Chinese New Year is over for another year and this is a time that Anna and her friends, Pat and Roshini, like to get away for a little bit. If it is a trip to a resort island in Indonesia or Thailand for example, I will usually give it a miss and let them have a girls’ weekend away. However, if it is a unique once-in-a-lifetime location or event, such as our trip at around the same time last year to Denmark and Sweden in order to eat at Magnus Nilsson’s restaurant, Fäviken, then I’m just going to have to tag along.
Obviously, this most recent trip fits into the latter category, otherwise you would just be sitting there, staring at a blank webpage with a few ads on it. On this particular occasion we would be traveling to Ecuador for a trip that would take place in three parts:
- A four-night train trip from Quito, high up in the Andes, down to the city of Durán in the Guayaquil area, located on the coast.
- Doing a three-night cruise through the Galápagos Islands.
- Spend three nights in Amsterdam, Netherlands en route back to Singapore.
Quite often I get a song stuck in my head when we are traveling so it seemed pretty apt that we were going to be spending the following two weeks in South America and I had randomly heard this song somewhere, installed the earworm and just couldn’t stop singing it for the entirety of our trip (there is an English version, but the Spanish one is more worth it just for the video alone):
That suit is giving ol’ Georgie a rather severe testicle separation in that clip! If you’re like us and don’t speak Spanish, here is the chorus in English:
Una paloma blanca
I’m just a bird in the sky
Una paloma blanca
Over the mountain I fly
No one can take my freedom away
“No one can take my freedom away,” yet ironically, that singer would probably have a reasonably difficult time legally staying in the United States at the moment.
Anyway, this post is focussing on the first part of our holiday, the train journey, so a little bit of information about that particular leg of the trip from the e-mail we received from Tren Ecuador about our little rail adventure, the “Train of Wonders:”
Our journey begins in the northern Andes of Ecuador, in the valley of Otavalo, as we wind our way through traditional villages to meet craftspeople and enjoy a visit to a rose plantation. Venturing south from Quito, we travel through the famous “Avenue of the Volcanoes,” passing such giants as Cotopaxi and Chimborazo – the closest point on the planet to the sun. After a visit to the truly authentic Andean market of Guamote, we make our way to warmer climes, zig-zagging down the mythical “Devil’s Nose”. After descending the colossal Andes we enter a tropical forest world, then ride through plantations of sugar-cane, rice and cacao, to end our trip in the peaceful plains of the coastal region.
That’s quite a trek and if you’re looking at that map and wondering ‘MSNM’ refers to, it means metres above sea-level. We were all clearly most excited about the Galápagos Islands leg of our holiday (well, maybe except for Pat, but I’ll get to that in the sequel to this post), but this train ride was going to be some fun too. Besides, the night we were to first land in Quito was our seventh wedding anniversary.
Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves though, getting there is always part of the story and this occasion would be no exception.
Monday, February 12, 2018
Roshini and Pat had traveled to Quito several days before us, however, we were unable to leave until just a few minutes before midnight on Sunday because Anna was returning from a conference in Hong Kong on Sunday morning. Yup, she had already sat in a plane for four hours that day before this trip had even kicked off. Our route was supposed to be a thirteen-hour Business Class flight to Amsterdam, Netherlands, a three-hour layover in the airport, and then another 13-hour Economy flight to Quito, Ecuador. Quito is 13 hours behind Singapore so we were due to land in Ecuador at around 4:00pm local time, giving us plenty of time to get a nice anniversary dinner before catching a quiet night in preparation for the early start we had coming up the following morning.
Of course, it doesn’t always work that smoothly. There were no hassles with the Singapore to Amsterdam flight, I managed to sleep for a substantial portion of it and then watched most of season nine of Curb your Enthusiasm when I woke. There weren’t any particular holdups in the Amsterdam airport either, besides not being allowed in the airport lounge due to overcrowding, despite having the appropriate pass. When it was finally time, we made our way down to the gate to board our KLM flight bound for Quito, a process which also went smoothly, but that’s where any semblance of order ended. Once we were aboard we were stuck on the tarmac as, due to the temperature in Amsterdam at the time, our plane required de-icing. Eventually, we were told that the process would be available to us in 30 minutes, an announcement after which I promptly fell asleep, only to wake again, still ground-bound with light snow sprinkling down. After being stuck on the tarmac for two hours, we finally departed.
Once in the air it became almost impossible to conceive that KLM is the national airline of the Netherlands for several reasons. First of all, the flight attendants were far too large for their job. I’d previously heard rumours of how Singapore Airlines stewardesses receive only one tailored uniform and are forbidden to gain weight, a theory that is somewhat confirmed by some of the statements I’ve hand-picked from this article published in Singapore’s national newspaper, The Straits Times, and although it seems a little extreme, it is feasible to understand why:
National carrier Singapore Airlines expects its flight attendants to have a body mass index (BMI) within a certain range, and those who exceed it will be given time on the ground to get back in shape, it said.
The airline, which focuses on BMI rather than weight, said such crew members will be “given time on (the) ground to focus on their health and to receive guidance on healthy weight management”. This ensures they are able to meet the physical demands of their duties, it added.
Observers felt it was acceptable for airlines to have requirements for flight attendants to have a certain physique, in order to be able to carry out their duties.
Mr David Leong, managing director of PeopleWorldwide Consulting, said: “The aisle of the plane is constrained, and any large-bodied person will have a manoeuvrability issue along the aisle.”
That final quote from David Leong is a salient one. While some may consider suspending an employee for being overweight a tad discriminatory, it is worth noting that your ability to fit inside your workplace is one of the most important tasks you have, which I guess is why I never became a fighter pilot. Well, my size, plus the fact that I’m also kind of a pacifist who has no idea how to fly. For KLM flight attendants on the other hand, being able to walk down the aisle of the plane wasn’t a huge priority. While it’s generally accepted that the Dutch are the world’s tallest nationality, a flight attendant’s body mass index doesn’t really cut it in this case as, despite being in a healthy weight-range, they are still physically too large to do their job. On our flight to Quito there were two female flight attendants who would bump me with their thighs every time they walked past my seat without a care to give, which was approximately every 15 minutes, making it impossible to sleep. Then there was the male flight attendant whose hips were so wide that he had to to turn sideways to walk down the aisle, resulting in me getting a face-full of Dutch man-ass every time he passed. Admittedly, the crew were really nice, but their constant bumps, nudges and sideswipes got a bit much extremely quickly and remember, this was to be our second 13-hour flight of the day. Add to this the terrible food – meatballs that make the ones available at Ikea seem like the epitome of fine dining, followed by a stale microwaved pizza roll, of which Anna’s was dropped on the floor while being served to her – as well as the terrible, yet random, entertainment choices and the increasingly awful smell coming from the toilets and I was begging to get off this plane when we weren’t even half-way through.
We eventually landed at Mariscal Sucre International Airport after a grand total of 31 hours in transit, took a ride with a psychotic cab driver with a death wish for 45 minutes to the Swissotel in the Floresta area of Quito, checked in and then went for our Anniversary dinner at about 8:30pm. We found a place around the corner called Lo Nuestro for some traditional local cuisine, feasting on prawns, beef tripe stew, and black clam ceviche among other dishes, but it couldn’t be a big night though because of our early start the next morning. Besides, thanks to timezones, it had already been our anniversary for about a day-and-a-half.
A few scenes from the first full day of what would become an epic trip:
Tuesday, February 13, 2018
Tuesday was to be the beginning of out trek through the Andes, but despite taking all of the necessary precautions, I still had a mild seizure in my sleep so the day is a bit of a blur.
The plan was to meet our guides for the next four days, Marcelo and Alex, as well as our sidekicks on this tour in the foyer of the hotel at 7:00am and spend most of the morning on a bus, then onto a train with a few stops along the way. Getting up wasn’t particularly difficult due to jet-lag so we went and had breakfast in the hotel restaurant before meeting up with our companions on this first four-day leg of our fortnight away. Once we saw who we were traveling with, one thing became immediately clear; we would be the only people on this trip under the age of 60! This train journey has been referred to as the world’s “most challenging” railroad and our counterparts on this trip were mostly train enthusiasts and their wives, hailing mainly from Canada and the UK, as well as a couple from San Antonio, Texas. Anna, Pat, Roshini, and myself, however, were here because it just seemed like a cool thing to do and a great opportunity to cut ourselves off from the rest of the world for a bit and relax.
The first part of our bus ride was a two-hour trip north that took us to the valley of Otavalo in the Imbabura Province, the main attraction being the market that sells products made by the local people:
The indigenous Otavalo people are famous for weaving textiles, usually made of wool, which are sold at the famous Saturday market. Although the largest market is on Saturday, there is a very wide range of wares available throughout the week in the Plaza de los Ponchos, and the many local shops. The shops sell textiles such as handmade blankets, tablecloths, and much more.
During the market’s peak, almost one third of the town becomes full of stalls selling textiles, tagua nut jewelry, musical instruments, dream catchers, leather goods, fake shrunken heads, indigenous costumes, hand-painted platters and trays, purses, clothing, spices, raw foods and spools of wool. As the city has become more of a tourist attraction, many of the goods sold in the markets are mass-produced in nearby factories and sold in the market by middle-men.
We spent a substantial amount of time walking around the market and Anna is the master negotiator so she haggled her way to some bargains for us. Obviously, the market wasn’t quite as bustling on a Tuesday as to what you’d expect it to be on a Saturday, but there was still plenty of great stuff available, including the two pipes I ended up purchasing, as well as the scarf that Anna bought. I had also forgotten how small a lot of South Americans are; I’ve lived in Asia for over a decade now and, although a major stereotype about Asians is that they are short, the average native South American is tiny, as you will see, so several locals felt the urge to come and have photos taken with me in the market. Anyway, a bit of what we saw:
Before long it was time to continue our journey, this time to the San Roque Train station where we were greeted by a traditional Ecuadorian band. We boarded our train and were given lunch as we made our way down to the small town of Atuntaqui, a place I just found out is the sister city of Sunchon in North Korea! The entire area is renowned for its textiles, especially the textile market, so we all stopped off at the Museo Fabrica Imbabura [translated from Spanish]:
MUSEUM “IMBABURA TEXTILE FACTORY”: The English and German machinery that dates back to the last century (1900-1925) distributed throughout the different sections: fulling, carding, spinning, weaving, dyeing, among others, that in visit to them is impossible not to imagine going back to that time and feel a deep admiration for our ancestors, because only to understand how to raise that machinery from the port, 400 km away between coast and mountain range, under the transport conditions of that time, it must have been a epic.
We were taken on a tour of what was once the factory floor, the now-retired blue-collar Canadian men feeling the need to knock and bang on every surface to make sure it met their high structural standards. Sure, what we were told about everyday life working in the factory and looking at all of the vintage looms and machinery was interesting enough, but I wish they had’ve focussed more on these types of facts [translated from Spanish]:
The Imbabura Textile Factory operated from 1924 to 1965, the year in which it was closed after the death of one of its administrators, who was attacked by a mob of workers who claimed for their rights after they were subjected to work under a system of exploitation. There were forged several trade unionists who defended the highest rights of the working class.
That’s right, the new owner of the factory was dragged out into the street and stomped to death by the workers! We were told this by Marcelo when he was giving us the history of the factory, however, this stop off would’ve been a lot more interesting if these type of details were the focal point, as opposed to just a tidbit of information, but our Ecuadorian tour was only getting started. It was also strange, some might say perhaps even a little ironic, that inside the museum there was a picture of Fidel Castro mounted next to a photograph of John F. Kennedy. Take a look for yourself:
Soon we were back on the train and on to probably the highlight of the train tour for me. We ended up in the village of San Antonio de Ibarra, just south of the city of Ibarra. Ecuador lays on the edge of a tectonic plate, making it prone to earthquakes and volcanoes, a theme you will notice throughout our tour. A large earthquake destroyed most of Ibarra on August 16, 1868 and the city was re-settled in 1872 meaning that the public buildings and churches needed to be rebuilt. It was most likely for this reason that a lot of the religious iconography in Ecuador is hand-carved out of wood, as opposed to stone or marble, but it is almost impossible to tell the difference. In fact, the work is so good that the Pope even owns a piece:
San Antonio is famous for its wood artisans. For this is called also the Capital of wood artisans. Pope Francis, during his July 2015 visit to Ecuador, received a wood sculpture made by Jorge Villalba, born in San Antonio, as a gift.
There are dozens of these workshops throughout the town, but unfortunately, the website for the specific workshop and showroom we visited isn’t working at the moment so it is difficult to get any exact details.
We were taken on a tour of the workshop that showed the many stages of making these masterpieces out of cedar. It all begins exactly as you’d expect, with a person roughly hacking away at a block with a hammer and chisel, then smoothed out with a rasp, then a file, and finally sandpaper. The arms and hands of each piece are carved separately due to the difficulty and detail involved in creating the hands, as anyone who has even tried to draw an anatomically correct hand would be aware, and attached later. The pieces are then painted and gold leaf is added before the final step in the larger pieces, the creation of the eyes. The eyes are made from the white glass of old fluorescent light tubes, moulded into shape and the pupils painted on the reverse side. The finished product is simply stunning:
We were handed a finished piece, this time a bust, to pass around and these look so much like statues carved from stone that one woman in our tour remarked, “they’re light, aren’t they?”, completely forgetting she was holding a chunk of painted wood. One of the more redneck Canadians in our group wrongly thought it would be amusing to ask if the three hooded characters (pictured, above) were of the Ku Klux Klan, a question which was met with an uncomfortable silence, then a “no,” followed by which religious figures they actually were. There’s one in every group.
After the wood-carving workshop we had a look around a train station before jumping back on the bus again and were taken to a hacienda in Cayambe that is one of the largest cultivators and exporters of roses. ‘Hacienda’ is a term you’ll be seeing a lot in this post so I guess it is best to clarify the definition first:
The hacienda on this particular occasion was the Hacienda la Compania, the house of which was a giant mansion from the early 19th century. We were fed some great local food and taken on a tour of the facilities, mainly a giant greenhouse where the roses are grown, but, being the day before Valentine’s Day, they were extremely busy and we couldn’t help but feel like we were in the way. Still, a quick glimpse:
In the heart of Quito UNESCO World Heritage old quarter and with five centuries of history, Hotel Plaza Grande stands on the corner from the Presidential palace and is built on the lot that was originally granted to Francisco Pizarro, Governor of Peru. The original building, the first colonial house built in the newly founded city of Quito, suffered multiple renovations during its long history, being home to different wealthy families.
In the early XXth century it housed the first luxury hotel in the city. After a careful restoration it re opened its doors in 2007 offering 15 luxury suites with breathtaking views of the city’s historical quarter, a renowned restaurant, a spectacular terrace and a well-stocked cellar.
The Hotel Grande Plaza definitely didn’t disappoint and due to a combination of jet-lag and such a busy day, that extra comfort was definitely a welcome relief. We were in bed quite early, it was just a shame that we’d only be spending one night here:
It was another 7:00am start, however, getting up on time wasn’t an issue due to the joy that is jet-lag. Falling asleep the previous night wasn’t difficult for either of us, we were both exhausted, it was remaining asleep that was the problem. Anyway, we got up, had breakfast, took the bus to Quito’s Chimbacalle station, looking around the area a bit before boarding the train. We were welcomed aboard with a glass of champagne each and were briefed on what was going to happen over the course of the day, but the champagne wasn’t a particularly good option for all of us. Pat had decided not to drink so Anna had hers as well, a move she would later regret. Anna and myself had been in the Andes before when we did a trek through the mountains and then visited Machu Pichu in Peru in 2016 and Anna suffered quite badly from altitude sickness on that trip, something that didn’t really affect me for some reason. On that occasion we reached altitudes of almost 4,500 metres (14,700 feet) above sea level and although Quito isn’t quite that high, at an elevation of 2,850 metres (9,350 feet) above sea level it is still up there and is the second-highest capital city in the world, falling behind only La Paz in Bolivia. To put that in perspective, Denver, Colorado is known as “The Mile High City” and sporting teams playing there claim that the elevation impacts their performance, particularly resulting in breathing difficulties and lightheadedness. Denver is only 1,609 metres (5,280 feet) above sea level, or 56% of the altitude at which we were.
After about an hour on the train, Anna began to feel sick, Pat is borderline narcoleptic, and Roshini was still jet-lagged too so the three of them all just nodded off as we made our way through the Avenue of Volcanoes until it was time for our next stop. A few of the sights from that morning:
Our train was equipped with a fully stocked bar, but I doubt we would be making much use of that until we were out of the mountains. Instead, especially for Anna, it would be coca tea, which is supposed to help relieve the symptoms of altitude sickness. Getting out and walking helps a little too so she’d be fine soon.
Our next stop was an Andean hacienda and this one would be interesting for one particular reason — Pat never really grew up with pets so she has a bit of a phobia of animals. Essentially all animals, and this extremely rural hacienda was a giant farm so things could get quite entertaining very quickly. The hacienda was mainly used for raising llamas, but was also the home for Chagras, or Ecuadorian cowboys. These guys were pretty skilled and because it was Valentine’s Day, the first display they put on for us was to ride up and attempt to put a stick through rings which were suspended from a horizontal rope hanging overhead and then give them to the women in the group:
Roshini was one of the lucky ladies to be gifted a ring, but unfortunately she was also required to return it, a policy any recipient of those horrendous multi-cloured roses probably wishes was in place.
Next up was several of the chagras roping a calf, something that must be a lot more difficult than it looks!:
We watched some other activities such as bullfighting and were then taken on a tour of the hacienda and this was definitely no new property. The walls were all made of a combination of compressed mud and straw, yet they were actually quite structurally sound, even the now-retired blue-collar Canadians agreed, and had stood the test of time, still standing perfectly today. Anna and Roshini decided to hang out with the llamas for a bit and, although she had handled the presence of animals well, Pat declined the offer to join them:
Carnival is a Catholic holiday that has blended with Andean traditions to become a huge festival. The idea is to express as much craziness as possible before the reflective period of Lent, called Cuaresma in Ecuador. Most Andean communities celebrate Carnival in a small way, with neighborhood parties and lots of troublemaking.Most of the rabble-rousing is good fun and harmless. Be prepared for lots of espuma orcarioca, party foam that will fly at the least expected moments. A more affordable option is water and many people will arm themselves with water guns or toss buckets full of water from rooftops, open windows, and doorways at passersby. The worst is the colored flour. Brightly tinted bread flour is tossed into hair and onto clothing. If you are already wet with party foam or water, the flour becomes immediate sludge, almost impossible to remove.
Drinking is just a part of Carnival. In fact, many parade participants will start drinking before the parade even begins. During the parade, it is not uncommon to find chicha de jora, a fermented drink made from corn, shared along the route. One of the more famous towns to celebrate Carnaval is Guaranda, home to the infamous white liquor called Pajaro Azul, or Blue Bird. It should come as no surprise that this town is also known for the wildest celebrations.
We were also told it was a time when labourers would get drunk, dance, don masks and anonymously prank their bosses, which is what some of the employees aboard the train did. The music started, people in devil masks handed out shots of blue bird (which the girls obviously refused), and then the partying began. I had one of the women with a toy devil try to dance with me, but when she put her arm around me, one of the horns poked me where the sun doesn’t shine. Not particularly pleasant, but I don’t enjoy dancing in general, anyway:
When Baltazar Ushca started climbing Chimborazo volcano as a child with his father and younger brothers to learn the trade, almost no one knew the summit of the mighty volcano is the closest point to the sun from the center of the earth, and almost no one cared. They would get a very early morning start for a 4-hour climb to the skirts of glacier-covered Mount Chimborazo. After a day of pickaxe hard work, the ice- harvesters would take their six to eight packs per person load down to Riobamba markets. In those days Chimborazo ice was very sought after for food preservation, and also for the famous hand-made ice creams.
With the advent of ice factories and a refrigerator in every kitchen, the ice business became a too dangerous, underpaid job. One by one, the ice merchants left the mountain and found other jobs, until only Baltazar was left. Nowadays, he still climbs every Thursday and Friday with his faithful mules, to carve the ice from the flanks of Taita Chimborazo.
It seems like a prime example of not realising your job is now obsolete, kind of like if you were still the manager of a Blockbuster Video franchise, however, thanks to the documentary, he makes most of his income from tourism and only climbs twice a week now. Uscha speaks a regional dialect, so he told his story to his daughter, who then translated it into Spanish for Marcelo, our guide, who in turn told us in English. We then got to meet Uscha and try some of the handmade ice-cream and I don’t mean to be rude, but I’d be lying if I said he didn’t smell strongly of donkey shit. As for the ice-cream, it didn’t contain any dairy, just churned ice and fruit and it had a bit of a dirt flavour as well, however, he you have to respect a guy who still works that hard at that age in job that is now redundant. You could tell that his daughter was getting a bit tired of this routine though:
It is the main attraction of Colta, the first church built on Ecuadorian soil, so its beauty is historic. Built by the Spaniards, its style of construction is colonial, its stone façade is the only witness of its history, you can get a fantastic view of the snow-capped Chimborazo.
Apparently, and due to a plaque that stands out in Balbanera, it is believed that this temple is the oldest in the country. Although its date of creation is not known with certainty, it is presumed that it was inaugurated on August 15, 1534.
The Europeans chose this plain to build the first Catholic church of the Royal Audience of Quito, dedicated to the adoration of the Virgin Mary as a souvenir to the Abbey of the Virgin of Valvanera, in the province of Logroño of the Iberian Peninsula.
However, such construction was not the one that currently stands on the left side of the road to Riobamba, but a humble hut of adobe and stone covered with straw and torn down by the cruel earthquake of February 4, 1797, which destroyed much of Riobamba and other populations along the inter-Andean alley.
But that place was already considered “sacred”, so the villagers rebuilt the temple with beautiful architecture and delicate simplicity.
That’s right, the original church was destroyed by an earthquake over 200 years ago, but the locals decided to just put the pieces back together how they best fit in order to rebuild the church! Furthermore, according to our guides, this process has occurred more than once, hence the jumbled and non-linear look of the building’s architecture. As for the interior, it was fully equipped with the wooden sculptures we saw being crafted days earlier:
The canton of Guamote is the most traditional region in Ecuador. 95% of the population is Indigenous (while in the whole of Ecuador it is only 25%). Guamote itself has about 5,000 inhabitants, but in the mountains surrounding Guamote another 40,000 people live in small communities.
The greatest asset of Guamote is the weekly indigenous market, one of the biggest and most traditional markets in South America. Every Thursday the people from the communities come to Guamote to sell their fruit, sheep, pigs, guinea pigs, cows, hats, clothing,…
Far away from all tourist traps, this is a market by and for indigenous people, one of the most authentic things you can see in Ecuador, and more than that, something you can really experience. This market is an adventure for all your senses, a chaos of smells, colors, sounds and impressions; and smiling and kind faces everywhere. This is the strength of Guamote: its people. The sincerity and friendliness of the people here is impressive. Despite of the big poverty that still exists here, people are very grateful and optimistic.
Some people working at the market tend to get a bit offended if you take photos and don’t buy anything, but I managed to get some of those that didn’t seem to mind, as well as the parade:
History confirms the Devil’s Nose deserves its name. Work started in 1899, with about 3,000 Jamaicans and 1,000 Puerto Ricans brought in to work on the project. The number of men that died during construction is estimated at around 2,000 making this work pretty much a deathwish.
The goal was to connect the railroad from Quito to Guayaquil and the greatest obstacle to building the railroad was a near-vertical wall of rock, known as El Nariz del Diablo (The Devil’s Nose), which connects Alausi to Sibambe (mid-way between Quito and Cuenca). The engineering solution was to carve a series of tight switchbacks out of the rock, which allowed the train to descend 500 meters by zigzagging ahead past a junction, then backing down the next section, before going forward again to get trains down the rock face.
When it says the train descends 500 metres (1,640 feet), it doesn’t mention that it does so over a distance of just 12 km (7.5 miles). Add in the fact that The Devil’s Nose is one of, if not the most difficult train journeys and ranks in the Top 10 Most Dangerous Train Routes in the World and we could be in for a fun afternoon. We arrived at Alausi train station and took a seat in the vintage boxcars and made the stressful descent deep into the Chanchan River Gorge and back up again, taking in the cloudy, yet breathtaking scenery along the way:
On a side not, one interesting occurrence is that over the course of our tour, people all through Ecuador, both adults and children, got really excited when they saw the train go through their town or by their home and felt the need to wave enthusiastically, getting even more excited when you wave back:
But enough of this epic rant about our train tour, on to stage two of our holiday, the Galápagos Islands!