Sunday, June 30, 2013

Journey To The Centre Of The Earth

Although Guayaquil is the biggest and richest city in Ecuador, the cultural heart of the country lies inland, in the mountains. The country is split down the middle by two parallel mountain ranges about 80km apart and peppered with still-active volcanoes, creating a long, high valley nicknamed the Avenida de los Volcanos (Volcano Alley). It is this valley that is home to the iconic peaks of Cotopaxi and Chimborazo (the latter's peak being the furthest point from the centre of the earth thanks to the equatorial bulge) as well as the cultural poles of Quito in the north and Cuenca in the south. The Incas also mainly stayed there when they came conquering through*, as they were not big fans of the lowlands.

The iconic domes of Cuenca's cathedral dominate the city's skyline.

There is no love lost between the two highland rivals. Although Quito may be the capital Cuencans proudly state that their city is cleaner and prettier (they're probably right). Quito has access to Cotopaxi, whose gleaming white cone is a fixture of the southern skyline (when it's not overcast) whereas Cuenca only has the windswept highland paramo of El Cajas (which, although pretty, is no match for a towering, smoking volcano). Cuenca is home of the iconic Panama hat (despite what the name may suggest Panama hats are actually Ecuadorean and are originally made from a type of reed that only grows in the coastal regions of the country) whereas Quito plays on its privileged geographic position and is home to the kitschy Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World) attraction on the equator.

Panama hats on display in a shop in Cuenca.

Ecuador is one of the few countries in the world whose name directly describes their geographic location (the others I've managed to come up with being South Africa and Equatorial Guinea) and correspondingly the most popular attraction in the country, especially with local tourists, is the Ciudad Mitad del Mundo (CMdM). Comprising a confusing hodge-podge of museums - a scale model of colonial Quito, an exhibition on the European Space Agency, an insectarium, archaeology exhibit, modern art gallery, and a small stage for "traditional" folk performances - centred around a large, unsightly monument, topped off with a giant globe, that marks the equatorial line. Due to the popularity of CMdM another equatorial attraction open just down the road, claiming that it, in fact, is on the real equator. There they carry out "scientific" demonstrations, such as draining a basin on either side of the equator line and showing how the water rotates in different directions, which are patently false (the guide was none too pleased when I pointed out how he did the trick). Not just because the actual scientific principles behind the experiments are baseless (or the forces at work so weak as to be unmeasurable), but also because the real equator is actually at an unmarked spot on the road somewhere between the two sites.

Sitting on the non-equator line at the other equatorial attraction, Inti Nan

Of course Ecuador is also over-endowed with a huge variety of natural beauty. As a country it probably has the highest concentration of species diversity in the world, thanks to having almost every type of climate and bioregion possible, from coastal mangroves to alpine meadows and back down to neotropical jungle. I, however, didn't get much chance to experience this wealth due to a new government directive that requires all visitors to national parks to go with a guide, which, of course, is not only expensive, but also detracts from the excitement and adventure of heading off into the wild and communing with nature. I did manage to find a small hike to do on the edge of one of Ecuador's largest national parks that brought me to the base of El Altar, Ecuador's 4th highest peak and an extinct volcano. The multiple, craggy peaks of the mountain ring the old crater where a gorgeous alpine lake is the worthwhile reward for the six hour slog up the muddy mountainside.

Almost there. The peaks of El Altar peek through the clouds and the final ascent to the lake can be seen.

Coming back down the next day I narrowly missed the bus that would take me back to civilisation and so had to wait three hours for the next one. so I sat myself down, had my lunch (of avocado sandwiches, which had become something of a staple for me) and got out my book. Soon I was joined by an older local man who was also waiting for the same bus. He soon struck up a conversation. It turned out that he was a retired park warden who had spent 33 years patrolling the wilds of the national park. He regaled me with stories of how much the park has changed over the years, how attitudes are changing amongst villagers and what he had seen and done. All very interesting and lucid, until he acquainted me with his theories regarding rats and cats. "You don't see any old rats do you?" he asked rhetorically, "and you know how cats sometimes disappear, never to be seen again?" Apparently, according to my interlocutor, both rats and cats undergo a butterflyesque metamorphosis and turn into bats and owls respectively. I've no idea whether these are widespread beliefs held amongst Ecuadorians, but I was glad that the bus came soon after as he was beginning to worry me.

*I always find it interesting how we have an idealised view of indigenous peoples. Before the Spanish conquest of South America the Incas had spent a century fighting, subjugating and deporting a multitude of neighbouring tribes and imposing their own religion. Yet in the popular narrative the Incas are the goodies whilst the conquistadors the baddies, whereas in truth they were probably equally good and bad.

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