March 15, 2013
Few people anywhere begin the day without a hot drink. Chocolate and tea are popular morning jump-starters. Yerba maté, famously Argentinean, is gaining a reputation globally. Some people contrive creative blends of apple cider vinegar, herbs and honey. But coffee dominates the morning hour in every time zone. While the plant that produces the beans is native to tropical east Africa, two main species of coffee—Coffea arabica and C. canephora, or C. robusta—are now grown in nearly every tropical region. Brazil and Vietnam lead production, which amounts globally to more than 150 million 132-pound bags per year (PDF). Consumption is rising, and though coffee is far from being the world’s largest crop, it is now the second most demanded commodity after oil.
But for its simplicity in its raw state and its ubiquity in almost every culture, coffee takes a wide and unpredictable range of forms throughout the world. Here is a sampling, both bitter and sweet, of some of the regional renditions of the world’s favorite hot drink.
Italy. Perhaps nobody does coffee better than Italy. Though located many lines of latitude north of muggy coffee country, Italy has somehow attained the position of coffee lord and master. It’s here that the espresso machine had its birth, and it’s here that a coffee lover can enter nearly any establishment, whether a slick Neapolitan bar or a small nameless café in the remote Abruggio, and expect no less than the brown-black best. Never fear of instant coffee, for “cafe” in Italy is synonymous with “espresso.” Add milk, and the door to the frothy, creamy world of Italian coffee drinks opens wide. No doubt, we all owe our finest a.m. pleasures to Italy. Trivia: Espresso is big business and espresso machines serious investments—costing as much as $40,000.
Ethiopia. This is where it all began. Ethiopia is the heart of coffee country, native homeland to the Coffea genus, and people here have been drinking coffee for more then 1,000 years. Today, coffee—called buna—is still made and served in a traditional table-side ritual that transforms the beans from raw red cherries into toasty, steaming drink, often all before the guest’s eyes. The process can last more than an hour, as the host toasts, grinds and boils the coffee before serving.
Spain. The wayfarer in Spain, rising from his bedroll on a frosty September morning and eager for warmth and company, must look no farther than the nearest church steeple. For that cross indicates that a café dwells at ground level in the plaza. There, the old men are already gathering, whether Monday or Sunday, and the silvery, steel machine is already hissing away. Go! The establishment, almost always, is called “Cafe Bar” and by 6 a.m. is buzzing with caffeine and activity. Many take their their coffee standing at the bar with a hand in their pocket. If you want milk, please don’t order a latte. Cafe con leche is your ticket. Be warned: Long sit-ins at coffee bars may still be a foreign idea in parts of rural Spain. Several years ago, in the Picos de Europa, I ordered a second coffee while letting my camera battery charge in a small café. The place was nearly empty, yet the barkeeper decided she’d had enough of me after 40 minutes. She unplugged my device, slid it across the table and pointed to the door. She all but kicked me in the rear as I hobbled out. I didn’t even have time to leave a tip.
United States. America has gained an irrepressible taste for the inky black juice of the espresso machine. But “gas station coffee,” the type that one may spot in the roadside diner by the register, ominously tea-colored and brewed hours before, is still a symbol of Americana and proudly drips from Mr. Coffee lookalikes everywhere. At the other end of the spectrum are the massive high-calorie coffee drinks innovated by Starbucks, containing varying mixes of espresso, caramel, whipped cream, chocolate, eggnog and other ingredients. The presence of such milkshake-like drinks seems to have even spurred a reaction in places. So we see, in the occasional bakery café, a note on the menu reading, “Just good, old-fashioned drip coffee,” as though we ought to be relieved.
Turkey. Turkey’s favorite drink is tea, called “chai,” yet coffee is available here. In Istanbul, espresso and the associated lattes and cappuccinos are commonplace, while in the countryside, Nescafé rules—usually poured from 3 in 1 packets of instant coffee, sugar and artificial dried milk. True Turkish coffee, served in espresso-like cups, can be surprisingly hard to find. Note that what the Turks call “Turkish coffee,” the Greeks call “Greek coffee” and the Georgians “Georgian coffee.” But it’s all the same stuff—thick, gritty, tar-black juice like the emissions of a malfunctioning espresso machine. It is almost always served sweet.
Greece. The favorite coffee drink in Greece is the frappe. Made using Nescafé, a frappe is a frothed-up blend of milk, sugar and Nescafé, served over ice. The drink can be had with or without sugar, but on a warm summer day in the islands, the ice is the essence of a frappe. This is at least one instant coffee rendition that’s easy to love.
Baja California. In Baja, “coffee” seems almost to mean “hello.” Nearly every other day, during my years of Baja wandering with spear and backpack a decade ago, some strange man or woman would appear out of a shack on the dirt road ahead, wave to me and call out, “Cafe?!” Thus, I often found myself seated on a broken plastic chair or an upturned fishing bucket under a tree while my host boiled water on a mesquite fire and spooned out the Nescafé. That’s right: The drink is almost always instant coffee granules, and while the coffee itself is nothing to write home about, it’s the gesture that counts in the sparsely peopled cowboy country of Baja.
Ireland. It’s little surprise that Ireland, land of cheery pubs and frosty nights, is where coffee first got really fun. The Irish coffee was invented in the 1940s and is now a cocktail served in bars worldwide. It contains hot coffee, whiskey, sugar and whipped cream, and, while traditionally an after-dinner drink, Irish coffee may be hard to argue with on a chilly morning. But Irish coffee may not suit all tastes. Years ago, a friend of the San Francisco Chronicle‘s former travel writer Stanton Delaplane reportedly said that Irish coffee ruins three good drinks—whiskey, coffee and cream.
Vietnam. Many of us aren’t fans of sweet coffee, but Vietnamese iced coffee is delicious. Coffee drinking arrived in Vietnam with the French in the 1800s, and the local palates quickly shaped their own interpretation of the drink. Fresh milk in Vietnam was not as available as it is in the pasture lands of France, and so the cafe au lait took a sharp evolutionary turn: The Vietnamese poured their coffee over sweetened condensed milk—from a can—and served the drink over ice.
Ecuador. All bets are off when ordering coffee in Ecuador. Unless you request otherwise, they may pre-sweeten the drink for you. And if you ask for a cafe con leche, what you’ll get is a mug filled entirely with steaming hot milk, served beside a jar of instant coffee granules. And if you ask your host whether they’re serving Nescafé, they may say no—but not because they’re making coffee in a French press but simply because they are serving some other brand of instant coffee, like Buendia or PresCafe. And even in a swanky countryside bed and breakfast fitted with a dazzling espresso machine, if you order a cappuccino, they might reach for the sweetened mocha packets in the cupboard. Stay vigilant. Still other times, real coffee is available in Ecuador (they grow the stuff; why shouldn’t they serve it?) offered as cafe filtrado. Pounce on it while you can!
March 12, 2013
“Faces From Afar” is an ongoing series in which Off the Road profiles adventurous travelers exploring unique places or pursuing exotic passions. Know a globetrotter we should hear about? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s healthy. It smells and tastes like sweet tropical butter. It can be used hot or cold, on food, in your hair and on your skin. And it’s readily available throughout the coastal tropics.
Yet almost nobody in Ecuador uses coconut oil.
Instead, vegetable oil saturates the local culture as the cooking grease of choice. It is sold in giant bottles for several dollars and used by the pint for frying plantains, potatoes and meats, and Ecuadorian kitchens and street food stalls sometimes reek of stale, burned oil. But one American man is striving to invent a new culinary tradition here. Carl Nordeng has lived in Ecuador for several years and for the past 18 months has been doing something industrious and novel: He’s making and selling coconut oil in the little, picturesque village of Vilcabamba. Nordeng uses wild coconuts harvested from trees near the northern town of Esmeraldas, and his facility, consisting of a small collection of equipment, is situated in a grove of mango and avocado trees that provide shade in the early and late hours of the day.
Nordeng first visited Vilcabamba about five years ago. In his early 30s at the time, he was a health aficionado interested in natural healing and cleansing methods. He met a woman here whom he would eventually marry, and he began returning regularly, from his home in Washington State. Nordeng wasn’t infatuated with local cuisine. He found it bland and too greasy, and he also felt sure that refined vegetable oil—a staple component in Ecuadorian pantries—was having negative effects on the nation’s health. Diabetes is a leading killer and crippler of Ecuadorians, and Nordeng blamed the prevalent fried foods. In the interest of maintaining his own health during his sojourns to Ecuador, Nordeng cooked frequently—and he rarely returned from the United States without a few jars of coconut oil, which has shown effective as an antifungal agent, strengthens the immune system and can help the body positively manage its insulin levels—a point relevant to a diabetes-stricken nation like Ecuador.
“It was the foundation of my diet,” Nordeng says, adding that he could not find the product in Ecuador and that he was not willing to give it up.
After only several trips with an extra-heavy suitcase, Nordeng began to research the possibilities of making coconut oil himself in Ecuador. Upon learning that it wasn’t particularly challenging—the trick is simply to eliminate the water from the flesh and then squeeze out the oil—he soon went the next step and began to make the fragrant white coagulate in his kitchen in home-sized batches. He tried several methods until settling on his current system—a simple three-step process of grinding, toasting and pressing. He built his own equipment and, 18 months ago, sold his first bottle under the label “Oro Blanco.” Today, Nordeng grinds out 20 liters of coconut oil daily. All is sold within Vilcabamba, mostly to North American and European tourists but also to a growing number of locals.
Nordeng says he hopes to expand sales to Ecuadorians, but at $15 a jar, Oro Blanco oil is currently far too expensive to be a household staple in Ecuador, where the average salary is $7,500 per year, according to Average Salary Survey. Nordeng is now paying more than $1 per coconut and splits and scrapes clean as many as 250 per day. He says he is trying to secure a source of quality fruits from Peru, where the cost may be less than 20 cents per coconut.
Even if he can reduce the retail price of his product to just several dollars, Nordeng wonders how easy it will be to convince locals born and raised on foods fried in pans of vegetable oil to make the transition from one oil to the other.
“It would be hard to instill coconut oil into centuries of tradition here, but based purely on the flavor, it seems like it shouldn’t be a deterrent to people,” Nordeng says. “It’s not like we’re trying to sell them something gross.”
Nordeng labels his coconut oil “cold-pressed extra virgin.” This means that the oil is extracted without the use of heat, which can damage some of an oil’s natural compounds. The label also specifically guarantees that the oil is from fresh coconut flesh—not derived from secondary coconut byproducts, like the compressed “cakes” of coconut shavings that come from Nordeng’s press by the dozen each day. He may eventually provide these for bakers or granola bar producers, but for now his neighbors use the gritty—and, frankly, delicious—waste material to feed to their animals.
Coconuts, of which there are hundreds of varieties in the species Cocos nucifera, occur throughout the earth’s tropics. Coconut oil is commonly used in Pacific island communities, as well as in southern Asia. In Ecuador, coconut palms grow from the coast all the way to a mile or more of elevation in the Andes, as well as in the Amazon basin. The fruits are very popular as snacks; street vendors nick a hole at one end, insert a straw and sell the fruits for a dollar to customers who drink the water and, occasionally, take the trouble to crack open the coconuts and access the rich flesh that clings to each shell’s interior. But coconuts rarely get as far as the kitchen here.
In the United States, too, where coconut oil sales are booming, the product had to overcome a negative reputation, for it had been pinned as a culprit in widespread health problems—a reputation that still persists. The major argument against coconut oil has been its saturated fat content—though this particular fat is lauric acid, said by many to be one of the “good” saturated fats. This food blog, Organic Facts, discusses coconut oil’s effects on levels of cholesterol, of which some are considered “good” and others “bad.” Coconut oil, according to nutritionists, increases the good cholesterol and decreases the bad.
Nordeng notes that the legend of longevity in the valley that he has called home for five years is “a myth,” as discussed in “Off the Road” in February. Nordeng says many people leave the village before they reach old age, while others die young.
“People are literally killing themselves here by using tons of this rancid vegetable oil,” Nordeng says. “I’m providing an alternative.”
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 28, 2013
People visit Ecuador for many reasons. Some come to see birds. Many come to surf. Others come to climb mountains. A few want to see its dynamic landscape by bicycle. But when the price of gold hit $1,800 per ounce several months ago, Texans Paul Salazar and Curt McGary came looking to make a fortune. I met the pair in Santiago de Mendez, a jungle town downriver from Cuenca, in air as thick and muggy as I always imagined the Amazon would be. Salazar, who had panned for gold and other heavy metals in Alaska and Arizona, had a good feeling about the local drainage system. He and McGary had researched ahead, using the guidance of an online gold mining guru named Stan Grist, who provides information and assistance to those seeking an escape from the rat race of more common lifestyles and, hopefully, a heavy metal fortune pulled from the earth. Grist advised Salazar via e-mail that the rivers of Ecuador could be, if not technically a mother lode, a rich and promising location for prospectors hunting gold.
“I’ve got a really good feeling about that place,” Salazar said to McGary as we all drank coffee in a cheap restaurant near our hotel. McGary had never panned for gold before but had come along in hopes of making some real money—and prospects looked good. The morning prior the pair had briefly visited the shore of the Rio Paute. Salazar panned just one scoop of dirt and came away with the largest flake he had ever seen, now contained in a vial. I would have photographed the trophy except that it was almost too small to see.
I joined the men for their second day on the river. We hailed a taxi in the plaza, and Salazar and McGary, holding a Google maps printout, showed the driver where they wished to go. They pointed to the confluence of the Negro and Paute rivers, never mentioning that they were after gold. The driver nodded in recognition of the location and turned the ignition as the Texans threw their gear—including buckets, pans and a sluice tray—into the rear of the pickup.
We drove several miles southeast through tall jungle trees wrapped with vines and thick foliage. It is said that one can walk for a mile through the Amazon and never see the same species of tree twice. I’m no botanist and they all looked about the same to me—tall and graceful beauties with glossy leaves and buttressed trunks. “I can’t believe we’re in the Amazon rainforest,” I said aloud. I asked the driver in Spanish if jaguars lived here. “Yes,” he said. And pumas? “Yes.” And anacondas? “Yes.”
It was official: This was the jungle.
We abruptly exited the dense woods on a bridge that crossed the roiling brown river 100 feet below. The banks were steep and strewn with huge boulders. Among these rocks was the dirt that might bear a fortune.
“Nobody’s mined for gold here before,” Salazar said, excitement heating up in his voice as we drew closer to the river. “This is unexplored country.”
Our driver jutted his thumb at a pair of local men hiking along the road with buckets. “Mineros de oro,” he said.
Salazar’s glimmering image of a virgin river of untouched gold suddenly sparkled a shade less—though the fact that locals hunted for gold here offered its own promise. We confirmed a 4:30 pickup with the cab driver, who pointed us down a slippery trail into the jungle, a kilometer to the river via a farmer’s property. “He’s a very nice man,” the driver assured us. We trudged into the forest, past cacao and banana trees and, finally, to the rustic homestead, a complex of decrepit shacks. Four frantic, emaciated dogs howled and ran circles around us as we called out our greetings for five minutes. No one answered, and we finally mustered the gall to march through the private residence, past a sugarcane grinder and hanging bunches of green bananas, and onward, through the papaya trees and sugarcane, toward the river.
“We’ll have to pay him a gold tax when we come back,” I said.
Gold mining is backbreaking work. Panning is the easiest, if slowest means of finding gold, though sitting on a rock in the sun for 30 minutes swirling a saucer of mucky water is surprisingly laborious. After an hour, we had found several minuscule flakes. Salazar pointed them out in his tray and, later, in my own. Gold can be identified by the way it moves through the swirling water; while other materials lift and move about easily as the pan is shaken, flakes of gold—one of the heaviest elements—will stay put. I had a pair of flakes isolated near the rim of my pan, but I was having difficulty separating the silt from the gold. For 20 more minutes I worked on trying to isolate the flecks. They were almost microscopic, and I wondered at the seeming futility of this work.
I said to McGary, “I’ve heard that the ones who got the richest in the California gold rush were those who owned convenience stores near the camps. You guys should start a brewpub here when the gold rush starts.”
At about 2 p.m. Salazar found six flakes in his pan and, believing he had found a patch of rich soil, got out the trowels, buckets and sluice tray. He and McGary unfolded the contraption and laid it in the shallows, where just enough current ran through to carry gravel and silt fed into it at the top. A sluice tray effectively accomplishes the same task as panning, but faster and with less effort. Digging out the soil from between the boulders, however, is the hard part. The men took turns on their bellies, arms three feet down, using a trowel to scoop out mucky gravel that may not have seen the light of day in decades. Scoop by scoop, the material was fed through a colander, then carried in buckets to the sluice tray and fed, a handful at a time, into the six-foot-long metal chute. Stan Grist had advised the Texans that the alluvium of Ecuador could contain as much as a half ounce of gold per cubic yard. It seemed like it would take all day to process so much earth—but Salazar insisted that productive gold streams can reward the miner with up to $50 per hour.
“Man, I can’t believe we’re here—in the jungle!” Salazar said, sweat on his brow as he leaned back in the tropical sun. “Don’t get me wrong. I want to make money. Just a half ounce of gold and our trip is paid for. But I’m really here for the adventure of it all.”
I grew queasy in the early afternoon—a stomach illness that would persist for the next 48 hours—and I lay in the shade. “It’s because you don’t eat enough meat,” Salazar said, only half joking. “That has nothing to do with it,” I mumbled. In fact, I had been invited into a home the day before and fed guinea pig and pork—the first pig I’d knowingly eaten in a decade. I ate the meat to be polite and was perhaps paying for it now.
McGary came back from the sluice tray and picked up a pan to work a smaller scoop of dirt.
“Not exactly fast money, is it?” I said.
He laughed and shrugged. Salazar was now down the shore, taking his turn feeding earth into the sluice tray, confident there was money to be extracted from this ground. His energy and enthusiasm were remarkable, given the heavy labor inherent to gold mining, the small odds of making money and, on top of it all, the hot muggy air.
At 4, we packed it up and trudged back up to the road and waited by the suspension bridge for our ride. The Texans ached all over after six hours of labor. I felt sick. The cab arrived. In town, I went for bananas and bubbly water at the corner store, and from a passing pickup truck a bucket of water went over my head and shoulders, followed by laughter. It was the last day of Carnaval, the holiday often associated with Rio de Janeiro and which manifests in Ecuador as three days of, mostly, people sitting on the curb in their underwear and spraying each other with hoses or otherwise drenching each other.
I returned to the hotel, dripping wet. McGary, I discovered, had been hit in the back with a raw egg—another popular form of ammo on Carnaval—and had just taken his second shower of the afternoon. I sat with the men at the restaurant across the street where they ate $2 rice and fried meat—the culinary specialty of the region. Salazar was having a friendly feud with our teenage waitress, who promised to hit him with an egg later. “Tengo un huevo por usted!” she said with some sass. I thought it funny that she used the formal, respectful form of “you”—usted—while threatening to hit him with a raw egg.
Salazar still brimmed with excitement.
“To find six flakes in one pan—now that’s rich dirt!” he said. “I have a good feeling about this place.”
I rolled onward the next morning, saying goodbye to the Texans as they assembled their mining gear in the lobby. I pedaled north through the Amazon, aiming for Puyo in several days, from which town I would ride uphill via the Pastaza River canyon to the popular tourist town of Baños. Five days after I left them I received an e-mail from Curt. “Didn’t find a lot of gold but probably could with the right machinery,” he said. McGary said they were now headed for the coast, where their wives were to meet them for some rest and relaxation. But Salazar had told me he planned to walk the beaches with a metal detector, still envisioning gold—even if the flecks in the sand were almost too small to see.