Equators in the Mist: Following La Condamine’s Path to Quito

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Losing yourself in the jungle is easy. The unrelenting repetition of leaves, branches, trunks… the perfect maze. The only reference point: the daunting slopes of the Andes. To climb them on foot and alone, with no recourse but blind faith, is the stuff of legend…

Only the Yumbo forest denizens could tread where no trails existed. And for someone like La Condamine, that bit of information was enough to imagine the possibility of bushwacking through jungle and over mountains from Manta to Quito. Why would he leave his countrymen, the only people who spoke his language, to set out alone into lands hostile and undiscovered even to the locals? They had told him that the only true road to Quito was from Guayaquil – and that journey wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, either. But La Condamine was determined, as he wrote in his travel diaries, to “pierce straight through the forests into Quito” following the imaginary path of the equatorial line.

Those who met La Condamine in those early days after his arrival on South American soil soon developed a great appreciation for him. They tried their best to dissuade him from setting out on such a treacherous adventure. Only death could lie beyond the hills for a man of his apparent gentility. His extravagant wig would not save him from the indomitable nature that awaited: beasts, precipices, savages, disease and the constant tropical deluge. Ignoring the warnings, La Condamine prepared for his trip in the company of a gaggle of local guides who would eventually, and perhaps predictably, abandon him in the middle of the jungle. He finally reached Quito in rags.

Of course, part of the legend is La Condamine set out overdressed in his Parisian finery, donning his gold cufflinks, silk pants and flouncy fabrics for his mud-smeared adventure up to Quito. Nothing, however, tells us he’d be so naive as to take on the so-called “torrid zone” in his best salon elegance. La Condamine writes that he limited his belongings to “battle attire” and a hammock. The problem, of course, was transporting the measuring instruments, particularly the quadrant he exchanged with colleague Bouguer on the coast. He had offered Bouguer the smaller – much less heavy and cumbersome – quadrant in exchange for a more precise, yet far heavier one. Ironically, he was not able to set the thing up at any moment during his journey. Thick fog, heavy rain and lush forest cover were constant obstacles.

From the outset, he decided not to climb the dangerous hills of the coastal range, and moved northward along the coast in a small canoe, in search of a river that would allow him to traverse the thick tangles of one of the wettest and most torrential areas in the world. He rejected the wide Bahía de Caráquez delta, which made sense only if you knew the geography of the country. Without maps however – it was Bouguer and La Condamine who themselves drew the first maps of the area, after all – it would not have seemed like a bad idea to head “straight to Quito” from this point. But he would have found a road “so swampy not even the mules could pass” (according to Pedro Vicente Maldonado’s official assessment of the area). This could mean that La Condamine met Maldonado prior to the trip. Perhaps Maldonado himself was the one to assure him that the route was viable, since he was building the first ‘official’ coast-to-highlands road. What we do know is that La Condamine met Maldonado at the Esmeraldas river delta, from where he navigated swiftly up to Río Blanco, in the Andean foothills.

While there is little navigation along these rivers today, until the early twentieth century one of the most common means of transportation was paddling up the Esmeraldas river to Puerto Quito (back then considered an actual port, located nearly a week away from the city itself). The ever-increasing slope and narrowing of this white-water rapid made landing at this point necessary. From here, one would continue on mule or horseback to Quito. Today, it takes only about four hours by car. La Condamine took well over eight days and the famous “Port of Quito” was not established yet.

Navigating along the river apparently did not present any problems. But once La Condamine set out to climb the Andes, what had seemed easy quickly became a nightmare. After his guides abandoned him to die alone in the jungle, without mules or provisions, he became ill. He advanced as he could, trying to figure out his way east with his compass, eating fruit from branches, roots from the soil, drinking water from the rivers he crossed, and thanks to the fact that food was so scarce, he writes, he was able to naturally ‘detox’ and get cured. La Condamine’s achievement in reaching Quito from the Pacific should certainly rank as one of continent’s great odysseys. But in terms of the geodesic mission, it was just a taste of things to come.

Measuring the Arc

La Condamine was not able to survey much (at the end of the mission, Bouguer returned to the area to compare data from the highlands with that of the lowlands), but in spite of this he began drafting area maps of amazing precision.

Marking the path
From Puerto Quito to Quito

Reserva Canandé: A preserved world in the heart of the province of Esmeraldas that seems the closest reference of the awe-inspring forests La Condamine probably encontered in the region.

Mirador Río Blanco: In addition to offering a true festival of birds of all kinds at its feeders, offers an unbeatable view of Río Blanco, even more amazing to glimpse the distance La Condamine had to climb from the river.

Mindo: Today a place full of tourism activities, including souvenir shops, chocolate tours (at Quetzal), excellent pizza at La Mecha, butterfly houses, many places to stay, river tubing on the Nambillo or cross from one end of the forest to another on the tarabita, a modern example of colonial bridges and pulley systems.

San José de Milpe: While the town of San José de Niguas no longer exists, San José de Milpe is an excelent place to explore the cloud forest (and a myriad hummingbirds).

Yunguilla y Alaspungo: The old pre-Columbian culunco trails, which connected the coast to the Andes, offer segments that still exist; several-hour hikes take you through these prehistoric ruins.

La Ecorruta: The Pedro Vicente Maldonado’s old route is now a beautiful road flanked by dense vegetation, which passes next to hanging bridges in Tandayapa and crystaline river Alambi, winding its way in silence.

Tulipe: A fabulous site museum that celebrates the existence of the yumbos, located on the ancient ruins of a pre-Incan astronomical observatory. Try excelent cane alcohol and fruity flavors.

Nono: The small and friendly village of Nono is a great place for horseback riding or stopping to eat, a hub town along the old Maldonado road, perhaps the last true Spanish village before penetrating the depths of the cloud forest.

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