THE SECRET OF ECUADOR: NATURE AND CULTURE
AT THE CENTERPOINT OF DESIRE AND PROGRESS
Ecuador is the land of the natural and historical sublime, outshining the mythical El Dorado that beckoned scores of gold-greedy outcasts and scoundrels from the Old Continent roaming its coastline, mountains and rainforests. In modern times, starting from the early nineteenth century onward, a different kind of visitors have taken the place of savage conquistadors, starry-eyed and sly-witted Jesuits, and short-sighted would-be Machiavellian politicians. Ecuador’s world historical heritage, natural resource and biodiversity treasures, and entrepreneurial drive blended with an ineluctable impulse for social justice, have drawn in successive waves of scientists, businessmen, and tourists that are still discovering, exploring, and reflecting on the country that has attained the status of a positivist fable ever since the writings of Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin were first published in 1810 and 1859, respectively. What is it about this small country in the heart of the Western hemisphere that has exerted an irresistible pull on humankind’s imagination and lust for riches/knowledge/beauty for centuries?
In geohistorical terms, Ecuador could be described as four lands in one. Along the Western shoreline extends la Costa, the coastal lowlands, with its principal city Guayaquil. The stately port of Guayaquil, characterized by long stretches of pristine white colonial edifices and Riviera-style promenades, has been nicknamed “the Pearl of the Pacific.” Ecuador’s central core is taken up by la Sierra, the heartland highlands, punctuated by Quito and Cuenca, the picturesque settings of the country’s historical dramas and cities designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites. Cuenca and Quito are cradled amid the sumptuous and dizzyingly beautiful equatorial Andes Mountains. Cuenca is also known as “the Athens of Ecuador,” owing to its wealth of architectural gems, museums and educational centers. Wrapped by two parallel chains of Andean mountains that split around a large valley, soars Quito, the unspoiled capital of South America, and the oldest city with continuous presence in the entire continent. The valley holding Quito is dotted by volcanic peaks, a surreal landscape fusing the pinnacles of nature’s craft with human architectural feats, and aptly renamed “the Avenue of Volcanoes” by the above-mentioned Alexander von Humboldt, the unsurpassable original interpreter of South America for his European audiences. Quito’s otherworldly beauty, as if situated at the gates of gods’ abode, has been imperfectly captured in such monikers as “the city above the clouds” and “the navel of the world.” In fact, just to the north of Quito, the equatorial line marking the zero parallel line of latitude has been marked by the Mitad del Mundo monument that features memorial records of earlier attempts to chart and map the earth’s roundness and the line of zero degrees latitude. The best panoramic views of Quito can be framed from the heights of the Panecillo Hill, right at the foot of the Pichincha volcano. In the “Avenue of Volcanoes,” the two biggest stars are Cotopaxi as the second highest active volcano on Earth, and Chimborazo, which features the longest distance from the center of the earth to a spot on the surface of its peak.
The Andean barrier gives way in the east of the country to the el Oriente zone of the Amazonian jungle. This would be the journey from the “navel of the world” to the “lungs of the world,” sheltering some of the richest variety of flora and fauna in the world. On the other side, miles to the west of Ecuador’s coastline, in the middle of the Pacific, swarm the still-expanding lava islands of the Galapagos Archipelago, which was initially named Archipelago de Colon, after Americas’ notorious discoverer, but then became world-famous after their endemic creatures, the giant tortoises that would later inspire the ultimate “eureka” moment in Charles Darwin as he was reconceiving his theory of evolution upon return from the Beagle voyage.
The land of dreams and gold was the home of several tribal civilizations with advanced infrastructural and military organization for centuries before its most celebrated and most disparaged conquerors and destroyers arrived from the South or the sea. Quitus, Cañaris, and Caras had developed self-contained cities and states that unified the territories of contemporary Ecuador even before the arrival of the Incas. Continuing the mission of his father Tupac Yupanqui, who had initiated the Inca Empire’s military venture to conquer Ecuador, in 1486 his son and heir Huayna Capac successfully snatched the Kingdom of Quito away from the Caran dynasty and annexed it to the Inca Empire Tiahuantinsuyo. Huayna Capac gradually shifted the center of power from Cuzco, Peru to the newly conquered capital of Quito in Ecuador. At his death in 1526, he divided the empire between his sons Huáscar and Atahualpa. Huáscar, the scion of the Inca imperial dynasty and the son of the Peruvian “coya” (Inca empress), inherited the southern part of the empire with his seat in Cuzco. Atahualpa, the offspring of Huayna Capac and the Ecuadorian princess from the Caran dynasty, was bequeathed the northern half of the empire with his headquarters in Quito. The irony of political fates of history was that just as Francisco Pizarro and his greedy company started their bloody onslaught in northern coastal Peru in 1532, the two half-brothers engaged in doomed civil war. At the beginning, it appeared as if gods smiled at their favorite son – Atahualpa beat Huáscar’s forces and placed the lord of Cuzco in custody only to murder him later. Quito was declared the new imperial capital, just as during the reign of Huayna Capac. The ravages of the civil war and brotherly treachery fertilized the ground for planting Pizarro’s barbaric sleights and cruelty. With the betrayal of Atahualpa’s hospitality, extortion of imperial wealth, and cynical execution of the Inca emperor himself, Cuzco fell into Spanish hands. The northern capital of Quito, despite valiant resistance to the Spanish invaders, also fell in 1534 after a Cotopaxi eruption destroyed the morale of Quito’s warriors and Atahualpa’s general Rumiñahui decided to raze the city to the ground before the enemy gets hold of it. As the Spaniards melt into bullions the pillaged stores of architectural elements and sculptural ornaments made from pure gold, it is perhaps apt to recall the ancient Inca understanding of this overrated metal as “tears wept by the Sun.” Indeed, the Empire of the Sun vanished as its civilization and forms of worship were hijacked and instrumentalized by the Empire of Charles V and the Inquisition that went about its mission of tyranny and slaughter for another three hundred years.
The long and grey period of Spanish colonial rule that ensued began its slow march toward the crushing ending with the Romantic nationalist movements that fired up South America with the sparks from the French Revolution and Napoleonic world order. Ecuador was the first country in South America to develop an organized patriotic movement to shed the foreign yoke and topple the monarchy. In 1822, with joint forces of Simón Bolívar and Antonio José de Sucre, Quito was liberated from the Royalists in the Battle of Pichincha and Ecuador got adjoined to the Bolivarian Republic Gran Colombia, along with Venezuela and Colombia. 1822 was also the monumental year that saw the historical meeting between the liberators of South America, Simón Bolívar and José San Martin in Guayaquil. As the grand dream of one unified and indivisible South America dissipated, and Gran Colombia disintegrated into its constituent parts, Ecuador was proclaimed an independent republic in 1830 and in 1835 the Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador was announced.
The history of post-Spanish, not to say postcolonial, Anglo-European interest in Ecuador unfolded in parallel with the country’s independence movement and Romantic scientific expeditions. This was definitely a mark of humanity’s progress, as this particular version of the Enlightenment’s endeavors was not directed so much towards formal imperial conquest and domination, but towards a new understanding of globalized humanity with whose consequences we still grapple today, as both a positive and problematic legacy. In the course of the nineteenth century, Ecuador quickly became the cherished protagonist in many varieties of scientific and travel narratives. In 1856 in New York, the English translation of the Austrian woman explorer Ida Pfeiffer’s popular travel account saw light: A Lady’s Second Journey Round the World: from London to the Cape of Good Hope, Borneo, Java, Sumatra, Celebes, Ceram, the Moluccas, etc., California, Panama, Peru, Ecuador, and the United States. Pfeiffer’s travelogue frames together and puts under the German analytical lens the past and present imperial domains of the British, Dutch, and Spanish empires. Ecuador will keep its pride of place in the inter-imperial networks, resulting in diverse immigration currents and its current stature as South America’s leader in progressive economic and social policies.
Ecuador was also viewed as the hinge point within South America itself. Its enchanting expanse from the outlying islands in the Pacific, through the Andean chains, to the depths of the Amazon jungle, fascinated researchers who tried to crack the code of South America’s geology and geography. In 1870 in New York, James Orton, Professor of Natural History at Vassar College, and corresponding member of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, published his magnum opus, dedicated to Charles Darwin. The Andes and the Amazon; or, Across the Continent of South America is an account of his scientific expedition to the equatorial Andes and the river Amazon, undertaken under the auspices of Smithsonian Institution. Orton, a renowned geographer and naturalist, working in the footsteps of Alexander von Humboldt, built US scientific expertise on the Andean-Amazonian region, ultimately to promote further scientific research, tourism and trade.
The emerging interest in South America as part of an interconnected world also translated into pedagogical materials and children’s literature. Thus, Thomas W. Knox published in New York in 1885 the next book-length installment in his series of boys’ didactic novels. The Boy Travellers in South America; Adventures of Two Youths in a Journey through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentine Republic, and Chili, with Descriptions of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, and Voyages upon the Amazon and La Plata Rivers was a boys’ adventure and travel narrative with educational purpose on the histories, geographies, customs and manners in South American lands. In the era before improvised tourist blogs and study-abroad orientation programs, English-speaking children in North America read about Ecuador, and the Andes and the Amazon, and constructed their geopolitical and ethnographic knowledge of the world while fantasizing about travel and foreign languages and landscapes.
Which brings us to the twentieth century and the rise of capitalist-driven travel, for business and pleasure. In The Wonderland Ecuador (1941), Raphael V. Lasso, founder of the Ecuadorean American Chamber of Commerce in the US, composed a survey and handbook on geophysical features, natural resources, demographics, and economy to motivate and sustain tourists, investors, and traders in their discovery of his native country’s offerings. Not to be beaten by an entrepreneur, three years earlier the American journalist Sydney A. Clark put out a historical travelogue and travel guide for actual travellers and businessmen as well as for virtual, “fireside” reader-tourists: The West Coast of South America with Sydney A. Clark: How to Get the Most out of Your Trip to Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. That was in the early years of commercial air travel and the excitement of trans-continental flights. In the twenty-first century, a visitor to Ecuador should refill their stores of Spanish, perhaps pick up some basics of Quichua (the Ecuadorian dialect of the ancient Inca language), plan their meals around the lunchtime locro, and open their minds to the possibility of tasting some fried cuy.
Clark, Sydney A. The West Coast of South America with Sydney A. Clark: How to Get the Most out of Your Trip to Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1941.
Knox, Thomas W. The Boy Travellers in South America; Adventures of Two Youths in a Journey through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentine Republic, and Chili, with Descriptions of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, and Voyages upon the Amazon and La Plata Rivers. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1885.
Lasso, Raphael V. The Wonderland Ecuador. New York: Alpha-Ecuador, 1944.
Orton, James. The Andes and the Amazon; or, Across the Continent of South America. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1870.
Pfeiffer, Ida. A Lady’s Second Journey Round the World: from London to the Cape of Good Hope, Borneo, Java, Sumatra, Celebes, Ceram, the Moluccas, etc., California, Panama, Peru, Ecuador, and the United States. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1856.
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