Friday, March 26, 2010

Travel to Galapagos I : Quito, Equador

Monty and I have just returned from a trip to Equador and Galapagos Islands. We first went to Quito for a short visit, flew on to the Islands and boarded a small ship that cruised around the Archipelago, and then returned to the port city of Guayaquil. I plan to report on my reactions to this very exciting trip in ths series of four postings.

I did not know what to expect from Quito. I knew it was the capital but little else. As it turned out, Quito is a very interesting city with one of the best preserved old towns in the world and a rich history.

The city itself is a metaphor for a paradox. It has many beautiful buildings constructed in the European style and yet it is bordered by the slums we come to expect in less developed countries. It is a major international city plopped in the middle of the Andes Mountains over 9,000 feet above sea level. The contrast of a modern city surrounded by the rugged mountain is landscape is overwhelming. It is located on the slopes of an active volcano and within about a mile of the equator.

How could this immense, sophisticated city emerge in the remotest of possible locales rather than on the Pacific coast? I can only speculate that Quito was located where it is for military reasons. The Spanish must have found a need to establish a presence in the mountains in order to sustain the conquest of the indigenous people who for their own reasons lived in the heart of the Andes.

Under any circumstances it is not surprising that Quito a was the first city to be designated by UNESCO as a world heritage site.

The people of Equador also piqued my curiosity. Our guide said that eighty per cent of the inhabitants are of Indian stock. Unlike Mexico and many Central American countries, neither the invasion of the Spaniards nor the transporting of Africans to the Western Hemisphere seem to have made much of a dent into the Equadorian genetic pool. As a result, these people give us a peek into what the Incan people must have been like. They are very short in stature but very muscular, and appear to be somewhat mild mannered. Even their food is less spicy than that found in some of the neighboring countries. I saw very little begging or evidence of idleness. Our jingoistic caricatures of hotheaded Latins loafing around aimlessly is not substantiated by these people.

Equador on the surface seems to be a relatively stable economy with an emphasis on a robust fishing industry, a wide variety of agricultural products and some oil. I got the feeling from the people I talked to that there is a nervousness about whether this stability can continue. A major threat is cocaine. The government of Columbia, which is next door, is engaged in a war with its drug lords. So far Equador has been spared from being a significant player in drug trafficking, but the Columbian drug lords are slipping across the border to set up operations that could be a serious problem down the road. Second, Equador’s current president is flirting with Chavez of Venezuela. There is a concern that the Equador’s bustling trading relationship with the United States could be disrupted if the Venezuela populist movement slips into the Equadorian political landscape.

I have run into many people who express a desire to visit the Galapagos Islands, but there is very little mention of the mainland portion of the trip. If you of that persuasion, let me assure you that you are in for a surprise.


Mary Anne Johnson said...

Vastine: Love your intro to Quito. Can't wait to read about Galapagos.

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