Published: April 15th 2011April 9th 2011
´A rugged wilderness, called by the Spanish Páramo (moors), submitted to the continuous battering of tremendous storms, where the surface begins to move everywhere as soon as the snow melts; a revolting region, day and night ravaged by furious winds and hails, wrapped in clouds and dim light, almost never caressed by a warm sun or a cloudless sky. A rocky inhospitable area, almost without trees because the elements do not have any mercy with them, and covered with lichens and grasses, an area in which a frequent snowfall hinders the passage of travelers.´ That is how explorer and botanist Alexander von Humboldt describes Parc Nacional Caja near Cuenca. He was there between 1815 and 1817.
Von Humboldt was the one who inspired young men like Charles Darwin, Alfred Wallace and Henri Bates to undertake their journeys and to collect plants and animals in far countries. Darwin wrote about him: ´He was the greatest traveling scientist who ever lived. I have always admired him; now I worship him.´ And Simon Bolivar, the liberator of South America, writes: ´Alexander von Humboldt has done more for America than all its conquerors, he is the true discoverer of America.´ (Still Brazil ordered the
arrest of von Humboldt, because he travelled elsewhere in South America).
And now we stand ourselves in Nacional Parc Cajas and it is amazing. A taxi brought us here from Cuenca. It is 9 in the morning and the taxi brought us to another spot than the official entrance. Within some hours the clouds will come in and rains and thunderstorms will start as usual. We are afraid to get lost in this immense wilderness. We are up to make a hike of several hours. The landscape is so fascinating.
´Almost without trees´, writes von Humboldt. That is logic, because we are far above the treeline (3200 - 3500 meter). But when we stand on a hill we see some trees on a peninsula near the lake, once formed by a glacier. With our binoculars we try to find out what kind of tree it is. It must be papertrees (Polylepis), so called because of their papery bark. Papertrees are the highest living trees in the world. They live at altitudes from 3800 up to 4600 meter. With our binoculars we can clearly see their multilayered bark. To get a closer look we have to go down. We
pass several characteristic parts of the páramo, similar to the tropical alpine grasslands we saw in the Simian Mountains in Ethiopia. We pass the bunchgrass páramo, dominated by a special grass and the cushion páramo on the moistiest places. Regularly we get wet feet as we sink in the muddy waters in between the cushions. The cushion páramo themselves feels indeed like a cushion, when you walk over it. It is the same feeling as when we walked on the elastic permafrost bottom in Spitsbergen.
All plants are adapted to the harsh climate, the low atmospheric pressure, the intense ultraviolet radiation, the drying effects of the wind. Many grow close to the ground with their rosettes or form cushions, others have reduced hard leaves or a dense layer of white silvery hairs. They are specialists with a high degree of endemism: 60 procent is endemic.
Finally we arrive at the bushy, arboreal vegetation, where the papertrees grow. We take some pictures and hurry back. But we forget that we are at an altitude of more than 4000 meter and we are not adapted to this heights. Every now and then we have to stop to get some oxygen. When
we arrive at the road the area is wrapped in clouds already and it has started to rain.
Cuenca is a nice city, more touristic than Loja. We have a nice hostel, called Posada del Rio, where we can cook ourselves. In the supermarket nearby we find Brussels sprouts, our favourite food in Holland. According to some people in Holland it is the most boring food. Nevertheless my colleague Arend and I had a sproutsclub in Holland There were only two members and we came several times a year together to surprise eachother with new recipees. We cannot believe it. Sprouts in the tropics! Sprouts need frost. And then we realize that it is cold enough here. So near the equator and still so cold. But you can also say the opposite: so high and still so warm. So we eat sprouts this evening. Togethyer with a glass of red wine. But when it is our turn to pay we hear: ´Sorry, no alcohol´. We look astonished at the man who takes our bottle of wine. Is it a matter of age? I suppose I have the right age to buy alcohol. But maybe they see it in
Ecuador in the opposite way: maybe I am too old. The man apologise himself: ´Sorry, but at Sunday it is not allowed to sell alcohol´. Next time we will buy at Saturday.
The bustrip from Cuenca to Riobamba takes about 6 hours. The weather is bad. It is raining and when it is not raining we drive in a thick mist. Luckily a movie is going on, ´Superpiranha´. Made in the US. Together with the other passengers we look at the movie. Half of the passengers is indigenous. Next to me sits an old woman. She wears an hat, like all indigenous people do. Her shoulders are covered with a colourful poncho. Her hair is in a braid, reaching to her waist. Her face is full of wrinkles, nice wrinkles, showing she had enjoyed life.
I am curious what the indigenous people think about the movie. They watch in silence. Stonefaced.
The movie takes place around the Orinoco river in Venezuela. A young couple is swimming in the river. And of course they are eaten by the piranhas. Nothing new. But then a yacht comes down the river. Aboard are some rich people drinking champaign. Suddenly something unexpected
happens. The piranhas make a hole in the boat so that it sinks and they can eat the people. I look at my neighbour, the old lady. No reaction.
Unfortunaly Venezuela does not have the knowledge to handle this problem, but the US have. They send a team consisting of a mucsle man (the hero of the movie), a wildlife biologist and a genetic biologist, who is specialised in piranhas, who have mutated in boateating monsters. Together with some Venezualians they will solve the problem. The Venezualians only make problems of course.
During the movie the piranhas grow in size. They even can follow their victims when they are already ashore. A new phenomenon, no one in the world has ever been aware of. Some piranhas even can fly.
I look at my neighbour. She does not show any reaction. Does she like this product of our western culture?
Then the muscleman tries to kill the piranhapopulation with little bombs, which explodes in the river. Normally it helps, but not with piranhas. They only become bigger.
In front of the coast of Venezuela in the Caribbean sea lies a frigate of the US. At a sign of the muscleman they
give some salvo´s, exactly in the river where the piranhas are. That will solve the problem for once and forever. The woman next to me must be impressed now by such a demonstration of technical power. But no reaction. Same face, same wrinkles, same hat.
Of course it was silly to hit the piranhas with bombs. The monsters want revenge now. Together they swim down the Orinoco to the open sea. The speed by which piranhas can mutate is really amazing. Suddenly they can withstand the salt conditions of the sea. And yes they attack the frigate. With succes. Still no reaction of my neighbour.
The piranhas are completely out of their mind now. Together they swim to the beach, where they swallow not only innocent swimmers but also the sunbathers lying on the beach. The piranhas have got a size meanwhile of about 2 meters. Now there is really a major problem.
Helicopters of the US army come in and kill the piranhas. Problem solved. But no, the piranhas jump out of the water and swallow the helicopters. This is too much for my neighbour. She turns her head and grins to me, as if she wants to say
´what a nonsense´. Five minutes later all indigenous people leave the bus. I wonder if it is because of the movie.
The main reason that we are in Riobamba is that we want to visit Parque Nacional Llanganates. According to the Lonely Planet it is a terrible place, always raining and almost impenetrable. The same Lonely Planet writes that Alfred Wallace was here. That was the man who came up with the evolutiontheory together with Charles Darwin. Charles Darwin became famous, but Alfred Wallace is almost forgotten. ´The man who was not Darwin´writes National Geographic Magazin in 2008. As an alternative for Darwin´s Galapagos Islands we missed, we like to follow the footsteps of Wallace instead.
But the weather is so bad at the moment that we suppose it to be disastrous to hike in the Llangantes Parque now. Moreover we are more and more in doubt if Wallace really was here. According to his book ´A Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro'(1853) he started in 1848 together with Henri Bates in Belem (Brazil). In March 1850 they seperated at Belem (still Brazil). Wallace went to the Rio Negro and
was any farther then the Orinoco basin in the North and the border with Colombia in the West. Maybe the Lonely Planet is confused because Wallace (always controversial) supported the idea that the treasure of the Inca´s might be buried in Llanganates Parque after the last Inca leader Atahualpa was killed by Pizarro.
So finally it turns out that Wallace not only was the man who was not Darwin, but also the man who was not here. Never mind, we also were not there.
Riobamba itself has not so much so offer. We slept in Hostal Monte Carlo, which was twice as expensive as what the LP indicated. That is why we moved to the cheaper Los Shyris nearby. Riobamba is surrounded by volcano´s. Some of them are active, but you cannot see anything at the moment, because all volcano´s are wrapped in dark clouds. So finally the only thing worth to mention is that we ate in restaurant ´Delirium´, the house where Simon Bolivar once lived. We hope we have better luck in Quito, our next destination.
The gentlemen stand in a circle. Stonefaced they are and ashgrey. No one says a word. They look
at eachother as if they want to find out who is to blame for the misfortune of their mission. And their mission was to find out if the earth was flattened at the poles, like Isaac Newton and the Dutchman Christiaan Huygens said, proposing that the centrifugal force around the equator would cause an expansion. Or just the opposite: that the earth was elongated and slightly flattened at the equatorial line, like the French mapmaker Jean-Dominique Cassini said. The research had high priority, because the prestige of two empires was at stake. So the ´Académie des Sciences´ undertook two expeditions one to Ecuador and the other to Lapland. I suppose to proof that the French were right.
There they stand at the Parque la Alameda at the border of the old town in Quito. They stand around a globe as if they themselves form an equator.
There is Godin, the leader of the group. He will never publish a single word about the expedition. And there is Couplet, he will die of malaria. Senierges, another scientist, will be killed in Cuenca, because he had an affair with a young local woman. Botanist Antoine de Jussieu will loose all the
plants he collected in five years. For the rest of his life he will be mentally disturbed. (Alfred Wallace was hit by the same misfortune, but he published at least). And there is Charles Marie de la Condamine. He is the one who will finally finish the job. In 1751 he published ´Journal du voyage fait à l'Equateur servant d'introduction historique à la Mesure des trois premiers degrés du Méridien´. Ecuador, formerly called ´Real Audiencia de Quito´ owes its name to it.
In Mitad del Mundo is a monument at the equator. It is out of the city. So we have to take the trolleybus from Plaza Maior to Estación Orfelia and from there the bus to Mitad del Mundo. There is French pavillion, where you can read how la Condamine did his measurements. First of all the exact spot of the equator had to be assessed. Next they drew a series of triangles over a certain distance. A curve appears. This way you can find out if the arc is perfect or not. It was not, but the Lapland expedition had found that already three years earlier. And what was worse: the earth appeared to be flattened at
the poles. The English were right.
Nevertheless the expedition had some important spinoffs. So is the meter based upon the measurements la Condamine did. In 1799 the exact length is assessed as the equivalent of one then millionth of the quadrant of the earth´s meridian.
A little incovenience is that Mitad del Mundo is not exactly on the equator. According to GPS measurements it is 240 off the mark. Strange enough the indigenous people knew this already 1000 years ago. They made their holy places exactly on equinoctial sites. One of them is called Catequilla, not far from Quito. We can be astonished about that, but you can also say the opposite: it is astonishing we did not find it out. Was it not more then 2200 years ago that Erastothenes found the lenght of the circumference of the earth already? What did the indigenous know more of what we were not aware of?
In the old center of Quito stands the Church of San Francisco. The contruction started around 1550 upon the rests of a temple of the Inca´s who lived here. The Spanish destroyed all buildings of them. The church has Moorish elements and was finished
in 1605. The story goes that an Indian called Catuña, pledged to build the porch of the church. He made a pact with the devil for this. They asked for his soul as a reward. Little devils made the porch in one night. Catuña, afraid to loose his soul to the devil, asked the Virgen to help him. The result was that one stone was missing, that the church was never accomplished and that Cataña saved his soul. Apparently it was not strange that Indians were involved in building the church.
In the ceiling of the church the 8 planets can be seen, turning around the sun. That is a bit strange. First of all because Galilei was sentenced by the catholic church around 1610 to abstinate from his heliocentric idea of the universe. According to the catholic church the earth was in the middle and everything revolved about it. Like Ptolemaeus said. Earlier Giordano Bruno was burned for his heretic ideas. Would the catholic church accept a Copernic universe? Only in 1992 Pope John Paul II expressed his regret how Galilei was handled.
The other thing is that there are 9 planets, including the earth. Well, of the
9 planets Pluto was not discovered yet. But other planets were also not discovered. Neptunus was discovered in 1846, Uranus in 1781 by William Herschel and Saturnus was discovered in 1610 by Galilei.
Some people point out that the Church of San Francisco is exactly situated on one of the Catequilla radiusses, which could mean that the Indians had a better idea about the universe than we had.
It also possible of course that we see an universe in the ceiling of the church where there is none. We have to wait for Dan Browns new book to read what finally the truth is.
We passed the equator. Finally we are back in the Northern hemisphere. But what to say about Tulcan? It is near the border with Colombia. It is not interesting, we have the worst hotel till now in South America and the woman at the reception is the nastiest of all receptionwomen we have met thus far. And it still raining. So we leave Ecuador as quickly as possible and head for Colombia. I feel a bit pity to write this, because Ecuador was a phantastic country. It is fully aware of its unique
nature. Everywhere we see billboards which admonish the people to take care of nature. A lot of the original nature is spoiled already. Deforestation is a major problem. Around Quito we see big areas with new trees. Unfortunaly the wrong trees: Eucalyptus and conifers which are not indigenous. Nevertheless we spent a month in Ecuador, longer than we planned. And it was great.
There are more photos below