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 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.
January 30, 2013
About 15 miles north of Quito, a palatial iron gate on the west side of the highway opens onto a long, stately driveway leading across a prim and trim government property, past statues of acclaimed national leaders and, after about 200 yards, to the base of a nearly 100-foot-tall brick-and-mortar monument, grand enough to produce tears, called the Mitad del Mundo—“Middle of the World.” A yellow painted stripe representing the line of zero degrees latitude even runs up a walkway and bisects the monolith, which was built in 1979 and stands today as a premier tourist attraction, and a grand and glowing tribute to one of Ecuador’s proudest features: the Equator.
The problem is, they built the thing in the wrong place. The Equator is actually several hundred feet to the north, as determined by modern GPS technology that wasn’t available to the earlier surveyors of the region. As long ago as 1736 scientists were exploring Ecuador, with, among other goals, the aim of defining and marking the Equator. At some point, the current Mitad del Mundo line was painted proudly on the ground. But in recent decades, the embarrassing truth emerged: The Equator actually, and without a doubt, crosses the highway just up the road, where the property owners surely rejoiced upon hearing the news (and took their own GPS measurements, as they claim they have done) and have since built their own rather campy but perhaps more accurate attraction.
As for the grandiose government monument just to the south, what’s built is built, and, as the saying goes, no publicity is bad publicity. And so the yellow painted line that leads into the museum at the base of the Mitad monument is still declared to be the waistline of the Earth and draws hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. Here, they walk the line, straddle it, try and balance eggs on it and shake hands over it.
But I didn’t do any of those things. I didn’t enter the museum, either—not because admission was $3 but because I didn’t see the point. Nor did I see any point in getting coffee at the Equator, buying “Mitad del Mundo” trinkets at the gift shops on the Equator, eating lunch at the Equator, sitting down for a beer at the Equator or petting an alpaca at the Equator (the little camelids roam the premises). Because I wasn’t on the Equator and it all would have meant nothing. Carved into the monument is the site’s elevation (2,483 meters) and longitude (78 degrees, 27 minutes and eight seconds west—or so they say). But these somewhat arbitrary numbers are made even more so since, well, this isn’t the Equator.
Still, I did as many visitors to the Mitad do and had my passport stamped by the lady working the museum admission booth so that I could prove to the folks back home that I had actually stood on the Equator—well, almost.
“Does the stamp say ‘Mitad del Mundo, Mas o Menos’?” Alistair Hill joked minutes later, just after I met him and several other British travelers on the steps before the monument.
Hill and his girlfriend Jess Swan, both from England and now backpacking through South America for several months, gazed up at the hulking, majestic thing. They had heard the rumors that the attraction was not all it is claimed to be but made the trip from Quito anyway, splitting a cab four ways for $40.
“How did they get it so wrong?” Hill said. “Why didn’t they just flush a toilet on each side to make sure they had it right? It makes you wonder if the Meridian really passes through Greenwich.”
Hill’s friend Chris Leigh joked, “So, what else in the world have they got wrong? The South Pole? The North Pole? The Tropic of Capricorn? That’s probably 100 miles out of line. Turns your world upside-down, doesn’t it?”
But for all the pomp and circumstance, gravity and grandeur of the Mitad del Mundo, that a huge mistake has been made is freely admitted today, and the officials who work at the site readily tell visitors who inquire where to find the actual Equator.
“Turn left at the gate, and it’s 100 meters on your left,” the guard at the entrance told me as I was leaving.
You have to watch closely, but you’ll see it—a sign reading “Museo Solar Inti-Nan.” The sign assures you that you are now at zero degrees, zero minutes and zero seconds—neither north nor south of the middle of the world. The sign adds that these figures were “calculated by ‘GPS.’” It comes off as a smirking insult directed at the government site just down the road, but the sign is only being honest. A humble dirt trail leads visitors up a ravine, across a small bridge and into the outdoor museum area. While guests are free to wander at the Mitad del Mundo site, at the private museum visitors are quickly asked for $4 and then ushered into a small tour group, whether you want the service or not. I joined Amy Jones of Texas and Stefania Egas of Quito, and our English-speaking guide led the way. Much of the tour, through wood huts and artifact collections, has nothing whatsoever to do with the Equator. We saw a pen full of guinea pigs, a shrunken human head, a soggy dead boa constrictor in formaldehyde, a collection of totem poles and an exhibit featuring native folks of the Amazon.
But we finally got to the feature attraction—the Equator. It is represented by a red line, along which have been mounted a sundial, a spinning globe, nail heads on which one may try and balance an egg and—the grand fireworks of the tour–a full wash basin used to demonstrate the way that draining water supposedly swirls in a particular direction in each hemisphere. There has been much debate about this phenomenon. The Coriolis effect, a function of motion and the curvature of the Earth, is real, a phenomenon by which free-moving objects in the Northern Hemisphere appear to veer toward the right and those in the Southern Hemisphere to the left. At zero degrees latitude, the effect does not occur. This is why, for example, hurricanes wither and dissipate when they drift too close to the Equator.
But whether toilets and sinks, at their small scale, can demonstrate the Coriolis effect isn’t clear, though most experts say that the Coriolis effect does not visibly affect moving water over such a short distance as the diameter of a sink or toilet. Yet our young mono-toned tour guide, drably repeating a show she had probably given many times before, made it happen. On the Equator, after she pulled the drain plug, the water shot straight through without a swirl in either direction. Ten feet to the south, the water drained in a clockwise gyre. And just to the north, the water went down in a counterclockwise whirlpool. I suspect there was trickery at play—possibly by a hand furtively dipped into the basin and slyly setting the appropriate flow direction when we weren’t watching. I walked away frustrated, if not wowed, and I admit: The 100-foot-tall monument of the government, though a big fat mistake, is a greater site to see.
But just when we think we’ve got the whole matter sorted out and the Earth perfectly bisected, I discover this blog post from a science-savvy traveler named Adam Rasheed, who claims we’ve all been duped twice over. In 2006, Rasheed wrote a blog entry for a science and technology firm called Global Research in which he described visiting both of the equatorial sites, being skeptical of the private museum’s claims of legitimacy and promptly taking equatorial matters into his own hands using a GPS device. Rasheed concluded that the true Equator was still farther up the road, and here he and a friend built their own equatorial monument of plastic drink bottles and rubbish. Whether Rasheed had it right seems, by now, doubtful—not that it really matters. Because if Ecuador builds the 5,000-foot-tall spire that a New York architect proposed be erected on the Equator, then that would be the destination most worth paying to see—whether they place it exactly at zero degrees latitude or not.
Perhaps there is only one thing certain in this foggy fuss over the Equator: The more monuments and museums the merrier. If you think you can improve upon the existing measurements, let us know in the comment box below.
January 24, 2013
Climbing the Parador de Navas last week, I felt it happen—a ping of pain in the rear of my leg, four inches above the heel. An ache set in as we crawled to the top of the pass, and I knew it was back—my recurring Achilles tendonitis. I spent a week in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, 16 months ago lying in a hostel bed, reading, typing, visiting the local gym, sitting on benches, eying the distant Rhodope Mountains and waiting for a similar Achilles strain to heal up—and I know the boredom that can arrive with athletic injuries. But this time, I have limped into Quito, Ecuador, a fast and modern hub of sophisticated people, energy and activity. Boredom should not be an issue here. Mangoes may cost $2 a piece from sidewalk vendors—a harsh reminder for the hungry cyclist that he is no longer in the boondocks. But there is life beyond cheap mangoes, and it can be found in Quito’s clean public parks, brewpubs, wine bars, bicycle shops, historic center and so much more. Here are a few things to do that can keep one entertained in this highest (when measured from the Earth’s center) of big cities.
Sample Local Microbrews I have no love for Peruvian wine—and as an alternative, my brother and I have taken to the abundant if boring South American lagers available in every corner grocery store. Thing is, I have no love for cheap lagers, either. So when I learned that two brewpubs operated within blocks of the Hostal del Piamonte, where I have been icing and elevating my leg, I ran for them. Limped, anyway. At Cherusker German Brewery, we found a club-like scene with leather sofas and a rustic brick interior—and four beers on tap. That could leave many an American beer nerd thirsting for more options, but in Ecuador, the chance to drink a Belgian-style dubbel and a dark, smoky stout provided much needed respite from lesser beers. After one round, we walked north several blocks to sample the other city brewpub, Turtle’s Head Pub and Microbrewery. A pilsener, a Scottish amber and a stout made up the extent of the house-made beers. The amber was malty, thick and chewy, the stout creamy, smooth and sweet.
Hunt for Espresso Machines Each time we emerged from the desert or jungle into a village in the past three weeks, we listened for that sweet song of the espresso machine. One time I even asked the villagers, “Please, for mercy, is there an espresso machine in this town?” I was thirsty and desperate and hopeful, and the town’s main street boasted some relatively upscale establishments. Several men gathered around me, all frowning and shaking their heads in befuddlement. “Say, Fred, what’s this kid talking about, what with machines that make coffee and all?” “Beats me, Leroy. Does he think he’s arrived in the future?” I even made the whooshing-hissing noise that coffee drinkers so love to hear at 7 a.m.—but the men shook their heads. “Let’s go! His mind is gone.” They had not heard of an espresso machine. But Quito is fast, smart, slick, modern. In hundreds of bars, cafés and eateries, espresso machines hiss like the finest apparatuses of Europe. Cafe lattes arrive with hearts and mountains shaped into the foamy milk, and espresso comes in cups like thimbles, as smart and sophisticated as coffees enjoyed in the bistros of Paris. Top recommendation: Este Cafe, on Juan León Mera street.
Work Out on the Exercise Bars in Parque El Ejido As we rode into the center of Quito on our first day, I had my eyes peeled for that sure signature of any modern metropolis undergoing swift and progressive social development: outdoor exercise bars at the public park. After checking into our hostel, we walked several blocks back to Parque El Ejido, where we had seen among the people and the trees some playground-type structures that looked very promising. Sure enough, we found them—a rock-solid, two-tiered set of pull-up bars in the shade of the trees. A security guard (they stand around every corner and behind every tree in Ecuador) paced slowly around the jungle gym while Andrew and I got to work. My brother, ten pounds lighter than he’d been in Lima, started with an all-time best set of 20. I did only 17—but, really, who’s counting? See you at the bar. Note: The same park comes alive with scores of market vendors and thousands of visitors each Sunday. It’s a good time, but you’d better get your bar time in early, before the kids arrive.
Stalk the Aisles of the English Bookshop Quito is great—but if you need to get away fast, step into the compact, book-stuffed space of the English Bookshop, in La Mariscal. Owned by London native Mark Halton, the store—at Calama and Diego de Almagro streets—provides a refuge of wisdom and intelligentsia for English speakers craving some bookish conversation and quiet time. The shop is crammed with used quality literature (well, there’s also some sci-fi, but never mind), plus a selection of Ecuador travel guides for rent.
Enjoy the City’s Many Miles of Bike Paths Quito bears many marks of a sophisticated hub of culture and style—enthusiastic brewpubs, art museums, numerous sporting goods stores and air-conditioned supermarkets. What more could one want? Bike paths, of course. Leading through the city are miles and miles of them—two-directional lanes separated by barriers from the auto traffic and leading to all corners of the city. But bike paths can always use improvement. In Lima, for instance, the hip locals dump heaps of trash in the bike lanes and set the rubbish on fire. In Quito, businessmen who haven’t ridden a bicycle since they were 8 years old use the lanes as personal sidewalks, and at intersections pedestrians gather in the bike lane as they wait for the light to change. No—not all Ecuadorians are totally wise yet to the concept of the separated, designated bike lane. But parts of Quito are almost as cool and edgy as Amsterdam or Portland, and locals will catch on.
Ride the Gondola to Cruz Loma Lookout Taking a ride on a gondola is a bitter pill to swallow for a proud cyclist with a leg injury. But the TelefériQo Cruz Loma chairlift, beginning at the western edge of Quito, ascends 2,700 feet in eight minutes, taking passengers to the best vista point in the region—Cruz Loma, near the top of Mount Pichincha. The cost is about $9, with discounts for privileged locals and even the option to bring a bicycle to the top and ride the trails back down to the city. Sounds like a blast—but I’ll wait until I can make the entire journey by my own strength.
Get Screened for Malaria at a Local Medical Clinic If you’ve got the shakes, the shivers, nausea, achy joints, stomach troubles or a headache and have traveled in malaria hot zones anytime from a week to a year prior, you had better get checked out. That’s the logic we followed when Andrew came down with sluggishness and other flu-like symptoms on our second day in Quito. We decided that if his condition persisted in the morning, we would go to the hospital. He woke up in a sweat, and off we went on a new adventure. The Clinica de San Francisco was just four blocks away from us, and by 9 a.m. Andrew was having blood drawn and his internal organs examined by stethoscope. The doctor said that Andrew’s relatively mild symptoms did not appear to be malaria-related, but Plasmodium falciparum is a disease to be taken very seriously. The most deadly type of malaria, it is especially dangerous if not identified and treated within 24 hours of the first visible symptoms. The doctor said the test results would be e-mailed within three working days—plus two weekend days. Isn’t that cutting it close, we asked? Don’t worry, the doctor answered; Andrew does not have malaria. We hope so.
And Keep That Leg Elevated