Travel in the Time of Cholera


It had been so long since Suzanne and I had been exposed to a life-threatening intestinal disease that we decided to spend the summer in Ecuador, dodging guerrillas, buses, and microbes. As it turned out, the buses were the biggest threat.

Cholera, of course, is no laughing matter. It has claimed nearly 600 people in Ecuador, adding to the death tolls of other Central and Latin American countries. Like our homeless problem, the cholera epidemic serves as statistical index of the lack political and economic responsibility national governments demonstrate toward their citizens throughout the hemisphere. And, as always, the poor form the largest group of sufferers. Fortunately for the tourist, however, even the most modest traveler can be insulated from the disease by packing some prudence along with the Imodium. You wouldn't want the statistically small threat of cholera to dissuade you from visiting a place with mountains whose beauty rivals those of Switzerland.

Just below Columbia, this smallest of the three Andean nations (Peru and Bolivia lie to its south) enjoys a relatively stable economy, a dearth of political violence, and the cheapest prices this side of the Swap Shop. Geographically, it's divided roughly into three north-south regions: the coastal area, dominated by the economic and resort center of Guayaquil; the Andean highlands, featuring the capital, Quito; and the Oriente, or eastern area, a sparsely inhabited jungle region currently being exploited by overseas oil interests. And, of course, Ecuador owns the Galapagos islands. Since cholera thrives in warmer climates, with poorly cooked fish as a popular carrier, Suzanne and I decided to confine our travels to the highlands and the jungle, where temperatures remain between 65 and 75 degrees throughout the year. And when we heard about the number of malaria cases in the lower Ecuadorean altitudes and learned that malarial mosquitos can't live in the highlands, we decided we were indeed smarter than we looked.

Like Lima and La Paz, the patron saint of Quito seems to be Our Lady of the Bus Fumes, but Quito is decidedly the sanest and quietest of the three capitals. Founded atop Incan ruins in the 16th century, the Ecuadorean capital lies in a valley surrounded by mountains, and is divided roughly into three parts: a working class southern area, the central old town and a newer area to the north whose central street, Avenida Amazonas, features gringo hotels and restaurants and scores of low-price, high-quality leather stores. Depending on your preference, you may wish to stay in the more "authentic" old town, reported to have its share of thieves, or the newer area with more amenities. We stayed just off Avenida Amazonas in several different hotels, the most expensive of which was 10 dollars for a double room with private bath and hot water.

The bargains extended to the food as well. For a filet mingon dinner, we paid under four dollars. Our most expensive meal, at a Brazilian churrascaria, consisted of an nonstop parade of fabulous grilled meats and set us back 6 dollars a person, which included several 40-cent beers. Whether you're a starving college student or an older person on a modest budget, you can become bloated and inebriated throughout Ecuador and return to your hotel with sucres in your pocket.

Twenty-two miles north of Quito is the equator, and another hour north of that, at the end of winding mountain roads, lies Otavalo, home to a group of prosperous and genial Indians whose crafts, weaving and leatherwork, are on sale throughout the town. And if you see something you want, don't hesitate: handwork indigenous to one Ecuadorean region tends to be found only there and in Quito, not throughout the country. Near Otavalo lies Lago San Pablo, a beautiful mountain lake featuring two faux-rustic hotels with delightful views of the lake.

Too many tourists visit Quito, travel by bus to Otavalo for shopping and then leave. In fact, one hasn't begun to experience the natural beauties of the highlands until one travels south of Quito. Winding mountain roads lead the traveler through the most spectacular mountain scenery this side of the trail to Machu Picchu. Bus travel is available throughout the country at comically cheap rates, but note that car rental can be more expensive than in America: plan on spending at least 30 dollars a day for the most modest and sporadically dependable of vehicles.

Traveling south of Quito, one passes the impressive Cotopaxi volcano, where hikers and other rugged types can get their jollies. While Chimborazo is the highest volcano at just over 15 thousand feet, Cotopaxi is easily the most picturesque, and accessible via a dirt, 16 km long road branching off from the main southern highway.

One interesting stop along the way is the Thursday morning market in Saquisilí. From live pigs to gigantic tropical fruits to handicrafts, Saquisilí's market rates as one of Ecuador's most interesting.

The economic and population center of the southern highlands is Cuenca, a bustling colonial town and the third largest in Ecuador. Nearby lie the Indian villages of Gualacéo, Chordeleg and Sísig. Although possessing decidedly primitive accommodations, these villages are worth a day trip from Cuenca. For the consumption-minded, Chordeleg is the principal jewelry center of Ecuador, selling some local work, but focusing mainly on gold and silver imported from elsewhere. So long as you don't suffer any illusions of purchasing genuine Indian work, bargains abound.

By far the most wonderful town in the highlands is Baños, midway between Quito and Cuenca, about three and a half hours by bus from Quito. Baños, as the name implies, possesses hot springs that have made it a favorite weekend destination for Ecuadoreans from Guayaquil and Quito. Sitting at approximately 6000 feet, surrounded by lush, cultivated mountains, inhabited by eleven thousand friendly, relaxed residents, lying at the gateway to the Amazonian jungle, Baños is the vacation solution to whatever stress you're currently experiencing.

If you're interested in really laying out the bucks, you may wish to do as we did, and stay at the Hotel Palace, where an airy double room looking out onto a mountain waterfall costs 10 dollars a night. Then you can dine at one of the town's many restaurants, where the price for a full meal runs between three and four dollars. Drink Gewürztraminer at Regine's Café Aleman, eat vegetable quiche at the Danish Café Cultura, chow down on pizza at the Swedish Rincón de Suecia, or dine at Le Petit Restaurant on perfectly cooked Chateaubriand in cognac mushroom sauce. For the authentically-minded, at the market two blocks away from the French restaurant you can taste the national specialty, grilled cuy (a large guinea pig, served so that it looks exactly like a large guinea pig, a delicacy also popular in Peru).

After several such bountiful meals, you may feel the need for exercise. Surrounded by mountains, Baños is a delight for the casual walker or the serious hiker. Since one can walk across the entire town in fifteen minutes, access to the countryside by foot is immediate. Nearby lies the Cascadas Iñez Maria, a small, but lovely waterfall along the course of the Pastaza river, which runs adjacent to Baños. More ambitious hikers can climb nearby Tungurahua, a snow-capped volcano southwest of the town.

Due east of Baños is the jungle, and those of you who harbor no fear of plunging screaming down a mountainside from a one-lane, rutted gravel road subject to frequent mudslides may wish to visit the jumping-off town to the Amazon, Puyo, forty miles east of Baños. Fans of Henri Cluzot's immortal Wages of Fear will feel as though they're alongside Yves Montand on this road, as they meet overfilled buses careening toward their helpless, unprotected car. Don't say we didn't warn you.

Unlike Peru, Ecuador lacks spectacular Incan ruins. In fact, the only ruin of any note is Ingapirca, underdeveloped and difficult to get to by bus, an hour and a half north of Cuenca. In addition, before we arrived we were looking forward to exchanging views with the local llamas, but one does not see anything like the incredible herds that dwell along the southern Peruvian Altiplano. On the plus side, though, we did have a pleasantly strong impression that the Ecuadorean Indians are the most prosperous and well-treated in the Andes.

Want to visit Ecuador but avoid cholera? Do what we did: don't eat fish, drink only bottled liquids (purified water costs 90 cents for two liters), avoid purchasing food from street vendors, wash your hands frequently, and follow your sanitary instincts when choosing a restaurant. Then relax, forget about it, and enjoy Ecuador, an inexpensive holiday destination, where you'll be surrounded by some of the most sensational scenery in the hemisphere.

Copyright © Steven E. Alford