevity. The average age of supposed centenarians was actually 86 years old, and one man who claimed to be 127 years old in 1974 was actually 91 at the time.
The blur between fact and fiction in Vilcabamba may—or may not—have something to do with a local hallucinogen called aguacolla, made from mescaline extracted from several dozen species of cacti in the genus Trichocereus, collectively referred to as the San Pedro cactus. T. pachanoi is the most commonly used for medicine and (let’s be honest) sport. Shamans and village doctors have used the cactus for ages, and the drug today, though illegal in many countries, is provided by licensed shamans and in the Andes is a popular draw for tourists seeking the journey—trip, that is—of a lifetime.
“What was it like?” I asked an American man on the plaza who had partaken in a group experience the night before at $70 a head. He was waiting for a cab, planning to head back to the camp for anther go. “I’m still trying to figure it out,” he said, seemingly thrilled as he hoisted his suitcase to the curb and waved to a taxi. “All I know is there was a whole lot of vomiting.”
“That sounds amazing,” I said.
As the website for Sacred Medicine Journey, a local shaman service, advises its prospective participants, “You may feel some discomfort, but the benefits are worthwhile. Remember that this is not recreational.”
The floodgates to weirdness seem to have opened wide in the 1960s with the arrival of the late Johnny Lovewisdom and his followers. Lovewisdom was an off-kilter spiritual guru and leader who was drawn to Vilcabamba by the “longevity” legend. Born as John Wierlo, Lovewisdom practiced a variety of unusual lifestyle diets throughout his life. Among his lasting legacies was his advocacy of a raw, fruit-only diet, though he eventually allowed yogurt and other fermented items into his body. Lovewisdom, who reportedly struggled with a number of uncommon health problems, also advocated water-fasting, sun diets and breathanarianism, which holds that humans can subsist on spiritual energy alone.
“A woman told me in town to be careful here because there is so much negative ‘energy’ in the air,” laughed a young German man as we ate breakfast at the campground kitchen of Rumi Wilco Eco Lodge, the cheapest place in town at $3.50 for a tent site. He was leaving that day for Peru via the Zumba border crossing just 80 miles south. The man was a skeptic of the Vilcabamba lore, and unlike thousands before him, he was not seduced by the village’s call.
Though the continuing crime wave and growing insider disenchantment with Vilcabamba have darkened the village, the innocent weirdness introduced by Lovewisdom remains. One morning in the driving rain at Rumi Wilco, a tall and lanky Dutchman—a raw foods fruitarian, it happened—undressed to his underwear on the lawn between the kitchen and the guest cabins and began a bizarre and comical calisthenics routine, punctuated by clumsy overhead jabs of the arms and poorly postured yoga stretches. He finished his workout with several minutes of running ten-foot-wide circles through the mud—one more eccentric seeking grace and happiness in the Valley of Longevity.
The sky remained gray for several days, and if there were people here who really could subsist on sunshine, as the eccentric Lovewisdom believed possible, they were probably thinking about a sandwich. And if they believed everything that the local mythology promised, they would almost certainly die younger than they hoped to, in the beautiful little village of Vilcabamba.
February 14, 2013
First, there was sugarcane juice. Then came distilled cane liquor, dribbling out of a steel pipe.
And somewhere in between was the stuff I was interested in: fermented sugarcane juice touched by the ethanol-making labors of airborne yeasts and containing 8 to 9 percent alcohol by volume. But fully fermented cane drink with 8 or 9 percent alcohol by volume is not easy to find in Ecuador. I have been on the lookout for this stuff since Day 1 in Ecuador a month ago, when I began seeing extensive sugarcane fields, and I have yet to land a used plastic soda bottle filled with the beverage. The clear liquor—90-proof stuff, or thereabouts—whether commercially bottled or sold out of kitchens in Inca Kola bottles, is easy to find. Ditto for the raw, algae-green juice, which comes gurgling out of hand-cranked cane grinders on street corners in almost every town and is sold for 50 cents a cup.
The only way to go from raw, sweet juice to hard, throat-raking liquor is to ferment the juice’s sugar using yeast, then distill this sugarcane “wine” into the hard stuff. In Vilcabamba, at last, I knew I was getting close to this almost theoretical product when, in a grocery store, I found homemade vinagre de cana. Vinegar, like hard booze, is a product derived directly from fully fermented juice, or malt water like beer wort. So a local household, it seemed obvious, was engaged in the cane juice industry.
“Who made this?” I asked the clerk.
She directed me to a home several blocks away where, as she said, a man fermented cane juice and sold a variety of cane-based products. I cycled over, but the man’s wife answered and said they only had distilled liquor, which may be called punta or traga. I bought a half liter for $2 after making sure that it was safe to drink. I mentioned the tragic scandal in 2011, when dozens of people died from drinking tainted distilled alcohol. “We drink this ourselves,” the woman assured me.
Before I left she said that in the next village to the north, Malacatos, many people grew sugarcane and made traga and that I could find fermented juice there. But I had already done the Malacatos juice tour the day prior, while riding through on my way to Vilcabamba from Loja, without luck. At every juice shack I visited, the proprietor said they had none but that they would make some overnight and that I should return in the morning. They all spoke of a drink called guarapo—fermented cane juice.
This sounded almost right—but not quite. Because I know from experience making beer and wine that it takes a solid week or more for a bucket of fruit juice or sugar water to undergo primary fermentation, the vigorous bubbling stage that turns 90 percent of a liquid’s sugars into ethanol. Brewers and winemakers cannot make their products overnight.
I learned more about this matter in Vilcabamba’s eastern outskirts, just outside the entrance to the village zoo. Here I found a woman selling cane juice under the business name “Viejo Luis,” who, it seemed, was her husband. I bought a liter of juice, then was treated to a taste of guarapo fermented for one day—a sweet-and-sour rendition of fresh cane juice. At the risk of sounding crass, I got straight to business: “Does this guarapo have alcohol?” I asked. Yes. “How much?” A tiny little bit. “I want more.”
To better explain myself, I asked the lady to tell me if this was correct: “First, there is juice. Then, you ferment it to make alcohol. Then, you distill it to make liquor.” She nodded and smiled with a genuine sparkle, pleased, I think, that I recognized the labors of her business. “OK, I want the middle juice—the juice with alcohol. Not fresh juice, and not punta.” She nodded in understanding and said that if she were to leave this one-day fermented guarapo for another week, it would contain as much alcohol as a strong beer. She even said she would sell me a liter for $2—if I came back the next weekend.
This wasn’t possible—but she did have another fermented product ready to sell—chicha de hongos. That translates into, roughly, “fruit beer of fungus.” She poured the thick, viscous drink through a sieve and into my plastic bottle. I had a taste immediately and complimented the rich and buttery green drink, tart like vinegar, and teeming with an organism she said was tivicus but which most literature seems to present as tibicos. This fungus-bacteria complex turns sugary drinks sour, thick and soupy and allegedly provides a wide range of health benefits. She assured me it was an excellent aid for facilitating digestion.
Meanwhile, I hatched a plan. I took my liter of Viejo Luis’s cane juice to the village bakery. “Can I have just a tiny, tiny, tiny pinch of yeast?” I asked in Spanish. The young man came back with a sack the size of a tennis ball. “That enough?”
Plenty. I took the gift and, on the curb by the plaza, sprinkled a dusting of yeast into the bottle. It came to life overnight. I reached out my tent flap in the morning and unscrewed the cap. It hissed as compressed CO2 exploded outward. It was alive! First, there had been juice—and in a week, there would be sugarcane “wine.” I tended the bottle through many rigorous days, of bus travel and shuttling luggage into hotel rooms and cycling over high passes with the bottle strapped to my pannier. Every few hours for days I gingerly loosened the cap to release the accumulating CO2, the telltale byproduct of sugar-to-ethanol fermentation (methanol, the dangerous form of alcohol that infamously makes people blind or kills them cannot be produced through fermentation). Finally, after five days, I lost my patience. The bottle had been falling off my bike every few hours for two days as I bumped along the dirt road between Cuenca and Santiago de Mendez, in the low Amazon basin. The juice was still fermenting, but I was ready to drink. I gave the bottle an hour in my hotel room so that the mucky sediments could settle to the bottom, then drank. The stuff was a grapefruit yellow now, with a bready, yeasty smell and a flavor reminiscent of raw, green cane juice but less sweet and with the obvious bite of alcohol. I had done it—connected the dots and found the missing link. Or, that is, I had made it myself.
Quick Cane Trivia
- Sugarcane is native to Southeast Asia.
- Consisting of several species, sugarcane is generally a tropical plant but is grown in Spain, some 37 degrees from the Equator.
- Sugarcane yields more calories per land surface area than any other crop.
- Sugarcane first arrived in the New World with Christopher Columbus on his second voyage across the Atlantic, when he sailed to the West Indies in 1493.
Other Local Wines to Taste in Ecuador
If you should visit Vilcabamba and have any interest in wine and fermentation, spend 20 minutes in a small store and tasting bar called Vinos y Licores Vilcabamba. The shop specializes in locally made fruit wines—including grape, blackberry and papaya. The shop also sells liquors made using cane alcohol and a variety of products, like peach and cacao. Most of the wines here are sweet or semi-sweet—and you can put up with that, go in, meet owner Alonzo Reyes and enjoy a tasting. He may even take you to the rear of the facility and show you the fermenting tanks, containing more than 5,000 liters of wines, as well as the cellar, where scores of three- and five-gallon glass jugs contain maturing wines.
The Name of a Dog
I must concede that I spoke a few days too soon in last week’s post about troublesome dogs in Ecuador and the owners that sometimes neglect them. I joked about the unlikelihood that a scruffy street mutt down here might be named Rex, Fido or Max. Well, 11 kilometers south of Sucua on the Amazonian Highway E-45, a dog came trotting out to meet me in the road. Its owners called it back. Its name? Max.
February 12, 2013
A crisp, clear stream flows out of Cajas National Park on a 20-mile circuitous route down to the town of Cuenca—but few fish live in these wild waters. Yet the Quinuas River Valley it forms is a hot destination for sport fishermen. They come by the hundreds each weekend, mostly from Cuenca, seeking the most popular game fish in the world: the rainbow trout.
“What kind of trout live in here?” I ask a young man who serves me coffee at Cabana del Pescador, the campground where I have stayed the night. I am only curious how locals refer to the species Oncorhynchus mykiss, which is native to North American and Siberian streams that enter the Pacific but has been introduced to virtually all suitable habitat on earth. In Ecuador, the species first arrived in the 1960s.
“Normal trout,” he says.
I aim to catch a few fish today and have them for dinner, but I move on, up the road, looking for a happier place to fish. The pond here is muddy, surrounded by concrete and a chain-link fence. Trouble is, I won’t find much better. This valley, though populated by a few wild trout in the streams and lakes of Cajas National Park, is a busy center of aquaculture. Trout farming is generally considered a clean and sustainable industry, though it isn’t always pretty. For a stretch of seven or eight miles downstream of the park, nearly every roadside farm has a handful of concrete-banked pools on the premises, fed by stream water and swarming with trout about 12 inches long.
Up the road, after passing a half dozen possible fishing sites, I pull in to one called Reina del Cisne, at kilometer 21. It is a restaurant and sport fishing “club,” as the sign tells visitors. I have coffee—Nescafé, as always—inside. When I am finished, I ask if there is an opportunity to fish here, and the teenage waiter beckons me to follow. “It’s 50 cents to rent a pole,” he says. “Then, we weigh the trout, and you pay $2.25 per pound.” The biggest fish in the ponds out back are more than ten pounds, he tells me.
He pulls one rod from a heap of several dozen—a broomstick-like pole with a stout line tied to the end and a silver barbed hook at the tip. He quickly mixes up a bucket of bread dough to use as bait, drops a hunk into a shopping-style woven basket and hands me my tackle.
“What kind of trout are these?” I ask, still fishing for local lingo.
“Salmon trout. They have red meat,” he says. He adds, “Good luck,” and returns to the restaurant.
For an angler who has fished in the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada and Alaska and New Zealand, this is a sad comparison, and I feel a strange desire to either cry or laugh hysterically. This would make a perfect opportunity for kids, but I know what real fishing, in real waters, is. Here, I have three ponds to choose from—two of them rectangular, concrete basins, the other a muddy, oval-shaped pool 30 feet across with grassy banks. I flick a piece of dough into this most natural-appearing of the options. Several trout dart from the murk as the white ball vanishes in an instant. I bait my hook and fling it into the middle of the pond, slightly embarrassed that I am participating in what locals advertise as pesca deportiva—or “sport fishing.” A similar flurry of fish attack and strip the hook. I re-bait and try again and this time hook instantly into a feisty rainbow. I drag it in and onto the bank, whack it cold with a stick and drop it in my basket. One down, and in another five minutes I have a second fish. I could take more but, frankly, this isn’t fun or engaging. A year ago exactly I was cycling around New Zealand, casting flies at wild trout six times this size and immeasurably more thrilling to catch—wary, elusive, picky and beautiful. The challenge of enticing one to strike made success an accomplishment. Best of all was the experience of being there, fish or none, standing in crystal clear waters surrounded by green meadows and the tall peaks of the Southern Alps. Indeed, fishing is largely about interacting with the environment, and if one catches no trout on an expedition into the mountains, something else is still gained.
But no matter how big a fish one may pull from a concrete-lined pond, using dough balls for bait, the experience feels as hollow as shopping in a supermarket. While I’m here, I hope I might tangle with an eight-pounder, but no such beast shows itself. I wonder if perhaps they tell all guests that giant trout live in these ponds to encourage business. But back inside the restaurant, my hosts show me the de-boned meat of a 14-pounder caught the day before. The meat is thick and heavy and a delicious-looking salmon red. I ask what the trout eat. “Natural food,” owner Maria Herrera tells me.
Down the road, at kilometer 18, I visit a government-run fish hatchery. I roll down the dirt drive, across the stream on a wooden bridge and up a short rise to the facility. I introduce myself to two men in yellow slickers, ankle deep in a muddy concrete basin full of thrashing foot-long trout. The station director, Lenin Moreno, tells me that more than 8,000 adult fish live here. He and his colleague, Ricardo Mercado, are currently trying to get an exact head count in a tank swarming with, they guess, about 300 fish. They take a break and show me to the laboratoria—the hatchery. In the trays and tanks of this covered, concrete-walled facility, 1.3 million juveniles are produced each year and sold to aquaculture operations in four provinces, Moreno tells me.
Outside, they show me a rectangular basin teeming with huge rainbows, green-backed, red-sided beauties that remind me of the two-foot-long giants of New Zealand. Visitors may come here to buy these trout, Moreno tells me. The fish go for $1.50 per pound.
I ask if the meat is red like salmon. “No—it’s white,” Moreno tells me. “But at the fish farms they feed the trout pigment.”
This doesn’t surprise me. The rainbow trout I grew up on were generally white-fleshed fish. Only occasionally on family camping trips as we cleaned our catch would we discover with excitement that the trout had natural pink meat, which tends to be richer and fattier than paler flesh. But in Ecuador’s many fish markets, I have not yet seen a trout fillet that wasn’t colored like salmon, and I’ve suspected all along that this attractive color (which I’ll admit has drawn my wallet from my pocket more than once) was artificially induced. I recall seeing the fillet of a trout caught in New Zealand just outside the outflow of a Chinook salmon farm that was clearly affected by such pigment—probably either synthetic astaxanthin or canthaxanthin, both used in most commercial salmon farming operations (and the latter of which may cause retinal damage). The trout had presumably been eating pellet feed that escaped from the salmon pens, and the meat was partially colored, patchy red and white like a tie-dyed shirt. Yuck.
I poached my farm-caught trout in cheap Chilean Sauvignon Blanc at my hostel in Cuenca, just off the main street of Calle Larga. The meal was fine and exactly what I had been aiming for when I plunked that ball of dough into the pond at Reina del Cisne. But the fish didn’t quite taste up to par. Because although pink-fleshed trout are a sure catch in the mountain fishing ponds of Ecuador, something else, less easy to describe, native to places like Montana and British Columbia, may evade you with every fish landed.