Follow by Email

Friday, February 27, 2015

Cuenca

One further note regarding Guamote that I neglected to mention. I don't know whether to attribute it to the the pervasiveness of the evangelical sects but there was an almost total absence of cigarettes and alcohol in that community. Now that I think about, this was pretty much the case in Ecuador in general, particularly rural Ecuador so it can't necessarily be due to the religion. Perhaps the consumption of those things doesn't fit with life in indigenous communities. May it's a cost thing. I think the alcohol that they use would most likely be home brew chicha, the corn based drink. In Colombia or Mexico, whenever there is a gathering of guys (and women in upscale areas) there would be copious quantities of beer consumed whether it was rural or urban.

Also, here's what Guamote looked like the day after the market. You'd never know it happened.

After
 
Before

 

I'm not sure what possessed me to return to Cuenca. I wasn't that taken by it on my first visit a couple of years ago. Yes, it's a beautiful old colonial city, the old town a UNESCO World Heritwage site and most people rave about it, but aside from the beautiful colonial architecture, I found it quite dull and very overrun by tourists and expats.

Diego, my friend from Otavalo, had a good experience there and recommended the accommodations where he stayed. So, on the strength of that I went back. Upon checking in to El Posada, it seemed ok. A basic room overlooking a street, a common kitchen, but a funny smell throughout. Freddy the skateboarder registered me. For $12/night I figured I could make it do for just a couple of nights. I settled in and went out and wandered around town for a while, scoping out dinner possibilities. I finally settled on a restaurant on the basis of it being busy. What I failed to notice until it was too late was that most of the people were drinking, not eating. And not feeling like eating alone I asked a man seated nearby who looked like an English speaker if he'd like to join me for dinner. He was an English speaker and, yes, he'd be happy to join me. Mistake. Randy, I think it was, was from Alaska and commenced to monologue nonstop, mostly self aggrandizement related conversation, the lofty career accomplishments of he and his wife and the important people they hobnobbed with. You win some and you lose some. And unfortunately, the dinner was commensurate with the company.

Returning to the hotel, I sat and read for a while trying to ignore the smell. Something like decomposing garbage. But I couldn't ignore the street sounds which seemed to increase in volume as the evening wore on. And had these sheets been laundered? Possibly not. When it all became intolerable, I called the hostal I'd stayed in before and booked a room for the next day. I made it through the night and bailed next morning as soon as it was reasonable. When I checked out, Freddy sheepishly acknowledged that it was "muy ruidoso", very noisy, in the night. I walked the few blocks to Hostal Macondo where I'd stayed on my other visit and was very relieved to settle in there. A lovely place, clean, nice kitchen, no bad smells, a lovely garden with resident hummingbirds and interesting guests from all over.

About three times the cost but, hey, I deserve better. At breakfast I met Christian from Belgium. He owned a bike touring company and was in Ecuador to scout a tour through the country. An avid cyclist himself, his job was to investigate routes and accommodations off the main highways by car, then return with the bike tourists to lead the way by bike. Sounded like a pretty slick way to fulfill his passion. This was the beginning of Carnival and the pace of the annual festivities was starting to heat up and the town seemed much livelier than on my previous visit. More about that later. I spent the day meandering around, did some shopping at the mercado for dinner stuff and idled away the day.

To be honest, this southern Ecuador part of my trip was something in the nature of killing time before returning to Mexico. True, I was having some nice social connections in Ecuador after an almost complete absence of them in Colombia and one can't help but be taken by the physical beauty of the country, but there was just something lacking. Maybe it was me. I don't know. And so I passed the day in Cuenca and headed off to Loja the next day.

Another interesting note: friends and family in Latin America are comfortable holding hands or putting their arms around each other; open displays of affection.

 

 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Nariz del Diablo

To go almost anywhere from Guamote by bus, you have to walk down the hill to the Pan American highway and flag a bus going in the direction you want and hope that it's not full. If you're lucky, one will come soon and have room for you. If not, it can be along wait. Going to Alausí for the train ride, I waited for about a half hour. Not too bad. I got there well ahead of departure time, got a ticket and wandered around town until departure time.

I heard the strains of music coming from inside a big gymnasium as I was wandering around and poked my head inside. One of the players motioned me to come in and I listened to these guys rehearse this strange modern music for a while.

 

The train was half full, at the most, so the passengers could shift from side to side as the views changed.

The train prior to modernization when passengers could ride on the roof to get away from the chickens and pigs, etc, that people packed along.
 

Alausí is perched on the edge of a canyon and the views are beautiful as the train descends.

As billed, the engineering of this railway is quite astonishing. This is a quote from some web posting:

"Several plans and attempts were made to build the railway from Guayaquil to Quito, since 1860 until 1874, when the first locomotive reached Milagro.

But it was only in 1895, when Eloy Alfaro was president, that contacts were made with North American technicians Archer Harman and Edward Morely, representatives of an American company interested in the building of the "most difficult railway in the world" as it was called at that time. An agreement was reached, and "The Guayaquil and Quito Railway Company" started the construction in 1899.

The tracks finally reached a huge obstacle - an almost perpendicular wall of rock - called the "Devil's Nose". Many lives were shed in the building of what until now is called a masterpiece of railway engineering : a zig-zag carved out of the rock, which allows the train, by advancing and backing up, to reach the necessary height to the town of Alausí. The train finally reached Alausí in September 1902 and Riobamba in July 1905."

The name "Devils Nose" is in reference to the great numbers of people who died in the construction of the railway, mostly people brought from the Carribean.

Here you can see a some tracks and more below to show the tight switchbacks
Sibambe
 

It takes a little over an hour to arrive at the destination of Sibambe at the bottom of the canyon. Here things get a bit cheesy. The train pulls into the station and we are greeted by a troop of "indigenous" dancers whirling to loud canned music. We roll along a little further to a place where we can disembark to view and photo the Nariz unobstructed for a few minutes,

then back to the station for our included box lunch which was a bit overpriced. We had a hour and a half there, long enough to see the little museum, some native plants, a cafe with better food for sale and tip opportunities for the dancers.

Then back up the nose to Alausí where I had another forgetable lunch of, you guessed it: chicken, rice and french fries. Then the bus back to Guamote and that was about it for my visit there. Next morning I schlepped my luggage down to the highway and waited for a bus to Cuenca, my next stop.

 

 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Guamote

Guamote was the surprise star of this trip to South America. I had no awareness this place until a couple of weeks prior to going there and finding it was a total fluke. I'd resolved to take one of Ecuador's iconic train rides on this trip to Ecuador. It's one of the "must dos", called El Nariz del Diablo, The Devils Nose, and is part of a much longer train trip that has been running for many years. As is the case with most rail travel in the Western Hemisphere, Ecuador has divested itself of most of its passenger rail travel but has invested in a few short tourist rail excursions and one longer, four day run from Quito to Guayaquil on the coast. The Devils Nose is a short section of that run and famous for the amazing engineering feat and the beauty of the landscape. When I was looking for accommodations in the town of Aluasí, the departure point for the ride, there seemed to be only crummy, cheap places or better expensive ones. Reading trip advisor reviews about one of the expensive places, someone noted that it wasn't worth the money and they were going to stay at Inti Sisa in Guamote and take a bus from there to the train. I went to their website and learned that Inti Sisa is actually a foundation started by a Belgian woman fifteen years ago to provide educational resources to indigenous children and adults in Guamote and had opened a hotel a few years ago to provide funding for their programs. There were nothing but rave reviews so I booked a few nights there. Guamote is about five hours south of Quito on the Pan American highway, nestled in the typical lovely Andean landscape. The first thing that struck me was the almost totally indigenous makeup of the population and the almost total lack of foreigners with the exception of the guests at Inti Sisa. It's the first place I've been openly gawked at for a long time. An interesting feature of the town is that it's very prominantly divided right through the middle by train tracks for the tourist train.

Run by a Belgian woman, Eve, the hotel was a bit of a surprise too in its relative luxury. My room was very comfy with big windows looking over the roofs of town to the surrounding hills.

On the main floor were cozy common areas and dining room where a hearty breakfast was served every morning.

The classrooms, where there is a kindergarten,

A computer lab for adult learning

And a classroom where sewing is taught,

are next door to the hotel.

My original plan was to do the train ride the day after I got there but then I learned about the Thursday market which was the next day. This was reputed to be one of the best markets around so I changed plans. It more than lived up to its billing. This rather quiet little place of just under 2,000 inhabitants was transformed into one big market and a huge influx of people came from all over the Guamote Canton of which Guamote is the seat, to buy and sell. The main plaza was where the produce and meat was concentrated though stalls could be found all over town with it.

There were the usual stalls of crappy, Chinese products, backpacks, runners, smartphone cases, small appliances, bootlegged CDs and movies, housewares and there were stalls with odds and ends, padlocks, soap, sponges, light bulbs, pretty much anything you might need.

 

There were food stalls interspersed through it all.

There were stalls selling chicks and stalls selling food for them and other livestock, and an astonishing amount of different types of grains and beans sold all over town.

There were many fabric/textile stalls and lots of local jewelry.

A few blocks out of downtown small animals were sold, chicken, ducks, turkeys, guinea pigs and more produce, immense piles of green bananas.

Another few blocks along were the horses and a couple of kilometres further was the main livestock market. On a plaza about a large square block in size, pigs, sheep and cattle were sold.

There were hundreds of animals, pigs squealing, sheep baaaaing, cattle mooing and hundreds of very colourfully dressed people buying selling and manhandling the animals.

The deal is done
 

An astonishing a scene. I hung around there for a time then got a collectivo back to town.

One thing that they don't have in Guamote is an ATM. I learned about that from Eva when we discussed payment for my stay. Quite a surprise. It's a small town but not that small. Eva explained that the form of cash machine used by the locals is the livestock market. To take out cash, you sell an animal. To put in cash, you buy one. Luckily I was going to Alausí next day were there are ATMs.

I'd made the acquaintance of Simon at the hotel, a Brit living in Ecuador to do his PhD thesis on the migration to the city of the indigenous people from this area and the attendant issues around that phenomenon. Simon and I had made a plan to do a hike after the morning spent at the market. The peace and quiet of the lovely countryside was a contrast to the bustling market. All the folks from the country were at the market

Simon was a font of information about these folks who live in the Chimborazo province and, to a lesser degree about the entire country. Something I found interesting was that evangelical Protestantism was pretty much the dominant form of religious practice around Guamote. These sects can be found all over Latin America, and the world in general I suppose. I personally don't find this to be a positive trend but at least they've kicked out the foreign evangelists and now control the churches themselves.

After our hike we went out to dinner, the set menu thing. There weren't a lot of options in town and it was pretty much a variation on the potato based soup, fried chicken, rice and french fries or nothing. It was cheap, I'll say that.

The obligatory colonial style church