Passage Note #54: Central Ecuador
In addition to Quito and northern Ecuador, we traversed the Central Highlands and then the Amazonian jungles of the Oriente as part of this journey. For most of the trip we were accompanied by Chuck’s sister Maureen and brother-in-law Buzz from s/v Encore (now on a mooring in back of us in Bahia, Ecuador) and our mutual friend Vicki, an ex-cruiser, now living in Arizona.
There is a prescribed cast of cultural characters who parade through the costumed dancers, musicians, marching bands and revelers (appearing as indigenous people, African slaves, colonial-era Spanish women, white bird-men, transvestites, and more): the Flagbearer, Angel of the Star, Ambassador, Captain of the Guard, Moorish king, and the leading lady-man, Mama Negra himself.
But the real stars in our minds were the “ashangueros” who hoist over one hundred pound “ashangas” on their backs - altars made of whole roasted pigs splayed wide open, impaled upright with snouts to the sky, flanked by dozens of chicken and guinea pig carcasses, and decorated with dangling bottles of liquor, cartons of cigarettes, bread, flags, and images of the Virgin. Ashangueros-in-training, little boys emulating their dads, danced around carrying weightless backpacks filled with foam rubber pigs and chickens hung with small cartons of fruit juice. Priceless!
Latacunga, sitting under the domineering presence of the mighty (still active) Cotopaxi Volcano, is a small town in the Central Highlands of Ecuador famous for its outrageous Mama Negra Festival. The timing was just right for us to travel from Quito for 2 hours by bus to be there on Sept. 23 and 24th for both days of the unforgettable party!
In a crazy combination of Catholic, pre-columbian, and civic rituals, this grand street theater honors the Virgin of Mercy, gives thanks for the survival of the contemporary city from volcanic destruction (unlike the years 1742, 1768, and 1877), and pays tribute to indigenous culture and the 19th century liberation of African slaves (brought to work the mines) with the not-quite PC (politically correct) Mama Negra, played by a man dressed as a black woman.
In the mountainous landscape of the Quilatoa Loop, popular with hikers, the colorful jewel-like volcanic-crater lake is the highlight. Luckily we had perfect weather conditions and the water of Laguna Quilatoa dazzled an incredible turquoise green in the bright sunshine and near-cloudless sky. Looking down 400 meters from the sharp rim, locals and legends say the lake has no bottom although scientists have set the depth at 250 meters. At an elevation of 3914 meters, the setting is breathtaking with the snow capped peaks of Illiniza Sur and Cotopaxi forming a scenic backdrop. Our guide, who incidentally became our lunch chef commandeering a local restaurant, took us along the southern route of the Loop to also visit indigenous villages, an artist community, and the home of a rural farmer of the high-altitude Andean grasslands.
Tigua art is a well-known style of Ecuadorian painting on stretched leather which evolved from decorations originally applied to drum skins; we stopped in the village of Tigua to wander the community gallery/studio and watch two members of the famous Toaquiza family at work, painting bright scenes of Andean life and legends.
Afterwards, in the midst of bleak and windswept páramo (high elevation Andean grasslands), we stood at the door of a lonely grass hut. It looked like one of the “Three Little Pigs” fairy-tale homes - the straw one that the wolf could have huffed and puffed and blown down. We were greeted by Juan, dressed in a traditional red wool poncho and felt hat, who invited us inside with a wide smile. The dark interior contained a simple wooden bed for he and his wife (his children grown and gone) with a corner for a cooking fire and pots and pans. The dirt floor was covered with sheaves of long green grass through which 50 squealing guinea pigs ran underfoot - big ones, baby ones, and pregnant females. No cuddly pets these - they were a source of food, for selling at the market, and for use in healing ceremonies just as his ancestors had done for centuries. He explained that farming plots were communal and he worked the land harvesting potatoes and beans with his distant neighbors. It was an ancient way of life; a small metal antennae and radio were the only concessions to the 21st century.
The second market we went to, the small animal market, was held in a plaza in town where guinea pigs, rabbits, and all kinds of birds and fowl were sold. We also stopped at a food and vegetable market but didn’t get to the craft market. We were glad we hired a taxi driver from Latacunga who knew his way around to transport us and transfer us from market area to market area since geographically it would have been onerous to walk it all.
It is popular with outdoor adventurers for backpacking, horseback riding, and river running. One of the most famous activities is the dramatic 61 km. mountain bike descent to Puyo. We did the first 18 km of this Banos-Puyo road by tourist bus. Known as the La Ruta de las Cascadas (Highway of the Waterfalls), we followed the Rio Pastaza canyon stopping at several gorgeous waterfalls along the way, terminating at the spectacular Pailon del Diablo on the Rio Verde. The trip included a tarabita - cable car wire basket on steel cables - ride across the Rio Patate, a special entry into a private wild orchid nursery which our guide slipped in for the 5 of us as an extra treat, a view of the agoyan hydrelectric plant, a walk to the Manto de La Novia waterfalls across a wooden swing bridge, and a chance at puenting (no thank you). Puenting which literally means “bridging” is jumping and swinging from a rope tied to two bridges - picture bungee jumping without the bungy.
One of the best known and truly authentic indigenous markets in Ecuador takes place every Thursday in the small town of Saquisili not far from Latacunga off the Panamerican Highway. Actually encompassing 8 separate market areas, each with its own specialty, the large and riotous animal market is the main attraction. We walked around eyeing the llamas, cows and calves, horses and pigs - and watched as indigenous shoppers inspected the animals, peered into large sacks of squirming piglets, bargained the prices, and handed over dollar bills to sellers in satisfactory exchanges. Llamas and cows were led away and loudly squealing pigs were dragged off to waiting pickup trucks and cars and pushed inside. The scene was noisy and chaotic with good people-watching, giving you a real sense of Andean life in the central highlands.
Tiny Baños, a delightful subtropical town three hours south of Quito between the Andes and the Amazon, is dedicated to the Virgin of the Holy Water which is manifest by a waterfall and hot spring thermal baths (and spas). It is dwarfed by towering mountains below the nearby active Tungurahua Volcano (10th highest peak) and is approached through a beautiful valley setting. Volcanic eruptions in 1999, 2006, 2011 forced evacuations to newer government sponsored settlements in the area.
Back in town, we saw some excellent Ecuadorian art at the Galleria de Arte Huillacuna, especially pieces by a local wood sculptor. Banos is known for its sugarcane stalls (selling chewable bits and juice) and melcocha (chewy taffy) purveyors. The gooey taffy is softened and blended by swinging it onto wooden pegs in the shop doorways.
The Devil’s Nose Train Ride (La Nariz del Diablo)
We LOVE trains!!! And especially classic train rides!! So riding the famous engineering marvel known as The Devil’s Nose (La Nariz del Diablo) was an absolute must for us! It is a short segment that is an “unparalleled switchback descent down a sheer rock face”. AND we were looking forward to the adrenaline additive of sitting on TOP of the train car to heighten the excitement......except that, disappointingly, riding on the roof is now prohibited because of the deaths of 2 Japanese tourists in 2007.
From Baños we went to Ecuador’s third largest town of Riobamba, the closest city to Chimborazo, the highest peak in Ecuador (20,500 feet). It has a beautiful setting, surrounded by mountains. Although Riobamba is visited mainly as the starting point for the landmark Devil’s Nose Train Ride, we actually found that it had its own pleasant charm to recommend it. We took a two+ hour bus trip to Alausi where the train ride began.
Originally known to locals as Condor Puñuna (Nest of the condors) and Pitishi’s Nose, the Devil’s Nose was once shaped like a cone and was 984 feet high with nearly perpendicular sides. It divides the narrow canyon of the Chanchan River in two deep ravines.
Here’s how it works according to builder/engineer John Harman: “The railroad will rise with a grade of 3.5% along a narrow cornice cut by blasting the wall of the perpendicular rock of the Nose and will extend beyond the bifurcation of the railway. When the train goes beyond the bifurcation, a switchman will jump from the locomotive and raise the lever to change the track; then, the train will continue on its way up to the next narrow cornice, in REVERSE, until the next switchback. Then the switchman will change the tracks again, and the train will continue on its way through the cornice until crossing the Devil’s Nose.” Completed in 1908, hundreds of workers brought in from the English colonies of the Caribbean (Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Barbados) died from the precarious working conditions (topography and use of explosives).
The Ecuadorian government has been extending the track gradually and has plans to restore the line in the future.
And now, off to the Amazon!!
In its turn of the century heyday, the Trans-Andean Railway ran from Quito to Guayaquil and was the “economic lifeline between the coast and highlands.” This original line became defunct by 2000 due to highway construction and avalanche damage so today’s La Nariz del Diablo track is just a remnant. The 12.5 km. ride connects the village of Alausi to Sibambe, through the Nose in a zigzag course, starting at 2350 m. and descending down along a river to 1800 m. The short excursion (maybe two and a half hours roundtrip if the train does not derail as is common) stops for an hour for lunch at the station in Sibambe where there is a touristy indigenous dance performance and a very nice small museum, before returning to Alausi.
MORE PHOTOS: In the "Photo Gallery" for Passage Note #54