ecuador travelogue, 1994

napo river

napo river

A guidebook provided the answer to the Why Ecuador? question: “So if your dream of Quechua cosmogonies and tropical isles, hidden volcanoes and mountain lakes, Amazon rainforests and lovely Pacific beaches, this tranquil tropical republic is for you.”

Arriving in Quito at 11:00 p.m., we take a taxi to the Tambo Real Hotel. The bellman leads us to our room, demonstrates the room’s amenities, then turns on the TV, to Cheers, in English.

The following morning, combating disorietation, headaches and slight dizziness from the 9,350-foot altitude, we set out in search of breakfast.

Sidewalk seated on Avenida Amazonas, we sip dark coffee and munch pastries while watching the morning flow of Ecuadorians. Suddenly, one sits down at our table, uninvited. A middle-aged man in a worn business suit asks if we’re from the U.S. Then he says, “You Americans always do bad things.”

Thinking that he’d start ranting about Vietnam, Panamá, Iraq, or Somalia, instead he tells us that his son is imprisoned in New York. Although his English is tough to follow, I understand him to say that his son had been convicted of manslaughter, and is serving a 25-year sentence. He’s obviously sad, helpless and angry, but we’re not prepared for his final salvo: “If my son soon not out of prison, I kill an American.”

With that he stands and briskly walks away, without looking back. Stricken into silence for a few seconds, I turn to Judy. “That’s it, from now on we’re Canadians.”

A few minutes later a young German couple stop to ask if they can have a look at our Ecuador guidebook. To avoid the danger of bussing it across Peru, they’re trying to figure out how to fly to Chile.

We invite them to sit down and share travel tips. After recounting what had just took place at our table, they tell a harrowing story of being on a bus in the Colombian countryside, when a band of guerillas waived the bus to a stop, made everyone get out, then, while yelling and firing guns in the air, set the bus on fire before disappearing into the jungle.

We leave Quito that afternoon, heading north. The bus is crowded, the only open seats are in the back row. With our backpacks strapped on and the bus bouncing along, we squeeze through the narrow aisle, continually apologizing as we bump into people.

When the bus finally reaches the outskirts of Quito, I notice the driver reach into an overhead compartment that houses a VCR. I wish I could have stopped him, because for the next 90 minutes, while trying to enjoy the magnificent Andean countryside, I struggle to ignore the movie, which is so violent, so melodramatic and so profane, that it somehow trumps the scenery. Drug-addicted hoodlums harass old women and young boys, kill cops and beat up innocent people. The bus is filled with shy and private indigenous people with their timid young children, and we’re travelling over unimaginable scenic high-mountain country, and the soundtrack is provided by the most obscene movie ever made.

In Ibarra we take a taxi to La Esperanza, a small village at the foot of the Volcán Imbabura. Inhabitated by indian farmers, the area is green and lush, with gently rolling hills and valleys, all surrounded by the volcano and postcard-perfect mountains. Recommended by the Germans, we are taken to Casa Aida, one of only two pensiones in town. We walk through the kitchen/dining room and into the backyard, where a man doing yardwork calls for Miguel to show us our room.

Eight-year-old Miguel says we’ll have to wait for him to clean the room. With clean sheets and a pillow in one hand, a broom and pail in the other, he goes about his business. Fifteen minutes later we watch him struggle with the pillow case for a good two minutes before he turns to say the room is ready.

The room is 12-by-12 with no lock and no bathroom.

The next day, after a long walk in the country, we take a bus to Ibarra, then hail a taxi to take us to the Hosteria San Augustín, which is set amongst pasture lands and grazing cows. On this walk I witness something out of the ordinary. A boy is lying on his stomach on a bank, looking down at his mother, who acts increasingly anxious as she looks for him. When she finally sees him, she starts yelling at him, albeit in a muffled voice. It’s the first time I recall seeing an Indian emote in public, and the first time I see one yelling at their child.

ecuadortruckIn the morning we join a few families, some produce and a couple sheep in a flat bed truck to a village well known for its wood carving. On the return we stop at Hosteria Chorlavi, a 4-star hacienda/restaurant for lunch. In the parking lot I notice that most of the late-modeled cars are wearing Colombian license plates. After being seated, we order asparagus soup, shrimp and rice. Entertaining us is smartly-dressed 7-piece acoustic band. Seated at the table next to us are a middle-aged couple and their 2 pre-teen daughters. The guy is tanned and handsome, wears his hair in a pony tail, and looks distinguised in his long sleeve white shirt with pleated vest. “A drug dealer, no doubt, “I whisper to Judy. “Here to set up his next shipment of Columbian cocaine.”

After we finish our meals, the guy leans over and says, in perfect English, “Are you Americans?”

Robert is from upstate New York, living with his family in Santiago, Chile. He deals in the Chilean stock market and, on weekends, plays music in local restaurants. His wife, Elana, is an artist who once lived in La Jolla, and is quite outspoken in her criticism of Chilean politics. (Former President Pinochet tortured and/or killed the country’s leftists, is now head of the military).

Swapping travel stories, Robert told about the only time he’s been robbed in years of world-wide travel. In a crowded Chilean plaza, he was taking a photo of his family when a guy grabbed his back pocket and ripped his entire pant leg off. “The guy held my wallet in one hand, my pant leg in the other, then laughed, tossed the wallet to an accomplice, and both took off running.”

Two days later, at the public market in Otavalo, while looking at a rack of postcards, I was startled to feel this tugging at my back pocket. I turned and there was Robert.

It’s both wonderful and a bit sad to make these brief acquaintences with people, only to soon say goodbye, certain that you’ll never see one another again. Fellow travelers in remote places share much in common.

New Year’s eve: We’re staying in a lakeside hostal just outside of the famous market town of Otavalo. In the afternoon we go for a walk along the river that feeds into Lago San Pablo. We pass women and children, but very few men. Most of the women have come to the river to wash clothes, others tend to sheep, pigs, cows and children. Some come to bathe. Standing in a few feet of water, they discreetly hold a sheet around them with one one hand, while scrubbing themselves with the other.

These Andean Indians are the picture of health. Men and women are short, stout, built close to the ground, where most earn their living. There is no automation to their daily work. We stop and watch the lengthy process of washing an article of clothing: soap, scrub, slap against a rock or hit with a stick, rinse, slap, rise, slap, rinse, dry.

The Otavalo market is unlike any we’ve seen. An entire street is devoted to textiles, another to unprocessed wool, another to cooking implements. There’s a whole block of potatoes, stacks at head level, on both sides ot the street. Women, particularly, shout out prices, providing a background of noise that seems to rise and fall depending on the product. After walking through the wool street, I remark to Judy that there was no hawking. “Upper class,” she says. “They own animals, and it’s beneath them.”

We’re in the Andes, surrounded by Indians, descendents of the Inca Empire, (which is something by itself to think about). They fill the busses, line the streets and operate most of the sidewalk shops. There seem to be two groups, one wearing western clothes––jeans, American t-shirts, baseball caps–– and the other wearing traditional dress.

Back in our room, after a late-afternoon nap, I stumble into the bathroom to get ready for New Year’s eve in town.

“Ayyy!!” I scream. “Something happened,” I say.

scorpionWithout my glasses I’m not sure what. I just know there’s a painful burning sensation coming from the big toe of my left foot. With one hand balancing myself against the wall, I lift my foot up, expecting to see blood. But I don’t see any. By then Judy is at my side, half frantic when she sees a scorpion lying dead on the floor. She tells me to sit down, not move, while she puts on her shoes, places the scorpion on a tray, then takes it to the reception desk to find someone who may know if it’s poisonous. A few minutes later she returns with a man, a woman and a little girl holding a bag of ice. The guy speaks English, assures me that the scorpion is not a killer. “It’s only the cousin of the bad scorpion.”

Bussing it from Quitos to Baños, a 3-hour ride on the Pan American Highway, the 2-lane paved road takes us from the high elevation of 9,350 feet, down into a beautiful, lush, green valley, up and over a scenic mountain rainforest, then down into another equally lush valley. We’re sitting in seats #s 1 and 2, which I purchased the day before we travel, expecting to get the 2 passenger-side seats where you share the windshield and views with the bus driver. Unfortunately, I was wrong––seats 1 and 2 are right behind the driver, his tall seat and his head. What makes them worse are the standing passengers in the front of the bus. Can’t see a damn thing.

The bus drops us off in the plaza, where we hail a taxi. I had decided to simplify the hotel-locating process, so with tourist book in hand, I ask to be taken to the Hotel Palace. I must have given the driver the slightest hint of indecisiveness, because he responds with, “I know a good hotel, very clean, good price.” Three short blocks later he pulls up in front of a hotel on a side street off the plaza. Before I can say “Wait a minute,” we are out of the taxi, the manager is greeting us, grabbing our bags, and tipping the driver. A moment later we’ve checked into a 3rd floor room with windows opening onto a stairwell, a double bed that sags like an old farm horse, and not cheap at $8. When the water doesn’t stop running after flushing the toilet, Judy gives me one of her looks. I deserve it.

An hour-long climb took us to a spot where we can see the entire valley and town below. The acoustics from up here are somehow perfect. Surrounded by mountains, one can hear voices, music, car noise, birds, everything. That’s the one drawback with Baños––it’s noisy. A radio playing a bad song loudly must be endured by an entire neighborhood. Otherwise, Baños is relaxing, interesting and beautiful, so we decide to spend another night––in a different hotel. The guidebook-recommended Hotel Palace is located right below a natural waterfall, with restaurant, pool and jacuzzi. We’re going in style, at $16.

We missed a New Year’s eve tradiditon of burning in effigy the politicians and company bosses, but we see the ashes scattered throughout the streets. While dining we’re interrupted by young kids wearing masks, standing next to the table and growling––obviously a local trick-or-treat tradition. The next day we stumble across a street dance, where the participants are dressed in costume. One guy is bathed from head to toe in oil; his fundraising method is to threaten to hug people unless they give him some money.

Male Indians look so smart and noble in their felt hats and long braided black hair. Women are colorfully dressed and nearly always wearing fake gold necklaces. Judy quips that before the Spanish, their necklaces were made of real gold.

When approaching these native Americans on the street they often make eye contact, invariably exchanging greetings with a smile. Socialogists, I read, theorize that these people have fewer emotional problems, due, in part to the baby’s lengthy contact with his mother. An Andean woman always seems to include a baby wrapped in a blanket, hanging on her back. One thing is sure, you rarely hear one crying.

burrosA suspension bridge crosses the Pastaza river. We sit by the bridge and watch families begin their trek home from a day in the village. With the family burro loaded down, most walk. We see a teenage girl help her elderly inebriated father walk, while her sister leads the burro. Walking a few steps behind is the mother and their younger brother.

As we board the bus to Tena, a town in the Amazon rainforest, it’s apparent there are not enough seats for everyone, which is not good, since the trip takes 5 hours, and it’s a mostly bumpy ride down the mountain. There are numbered seat assignments, but that evidently doesn’t mean anything on this bus. A young Canadian, whose name I learn later is Paul, is part of a tour group, gets testy when he’s told to go to the back of the bus. “I paid for these seats,” he says angrily. His friend doesn’t understand Spanish. “What’s the matter? What’s wrong? Aren’t those our seats? What’d he say?” When their tour guide tells the guy that the driver will not move move until people are sitting, the guy says, “We should just beat the shit out of him.”

As it turns out, I sit in Paul’s seat, next to the guide, where the views are fantastic. For 2 hours, until the check point, Paul stands next to me in the aisle, and, although he doesn’t throw up, he’s very obviously suffering from motion sickness. When the guide asks if he wants to take his seat, he says, “I don’t want to have to look down.”

When we arrive at the Tena bus station, which is a dusty lot surrounded by ramshackle stores, an American by the name of Michael Porter introduces himself, then offers his services while showing us a hand-printed brochure that’s entitled “Gringo Jungle Tours.” He explains that he and his brother purchased 1000 acres to enter the tourism business. After listening to his spiel, I decline, but suggest he make his proposal to a group of 4 Norwegians who were on the bus with us. Meanwhile, Judy and I get out of the hot sun, share a Coke in the shade, while pondering our options. A few minutes later the Norwegians join us while Michael Porter goes shopping for food for his new guests.

narrow roadThe road from Tena to Misahualli is so narrow that you must keep your arms in the bus or risk getting them whacked by a tree branch. Arriving in Misahualli, a very small village that sits between the intersection of Napo and Pastaza Rivers, we take a rest from the all-day bus rides to have some refreshments. It’s hot, muggy, and now it begins to rain. A young barefooted boy brings delivers the beers, as cold as they could be. Later, while Judy stays with the backpacks, I leave to research jungle tour options.

We’re the only guests at a dumpy riverside hostal. Our cabin is close to the river, not more than 20 feet away, and although the floor and bathroom are filthy, it seems like a decent place to get a good night’s sleep. A cooling breeze picks up in the early evening, and it’s generally quiet, except for the sound of the river, the buzzing insects and various other unidentified jungle sounds. I sleep soundly until the first croak, which was so loud I thought it came from inside the room. At least 4 times I’m awakened by this attention-getting loud-mouthed frog.

junglehikeIn the morning, I awake to hear Judy in the bathroom, and it’s not a routine visit. Even though we ate the same thing for dinner, she has spent a fitful, sleepless night. She tells me that she wanted to get up during the night to throw up, but, in the darkness, fearing insects, she decided against it.

The following day we decide to explore the jungle on a 4-day adventure––sleeping bags, tent, campfire, long canoe ride, hiking and fishing, all for $25 per person, per day. The guide tells us that he just has to find 2 others to join us. After dinner we return to the tourism office to find out that he was unsuccesful. We decide to take a canoe downriver to a lodge, so Judy can recuperate in relative comfort.

Simple pleasures
A private canoe ride to Casa de Suizo cost 15 dollars, so we opt to wait a couple hours until the sheduled Indian-organized water taxi arrives. Judy is still not herself, so she finds a comfortable spot in the shade to lay down, and, together with a half-dozen waiting passengers, watch some adolescent monkeys at play.

warpaintI sit for awhile, then decide to take a walk around the village. When I return she tells me that one of the monkeys put on quite a show. There’s a couple open cooking stands covered by small tarps, where 2 women prepare fast food. While everyone watched, the monkey decended from a tree, and when one of the women turned her back he would dart over, grab an egg, then scamper back up the tree. Later, while Judy was lying with her head resting on my backpack, and eyes closed, the monkey startled her by dropping from the tree, landing right in her lap. Immediately he grabbed the zipper to the pack and began to open it. Judy screamed while everyone howled.

The 40-minute canoe ride delivers us at Casa de Suizo. Cabin-style rooms with shaded balconies from which you can see at least 2 miles up and down the river. Tonight we’ll pay $140 for room, board and a 2-hour jungle tour. Last night we spent $7 for a room and dinners.

Later that afternoon we take the tour with José, who proudly describes himself as a naturalist. Within a short walk of the lodge we’re thick in the jungle, and he’s stopping every few steps to describe the medicinal benefits of various plants and trees. One plant, with spiney needles protruding from the stems of its leaves, is good for whatever ails the digestive system, he says. He breaks off a leaf and, after lifting his shirt, gently taps it against his stomach. judyjungleHe explains that liquid comes out of the needles, passing the medicine into your system. “Here, you try,” he says. Before I can decline, he’s tapping the back of my hand with the leaf. It stings a little and I can’t see the needles penetrating. Aferwards, my hand itches. Ten minutes later I look down to see little bumps have risen from my skin. “Look at my hand,” I say to José. He smiles, lifts his shirt, and there are dozens of bumps on his stomach. When I tell him of Judy’s intestinal problems, he says that on the way back we’ll stop by his house for some medicine for her.

We stop by a plant with little green fruit hanging from the branches. He picks one, breaks it open, poking his finger at the seeds inside. A red fluid oozes out and he dabs some on his finger, then on Judy’s face, explaining how the Incas use this for ceremonial war paint.

Next stop is the village witch doctor, a tiny old lady whose profession seems to be making yucca whiskey. We walk up the rickety steps to her raised wooden hut, where she puts on an exhibition of how she makes the stuff, then insists we try it. Ugh!

Napo Riber

Pastaza River

We wait at the river’s edge for the 10-minute motorized canoe ride down the Napo that will take us to the Anaconda Lodge. There’s no pier or dock, just a small spit of sand. In the canoe, I introduce myself to Simón, our driver. An English language study book sits next to him. When I try to coax some English words out of him, he’s so shy, but after more prompting, he says, “Tanks to you.”

Judy still has the blahs so we spend the day relaxing in our rustic jungle-style thatched-roof hut. Four cabins share a common roof, each separated by wooden walls that do not reach the roof. A private shower but no electricty. Bamboo slats cover the outside walls, with room aplenty for insects to make their entry.

Taking a late-afternoon nap, I’m startled awake by what I think is a some kind of motor just outside our room.

“Cicadas,” Judy says, without looking away from her book.

I’m sitting on the balcony writing this. The cabin is only a dozen feet from the jungle. I’m being seranaded by wildlife. Insects and birds take turns performing. In the middle of the night I stretch my arm overhead, touching the wall. Feeling a bug climb onto my hand. I throw my arm down, then hear a thud as it hits the floor. Probably a cockroach, I’m hoping. I’m reminded that the night belongs to insects, and that I made a mistake of venturing onto their territory.

Just after daybreak I go out on the balcony to catch the sunrise, and see a couple dozen kids, all dressed alike, wating for the canoe bus to take them crossriver to school. In Ecuador, as in other Latin American countries we’ve visited, each school requires its students to wear a uniform. In Baños, while eating breakfast one morning, we sat and watched a long parade of students, each wearing the colors of their school. Everyone looked so smart, so studious, and most importantly, the same––you couldn’t tell the poor kids from the rich kids.

Julio identifies it as the Devil’s tree, explaining how trees have a spirit, and that this tree’s spirit is  evil.

edcanoeAfter a 6-hour canoe ride, and just when I think my butt can’t take it any more, we arrive in Puerto Francisco Orellana, commonly known as Coca.

After checking in with the Amada Naval, we march off in search of lodging. Coca is described in the travel book as “a sprawling, dusty, shanty seedy oil town.”

It’s worse than that.

Coca is the ugliest town I’ve seen. There’s no plaza, no parks, no paved streets, barely a sidewalk, no central churches or grand buildings. But what makes Coca the eye sore that it is is the oil––it’s everywhere. To keep the dust down, they spray oil on the streets, which, when it rains, which it had, creates pools of black sludge. There’s no drainage system, so the slimy water just sits everywhere.

roy, etalAfter checking into the Auca Hotel, we walk the 5 or 6 blocks of Coca’s main street, trying to decide at which of the half-dozen simple restaurants will provide the best meal. Hardly anyone’s eating right now, so it’s difficult to tell what, if anything, is popular with the locals. So we decide to sit down at a sidewalk bar, have a beer, and do some people-watching. A group of men sit next to us. They look to be oil workers enjoying a beer after a day’s work. Surprisingly, one gets our attention when he says, “Are you from the U.S.” I answer, then he asks, “Do you know scores of the bowl games?”

Roy Cotton is a manager of a Southern California-based oil pump service. The divorced father of 3, the rural Mississippian is one of the more interesting, certainly entertaining people I’ve met.

It seems to me that the typical adult Southerner would struggle learning Spanish, but Roy is doing worse than that. The combination of his pronunciation, syntax, and his penchant for combining both languages in the same sentence, made for non-stop hilarity. Within minutes of meeting him, I was laughing out loud at his staccato-like 3 and 4-word sentences. In the most unlikely place ever, we had met Gomer Pyle. (If you don’t know Gomer, do yourself a favor ( At one point, after our second or third beer, I try to explain (in Spanish) to his Ecuadorian employees guys why his language is so amusing. “His Southern accent is only a little less amusing than his Spanish accent.”

When I ask where we should eat, Roy volunteers to be our chofer, and we take off in his company pickup. But first he takes us to the oil compound, where he lives. When we arrive, the service bay phone is buzzing. A pump had gone out at a rig, and left unfixed for the night, would lose 500 barrels of oil (at $20 each).

After dinner Roy gives us the grand tour of Coca. At night, over bumpy roads, in a steady rain, we see Coca at its best.

Roy respect for the Ecuadorian people is great. He’s not much of a fan of the jungle, but he can’t stop describing the “beautiful families” he has come to know. When we approach the house of one of his workers, he slows. “This is where Pablo and Maria Consuelo live. They have 4 wonderful children, Jaime, Isabel, Ricardo and little Panchito. Pablo is one of my best employees. When I vacation in the States, I always bring gifts for the kids.” A few blocks away he stops in front of a house and exchanges small talk with a couple sitting on a porch. They’re happy to see him.

The following morning we walk a few blocks to the national airline office, hoping to purchase tickets for one of the 2 daily flights to Quito. Unfortunately, both are filled, so we put our names on a standby list. After breakfast we walk to the airport, but we end up on the wrong side of the runway, upset that we’ll have to walk around it––no easy task with overpacked backpacks and hot, sticky weather. Halfway around we ask a pedestrian if there’s a shortcut to the terminal. He says, “No problema,” then leads us to an opening in the fence, telling us to just walk across the runway.

morekidsairportArriving at 10:00 a.m. for the 10:45 flight, we sit in the tiny open-air building and wait. I open a book but keep getting interrupted by a series of entrepreneurial shoeshine boys. Before I know it 3 of them, along with a newspaper boy, are seated in front of us, and, for the next 3 hours, keep us entertained. Jimi, Jore, Mauro and José, ages 8 though 12, work days and go to school at night. Jimi, the newspaper boy, guesses he makes about $5 a day, all of which goes to his mother. “All of it,” he says when I ask again. We talk about work, school, fishing, travelling, all the while taking turns looking up words in the Spanish/English dictionary. I buy everyone a Coke, have our picture taken, then pull my leather shoes out of my luggage, to see who is the best polisher.

The first plane was 2 hours late, there were no available seats, and the second flight was cancelled, but hanging out with the kids somehow made it worthwhile. After much discussion, we decide to go downriver, to spend the weekend at another jungle lodge.

We’re the only guests at the Hosteria Primavera. After checking in, the manager tells us that the generator is broken, that there is no electricity or refrigeration. There will be no cold drinks, and some concern about the food.

jasonthepigThe grounds of the Primavera is a dang barnyard. Ever present are dogs, chickens and cows, but the undisputed center of attention is Jason the pig. The señora tells us that Jason was the sole survivor of a litter of 10, everyone felt sorry for him, and that he had been spoiled since birth. They even made him a little pig bed, she admitted. Most amusingOne of the dogs is about the same age, and that, she explains, is why they are so bonded.  dog nips at the pig’s ear until the pig tires, then turns and bolts after him. The game goes on in spurts throughout the day.

When the pig sees you he comes to you first by walking, then jogging, then he sprints the last few yards to your feet. You think he’s going to bowl you over but he always stops just in time. Since there’s mostly grass in the area he’s not muddy, but he seems to realize that if he rubs up against you too much he’s going to get whipped.

After Julio takes us on an hour-long hike in the jungle, we return to the lodge to hear everyone abuzz about a snake that had been killed under one of the huts. I’m uninterested until we hear it’s a coral snake, and that it’s deadly poisonous. Evidently, a good bite, without anti-venom, leaves the victim with 10 hours to live.

Early start of the day as the first up-river canoe leaves at daybreak. Waiting at the river’s edge, the sunrise over the wall of rainforest is nothing short of spectacular. While we wait, a young married couple arrives at the lodge by dugout, paddled by their 2 teenage female cousins. Seeing them wave goodbye to one another, while the little canoe floated sideways down the river, is a touching sight.


On the way back to Coca we make a few stops to pick up paggengers and cargo. While their father watches from the river bank, 2 young girls board while their brother maneuveres the family dugout along side the canoebus, to load a sack of produce. Further downstream we make a stop, then sit and wait for someone to appear. After a few minutes an elderly man appears at the edge of the bank. sackofcornHe’s got one boot on, one off, and his shirt is unbuttoned. He yells, “Wait a minute, I have to disconnect my tank and change pants.” Everyone laughs. When he returns, the man looks to be 70 years old. He gingerly steps down the muddy bank, carrying his belt and a propane tank. When he gets into the canoe he tells the driver, “And I have to take a few little sacks of corn to town, too.” A couple hundred yards downriver, he points to a spot on the bank, and the canoe edges to the side. He bounds out, takes 3 agile steps up the bank, then lifts a sack onto his shoulder. I jump out to assist.

We spend another day in Coca, again dining with Roy, then make the city rounds in his pickup. He shows us the road to Quito that Judy hopes we won’t be forced into taking. Along side a narrow spot in the river we watch an antique ferry in operation. It works by cables that breach the river. It was at this spot, Roy recounts, that a bus slid off the ferry and plunged into the water. It doesn’t look deep, he says, but the bus was completely submerged, drowning some of the passengers. He said that when they eventually pulled the bus out of the water, a thousand people came to watch.

There’s a 2-class system that exists in South American bus traveling: the seated passengers and the standing passengers. In discussing the subject, Roy said that some of his workers commute weekly from Quito, which is a 12-to-14 bus ride down a winding dirt and gravel road. One Monday morning a guy complained about being tired, then explained that he had left Quito at 6:00 p.m., arrived at 7:00 a.m., and had to stand the whole 13 hours.

sleeping daughterOn the road back to Coca we’re forced to stop because a group of people are standing on the street, staring at a man lying on his back on the side of the road. Roy stops the truck and asks, in his laughable Spanish. “Dead? Drunk?”

“Asleep,” a man answers.

Judy’s on pins and needles on our second day attempting to get a flight out of Coca. We report to the airline office promptly at 8:00 a.m., and are relieved when we’re able to purchase tickets on the first flight out.

After breakfast and a few last minute photos of downtown Coca, we take the pickup bus to the airport. We’re greeted by our shoeshine boys.

With 2 days remaining on our trip, Judy is skeptical as we take another bus, this time south of Quito, destined for a village near Cotopaxi, the world’s highest active volcano.

A short walk from the Pan American Highway and we’re at the eucalyptus-lined driveway of the Hosteria Cienega, a 17th-century hacienda with beautiful gardens, restaurant, church, stable and hot water. We’re in disbelief: This morning we’re stuck in Coca, the pits of South America, and this afternoon …cotopaxi

In the morning Antonio takes us on a bumpy ride half way up Cotopaxi. On the way he names each of the neighboring mountains. Occasionally the view of the volcano is covered in clouds, and each time he mentions it: “Cotopaxi is covered.” When the clouds recede, and you can see the top, he says, “Now you can see Cotopaxi.” He repeats this over and over, maybe 15 times, to the point that it becomes funny. I start to think the guy is daffy, but I come to believe that he is just giving the volcano reverential respect. Maybe, I think to myself, if he treats the volcano like a God, it’ll spare his village during his lifetime.

National Geographic Magazine, December, 1992: Most volcanoes have a princely look about them; Cotopaxi is a Charlemagne of a mouthain with a huge robe of snow around shoulders nearly 19,400 feet high. That snow could become a killer if an eruption heated the moutain unexpectedly. We know of three occasions snce 1534 when eruptions melted snow and sent lahars as far as 200 miles.

cowsheadNot another tourist in the Tuesday market in Latacunga. First thing we see is a little girl carrying her weight in a cow’s head. I follow her to where a couple guys are wielding axes, busting up the cow’s head into its usable parts.

On the bus back to Quito I begin to notice the ever-present graffiti that covers nearly every wall of every building. However, it’s not the typical stuff produced by inner-city gangs marking their territory. It’s more a public discourse or discussion, even guys professing their love for a girl, or peaceful sayings. Of course, there are the ever-present political slogans and “vote for me” messages, but there’s also a lot in support of the Indian’s causes and plight. Long live the strike. A good reason to kill––500 years of suffering. Petroleros out of Ecuador!

Roy told us about an 11-day national strike where the Indians tried to paralyze the nation’s economy. He told the story of being stuck in his company’s compound for days, until one night, suffering cabin fever, he ventured out, with the intention of renting a video, so he drove into town, and, while he was in the store, a group of Indians came up the street, intent on shutting down businesses. Roy scrambled to get to his car, and as he drove off they took a machete to his two front tires. “What’d you do then,” I asked. “I drove back to the compound on the rims,” he said.