Travel: Writer's block in Ecuador

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The Independent Online
You don't have to travel hard or fast to appreciate the great variety of the tiny Andean nation of Ecuador. Richard Colbey took a route to the heart of the country.

It would only be a slight over-simplification of the traveller's geography of Ecuador to say that east of the capital, Quito, is jungle; to the north are the old towns of Otavalo and Ibarra with teeming Indian markets; head west and you reach beaches; and in the south are mountain ranges. Yet many of the country's visitors overlook all of these compass points and go only to its greatest attraction, the Galapagos Islands.

By South American standards Ecuador is compact and safe, with a good transport network. Indeed this is one of the most friendly and inexpensive places in the continent. Quito's altitude of nearly 10,000 feet can be a shock to those who arrive by air from lower-lying European countries. (For that reason many pre-booked Galapagos packages use larger, industrialised but coastal Guayaquil as their mainland base.)

You don't have to be an architecture buff to appreciate the capital's old town, with its Plaza de la Independencia surrounded by archetypal colonial buildings. We found a day's gentle walking around splendid churches, monasteries and old government buildings the ideal way to acclimatise before exposing ourselves to the rigour of the country's provinces.

Rigour, though, is a slightly harsh word for Banos. Three hours (normally) by bus from Quito, the town may be where the jungle begins, but it attracts visitors more for its thermal baths. The curative properties may be questionable, but there is no shortage of opportunities, private and public, hot and cold, for those who wish to take to the waters. Indeed, the bigger hotels all boast private spas. Those who can tear themselves away from these comforts will find a vast array of trips that can be taken on foot or by four-wheel drive into the jungle.

The gentlest introduction to the jungle is the 30 miles of road to Puyo, which is well enough paved to make cycling feasible. On a map the route seems all the more attractive because Banos is more than 1,000ft higher than Puyo. Sadly, that doesn't translate into a consistent downwards slope. There seem to be just as many ups as downs. However, the less than fully fit will be consoled by the many buses that pass along the route. They think nothing of stopping in the middle of nowhere for sweaty gringos, taking the equivalent of a few pennies, putting the bikes on the roof, and dropping the foreigners off again a few miles up the road when they have got their breath back.

Whether viewed from bike or bus, the route offers a stunning first sight of the Amazon, following the tributary, Rio Pastaza. Across the river from the road is the seemingly impenetrable greenery; next to the road, the hills bear down with almost cliff-like steepness.

We enjoyed our time in the Amazon so much that we delayed our return to Quito until the day before our flight home. And then we found that we were almost unable to leave.

On the road between Banos and the country's main Pan-American highway we encountered one of the hazards of South American travel: the roadblock. In Ecuador, not a country where the police or army are particularly prominent, these are likely to be citizens' protests. This, so far as we could gather, was a demonstration against land "reforms" imposed by the government. The protesters had completely blocked the road with rocks and boulders, and were allowing no one to pass by vehicle or on foot. We were the only foreigners on our bus, and, as far as we could tell, anywhere in the locality. All the local people were respecting the roadblock. Although we could not entirely understand what was going on, this appeared to be as much out of unity as any intimidation by the protesters.

Who were we to say that many of the locals did not have as great a need to be somewhere the other side of the roadblock as we did? Nonetheless, we were conscious of the fact that foreigners do tend to be given special treatment, particularly in poor countries that have not yet become overrun by tourists. Remembering everything I had ever been told about non-confrontational body language, I went to the man who appeared to be in charge of the pickets, and told him in broken Spanish that I was a socialist journalist - two half-truths - and asked if he would explain about the protest. He did so in more detail than I could have absorbed in English, let alone Spanish. The gist of it seemed to be that controls being introduced would make it impossible for subsistence farmers to continue, and that they would become absorbed into large estates. However bad my Spanish, though, there was no misunderstanding that these were poor people expressing an economic grievance in a forceful yet civilised way with the support of the population around them.

By the time we had finished talking there was no question of our being prevented from getting through to the highway. We thanked the protesters and made what I feared were hollow promises to publicise their cause. We made it to Quito in time for our flight, and I hope that telling Independent readers about that protest goes some way to fulfilling my promise to the pickets.

High road

Suppose you want to get from Paddington Station in London to Darkest Peru (defined as the city of Iquitos in the Amazon region of the country). The smart way is to take the complimentary limousine that Virgin Atlantic offers Upper Class passengers, to take you to Heathrow Terminal Three for the flight to Miami. You should have four hours in the Floridan city (best spent at the fancy shops of Coral Gables, 10 minutes from the airport), before taking your premium business-class seat on Faucett Peruvian's weekly non-stop to Iquitos. Virgin quotes a round-trip fare of pounds 4,088.

Low road

The stingy person's fast track from Paddington to Heathrow Airport involves a train to Hayes and Harlington, transferring to bus 140 to the airport. The Colombian airline, Avianca (0990 767747), opened up low-cost air routes from Britain to the west of South America earlier this year. To increase business, it is currently offering an excellent deal to any Colombian city - including Leticia, on the Amazon - for pounds 442 all in. You may reasonably observe that this is not quite the same location as Iquitos, but you should be able to reach it from Leticia by taking an occasional boat upstream.

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