From Guayaquil to Quito: Three Nineteenth-Century Travel Narratives

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Countless nineteenth-century international travelers climbed the hazardous Inca trail that led from the coastal city of Guayaquil up into the Andean highlands and then on to Ecuador's capital city of Quito. Scientific exploration, mountain climbing, cultural and economic expansion, diplomacy, and evangelism were but a few of their callings. From tropical jungles to the magnificent "Monarch of the Andes," Mount Chimborazo, the terrain they crossed was an ultimate challenge to their physical and mental fortitude. At the same time, it afforded them contact with unparalleled human and natural diversity.

Many travelers published accounts of their adventures and reactions to the people and lands of Ecuador in their home countries, where travel to "exotic" areas of the world interested many readers. Some of these works, both in their original language and in Spanish translations, have proved exceedingly valuable to those readers who seek to trace the development of Ecuador's national identity through outsiders' eyes. (1) Other travel accounts have not been re-edited or translated, of may lie "forgotten" on dusty library shelves throughout the world. On-going retrieval and analysis of this literature can further illuminate nineteenth-century political, geographical, and human realities in Ecuador and in the regions of the world whose residents bravely ventured into the heartland of Spanish America. (2)

I am particularly interested in those passages that describe experiences on the Guayaquil-Quito trail. This trajectory represents a canonical heroic paradigm for travel in the New World. As such, it tends to elicit from travelers the expression of an unusually wide range of personal qualities and emotions. From the numerous accounts I have gathered to date, I have selected for this study those written by three travelers: James Orton, a Vassar professor who led three separate scientific expeditions across the continent of South America; Emilia Serrano de Wilson, Spain's forgotten "Cantora de las Americas"; and Edward Whymper, the famous English mountaineer and artist, who, prior to his arrival in Ecuador, had achieved international fame as the first man to scale the Matterhorn (1865). These three individuals are of particular interest because of the highly divergent attitudes and experiences they express. More importantly, two of them (Orton and Serrano de Wilson), have been virtually forgotten and clearly deserve retrieval from obscurity.

James Orton in 1867, Emilia Serrano de Wilson in October of 1879, and Whymper just two months later, disembarked at the port city of Guayaquil and set forth a few days later for the overland trip to Quito. Prior to the time of their travel, a number of critical events had succeeded in unveiling Spain's fiercely guarded American territories, opening them up to the "Imperial Eyes" of visitors who arrived from all areas of the world. (3)

The first step in this process occurred in 1735. At that time, the Spanish monarch, Philip V, granted permission to the French International Expedition led by Charles de la Condamine to travel in Ecuador in order to measure a longitudinal degree on the Equator. The best possible site for ascertaining this information, deemed essential for map-makers and empire builders, was in the area of the equinoctial Andes to the north of Quito. In her authoritative study, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, Mary Louise Pratt calls attention to the particularly momentous nature of this venture, which opened Spain's American territories to official, albeit limited, travel by foreigners (16). Narratives written by La Condamine and the French and Spanish members of his expedition later circulated throughout Europe, captivating readers with their harrowing tales of hardship, triumph, adventure, and--for many expeditioners--death.

No one did more to mythologize the Ecuadorian Andes than the great German adventurer and naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt. …

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