I spent my Thanksgiving holiday a few years ago in Ecuador, South America. A lot of tourists know the country for its Galapagos Islands, a large national park far offshore in the Pacific where Charles Darwin did some of his research. But I chose to skip over the Galapagos and spend my time in the busy cities of Quayaquil and Quito and go fishing and swimming at the Island of Salinas. It is Ecuador beyond the Galapagos that I want to explore in this essay.
Ecuador is a tiny country that sits atop the equator at the Northwest corner of South Americahence the name Ecuador the Spanish name for equator. It is bordered by Columbia to the North, Peru to the South, the Pacific Ocean to the west, and the Amazon River basin to the East. Its political situation has not been too stable in recent years. One president was recently expelled from office largely because people said he was a lunatic. Ecuador and Peru have had frequent armed skirmishes over their border, but that issue was put to rest with a recent peace treaty. When I was there a severe drought made the water reservoirs low. (In 1999 they closed the schools early because of extreme flooding.) Consequently, the country suffered rolling blackouts of electricity that lasted 12 hours each day. A lot of the country seems boarded up against crime. Most shops and stores feature armed guards and the middle class live in gated, armed communities. Toy-R-Us includes machine gunners standing in a crows nest above the parking lot. But dont let this vision of Ecuador deter you from going there. Its typical of South America. You just have to recognize its occasional dangers and stay out of harms way.
Ecuador is geographically cut off from its neighbors. I find it remarkable that you cannot really drive from there to Peru or Columbia. South Americans will laugh at you when you mention the so-called Pan American Highwayit dead ends in the jungles of Panama. Peru is cut off because of the recent border skirmishes. As for Colombia, the mountains are too high, the roads are too few, and the countryside is too riddled with lawless men. Cutopaxi, Ecuadors highest mountain, is a 22,000 foot active volcano. You cannot drive over that.
I began my trip in Quayaquil, a city of several million people that is on the Quayas river. I only spent a few days there. Like many South American cities the poor people live piled atop each other on the hillsides while the rich people live on the flatlands. In The United States, of course, the situation is exactly backwards where wealthy people with buy up the hillside views. Even though the Quayaquil is largely flat there isnt much contiguous flat land because of all the hills. That is probably why the international airport is right in the center of the city. Giant jumbo sets sail overhead like huge aluminum birds.
The next stop was a three day-trip to the Island of Salinas. I had gone there in order to catch a striped marlin. Zane Gray, the late writer of westerns, used to come to Ecuador with his wife to fish for billfish. I once read an account of he and his wife fishing for giant squid in Ecuador. They wore canvas over their clothes in case squid squirted them with ink. Zane Grey and Ernest Hemingway were earlier pioneers of offshore, big game fishing. You can read about marlin fishing in Hemingways novel Islands in the Stream. Zane Greys fishing books include Tales of Fishing Virgin Sea.
To get to Salinas we drove 120KM from Quayaquil. They call it a highway but there are no gasoline stations, no brown signs directing tourists to the Holiday Inn, no Denny's restaurant, and no roadside assistance. The country side is poor. Along the road are a few villages where people live in houses made of sticks lashed together. For cinder block houses under construction, scaffolding is made from giant bamboo trees. This looks just a strong as American metal. Driving to Salinas, I was horrified to see people bathing in filthy water along the edge of the road. Chickens crossed our path as did almost naked children. Most startling was that almost every shack was painted from top to bottom with tacky brightly-colored election slogans from the various candidates for president. I wondered if the people were supporters of that candidate, were coerced, or were simply looking for a free paint job. Could you imagine each house in your neighborhood reading George Bush for President Horrors.
The surrounding hills are mainly dust: not quite sand and not quite fertile ground. Mosquitoes are thick. There are lots of banana groves and coconut trees. Occasionally we saw small plots of mango and papaya tress. Then we came across a chocolate brown river that was halfway covered with plants that looked like water lilies. Rice was cultivated in neat square plots along the bank.
The highway itself seems to offer the only economic activity in the countryside. At each toll booth or speed bump groups of men and women hawked bottles of distilled water, Coca-Cola, mangoes, or some small red fruit whose name I do not know. They sold this from their bare hands since they had neither store nor counter top. Their whole inventory might have been two sodas and some chips. That was sad and pitiful. Other merchants has road-side huts in which they peddled their wares. Women roasted chickens or sold rice and beans from the front step of their houses. One stand sold red crabs unlike any I have ever seen. We stopped in one shop and bought a few hammocks and Panama style hats.
There is no dividing line painted in the highway. The Ecuadorian driver makes three lanes of traffic where the traffic engineer planned two. You do not accelerate to pass an automobile here. You simply drift into the middle of the highway and claim that ground as your own. While this seemed dangerous at first, it actually works quite well probably because the traffic moves so slowly.
We had tried repeatedly to arrange the Marlin fishing trip by fax and telephone from the United States. This was not with success so I planned to just show up at Salinas Island and hope to find a charter boat for hire. I made my way to Pesca Tours at the Salinas Island beach. It turns out that charters were easy to arrange, because November is considered the off season by Ecuadorian beachcombers. Few folks were at the beach because it was too cold they insist. True it was cloudy covered every day, but at 86 degrees it was plenty warm for me. The Pacific Ocean was about as warm as it gets in Los Angeles. My son loved the water even if his lips turned blue.
What makes Salinas unique is the marlin fishing grounds were only 10 miles offshore. In, say, South Carolina you would have to go 60 miles or more to the Gulf Stream current. The Humboldt current is what brings the fish close to shore in Ecuador. It passes close to the Point of Salinas which juts out in the ocean.
My wife and I showed up at the Pesca tours office at 5:30 A.M. the next morning. The ocean was roughI hoped that the name Pacific would mean the ocean would be calm. There is a fancy marina at Salinas but the charter boats at Pesca Tours were simply anchored in shallow water off the beach. We waded into the surf and someone rowed us to the waiting wooden sport fishing boat.
It was not bothered that the Pesca Tour boats were made of wood. Serious sport fishermen prefer a boat with ample room on the back desk and few frills. Fiberglass boats with air-conditioned salons and carpeted staterooms are nice to have but are better suited to water-born cocktail parties than a rough day at sea with bloody fish flopping about the deck. Even though the people or Salinas are largely poor, these charter boats were equipped with the best Penn reels from the U.S. and some Japanese models too. The fishing rigs were expensive, brightly-colored plastic skirts. The hooks were sharpened by hand and the fishing line was free of too much wear. The baits were large ballyhoo fish. The baits were fresh, not frozen. I was impressed, because in the Bahamas and Mexico I had seen charter boats use cheap gear and poor quality baits.
Ten miles offshore the boat slowed and we put our lines in the water. I was surprised to see the captain and his two mates looking forward and not aft. It has been my experience that you should watch closely the baits trailing aft. But the crew were looking for fish who were sunning or cruising slowly at the surface conceivably to warm themselves in the sun. In the Atlantic, when you fish for Blue or White marlin you watch the baits and do not scour the horizon. The billfish announces its presence by crashing into the lures.
It wasn't long before we had spotted our first Striped Marlin. You could see its tail and sometimes its dorsal fin sticking above the surface like some kind of submarine periscope. As we drew near the fish, it spied our oversized, brightly-colored baits and made a ninety-degree turn toward the back of the boat. At that moment the mates were ready.
You could easily see which baits the Marlin were after because they swam up behind in a froth of boiling sea water. When they attacked the ballyhoo in the starboard side outrigger the line flung from its clip with a loud snap. Then the mate picked up the rod and leaned back against the big fish. The hook was not hung deeply and it pulled free. Darn. The mate reeled in the bait and we looked admirably at the bait. It has a distinctive bruise where the Marlin had attacked it with its bill.
We did not have to wait but few a more minutes before we saw another fish. This time the hook grabbed hold and the Marlin leapt out of the water. Line peeled off the drag. After 45 minutes of reeling and pumping the fish surfaced near the stern. The mates reached overboard, gaffed it, and then pulled it aboard. I was so happy I said gracias to everyone and the captain shook my hand.
That day we raised 10 more fish but did not hook any. We had several strikes but did not land any more marlin. Compared to fishing off South Carolina I found the pace remarkable. In one day we saw a dozen fish, hooked two, and boated one. In the States I have fished in a tournament for three days and not even seen one Marlin. Here the ocean was absolutely teeming with hungry fish. In Ecuador it seems everything is hungry.
When we got back to the beach we weighed the fish and the crew hauled it off to the market. There was another fisherman there with two marlin. He was a Danishman whose last fishing trip had been to Kenya another country noted for its Marlin. My family and I then went and had fried dolphin (mahi mahi), plaintains, and cold Ecuadorian beer at the market just behind the ocean front. Of course we had ceviche, which is raw fish, cilantro, and onions marinated in lime juice. This is much loved by Ecuadorians and Peruvians. (When cholera recently plagued Peru President Fujimori asked the people to quit eating raw ceviche.)
Next we traveled up the coast to see shrimp farms and salt ponds. Along the way we stopped at a hotel on the coast. This was a marvelous place built on top of some rocks that jutted out in the ocean. Of course, with lunch I had more ceviche and beer. I wondered why there were two enormous signs written in English dangerous currents. I had seen nothing else written in English in all of Ecuador. I imagine some hapless tourists got in trouble swimming there.
Further up the coast the winding coastal highway passed enormous dry lakes where draglines and bulldozers pushed up mountains of salt. To make salt they fill a pond with saltwater, drain it, let the mud dry, and then harvest the salt. Because the land was so flat and filled with creeks and marshes the area was well-suited to raising shrimp as well. We passed dozens of these shrimp farms. The shrimp are so valuable on the world market that armed guards protect the ponds and the harvest.
Finally we came to where the highway reached the ocean again after meandering away from the coast. There we found another village this one seemingly poorer than any we had seen. The whole village it seemed was out in the surf pulling seine nets with very small mesh. They were dragging for shrimp larvae that would be used to stock the farm ponds. I wondered what the villagers did for money when the shrimp were not swimming by. My son and I jumped into the water with the villagers and enjoyed the big waves.
You might assume that a small country like Ecuador would have one state-owned airline. But competition is furious with three private airlines flying the route from Quayaquil to Quito. The airfare is cheap: about $20 dollars each way, and the flights are frequent. It seems the airline does not accept reservations. Rather it is first-come-first-serve with well-connected, gratuity paying businessmen jumping to the front of the line. As we got bumped from one flight and then the next I wondered why didnt we just use the American Express travel agent. Surely they would pay greater heed to tickets bought by an American company with the U.S. dollar than those paid for with the Ecuadorian Sucre.
We finally got into the air after hours of delay and proceeded to Quito, the capital of Ecuador. Quito is perched high in the Andes mountains at 9,000 feet above sea level. This city of 1 million people sits on the edge of the Pinchinita volcano which threatened to go active just months ago. With puffing fumeroles and the occasional billowing cloud of sulphur you would think that the people might have built their capital in a safer place.
Because of its extreme elevation Quito is pleasantly cool year round even though it sits only a few miles from the ecuator. Consequently many people wear wool sweaters. Oddly enough the best place I saw to buy these was 9,000 feet below in a market at Quayaquil. Your Spanish wont help you there too much because most of the merchants are Quechean speaking Indians. They speak Spanish to their customers but revert to their mother tongue when they discuss prices among themselves. Feel free to hagglethey expect this from you.
The green mountains around Quito leap straight up from the valley and tower over the city. The city is plopped right in the middle of them. The main highway from the suburbs and the airport tunnels through a hill to the older downtown section. I think whoever designed this tunnel made a mistake when they created its ventilation system. Like Budapest, Santiago, and on the worse days Los Angeles, Quito is plagued by a smog problem. This is made worse by the legions of trucks, buses, and Volkswagen Beetle cars that lack catalytic converters, lead-free gasoline, and other pollution reducing measures. (In South America they still sell the air-cooled Beetle with the engine in the rear.) Quitos enormous bus fleet is privately run. Highly colorful private buses billow exhaust as they climb slowly up the mountain roads. They are packed with riders inside, on top, and clinging to the outside. When we went through the tunnel, the traffic rolled to a complete stop. There were only a few bare lightbulbs hanging overhead. I became worried as the air filled with exhaust. I almost could not catch my breath. An elderly person or someone with asthma might have been unable to breath.
I picked a bad week to travel to Quito because the clouds obscured my view of the Pinchinita volcano which looms above the city. I kept complaining to my hosts that I wanted to climb a mountain, any mountain would do. If I could not enjoy the vista I could at least enjoy the experience of going high. Finally my host tired of my complaints and agreed to drive me up Pinchinita. Off we set in a little European car for the top. We drove higher and higher, past a few villages where Indians lived perched precariously close the edge of the mountain. At first the road was paved, then the pavement turned to gravel, then the gravel turned to big rocks, and finally all that was left was mud. When we set out the sky was clear, but as we headed above 11,000 feet we were in the clouds. Then the headlights could barely cut through the murk. We managed to climb well above 12,000 feet when we came to a fence and what looked like a radio tower. Not being able to see we turned around and headed back down. But on the way down we took a wrong turn and came to a dead end. Those squalid Indian huts hundreds of feet below were beginning to look inviting as I imagined up spending the night on the mountain with our two year old baby. Wheels spinning we turned around and somehow managed to make it back to the bumpy rocks that meant we were near the paved road.
No trip to Quito would be complete without visiting the monument a few miles away that marks the border between the northern and southern hemispheres. Here you can stand on the equator with one foot in the north and the other in the south half of the globe. That is the obligatory tourist stunt. It is a cheap thrill but absolutely de riguer.
We spent one day in Quito at the art and history museum. It was here that I found a shop that sold wool Hermes sweaters for $20 apiece. The name Hermes I recognized from glittering gold ads in The New Yorker magazine. At these prices, I wondered if these were the genuine Hermes, were counterfits, or were just another company using the same name. Seeming like genuine Hermes, these wool sweaters were of much greater quality than those we saw in Guayaquil. They were colorful and soft to the touch much like lain or cashmere.
Quito has the feel of a European city with its great number of restaurants. My favorite was an Argentine steak house where they serve the parilla Argentine barbecue. This they bring to your table on a sizzling grill heaping with mounds of various cuts of beef. For the ordinary meat lover there are the familiar cuts of steak. For the more seasoned carnivore there is beef tongue, blood sausages and parts of the cow which I do not recognize. Blood sausage is not for the faint of heartit is black presumably because it is filled with blood.
Quito is striking in part because you see so many Andean Indians there. Looking just like villagers from a travel brochure of Bolivia, the women sport dark hats and carry their babies in a cleverly bound wrap around their back. The knot that they tie looks complicated but perfectly functional and comfortable for the child. It reminds me of the intricacies of the turban worn by Indian Sikhs. I have often wondered how to tie both. With the Indians wrap, It looks like you could climb a steep slope with your baby on board which is what I imagine these people do on occasion.
In the affluent subdivision where we were staying, high above the polluted air of the city, Indians were living on vacant lots at construction sites. They were there at the invitation of the owners. Their job was to guard construction material least it be spirited away by thieves. The Indians built their little huts out of cinder blocks with a piece of galvanized tin thrown over the top to keep out the rain. Smoke trickled out when they cooked. This was quite sad to me as the poor Indians lived almost outdoors next to luxurious homes in the wealthy part of town.
Friends tell me that in Ecuador when you have some money you buy land and build something. If you put your money in the bank it will dwindle to nothing as inflation eats away at the principal. As in Venezuala and elsewhere currency control laws prevent the people from exporting all of their money to banks in the U.S. or elsewhere. Some people manage to circumvent this law somewhat, but the average person does not have that luxury.
I am planning to back to Ecuador soon. Its main lure for me is the great marlin fishing which you can do for a fraction of the American price. And I plan to return to Quito which I hope will be cloud free next time. Maybe I will find time to fly over to Galapagos too.