Ecuador Adventure Travel
One man’s picaresque journey into Ecuador, from colonial Quito to a brand-new eco-lodge in the rain forest, then into the Amazon basin to the active Tungurahua volcano and back again.
By the time I arrived back in Quito, the raw egg a shaman had smashed over my head in her house in Peguche was hardening into an uneven spiky gel, and like some disoriented punk rocker, I walked the streets of the Ecuadoran capital, preparing my excuses. The high altitude, I reasoned, had impaired my judgment, not to mention I’d lost my itinerary, which was at this point, a blessing, considering my journey was about to take me directly toward an erupting volcano, down the so-called river of piranhas, and into the care of a man who went into tourism at the suggestion of a tree.
The soothing equatorial sun dipped behind the jagged Andes, and I stepped into the Plaza Foch, in Quito’s hippest neighborhood, reeking of unknown potions. A cosmopolitan after-work crowd fanned out from the corner restaurants and bars. Cigarette men in ski caps paced the sidewalk, offering me their trays. Viva assange, read a graffito along a corrugated-metal wall. Badly in need of a drink, I spotted an open table and sat down to ponder what I’d gotten myself into.
For many travelers, Ecuador is something of a mystery. Bordered by larger neighbors—Colombia to the north, Peru to the south and east—and the Pacific Ocean along its western coast, the Oregon-size country is perhaps better known for things outside its mainland borders: the Galápagos Islands, 600 miles offshore, which account for a majority of the country’s tourist visits; and, recently, Julian Assange, the Australian Wikileaks founder, who took up residence in Ecuador’s London embassy, and whom Ecuador’s firebrand president Rafael Correa granted asylum. Such publicity illustrates a basic challenge. “Sometimes we meet with travel agents and they don’t even know where Ecuador is, ” says Oswaldo Muñoz, a diplomat, hotelier, and longtime tourism-industry leader.
That may be changing, however. In the past few years, a concerted effort by public and private developers has gotten under way to turn Ecuador’s mainland into an ecotourism player, taking advantage of the country’s diverse topography—soaring mountains, tropical jungles, and pristine coastline—and the richness of its indigenous cultures. A new international airport, years in the planning, is slated to open this year. And in 2008, environmentally minded business leaders managed to push through an article of the constitution that gives inalienable rights to nature—a global first—creating a major roadblock for oil companies. This was no mean feat for a country that has been exploited for decades by big oil and continues to produce crude as its top export.
“There’s a saying, ‘You’re sleeping on an oil mine, ’ meaning you’re lazy and stupid, ” says Roque Sevilla, a visionary conservationist, hotelier, and former mayor of Quito who fought for the article. “But I’m an economist, and I believe tourism is more valuable than exploiting oil. It’s time we start developing the mainland in a way that makes sense.”
Despite the enticing sight of a hipster in a fedora hurrying a string bass across the street, I didn’t stay in Plaza Foch long. Itching from the nettles the shaman had smacked me with, I hailed a cab and was soon plunging and ascending the narrow, roller-coaster streets of old colonial Quito. As I passed the presidential palace, I thought about “El Loco, ” the former Ecuadoran president who was removed from office in 1997 for “mental incapacity, ” an event followed by a bizarre saga in which he holed up in the building as he and two other members of the government each claimed to be the country’s leader. Reading about this incident in my Brooklyn apartment, I had resolved to get inside the palace myself and had spent an inordinate amount of time drafting requests to meet with President Correa. I had even booked a room blocks away at Casa Gangotena, the stateliest hotel in town, owned by the former mayor, Sevilla. A palatial space with Egyptian-marble floors, soaring ceilings, and a postcard view of the city from its balcony overlooking historic Plaza San Francisco, this was where I emerged from my cab, praying the odor accompanying me would go unnoticed by Sevilla’s staff.
Sevilla was another man whose job description had induced me to request a meeting. A tall, Harvard-educated mensch with a thin mustache and a balding, oblong, Quito-shaped head, he had made a small fortune in insurance and mobile phones, and after his stint as Quito’s mayor, bought the country’s largest tour company, Metropolitan Touring, in 2001.
After opening the solar-paneled Casa Gangotena—one of the most beautiful colonial buildings in the country—to international acclaim, he is nearly finished with the country’s highest-profile new property, the eco-friendly Mashpi Lodge, deep in the Chocó jungle. Now his modest goals are to connect all of Ecuador with a network of trails, help get the country to a zero-carbon footprint by 2025, and introduce an E.T.-like bicycle into the jungle, where visitors to Mashpi will be able to fly overhead in order to, as he put it, “see the jungle the same way as would a toucanet.”
“People ask me, ‘Is there a strategy?’” Sevilla said, as if anticipating my question, while I took a seat at a long table in his spare, downtown office the following week. “But there is a strategy. It’s not just an idea.” He grabbed a marker and bounded over to a framed slab of glass that hung like a painting on the wall. On it were rudimentary sketches of buildings, and he enthusiastically added a coastline and a mountain range, with arrows pointing in the direction of the wind. “Why did I decide to invest only in Ecuador?” he asked me, but I only nodded, still in a food coma from the 32-course breakfast buffet I’d just finished in Gangotena’s baroque dining room. “Because I’m interested in protecting a specific kind of environment, ” he said.
I did have some notion of what he was talking about. I’d driven to Mashpi a few days earlier, up into the Andes, through one-road towns where whole feathered chickens hung from the backs of motorcycles, cows stopped traffic, and church days were determined by the availability of itinerant pastors. Eventually we turned down a gravel road I was sure was narrower than my vehicle, and descended deeper and deeper into the dense, tropical Chocó.
Ecuador proudly proclaims itself “number four in the world for birds, ” and of the 1, 600-plus species found in the country, 900 reside in the Chocó; nowhere on the planet is denser with species of orchid. One of Sevilla’s business partners cried upon seeing the forest. The area was months away from being razed for timber in 2001 when Sevilla bought it. He spent the next 11 years fending off squatters (some of whom now work for Sevilla as guides and forest wardens) and persuading the government to agree to a unique development deal. Of the $8.5 million he spent on Mashpi, the government financed nearly a quarter, which will be sold back to the public as shares.