South America 2002-3

On The Gringo Trail

Episode 8: South to the Incas

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Thursday March 6, 2003 Cusco, Peru

You last heard from us in the pleasant town of Baņos. We managed one last walk before we left town, this time on the north side of town. The volcano Tungarahua, on the south side of Baņos has been threatening to erupt over the past few years and the only way out of town is a single lane road heading east and west. Sometime in the next few years, if the volcano is patient, the villagers will have a new evacuation route over a bridge, barely started, that crosses the deep gorge of the Rio Pastaza. Right now, the only way for villagers on the north side of the Pastaza to reach town is to walk up and down a skinny, twisting, impossibly steep road. Most people lead a donkey to town and ride it back with their purchases. That road is the evacuation route and that was our hiking route for our last day in Baņos. It was a hot, but pleasant and quiet walk. Who else but the farmers coming back from market and crazy gringos would walk several hours in the heat to get a view of a volcano that is usually hidden in clouds. One of the only other people we met on the road that day was a fellow Ottawan. Another crazy Gringo! But the glimpse of Tungarahua peak we did get for a few seconds was lovely.

Only road out of Baņos

Our next stop after Baņos was Riobamba, whose claim to fame is the start of a wild train ride called the Nariz Del Diablo (Devil's Nose). The rail line once ran from Guayaquil on the coast all the way to Quito, but more recent rail closures have left only the section between Riobamba and Sibambe, mostly as a tourist run. Construction on the line was started in 1860, but the Nariz Del Diablo section was left until 1899. It travels through a particularly narrow and steep canyon and posed enormous challenges for the railroad engineers. It was finally completed in 1905 and descends the canyon through a series of switchbacks and reverses.

That was to be our first train ride in South America, and it left the next morning. We arrived at noon and had an afternoon free. A local tour agency said they could drive us up to see the highest mountain in Ecuador, the extinct volcano Chimborazo (6310 M).

Joel picked us up at 2 PM in his old Honda Civic. He said his car was old but strong and he was right. There is a road to all the way up to 4800 M on Chimborazo and it made it all the way up just fine. On the way, we passed herds of llamas and alpacas and after 4000 M, herds of wild Vicuņas. They look more like delicate deer than llamas and have yet to be domesticated, but they tolerated a pair of curious gringos. Joel stopped the car beside one small herd and we crept across the altiplano to get closer pictures. We got within 10 M of them before they slowly widened the gap. I hope the pictures turn out well. (They are not great. I need a better zoom lens)

At 4800 M Joel parked the car at a day refugio for hikers and we got out to walk up another 200 M to a second refugio. This one is used as a base for climbers attempting to climb to the top of Chimborazo. The start of the walk is a wake up call for the unprepared. Stone memorial tablets commemorate climbers who died trying to reach the summit. We had been concerned that we would not even be able to see Chimborazo as it was covered with clouds when we left Riobamba. Luck was with us. As soon as we parked at the first refugio, the clouds lifted and stayed away the entire time we were there. Snowy glacier tongues extended down the last 2000 M, ending in red and orange volcanic sandstone.

We walked up to the second refugio and decided to keep going. We could see a ridge several hundred meters farther up that looked as if it would give us a view around to another face of the volcano. We didn't make it. The altitude got to me, especially. It was steep climbing and I was huffing and puffing and taking more frequent rests. Ray went a little farther but eventually decided we were running out of time and energy. We made our way carefully to the second refugio again. We spoke to one Chilean man waiting for midnight to begin his attempt at the summit. He and his guide were the only climbers around that day. I hope he made it. We made a speedy return trip to the car and told Joel how pleased we were with our Chimbarazo visit.

The next day was our train ride. The most popular way to do this trip is to sit on the roof of a box car. It is a five or six hour trip so we decided the view would be just as good, and more comfortable, from inside the coach. We got to the station before 6:30 AM to find one locomotive hooked up to two box cars and two passenger coaches. People were already streaming into the station and climbing up on top of the box cars to claim their piece of roof. Vendors were out in force, renting cushions and selling warm mittens and hats for the roof sitters as it was cold in the morning. We choose our seats inside and soon we were off. To be a conductor on this train you cannot have any fear of heights. The inside passenger tickets were easy to collect, but he had to climb up on the roof of the box car to collect from the roofers. Even the snack vendors climbed up on the roof to make a sale.

The scenery was spectacular as we made our way down the narrow canyon. We stopped briefly at a few small towns and our longest stop was to hand load a pile of firewood into one of the boxcars. At the small town of Alausi we stopped to take on more passengers. There was a gang of teenaged Ecuadorians all clamouring to get onto the already crowded roof. A few of the roof sitters had enough and came inside. The next section was the actual Nariz Del Diablo. The train descends to Sibambe (really just a train station), reverses and returns to Alausi. Just before we started again, the conductor came through and spoke to me in Spanish. I didn't understand at first but then I realized he had issued an invitation to ride in the engine. Ray and I grabbed our bags and hustled up to take front row seats for the descent.

Crowd prepared to ride on top of the train

Preparing to get wheel back on the tracks

Everything went well for a short while until the engineer looked out the window and immediately put on the emergency brake. He and the conductor got out and walked back along the track. The first box car with all the roof sitters on top had derailed. We found out this is not an isolated occurrence. The entire crew knew what to do. They got rocks and wood and a steel ramp contraption and positioned everything under the errant wheel. The engine can be driven from either the front or the rear, so the engineer got in the rear of the engine and with much backward and forward shunting, got the wheel back on the track. All the passengers were out of the train watching the action and a few were capturing it on video cameras. Getting one wheel back on the track caused another one to come off but finally everything was straight and we all took off amidst clapping and cheering.

We reached Sibambe where Ray and I were told that our engine trip was over and it would be nice to leave a tip. Someone else go to take our places and we found seats inside a coach. The cars were reversed, the engine reattached and we were off back to Alausi, or so we thought. Again, we made an unscheduled stop. This time to check the braking mechanism. Further on, we rounded a corner and the same car derailed again! The efficient crew got busy and we chugged off again. This happened twice more and then we stopped one final time while a train crew repaired part of the track in the area of our first derailment. We limped into Alausi 2 1/2 hours late, but at least we did make it. One woman told me her husband had taken the train the previous year and he had experienced nine derailments! It is still a popular tourist activity but not for those on a tight schedule.

Ray and I stayed in Alausi overnight and continued on to Cuenca the next morning. I was glad we had waited until daylight to make the trip as the scenery through the mountains was especially interesting. It seemed as if every time the bus we were travelling on slowly reached the top of one mountain range in Ecuador, another range came into view. We would travel from almost jungle valleys to barren mountain tops every hour. It was seldom boring. If we got bored of the scenery we tracked our progress by the clothing of the locals who got on and off our buses. Each district brought a slight change in each woman's skirt, blouse and hat. Often the little girls would be dressed like their mothers and even the men's outfits would change.

Flower market in front of Cuenca church

Cuenca was a pleasant town with an attractive Spanish Colonial style center. It has gained UNESCO World Heritage status so it is making an effort to retain its colonial charm. We had one of the nicest hostels to stay in, the Maconde. It was an old colonial home with high ceilings that has been converted into a hostel. The rooms are arranged around a nice indoor sitting area and an outdoor garden and there was a kitchen available for use by the guests. We ended up meeting several of the other travellers. One American woman, who teaches Spanish in Ambrose College in the US Mid-west, has been coming to Cuenca for the last 8 years and is now a part owner of the hostel. This year she brought a group of American students for a one term exchange program. Cuenca is a popular choice for language studies.

Cuenca has a number of very good museums, some of which we visited. The best was the Museo de Banco Central. The exhibits, owned by the Central Bank of Ecuador, were housed in a large new building. Besides a collection of Religious art, they had a great display on the peoples of Ecuador emphasizing the cultural differences between the regions. There were tableaux of village life with the people dressed in clothing that we recognized from our travels. There were even real shrunken heads, trophies of the Amazon regions. They claimed that the practise is now outlawed, but you never know for sure. There was also an interesting display of an archaeological dig which was right outside the museum. We walked around to see the restoration efforts of pre-Inca and Inca ruins of the original city of Cuenca.

From Cuenca we travelled south again to Vilcabamba, a small village not far from the border of Peru. Vilcabamba's claim to fame is the longevity of its inhabitants. Several were reputed to have lived for over 100 years, but that has never been verified. Their spring water is a prize export and their main street is named 'Eternal Youth Avenue'. The last Inca ruler escaped to Vilcabamba after an aborted attempt to oust the Spaniards but he was eventually found and killed. No eternal youth for him.

We had a recommendation for the Madre Tierra Spa Resort, just out of town. It was great. It sounded a bit more expensive than our usual budget places but it was worth it. The complex is a series of small buildings set in the midst of banana tress and lush jungle vegetation. We had a small cabin, complete with a covered veranda, to ourselves. The breakfast and supper that were included were so large that we only needed a chocolate bar and fruit for lunch. The Spa consisted of a small jacuzzi, free to guests, plus very reasonably priced massage and other services. I found a jacuzzi soak and a massage at the end of the day just what I needed after the hikes we did in the

Our first walk was to the top of Mandango peak, just outside of town. There were two white crosses on this peak, the highest one on a rocky outcrop that looked as if it might have been the plug in an original volcano. We had an inkling of what we were in for when we reached the entrance to the trail. We had to pay US$1 and fill in a questionnaire that asked for our blood type and if we had any serious ailments! We did get a 500 ml bottle of water and a small package of local cane sugar to help us on our way. There are many fields of sugar cane and several sugar refineries in the area so I guess the free sample was from the local Chamber of Commerce.

The trail to the first white cross was all uphill, of course, but not very difficult. There was just one other small group of hikers ahead of us, two gringos staying at our hostel and their escort of three locals. The hardest part of the climb was getting past a barbed wire fence right on the peak next to the cross.

Mandango Peak

We had a rest to enjoy the view and then looked for the trail to the second summit. We could see the other group just ahead of us so we followed after them. Unfortunately we lost them while we were picking our way down a steep narrow path from the first summit. We had seen the first group follow a path around the base of a sheer cliff on top of which was the second cross. Around the other side of the cliff we found a path leading up a narrow ravine. It looked rather steep but up we went, hand over hand, only to find the trail petering out. We weren't sure we were on the right trail, so down the ravine we went again. We followed another path through dense brush until it opened out. There was a path of sorts leading up, so we tried that route. Part way up we saw the other group had made it to the summit and were starting down again. We were not on the right route. It was back down again, through the woods to that narrow ravine. We had a banana snack to fortify ourselves and decided we had come this far, why not go all the way.

The second ascent of the ravine was easier and we found the trail that zigzagged to the top. The path was one footprint wide and as long as you didn't look down, you were alright, but don't ask Ray to repeat the effort. We did make it to the top, which was a knife edge ridge, and the view of all the surrounding mountains and valleys was spectacular. It did make up for the climb. There was a cow patty right on that upper path. We had passed several cows grazing near the trail to the lower cross but it would have had to be a very sure footed cow to make it to that narrow summit.

The next day we decided to tackle an easier hike. We walked on a dirt road leading to the opposite side of the valley from Mandango Peak. Horseback riding is a popular activity in the area and one of the favourite rides is to see some waterfalls farther along the road. About an hour out of town we came to Cabaņas Rio Yambala owned by an American-English couple. They have built several cabins nestled in the trees next to a small, swift river. They offer trips farther into the jungle that sounded great if we ever make it back here again. Charlie, the owner, gave us directions to the waterfall, which was another 1 1/2 hours away. We followed his instructions for the first section, straight uphill for a good half hour. Of course we had another good view, but we decided we didn't need to go all the way to the waterfall. One long day was enough. Instead, we returned to the Cabaņas and had tea before walking back to Madre Tierra.

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