SOUTH AMERICA BUS TRIP 1
Lima, Peru to Cuenca, Ecuador
December 4, 2004 to January 14, 2005
See Chan Chan, a city of mud that looks like mounds of dirt.
Visit el Senor Sipan and el Senor Sican, long dead but their memory lives on.
Stroll the beautiful gardens of the Guayaquil malecon.
Trod carefully around a mass of blue-footed boobies.
Wander jungle trails, but don't swing on any vines.
Shop at the famous Otavalo crafts markets.
Bike ride, downhill mostly, from Banos.
Sit atop a train for a slow ride also downhill.
Enjoy Cuenca's sophisticated atmosphere.
"Flight by machines heavier than air is unpractical and insignificant, if not utterly impossible", Simon Newcomb (1835-1909), 18 months before first flight by the Wright brothers.
Applause filled the cabin as our full 757 came to a shuddering roll along the runway. Not that the flight had been particularly eventful. In fact, downright dull would be the most apt description. Yet for some reason folks just seem inclined to clap at the end of such a long flight. Perhaps there's just an overwhelming sense of relief, another flight safely landed at its destination, this time Lima, Peru.
We stumbled off the plane, already 15 minutes late, herded our way through a packed immigration control, and finally at 1AM popped out the end into a barrage of taxi touts all screaming for our attention. Fortunately, we had already decided that this particular adventure would begin by being met at the airport. Otherwise our night may have extended even further into the wee hours of morning. This time there were no bikes, no tent, no sleeping bag, no giant box filled with packs. This was to be a bus trip to visit locales we'd missed on our previous journeys through S. America and we wanted to travel as light as possible. We each carried one roller/backpack style bag no larger than the book bags used by children for school. No bags to check, no bags to lose to baggage handlers. Not bad considering we'd be traveling for nearly 4 months. Our summer of lightweight hiking experience was to pay off once again.
First order of business was to find a bus to Trujillo. As is our usual mode of travel, we arrived in Peru with little more than a bunch of guidebooks, a general idea of where we'd want to go, and lots of anticipation. We had no prearranged plans other than that first night hotel stay and a trip to the bus station for tickets. This mode of travel can lead to disappointments on occasion, yet it an also lead to unexpected surprises. The surprises far outweigh the disappointments. Impromptu travel is our favorite way to go.
December 5 found us once again cramped onto an airline style bus seat, watching mile after mile of some of the most arid desert slide by. We've ridden bicycles through some of this stuff a few years ago and it never ceased to amaze us. The desert of western S. America is so dry there is virtually no plant life what so ever. Sand, sand, and more sand is what you see. Only at those spots where rivers descend from the not-so-distant mountains can greenery be found, usually in the form of irrigated field. This use of the mountain rivers to irrigate fields in the arid coastal region was the life-sustaining basis of the ancient Peruvian civilizations whose remains we were on our way to visit.
Trujillo, located near the mouth of the Rio Moche 500km north of Lima is one of Peru's oldest colonial cities. No sooner had Pizzaro conquered the Inca he established the town a little apart from the existing Inca settlement. Yet long before the Spaniards moved in and built their city, the region had been occupied by indigenous folks for thousands of years and was the capital city for two of the major civilizations the Moche first and the Chimu second.
The Moche were the first people to truly bring the science of irrigation to full fruition in the Moche valley. Previous cultures had developed some canal systems, but the Moche really went wild. Long canals were built extending for miles and miles from the mountainous foothills to the various fields and communities. With water, crops grew abundantly in this fertile, dry, sunny region.
With fields and plants essentially growing themselves, free time was abundant, free time that the royalty and priests were quick to take advantage of. That meant establishing a powerful and encompassing religious society. Major public construction in support of government and religious uses resulted in two huge pyramids, Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna. Huaca essentially means temple.
Both pyramids were built from millions of adobe bricks and were built in several ever-increasing phases. At its grandest, Huaca de Sol, the administrative complex, was probably the largest adobe structure ever constructed in the world. It was built in 11 phases and is estimated to have consisted of 140 million individual blocks. Huaca de la Luna, the religious complex, was built in five phases and was the smaller of the two. Unfortunately due to significant looting starting when the Spaniards and due to torrential rains and floods, only about 1/5 of Huaca del Sol remains today. Huaca de la Lun, on the other hand, is still much intact and has been undergoing continual archeological investigations for years. Today you can view many of the excellently preserved friezes that decorated various stages of construction. New murals are revealed all the time, so repeat visits always can bring a surprise.
One of the more interesting aspects of the pyramid construction is the mark found on the individual adobe blocks. Each had some sort of inscribed sign, hand mark, cartoon of a person, straight lines, etc. Over 100 different signs have been found usually in large vertical columns of bricks. Some archeologists believe this may have been some method of keeping track of the bricks contributed by each family, a tax of sorts. However, since the bricks having the same sign seem to be grouped, not just one group, but many groups throughout the pyramid. Hence, other archeologists believe this was simply the maker's symbol, exactly as what you'd find on some bricks today. It's almost as if a contributor would go to the market, buy a bunch of bricks directly from the brick maker, and have them delivered to the construction site. This probably makes more sense than the first idea.
A few hundred years after the decline of the Moche, the Chimu culture arose. A natural fusion of the Moche, Chavin, and other nearby cultures, the Chimu dominated a region extending all the way from Piura near the Ecuadorian border southward to near Lima. Its capital was in Chan-Chan, known today as the largest city made of adobe in the world. After visiting the site, we would tend to call it the largest manmade maze of sand piles in the world as that's what most of it looks like. Over the years, after many centuries of El Nino rains and wind storms, the once impressive, carved and shaped walls have essentially melted into just mounds. Hectares and hectares of sandy mounds spread out all around as you walk toward the central, tourist area. Only the small, restored section can give any impression of how the city may have appeared. Even this area has only partially restored walls. So much is left to your imagination.
The huge city, encompassing something like 28-sq. km., consisted mainly of 9 separate palaces. A succeeding ruler constructed each palace when the previous one died. Each palace, a veritable city in itself, was enclosed with a tall wall having a single entrance. Inside there were large plazas where audiences with the ruler were held, small buildings where stores were held, a large, sunken cistern, lots of rooms, and lots and lots of corridors and ramps connecting everything together. Outside the palaces the artisans and other workers resided in small adobe huts also connected by walls and corridors making up a city with a total population of over 60,000. It really was an enormous mud city.
Overall we found Huaca de Sol, Huaca de la Luna, and Huaca Arco Iris, a Chimu temple, the most interesting. Chan-chan seemed to be mostly mounds of dirt, which was mainly extraordinary due to its monumental size. The three Huacas, however, had fabulous friezes and decorations plus a free and very good tour, all of which we thoroughly enjoyed.
Trujillo in its own right is a nice, colonial town to visit. The central, old town is an oval shape that followed the contours of the original town wall, of which only a tiny portion remains. We learned the hard way that you only want to view that wall from a distance. Playing chicken with overly aggressive taxi drivers, we dashed across several lanes of traffic just to stand close to an old, short, stucco wall covered with a strong odor of urine and having no redeeming features. It is not an ideal tourist sight, best left only to those who really have to see all of Trujillo's past structures.
The rest of the center is filled with old colonial buildings, some of which can be entered, and many of which are adorned with cast iron window grills for which the city is famous. Some are in beautiful condition and are used to house clubs, banks, offices, schools, museums, shops, and a variety of businesses. Some are in a state of decay. A few are undergoing restoration. It isn't hard to spend most of your time wandering up and down the streets admiring the buildings, visiting the churches, and strolling the plazas. However, it's best done during the noon siesta time as traffic, both foot and vehicular, are horrendous most of the day and well into evening.
"Bumper cars," declared Brian, "That's what they remind me of. Bumper cars." It's true. Drivers in Peru, especially the taxis, are so aggressive it's frightening. Trying to walk across the street even when you have the light is a gamble at best. Many a time we found ourselves sprinting while cars came within inches. The fellows driving the funny three-wheeled motorcycle/cab things fared no better. If you're in a car, then you're fair game as well. Only the buses seemed to stand a chance in this hectic, chaotic, messy traffic, and typically buses are not permitted in the centers of most cities. We decided they should just go ahead and attach great big bumpers all around and play bumper cars. They behave about as close to that as you can get anyway. Maybe that would at last satisfy their pushing urge.
Oh and the noise, noise, noise. Horns honk constantly. Taxis honk to try to get a passenger. Cars honk to tell pedestrians to move. Buses sitting in traffic honk to get things moving, as if that helps. Honk, honk, honk, constantly day and night. Not a minute goes by without the sound of a horn. I could not help but be reminded of the Dr. Seus animated cartoon Grinch complaining about the pan dangle, dan dangle, pho tonkers, pan bonkers, all ringing, pinging, banging, clanging while little drum sticks banged on the sides of his heads. After so much silence during our previous summer hike, this is about how we felt. It didn't take too long for us too long for the quiet of the high Sierra Nevada. How can people stand to live with this their entire life, we just cannot understand.
Another hop up the coast and we arrived in the somewhat smaller town of Chiclayo. Our objective was to visit three of what are considered to be the best archeological museums in Peru, second only to the Museo de la Nacion in Lima. In fact it seems Peru has some of the best archeological museums in all South America. Perhaps the fact that Peru had most of the higher developed civilizations to begin with may have a little something to do with that.
Hans Heinrich Bruning came to Ecuador early in his life, sometime in the late 1800s, to work as a mechanic in the sugar cane business. Sugar cane is grown extensively in the upper Rio Lambayaque river valley where the water is not salty and is abundant. Over his 50-year stay in Peru, Bruning put together an extensive collection of artifacts from the local ancient civilizations, from the hunter/gatherer period, the Lambayaque or Moche period, the Chimu, and even the Inca times. Some of his collection is now housed in the 1960s era museum bearing his name, the Bruning museum. Despite its age, the museum is quite well organized with chronologically ascending displays as you go up to higher floors. There's even a small gold room where some of the more valuable gold and silver objects are stored, in an enclosed vault of course. All signs, with the exception of three, were in Spanish. We could see no special reason why those particular three were in English and they were just a little difficult to understand.
The second museum found at Lambayaque, within a couple blocks of the first, is the Museo de Tumbes del Senor Sipan. Sometime in the early 1990s a bunch of never before seen Lambayaque era relics started appearing on the contraband scene. Archeologists were quick to realize that something very special had been discovered and was being rapidly and systematically ransacked by huaqueros, grave robbers. They jumped into action and soon had the huge mound, known today as the Huaca Sipan, surrounded by police. Needless to say the huaqueros were not happy and eventually tempers rose to hostile levels. One policeman was even killed. Finally, the archeologists figured out that if they got the huaqueros involved with the diggings, trained them as guards, or even trained them to be guides then they could get on with their excavations in peace. Eventually they would uncover not one, but several of the richest ancient tombs ever found in South America.
On display now in the brand new, i.e. 2001, Sipan museum, the quantity and quality of relics found is absolutely astounding. Their main prize was El Senor Sipan, an ancient ruler from the Sipan culture. He was found buried with 4 women, three warriors/guards, one boy, a priest, one llama, a dog, hundreds of pots filled with food and seeds, and layer upon layer of royal regalia that included some of the most beautiful pieces of gold adornments to be found in South America. Almost all of these relics are now on display in this ultra modern, extremely well prepared museum. There's a complete replica of the tomb as they found it and computer animation showing the layering of burial relics.
As if this find weren't enough, a second royal tomb, known as El Viejo Senor Sipan, was discovered lower in the mound. Although smaller than the first, this tomb was similarly well appointed with amazing pottery, gold, animals, and humans. They also discovered several lesser nobles; a priest, some warriors, and a few common folk, all buried on this same huaca, temple or sacred place. Peru is fortunate that the archeologists were able to move fast enough to lay claim to these finds, although they did lose at least one rich tomb to the huaqueros. Today the modern museum provides a fantastic display of the treasures for all to enjoy. To be anywhere near Lambayaque and not visit this museum would be missing one of the greatest museums of all S. America.
One final museum located in the nearby town of Farrenafe contains relics found in a huaca from an earlier time, Huaca Sican. These tombs from the pre Moche Lambayeque) time were even smaller and less adorned than that of the viejo senor Sipan. However they provide a peak into an entirely different culture and were quite a surprising find. Evidently prior to the first tomb's discovery in 1991, only small graves of people laid out in fetal position with a few adornments and pots had been found from this time period. Nothing like the Senor Sican was known.
Two rich tombs were found within the same huaca. The first contained a decapitated man curled into fetal position wrapped in rich cloths covered with masks and other adornments. This egg shaped coffin was placed upside down in a huge pit filled with everything a royal person could possibly need in the afterlife, food, women, a child, warriors, llama, weapons, jewelry, you name it.
The second tomb, found in 1995 after a sonar survey of the grounds, is very similar to the first with the exception that this man was buried not with just two or three women but with something like 27. Using the modern technique of DNA extraction the scientists were able to determine that the man in the first tomb was completely unrelated to the man in the second, which could possibly be some clue as to the lines of succession in that culture. Second, the 27 women buried with the second fellow came from only 4 separate familial lines. Hmmm, what could that possibly mean.
Eventually the Huaca Sican was abandoned after a violent fire. The entire city surrounding Huaca Sican packed up and moved a short distance north to the site known today as Tucume. Here they flourished first as an independent city and later under the domain of the Moche.
Although Chiclayo is most certainly well off the traditional tourist route, if you're at all interested in the ancient, preInca, cultures of Peru, a stop at these three museums is certainly well worth the time and effort.
Our plan was to continue heading northward. Unfortunately once you leave the main cities such as Lima and Trujillo, finding direct buses to most long distance places becomes far more difficult. First we had to hop a 3-hour bus from Chiclayo to Piura. Unfortunately, since it was Sunday the small museum in which we'd hoped to while away the afternoon hours was closed. Next was a 5-hour bus to the border town of Tumbes, which, with the exception of some extraordinarily well built mosaic sculptures, has almost nothing of interest to the tourist. Finally, we had one more 5-hour bus ride to Guayaquil in Ecuador. And each of these three hops was on progressively worse buses. They were hot, crowded, and uncomfortable. After the third we decided we'd look hard for some far more pleasant way to return back south, even if it meant riding to Trujillo and backtracking as necessary.
Arriving in Ecuador's largest city, Guayaquil, we were expecting something of a run down, poor, dirty place. At least that what it used to be. As a huge port town, until around 2000 Guayaquil had gradually deteriorated into place rampant with crime typical of a down and out port city. Starting in the late 1990s, the city government undertook an urban renovation project that would be the pride and joy of even the most developed nations.
The old wharf area, a run down slum, was entirely rebuilt. Two and a half km. of gardens, playgrounds, art festooned walkways, arts center, Imax theaters, and shopping malls were all built. Everything is enclosed in tall fences having entries as specific locations, all of which are closed from midnight to 7 AM. The grounds are kept meticulously clean thanks to the efforts of a small army of orange and yellow clad maintenance personnel. The gardens are kept in perfect condition thanks to the efforts of blue clad gardeners. And the entire area is kept perfectly safe day and night thanks to the efforts of a large army of security personnel. There are so many employees either gardening, cleaning, or guarding that they seem to outnumber the visitors at times.
This miraculous renovation doesn't just apply to the Malecon itself. Upscale businesses have moved into the buildings located on the two adjacent blocks to the Malecon as well as along the full length of the street named 9th de Octubre. In addition a corridor leading to the lighthouse at the top of the hill on the southern end of the Malecon was renovated. The streets were paved with pleasant paving stones. Lamps reminiscent of those used in the 1800s were put in place. Benches were added to the corners. Trees and flowers were planted. Fountains and sculptures were built. Security and cleaning forces are positioned everywhere. And this renovation is still ongoing with another major project underway even as we visited. All in all with the huge, modern, safe Malecon we both felt that Guayaquil was one of the most pleasant major South American cities we've ever visited.
A creature from an ancient age sits calmly on a busy sidewalk watching 21st century humanity pass by. We've seen many a strange site in city parks: ducks, geese, pigeons, even feral cats. However, to see an iguana taking up position in the middle of the town-square is quite a surprise. These aren't average, lizard size iguanas either. These are huge, 4 ft nose to tail, dinosaur looking reptilian critters. Guayaquil is quite famous for it's park critters and locals take it all in stride while we tourists gape open mouthed. The children can't resist playing with the tails. Fortunately the iguanas seem to be used to the attention. They ignore it until the human pests get bored and go away. Now we're wondering if we'll ever see anything in the middle of a city park that could possibly top that.
Four days visiting Guayaquil was enough to stroll the Malecon multiple times, become quite familiar with the town's idiosyncrasies, visit most museums that interest us, and recover sufficiently from my first case of traveler's trots to feel up to another bus ride. This would be one of "those" bus rides, the old 1950s school bus with uncomfortable seats to match, and tons of passengers loading and unloading constantly. Boxes and bags appeared to sit on the floor for a few stops then disappeared only to be replaced by something equally unusual at the next stop. The usual vendors selling all sorts of snacks and drinks still managed to get on the bus, travel from end to the other, sell items, make change, get back to the door, and off before the bus left town. We could not help but admire their agility. The first few times on such a bus can be rather exciting. Certainly it is novel and everything one could possibly expect from a third world country. But past the first hour or two, that's enough. We definitely need to find some alternative transportation back south.
Puerto Lopez located on the southern Ecuadorian coast about 150 miles north of Guayaquil, is a tiny fishing village that happens to have the easiest access to Isla de la Plata, silver island. Claimed to be the "poor man's Galapagos" it does have a fairly good bird colony you can visit for just about $20 per person, rather than the thousand or so a Galapagos visit would cost. For now we decided this would be the best we could do. Galapagos is just far too expensive.
Our boat left at a descent hour of 9:30 AM for the nearby island. The group consisted of a family of four from Columbia, three folks from Germany, a couple from London and S. Africa, one Brazilian, Nolina Bryant from New Mexico and us. What we found particularly delightful was that it was a group of more mature adults, not 20 year olds. Consequently, these folks all held a true interest in really seeing the wildlife, as opposed to simply adding a notch to their belt. Our guides, Ernesto and Juany, and our pilot, Jaime, efficiently settled us into seats, gave an introduction, and headed us out to sea.
Luck would follow us on this particular day. Jaime spotted a pod of bottle nosed dolphin playing in the sea and quickly brought the boat within their midst for us to watch. For a good half an hour we all oohed and aahed as they swam, jumped, and dove all around. They almost seemed to be putting on a show just for our benefit. All too soon they tired of the game and headed off on their own affairs. We proceeded on to the island.
What we expected to find on the island were blue footed, red footed, and masked, or Nasca, boobies. Isla de la Plata is the closest place to the Ecuadorian coast where you can see all three. Now in the US if birds such as these were nesting on an island, the island would be closed to visitors. Also, one could only expect to see the birds at a distance. Here, we were amazed to find not only were the birds nesting, but also they nest right in the trail. You can walk up to within a couple feet of male, female, and even chick. The birds chirp, hiss, and bark at you, but otherwise seem to not be too affected by the humans, a fact attested to by the gradually increasing bird population. It was amazing.
Blue footed boobies are incredible birds. They have webbed feet ranging in color from pale sky blue to aquamarine. Bodies are covered with white and black feathers and they have long sharp beaks, great for catching the fish feed upon. Males are smaller than females and have tiny pupils. From one to three pale blue eggs are laid in a shallow depression of dirt. Featherless chicks are hatched and soon grow a white fluffy down. After about five months, they're ready to take flight, a learning experience that seems to involve the parents shoving the chicks off the nearby cliff, an approach I'm sure a lot of human parents would love to try. The adults fish along the coast, diving up to 3 meters to snag an individual fish.
Red-footed boobies are very similar to their blue footed cousins with the obvious exception that they have bright red feet. These birds build nests of twigs high in the trees and lay just one egg per year. Fledging takes three months. These birds fish for shrimp far out to sea and, consequently, do not compete for the same food that their blue footed cousins hunt for.
Finally the Masked, or Nasca, boobie has green feet and are almost all white. They also nest on the ground but always lay two white and brown eggs. Both eggs hatch, but as the chicks grow the adults eventually choose the largest bird to feed. The second in starved to death. Seems cruel to humans, but that's nature. These also fish out to sea, not along the coast, but go after a slightly different fish source as the red footed birds.
El Nino has an enormous effect on the bird population. Storms pound the island and many die. However, in the intervening years between El Nino the population gradually increases. Thus the population remains in check, controlled by nature. Since the last El Nino in 1998, the blue footed boobie population has risen to about 3000, the masked boobie is up to 2000, but the red footed boobie is only at about 10 pairs. For some reason they were far more effected than the others and are taking longer to recover. Another El Nino is due. Will the red footed boobie survive on this island? One can only hope.
In addition to the boobies, our primary interest, we also got to see Frigates nesting in the trees, a tropical bird or two flying along the cliffs, a couple of albatross, not usually found on the island this time of year, and that pod of dolphins. We were indeed lucky.
Getting up the mountains to Quito was the next order of business. It was December 22nd. We had no idea how much of Ecuador would remain open on the 25th, especially in those small towns. However, we were fairly certain that at least a few restaurants would be open in Quito. So it seemed a logical place to hold up and let the holiday pass by. As it happened, Nolina was also headed up to Quito so we arranged to hitch a ride.
The morning started out pleasant enough. We waited at the front of the hotel enjoying the last of the ocean while Nolina was a bit late, it's rare to find anyone from the west U.S. who is 100% punctual especially while on vacation. So we just relaxed until the itty, bitty car pulled up. After a quick stop in town to track down some bread and avocados, we took off north along the windy coastal road headed, supposedly, toward Jipijapa (pronounced hippy hapa). With luck we'd be in Quito by nightfall, a trip of supposedly 8 hours.
Within about 20 km on town, Nolina stepped on the clutch and we heard a sudden loud snap. The clutch pedal was floored. Here was a major problem. Brian and I got out and inspected what we could see. Turns out a bracket on the end of the clutch cable had broken. This Chevy Spark, as the car is called, has got to be one cheap piece of junk. Never before have we heard of a clutch cable breaking after just 36000 miles. In fact, we'd never before seen a car that used just a cable to operate the clutch, at least not any modern car. Now if we'd had our bikes we may have been able to rig up some sort of wire contraption using the tools and spare parts we always carry. This might have gotten at least to a mechanic. But we had nothing. No tools, no wire, just a few Band-Aids. So with some persistence and force, Nolina managed to get the car going in second and then third gears. We could at least move, albeit not very fast. We just sort of shut our ears to the grinding and thanked fate that this wasn't our car.
Our planned direction changed. The map that came with the car indicated that there was a Budget rental car office in Manta, off route from Jipijapa, but perhaps there would be a replacement car. We headed that way, keeping our fingers crossed that we could make it.
Along the way was a very nice resort in which Nolina had eaten a very nice breakfast on her way south days earlier. Surely, she thought, they'd have a phone she could use to contact the Budget car rental agency in Manta. Not to be, this is Ecuador, remember. The cell phone the manager had did not work as there was no nearby tower and the only phone they had required a phone card, which they did not have. So, did we still need to try to push the broken car onward?
It just so happened they had a mechanic on site to fix their own broken truck. Within minutes of describing the problem, he dug in. Part after part flew off the car. The air filter container was the first to go. Nervously we all looked on. Had we explained the problem correctly? Did he have something to fix it or at least let us get further down the road? Would he get it back together and running? How long would this all take?
Finally with one solid yank, the miscreant cable came free. Off he ran and soon we heard sounds from some sort of machinery buzzing away in the nearby house. About 20 minutes later he returned with a clever, and probably the only logical, fix. He'd drilled holes through the U shaped bracket and added a bolt to act as the missing bar. It was a perfect solution. With about another half an hour reconstruction, the car was back together and running. In fact, our mechanic claimed it was better than new. Then he promptly grumbled about what a piece of junk the car was. We had to agree. A $10 payment from Nolina squared the bill and we were off once again. We were none the worse for the wear and I had two new words in my Spanish vocabulary, embrague (clutch) and gata (not cat but auto jack).
Obviously the plan to get to Quito by night was out of the question. So we made a couple unexpected stops. First Nolina wanted to shop for woven products, a hat, basket, and hot pad. The old woman attending her was quite a character. She went through what was obviously a well-rehearsed speech about how she was poor, old, had arthritis, etc. Finally, she looks at Nolina and says something like; "You don't understand me, do you?" I was next, but I wasn't buying.
About two blocks further, we stopped for a few CDs for entertainment. At a dollar a pop, it's clear these are pirated copies. Nolina bought three, but the salesman was trying to get her to listen to essentially every CD he had in stock. "Enough!" she exclaimed, and we got going again.
This time we got just 1/2 block further. Time for ice cream. That and a few chips and cookies further down the road would prove to be our only lunch. Finally, we got serious about getting over the mountains.
We were following a map that claimed the road going to Latacunga was entirely paved. Nolina had already crossed the mountains on a road that was shown as being paved on that map and really was. So there was no reason to think otherwise. We happily trotted along, Nolina driving, Brian and I keeping one eye on the map and another on the road on the constant lookout for those ever present, often unmarked, speed bumps. Every time we hit one, the car would slam across it convincingly sounding like it was leaving an axle and half the frame behind. That mechanic was right, this was tin can of a car.
Well before sunset, the pavement on this supposedly paved road came to an end. Soon we found ourselves winding slowly up, up, up toward the 13,000 ft plus mountain pass on a poorly maintained, rocky road. Our speed slowed to a crawl as we wove our way in and out of potholes, around rocks, between tire tracks, and around hairpin turns. The hours crept past, 10, 11, 12PM came and went. Finally sometime around 12:30 we returned to pavement at Jupili. Another 1/2 hour and we made it to Latacunga. The streets were vacant, not a car or person in sight. The trash-strewn market was dead quiet. The plaza, brightly lit but still and empty. As we pulled up to the first hotel we could find, we wondered whether we could get a room. Everything was that dead. But, one ring of the bell and the manager greeted us, took us in, took care of the car, and we were off to bed after a long, tiring, difficult drive.
The next morning, the eve before Christmas eve, we pushed our way into the sprawling traffic clogged city of Quito, capital of Ecuador and only about another 3 hours north of Latacunga along that high Andean valley. Nolina had hoped to return the car by 11AM to avoid paying for another day, but traffic was nearly at a stand still. I suggested that she tell them that due to the clutch cable breaking on their stupid piece of junk car, she wound up delayed. It's their fault she's late. We haven't heard if she was successful, but in our short time knowing her I'd be willing to bet the folks at Budget got an ear full. After a quick hug, we jumped out of the car at a stoplight saving as much time as we could, Nolina took off for the airport and we headed for a hotel. So much for what we'd hoped would have been a short trip to Quito. The bus would have arrived faster, but where's the adventure in that.
Quito is an odd city. It's nestled in a narrow valley at around 9500 feet elevation. Its location dictates its shape, just a few km wide, east to west and many, many km long, north to south. The surrounding mountains to the south are green and often a patchwork green with fields looking a lot like Switzerland. Just north of the city the land is much drier giving a more New Mexico mountain appearance. On clear days you can spy several of the nearby snow capped volcanoes from various viewpoints. These volcanoes can have nasty temperaments and have been known to erupt once in a while.
Quito is one of the original cities founded by the conquistadors. Consequently it has quaint colonial features in the small old town district. While the architecture may be quite charming, those narrow streets always translate to horrendous traffic congestion every day. In addition, it remains a major shopping destination for the indigenous and locals. So not only are the streets clogged, but the narrow sidewalks are as well. Brian and I made the major mistake of trying to negotiate these streets on Christmas day, thinking quite wrongly that the stores would be closed. It was so jammed with cars and people that we found we just couldn't get away fast enough. There are many, many colonial cities of note throughout Latin America, many of which don't have nearly as much crowds. So after we finished the walking tour, we felt no great need to torture ourselves any more. We retreated to the much quieter and calmer new town district.
Our main objectives in Quito were to see some of the museums and arrange for a trip to a jungle lodge. Unfortunately, since this was the Christmas holiday time many museums either had short hours or were closed. So we didn't get to see al we wished. We did get to the very well laid out Museo del Banco Central, which had a great archeological exhibit. But, the building that was the New World's first European style astronomical observatory was closed. We really wanted to see the antique astronomical equipment that is supposed to be contained within.
We also just had to go to the Mitad del Mundo (middle of the world) monument. Located just about 20 or so km north of Quito, this is a very touristy place but worth a photo or two just to say you've straddled the equator. Actually, we understand that recent, more accurate satellite measurements place the equator a few hundred yards away, a fact that isn't even hinted at anywhere at the monument. Why ruin a perfectly good tourist trap.
We did find the discussion about the French contingent sent to make equatorial measurements back in the 1800's quite interesting. Their primary objective was to settle a dispute between the famous scientists Cassini and Newton. Cassini believed that the earth was slightly pointed at the poles while Newton thought it was somewhat flattened. This large contingent of scientists, astronomers, and explorers came up to the altiplano of Ecuador to measure the precise size of the equator. Their reasons for coming to this location are many. At the high elevation it's easier to see the stars for measurement. The altiplano offers many high peaks for a long distance north to south with low valleys between. It was easy to sight from one peak to the next and then make measurements using triangulation. Also, the Spanish government was quite cooperative in the endeavor. There was a second contingent sent to someplace near the north pole, or at least as close as they could get, to make similar measurements.
It was this Ecuadorian contingent that proved Newton's theory that the earth was slightly squashed on the poles was more accurate than Cassini's supposition that the pointy pole proposition. They also derived the definition of the meter as one one-millionth of a degree and hence produced the metric system. So now we know where the metric system came from.
The surprisingly large and well-arranged ethnographic museum inside the large Mitad del Mundo monument was also a treat. Level after level, far more than one would ever imagine, contained life sized mannequins wearing indigenous costumes from all over Ecuador, many of which are still worn by the women and some of the men. Descriptions of their way of life, houses, economy were included. There were even a few replicas of local houses complete with handmade artifacts. This was a great introduction to the different regions of Ecuador.
Much to our delight, we discovered that Ecuador has spent a significant effort in translating many of their museum signs into English, or at least some approximation thereof. Almost every museum we visited had most, if not all, signs translated. Often the English is quite mangled and requires some imagination to understand. Sometimes it's easier to read the Spanish. But, the effort is still much appreciated by us English speaking tourists. It's too bad more South American countries don't do the same.
A couple days before the New Year we hopped on a bus for the long 9 hour, bumpy, cramped ride to Coca, our stepping off point for our first excursion into the jungle.
There are so many options for visiting the Amazon basin it can make your head swim. You can visit the Amazon or many or its tributaries in Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Columbia, Peru. There are four amazon regions, northwest, northeast, coastal mangrove, and south, all of which have different flora and fauna. There are lodges ranging from luxury resorts to basic cabins. You can take a camping or canoeing adventure. Go in a group or try to hire your own guide. You can take a boat, anything from a luxury cruise to a bed on a cargo ship. So basically you have to choose based on where you're willing to go, how much you're willing to spend, how much luxury you require, and how much time you have. Even that can leave you with lots of options.
We had hoped to locate a jungle excursion that had more of a free format than set schedule. Something that provided a list of excursions available on a given day and you got to choose which to take. You might call it an "ala-carte" jungle tour. After scouring the Web, we concluded that such an option does not exist. The closest to this type of program we'd found was a place called Wasai near Puerto Maldonado, Peru. There you have to option of visiting the lodge with absolutely no guide or tours whatsoever, more like a hotel. Everyplace else we looked at had set schedules. Either that or you had to hire your own guide and would wind up with a very basic, if not primitive, experience. Having just spent most of the North American summer living a very basic existence and planning another summer of the same, we did not feel like one of those primitive adventures. A reasonable lodge would be best.
We decided to go for the less expensive Yarina lodge out of Coca, Ecuador. But, first this required getting to Coca. Flights, the easiest method, cost $60 one way. This is compared to $8 for the bus ride. Since we wanted to see the scenery on the way down the mountains we chose the bus. A long, long, nine hours we spent on a crowded bus bumping and bouncing its way over the mountains and then down the twisting, turning partially paved road to the eastern low lands. The road passes magnificent scenery as it traverses from the temperate highland valleys, over the high, grass covered mountain pass, and then drops steeply some 13,000 ft plunging into regions of dense tropical jungle. The main purpose for the road is to provide access to the two rather ugly oil towns of Coca and Lago Agrio and to the pipeline that parallels it most of the way to Quito. Otherwise it would never exist. Unfortunately, with the road came settlement and more deforestation. So perhaps the oil industry brings jobs to the local economy, but it results in more rainforest destruction as part of the bargain. The question remains, which is better, or worse, in the long term.
We passed through Lago Agria at around 7PM where I nearly wound up a solo traveler. Brian had headed out to use the bano and the bus was headed out of town. Realizing that if it didn't stop, fast, Brian would be on his own for getting to Coca. I started yelling, "Mi esposo" and soon half the men on the bus were whistling for the driver to stop. Fortunately, he did stop. We quickly learned that you have to be fast when riding these Ecuador buses, as they barely pause to load and unload passengers at each town. Usually the bus is off and running before the last boarding passenger has their feet safely on the first step. You can just picture passengers with their feet running like crazy long side the bus as they try to pull themselves aboard. Certainly the money taker often had to run to catch up.
Once at Coca, we headed for the recommended Hotel Oasis. For $10 we got a hot, stuffy room, lumpy bed, inadequate fan, bathroom with no light, one of those frightening electric showers that you have to run at little more than a dribble to get hot water, and a few extra tenants in the form of a roach or two. Ever heard of a "roach motel". This was the roach motel to beat all roach motels. This was about the most bottom level hotel we've ever endured and I don't think we'll do it again.
The next morning we climbed aboard a motorized canoe along with three members of a Dutch family, one single German traveler, and two girls from Australia for the one-hour ride to the lodge. We were all there for the package tour with the exception of the two a Australians. They were coming to spend 2 weeks volunteering at Yarina and another two weeks at Yuturi. The Yuturi Company runs an animal reserve where they try to rehabilitate animals that were poached for the exotic pet trade. When we arrived they had two ocelots, two spider monkeys, one capuchin monkey, two baby nocturnal monkeys, three large turtles, one mealy parrot, one tapir, and one very large boa. Another capuchin was brought in on our third day. It turns out one of the Australians was a veterinarian and the other a Vet's nurse. So they were both well suited to this particular assignment. Although neither of them particularly liked the idea of having to work with the boa.
Yarina lodge is located approximately 25km down the Rio Napo from Coca. Rio Napo is one of the many tributaries of mighty Amazon and even though we were situated very near the headwaters, relatively speaking, the size of the river was still awesome. We asked David, our guide, if you were to get on a boat and head down river, how long would it take to reach the Atlantic. We counted up something like 8 weeks via public transportation. That may be a bit of an overestimate, but it is a long, long distance no matter what.
Rio Napo is a whitewater river. As opposed to the term used for rafting, whitewater in this case refers to the fact the water is a pale brown color due to the suspended silt. This indicates the river originates high in the mountains where it picks up tons of silt as it tumbles down to sea level. Black water rivers originate on flat, old terrain. These soils have so little nutrients that the vegetation can only grown extremely slowly. Therefore, for self-preservation, plants excrete extra tannin to ensure fewer critters eat their leaves. The tannin makes the water turn a dark brown to black tea color.
Cabins at the Yarina lodge are basic but not primitive. They're wooden, thatched roof huts raised on a short platform. Each has a small porch in front with the obligatory hammock for taking those much needed afternoon siestas. The lower half of the wall is completely enclosed, the upper half is just surrounded with a wooden lattice which permits not only interesting jungle sounds to enter but interesting critters as well. The small bathroom has only cold showers, which, after the initial shock, is quite nice in the hot, steamy jungle. Furnishings consist of beds complete with mosquito netting hanging from the ceiling and a table and chair. It's not luxury, but we found it quite comfortable.
True jungle is a fascinating place full of some of the most amazing flora and fauna in existence. Unfortunately due to the proximity of Yarina to Coca and the fact we were only visiting for a few days, we were not able to see many of the large animals apart from those caged in the reserve. We did spot some baby turtles sitting on a log, the ruby red of caiman eyes during our night canoe trip, and the shining green eyes of some large, unidentified critter. We did see the tracks of many a tapir after it had crossed the creek. Birds were also somewhat difficult to spot, mostly due to the fact that often our group was rather loud during the treks. We finally wandered off on our own and promptly discovered the birds will come to settle on low branches if you sit nice and quiet. We were a bit disappointed by the lack of large animals. But, we'd heard that seeing them requires much more time, a much smaller group, and probably a personal guide. So I guess we got what we paid for.
Now plants and insects were another story. We saw all kinds of plants, learned about their life story and how they are used as medicines. Our fellow German traveler, Stefan, got to try one remedy, sangre de drago (dragon's blood). A red sap extracted from one of the many palm trees, it is supposed to be good for cuts, infections, and diarrhea. Stefan said it didn't really work all that well, but believing it'll work is probably half the cure.
Insects in the jungle seem to come in sizes large and extra large. We can't imagine we've ever seen such a large cricket before. There are these absolutely huge ants that, if stung, will leave most people writhing in agony for a period of about 24 hours. Ten or twenty ant stings can kill. You learn to be very, very careful when placing your hand anywhere. The frogs, some being quite poisonous, seemed to be teeny tiny, at least the baby ones Ricardo found were only pinky nail size. Although we did spot one monster frog in the boa cage and we wondered whether it was meant to be the snake's dinner.
Our one special critter was our very own, personal gecko. Firmly attached to our cabin's wall, this turnip-tailed gecko spent the better part of New Year's eve eating all those nasty bugs that inhabited our room. Other folks complained of roaches. We had none after our gecko showed up. We lay for an hour or more just gecko watching. It's great if not very slow entertainment. It would sit perfectly still for long minutes. Suddenly it's head would turn, it'd scramble in a gravity defying run, grab one of those insects, and return to its original position to chomp on its snack. We understand the natives tend to ignore, if not encourage, the geckos to move into their huts just for their bug eating habits.
We had several non-natural activities in which to partake. A blow dart contest resulted in one of our English companions hitting the orange twice, the winner. The blow dart tube is made from the root of one of the many palm trees in the jungle. The root is split in half. Opposing notches are carved along its entire length. Then the two pieces are fitted back together and wrapped from end to end with a plant fiber coated with beeswax. The blowguns come in lengths ranging from about 8 to 12 ft with the longer ones being used for animals high in the trees. The darts are made from another local plant's spines and the poison is from those little, poisonous frogs. Usually the tube is balanced vertically so you can aim at critters in the trees. We were holding it horizontal to aim for that orange. It is surprisingly heavy, making accurate aim very difficult.
Piranha fishing was another activity, although a far more boring. A simple bamboo poll with a short length of fishing line, a hook, and raw meat was all we needed. We all got nibbles. In fact, those speedy little fish managed to take most of the meat leaving us tourists wanting. Between our bad blow gun record and our fishing, we concluded we tourists would die of starvation in the jungle long before getting something to eat.
Playing Tarzan and Jane while swinging on a vine is one activity I should have skipped. The spot selected for this adventure happened to be over a small gully in which a fallen tree rested. Let's face it, I just do not have strong hands and am just not tall enough to get my legs wrapped around that high vine. I hesitated, nervous. Everyone else had swung back and forth, no problem. It looked so easy. Finally, I pushed off. I managed to get swung over the trunk, but the hands started to slip. On the way back I just couldn't keep hold. I slipped off and happened to hit smack on that trunk right on my hip. Fortunately where I hit and how I hit meant only a few bruises and hurt pride. So Brian has established a new rule. I am not allowed to swing on any more vines.
One special activity was the New Year's Eve bash. This consisted mainly of drinking wine and playing stupid card games while waiting for the onset of midnight. Then we got to witness one of Ecuador's more unique traditions. Every New Year folks make dummies of people they know, friends or relatives, or of famous folks. At midnight the dummy is burned. We're not sure if the ritual burning means you don't like the person or if you're ritualistically killing the person so they can be reborn a bit nicer in the New Year. Our kitchen staff built a dummy representing their boss, rather fitting. It really did bear some semblance of this bald rather chubby fellow. At midnight it was covered in fuel and set afire while we listened to and attempted to dance to a little salsa. Ours was just a small New Year celebration with a single burning. We understand that in Quito fires can be found throughout the city that particular night.
Our final activity was to visit with a native family, see how they live and what they grow. It seemed a little staged, but certain traditions were upheld. Our guide first approached the family to ask permission to enter and our hosts presented the group with a small bit of chicha in the traditional welcome. They were a lovely family with three small, and very cute, children. The little boy seemed awed by the attention and the women got great chuckles out of seeing their images in the digital cameras. Their house was a similar construction as our cabin with the exception that the platform was quite high. They kept the kitchen and living area below with the sleeping quarters above. The traditional aspects of their lives are interspersed with more modern conveniences, a propane burning stove, shot gun for hunting, metal plates, etc. They currently have a very easygoing life style, but it is most definitely being influenced by outside 21st century pressures.
Staying at Yarina, as opposed to most other jungle lodge experiences, is a little different. Excursions are kept on a 4-day cycle and people come in for their requisite visit at any time during this cycle. First you enter as the newcomer. It gives you a certain sense of satisfaction as you watch the old timers having to leave. The next day, you're the old hack as the next group comes in. You feel like you know everything as the newbies figure their way around. Finally, it's your turn to leave and you feel a sense of sadness as you commit yourself to returning to the hustle of modern life. It's a very strange progression of emotions.
Ricardo, our native guide, tended to be a quiet fellow. He grew up in these woods, in the community of Yuturi, which owns the land on which Yuturi lodge is built. So his mind is full of all sorts of native lore about the environment. But, you have to coax it out of him. Rather than waiting for him to tell us about the plants, insects, and birds, we became proactive. We picked up things on the trail or pointed at things in the trees and asked all sorts of questions. If we hadn't done this, I wonder just how much we would have gotten out of our excursions. We wished Ricardo would be a bit more gregarious, but that's just not his style.
In addition to a somewhat reserved native guide, we had an English translator. We've begun to find that having two guides, one who speaks Spanish and one who is only a translator, is not a very good way to go. Too much time is spent in translation, taking away from time spent on the excursion. Also often I caught David, the translator, forgetting something Ricardo said. It's not David's fault, translating is difficult. We are just becoming convinced that having a single guide who is essentially fluent in English is the best. It's not always possible, but definitely desirable.
Our turn to leave came on New Year's day, which couldn't have been the worst of all decisions. We had planned to grab a night bus back to La Paz and then continue right on to Ibarra. This was not to be. We discovered that even though Ecuador keeps right on going through Christmas day, it comes to a grinding halt on New Year's day. There were only a couple buses running and all were full. So we were stuck in Coca for yet another night and Coca is not exactly a tropical paradise. This also meant we'd have to take a day bus up to Quito and arrive at Ibarra well after dark, not an attractive proposition. January 2nd proved to be one long, long day.
Ibarra is located about 4 hours north of Quito in the high country along the Pan Americana highway. This is most definitely not a tourist destination. In fact, during our 2 day stay we saw not a single other tourist. After Quito, Ibarra is a rather refreshing change. People seem relatively well off even the native folks. We saw no beggars, they seem to all be in Quito. Best of all, we were not hassled in any way either by touts for restaurants, taxis, tours, hotels, etc. It was actually a relaxing place to visit.
The city of around 150,000 is nestled in a most stunning valley with high mountain peaks all around. Hiking in the area is not only easily accessible but also fairly safe. It has three very well kept plazas, a most unusual castle like military barracks on one plaza, interesting 18th century architecture, and a small colonial section. It's easy to find spots in this city that either buzz with daily activity or are quiet and serene, your choice. We tended toward the more quiet areas. We concluded that if you're looking for a fairly upscale, yet quiet, non-tourist destination to spend some time, Ibarra could well fit the bill.
Nearby Otavalo, on the other hand, is tourist central. Otavalo has become famous as the place to go to buy Ecuadorian handicrafts. In particular its Saturday and smaller Wednesday markets are quite famous. Yet any day of the week there are small handicraft as well as local markets open and operating. Here is where you'll find the tourist. Many are bussed in from Quito just for this shopping expedition. They are met by a gaggle of natives crowded around the bus door with various articles for sale raised in their outstretched hands. They become most excited if you show even the slightest interest. Inquire about one piece and they'll be hauling out everything in their stock for your perusal. You could easily find yourself swimming in a sea of woven blankets, hats, or sweaters without so much as a glance. Other than shopping there's not much else that is unique to Otavalo. You have to head out of Otavalo to find other interesting sites.
We didn't stay long in this most northern area of Ecuador. Already more than 2 weeks had passed since we entered Ecuador and we needed to move toward Brazil to get our visas initiated. So regretting the fact we didn't have time to do some hiking in the nearby national parks, we moved back south, through Quito's rather unpleasant main bus station for the third and final time, and on to the town of Banos.
Banos, as its name implies, is a major hot-springs resort popular with both Ecuadorian and foreign tourists. It's located right on the flanks of the Tungurahua volcano which, in recent years, has been spouting off a bit. Postcards of photos taken at night reveal the brilliant red glow of lava pouring down from its caldera. The town has been evacuated at times and most recently they built a new bridge across the river to allow a better, faster evacuation route. Needless to say, after seeing film of various pyroclastic volcano flow effects, we approached the town with a bit of trepidation. We were assured the mountain was being nice and quiet at this time. Just lots of smoke.
Most people go to Banos to partake of one of three hot springs. However, there is also a lot of outdoor activity available. There's hiking. Several trails used by natives to access their huts, skirt along the sides of the mountains. A great little 6-km hike going from one viewpoint to another attracted our attention. There's horse riding, ATV rental, and various volcano trekking tours available. Our favorite activity was the bike rental. After spending about an hour picking through a range of well used and mostly poorly maintained bikes, we managed to find two that functioned reasonably well, at least the brakes and most of the gears worked. We hopped on and headed downhill for a spectacular ride through the amazing canyon, stopping at the famous Pailon del Diablo water falls, and continuing onward. The special treat of this adventure, you go as far downhill as you want, even to Puyo if you wish, and then simply toss the bikes on one of the incredibly frequent buses for the trip back uphill. What a way to ride, although it feels a bit like cheating.
Being a tourist destination, Banos is naturally filled with all sorts of restaurants, hotels, stores, and guide companies. You only need to pick your quality level and price range. If one option doesn't satisfy there's plenty others available. Fortunately not just foreigners come here. Many Ecuadorian wealthy also come to soak in the tubs. Unlike the main tourist district of Quito, Banos has almost no beggars. You're don't walk down the street having to push past all the little outstretched hands looking for "moneda". Also, apart from the one pedestrian street, essentially one block, the restaurants do not place a person at the front door to drag you in. You can walk nearly anywhere you wanted free from almost all molestation. Temperatures are pleasant, albeit with a bit of drizzle most mornings. Scenery is quite spectacular even if the volcano refuses to shed its mantle of puffy white clouds so you can see it's smoke encircled peak. The town is small and relatively crowd and traffic free. If we hadn't been in a hurry to get to Riobamba to take the Sunday train ride, we could easily have spent another few days.
Riobamba is a much larger city on the opposite side of the Tunguarhua volcano. It seems to be a commercial center for the surrounding farms and ranches. Apart from the few obligatory churches, it has almost nothing of note except for the train. Although, it is the main base from which climbers begin their trek up the spectacular Chimborazo Volcano.
We happened to get lucky in that there was some sort of local celebration going on. Mainly it consisted of a large parade of various dance schools from around the region. Trucks filled with giant sound systems or live bands were followed by rows of men, women, and children performing various traditional dances. Men dressed in everything from what looked like ribbon festooned gaucho wear to plain white pants and shirt. Women dressed in everything from Spanish looking gowns to extravagantly embroidered variations of the local indigenous dress. Many of the costumes on display were ones we'd seen in the ethnography museum at Mitad del Mundo, so we delighted in being able to see them in real life.
Apart from getting lucky and happening across this local celebration, tourists mainly come from around the globe to partake in the famous Nariz del Diablo (devil's nose) train ride. Built back in the 1900's this train originally extended from Quito to Guayaquil on the coast. Construction on the rail project began in the early 1900s and progressed smoothly until they hit the neary vertical precipice of the Nariz del Diablo. The engineers then blasted and hacked a series of tunnels and switchbacks taking years to complete this small section of rail. I believe the first train from Quayaquil finally arrived in Quito in 1906.
Eventually roads were built from Quito to Guayaquil and rail traffic fell off. In the 1980s floods destroyed major sections of the track and only a small section, from Riobamba to just below the Nariz de Diablo, was rebuilt. Today it is maintained in so-so condition just for a single tourist train running 3 times a week. This train is touted by the Ecuadorian tourist agencies as being the "world's most difficult" train referring to its original construction is concerned. But, we wondered if many others, such as the "Tren de las Nubes" in Argentina couldn't make a similar claim.
A ride on the train is much like many other similar train rides with one very unique exception. At the wee hour of 6 AM, tourists dressed for winter descend upon the station in droves. While the rest of the city just begins to stir, the station is alive with activity. Men, the train operators, have seat cushions for rent, an absolute necessity. Women sell the usual knitted hats, gloves, and scarves. Men and women clamber across the roof of the train bearing baskets loaded with cookies, crackers, candy, and even a thermos full of hot water for tea all for sale. Tour buses arrive and disgorge their horde while the tour guide runs for tickets. Late passengers line up at the ticket window. We sat secure in our spot on the roof against the low rail and watched morning, sleepy headed, mayhem.
"Roof" is correct. The most unique feature of this ride is that tourists can ride on the roof. Old baggage boxcars have been given ladders on the sides and rails around the roof to accommodate the approximately 50 or so passengers that cram on top. It seems to be a tradition carried on from the original train when men would take to the roofs to avoid the crush of crowds inside. Seating is extremely cramped and uncomfortable and even the rental of a seat cushion for about $1 does little to alleviate your sore bottom. By the end of the day you are stiff and sore, but it is kind of exciting. How many places in the world can you still ride on the roof of a train. After all the hustling and bustling, pushing about to find a seat, and quick hops off to snap photos, the diesel engine gives a final toot of the whistle and sets into gear at a very slow pace. No need to worry about falling off due to speed. It's just not that fast.
Most of the trip just rolls along through hills and mountains past little farms and small villages. Peasants piled into the back of trucks, the local form of public transportation, or working in the fields, or crowded into the passing buses, or wandering the streets of the little towns wave at the silly tourists crammed on top of this train. I'm sure they're convinced we're all a bunch of fools.
One practice we questioned was the tourists tossing candy to the native children. It almost appeared like people training a monkey in a zoo. The kids learn that if you wave, you get a treat. Some don't bother waving. Additionally, these kids probably don't get much dental care or access to toothbrush and toothpaste. Candy is not a good thing for kids in this situation. We had to wonder about the wisdom of this particular practice. It just seemed inappropriate. Yet not just Europeans and Norte Americanos do this. Even people from Argentina toss candy.
As the day wears on and the train completes its climb to the top, the sun comes out, temperatures rise, and the winter clothes come off. We stop briefly at the former Palmira train station for a brake check and once more in Alausi for a bathroom check. Then comes the final descent. In former years, not that long ago, the train continued far enough down the track, to pass through one, if not several, tunnels. These days it just goes through a single set of switchbacks where the train goes backwards and forwards, before it turns around. We were rather disappointed by this as we'd hoped to go through at least one tunnel. A travel film we'd once seen showed the travel journalist standing up as she went through the tunnel. So we wanted to do the same. In reality, we found the limited scope of the train's destination left us feeling that other train rides are much more spectacular.
Derailments on this last section of track are frequent. We had two. Half the entertainment was climbing down from the roof to watch as the men dug a trench next to each rail. In this they place a large, iron, rounded wedge thing. Placed just in front of each wheel, this thing directs the wheels back onto the track as the train is moved forward. Ah ha, so that's how it's done. Derailments are frequent even on modern trains. Usually they just don't result in any damage. So similar methods of rerailing a train must still be used even on modern railroads.
It was a relatively short ride from Alausi down to the bottom of the Nariz del Diablo. We were given short break at the bottom to take photos and then the train returned up the two switchbacks to Alausi where everyone got off the roof. From here it was a separate, and much faster, bus ride back to Riobamba. That was enough. We felt absolutely no desire to remain on that hard train roof any longer.
We slipped out of the rather unexciting town of Riobamba somewhat early the next morning on our way to our final destination within Ecuador, Cuenca. Cuenca is one of those little gems one just happens across while traveling. It's located at about 8500 ft, which gives it a pleasant, spring like temperature year round. It's a city of ancient origins, having been the seat of power of the Canari and subsequently the northern seat of government for the Inca. It was a colonial city with Spanish style colonial buildings set right on top of the Canari and Inca ruins. It has since expanded to become a seat of major economic importance for all of Ecuador. Architecture throughout the old town is a mix of the old colonial buildings, 18th and 19th century opulence, and a few bits of 20th century items trying, usually not too successfully, to fit in. Cuenca is also home to four major universities. All this gives the entire city a feeling of affluence and sophistication we had not found elsewhere in Ecuador.
Cuenca's central area, the area of historic structures, is fairly small, about 10 blocks square at most. In addition, it's relatively safe. Crime, although not completely absent, is not nearly as common as it is in Quito or Guayaquil. People are very well dressed. There are very few beggars and almost no street people. All this makes Cuenca a comfortable and easy city to visit. Although if you're looking for major tourist attractions Cuenca does not have a huge number. The Banco Central has the usual well done archeological, ethnographic museum, although surprisingly this time signs were not in English. There are a couple other museums in town and a set of Inca ruins in a nearby city. You can make excursions to surrounding cities, to view Panama hat weaving perhaps. Yes, the old famous Panama hat did not come from Panama. They were, and still are, manufactured in Ecuador. Originally they were sent to Panama for further export, a route that eventually earned them the name "Panama hat".
Unlike so many places in Central and South America, Cuenca is not a late night city. By day it's alive with the hustle and bustle of city life. Little restaurants and shops are easy to find. But by around 5 PM, just about everything shuts. That cute little bistro you may spot on the corner at noon and then look forward to spending a relaxing dinner in will have turned into a solid wall of metal shutters long before your appetite is ready. Each night we wound up wandering around all the streets looking for someplace, anyplace, reasonably priced that was still opened. I guess you really do need to get your dinner early.
If you are looking for a nice place to just relax and enjoy some very nice colonial architecture, Cuenca is it. But if you are looking for a place with lots of tourist attractions, Cuenca is not the place. You need to be creative to turn Cuenca into more than a few days destination. Despite this, we really enjoyed Cuenca and could have wished for a few more days. But, we'd been in Ecuador for a month, Ecuador is just a tiny country, and we had many more places to visit in other countries. Time to move on.
Appendix A - Route
Unless noted prices are total for two.
December 3 - LAX to Lima PE flight
December 5 - Lima, PE to Trujillo, PE s/65 ea ($17 USD)
December 9 - Trujillo, PE to Chiclayo, Peru, s/12 ea ($3.60 USD)
December 11 - Chiclayo, PE to Piura,PE, s/12 ea ($3.60 USD)
December 12 - Piura, PE to Tumbes, PE, s/15 ea ($4.50 USD)
December 13 - Tumbes, PE to Guayaquil, EC, $5 ea
December 19 - Guayaquil, EC to Puerto Lopez, EC, $4 ea
December 21, 22 - Puerto Lopez, EC to Quito, EC in private car, $14
December 28 - Quito, EC to Coca, EC $8 ea
January 2 - Coca, EC to Quito, EC $8 ea, Quito, EC to Ibarra, EC $5
January 5 - Ibarra, EC to Banos, EC $6 + $6.80 total
January 8 - Banos, EC to Riobamba, EC, $2 ea
January 10 - Riobamba, EC to Cuenca, EC, $6.10 ea
Appendix B - Hotels
Prices typically for a room with private bath and double bed.
Dec. 3, 4 -Hotel Sipan, Miraflores, $35USD
Dec. 5 - 8 - Hostal Colonial, Trujillo, s/55 ($17 USD)
Dec. 9 - 11 - Hotel Santa Victoria, Chiclayo, s/63 ($19 USD)
Dec. 12 - Hostal San Jorge, Piura, s/50 ($15 USD)
Dec. 13 - Hostal Roma, Tumbes, s/60 ($18 USD)
Dec 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 - Hotel San Rafeal Plaza, Guayaquil, $27
Dec 19, 20 - Hotel Pacifico, Puerto Lopez, $17
Dec 21 - Hotel Cotopaxi, Latacunga, $16
Dec 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27 - Hotel Don Jorge, Quito ($20)
Dec 28 -Hotel Oasis, Coca ($10)
Dec 29, 30, 31 - Yarina Lodge ($360 total)
Jan 1 - Hotel La Mision, Coca ($29)
Jan 2, 3, 4 - Hotel Royal Ruiz, Ibarra ($20)
Jan 5, 6, 7 - Hostal El Eden, Banos, ($12)
Jan 8, 9 - Hotel Tren Dorado, Riobamba, ($16)
Jan 10 - Hotel Alli Tiena, Cuenca, ($20)
Jan 11, 12, 13 - Hostal la Orquidea, Cuenca, ($17.50)
Brochure provided by Museo Banco Central of Ibarra for photograph at top.
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.