In the Americas, the Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt has rivers, trees, towns, mountain ranges, an ocean current, legumes, a giant sinkhole, streets, plazas, a river dolphin, and numerous other places, phenomena and flora and fauna named after him.
Humboldt was one of the most influential figures of his time, and yet today he is largely unknown in Anglophone countries. All things German were censored in England during the first world war. Had this not been the case, Humboldt’s name and fame might not have slipped away.
It would be disingenuous to claim I read Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature while riding a canoe down the Orinoco or sat upon the peak of Chimborazo, though here in Cotopaxi national Park, the biography of the Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt is very much in my mind. An engraved vignette of the active volcano Cotopaxi illustrates the title page of Researches, concerning the institutions & monuments of the ancient inhabitants of America, published in 1814.
Cotopaxi, which, as the clouds dissipate, I can see from my bedroom window, is the second highest mountain in Ecuador. It’s snowcapped year-round, and belongs both to the Andes mountain chain and the Pacific Ring of Fire. Standing at 5,897 m, it’s not the highest mountain in the world, though after Chimborazo, it might be the closest to the moon we can get while standing on earth, due to the curvature of the planet.
I am staying in Hacienda el Porvenir, a colonial farmhouse located at an altitude of 3,600km. The working ranch is surrounded by four volcanoes, and fields where horses, llamas and cattle graze. The restaurant has extensive vegetarian and vegan options, my favourites being the huckleberry juice and tart.
In 1799, Humboldt set out to Central and South America with the French botanist Aimé Bonpland. He wouldn’t return to Europe until 1804. During his travels, Humboldt collected specimens, climbed mountains, observed both geological formations and human societies. He wrote extensively about the evils of slavery, discovered ocean currents and the magnetic equator, among other phenomena. He criticised unsustainable practices such as deforestation and the cultivation of cash crops. He realised the holistic, interconnectedness of the natural world.
He said that his hugely popular treatise Cosmos “was born on the slopes of the Andes”. In the five volume manuscript, he wrote about scientific ideas in a way that was accessible to the layman, infusing scientific thought with enthusiasm and personal anecdotes. He may have been the first to popularise travel writing as a genre. His enthusiasm instilled wonder and curiosity in his numerous successors, among which included Charles Darwin, George Perkins Marsh and Ernst Haekel.
In Ecuador he wrote of his journey through the avenue of volcanoes, his climb up Chimborazo, and his attempted climb up Cotopaxi. “But snow and steep slopes prevented him from going any higher than 14,500 feet,” writes Andrea Wulf in the Invention of Nature. “Though he failed to reach the summit, the sight of snow-covered Cotopaxi standing alone against the azure ‘vault of Heaven’ remained one of the most majestic views he had ever seen.”
On Saturday morning my husband and I set out on a four-hour hack through the Ecuadorian highlands. We wore ponchos, and the horses western saddles. I rode a piebold criollo gelding named Apache who liked to gallop.
Apache cantered up a steep slope, and as we reached the top, the full form of the snow-covered conical stratovolcano Cotopaxi came into view.
Hacienda el Porvenir can be reached in two hours from Quito. Get a bus to Machachi from the Quitumbe bus terminal, and then a shared four-by-four up the steep, uneven road that leads to the hacienda. Alternatively, you can arrange a private car from Quito directly to the hacienda.