Ecuador, the Twilight Zone
Sep 25, 2002
David Rich 1700 Words
E c u a d o r, T h e T w i l i g h t Z o n e?
Was Ecuador in the twilight zone, or was I Rod Serling? Which one, Ecuador or me, was primarily responsible for what seemed to be my longest day ever?
At dawn on that fateful day I was parked at what the guidebooks had touted as the best Incan ruin in Ecuador, Ingapirca, but the Incans clearly hadn't done Ecuador in a serious fashion. Ingapirca was barely worth the six-dollar admission. But the entry fee included "free" parking/camping for my 1979 Dodge camper van, overlooking the site where morning broke clear, sunny and optimistic. I was bursting with anticipation that I'd make it to Banos on this day. Banos was the spa and tourist capitol of Ecuador, 260 kilometers north. For gringos like me it was only 160 miles. It should have been a piece of cake.
To say Ecuador is mountainous is like saying the Pacific Ocean is wet. The Andes sprocket down Ecuador's middle in perpetually snowcapped cones over 21,000 feet. The route I'd scoped out from Ingapirca to Banos was naturally right up the corridor of Andean volcanoes, the highest part of Ecuador.
I scooted out of Ingapirca at 9000 feet, the trusty ancient Dodge humming confidently past brightly dressed Incans in bowler hats and colorful capes, long black hair in braids down their backs, and these were the men. The women were similarly dressed though even more colorfully with scarlet shawls wrapped around burdens no beast should ethically shoulder, along sheer drops of 3000 vertical feet, clouds in a thick cottony layer below us all. Above were steep hills in checkerboard shades of green, cultivated to 12,000 feet and grazed by cows without vertigo though obviously needing legs of different lengths to graze the perpendicular slopes. How these uppity hills could be planted and harvested remains a mystery to me.
Then a funny thing happened. The road descended precipitously, in tight switchbacks, through the cloud bank and I muttered aloud, knowing I'd have to climb back up, scouring the map with one eye while dodging cars passing buses passing trucks three abreast on the narrow two lane road in fog so dense it dripped. I'd have to climb back up somewhere, if I survived. Where on the map did the road drop so steeply, I wondered, clutching the self-folding map in one hand and the steering wheel in the other? But the fog and its mysteries won my full attention, careening trucks passing me on blind man's curves, dodging oncoming cars, buses, and trucks still three abreast as I cringed along the crumbly edge of the shockingly vertical canyon, not that I could see. Knowing thin air was all that stood between me and oblivion was sufficient. Suddenly, I'd dropped below the fog bank, attention back on the map, all roads in Ecuador a cipher, unmarked and unsigned, a continuing conundrum. I stopped for fuel and reassurance.
"Buenas días, sen~or. Donde está?" Where the heck am I? The attendant said something I didn't understand. Whatever it was seemed to refer to a place that appeared nowhere on my map. I searched hopefully and settled on the name of a town on the intended route. Maybe that's what he said.
An hour later I saw the first sign, for Guayaquil. But Guayaquil was Ecuador's largest city, way out on the Pacific coast. I rolled down my window. "Buenas días. Perdón. Que es la direccion a Banos?"
The nattily dressed gentleman looked seriously perplexed. He said, "Banos es muchos kilometers..." Thataway, he pointed. But he was pointing in the wrong direction. Was his finger crooked, broken, or cockeyed? Danged if the answer was none of the above. I was lost, in El Triunfo, which translated as "triumphant," meaning it'd kicked the butt of the random gringo, me. I was a hundred kilometers off my intended route and had wasted four hours, half a day of scatterbrained and white-knuckled driving. Instead of an hour to go to Banos, I had four more hours to go, minimum.
Another road was now the most direct to Riobamba, the town where the road split for Banos. I revved up the engine and drove, up and up and up, gaining 12,000 feet of altitude in fifty miles—pant, pant, poor old Dodge van. But the scenery was spectacular, and two hours later at the top I was dazzled.
Ahead on the horizon stretched the corridor of snowcapped volcanoes with not a cloud in sight. This was a real something only one of ten tourists are fortunate enough to observe: Volcan Chimborazo, 23,000 feet and the tallest volcano in Ecuador, always snowcapped, along with Volcan Altar and Volcan Cotopaxi almost a hundred miles north. Volcano Cotopaxi sported a perfect cone similar to Mount Fuji in Japan and Taranaki on North Island New Zealand—fabuloso. Usually some or all are covered with clouds.
I dropped down confidently into Riobamba, knowing Banos was barely forty miles away, if I could find the unsigned road out of town. But without road signs, I was immediately lost. I braked to a stop by a baby soldier in camouflage, heavy weapon on scrawny shoulder. "Perdón, sen~or. Que es la direccion de carretara a Banos?" My Spanish was horrific, but he seemed to know I was asking the way to Banos.
He motioned that I should make a U-turn, head toward Ambato, which was the really, really long way around. I know Volcano Tungurahua above Banos had begun erupting three years ago. But gee, that was three years ago. The direct route to Banos surely and certainly had to be open by now.
Finally I found a cabbie with proper directions. "Go up to the Shell station and hang a right. Direct to Banos." I avidly followed his directions.
The high patchwork hills, the smoke from Volcano Turungahua were beautiful. Smoke? Hell, that wasn't smoke. That was an eruption, grayish brown ash spiraling heavenward above my head like a mushroom cloud. I skidded to a halt and memorialized the event in a picture, the highlight of the day. Wow. Perhaps Turungahua would eclipse the attractions of Banos, which the guidebook said abounded with hot springs, waterfalls, and a formerly dormant volcano named Tungurahua towering above it.
I jumped back in the trusty Dodge and gunned toward Banos on the opposite side of Tungurahua and at that instant the road disappeared. I screeched to a halt at the edge of an abrupt abyss of fifty vertical feet, obviously formed by recent flows of volcanic mud. But a dirt road led upward and I immediately took the opportunity, rattling the van from side to side up the steep road to.... What the heck was that? It looked like a bunch of planks across the precipice. I got gingerly out. It was a bunch of planks across the precipice. I stepped out onto the planks and gently bounced. They bounced too. Would they hold an overloaded Dodge van? I certainly hoped so.
I got back inside and nosed onto the rickety bridge which swayed a bit, causing me to hit the accelerator and fly off the opposite side. I jumped out and looked back at the still vibrating "bridge." I surely didn't want to another one like that. But I did find another one and then yet another. I saw and crossed three more of the rickety plank affairs before discovering that the now rutted and nearly impassible dirt road had attained a proclivity for verticality, which meant there was no way the old Dodge van could make it over the next hill that wound steeply up Tungurahua's slopes toward Banos. But it was late, almost sunset, and where I sat seemed to be an excellent place to park for the night. I backed around and got nearly level, when the volcano sensed my presence and took it for a bad omen. Tungurahua suddenly erupted in spades, ash spiraling skyward in billowing clouds and rolling down the conical slopes in cascades of sparkling red cinders.
I whipped a U-turn like Steve McQueen in Bullitt, ripping back across four ramshackle wooden bridges. At the last rickety "bridge" I almost dropped a rear tire off the edge, sending my up-til-then patient wife screaming out of the van to supervise a half hour of maneuvering in the near dark. We finally made it across in one piece. An hour later and well after dark I slid to a sighing halt out of range of the angry volcano. I'd been slumped in my seat, recuperating, no longer than five minutes when pounding came on the side of the van. Serious pounding.
I stood and poked my head out a high side window. "Qué pasa?" I asked brilliantly.
"Es peligroso aquí," shouted one of the dozen or so men clustered around the van.
Dangerous was relative, I thought, as I asked, "Porque?" Why was it dangerous?
"Robos," they energetically exclaimed.
Robbers? What kind of scam was this? "Está ustedes robos?" I asked craftily. They seemed in rather high spirits and might actually be robbers themselves.
The leader stamped his foot in frustration at the obstinate gringo. "No, no, no. Nosotros no estamos robos. Pero es peligroso." The upshot required my immediate departure to the closest village, where I could park under a streetlight for the night.
I thanked them wearily and wheeled the van around toward the village three miles away, parking under three streetlights just to be safe. But in five minutes, I was visited by a delegation that looked like Mutt and Jeff, or Pancho Sanza and the Man of La Mancha, the mayor and his main sidekick. Yeah, I could stay there if I left immediately in the morning. No sweat.
My new plan was to shove off toward Banos at dawn's early light, sort of like the same plan I'd had twelve hours earlier. Surely I'd make it to Banos the next day. Was Ecuador in the twilight zone or was it me, accessory before, during, and after the fact?