Such Great Heights

Such Great Heights

It’s the home of swimming iguanas and giant tortoises, but ask the average traveller to tell you about Ecuador outside the Galapagos and you may be greeted by blank stares. Nikola Sarbinowski visits those famed isles, as well as the Amazon and Andes, for the ultimate South American adventure.

Anibal scrapes a wooden dart between the fangs of a piranha, sharpening the tip. He slips it into the end of a blowgun, places it over his mouth and shoots. It pierces the monkey’s head. He loads another and passes the weapon to me.

If I were a Waorani hunter, striking true might mean the difference between a belly full of meat or cassava again for lunch. I suck in a breath, aim and blow, somehow impaling a leg. Perhaps I might scrape through a night in the jungle, but I can’t help but be thankful this monkey’s not the whooping, tree-climbing kind – it’s a practice target made of well-worn wood. We’re in a slice of the Amazon known as Anaconda Island, home to Anibal, our guide, and about 300 Quichua locals.

Vamos amigos, let’s go!” hollers Diego, our translator, wading into a swollen stream running from the Napo River, which flows into the mighty Amazon River in Peru 980 kilometres away. I wade in, clutching my camera to my chest. Humidity has already given the lens a cataract, and a swim would seal its fate. My foot plunges, water swamps my gumboots and nerves flicker as the Nikon almost grazes the surface. When my heart calms I realise the elevation-induced light-headedness that had lingered since arriving has stolen away some time ago.

You see, you never really come down from altitude when you land in Quito. Despite being built in a valley, the capital of Ecuador clocks in at 2850 metres above sea level, making it the highest official capital in the world. Australia’s uppermost point, Mount Kosciuszko, falls more than 600 metres short.

Higher still are the volcanic peaks surrounding the city. One of them, Reventador, erupted in 2002, covering the city in ash.

“It was 8.30 in the morning and suddenly it was dark,” recalls Diego. These days all eyes are on Cotopaxi, which, at 5897 metres, is the world’s second-highest active volcano. Recently rumbling back to life, it’s chugging smoke and sprinkling ash onto the city’s outskirts. Over the centuries these lava powerhouses have left plenty of scars, and the country’s dramatic changes in elevation have given rise to a bounty of ecosystems and created Ecuador’s ‘four worlds’ – the Galapagos, coast, Amazon and Andes.

I’d always envisaged a journey into the Amazon to be a demanding task – perhaps requiring a shonky Cessna ride followed by hours in a truck and some trekking to cap it all off. Instead, farewelling the colourful houses of World Heritage-listed Quito, we kick back for a half-day drive. Goosebumps pucker flesh when we pause for a woozy prayer at a shrine at 4100 metres. Winding through the cloud forest, we stop to watch hummingbirds show off slender beaks. The hills spit us out into muggy air and we land at Punta Ahuano, a port on the bank of the Napo River, 500 metres above sea level.

After staff from our lodge, La Casa del Suizo, haul our luggage to a motorised canoe we fang past local families sifting for gold. I soon discover this jungle getaway doesn’t mean forgoing creature comforts. A hammock swings on my balcony, hot water flows in the ensuite, a bar serves margaritas and wi-fi is on offer. After the sun sets I learn all Ecuadorians love to shake their hips. Seek a salsateca (nightclub) in Ecuador and ye shall find. Even in the Amazon.

Our morning starts with a breakfast of eggs, potato-like yucca and aji, a ubiquitous chilli sauce made with tamarillo, then “Vamos amigos!” rallies the gang and we set off with Anibal and Diego for a jungle survival crash course in the lodge’s 180-hectare private reserve. It’s one of many created by hotels in the Napo Province to protect the region’s flora and fauna. Discovery of oil has led to swathes of Amazon being razed and indigenous communities destroyed. In 2013, an ambitious bid failed to halt drilling in the biodiverse Yasuni National Park, home to two isolated indigenous tribes, and oil is set to flow in 2016.

“Just don’t touch the trees,” warns Diego, adding a murmur about scorpions and spiders. Lethal-looking thorns jut from roots and I keep my distance until he explains the plant is called a pambil and it’s used as a handy natural grater. We scour the forest for cheeky monkeys – capuchin, chorongo, spider and squirrel – as well as sloths, tapirs, guatusas (we’re told these large rodents make an excellent meal), anacondas and tarantulas.

Rain tumbles from the canopy and my coat is soon as slick on the inside as it is on the out. Anibal points out the best wood for building canoes – balsa – and how to deter mosquitoes by rubbing yourself with leaves. He sprinkles hormigas de limon (lemon ants) on outstretched palms for a snack, hands around cat’s claw bark said to treat cancer, and shows us how to use roots as shelter. We swap our canoe for a rollick on a handmade raft. I try to keep the Napo River off me, but the intermittent rain has become a torrent and water boils up between the balsa logs. I give up. After all, what kind of wooden-monkey slayer cares about sopping pants?

We’re meeting a 71-year-old who hauls himself up Chimborazo on a four-hour hike to hack ice from the volcano’s glacier. He wraps 22-kilogram blocks in stipa ichu grass, straps them to his donkey and treks back home.

“Watch out for the piranhas,” jokes Diego when one of our team lands in the drink. “And don’t pee in the water!” We’ve all heard the legend of the toothpick fish, a parasite that can inch its way up your urethra, and there’s no way anyone’s taking any chances. Moments later Diego dives into the brew as well.

It would take a passenger jet just ten minutes to fly from this part of the Amazon to the volcanic Mount Chimborazo in the Andes, but the landscape of eucalyptus trees and grasses flashing by the window of our quaint passenger train couldn’t be further removed from the messy heliconias and palms of the jungle. We’re chugging from the city of Riobamba to Urbina near the foothills of the mighty Chimborazo, passing part of the world few foreigners explore.

While the Amazon and the Galapagos are internationally renowned – although often attributed to other nations – the sleeping giant of Chimborazo flies somewhat under the radar. Which is strange when you learn the 6310-metre summit is the furthest point from the centre of the earth, knocking the 8848-metre-high Everest off the podium thanks to the equatorial bulge that makes Earth 43 kilometres wider here than at the poles.

But we haven’t just come to gawp at the mountain. We’re meeting a 71-year-old who, twice a week, hauls himself up Chimborazo on a four-hour hike, sometimes to 4800 metres, to hack ice from the volcano’s glacier. He wraps 22-kilogram blocks in stipa ichu grass, straps them to his donkey and treks back home, where they’ll last up to two weeks.

Such an extraordinary undertaking demands an equally impressive title, and Baltazar Ushca is famed as the last ice merchant of Ecuador. “Before, he used to go up with other ice merchants,” says our train’s guide, Adeline. “He used to go every day.” Now, just a few market stalls buy Baltazar’s blocks for US$5 a pop to mix like an elixir in their fruit juices, the Ecuadorian drink of choice. I’m assured the ice’s minerals are “good for the bones” and it was highly sought before freezers snatched the market. I roll a sliver around in my mouth to distract myself from the giddiness of elevation. “The vitamins give you energy,” promises Diego. I let it melt in a puddle on my tongue, willing the good stuff to make haste.

Back on board we sip an infusion of stewed ataco flower to banish altitude sickness while the train coils through the countryside. We snack on tortillas and watch fava beans, quinoa and potatoes give way to apples, peaches and tamarillo as we descend more than 1000 metres in just 40 minutes into a whole new layer of the country.

Swapping train for plane we jet past Cotopaxi, pausing to offload passengers at the city of Guayaquil on the coast, before touching down 1000 kilometres offshore in that renowned archipelago formed by volcanos spewing up their guts.

I’m floating right on zero metres when my heart starts rattling.

A shark has slipped into view. The adrenal response is automatic, born of a lifetime of great whites chomping into Australian headlines each summer. But this shark is cruising the warm waters of the Galapagos, and these species don’t like the taste of travellers. I plunge to its level, about two metres below, and discover a dozen more reef sharks hovering tip to tail in a crevasse. Either through evolution or habituation, all the wildlife here seems completely unfazed by human presence.

A parrotfish sashays past, pooing sand in my face, and a baby stingray does a body roll on the floor.

Home for five days here is the Santa Cruz. Soon to be decommissioned, this old gal has trained some of the Galapagos’ finest guides and crew, and our naturalist, Lola, talks about her like she’s farewelling a dear old friend. “But,” Lola tells us, almost reassuring herself, “it’s the people who make this ship, not the ship itself.”

The daily routine – breakfast, panga ride to a new island, lunch, adventure time, geography lesson, dinner – might be the same, but each island rocks its own geology and a collection of odd creatures that so famously enamoured Charles Darwin when he first sailed here on the Beagle in 1835.

On Santa Cruz Island marine iguanas lumber over flour-soft sand, blue-footed boobies parade their kicks and pelicans wade in the shallows, flipping fish. Rábida Island is all iron-rich red soil, sea lions, Darwin’s treasured finches, and dramatic blue sea beyond cactus-studded cliffs. Bartolomé has an almost barren landscape of lava spills with panoramic views from its summit. A bizarre assortment of birds inhabits the horseshoe-shaped Genovesa Island. Nazca and red-footed boobies take to the lava-flow plateaus en masse, nuzzling into the crooked twigs of palo santo trees. Others shimmy in mangroves, dancing like Ecuadorians at a salsateca.

It’s on Santiago Island that we see the first signs that something’s not quite right. Dead iguanas litter the beach in varying stages of decomposition. The strict ‘no touch’ policy doesn’t apply to skeletons, and Lola wastes no time in gathering up bones to show us pointed teeth. Live lizards pile on hot rocks, gawping at us with pink mouths open. “They are very skinny,” says Lola. “You can even see their ribs – they are very susceptible.”

El Niño ravaged the Galapagos in 1998. “In that year we could see about half of the island was dying. Iguanas, blue-footed boobies, sea lions, anything that depends on the ocean,” explains Lola. “Every year they predict El Niño, but it doesn’t come.” This time, it’s different. “The warm waters are a sign that it’s coming.”

El Niño’s not the only threat. Climate change and direct human impact also menace the islands. But in contrast to the upcoming plunder of the Amazon, the government has taken steps to mitigate the damage to this area. Migration to the region is restricted and travel is highly regulated. The 25,000 people who live in the archipelago inhabit just three per cent of the region, and the goal is to run on renewables by 2020. Signs of past neglect – graffiti on rocks and abandoned, illegal houses – are fading away.

On my final night I simmer in a hot tub on deck with a Cerveza Pilsner in hand contemplating mutiny so I can stay in the archipelago that bit longer. In just two weeks I’ve grazed 4100 metres and sunk to minus two, squeezing in the Andes, the Amazon and the Galapagos – three of Ecuador’s four worlds. Taking a sip I promise myself I’ll return to explore the coast. After all, I’ve heard the altitude there won’t give you head spins, but its steamy salsatecas sure will.

Get there

LAN flies from Sydney to Quito via Auckland and Santiago. The airline also flies between Quito and Baltra Island in the Galapagos via Guayaquil. Visitors to the Galapagos must pay a US$100 entry fee in cash on arrival.

Stay there

In Quito, Casa Gangotena has 31 luxury rooms in a restored historic mansion overlooking Plaza San Francisco in the heart of the old town. Luxury rooms from US$450 a night, including breakfast.

Tour There

A four-day train trip on the luxurious Tren Crucero from Quito to Guayaquil (or vice versa) costs US$1450 and includes food and accommodation at haciendas. Shorter trips are also available. Eight-day cruises through the Galapagos Islands on the 32-guest M/V Evolution start at US$5600 per person.


Photos Nikola Sarbinowski

Tags: ecuador

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