In Deep in Ecuador

On a detour to the Andes, the bumpy road less traveled opens a window to another world.

September 3, 2002


Cobblestone plazas, whitewashed cupolas, and ornate facades in Quito’s Old City evoke the colonial past of Ecuador’s capital. Diana Simon

For a full year, my wife, Diana, and I dug deeply into the lives and land of the Panamanian people. We dined with the wealthy in Panama City penthouses and squatted around jungle fires with indigenous hunters in the province of Darién. We wandered long white beaches on the San Blas islands and hiked through the verdant cloud forests of the interior. The irony of this deeply satisfying type of travel is that ultimately we are left deeply dissatisfied: The more we see of any part of this planet, the more we must see. While we were excited with the imminent prospect of setting out into the South Pacific, we were also reluctant to leave a single stone unturned in the impossible immensity of the Americas.

Our reprieve came with the idea that we might squeeze out one last experience by detouring south to mainland Ecuador before fetching the Galápagos Islands. This would cost us a meager 240 extra miles and break the Galápagos passage into two convenient legs. More important, we hoped to find a safe haven for our 36-foot steel cutter, Roger Henry, so we could travel into the Andes.

Isla del Rey, the southernmost island of Panama’s Archipiélago de las Perlas, offered a protected anchorage as we readied Roger Henry. It was an isolated spot, but–as I’d learned through the years–no land is so remote that Diana can’t find a chance to shop. She bargained with a local diver for a set of creamy pearls with quirky irregularities–just her style.


We set sail against light southerlies, clawing our way to a point west of 81 degrees to take fleeting advantage of the counterclockwise current in the Golfo de Panamá. This strategy also placed us well off the west coast of Colombia, where the long-running civil war had again reached a boiling point. Marxist guerrillas were fighting each other, the government, drug barons, landed warlords, and too many paramilitary groups to count. The United States, meanwhile, had just upped the ante in its billion-dollar war on drugs. I found all this so interesting that I suggested to Diana that we poke in for a quick look-see. I can win most arguments with Diana if she’ll just engage. But she simply stared silently, letting the seconds pass and her still, blue eyes reflect my stupidity back upon me. I retreated feebly. “Just asking is all.”

So we not only sensibly avoided skullduggery but also found a counter-flowing crease in the Peru Current that pushed us smartly towards Ecuador. A mere five days out, we lay hove to until dawn in front of the mighty Río Chone, which cleaves the rolling coast. Just inside the dangerously shallow and shifting entrance lay the once bustling resort town of Bahía de Caráquez.

Pilot services are available and, on reflection, perhaps advisable. However, I felt the wind and tide were right for a cautious attempt to enter solo. With scant inches beneath our keel, we slid through a twisting channel with hissing breakers to port and hull-shattering boulders to starboard. The dissonance gave way to a sublime quiet in the channel’s last dogleg, where we jibed and then drifted with the incoming tide toward an anchorage abreast of the town.


A dilapidated fishing launch approached, wallowing under the weight of its incongruent crew: naval officers resplendent in dress whites and spit-polished patent-leather shoes. The underfunded navy can’t afford to run its own boats, so the officers commandeer whatever local vessel happens by their dock when a need arises. After a cursory inspection, they asked us to come to their office ashore. A towering pile of forms appeared. Rubber stamps slammed down upon the desk with officious thuds. My hand started to cramp just as the last signatures were placed. The officer labored over the complicated entry, anchorage, light, and buoy fees. Surveying the tally, he raised his brow. My heart sank; I imagined that the cost of paper and ink alone would break my bank. Finally, he handed me my complex bill totaling $17.

In the river near Roger Henry lay the American boats Talisman, a Tayana 53, and Misty Dawn, a low slung and sultry Block Island 40. Just downstream, Adelie, a Cabot 36, flew the Red Maple Leaf. Like us, they’d all broken from their trip to the Galápagos in search of high Andean travel. If they could find safe anchorage in Ecuador, the crews of Misty Dawn and Adelie planned a grueling 70-hour bus ride to the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru. Bahía de Caráquez was abuzz with the size of the new fleet, a harbinger of a fat flotilla that might inject new life into a devastated economy.

In 1998, Ecuador suffered what The Economist termed “the largest banking collapse of modern times.” A major earthquake then knocked the staggering nation to its knees. Once bristling with new resort condominiums, Bahía de Caráquez languished in tropical torpor. Workers were hauling off brick by brick the last of the buildings cracked in the quake.


The navy so repeatedly assured us that our persons and property were absolutely safe that we were lulled into inattention. On our third dawn in Bahía de Caráquez, the crews of Talisman and Roger Henry woke to find only severed painters where expensive dinghies and outboards had once trailed. Talisman’s Peter Thun, a big but gentle man, was philosophical and ready to accept loss. The navy wasn’t. Because the crime occurred on the water, it fell under its jurisdiction, not that of the police. The sailors were embarrassed, agitated, and inexperienced, which proved to be a dangerous combination. They made an aggressive show of rounding up the usual suspects, but they believed our best chance of recovery was an immediate search upriver. Armed sailors jumped in, and we sped away in tardy pursuit. As Peter scanned the starboard bank with binoculars and I scanned the port, we finally came upon our dinghies, sans motors and accessories.

We continued up the winding river dotted with dugout canoes. Spotting navy uniforms, some of the people in the canoes, perhaps holding out-of-season shrimp, made a dash for the mangrove shallows. We approached one dugout bearing a muscular man paddling in the stern and a pretty woman in the bow. The lieutenant barked an order for them to halt. Inexplicably, they kept paddling. The lieutenant shouted louder, in an ominous tone. They looked over their shoulders, terror in their eyes, but kept paddling just the same. The lieutenant ordered our driver to ram the canoe. On impact, another officer grabbed the fleeing fisherman and yanked him right out of the stern. As he fell into the shallow water, he offered no resistance. He was drugged with fear. His wife leaped out of the canoe and began a ferocious tug of war for her man. Her screams rose to an anguished pitch.

Peter shouted, “No, this is wrong. Stop!”


But the sailors spoke no English. Incredibly, the woman won the test of strength. She tore her heavy husband away from the sailors. The two scrambled into their canoe and raced for water too shallow for the launch to follow. The lieutenant barged to the bow, chambered a round into his automatic rifle, and drew down onto the backs of the escapees. Things were about to go terribly wrong. I yanked him back and started spouting gibberish Spanish in his face, giving the canoe time to slide into the mangroves. The lieutenant just shrugged and set off to interrogate the next passerby.

Shaken, Peter and I quickly huddled. We simply couldn’t condone these actions. How do we say innocent until proven guilty in Spanish? Or probable cause? We cajoled the sailors into calling off the search and began the laborious and expensive process of replacement.

Via SSB radio we contacted the Pedro Miguel Boat Club in Panama and asked if anyone heading this way was willing to purchase new motors and haul them down to us.

With a heartwarming show of sailing solidarity, strangers Jeff and Ann Brooke of High Drama loaded two new engines on board in Panama. They hand delivered them to us in Ecuador, accepting only our gratitude as their shipping fee.

The local tourist board was sufficiently alarmed by the thefts to sponsor a business breakfast for the visiting cruisers. They assured us that the authorities would immediately take steps to improve security for future visitors. Nonetheless, we decided that I would sleep on Talisman for a week while its crew traveled inland, and they would reciprocate upon their return. Diana spent her week immersed in Ecuadoran arts and crafts. I spent mine devouring $2 sirloins and quaffing 30-cent beers. I explained to Diana that if I applied myself, I could offset our recent financial loss. She was skeptical of my accounting methods.



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| Alvah Simon|

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| Shaded by the brim of her Panama hat, Diana tends the tiller aboard Roger Henry.* * *|

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When Talisman‘s crew returned, Diana and I hopped a dawn bus for Quito, nine rough hours up and inland. In each dusty little pueblo, vendors jumped aboard to hawk bottled water and completely unrecognizable food. I took a bite and wiped my lips. “One can’t be sure, but I think it was some sort of grain, boiled in rancid chicken fat, with a tripe stuffing.” Diana dropped hers in disgust. I pointed to a sign: “Dear Customer, help keep this bus clean. Please throw your trash out the windows.” The littered highway attested to their cooperation.

Through each hairpin turn, the might and majesty of the Andes unfolded. The salsa-driven sensuality of the coastal Latinos gave way to the stoic silence of the highland Indians. Provocative beach bikinis grew into full-length skirts, long-sleeved blouses, and traditional woolen shawls with matching felt bowler hats.

Quito is the heart of the nation and an archetypal Andean capital. Nestled in a 10,000-foot-high valley surrounded by snowcapped peaks, it’s crowded yet orderly, old but clean, busy without being overwhelming. The city is divided into two distinct districts, the more modern Ciudad Nuevo, or New City, and the Cuidad Vieja, or Old City. We stayed in the New City, an area full of funky yet clean hostels, fine restaurants, and hip Internet cafés serving chocolate croissants and mocha lattes. Drawing international climbers, backpackers, scientists, and tourists, the quarter provided a quaint forum for eclectic conversation.

Until we walked into the Old City, I thought that only works of nature could move me. Horse-drawn carts bursting with fresh flowers or exotic fruits jammed the cobbled squares, the stones polished by centuries of commerce. From the graceful balconies above, these squares looked like a painter’s pallet smeared with rich hues. The one-lane streets wound through canyons of colonial buildings. The street signs, mosaics embedded in the walls of corner building, were in themselves works of art. As we stood staring at these, people assumed we were lost and kindly offered directions.

We’d declare one gargantuan edifice as the grandest, the most densely ornate we’d ever seen, only to relegate it to second place once we rounded the next corner. Great arched doorways held together with thick wrought iron opened into idyllic courtyards. The sound of chirpy birds bathing in marble fountains beckoned us in.

The magnificence of the churches and cathedrals brought me to my knees. Yard-thick walls rose to form sharp steeples so high that they seemed to pierce the heavens they praised. Ponderous bells chimed with a deep resonance that we felt as much as heard. Inside, the architectural opulence seemed designed not only to give glory to God but also to bedazzle the congregation. Acres of gold leaf covered the vaulted ceilings. Larger-than-life paintings depicted angels and cherubs leading the pious up to heaven.

I watched the parade of humble devotees. Short, thick Indian men, the angles of the Andes reflected in their cheekbones, removed their hats respectfully, keeping their eyes down. Women donned scarves, anointed themselves with holy water, and shyly made their way to one of the many altars. With candles bought at the door, they made their meager offering, then got down on their knees and folded their hard hands to their chests. I watched their lips moving rapidly in muted prayer, and wondered for what they asked.

I sat in those churches for hours, feeling humbled.

Escaping the Blockade
From Quito, we hopped on a derelict bus and pushed farther into the mountains, trying to reach the famous Indian craft market in Otavalo. Three miles from the town, large boulders and smoldering logs barred our way. While army soldiers cleared the debris, crowds of Otavalo Indians formed a human blockade in front of the bus.

They were protesting the recent doubling of fuel prices. The government of Ecuador, having just ousted its elected president via a bloodless coup, had petitioned the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund for help in stabilizing the country’s careening economy. It was allowed to adopt the U.S. dollar as its official currency only after agreeing to implement painful economic reforms. While perhaps a sound long-term strategy, this had an immediate impact on the nation’s many poor. To a worker paid $3 per day, even a minor price hike becomes a fighting matter.

As more indigenous people poured down from the hills, squads of heavily armed soldiers sat in camouflaged transports and waited for the command to strike. A flack-jacketed soldier dragged a heavy log off the road. An Otavalan woman hauled it back, even as the soldier watched. Then he pulled it through a ditch and heaved the bulky timber over a barbwire fence into the adjacent field. That would fix her. The woman, weighing no more than 90 pounds but hardened by a life of heavy loads, smiled, climbed under the barbwire, and began tugging the timber back towards the road. We were watching the history of the highlands: power versus patience.

The line of stopped traffic grew. One restless driver of a shiny sport utility vehicle tried to push through the crowd. A young Indian man sprang forward with a pole tipped with a sharp spike. He rammed the lance through the front tires. Other young men sprinkled the road with nails wired together to form jack-like stars.

The tangled traffic piled up in front of the protest line, making going backward as difficult as going forward. I pulled our backpacks from the bus. We were the only gringos present, but I didn’t sense any hostility aimed specifically at us.

“I think they’re targeting only the vehicles,” I told Diana. We pushed forward tentatively on foot, watching the eyes of those in the crowd to assess the reaction. A warning shot rang out from the hills high above, but we passed without incident and hiked to town.

Needless to say, the craft market was canceled. Over the next couple of days, as the blockade grew, I realized that we wouldn’t be able to hike out to transportation. Tourists trapped within the ring grew frantic, as they had international flights to make. A young Dutch couple, a Chilean couple on honeymoon, a few Frenchmen, and Diana and I gathered in the small, rickety office of a local tour operator.

Rather than answer my many questions, he connected me by phone directly to a spokesman for the protest.

“When will your protest end?” I asked.

“When the government changes its policies or collapses,” he responded.

I offered that the Otavalans themselves would suffer most from the blockade.

“Yes, but the protest will spread to the capital, then the coast. Student organizations, then the labor movement will join. It will take time, but we will win.”

Indeed, they eventually did. Faced with a national paralysis, the government relented by easing the rate of price increases for fuel and basic commodities.

I asked the tour operator if we could slip through the net. Could we hire a four-wheel drive and a guide who knew the back roads, did he think?

“Impossible,” he insisted.

Actually, what he meant was it would be impossible at the normal rate of hire. If we offered double, perhaps triple the rate–well, he could make some calls. The next morning, our group piled into two old trucks and slipped out the back of Otavalo toward a rutted dirt road considered impassable.

As the day wore on, it nearly proved so. We piled grass and stones under entrenched tires. We pushed, pulled, towed, and dug our way through deep mud. We cheered when we broke free, then despaired to find ourselves stuck just a hundred yards farther along.

As I stood on the back bumper to increase traction, the truck fishtailed around a narrow turn. One of the dual rear wheels actually hung out over a 1,000-foot precipice. I was grateful that Diana couldn’t see through the covering tarp. I told her, “If I yell ’Get out!,’ you must move instantly.”

Smeared with mud, dust, and diesel soot, we ground our way up and over the last lonely mountain pass, and by evening we arrived in Quito, ahead of the rolling blockade. Exhausted but elated, we made our way toward Roger Henry.

Southbound Again
On a rising tide, we crossed the Bahía de Caráquez bar and pushed south. For two lazy days we swung at anchor behind Isla de la Plata, called “The Poor Man’s Galápagos” because of its many rare species of birds and its easy access.

We passed a week in Manta, a chaotic, dirty boomtown. Its precious mother lode glisters, but it isn’t gold. It’s tuna, tons and tons of tuna. The harbor is jammed with a fleet ranging in sophistication from engineless wooden luggers, with cotton sails draped over bamboo booms, to chillingly efficient techno-ships. Ice trucks jockey for position to rush the costly catch to the canneries.

Visiting boats must squeeze in and make do as best they can. This is mitigated somewhat by a new yacht club that offers such minimal services as a dinghy dock, water, and some security. Diana’s love of textiles drew us into the mountain villages behind the city. Here we watched virtuoso weavers create the world-famous yet improperly named Panama hats. After another daylong sail down the coast, we fetched the resort town of Salinas, which boasts arching white beaches, great surfing waves, and fine weather. The exclusive Salinas Yacht Club, although very active in local sailing and sportfishing, isn’t set up to accommodate visiting boats. The Puerto Lucia Yacht Club, four miles to the east, has filled this gap by offering luxurious yet affordable services, including a 50-ton Travelift, floating docks, moorings, showers, water, laundry, and tight security. If you pay a temporary membership fee, you also get access to expanded services: swimming pools, gyms, whirlpools, tennis courts, and restaurants.

We felt confident leaving Roger Henry behind under the welcoming and watchful eye of the resort manager, Galo Ortíz, while we once more explored inland. We headed for the old colonial city of Cuenca, famous for its ceramics. Had we the time, we might have climbed Cotapaxi, a 20,000-foot volcano, dropped into the lush Amazon basin, or taken the world’s steepest train ride down the “Devil’s Nose” of the Andes. In the end, we spent most of our days in the local markets. We prowled the crowded, cacophonous stalls and soaked up the sights, sounds, and smells of the Andes. The impressions stayed with us long after we returned to Roger Henry and prepared for the sail to the Galápagos.

We think of our boat not as a toy but as a tool with which we pry experiences–good and bad–from this wide and wonderful world. While the sailing in Ecuador hadn’t been world-class nor many of the harbor entrances or anchorages ideal, our detour to the mainland had been well worth our time and effort. True, we’d lost some expensive equipment, but we gained valuable experience–which almost always comes at some cost. Most important, we’d been deeply touched by those high and haunting mountains, and no price can be attached to that.

Like a sleeping beast, the spinnaker slowly inhaled and exhaled the light zephyrs. Roger Henry crept inexorably westward. As the South American continent slid beneath the horizon, we allowed ourselves one last, lingering glimpse. Then, satisfied, we turned our attention toward the great Pacific ahead.

Alvah Simon is a Cruising World contributing editor and author of North to the Night (Broadway Books, $14).


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