AS VISITORS from Europe, the first thing my wife and I noticed about Ecuador was the equator. True, it is an invisible line, but its influence on Ecuador is unmistakable.
The name Ecuador is Spanish for “equator.” Some might think that the equator governs Ecuador’s climate. However, soon after arriving, we discovered that hot or cold weather had more to do with altitude than with geographic location. Since the sun hovers almost overhead throughout the year in these latitudes, height above sea level is one of the best guides for determining how many layers of clothing to put on.
While the equator epitomizes Ecuador, the Andes give the country character. Traversing it like a backbone, these majestic mountains beget an infinite variety of landscapes.
Variety of Color
Color was our second impression of Ecuador. One morning soon after our arrival, we sat in the shade of some large trees. We were welcomed by the flutelike serenade of orioles, the insistent bickering of wrens, and the strident chords of cheeky antpittas. But their colors were even more striking than the sounds.
In a flash of crimson, a vermilion flycatcher darted out from his perch to snatch a mosquito. A flock of bright-green parakeets clamored for attention as they scolded a turkey vulture that was soaring overhead. The brilliant yellow-and-black orioles and the iridescent-blue morphs butterflies added their daubs of color to the unforgettable scene.
As we traveled through the country, we noticed that the bright colors of the birds and the butterflies were repeated in the clothing and the handicrafts of Ecuador. The crimson of the flycatcher, for example, was matched by the scarlet skirts of the Cañar Indian women. And the vibrant tapestries of the Otavalo Indians seemed to capture all the colors Ecuador has to offer.
The equator and the Andes work together to produce a varied climate in Ecuador. Within a few miles—as the condor flies—the climate can change from the humid tropical heat of the Amazon to the snows of the mountain peaks.
One day, we traveled from the foothills near the upper Amazon to the high mountains around Quito. As our car climbed upward, we observed how the tropical rain forest changed gradually to cloud forest, which finally gave way to wild moorland, or paramo. The dramatic changes of scenery gave us the impression that we had traveled from equatorial Africa to the highlands of Scotland within the space of a few hours.
Many Ecuadoran towns and cities are located in valleys nestled among the mountains, where the climate is described as springlike throughout the year. However, towns high up in the Andes can experience any of the four seasons at any time—and sometimes all four during the same day! As one experienced traveler put it, “the most predictable aspect of Ecuador’s weather is its unpredictability.”
Hummingbirds and Condors
The variety of climates produces a wealth of fauna and flora. Ecuador has over 1,500 species of birds, which is twice the total for the whole of the United States and Canada and a sixth of all known species in the world. All of them are found in a country smaller than Italy.
The tiny hummingbirds were our particular favorites—there are some 120 species in Ecuador. We first saw them in city gardens, busily patrolling patches of flowering shrubs early in the morning. They are present deep in the Amazon rain forest and even on windswept slopes high in the Andes.
In the town of Baños, we spent an hour watching a hummingbird called the sparkling violet-ear feeding at a clump of red hibiscus flowers. While it hovered tirelessly in front of one flower after another, deftly sipping the precious nectar, a competitor came along with a more relaxed approach. It was a black-tailed trainbearer, named for its long black tail that makes it look like a black comet when it buzzes around its territory, chasing away rivals. Instead of hovering in the air, this hummingbird perched on the stem and pierced the flowers from behind in order to extract the nectar.
Not all Ecuadoran birds are so small. The majestic condor, the largest of all birds of prey, still soars over the Andes, although in greatly reduced numbers. We constantly scanned the lofty peaks, hoping to see its unmistakable silhouette, but to no avail. In the Amazon region, the harpy eagle—the world’s most powerful bird of prey—is just as difficult to spot. Much of the day, it perches inconspicuously on a branch of an enormous tree in the undisturbed rain forest, waiting to swoop down on an unsuspecting sloth or monkey.
Many of the plants found in Ecuador are medicinal as well as decorative. During our visit to Podocarpus National Park, in the south of the country, our guide pointed out a small tree with red berries. “That is a cascarilla tree,” he explained. “Its bark has been the source of quinine for centuries.” Two hundred years ago, in nearby Loja, quinine saved the life of a Spanish noblewoman who was dying of malaria. Its reputation, long known to the Incas, soon spread throughout the world. Although the cascarilla tree seems insignificant at first glance, the drug extracted from its bark has saved many lives.
The cloud forest where that tree thrives also harbors many ancient trees, whose gnarled branches are festooned with spiky bromeliads, some of which have bright-red blossoms. These remote forests are also a refuge for the spectacled bear, the ocelot, and the puma, as well as countless species of plants that botanists are still trying to catalog.
Scientists are taking a closer look at a tiny Ecuadoran frog, in the hope of finding better painkillers. The skin of this poison-dart frog exudes an analgesic said to be 200 times more powerful than morphine.
High in the Andes, we saw some plants unlike any we had ever seen before. The puya, a bromeliad that attracts hummingbirds, reminded us of a huge old-fashioned broom, just waiting for someone to pick it up and sweep the surrounding terrain. In sheltered hollows of the desolate paramo are dwarf forests of quinua, a hardy tree that shares the altitude record with Himalayan pines. These bushy trees, only six to ten feet [2–3 m] high, form almost impenetrable thickets that are a welcome haven for birds and animals.
In the Amazon rain forest, however, the trees are tall and exuberant. During a visit to the Jatun Sacha Biological Station, we stood beneath a giant of the forest, well over a hundred feet [30 m] tall. Suddenly, a small movement near its huge buttress roots startled us. Then we realized that one of the crevices in the roots was home to a family of tiny bats. That encounter reminded us that the forest depends on many of these symbiotic relationships. Bats, major seed distributors and pollinators of the rain forest, are an important ally of the trees that offer them protection.
Markets in the Mountains
About 40 percent of Ecuador’s population is made up of Indian tribes. The different ethnic groups—each with its own distinctive dress—are a feature of most Andean valleys. Frequently, we saw Indian women climbing precipitous paths on the mountain slopes, spinning sheep’s wool as they walked. It seemed that hardly any slope was too steep for them to cultivate. We examined one field of corn, calculated to be on an incline of at least 45 degrees!
The markets of Ecuador, such as that of Otavalo, have become famous. They are centers where local people can buy or sell animals and farm produce as well as traditional woven articles or other handicrafts. Since the local people go to the market in typical attire, the occasion is a spectacle that attracts many tourists. Jehovah’s Witnesses also take advantage of market days to share the Bible’s message with the people.
An attraction of the weaver’s work is its antiquity and liberal use of traditional colors and motifs. The people of the Andes were weaving their celebrated ponchos long before the Spanish arrived. Although their technique has been modernized, these hardworking Indians still produce fine knitwear and tapestry.
Mountains in the Mist
Driving through the Andes is not for someone who suffers from car sickness. The roads twist and turn, climb and plunge, as they hug the sides of tortuous valleys. The intrepid traveler is rewarded with an ever-changing panorama, which can only be described as awe-inspiring.
As we drove up into the Andes for the first time, mist—an almost constant companion—engulfed our car. Sometimes we emerged from the mist and could see stretching out into the distance wave after wave of mist-filled valleys. Traveling along the Andean chain, the mist seemed to play games with us. One minute, a village we passed through would be totally enshrouded. A few minutes later, the next village would be bathed in brilliant sunshine.
Sometimes the mist swirled up from below; sometimes it rolled down from the mountain peaks above. Although it was annoying to have a beautiful view blotted out, the mist did lend grandeur and mystery to the lofty peaks towering above it. More important, it gives life to the cloud forest, which derives precious moisture from it.
On our final morning in Ecuador, the mist cleared. For several hours we had a magnificent view of Cotopaxi—an almost perfect snow-covered cone. This active volcano, the world’s highest, has been made the centerpiece of a national park. When we got closer to the peak, we were astonished to see a large glacier that was inching down one of its upper slopes. At an altitude of nearly 20,000 feet [6,000 meters], it successfully defies the powerful equatorial sun.
The following day, as our plane left Quito for our journey homeward, we had our last glimpse of Ecuador. In the early morning light, we saw Cayambe, another snowcapped volcano, thrusting above the mist and glistening almost like gold in the sunshine. This volcano, whose peak lies almost exactly on the equator, seemed to be a fitting farewell symbol of the fascinating country we had visited. Like Cayambe, Ecuador sits majestically astride the equator.—Contributed.
The Featured image credits to twitter