Equador Early 2008 I am writing this story about my recent time in Ecuador while in the NE coastal area of Brazil, in a beach town called Canoa Quebrada. While here I am also doing some cram Portuguese language training. It is Carnaval time at the moment in Brazil, so it is very noisy in what is normally a quiet and idyllic beach town. I am attempting to ignore the racket and concentrate on my writing and Portuguese because even a very basic knowledge of the official language of the land will come in handy in my upcoming Amazon excursions. These begin the end of next week when I fly to the middle Amazon city of Manaus. From there I'll head out to an area 600 kilometers to the west of that city up the Solimoes River which joins the Rio Negro at Manaus to become the Amazon River proper.
I have been in Brazil for a bit over a week, having come from Ecuador. Expecting my trip in Ecuador to be somewhat of a soft prelude to my Amazon travels, I was surprised instead with a very vigorous two weeks there (grueling is more like it). I did a trek in the Los Llanganates National Park. along a famous route to an area believed to be the site of a legendary Inca gold stash. This effort turned out to be the most difficult trek of my life. Afterward, while recovering from what was a grueling experience, I took on another challenge and climbed Mt Cotopoxi, a very steep glacier covered volcano and the second highest peak in Ecuador at 5900 meters (19,400 feet).
I hobbled out of Ecuador looking forward to an easier time in the jungles of the Amazon!
My excursions in Ecuador came amidst interesting times there, and perhaps even scary times. For it is possible that one day people will look back at this period with regretful sadness for failing to recognize and react in a stronger manner to the potential danger posed to their country by the current administration's policies. With some very strong semblances to Venezuela and Bolivia, Ecuador's government is step by step asserting more state control over the economy. Along with this, the president, Rafael Correa, is using a similar populist message that Hugo Chavez is using in inciting the lower classes against the middle, professional and upper classes. Proclaiming that he wants a "revolution" with the aim of converting Ecuador away from capitalism to socialism, Correa like Chavez hopes to use boosted oil revenues to finance his plan to convert the economy to his particular vision of socialism. This message has wide appeal amongst a big segment of the people due to very corrupt and inequitable capitalism that Ecuador has experienced and the large amount of people that have been left behind in the country's drive to modernize and develop.
In an effort similar to that of both Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales, Correa proposes to rewrite the constitution in order to institute socialist reforms and allow for presidential re-election. This serves him well in that under the current constitution the president can only serve one non-renewable five-year term. His met with what would be his first major confrontation on this path during the spring of last year when 57 members of the Parliament were fired for opposing his reform plan. After Correa fired the MPs, he then led the campaign for a plebiscite held in September to create a special assembly (stacked with his allies) to draft a new constitution. The plan is to then put this new constitution to vote in a special election to be held around the middle of this year.
Of course, the same fears that were seen in both Venezuela and Bolivia surround this process by those citizens skeptical of Correa's good intentions: Will the new constitution really be good for democracy in the country, or serve to strengthen Correa's grip on power? Will the proposed changes actually help the country, or set it back.
History is not on the side of what Corrrea is doing. For example, the government recently announced the imposition of price controls on basic foods including rice, milk, corn, bananas and flour in a bid to stem creeping consumer costs. However, history has shown time and again that price controls do not work in the long run. Correa has been blaming rising food prices not on market forces, but on a conspiracy by businesses opposed to his government. In doing so, he fans the populist flames of class struggle. And in turning to price controls, he is ignoring the less than optimal results obtained in Venezuela by his ally Chavez. Price controls in Venezuela have prompted scattered shortages of sugar, meat, beans, milk and dairy products and cooking oil (something I noticed myself while traveling in Venezuela recently), an outcome that Chavez likewise blamed on businessmen and distributors.
My friends with whom I stayed in Quito on this trip, a couple with a young child, Fabricio and Monica, have totally opposing views on the new administration. Expressing the sentiment of the majority of people in the country, Fabricio, who owns a three store delicatessan business, believes that Correa is "a good man". With a conviction that the country has severe fundamental problems, he is for drastic change in its governance. Any change he feels would be for the better. Of the people I met who were in favor of the present administration policies, the sentiment that Correa "is a good man" seemed to trump the potential reality of his policies.
Of the opposing view is his wife Monica who also sees the country as having severe and fundamental problems, but is strongly opposed to the types of changes the Correa administration is attempting to implement. Change is needed, she feels, but the right changes. She counts amongst those, seemingly in the minority, who worry that the changes the current administration is attempting will only set Ecuador back further. The other people I met that had similar views, tended to be amongst the more affluent and business minded.
Political drama aside, the Los Llanganates carries almost a mystical and legendary aura amongst the Ecuadorian people. It is famous for its huge and legendary stash of gold that was to be paid in ransom to the Spanish invaders who had captured the last Inca Emperor, Atahualpa. It is equally famous, or infamous, for the challenge and danger to intruders of this treacherous, punishing, remote and unforgiving terrain of highland rainforest. Indeed, over the years, a number of people have taken on the lure of the Los Llanganates and died in the process.
The alleged hidden fabulous gold treasure of the Los Llanganates began its history in blood. Atahualpa was captured while meeting with the Spanish conquistador Pizzaro. The Inca Emperor was only accompanied by a small retinue when he met with Pizzaro and his band, and apparently did not see the meeting as a potential hostile situation. In return for sparing his life and freedom, Atahualpa agreed to pay to the Spaniards an amount equal to that which would fill the room in which he was imprisoned. In an apparent double cross, Pizarro had the Inca Emperor put on trial and executed once word was received that the various Inca expeditions charged with delivering the ransom were on their way. When the word of his murder reached the leaders of the various Inca expeditions who were bringing the gold to Pizzaro, they allegedly buried or hid their treasures instead of giving it to the double crossing Pizzaro. One of those stashes is thought to be in the Los Llanganates highland rainforest, and has been the target of many fruitless searches, some of them with tragic endings, over the past 150 years.
Our group consisted of my friends, Fabricio and his two brothers, Martine and Ignacio and myself, along with three guides. Martine and Ignacio are both university students in their last years of study, and Fabricio took some time away from his delicatessen business to do the journey. The guides, Orlando, Mario and Javier would help porter some of our gear and food, and use machetes to clear the way through the forest on our journey. All were of average build, but would prove able to carry what seemed a burden fit for a tank, while moving fairly quickly in the forest.
The trek on the legendary Inca gold route starts off dramatically enough at around 3800 to 4000 meters in the highland Ecuadorian Paramo (12500 to 13000 feet). It is a beautiful, lonely and windy area covered with a sort of swampy and cushiony scrub grass. From the high elevation of the Paramo, one has outstanding vistas in almost all directions and I felt as though I was walking across the top of the world. The terrain is characterized by many lakes, sloping hills, and various types of unique flora found only at the upper misty altitudes of the Andean highlands.
The relatively comfortable stroll across the highland spongy wetlands ended abruptly as we descended into ultra-thick, virgin rainforest, following a trail that barely exists. Our guides had to use their machetes fairly steadily to whack the way clear for us. We plodded along whilst tripping and stumbling upon very uneven and almost constantly swampy ground, characterized by thick gooey mud, slippery as ice vines and roots, and huge puddles. It rains a lot, even in the dry season, and so we were always wet. Being at high altitude, it is rather cool. So, we were almost always wet and cold, while floundering in slippery muck.
In many sections almost every step required a big effort to yank the back foot out of the muck that is sucking you in from the previous step (it is a great workout--I got a Charley Horse midafternoon after several hours of this slog). Adding to this pleasantness is the periodic time that each of us stepped into ground that just gave away completely resulting in flooded boots (and we were all wearing high rubber boots well above mid-calf!). Boot flooding gave the added dimension of allowing one to stand in water inside his boots all day. This accelerated the loss of body heat that already was occurring due to the constant wetness and moderate ambient temperatures. Of course, our hands suffered too, bleeding from the periodic times we would each have to flail out to catch ourselves when footing was lost--grabbing onto sharp leaves and thorny bushes to keep upright. But this was better than the risk of an outright fall into the trail. For besides the sloggy gook you'd be crashing onto, you might impale yourself on one of the sharp edges of plant stubs created by the machete wielding guides as they whack away the shrubs and other flora blocking the "path". And what was our reward at the end of the day for all this work? Swatting mosquitoes and enduring the assault of large amounts of hungry "no-see-ums" biting at us, while holding socks, pants and shirt over the fire attempting to dry them out for usage the next day.
During the slog, the scenery could get monotonous. In this type of environment, one doesn't see much of note other than the constant blur of green plants, leaves and vines (often slapping into your face). This is due to the sheer thickness of the jungle and also to the need to constantly stare at the ground while carefully placing your next step. On the trek, I counted the sighting of 3 birds over the four days in the jungle, although we heard a lot of birds and found a decent amount of animal tracks and droppings.