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.
February 7, 2013
I left my baggage at a hostel in central Cuenca and rode east, on a small quiet highway that climbed into the beautiful green hills and would eventually lead over a small mountain range and straight down into the Amazon rainforest. My goal for the day was to go as far as the pass and look down toward the world’s greatest river basin, or the fog blanket upon it–but I didn’t get that far. About 10 miles out of town, in the quiet farm country, as I passed a small home on the left side of the road, a pair of dogs came charging from the front yard. This was nothing new; many dogs are pests and nuisances to cyclists here. But when one dog didn’t stop at the usual four-to-five-foot buffer distance and, instead, came right in and sank its teeth into my ankle, I yelled out and stepped off my bike, astonished I’d actually been bitten–the second dog bite of my life. The dog let go and scurried down the road while a woman came rushing from the home, yelling at the thing–her family’s best friend, I’m sure.
“Control your dog!” I snapped at her, rolling up to the dirt bank leading from the road to into their yard and staring at the woman as fiercely as I could. I pulled down my sock to have a look at my heel. “There’s blood! Does your dog have a rabies vaccination?”
The woman said yes.
“Do you have papers or documentation?” I asked.
She said yes. I asked if I could see the papers. She said they were lost. Her teenage girls had begun to laugh and giggle at me, and the grandmother who had come out of the house also wore the shadow of a smirk on her face. Nobody apologized or asked if I needed help.
I requested alcohol to clean my wound, which was oozing blood, and after the two women haggled nervously for a minute, I lost my patience and rolled back the way I had come. I needed to get medical attention. One hundred yards down the road, the same dog–a brown-and-white mongrel with pointed ears and wicked eyes–came at me again. I picked up a hunk of cement and threw, just missing the animal as it fled into the brush. The family sullenly watched the entire exchange. I rolled on.
The presence of dogs in Ecuador, as in all developing nations, baffles me. They’re often no better than rats, far less useful than goats and meaner by miles than pigs–yet the people feed them and maintain the dogs’ health just enough to keep them alive. They sport bleeding bald spots and rib cages like washboards, and about 50 percent cannot resist the urge to chase people on bicycles. Most dogs here don’t seem to be strays. That is, they usually appear to belong to a particular household–but why? Do people love these dogs? Name them Max? I doubt it.
As an experienced cycle tourist, I have a mixed relationship with dogs. I have loved several like siblings, and it tickles me every time I see a well-groomed, friendly dog on a leash here–but that gang of mongrels loitering by the roadside 200 yards ahead strikes dread and loathing in me. I often scheme how I might exact the most satisfying revenge on the dogs that harry me down the road through almost every village, snarling ferociously as though I had done something to outrage them. Carrying rocks in a front basket seems an easy precautionary tactic–though I don’t currently have a basket. Firing a three-pronged pole spear loaded with a rubber hand loop at one end would be extremely satisfying. The other day, in the outskirts of Quito, one of the usual “ribcage mutts,” as I call them, charged me and gave me hell for crawling past on a steep grade. It then fled toward a doorway as I launched an orange at its rear end. The owner, who probably hadn’t ever bathed his dog or picked up its poop in a used newspaper bag, poked his head out the upstairs window and yelled at me that I had antagonized the dog by not walking my bike. The exchange made me wonder if, perhaps, some people here do love their dogs even though they neglect them three-fourths of the way to death.
In the village of Turi, overlooking beautiful Cuenca below, I stopped at a small store and bought a vial of antiseptic for 50 cents and gave my leg a rough cleaning outside. I joined two local boys outside the school, each on their laptops using the free wi-fi, and went online to read what I could about rabies. I had a happy hour beer appointment with another traveler at 6 p.m. in Cuenca and I didn’t want to visit the hospital unless entirely necessary. Before I even connected, a car pulled up in the square and out stepped three beautiful nurses. I put away my laptop and rolled over. “Hello. I was just bitten by a dog,” I said, showing them the wound. “I cleaned it with disinfectant, but can you help? Do you think there is risk of rabies?”
“Yes,” one said. “You need attention.” The women invited me to follow them to the town’s health clinic, where they weighed me, took my blood pressure, measured my height and asked for my name, age, passport number and civil state, taking notes on a clipboard the whole time. Finally, they cleaned the bleeding wound and wrote me an order form for rabies vaccination at Cuenca’s main medical center.
“Is there any cost?” I asked as they began to gesture their farewells. “Nothing,” one said to me, shrugging. ‘We are a public hospital.”
In Cuenca, I found the main hospital closed, for it was after 4 p.m. I spent the late evening researching the perils of rabies and found myself terrified after a few minutes of reading off my laptop. Rabies is extremely deadly. If a person exhibits the first sign of the disease–tingling or burning around the wound–they are usually already goners on an unstoppable downward spiral toward a painful death. At this point, treatment is only given to ease the suffering. Only a handful of people have ever experienced rabies symptoms and still overcome the disease. Usually, to save a bite victim’s life, the vaccine must be delivered prior to the development of the virus in the spinal column and brain. The more I read, the more afraid for my life I became–and angry at the family that never even said they were sorry for their dog’s actions. I noted from several online sources that many authorities will prioritize the testing for rabies of a dog that has bitten someone. This examination is not a forgiving one and may require dissecting the dog’s brain–which got me thinking about my revenge.
“Would you like me to show you where this dog lives?” I hopefully asked the doctor the next morning at Medical Center Number 3, on Calle 12 de Abril. “It’s no trouble. I would be happy to take you there.”
“No,” he said confidently, then ordered me on my back on a cot.
An assistant asked me to pull up my shirt and explained that this would be the first of seven injections into my abdomen, one a day for a week–which spoiled my plans to camp for two or three nights in the lake-studded wilderness of Cajas National Park, 20 miles west and a vertical mile above.
“We close at 4 each day,” the assistant said. “Make sure you’re here. If you miss a day we must begin the whole series again.”
They tossed the needle in the trash and said, “Hasta mañana.”
Rabies treatments are not conducive to the spontaneous travel lifestyles. In my case, I was required to remain in and around Cuenca for six days. I only dared leave town on a bus–and I checked ahead to be sure that Loja, my next destination and 130 miles south, had a vaccination center so I could complete the series. I am now immune to rabies for the next two years, which gives me a powerful sense of indestructibility. Still, I’m thinking about that wicker handlebar basket full of rocks.
Rabies: What to Know, What to Do
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, rabies is carried by mammals and may be passed to a human by a bite or even just a slab of the tongue, as the virus occurs in an infected animal’s saliva. Aside from dogs, other common carriers of rabies include cats, bats, foxes, raccoons and skunks. Anyone who comes into contact with a wild or unknown mammal should be considered at risk of rabies and receive treatment immediately. Symptoms appear following the incubation period, which may take just 10 days or as long as several years. There is no cure once symptoms appear. These may include fever, numbness, tingling and hyperactivity. Death usually occurs within seven days of the onset of symptoms.
Rabies kills more than 55,000 people per year, mostly in Asia and Africa. Travelers to at-risk areas–rabies occurs in most countries–should consider getting immunized before going.
Warning Bats–one of the most common carriers–can deliver a bite without the victim even realizing it. Take no chances. Get vaccinated if you suspect you’ve had contact with an infected animal.
Drinking Alcohol During Rabies Vaccinations As the doctor injected my second dose of Fuenzalida-Palacio vaccine last Friday he said, “No beer, whiskey, nothing.” Oops. “I had a little wine last night,” I said. He shrugged and said, “No big deal.”
Well, what is the deal? I wanted to know because Cuenca has its own brewpub with two imperial stouts on tap, and this was also Super Bowl time in a town swarming with gringo football fans. In other words, I planned on having a few drinks that weekend. According to The Travel Doctor, only two vaccines–that for Japanese encephalitis and the oral vaccine for cholera–come with restrictions on alcohol consumption. Numerous other websites and forums address the same question that I had–can one drink alcohol during post-exposure rabies treatment? Though some travelers have been advised by hospital staff not to exercise, drink alcohol, tea or coffee, or have sex for four months following the first anti-rabies shot, this seems to be entirely unfounded advice.
February 6, 2013
In Ecuador, from sea level to 12,000 feet and more, every village has its own soccer cancha or two, and rarely does a public park see a day go by without a group of locals assembling on the grass with a ball, a few beers and a sack of oranges.
But at Parque Alvarez, on the north side of Cuenca and the west side of the river, a strange and alien phenomenon has been occurring each Saturday for several years–football. Not futbol real, but futbol Americano. The group of players–a team of high school boys called Los Condores–arrives at 3 p.m. with several blimp-shaped pigskins and the challenge of squeezing a 15-by-40-meter (I mean, yard) playing zone in among the three or four soccer games underway at any given hour. There are 12 players on the team–and nobody else in the province for them to compete against.
“There is another team in Quito,” coach Robin Ramon, 21, tells me–but the two groups have never faced off.
The Condores have played for four years, Ramon tells me as his players stretch and perform calisthenics and awkward-looking neck-building exercises. They play tackle football, just like the pros, without protective gear or uniforms, and have learned the rules and regulations of American football on their own, both through reading and watching games on television. There is no football organization here–no league–Ramon says. He and these kids are it, though this minimal interest in one of America’s biggest sports could be starting to grow. After 30 minutes of warming up, the Condores split in two and face off. I hear that familiar chant of classic Midwest Americana–”Hut hut hike!” –and the game begins. While the boys laugh and giggle and make flying tackles like pumas, Ramon tells me that American football is catching on here. “It’s a long process,” he admits, almost with a frustrated sigh–but even the local mall is now selling footballs, he says positively, and Ramon expects that in another two years there will be enough interest among kids in the area to form a competitive league.
Four separate soccer games are underway in the same park here, the round black and white balls moving in graceful arcs back and forth, all eyes focused, nearly every person out here vying to get their foot on a soccer ball, as they’ve been doing since they were barely walking. But at the northeast corner of the field, the young Condores pursue a very different ball. They line up and jump into a quick flurry of action, ending with a tackle and a heap of boys or a lost ball, bouncing left, then right, in that awkward way of footballs–and the metaphor is irresistible: On the grassy soccer fields of Ecuador, which way will the football go?