From what I’ve heard, the other bloggers for this trip have done a pretty good job recounting both the activities we have done as a group as well as their personal thoughts regarding those experiences. So, instead of discussing particular activities, I figured I’d make some general comments about things I’ve noticed in Ecuador thus far. Keep in mind that as a civil engineering major, a lot of my observations, but not all, relate to that discipline.
One of the most striking things I noticed about Ecuador is that it seems to be a very popular destination for tourists, especially of the eco-tourism breed. I use the term “tourist” in a rather broad way, to include tourists in the traditional sense (think family vacation), mountaineers and other adventure seekers, and various types of scientists seeking a field experience to lend perspective to their work. Our trip, of course, while primarily academic in focus, borrows motives from each of those categories. The popularity of tourism in Ecuador can be seen in a variety of ways, but none more striking than the presence of many very nice hotels, a good number of which we have had the privilege of staying in during our Andean volcano-hopping expedition.
A second feature of Ecuador that repeatedly presents itself: there is construction everywhere! Let’s start with the roads. Many of the major highways we have driven on have obviously been built, or at least improved, within the last several years, and we have already seen crews working on the roads at least several dozen times since our arrival. This, of course, raises the question, “Where is all the money coming from?” My best guess is that the source of this money is the Ecuadorian petroleum industry, which has apparently made quite a profit in recent years through (somewhat controversially, I imagine, given the provisions in Ecuadorian law for the protection of natural ecosystems) tapping the oil fields that lie east of the Andes, under the natural beauty provided by the headwaters of the Amazon. Whatever the source of the money, this focus on road construction has certainly assisted us in our trip, both because it has made traveling easier, and because it has provided us with some interesting outcrops to examine from a geologic point of view.
The ubiquity of construction in Ecuador also extends to the building of structures such as homes and shops. It appears that the construction of many simple buildings proceeds in the following manner: The concrete foundation is laid first, along with rebar for the columns, which will eventually reach their final height of two to three stories. The concrete columns are then cast up to the level of the first story of the building. A concrete slab is then cast on top of those columns, and the walls of the first story, which are made of brick or, more commonly, cinder blocks, are subsequently added. The building remains in this state, fully functional, with the first floor slab acting as the roof and the column rebar extending into the air, until additional stories are added (possibly when the children of the current owners need their own home). I have no idea how long it takes for the average building to be fully completed (i.e. max out its column rebar) other than to note the fact that seemingly uncompleted buildings seem to be the norm in many places.
One final observation: volcanoes are very much a part of life in the Ecuadorian highlands. Although they are a constant threat to the inhabitants of the area (certainly greater at certain times more than others), they also provide the area with a fair number of benefits. The same volcano that provided the fertile soil that allows crops to thrive can also just as easily destroy those crops with a generous covering of ash. It seems that the people of the region have learned to cope with, and perhaps even thrive on this interaction between man and volcano. During our travels, we drove through a town that had been almost entirely covered in volcanic material, but had been rebuilt in the same location. We also drove through a town famous for its ice cream because years ago that treat had been made there with glacial ice from the top of a mountain. And, of course, there’s the tourism industry. All things considered, it appears that the Ecuadorian people have adapted very well to life in the shadow of the many great volcanoes that dominate the Ecuadorian landscape.