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: http://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.