The Gringo Trail, Part I of IV: Ecuador
When it comes to global distinctions, South America’s résumé could be the most impressive. It has the world’s longest mountain range (Andes), longest river (Amazon) and highest waterfall (Angel Falls). It also has the world’s driest desert (Atacama), highest national capital (La Paz) and highest navigable lake (Lake Titicaca). And, as Tribune reporter Jeremy Evans found out this summer, it also has a lot of gringos.
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South Americans – and I am fairly certain of this – believe hot springs are glorified mosh pits. There’s simply no way to convince them otherwise.
This has been the case in every South American nation I have ever visited. It’s rather frustrating for North Americans, who view hot springs as relaxing places, not public swimming pools.
In Baños, Ecuador, this past July, I was certain things would be different, that our neighbors to the south wouldn’t behave like hyenas.
I was wrong.
Kids launched cannonballs with alarming regularity, knees locked tightly between their elbows for added effect. The resulting splash, though, was never quite good enough, and off they went for another attempt.
When the kids tired of cannonballs, they brought out an assortment of toys more appropriate for a day at Nevada Beach. Another of their favorite activities was cupping and squeezing their hands together, causing water to squirt into the eyes of strangers.
The recipients were usually gringos seated on the periphery. We accepted the abuse because moving somewhere else increased our chances of being struck in the ear with a plastic ball.
It was all very amusing for the parents, who played their own games like “chicken.” The most interesting battles were between the females, who draped their legs over their husband’s shoulders and clashed with fury.
It wasn’t long before their arms became tangled and they crashed into the water. The women either landed directly on the gringos or – at the very least – created a tidal wave that splashed our faces.
For what seemed like the first time in Ecuador, we gringos were vastly outnumbered at a tourist spot.
Relax, fellow white people, “gringo” isn’t considered a derogatory term in South America. It’s not exactly a term of endearment, but it is an uncomplicated way for South Americans to classify all foreigners roaming their countries. There’s even a book titled “The Gringo Trail.”
The trail’s unofficial trailhead is Quito, the capital of Ecuador. Most of the country’s annual 860,000 tourists arrive in Quito first, then head to the Galapagos Islands or begin heading south toward La Paz, Bolivia, the Gringo Trail’s terminus.
Tourism is the country’s fourth-largest industry after oil, bananas and fishing, and injects about $500 million into the economy. So it’s only natural that Quito – nestled among emerald hillsides at 9,350 feet above sea level – has a neighborhood called ‘Gringolandia.’
It’s located in the city’s New Town, which is block after block of internet cafes, hostels and restaurants. All the city’s skyscrapers are located here, and most appear to be colorful Pez dispensers silhouetted against snow-capped Andean volcanoes.
At Red Hot Chili Peppers, a Mexican restaurant in the heart of New Town, travelers have written their thoughts on the wall. One person scribbled “Gringos … figure it out, then go home.”
It wasn’t the most welcoming of comments, though it was probably written by some American drunk on $2 margaritas. The Ecuadorian people always seemed glad to see me, unless I told them I didn’t have money.
Quito’s New Town has parks and shopping malls reminiscent of North America, but its Old Town is distinctly South American. Its patchwork of cobblestone streets leads to stunning churches, lively markets and colonial buildings.
The Old Town’s sidewalks are crowded with men wearing suits, women in dresses, and peasants begging for money. Properly-dressed men, with newspapers tucked under their arm pits, dine at street vendors and get their shoes shined by children in plazas.
The day after arriving in Quito on June 15, I turned up my nose at New Town and walked through Alameda Park to Old Town. Along the way, I passed by a butcher shop and, still adjusting to a new continent, was a bit taken aback at what I saw.
On a table near the sidewalk lay a cow’s head that had been severed from its body. It had been slaughtered that morning.
In an effort to prove its freshness, the butcher had placed the cow’s bleeding head in a tray next to the one containing its carved-up body parts. There were certainly mountains and lakes and glaciers during my 3,750-mile journey from Quito to La Paz, but seeing animals’ heads dangling from hooks in meat shops became a reoccurring sight.
Ecuador is a small country of 98,985 square miles, or roughly the size of Oregon, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in diversity.
From Quito, three climate zones are within a day’s drive. In a span of three days, it’s possible – if the roads aren’t washed out – to see machete-wielding natives in the steamy Amazon jungle, sip tea at a climber’s hut on the side of 19,460-foot Mount Cotopaxi and eat shrimp plates on the coast.
Ecuador, though, has more than geography of which to boast. According to Conservation International, it is one of 17 megadiverse countries in the world. It has 15 percent of the world’s known bird species and 6,000 different species of butterfly.
However, it’s the people who set it apart. From Otavalo in the north to Cuenca in the south, there is a full spectrum of ethnic diversity.
Quiteños (people from Quito) and residents of Guayaquil – the country’s largest city – are mostly responsible for the 65 percent of Ecuadorians who are Mestizo (a mix of Spanish and Indian blood). Outside the main cities, indigenous culture is more evident, with women washing clothes along the banks of rivers in Cuenca and thatched-roof homes in the jungle and coastal areas.
The lifeblood between these areas is the Pan-American Highway, a network of roads that connects Prudhoe Bay, Alaska with Ushuaia, Argentina. During my month-long stay in Ecuador – and for my three-month trip along the western contour of South America – I never veered too far from this highway since it’s the only dependable stretch of pavement, and I had lots of terrain to cover.
By the time I reached Peru, the highway might have had the same name as it does in Ecuador, but the similarities between the countries stopped there.
This Amazon jungle town sits on the confluence of three rivers and is quickly becoming South America’s kayaking and rafting capital. Most of the roads remain unpaved, including parts of the Quito-Tena road over the Andes. There are jungle lodges and waterfalls – as well as an Amazon park displaying native flora and fauna – but most travelers come here to conquer rapids.
It’s a chore to reach this friendly little beach town. An eight-hour bus trip from Quito is followed by a 15-minute boat ride across a bay, then another 30-minute bus ride along vegetated coastline. Guarded by the Pacific Ocean on one side and bluffs smeared with cloud forest on the other, Canoa has $3 shrimp plates and world-class surf breaks. Leave your shoes at home.
An ex-patriate enclave tucked amid a semi-arid landscape near the border with Peru, Vilcabamba is a popular stop on the Gringo Trail. Hiking and horseback riding are popular activities, especially in nearby Podacarpus National Park, which has no roads, virgin cloud forest and peaks rising up to 10,000 feet. Many local businesses are owned by gringos who planned to spend a week here but stayed for several years.