It was four in the morning. I paced the flat nervously, any hope of sleep long abandoned. Outside, the birds had begun to chirp their morning chorus, mockingly. Phone in-hand, I swiped obsessively at my email inbox; the screen’s blue glare needling my tired eyes like a laser as I awaited my long-delayed fit-to-fly Covid-19 test result. In just under four hours, in theory, I’d be heading for the airport, en route to Ecuador.
It was late December 2021, and Covid still stalked the world, menacingly threatening at any given moment to upend long-held travel plans. Just months earlier, a sense that the worst was over and the steady ebbing of travel restrictions that followed was thrown into reverse as anxious countries re-raised barriers in the face of the Omicron variant. My trip, all trips, were at best touch and go.
This uneasy state of affairs was the backdrop to the one question that’d occupied my mind for weeks: would I be fit to fly? After all, I’d been incredibly careful over the intervening Christmas period, and prayed that my efforts had not been in vain. With the exception of my third dose of vaccine and an equally pressing haircut, I’d practically lived as a hermit: friends went unseen, festive fairs unfrequented, and excess pounds unexercised at the gym. I made an exception for the trip home to see family for Christmas – a decision I began to regret as I sat on the train staring daggers at the bloke opposite who’d removed his face-mask to scoff a McDonalds.
I poured back over every social interaction I’d had over the previous weeks, wondering which would be the one to do me in: the train to Cardiff, the vaccine queue, my trip to Sainsbury’s? I was convinced, in those small and desperate hours, that I’d either test positive, or that bumbling bureaucracy would see my result arrive while my flight was mid-way over the Atlantic without me. It was amid such catastrophising that a message suddenly lit up my phone, reading:
COVID SARS 19 TEST RESULT – NEGATIVE.
A wave of relief washed over me and I collapsed into bed, but found I was far too worked up for sleep.
I arrived at Heathrow airport, hours later, in a state of comprehensive exhaustion. A mammoth London-Miami-Quito-Cuenca journey lay ahead of me. Sustained only by excitement at the prospect of my first flight since 2019, I drifted absentmindedly through pre-flight processes. Once airborne, blanketed by monotonous cloud and the calming rattle of cabin air-con, I hit a wall. I pressed in ear plugs and positioned an eye-mask above my face-mask. With my sensory perception reduced to that of a man on the edge of death, I finally let go and stole back a few hours of much-needed sleep.
The remainder of the outward journey is a bit of a blur. For whatever reason, my overriding recollection is of the mind-bendingly crap décor at Miami airport, and a fleeting half-night’s rest at Quito’s Wyndham hotel before my flight to Cuenca. A plaque in the hotel’s lobby suggested I’d be re-charging at ‘the best airport hotel in South America’; as a place with which I’d become intimately familiar in the not-too-distant future, this was just as well.
Beatings and Burnings in Cuenca
Our jet sliced through an orange morning. A thick carpet of cloud obscured the land below, bar the occasional Andean Mountain jutting sharply into an otherwise empty sky. We descended into the white and, emerging on the other side, almost immediately collided with the runway at Cuenca’s tiny, mist-washed airport.
At 8,400 feet above sea level, my first concern as I stepped from the plane was altitude sickness. But Covid, determined to reassert its pre-eminence, reared its head as we were told our host’s family, with whom we’d planned to spend much of our time in Cuenca, had tested positive that morning. Clinging tight-fistedly to perpetually precarious plans, our party headed into Cuenca’s old town.
For my aching, sleep-deprived senses – permanently scarred by Miami airport – Cuenca was like a warm bath. A UNESCO world heritage site and one of the Americas’ oldest settlements, Cuenca’s colonial legacy is written into its buildings (figure 1.). Sprightly yellows and pastels pop on old houses wrapped in flowery patterned façades topped with red tile roofs. A city that has continued to reshape itself through the years, Cuenca is home to a spectrum of different architectural styles: gothic, baroque, neoclassical.
(Figure 1. Cuenca’s Old Town).
A melting pot of old and new, modernity cuts through Cuenca’s ancient cobbled streets on rails. Gliding across the city in one of its spanking new red trams is a disorienting experience: your brain struggles to reconcile the fresh plastics, gleaming glass and smooth ride with the antique, rugged city streets whizzing by the window. The experience is not unlike a simulation: a Universal Studios-esque tour of an old movie set, an intricately stage-managed world to perfectly capture a traditional South American aura.
The vibrancy of Cuenca’s city streets washes over its food. Venturing into the Mercado 10 De Agosto – one of the city’s indoor markets, named for Ecuador’s Independence Day – overwhelms the olfactory system with the sweet scent of fruits unknown, mixing with the smoky tang of various meats prepared in various ways. Here is a place that provides not only food for the soul but also, it turns out, diagnostics.
Wading through endless rows of abundantly piled foods, we climbed to the market’s second floor, chasing a strong herbal aroma until at led to a large open room lined with stable-like concrete booths, each occupied by an old, traditionally-dressed Kichwa woman. Currency quickly traded hands and, at the behest of my Ecuadorian host, I took a seat on a small wooden stool in front of one of the women. Before I could decipher exactly what I’d been signed up for, I was blasted, point-blank, in the face with a mysterious fluid.
Feeling like a dirty window as liquid trickled down my face, I watched helplessly as the woman retrieved a thick bushel of sticks from the floor at her side. She set a beat, muttering to herself, ‘quisha quisha quisha’ over and over to ward off any lingering evil entities, and began to whomp me with the sticks (figure 2.). The intensity of the beating soon picked up – a clear manifestation of the woman’s frustration as I shifted and contorted awkwardly in my seat, failing to understand Kichwan-issued instructions to stand up, sit down, turn around and lift my shirt. With every inch of my body thoroughly thrashed, our session concluded and I received my assessment: bar a bit of wear and tear – to be expected – my soul was doing fine. I left the mall, full of fruit and trailed by the fragrance of fresh herbs for the rest of the day.
(Figure 2. A thorough whomping).
It was New Year’s Eve, and I was pleased to be entering 2022 with a clean bill of spiritual health. But there was more work to be done to shore up my chances of good luck for the year ahead. The Ecuadorian tradition of año viejo (old year) holds that in order to stop one year’s ills bleeding into the next, you must incinerate an effigy representing its misfortunes. In the run-up to the new year, the streets of Cuenca are thus lined with dolls made in the image of well-known figures: politicians, film stars, and cartoon characters.
There is, no doubt, something disconcerting about watching SpongeBob’s playful smile contort and melt into nothingness, or standing by helplessly as Spiderman wages a futile last stand against his final, insurmountable foe: fire, before turning to ash and disintegrating. Faced with the question of whom to direct this gore, our party naturally settled on a Hugh effigy (figure 3).
(Figure 3. Our Hugh effigy, before and after burning – later renamed ‘Wilson’ in a futile effort to spare my feelings).
The Rough Road to Cotopaxi
Experts will continue to contest the merits of año viejo and a good herbal thrashing for generations to come, but I had no doubt that I was leaving Cuenca with a thoroughly cleansed soul, fortified for the year ahead.
This newfound serenity was short-lived. We returned to Cuenca airport to collect our rental car for the cross-country road trip that lay ahead. Our destination: a cabin atop one of the mountains just outside Cotopaxi National Park – home to one of Ecuador’s highest and most active volcanoes. We knew the road ahead would be long, winding and rugged, one we’d need a beast of a machine to navigate.
Our collective sighs reverberated through the airport terminal as a sullen-faced rental rep told us that someone had made off with the 4×4 we’d enlisted for the job. After an hour of futile wrangling with various people, we made relative peace with the compact Hyundai with which we’d been left. We squeezed into the tiny car, entombed within walls of luggage as meticulously arranged as Tetris pieces, our limbs fixed in place like vacuum-sealed astronaut food.
Well-paved highway roads and a solid, months in the work playlist made for an encouraging start to our 7-hour odyssey. The Andes, rising forebodingly in the distance, drew nearer as the sun set, serving as a conspicuous reminder that our smooth ride was fleeting.
Hours later, we left the highway and approached a turn in the road. In a moment, the gentle embrace of tarmac and safe glow of streetlight gave way to a pitch-black, extra-terrestrial landscape of steep rocky chaos. Visibility was less than 3 meters, and the small portion of road we could make out ahead was entirely composed of boulders and rocks piled on rocks. Large craters awaited us in the dark, perfectly camouflaged against the night like landmines sitting in the long grass.
We drew a collective deep breath and bode a teary farewell to our rental deposit, before creeping forward and beginning our assent. Immediately, the car began to lurch violently from side to side as it dipped and dived with the road. The sound of heads thumping against the car’s low-ceiling and booms of its internal organs colliding with rocks below formed a percussive chorus.
Our driver pulled over, lowered the car’s high-beams, fastened his seatbelt, and surveyed the land ahead. With the intuition of a Jeep driver zipping across a mined Omaha Beach on D-Day, he caught a second wind and expertly dodged the rocks and pits that stood between us and our destination, seeing us through what otherwise might’ve been the premise of a shitty horror movie.
Eventually, we heaved onto the top of the mountain where our cabin sat waiting. The journey since leaving the highway, which our GPS suggested should’ve taken no more than 20 minutes, had taken almost an hour and a half. Exhausted and with aching limbs, we clambered out of the car and stood silently together, in awe at a crystalline night sky awash with stars. We basked in the same darkness that had caused us so much hassle on the way up, before donning ponchos and settling into our cabin for a night by the fire (figure 4).
(Figure 4. Ponchos!).
The Iron Lung
The next morning, with Cotopaxi in our sights, we enlisted the help of a local guide and his pickup truck, granting our Hyundai a well-earned reprieve (we were also terrified of moving the thing so much as another inch from the car park).
We packed into the back of the pickup, like pigs on their way to the slaughterhouse for sausagification. Pulling back onto the road presented us with our first full view of the hellish landscape we’d crossed the night before: rocks marred with the black paint of the Hyundai’s undercarriage, and a lifeless small animal we must’ve offed in the dark, all laid bare by the morning sun.
The truck ploughed confidently through roads we’d so gingerly crept along the night before. With no low ceiling to contain our bouncing, we launched skyward each time the truck rolled into a crater, before crashing down hard against the bare metal of the truck bed. Between bumps, we absorbed the increasingly craggy landscape as we approached Cotopaxi, which was spotted with huge boulders spat out by the incredible fiery force of the last eruption of the volcano we’d come to climb.
We arrived at the base of Cotopaxi and spilled out of the truck – the arrangement of our internal organs thoroughly reconfigured. Cotopaxi rose into the sky ahead of us, sitting like a great triangular tea sandwich on the great plate of Cotopaxi National Park. Our guide emphasised just how lucky we were to have caught the volcano on so clear a day, which I took as both a blessing and a curse – with no cloud cover to obscure the extent of the climb that lay ahead (figure 5). Of course, we were in no state to conquer each of Cotopaxi’s 19,300 feet. Instead, we settled for a more realistic 15,000 feet – just high enough to tickle the upper, Fuji-esque portion of the volcano sprinkled with snow.
(Figure 5. The challenge ahead).
No sooner had we tied our shoelaces and donned gloves than our guide shot out ahead of us. A short, bald man in his late 60s/early 70s, with a face tracked with deep lines baked in by years of exposure to the sun at high altitudes, he was a former soldier who now made his bread guiding herds of breathless tourists up and down volcanos. For him, the volcano was both a source of income and life: he recalled how he and his soldier buddies would spend days drinking, placing bets, and racing up and down Cotopaxi for a laugh. A lifetime of mountaineering had fortified his body with an age and altitude defying strength. For us mortals, meanwhile, thin air meant moving slowly, to allow for deeper and faster breaths to pull the required level of oxygen into our bodies. The Iron Lung patiently accommodated our glacial pace, as every five minutes or so I splayed myself on the rocky ground, drawing air with the intensity of a drowning man just pulled from the water.
Had we any breath left to be taken, the view from 15,900 feet would’ve done the job. The vast green expanse of Cotopaxi National Park and beyond sprawled out ahead, the many peaks that together form Ecuador’s Avenue of Volcanos punching into the sky around us. We took a few minutes to run our hands through the snow and rebottle our breath, before cloud began to barrel in around us and we were advised by our guide to make a swift exit, lest we go full clueless tourist and get stranded in the mist. Racing down the steep face of the volcano, loose sediment beneath our feet seemed to liquify and we practically surfed our way back to base, where we perched on the pickup’s fender and added new peaks to the Avenue of Volcanos with the grit we unloaded from our shoes.
Hunting the Stinky Turkey
Several hike-filled days later, we headed towards Quito, the Ecuadorian capital, to grant ourselves a day of respite following our forays in the south. Nested on the eastern slopes of the Pichincha volcano, Quito is encircled by mountains: a place where low-lying cloud is liable to spill in from over the Andes like milk into a bowl (figure 6).
(Figure 6. Cloud rolling into Quito).
Towards the city’s centre, the Basilica del Voto Nacional’s two gothic bell-towers loom into the sky. Scaling to the Basilica’s roof via several rickety staircases yields an unmatched panorama of the city below. The Virgen de El Panecillo – an image of a winged Virgin Mary standing astride a globe atop a snake – imposes on the skyline at the centre between the two bell-towers to the south (figure 7).
(Figure 7. The Virgen de El Panecillo, between the bell-towers of the Basilica del Voto Nacional).
Quito presented a welcome opportunity to re-absorb myself momentarily in the comfort and convenience of a sprawling modern city before we set out on the most challenging leg of our trip – to indulge in more of Ecuador’s rich cuisine: powerfully revitalising fruit juices, locally-sourced chocolate, and guinea pig pizza.
We set out for the Amazon at midnight, enduring an overnight coach ride that wound through the Andes and and onto the edge of the rainforest. Emerging from a few measly hours of sleep into an overbearingly sticky heat, we swapped our coach for a canoe and zipped through still waters flanked by trees laden with tangled vines, towards our camp.
After almost two hours, we peeled from the river and beached on a sandy riverbank. Encumbered by bags, we balanced a path through the jungle on single wooden planks to avoid falling into the beds of spiders, snakes, and other malicious entities that wandered the ground below. Dense forest soon gave way to a clearing, where we found wooden cabins arranged in a circle; a great water tower looming high above the tree-line at the centre (figure 8). We de-camped, exhausted by a day’s travel, before settling down for dinner. As we ate, a scream cut through the din of chirping bugs, as someone discovered a tarantula clinging discourteously to the side of their cabin.
(Figure 8. Our Amazonian home).
Charwell – our large, bandana-clad, machete-wielding guide, led our many expeditions into the rainforest. Charwell did his best to explain the Amazon’s unique flora and flora in broken English as he hacked a path forward and we followed behind, surely destroying entire worlds beneath our feet with each step.
In the evenings, we ventured back out in the canoe, charging through placid waters in search of snakes, dolphins, and the alligator-adjacent Caiman. The Hoatzin – a long-necked, blue-faced bird otherwise affectionately known as the Stinky Turkey (owing to its unusual diet and digestive system) was a recurring character (figure 9). Perched authoritatively at the bow of our boat, high-power torch in-hand, Charwell went to great lengths to point out every Stinky Turkey that came our way – for which I’m eternally grateful.
(Figure 9. The famed Stinky Turkey – at a distance).
The warmth of a late-day equatorial sun, offset by a gentle breeze as our canoe churned through the water, set to a soundtrack of screeching birds, chirping bugs, and the occasional soft rustle of Squirrel Monkeys zipping between trees, made for a powerfully calming end of day. The sun soon slipped behind the sprawl of trees and we were left in complete darkness, guided only by the tiny beam of Charwell’s torch, which bounced off the eyes of Caimans lurking ominously in the water.
The sounds of the forest were suppressed beneath the roar of the canoe’s tired old engine as our pilot floored it and we shot across the river, homeward bound. We suddenly heard a splash in the water, followed seconds later by a violent scream from someone in the boat. Another scream followed, then another.
To my relief, a Caiman hadn’t lumbered into our canoe in search of a late-night snack. Rather, small fish, apparently unsettled by the vibration of our engine, were bolting from the river. Like smelly, slimy bullets, fish shot at us from all directions, springing forth from the complete darkness without warning and colliding with our faces and bodies before thudding into the canoe and rattling around in panic beneath the floorboards; we did our best to round up and return as many as we could to the water. After our ordeal, shell-shocked, we headed straight for the showers to scrub the stench of fresh fish from our faces, fingers, and clothes before settling down for dinner. On the menu that night, predictably: fish.
Quito 2 – Covid boogaloo
Several sweaty days later, I clambered back into the canoe for the first stage of a long return journey back to London, in a state of fulfilled exhaustion and eagerly craving the feel of a good slab of concrete beneath my feet.
We arrived once more at Quito’s Wyndham airport hotel – the same we’d transited through on our outward trip on the way to Cuenca, in the early morning, less than five hours before our flight after a brief airport stopover for our mandatory pre-flight Covid tests.
I took an extra-long post-rainforest shower, brushed my teeth and started to settle for my final night in Ecuador, resigned to one more night of scant sleep. As I rounded-up my toiletries, face-mask and fit-to-fly paperwork, I reflected on just how successful, despite the odds, and fulfilling the past two weeks had been. All the same, I was sad to be leaving – I needn’t have been.
I emerged from the bathroom in a cloud of steam, toiletries packed and in-hand, when, once more, a message lit up my phone:
RESULTADO DE LA PRUEBA COVID SARS 19 – POSITIVO.
The irony was not lost on me that having successfully avoided the virus for almost two years in central London, I was now among a presumably very small number to have contracted Covid in the middle of the Amazon rainforest.
After an hour or so of panic and frantic phone calls, I hunkered down in our hotel room with another in out party who’d also tested positive, for days of self-isolation, which were whiled away binging Netflix, gorging on a diet of soggy hotel pizza, and thrusting swabs up our noses.
Time ticked by slowly, but splendid self-isolation also gave me a chance to reflect on my travels in South America, and to start sketching out bits of this blog on a legal pad helpfully procured by our Ecuadorian host, alongside Corn Flakes, ham, and other essentials.
I sat at our hotel room desk in a state of terminal boredom, twirling a pen absentmindedly in the face of a blank page. Beyond the window, rolling hills spotted with buildings wrapped around a mountain range beneath dense cloud. The wind drew two clouds apart, momentarily opening up a gap which allowed a concentrated beam of sunlight to light up a small patch of earth below like a spotlight (figure 10).
(Figure 10. A fleeting parting of clouds).
The sight repulsed the strong urge I felt to wallow in self-pity at the fact my final days in Ecuador would be spent in expensive self-isolation: that we’d come so close to completing the trip without incident, only to be felled at the final hurdle. Rather, it really was a miracle that we’d made it as far as we had. In those final weeks of December, our prospects were grim as the world re-raised barriers in the face of the Omicron variant, but good fortune had parted the clouds of Covid, if only for a moment.
Like the small patch of land lit up by the narrow sunbeam ahead of me, I knew that for all we’d seen – and as rich and illuminating as that experience had been, there was so much more to see. As the previous two weeks had made clear, Ecuador, really, is an entire world masquerading as a country: faced with the task of escorting a fresh-off-the-ship alien around Earth, I’m sure you could guide them across Cuenca’s old town, up the snow-capped, extra-terrestrial peaks of the Avenue of Volcanos, and through the Amazon’s life-teeming, soupy heat, and easily convince them that your job was done.
In other words, at heart, diversity is Ecuador’s lifeblood: pulsing through its food, flora, fauna, buildings, people, and culture. It’s a country whose every corner echoes with the sound of an unending conversation between old and new; a country advancing forward into the future, determined to carry its ancient traditions along with it; traditions which could not be stamped out by centuries of colonial rule – which seems only to have imbued Ecuadorians with a solemn understanding of the fragility of heritage, and the need to guard it closely.
As I once discovered in a bustling Cuenca food market, Ecuador will slap you in the face with its abundant cultural heritage, quite literally. My advice: sit back, take a deep breath, and let your soul be cleansed.