Adventures in Ecuador

By Michael Hulett

My luggage, my glider and I all arrived together in Quito late Sunday night,
the 10th of January. On the plane, as fate would have it, I had been seated
next to Chris, Kris and Dana from Oregon (actually Chris was seated in my
seat) and I'd deduced from their buoyant conversation that they were likely to
be my companions for the next two weeks. Our Ecuador host, Juan, whisked us
to the hotel (whisk is a relative term in Latin America) where over a glass of
Gato Negro I met the other adventurers in our group: Bruce from Utah, Margit
and Amir from Vancouver, David and Bonnie from D.C. (whom I already knew).
Kevin, our U.S. leader, had brought his cousin Katrina from Arizona as well as
his girlfriend Susan and Susan's 14-year-old son Jason. Quite the motliest of
crews.

We were staying at the Cafe Cultura, an old Spanish colonial mansion converted
to a hostel, with arched doorways, filigreed plaster, a grand staircase and
paintings on all the walls. Not paintings hung on the walls; the walls
themselves were painted with horses and cattle, beautiful senoritas and naked
men, and clouds on the ceilings. It reminded me of cave paintings. (Visit
their web site: www.ecuadorexplorer.com/cafecult/home You can see a
map of Ecuador at http://www.ecuadorexplorer.com/maps/)

After breakfast with Guanabana juice (no idea what it was but it tasted a
little like coconut) we loaded our gliders on the truck and headed to Radio
Faro, a mountain near Quito bristling with radio antennas. Our guides, whom
we would get to know well, learn to trust, share many a cerveza with and more
or less totally depend on, were Jose, Julian and Alvaro. They were fluent in
English and all accomplished climbers, kayakers, cyclists and, most
importantly, drivers. (You wouldn't believe some of the roads! And the
oncoming traffic passing on mountain curves!)

The top of Radio Faro was breathtaking. Not because of the view, which was
obscured in clouds, but the altitude - over 11,000 feet. We were all gasping
and panting while probing through the mist to see to the valley 2500 feet
below. One by one we set up our gliders and waited for a window through the
clouds. In front of an audience of my new friends I launched without
embarrassment and made what we call a "sled ride" (that is, no lift but a
gentle downward glide) out over the valley. The air was calm and I had plenty
of time to describe some graceful arcs and circles in the air before punching
through some turbulence at the LZ (Landing Zone). About half the pilots flew
that morning before the clouds drew a final curtain over our stage.

For lunch we drove to "La Mitad Del Mundo" (the middle of the world), so
called because it lies on the Equator. There's a monument there to mark
Latitude Zero, though David determined on his GPS that it was off by half a
kilometer or so. Inside was a museum featuring the various ethnic regions of
Ecuador. Back in Quito we spent a relaxing evening at the hotel and a few of
us went to a neighborhood Internet Cafe; I sipped a chocolate concoction while
others played chess and checked their email.

Next day we flew from a ridge overlooking the outskirts of Quito. The launch
site was next to a highway so we had a lot of curious onlookers. We met some
local pilots who, despite their intimate knowledge of the site and weather,
were totally wrong in their forecast of improving conditions. By the time I
took off, there was not enough lift to make the LZ a certainty, so I opted for
landing in a field at the base of the ridge. My glider nearly settled on top
of a cow who seemed completely unfazed. As I was packing up, the farmer
passed by and we exchanged some friendly words, which as I don't speak Spanish
were incomprehensible to me, but I did catch "caliente" with a twinkle in his
eye that translated to "crazy gringo to be so dressed up in all this heat".

That night we departed Quito for the high Andes, crossing the divide into the
Amazon watershed. Most of the driving was after dark, so we were spared the
visual terror of the horrendous mountain roads. Our destination was a resort
at Papallacta hot springs, grass-roofed bungalows surrounding natural baths at
various temperatures from scalding to freezing, between which we alternated
(with an emphasis on the former) late into the night.

Next morning we awoke to discover we were nestled in a lush valley formed by
precipitous peaks. To the south the sky cleared long enough for a glimpse of
Antisana, a snow-covered volcano rising over 20,000 ft. After a leisurely
breakfast of fresh trout, we drove back through the mountains, stopping for a
short hike through a moss-carpeted tree-ceilinged glen in the cloud forest.

Our itinerary then took us to the town of Cayambe. Here we visited the modest
cathedral where apparently some miracle had once occurred, something to do
with a nobleman falling off a horse. It was getting dark and after closing by
the time we reached our next stop, the Cochasqui Ruins, but the guard was
bribed to give us a tour in the failing light. These are impressive earth
pyramids built on a high plateau, only discovered about 60 years ago and still
largely unexcavated. Similar to Mayan pyramids, but unlike Inca structures,
they are somewhat a mystery in this place. Step-sided, with long ramps up to
their flat tops, they were used for ceremonial rites and apparent sacrifices
(not necessarily human) and astronomical observations. Shrouded in the
twilight mist, they stood as sentinels over the vast grassy plains and the dim
recesses of time.

We arrived that night at Santa Ana de las Monjas, a farm high on the flanks of
Cayambe volcano owned by Juan's parents. This traditional farm is operated as
it has been for ages. The steep fields are plowed by yoked cattle, burros are
the truck of choice, our milk and eggs and pork and fish were fresh that day.
Thursday morning I was up early enough to help milk the cows. The tenant
farmer and his wife showed me how and they smiled as the tentative squirts I
was able to produce were put to shame by the torrent that their practiced
hands brought forth. But I was rewarded with the warm frothy, buttery-rich
taste of unpasteurized, unhomogenized milk right from the tap.

After a hearty breakfast we drove down into the valley to tour one of the
hundreds of flower factories that tile the valley floor with their acres of
greenhouses. Most of the roses sold in the U.S. come from Ecuador, and we saw
millions of them, an immense palette being grown, tended, harvested and
packaged. Long-stemmed roses cost about a penny apiece here.

That afternoon we drove as high up the volcano as the road allowed. Along the
way we were treated to postcard views of pastures and towns, women in colorful
garb bowed under bundles of sticks or carrying babies like papooses, children
herding flocks of cows or pigs down the narrow road, school kids running after
our vans to jump on the bumper for a free ride. We climbed above tree line
into the ever-present mist. Up here free-ranging bulls are raised for the
bullring. At the end of the road we hiked the rest of the way, once again
short of breath at the 15,000 foot elevation, to the mountain shelter where
climbers spend the night before scaling the ice-bound summit a mile and a half
higher still. I contented myself to clambering up onto the sizable glacier
that pours (exceedingly slowly) down from the peak. Juan told me it's receded
significantly since his youth, the result of global warming, but it was still
impressive. I slid and slipped around the crevasses. Briefly, the sky
cleared and we could see the peak itself. We wished good luck to the climbers
on their way up as we made our way down to a succulent barbecue at the farm,
cooked in a giant clay oven outside the kitchen.

Next day was shopping day. We drove several hours north to the town of
Otovalo, also the name of the indigenous Indians of the region who have been
very successful at marketing their goods around the world and thereby earned a
great deal of economic autonomy (and no doubt envy). In the marketplace we
spent several hours bargaining for incredibly inexpensive handmade sweaters
and other items loomed from alpaca and llama wool. I was conservative (that's
Spanish for cheap) as usual and ended up buying only two sweaters for about $5
each. Others filled large duffle bags with their hoards. This market was
primarily for tourists, but a few of us, surfeited with the rigors of
shopping, walked to the local outdoor food market. I couldn't even identify
most of the fruits and vegetables that were arrayed on table upon table in the
bustling square. Spent by the excesses of rampant souvenir acquisition, we
drove on to the town of Ibarra.

Along the way my suitcase had an adventure of its own. Bounced off the top of
the van in which I continued riding completely unaware of its loss, it landed
in the street. Immediately a car stopped, the driver jumped out, grabbed my
suitcase, threw it into the back seat and took off, no doubt grinning about
the good fortune that had fallen into his way. Little did he realize that our
van was not alone. Seeing the incident, Jose floored the accelerator and cut
the car off in a screech of brakes; behind him Alvaro stopped the truck in a
pincer movement. The man was all smiles as he handed back the suitcase and
waved good-bye with a friendly "Adios!"

At Ibarra we spent the night in the fading glory of a once-splendid hotel,
whose remaining grasp on charm was fast loosening under the grip of decay. I
was lucky to get a halfway decent room, but the others, some of whom were not
charmed by snails in the shower, petitioned Kevin to move next morning to
deluxe accommodations at a Holiday Inn class motel, with color TV and hot
water, which did prove a relaxing if charmless change of pace.

Saturday morning we took to the air once more. Our launch site was high above
the town immediately overlooking a large lake. I dallied as is my custom at
new flying sites while others took off; Chris and Bruce caught nice thermals
and actually disappeared briefly into the clouds above us. By the time I was
ready the wind had died and was shifting around to the back side of the
mountain. Slightly annoyed at myself for not being more aggressive and
thereby missing an opportunity to fly, I packed my gear and, along with Kevin
and Kris the other dalliers, trundled to the other side of the mountain.
Conditions were getting good and this time I didn't want to waste them.
Flying from this side meant launching over a high valley and keeping enough
altitude to swing around the mountain and land at lakeside. For the first
time in my flying career I elected to be "wind dummy" and launch first. I
caught a good updraft and worked my way up over the ridge where I flew back
and forth over the heads of my fellow pilots who had arrived back from their
first flight. After about twenty minutes I began to worry why nobody else was
launching. I was alone in the sky at a place I'd never flown. Later Margit
explained they were all so in awe of my flight that they didn't think to
launch. A lie, but a nice one. Eventually I was joined by most of the
others, but I held on til the last, almost an hour and a half in the air. By
that time reports from the LZ were of increasing turbulence. Bruce, Amir and
I dutifully headed around the mountain over the lake, but the air was so
buoyant it took us all a long time to work our way down. On my final landing
approach I hit sink and dropped (softly) 30 feet straight down. That night we
went out for Ecuadorian pizza and back at our luxurious hotel watched videos
of ourselves courtesy of Chris' camera work.

Next morning a sled ride from the same mountain, this time from the front side
directly over the lake (no dallying). We regrouped and drove to another
mountain nearby, this one even higher. It was misting again (seldom did it do
otherwise) and we even felt a sprinkle of rain as we hiked, puffing as usual,
up the mountain track past cows and pigs and burros on their way down.
Despite the risk of getting wet from the lowering wisps of cloud, I and most
of the others decided to fly. For most it was a straight, though long, sled
ride but I was fortunate to hook a thermal right off launch that took me up as
near to cloudbase as I dared. Launching before me, Bruce had almost sunken
out, but seeing the thermal I'd found, heroically worked his way back up the
mountainside to join me. By then I was ready for a smooth glide so I headed
out over the town several thousand feet above it and took my first ever aerial
photo of my feet suspended way above the tiny houses. I landed in perfect
synchrony with Kris and our feet touched gently down a few yards and fewer
moments apart, scattering a horde of kids swarming out to greet us. In the
background we heard a brass band playing lively dance music. As it happened
the little town (named "roof" in Spanish) was having a festival and we were
promptly escorted to the town square as celebrities. The townspeople were
having a great party, dancing and drinking and playing soccer all at once. I
was passed a cup of cerveza that a large gulp revealed to be whiskey in
disguise. Then we were bustled into the town hall and feasted with roast pig
and chincha, a native ceremonial drink, slightly fermented and probably made
by chewing some root which is then spat out, though I don't want to know this
for sure. Altogether a great day. For dinner we had called ahead to a
restaurant and ordered the house specialty, guinea pig. Though I was
particularly looking forward to this delicacy, by the time we arrived, too
late, they'd sold our guinea pigs which apparently don't keep well. That
night we stopped once more in Otovalo, where Kevin and his relatives had returned
for, yes, more shopping. After pasta at a local cafe where we literally took
over their kitchen, we drove sleepily back to Quito.

That was the first week.

Monday saw another early start as we piled ourselves and our gear into the
truck and vans, then headed down the Cordillera Oriental (western range) as
the rivers flow to the sea. Our particular river was the Rio Blanco, which we
intercepted in the rain forest a couple of hours west, and several thousand
feet below Quito. Kevin had contracted with a rafting company to conduct the
next portion of our odyssey. After fitting into life jackets and donning
helmets and listening to a briefing on safety and basic river commands
(basically five: Forward, Back, Back Left, Back Right and (my favorite)
Break), we piled onto rubber boats, six to a raft plus captain, and were
summarily swept downstream. The guides said we would be encountering Class 3
rapids. That sounded fine to me. What they didn't say was that we would be
encountering little else, particularly stretches of calm water. Within
minutes we were entirely soaked, a condition that didn't improve with time.
It was a fun ride, but so active that there was too little quiet time to
observe the rain forest through which we were rapidly conveyed. After an arm-
wearying four hours we pulled ashore to camp. By this time it had started to
rain. There was no dry wood for a fire. So, anticipating a damp night on a
cold ground, I stood absolutely immobile for about thirty minutes until by
great mental effort I willed my body to rid itself of the wet clothes and find
some measure of snugness in my assigned tent, from which I didn't emerge until
dawn, a damp dawn to no one's surprise.

The rain had lasted all night and as a result the river was now a meter or
more higher than when seen last. The hardest part of the voyage was getting
back into yesterday's wet clothes; but it was useless to sacrifice my dry
ones. Within minutes we were drenched anew. And the rapids were bigger.
Probably still class 3, but now definitely BIG class 3. About midday, our
boat captain, who was otherwise faultless, misjudged the current and sent us
sideways into a "hole". By now our veteran crew was so experienced that when
he yelled "Highside!" we immediately complied by piling onto the downstream
side of the raft. This is a technique employed to keep the raft from flipping
over. In that regard it was successful; what it didn't prevent was me and
three others from being catapulted overboard. It happened so fast that the
first thing I was aware of was being underwater as the raft passed over me.
When I popped to the surface I was next to Juan. Unfortunately neither of us
was next to the boat which was now several hundred feet down river and
approaching the next rapid. With little need of encouragement from our
skipper yelling "Swim!", we made it back to the boat and were hauled aboard in
time to face the next cascade. Naturally, river rats that we were by now, no
one had let go of their paddle. So we splashed and crashed along. Late in
the day a similar fate overtook the raft ahead of us, except this time
everybody including their captain fell overboard; this is known in rafting
parlance as "clean rubber". This is not good because it is extremely
difficult to get back into the raft without someone inside helping you.
Immediately our fearless skipper sprung into action, maneuvering our boat
against theirs in the maelstrom, then leaping aboard and hauling out its soggy
crew right and left. He was amazingly agile; throughout the trip he had stood
in the stern bouncing into the air as the boat accordioned over waves. At the
moment my appreciation of his heroics was tempered only slightly by the
knowledge that now we had no one at the helm to guide us through the raging
current. But a moment later he bounded back to us and the trip ended without
further submersion. The river coughed us up and our faithful vans awaited us
with dry clothes. Seven hours later, over some of the roughest roads ever to
be called paved, we arrived at the coastal town of Crucita.

Crucita, we were to learn intimately, is a small fishing village stretching
along miles of Pacific beach. It's also a modest resort town, not for
foreigners but rather suited to the budget of vacationing Ecuadorians. But
this was the off-season and we had the place pretty much to ourselves.
Despite being on the equator the temperature was comfortable (except when
waiting to launch in a full flight suit under, and I mean directly under, the
sun). Pigs roamed freely through the streets, helping keep the place tidy.
Frigate birds hung suspended from the sky and pelicans floated inches from the
breaking waves. We were staying at Zucasa, a laid-back sort of place on the
beach, with hammocks outside our door, a swimming pool steps away and bunches
of bananas hanging on our porch. (Note on bananas: a truckload cost about
$3.00) One evening the proprietor prepared a generous barbecue for us at pool
side; langostino, fresh tuna steaks, tropical fruit salad and other dishes
remembered only by their taste.

This was lazy living. In the mornings we breakfasted by the sea, then worked
up the energy to be driven to launch, about 5 minutes away. The reason we
were in Crucita began at the southern end of town and continued for several
miles: a high ridge facing the steady sea breeze that provided smooth lift for
hours on end. Each day I flew about two hours with almost no effort. Dana
wanted to set a personal record and did, six and a half hours in one flight.
He landed only because it was getting dark. We thought that two other pilots
from Switzerland never would come down. It was full night when the second one
finally landed by soaring over town and landing under the street lamps.

The designated landing area was the stretch of beach below the launch hill but
I never had to use it. Twice I top landed right back where I took off, and
another day Bruce and I noticed the others had already packed up and headed
down to Gordito's, our favorite hang out. So we placed our lunch orders by
radio, flew over the town and landed on the beach right in front of the
restaurant. Pretty cool stuff. Gordito would fill our plates high with
freshly caught seafood, papas fritas, fried bananas, ceviche and the like;
that plus a cerveza or two and the bill, figured in his head, came out to
about three dollars.

One morning I got up a little earlier than usual (which was by no means
taxing) and hiked down the beach to where the catch was brought in. The big
fishing boats work all night trawling out in the bay. Long before I awoke,
most of the townspeople were down at the beach sorting, gutting, cleaning and
hauling the immense catch. People of all ages worked on long tables under
grass-roofed bamboo pavilions, knives flashing with practiced hands, flicking
fillets into one pile and fish heads into another. Wooden motorboats braved
the surf coming and going to deliver the catch from the anchored trawlers.
Local distributors from nearby towns piled their aging trucks with glistening
fish layered with shaved ice made on the spot. The bigger fish were saved
whole for sale to restaurants. There was a delightful informality to the
operation. Children took frequent breaks from hacking fish to play. Vendors
sold snacks. Hundreds and hundreds of seabirds wheeled and dived hoping for a
dropped morsel, then fought over it in the sky. I felt I was watching a trade
that had continued virtually unchanged from the shores of the Mediterranean
thousands of years ago. I couldn't believe how many fish there were, and this
was only one day! By midmorning the ritual slowed to an end and people made
their way back home to start their own day.

By Saturday we couldn't take any more stress and the weary adventurers headed
for Manta down the coast, where we boarded a jet plane for our return to
Quito. The TAME flight (national airline of Ecuador) lived up to its acronym;
as the plane climbed I was treated to a gorgeous view of Crucita and its
soarable ridges that by now I knew rock by rock. Returning to Cafe Cultura
seemed almost like coming home. Now we felt like seasoned explorers sizing up
the new arrivals. I talked with a lovely old lady from London. All her life
she'd wanted to visit the Galapagos. Finally, at age 77 she decided to just
do it. But none of her friends wanted to go. So she came all by herself and
spent a week touring the islands by boat taking 14 rolls of film. She made me
wish I'd planned better and made the trip there myself.

Saturday evening Jose and Julian drove us into the old town of Quito. Narrow
streets and red-tiled roofs. Lofty cathedrals and crowded squares. They
pointed out the thieves market where everything for sale was stolen; if you
were robbed there's a good chance you could buy it back here a few minutes
later. Even Jose and Julian were nervous about walking around, and
particularly after dark. Julian, the lead driver, got a little lost and cut
the wrong way down a one-way street. A cop flagged him down. It seems the
traffic fine is several hundred dollars (not sucres) AND thirty days in jail.
Walking around the corner they came to a different agreement and we were on
our way, Julian poorer and the cop richer by about ten bucks.

We drove through a maze of impossibly narrow streets which were totally
clogged by vendors hawking every imaginable kind of merchandise from booths
that evaporate each night to appear from nowhere each morning. Many were name
brand items by Levi's, Nike, Hilfiger and the like, and all counterfeit. We
finally found a parking space near the city's main plaza, and walked through
three of Quito's beautiful old cathedrals. Weddings were taking place in two
of them, Mendelssohn's wedding march sounding strangely out of place in the
rococo Spanish colonial architecture. As darkness fell, our guides ushered us
hastily back to the vehicles. That night we splurged and we treated them (as
well as ourselves) to a truly fine meal at one of Quito's more elegant
restaurants. Jose went pale when he saw the bill: over a million sucres.
He'd never seen a tab so large. We gringos reminded ourselves that it was
only $120 for dinner for eight including drinks and wine.

Our last day, Sunday, most of the group were too lazy to do anything, but I
and three others made the trek with our gliders to a launch site. But the
wind gods weren't smiling that day, or at least they weren't blowing in our
direction so we remained earthbound. That afternoon we all gathered at the
home of a local paraglider pilot in one of Quito's modern suburbs for a
cookout, our last taste of traditional Ecuadorian cuisine. Then it was back
to the hotel to pack, and out to the airport to catch the overnight flight to
the States.