Ups and downs of the terrain, life in Ecuador Mountains: Negotiating the precipitous roads by automobile or climbing the steep hills to graze a few sheep, the people of the Ecuadorean highlands live at a tilt.

April 06, 1997|By Ernest F. Imhoff

SANTO DOMINGO, Ecuador -- Rene Rubianes was dropping his car 8,000 feet down the Andes.

"I know every curve," he said on the two-lane road from Aloag to Santo Domingo.

Good thing. He was sometimes one-handing it on the wheel and passing dozens of heavy trucks near curves at speeds from 5 to 55 miles an hour. Horns are on this trail.

Rubianes, a Quito accountant at Catholic Relief Services (CRS), based in Baltimore, was cautious passing buses. "Better to stay friends with bus drivers. They're in the most accidents."

He was one of three Ecuadoreans in random Andes settings who, typical of many modern mountain dwellers, can hardly get away from the high surrounding peaks but, after breathing in the sights, look more than they touch.

Crosses down the Santo Domingo road were almost as frequent as cacti and pines, marking spots where people were killed or where they left the road, plunged 500 feet down and then were killed.

Rubianes moved into fog and rain toward a rendezvous with village banks and health programs sponsored by CRS for the poor in the lowlands. The greenery glistened on the sidelines. The road sloped down steeply. Ears were popping.

Houses were few. Signs saying "Peligro" were frequent. "Must be one big village," I said. "Means danger," corrected another passenger.

"This is the most dangerous road in the country," said Rubianes, passing a couple of trucks. The road is the major commercial artery between upland and lowland. Trucks and buses move everything en masse in the hills. Forget trains and planes.

A truck loomed ahead loaded with a million bananas and a boy on top.

"Too many drivers lack prudence," he said. "Respect the mountain."

Rubianes is married, father of two, not about to become a statistic, considered the most conservative driver in his office.

He passed slowly through a busy narrow town called Tandapi, where hills rose up sharply on both sides and one shop featured a dead hog strung up for the slicing. Our car got a flat tire there two days later next to a tire-fixing shop, but we found no tacks in the road.

"This may or may not be one of those Inca roads coming down from the Royal Road," he said. "They paved it a few decades ago. It's the most important road from the highlands."

It took him 90 minutes to take off from the top of the Western Cordillera, where it was 50 degrees, and land his four-wheeler in the muggy lowlands of 85-degree Santo Domingo.

He lived in a beautiful country, Rubianes said. "Two seasons. Wet and dry. No fall, no spring, some hail, no snow." Except on top of the Andes volcanoes. The nearby Equator balances the high altitude.

The mountains in the Ecuadorean highlands are neatly arranged in two rows of volcanoes separated by a 300-mile-long, 30-mile-wide strip of farmland running north and south.

The 19th Century German explorer Alexander von Humboldt called the valley "The Avenue of the Volcanoes." The name stuck. The snows of Ilinizas, Cotopaxi and Chimborazo were dazzling.

On one such volcano on another day, Javier Pico Rosado, a Quito CRS worker, was huffing and puffing upward. He was just below the rim of the active Guagua Pichincha.

An earlier attempt on Pichincha went awry because his party of four drove by mistake to next-door Rucu Pichincha. Robbers regularly work Rucu's lower slopes. A man with a gun had just robbed eight climbers.

Rosado turned toward the village of Lloa and Guagua Pichincha. was a lowlander, born on the faraway coast, but spent his year of military service in the wooded Sierra, near glacier-covered peaks.

It was late afternoon high on the mountain. Clouds came in, left. They revealed a shaft of sunlight on cows in a pasture a thousand feet below. A couple of thousand feet below that, another shaft aimed at the pretty lights of the capital city of Quito.

It was a perfect picture.

His arms flapping, Rosado made like a condor in the slight breeze at almost 15,000 feet.

"The top of the world," he said. "Imagine, here I am an Ecuadorean, and I've never seen this."

The sunlight was departing. The party was lightly dressed. The walkers were about 1,000 feet below the top. The clouds returned. The wind was up. The temperature was in the 30s. A headache began.

Rosado and friends obeyed the first rule of mountaineering: Know when to turn back.

"It'll be good to be back in the city," he said on the walk and ride down.

Oxygen deprivation can work wonders. "But I'll come up again," added Rosado. After all, he said, his name meant "pink peak." And Thomas M. Garofalo, a CRS communications associate from Baltimore, also got the mountain bug on Pichincha. He had hiked one hill in Alaska but not this high: "This was great. I'll do more."

Yet another world away, 60 miles to the south in the high Sierra, the village of Zumbahua has the feel of Shangri-la from 1,000 feet above.

The steep hills are like quilt patterns, farms as different-colored patches. Houses are wood or stone or sometimes straw. Fleecy white clouds and intense blue sky cover the scene.

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