The Equatorial Bulge

Mount Cotopaxi in Ecuador (19,347 Feet or 5,897 Meters)

The Earth is by no means a perfect sphere. If you are standing at either the North or South Pole, you are some 21 km nearer to the center of the planet than if you were near the Equator. The reason for this is that the rotation of the planet exerts a centrifugal force that makes of the Earth more of an oblate ellipsoid. The illustration below exaggerates this phenomenon, but gives you the general idea:

Earth as an Oblate Ellipsoid

One upshot of this phenomenon is that some of the mountains nearer the Equator are actually higher than any of the Himalayas, including Mount Everest. The so-called Equatorial Bulge calls for a more accurate measure of a mountain’s altitude than distance above sea level—especially as the bulge means that sea level is correspondingly higher. A more accurate measure is distance from the center of the Earth.

Using this measure, Mount Everest just barely makes the top ten list:

The Highest Mountains on Earth Measured by Distance from the Earth’s Center

According to this chart, the highest mountain is a virtual tie between Chimborazo in Ecuador and the South Summit of Huascarán in Peru. In fact, by this measure eight of the ten highest mountains in the world are in the Andes, the only exceptions being Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Everest in Nepal.

Tomorrow, I will repost a blog I wrote about my visit to Mount Chimborazo in 2016.

Atacama and Altiplano

Political Demonstration in La Paz, Bolivia

Still on lockdown from the quarantine, I am dreaming of a vacation that includes Peru, the northern tip of Chile, and the Altiplano region of Bolivia. I may be too old for this trip (at age 76), but I continue to collect information. In terms of transportation, it involves a round trip flight from Los Angeles to Lima, Peru.

There are three legs to this trip.

First I head south in two or three stages to Tacna, Peru, which is on the border with Chile and its Atacama Desert, and over the border to Arica. The stages might include Paracas, Huacachina, and (most definitely) Arequipa.

From Arica, I head northeast to the Bolivian border, possibly stopping at Putre and the Parque Nacional Lauca. From this point until the end of the trip, I am at high altitude, from twelve to fifteen thousand feet (between 3600 and 4600 meters). I will be subject to soroche, or altitude sickness. I will have to use coca leaves and an alkaloid to keep me from becoming seriously ill.

Chile’s Atacama Desert, Which Receives No Rain To Speak Of

From Arica to La Paz, Bolivia is only seven hours by bus, continuing on my northeasterly direction.

I will recover from my bus ride for a few days in La Paz, possibly seeing the ruins at Tiwanaku. Then I head northwest to Copacabana, where I will be on the shores of Lake Titicaca. I will spend a night on the Isla del Sol, and take a bus to Puno in Peru. From Puno, I will take either a bus or train to Cusco, where I will see several local Inca ruins (though not necessarily Macchu Pichu, which I saw in 2015). From Cusco, I fly to Lima and eventually back to Los Angeles.

The Whole Trip Is in the Extreme Southwest of This Map

What interests me in this area are, in addition to the mountains and deserts, the cultures of the mountain peoples living in the area. Originally, I was very interested in the Inca, but then I realized that they were not as advanced as I had thought. One exception: Their stonework is amazing. Also, this is the area from which the Spanish conquistadores extracted most of their wealth, leaving behind some incredible churches full of gold, silver, and incredible paintings.

If it turns out I am too old for this trip, I will reluctantly skip Bolivia and continue to head southward in Chile until I reach Santiago.

Flying in the Andes

Actually, It’s Anything But Tame

I have flown over the Andes on several airlines: LAN, Avianca, Star Peru, Copa, and TAME. Because we don’t often think about South America, we don’t realize that the Andes are every bit as high, in general, as the Himalayas. I say “in general” because our method of measuring altitude is in flux, largely because the ocean level is in flux due to global warming. If we measure a mountain’s altitude from a point at the center of the earth, the highest mountain on the planet is Chimborazo in Ecuador. That is due primarily to a bulge in the earth around the equator which in effect elevates mountains atop that bulge.

In the past, I used to be disturbed by air turbulence. Now, with all the vacations in South America, I see turbulence as a sign that I am nearing my destination. Virtually all flights from Los Angeles to Lima, Quito, Santiago, or Buenos Aires involve a diagonal path over a chunk of the Andes. This usually takes place in the middle of the night, so I don’t get a chance to see the snowcapped peaks over which we are flying.

That plane in the picture was the plane I flew from Cuenca in the south of Ecuador to Quito. My brother had left a week or so earlier (also on a TAME prop plane), so we had returned the rental car to the Cuenca office of the rental company. I explored a bit on my own, taking a bus to Alausi to take a fascinating train ride; and I also visited a whole lot of museums in Cuenca. There are a zillion museums in Latin America, and most of them are fun even when there are no signs in English.

For my next trip to South America, I hope to fly to Bolivia and return via Buenos Aires. There’s a lot to see in between, even if I have to take a connecting flight part of the way.


South of Quito

Street Scene, Cuenca, Ecuador

Street Scene, Cuenca, Ecuador

Today my brother and I talked about our upcoming trip to Ecuador. It seems we will be together for only the first two weeks or so of the trip, leaving me to return to Los Angeles separately a week or so later. That would suit me, as well as suiting Dan’s construction schedule in his business. We will probably leave from LAX right after the October 15 tax deadline.

Even though we will rent a car for part of the time, we will likely not have a chance to see four major clusters of destinations in two weeks. First we’ll have to get acclimated to the 9,000 foot altitude of Quito (about three days), then spend several days at and around Otavalo, and then head to the cloud forests around Minto or the Intag Valley to spend some time at a lodge, and finally head south to Cuenca, around which there is a whole large cluster of sites, including the Nariz del Diablo railroad, Mount Cotopaxi, Vilcabamba, and several national parks. Then, of course, one or both of us would return to Quito for Dan’s departure.

Possibly, I will do the southern stretch of the Ecuadorean Andes by myself, traveling by bus. Plans are still in flux around this time. The key thing is that we are in basic agreement about destinations, transport, and accommodations. The main thing I want to avoid is getting stuck in a backpacker hostel. Not that I dislike backpackers; but I do dislike bunk beds and late night loud discussions that disrupt my reading and sleep.


La Trochita

One of the Two Remaining Stretches of Patagonia’s Classic Narrow-Gauge Railway

One of the Two Remaining Segments of Patagonia’s Classic Narrow-Gauge Railway

In the mid-1970s, Paul Theroux wrote the book that first got me interested in South America, The Old Patagonian Express. He traveled by rail starting in Boston and as far south as he could go in the Americas using more or less connected rail routes.That sort of fell apart in Central America, where there is no reliable way to cross Panama’s Darien Gap by rail—or road for that matter. But from Bolivia to Esquel in Argentina’s Northern Patagonia, the rails were still in use.

Now, some forty years later, Argentina has no train between the Bolivian border and Tucumán, between Bahia Blanca and Viedma, and between Ingeniero Jacobacci and Esquel. And the segment from Tucumán to Buenos Aires will probably close soon.

The stretch that interested me most was the one between Ingeniero Jacobacci and Esquel using a narrow-gauge route referred to today as La Trochita (“The Little Narrow Gauge”) or El Trencito (“The Little Train”). Shortly after Theroux wrote his most memorable chapter about the last leg of his trip, La Trochita was no more …

… except in the fond memories of Argentinians who decided to keep a couple of stretches of the steam train active for tourists. One is between El Maitén and Thomae and between Esquel and Nahuel Pan. Being an unregenerate railroad buff, I plan to take both segments. That is to say, if I can schedule it right.

Where Theroux in his typically snarky way wrote about Patagonia that “Nowhere is a place,” I, who am really from Nowhere (Cleveland, Ohio, which was destroyed by Maynard G. Krebs’s mythical The Monster That Devoured Cleveland), think that the eastern range of the Andes in Patagonia is truly beautiful. But then, Theroux was never an aficionado of fine scenery or especially of anything that threatened his comfort. (Hey, I still love his travel books!)

Probably about half or more of my next trip to Argentina will be exploring the town between Bariloche and Trevelin along the eastern slope of the Andes. I might even hop across to the border to Futaleufu in Chile, which is accessible only through Trevelin in Argentina.

The last time I saw a real steam locomotive in use was in 1977 when I was traveling by rail from Budapest to Košice in what was then Czechoslovakia. Near Miskolc in Hungary, the railroad yard was full of steam locomotives shuttling freight cars back and forth.