As the Incas defied the Spanish conquistadors, this week I found their descendants in the southern Ecuadorian province of Cañar fiercely confronting the government in Quito, so continuing a 450-year-old tradition. I came to Ecuador to walk the Inca Royal Road, but have become caught up in economic and political turmoil. With the economy in collapse and the currency in a downward spiral, president Jamil Mahuad declared a state of emergency at the beginning of January and issued the police with riot shields. The retaliation came from an unexpected quarter. Peasant farmers or campesinos form the bulk of the highland population but are stoic and undemonstrative by nature, more concerned with the quality of their potato crop than the state of the nation.
It took everyone by surprise, then, when 5,000 Cañaris descended from the hills and closed the Panamerican Highway. Within a couple of days more than 200 barricades of rocks, trees, barbed wire, broken glass and assorted ironmongery had been thrown across this vital link, cutting off Cuenca, a city larger than Southampton, and several other towns in the south.
Up in the mountains I was oblivious to all this, but I needed to use the Highway to get back to Cuenca and to my next section of the Inca road. I arrived hopefully by the roadside and set down my rucksack. Nothing came. Two hours later still nothing. Eventually a jeep hove into view, of Second World War vintage, driven by Bosco, an old soldier on his way home to Cuenca. He explained what was going on, but said if I was willing to risk it hed be happy to take me.
There followed a six-hour journey of ecstasy and agony: ecstasy as we successfully weaved round or broke through each barricade; and agony each time my head hit the steel-ribbed roof of the jeep. As day turned to foggy night the campesinos set fire to the barricades and lobbed stones at us as we swept through them. At one point a trench had been dug across the road. Amazingly, using his four-wheel drive, Bosco coaxed the jeep through.
Im not sure if it
was right to pitch ourselves against ordinary people in this way,
but it was one of the most extraordinary journeys of my life.
When Bosco dropped me on the outskirts of Cuenca we extracted
a length of razor wire from his front tyre. Amazingly, the tyre
was still inflated.