German :: Spanish

Karl Théodor Goldschmid
Routes & expeditions

From Switzerland to the Middle of the World  (La Mitad del Mundo)

Extracts of the book:

“From the Andes to the Amazon Basin in Ecuador”: Diary of an explorer. 1939 - 1946

It was the year 1939. The Second World War had started when we initiated our journey to Ecuador. In October of that year, my parents, Karl Theodor and Leoni, and I, who at that time, was almost seven years old, travelled from Zurich to Holland by train along the Rhine River. The general blackout, the frequent controls along the way, and the rationing already evident, showed the violent changes that were to overwhelm Europe at the time.

In Rotterdam, we set sail on the S.S. Costa Rica. Amidst continuous storms, we navigated through the rough waters of the English Channel and the Golf of Biscay toward the island of Madeira, where the climate and the political situation were much more relaxed. Only then, the captain informed us that on three occasions during the last days he had spotted floating mines. How many more might have passed unnoticed?! Months later, the S.S. Costa Rica was seized by the British government and used for the war. In 1941, it was torpedoed and sank during an attempt to evacuate Allied Forces from Greece to Egypt.

The next ports on our journey were: Barbados - where it was prohibited to carry cameras on land -, Trinidad, La Guaira, Venezuela - with a brief stop in Caracas to visit a few friends. Finally we stopped in Colon, Panama where we boarded the Grace Line vessel, Santa Maria. Then we proceeded through the Panama Canal towards Buenaventura, Columbia and finally arrived at the Ecuadorian port of Guayaquil.

It was the end of November. The heat in Guayaquil was stifling and we only stayed long enough to complete immigration formalities and to visit the Swiss Consulate.

The trip to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, was particularly interesting and diverse. We left at dawn to the town of Duran, across the river from Guayaquil. We took the railway to Cajabamba, and from there an automobile, which shortened the journey to Quito.

The crossing by train of the tropical region, speckled with deprived towns, banana, sugar cane, cacao and coffee plantations was a fabulous revelation. Long legged white herons embellished the lush green landscape, creating a spectacle that was rugged and romantic at the same time. Along vigorous streams, steep cliffs and old twisted trees, we arrived at Sibambe, an important railroad juncture. Here, swarms of merchants sold a variety of goods; and an endless number of small foods stands offered provisions to travellers.

The locomotive puffed heavily ascending the Nariz del Diablo (Devils nose) above Sibambe. The only way to conquer this dramatic difference in altitude was to zigzag uphill. It was a very slow process…For us, the passengers, these moments were charged with the excitement of a unique adventure. 

Leaving behind the Nariz del Diablo, the journey picked up a faster pace towards Cajabamba, close to Riobamba, one of the most important cities in the mountain region of Ecuador. An automobile was waiting for us there. The weather along the route was beautiful and clear, allowing us to enjoy the magnificent panorama of snow covered peaks of the famous “road of the volcanoes”: the Chimborazo with 6267 meters and the third highest mountain in Latin America, the Cotopaxi at 5897 meters, located very close to Latacunga. It was memorable experience. Later the same day we arrived at our destination: Quito.

Our trip from Switzerland to Ecuador ended on an emotional note: old Swiss friends, from our stay in Guatemala, were waiting for us near Machachi to greet and accompany us to the city! What a happy welcome.

Quito, located at the foot of the Pichincha volcano, has a well-preserved historical centre with numerous churches and monasteries. It is like a “Treasure City” with a population – at that time - of approximately 300,000 inhabitants, living and working in an attractive town of colonial style buildings. Streetcars ran from South to North connecting the two ends of the city, which were starting to expand in both directions. 

From the Andes to the Amazon Basin in Ecuador

Extracts of the book:

'From the Andes to the Amazon Basin in Ecuador': Diary of an explorer. 1939 - 1946

During his stay in Ecuador, KTG organised ten expeditions to the jungle to carry out detailed geological surveys to assess the extent of potential oil deposits. The research area was located along the Andes mountain range, consisting of dense forests and an abundance of small and large rivers tributaries of the Amazon River.

There were three known routes running from Quito to the North, the Centre, and the South of the Ecuadorian Amazon basin.

It was necessary to plan and organize these expeditions very carefully as in the jungle there was no road infrastructure; accommodation was scarce and acquiring provisions generally very difficult. The inhabitants of the region consisted of indigenous communities, and small groups of Ecuadorians and foreign settlers, Christian missionaries and a few remote military garrisons.

Communication by mail, radio and telephone were practically non-existent. There were rare opportunities to send letters to family with news, and they would generally take weeks to arrive. On a few lucky occasions a connection could be made from a radio at one of the military bases along the way.

The expeditions would last two to four months. This meant that all provisions such as food, medicine, tools, equipment for tents, cooking, rations and any spare parts for the long journeys had to be carried along.

The technical expert from Ecuador called Santiago Baca carried out the preparations for these expeditions. He would organize the logistics and personnel for the expedition prior to their departure from Quito.

Santiago Baca, nicknamed “Shili” by everyone, was a great guide and he was my father’s colleague and friend. He accompanied and assisted him on almost every journey to ensure that they ran efficiently. “Shili” came from the Méndez and Macas region and was very familiar with the jungle and it’s inhabitants, communicating with them in their native language. “Shili” and KTG’s relationship was based on friendship and mutual respect.

Since many of the areas visited on the expeditions were not charted on the maps at the time, cartographic surveys, measurements and estimates calculated with basic tools and methods, were an essential aspect of the mission. The sketches of the surveys taken in the jungle were then further developed in Quito. Among the designers was Jan Schreuder, the well-known Dutch painter and artist who lived in Ecuador.

Although the journeys concentrated on three zones, access to the routes, the final destination and the return varied. To enter each jungle area, company pick-up trucks were generally used. Alternatively, as in the case of the route South, the team travelled by railway from Riobamba or Cajabamba. At the time, the road from Riobamba to Cuenca had not yet been completed.

The route North leading to the Coca region started in Guápulo and followed the route taken by the Spanish adventurer Francisco de Orellana in 1541 in his famous voyage down the Amazon River to Brazil. KTG’s journey started by pick-up truck to Pifo, where muleteers with horses and mules were waiting to guide the expedition towards the lower zones of Papallacta and Baeza.

It was possible to reach the central zone travelling from Quito, through Latacunga, Ambato and Baños to El Topo, where the road ended. The bridge to cross the river Negro to reach Mera and Shell Mera was only completed many years later.


The Southern Route

Extracts of the book:

'From the Andes to the Amazon Basin in Ecuador': Diary of an explorer. 1939 - 1946

KTG’s expeditions started in January 1940 with the Southern Route. A year later, another one of his expeditions followed the same route, departing from the region of Paute, in Azuay, and continuing through Méndez, Macas, Chiriapa and Tunduama, between the Santiago, Bobonaza and Pastaza Rivers.

This first approach to Ecuador’s Amazon Region required a good logistical plan and a series of instructive materials like maps, history of the region including an improvised "dictionary" Jivaro – Spanish. Santiago Baca prepared this these expeditions aiming to reduce all possible problems to a minimum, such as hiring cargo handlers (helper), organising lodging wherever possible and building canoes and rafts. Nevertheless, the expeditions never lacked surprises.

The first expedition on this route began by train from Quito to Riobamba and by “Autocarril” (a bus on rails) from Alausí to El Tambo. The end point of the railway network, at that time, was Biblián. This was the only way to get there, because the highway from Riobamba to Cuenca had not yet been completed. In addition, on this first expedition, a transfer by truck was organized for the segment from El Tambo to Paute.

On the decent from the highland moors, called Paramos towards the “Oriente”, the jungle area in Ecuador, the continuous increase in humidity, the climate changes and the difficult terrain: mud, dense vegetation, rough topography and raging rivers, inspired KTG to keep a detailed summary of field reports and letters, in addition to his photographs.

This first expedition kept the spirit of a "discovery", the beginning of something. The first encounter with the Natives in the jungle, called "Jivaros" at that time, is the experience KTG remembers most: their customs, typical food such as the “Chicha” made of chewed yucca. The respect KTG showed towards a Jivaro on their first encounter near Méndez always remained a benchmark and allowed him to establish good relations with the different indigenous groups during his entire time in the country.

The Central Route

Extracts of the book:

'From the Andes to the Amazon Basin in Ecuador': Diary of an explorer. 1939 - 1946

Between years 1943 and 1944, KTG made three expeditions to the central region of the Amazon Basin in Ecuador. He started on this route by automobile through Ambato, Baños to El Topo. They were obliged to cross the El Topo River on foot over a temporary bridge to reach the other side where an automobile was waiting to take them to Shell Mera. From there they would continue on by usual means of transportation, namely on foot, in canoes or on rafts.

On the last visit to this region, they travelled from Quito to Shell Mera by airplane with Panagra Airline. On that same expedition, they visited the recently installed Arajuno camp, where they were planning the first exploratory petroleum perforation in the “Oriente” of Ecuador.

On this route, many unforeseen events were encountered, such as problems with transport, personnel, challenging terrains, raging rivers and unpredictable climate. Fortunately, KTG could always rely on the support of his expeditions "Marshal", Santiago "Shili" Baca.

Due to the shortage of canoes on the Yasuní River, the team chose to tow the canoes over land, through the jungle. After overcoming a distance of eight kilometres in three days, a difficult task, they were able to continue in the water, as he comments it in the letters.

For communication these expeditions relied on more modern instruments. A radio transmitter was added to the equipment, which should have facilitated contact with the headquarters and other camps. Nevertheless, the equipment at that time was very fragile, subject to incessant problems to their electronic systems and required a great deal of energy with heavy batteries. Sometimes, the equipment could not transmit but only receive signals, until in the end it went totally silent. In his frustration, KTG comments that he would have taken pleasure in throwing the equipment into the river, although he did not actually follow through with it.

The use of amphibious airplanes to reach the Oriente also began operating at that time, mainly for the provisioning the camps of the geophysical survey teams, which were set up in several parts of the region. With this logistic change, mailing letters and reports to Quito improved significantly. 

The Northern Route

Extracts of the book:                                                                               

'From the Andes to the Amazon Basin in Ecuador': Diary of an explorer. 1939 - 1946

From 1940 to 1946, the year in which we left Ecuador, KTG undertook five expeditions to the Northern Region of the Amazon Basin in Ecuador.

This route, known as the "Route of Orellana", started by automobile from Quito, descending to Guapulo and proceeding to Pifo, where the muleteers waited with their horses and mules. Crossing the “Paramo”, the voyagers penetrated the Oriente through Papallacta and Baeza until reaching the river Coca. There they began navigating by canoes or rafts.

The North Route had a special significance for KTG for various reasons: his curiosity as a professional researcher (geologist), his dedication to photography and his love for mountaineering in particular (andinism). In one expedition beginning late 1944, he examined the area of the Reventador volcano, which had erupted spectacularly a few years earlier. His desire to scale this little known volcano became a reality the 24 of December of 1944. Together with a small group of collaborators, naturally including "Shili" Baca, he reached the crater. 

After the Ecuadorian Officer Luis Telmo Paz y Miño, who climbed the Reventador in 1931, no one had explored the volcano, and not even the exact coordinates of its location were known.

After descending from volcano Reventador, the expedition followed the river Coca to the waterfall that today is known as the “Caida San Rafael”. For decades no reports of travellers, nor geographic data or photographs were available of this natural phenomena. The indigenous people knew of its existence but had no access route established to this point. 

The height, the force and beauty of the waterfall “Caida de San Rafael” located in the middle of the jungle, impressed KTG. He was obliged to create an access path through the vegetation in order to obtain the necessary visibility, which would allow him to take the first colour pictures of this waterfall. 

Within the framework of the international efforts for the creation of National Parks in Ecuador, between 1968 and 1969, the World fund for Wild Life preservation, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), contacted KTG, through Dr. Paul Shauenberg, to obtain the information gathered during his expeditions in this region, in order to use it as a basis for delimiting a proposed park in this region. 

Until 1968, no other person had visited the crater of the Reventador. At the same time the WWF suggested naming this waterfall "Caida Goldschmid", which KTG categorically opposed.