Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Quito at last ...

It took another long bus ride, but we finally made it into Quito, the final destination on this leg of our journey. Arriving at the bus station, we were very surprised to find that it was extremely new and extremely far from town, both the heritage old town and the new town where we were staying. Taxi it was and at a pretty hefty price for Ecuador.

Although we only had a couple of days here, we did have a couple of things that we really wanted to see and do: the teleférico and the Center of the Earth. As well, we wanted to discover the "life of the party" part of town. There were supposed to be lots of good restaurants in the area as well.

The TelefériQo, a gondola-type lift that takes one up to the side of Pinchincha Volcano overlooking Quito, is one of the highest of it's kind in the world. Starting at 10,226 feet, it takes you to up to 12,945 feet (you can imagine our trying to walk up this) sumitting at Cruz Loma, which is definitely still not the top. From the end of the lift, you then hike up to the peak of the mountain which stands at 15,413/15.696 feet, depending on which peak.
The Guagua peak is an active volcano last erupting in 1999 (on the Western slope, while Quito is below the Eastern slope). This volcano is part of the Volcano Avenue, a line of 14 very high peaks/volcanoes along the spine of Ecuador, many of which can be seen far off in the distance on a clear day.

The day we went up was cloudy, very windy and misting. From the gondola, the view of the city was a little misty but for the most part clearly visible. At the top, walking was slow going in order to not become breathless but the views fantastic. Touted as a full tourist attraction, we were a little disappointed to find most of the stores and kiosks closed and the restaurant not really a restaurant but rather a vending machine type cafeteria.

As we had brought a taxi up to the gondola and no taxis stayed waiting, when we got to the bottom, we had two options available to us: Wait in line for a taxi to bring some one up or walk down and try and find public transportation. Opting for the walk down, we eventually got to a bus stop sign. Enquiring of a guard, yes in deed the buses came up but who knows where exactly they went. Luckily for us, a taxi came up and discharged his clients and we were able to flag him down.

The next day being the day before our departure, we took public transportation,
costing a whole 12 cents each, out to the Middle of the World. A true Disneyland, a la Ecuador style. No rides, lots of restaurants and even more tourist shops offering the usual objects. The center of our reason for being there was the obelisk marking the true "middle", latitude 0'0'0".  The point was calculated and found by the Frenchman Charles Marie de la Condamine in 1735. Here we straddled the equator,  one foot in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern; saw a unique sundial showing the seasons as well as the time; and took the pre-requisite photos. And yet, one discovers that the true "middle" is actually a short distance to the north, running through someone's private establishment. 

In the main building at the bottom or start, which ever way that you look at it, there was an art display showing active production of the hummingbird statues that we had seen in other communities.

 We enquired and found out that it was not a competition but rather a public beautification service, with time and effort donated by various local artists. The artist that we received this information from is actually scheduled to have showing in Austin in the early months of 2017. The ideas being presented were all a matter of interpretation and, as usual, some attracted and some had no call at all to me. All in all only a short visit was necessary to "see and do it all".

In between our site-seeing we also explored Quito, starting out with our usual double decker bus tour.
 On this we saw from afar,  to close-up;

 the colorful;  the fanciful; 

 and the interpretive.
 In exploring the cathedral,
we were able to go up into the bowels of the roof buttresses, something never done before.
 Imagine walking across a catwalk above the ceiling of the cathedral. 
 Designed somewhat along the lines of Notre Dame, but finished just in time for the Pope's visit in 1985 over 100 years later, it was dizzying experience. 

Exploring the restaurant area we came across a true Mexican restaurant, TexMex that is.
Taking a chance, we ended up with a very tasty meal and pleasant conversation with a lady traveling solo.

The next day we headed to Spain, the next leg of our journey for the fall of 2013 ...

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

on towards Quito ...

In Riobamba we looked at the map trying to decide the best way to see more of the country by bus on the way north. Next stop - Baños.

The bus trip, however, took on a life of it's own. The map gave us what looked like a fairly easy ride up  the mountains, through Sangay National Park (in the clouds, it was that high), and then down into Guaranda where we would change buses for Baños. Simple, yes? NOT!

Yes the ride was beautiful, up into the park and through the clouds. It rained all the way which we don't mind as long as we remain on the bus. We drove through many small pueblos hanging on the side of the mountains and then saw herd after herd of llamas up in the far reaches of the park. They were actually grazing on a landscape that looked very much like a moonscape. Then down a bit and once again up before heading down into Guaranda. A fabulous bus ride.

Once in Guaranda is where the fun begins. We can't find a bus that goes to Baños, in fact we can't find a bus that goes even to Ambato where we could transfer again. We couldn't find a ticket agent kiosk even open that sold tickets to these places. We asked. We asked again. We talked with a young man also looking for the same. We followed him out to where another person said the bus would come. We waited there with at least another 30 people. The buses came, stopped, left: None were going our way. We went back into the station where by hook and by crook Danny found a bus going to Ambato in the back of the station and the little guy hurried us along to the bus. We even got seats! Wow! We were off. We went as far as around the corner from where we had been waiting on the street and stopped. People started to pile on, with tickets in their hands. Coming to their seat, they demanded it - others were sitting in it. The bus driver came through and asked the person seated to leave. Oh oh, we don't have a ticket and this bus is filling fast! Every time the driver came down, we waited, expecting at any moment to be ejected. Oddly enough, it never happened. After about an hour, we were finally on our way and we still had our seats. Did the driver think that as gringos we couldn't speak Spanish and he didn't want to deal with that? We will never know, but we had a seat.

We are far later than we had anticipated and the drive to Ambato was one of mountain roads, peaks and valleys. It would have been wonderful, if we could have seen it. Raining and after sunset. Arriving in Ambato, we looked for a bus. What, no buses here as well? They are at the other station in town, on the other side of town. How far to Baños? Taxi it is!

We finally arrive in a small resort town in the rain, but still it looks great, nestled in between the mountains (which we had to come down to). Our hostal is wonderful and the view the next morning is something to behold even if it is overcast.
 from our balcony. We went to sleep last evening to the sounds of the rushing river..

Baños is a resort town as well as the town of many waterfalls. It is a gringo haven according to the tour books as well as being located at the base of an active volcano that spews smoke every so often. This is shown in their patroness within the sanctuary of the monastery, only the volcano is erupting.

The sun shone brightly and it was decided to do the waterfall tour: a little walking, a little viewing and lots of taxi-ing. LOL What better way to cover a lot of miles in not so long a time? Wanted to see the volcano as well but apparently that is an all-day trip. So off we went, sharing the the road, all downhill, with bikes and traffic.  From the road you could see why this is called the Waterfall Trail. Every so often there were waterfalls
Each had it's own character

 Cyclists abounded, all riding the trail

 Here with the volcanic last eruption(only a few years back) one became two while burying a small resort at the base of the falls. Now you ride a gondola over the falls for a more spectacular view or else you can literally hike down into the canyon and get up close and personal.

The mightiest of them all that is available for public viewing starts here:

 As it rushed downward it flows over prepuces made of volcanic rock, forming grottos at the bottom that are very deep. Oddly enough this must have been a volcanic channel at some point as the volcanic rock is on both side of the river but a few feet away, it is fertile soil. As we descended downward we had to cross a swinging bridge. The wind was pretty strong and the cables swayed a little. Still the views were majestic. 

 A recent addition to this walk was the walled viewing areas at points downward, allowing for a refreshing spray to cover you in the heat of the day. The sound was thunderous and the amount of waater unbelievable. Almost felt like I was at Niagara Falls.

 Here you can get a perspective of the depth of the canyon, with the waterfall to the let and walkways and viewing areas at different point.

A tiring but exhilarating climb out of the canyon led us back to the car and back to Baños. Looking out the window of the taxi on our way back to the hostal, we discovered a lovely waterfall right in our back yard, so to speak. 

An afternoon lunch, a relaxing walk along the main streets and then back to the hostel to end yet another perfect day. Tomorrow, Quito ...

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Ecuador Train Riding 2 ....

Riobamba, the third largest city in Ecuador and the gateway to Chimborazo, Ecuador's highest mountain (at 20,5000 ft) was our next stop. When looking through the tourist books all one finds is reference to the Nariz del Diablo train ride, not the one going up to Urbino, the highest point of the Ecuador train system, at 11,841 feet, which is the train that we are taking next. Urbina train station is the meeting points of trains coming both from the south and from the north, starting in Ambato. When we went in to buy our tickets, I tried to buy a ticket for both trains, connecting in Urbina. Seemed pretty straight forward to me, as I was buying full fare tickets for both. NOT! So instead, we ended up first taking the Sendero de los Ancestros one day and the next day taking the Tren del Hielo. Ambato will have to wait. The ticket agent also tried to sell us the 4 day tourist ride, which we had wanted to take. Unfortunately she couldn't get us a ticket until Dec 8th, just as I had found earlier online. Next time.

The train system in Ecuador is newly renovated and not all parts are up and running efficiently. The President is trying to resurrect the line from Guayaquil to Quito as it ran in the early part of the 20th century as a hot tourist commodity. The complete distance has been refurbished and now a purely touristy, upper end train runs the complete route in 4 days of travel. For independent travel at a more reasonable price, only parts of the route have been opened. These routes are all small 4 hour or less routes and very reasonably priced. They run through the most beautiful parts or most interesting pats of the train line although I would have to interject that each area, as elsewhere in the world, has it's own unique beauty. These short routes are very popular with locals for a weekend outing. Ticketing availability however, competes with the big tour companies out of Quito and Cuenca, and I am sure Quayaquil who will, at times, book the whole train.

The station was also a modern station, a block building with lots of glass. A few items in the courtyard were of interest however: Danny was intrigued with this.
 This was impressive and brilliant-color painted

El Tren Sendero de los Ancestros:
 Another refurbished train, along the lines of the Goose. Danny, being Danny found out all the stats of it but I do not remember them. As you can see, the front looks very much like a long haul truck, which indeed it is, somewhat.  even has a cow catcher


  As I scurried around taking photos of the train and Danny doing his thing, I was also the focus of some ...
so I reciprocated and we had a good laugh about it. A great ice breaker and way to pass the waiting time.

All aboard ...

This train ride took us back south, in fact we had seen it the day before in the southern station on our way into Riobamba. The terminus, at Cajabamba, while watching a presentation of local culture, allowed us to experience a New Age return to the basics of the ancient Kichwa culture and their beliefs as well as visiting the oldest church found in Ecuador. 
Lunch was served before we started our tour... My lunch versus Danny's lunch ... 

Local color and cultural presentation ... 

New Age retreat labeled a Kechwa University that is resurrecting the ancient ways and beliefs. There is a lot to be said to living in harmony with nature and knowing the ancient medicine. The trick is to find that equal balance between the old and the new. 
 sweat lodge and birthing center (as indicated on the relief)

Iglesia de Balbanera is the first stone church built in Ecuador by the Spanish in 1524. When contrasted with the normal Spanish built churches, this one has rough stone walls, simple adornments and a crude bell tower.  

a mix of the Spanish religious motifs and the ancient indigenous motifs adorn the outer walls.

The end of our touring found a wonderful example of "intercambio". Here a woman from German was wearing a great little travel sweater and the indigenous knitters were looking it over very closely. One of the women asked if she could have the sweater but the tourist refused. I see a future with this style of sweater hitting the local market, made out of alpaca  LOL.

Tren del Hielo:
The next day we found our way to an early morning departure on the the Tren del Hielo. From Riobamba we headed on a long haul uphill to Urbina, hoping that the overcast skies would clear to give us a view of the snow-capped Chimborazo Mountain. 
As with most high mountains, this one also was making it's own weather and the top half of the mountain was enshrouded in clouds. A bit of trivia, the top of this mountain is the closest point to the sun, even closer than Mt. Everest. This occurs because of the bulging of the earth at the equator.
(We got a 5 minute glimpse of the top, just enough to try for a photo)

The upward triptook us through mainly agriculture lands, with each separate region specific to the altitude. They produce a lot of the root vegetables in this area.  

I am sure that this is the only train route in the world that still uses human road crossing flagmen. These guys ride their motorbikes and follow the train, 
 stopping at each crossing and stopping the vehicular traffic allowing for the train to go through without stopping. 

Urbina, the highest point on the Ecuador rail system and the oldest train station as well, our terminus for this trip. 

Here we happened upon the owner o the home across the tracks. He used to have possession of the train station but Ecuador reclaimed it and renovated it. Now he has a tourist shop, home and orchid forest across the way. His home doubles as a training center, retreat and jump off point for climbers of Chimborazo.
Isn't this the cutest looking (dejected looking) burro you have ever seen? His coat is so soft and silky and I guess, very warm for him. 

What do you get when you cross an alpaca  (S. American's sheep - face of a sheep) 
with a llama (S. American's camel )

 doesn't his face look like a camel?
Why, you get a huarizo, with wonderful wool and a very gentle disposition... 

I always thought that orchids were a tropical-type plant, which also means a low altitude plant. Wrong, Shirley - they even grow above the tree line. These are the smallest orchids to be found according the our friend across the tracks in his garden. 

In the train station we were introduced to the last of a dying breed - the ice merchant. Baltazar Ushca, 68 years of age, climbs Mt. Chimborazo to harvest ice from the fast disappearing glacier, and has done so for the past 53 years. Here he is with a piece of this ice, along with his daughter ... 

His brother offers ice cream made from the ice 

and Danny loves to eat it ... LOL

Waiting for our train back, in comes the one that I also wanted to take. It is the last "Goose" that allowed people to ride on the top of the roof. (It is no longer permitted due to an unfortunate occurrence a few years ago)

And shopping was a must ... 

All good things must come to an end, and so does our last train ride in ecuador. We leave with a few more rides still to go, all for a next trip...