Ecuador - Quito, Cuenca, Alausi
Well, here I sit in Quito, Ecuador just a few km from the equator but also at an elevation in excess of 8,000 feet so we are freezing. Oh yes, it is pouring rain.
It was a long night getting here – Mexico City to Lima, Peru with a 6 hour layover in the airport then on to Quito for an 8 am arrival. The airport pickup was there to fetch us – thank goodness for systems that work.
We are staying at the Travellers Inn Hostel in the Marsical district. This is described in Lonely Planet as the “gringo ghetto” which led me to believe it would be like Khao San Road in Bangkok. Not true. Yes, it is an entertainment district of boom boom bars and there are plenty of youngsters trolling the streets but they are locals much more so than backpackers, things are very run down and sinister looking. There are no vendors making a nuisance of themselves selling wooden frogs that ribbit, no children underfoot, no scammers selling university degrees from Ivy League colleges. Just a sense of being watched, of being sized up for opportunity.
Our hostel, for example, is behind a big locked gate – you have to be buzzed in and they insist that we must NOT go out after dark unless we take a cab, even a block or two.
The next morning we found Sangay Travel just a few blocks away and booked a last minute Galapagos cruise leaving in 3 days. It’s on the Samba, a tourist-price boat with a maximum of 14 passengers. We are especially keen on this boat because the itinerary includes the seldom seen northern islands of Genovesa and Marchena. In fact, we are the first tourist boat to visit these islands in recent years, if ever.
Jan 29-31 Quito
We like the Travellers Inn, the people are friendly and helpful and the breakfasts are amazing – eggs, croissant and jam, fruit plate, yogurt, juice and coffee. There is a great living room, free WIFI, a book exchange and laundry service. But we don’t like the location, the rooms are cold, the bed is VERY hard and the toilets do not flush very well, never mind the shower that only dribbles.
So we take ourselves off to the Hotel San Francisco de Quito in the historical old town. Here the bed is soft and the toilet flushes. The water in the shower is hot and the WIFI is also free. We are in the safest section of town.
So today, as we were coming to the end of old town, a fellow suddenly walked past me fast, turned at the last moment and reached up to my neck to grab for my gold chain – it is just a very thin, inexpensive little chain. He scratched my neck as he grabbed it and it broke but he startled me so I screeched rammed my walking stick into his gut. Steve was just behind me and saw what was happening and started yelling and hitting the guy with his stick too. He took off like a bat out of hell. Guess we taught him to mess with oldies with walking sticks. He did not get my chain, which was not the point. It was just an instinctive reaction on my part.
So we have put away our wedding rings and have taken the rings out of my ears, all six of them. They are not expensive either but I cannot bear the idea of someone grabbing and ripping them out of my ears.
Next day we head up to the Teleferiqo. This is a gondola ride that takes you high over Quito to the 12,000 foot level. One tip for anyone going – use the express lane. This lane has no one in it because the fare is $8.50 each. That is the regular rate for foreigners. Locals pay less than $5 so they stand in a VERY long line-up. But for us foreigners? Same price for a short line or a long line. Watch your change here though as several tourists have reported getting change for a $10 bill instead of the $20 they gave. It is too late once you walk away.
There is not too much to do up there. A tea shop and a hot dog/ hamburger vendor of the fast food cheesy variety. You can actually hike much higher; there is a well-marked trail – at least as far as the eye could see. We were not tempted as the 12,000 foot elevation at the top of the Teleferiqo is already enough to exhaust us.
While relaxing and looking over the city we met an interesting German woman. Oddly enough, until she checked out this morning, she was staying at the same room in the same hostel as we are now in. So we spent the rest of the day together. Enjoyed a nice dinner on the Plaza Francisco.
The new hostel is a little warmer – I still need to buy a shawl or something though.
On the Monday we basically spent the whole day taking care of business. We got our laundry done - $2.50 per kilo. A small pile was $5; the usual price is $1 per kilo so they are obviously hosing us in the hotel here.. At the travel agency downstairs we investigated trips into the jungle. We are thinking about this for the very end of our time in Ecuador.
The districts in Quito that most tourists see are divided into the New Town sandwiched between Old Town (Historic District) and Marsical Sucre. New Town is like the newer parts of any big city - high rise office towers, lots of glass and steel. This is where you find officialdom and some tourist agencies. There is not much reason to go there.
Marsical I have described already - interesting for a wander. Most of the agencies selling tours (to places like the Galapagos and into the jungle) seem to be housed in Marsical.
The Historic District is full of beautiful colonial architecture and they work hard at maintaining that. We saw a lot of painters up on scaffolding retouching the colourful paintwork and ornate plaster facades. When you tuck inside buildings you discover interior courtyards with second-level balustrades overlooking the lush gardens below: colourful semi-tropical greenery, decorative fountains and ornamental plaster work. Many of the museums, art galleries, shops and restaurants are located in Old Town as is the Palacio del Gobierno (parliament buildings).
The Palacio is located to one side of the Plaza Grande, one of the most interesting places in Old Town to hang out. It is the location for political protests and this Latin Americans do with great enthusiasm! We witnessed several. Ecuador is a democratic country so people passionately make their case for another way to do things. A few months before our arrival some protestors actually managed to trap the president in the hospital for a few days while they took over the Palacio. We also saw several convoys of heavily armoured black SUVs spinning in and out of the Palacio so it's always interesting to speculate on who's inside.
Like all central plazas in Latin America, Plaza Grande is also bordered by a magnificent church with many shops and cafes filling in the other sides. This is where life's daily dramas are lived out so it is as simple as pulling up a bench and people watching the day away.
One of the most interesting little scenarios was a group of young men competing to see who was the best at manipulating a soccer ball: from their heads to their feet to their back, standing up and lying down. Very entertaining. The plaza police chased them away, which was a real shame.
But there were many other scenarios to engage our attention: couples cuddling or breaking up, drug deals going down (we suspected), buskers and vendors selling wonderful things, children playing and always, the shoe shiners. In a day and age when tourists tend towards synthetic athletic shoes it was interesting to see that Latin Americans seem to see it as their national duty to wear leather and get that leather regularly attended to. Thus, we find line-ups of shoe shine stands in every plaza. Those a little further down the economic ladder carry little wooden kits around, approaching those of us on the benches. This activity seems a tad furtive though, so I suspect the offical shoe shiners with their shade-covered stands play a license fee for the privilege.
The day also included a visit to Alejandro at Sangay Travel where we spent hours and hours sorting out our Galapagos tickets. Not that anything was wrong. It is just that everything seems to take soooooo long here. He books the tickets but cannot print them. He has to email our booking to a colleague who has the connection to the computer. But the colleague is talking with other clients so we have to wait for them to finish their business. And so it goes for each step of the process – booking the Samba, booking air tickets to Guayaquil and then Baltras on the Galapagos Islands. Then we book the return. Then we book a flight from Guayaquil, a town with little reason to linger in, to Cuenca where we’ll spend a few days. Nothing can be done together, each booking must be completed from phone call to the airlines to the printing of the ticket, separately.
Finally everything gets confirmed and printed off – on recycled paper with an ink cartridge that makes it virtually impossible to read. Fortunately, the paper trail is a formality; the real bookings are made via our passport numbers.
Walking down the street I spot the perfect fine wool cape hanging in a shop and go in to try it on. Three women passing by stop to advise me, in Spanish. They think the colour is all wrong. Another two women join them and start pulling out other versions of the cape – green, turquoise, yellow. We finally make a group decision – fuchsia. I love it.
We’ve found the perfect place for coffee just three blocks from our hotel. Well, the coffee is less than wonderful but the pastries are amazing. The biggest juiciest apple strudels you would ever find in Europe – but for Quito prices - $1 each. The proprietor is Ecuadorean but speaks excellent English so we have some great talks about families and cakes and special events. She invites me to return for more conversation and all the strudel I can eat.
So Quito has been a little rough. The pollution is horrible and the weather is cold. The attempted robbery was perturbing. In conversation with other travellers in the hostels here it seems that my experience is not at all unique. Virtually everyone has been robbed either overtly or had their pack sliced open on the bus and items removed. The robbers don’t even try to go in through zippers – they just take a sharp knife to the sides and the wearer does not even know it till later.
But the positive human interactions always seem to balance out the nasty.
On Tuesday morning very early – about 5 am, we left for the airport
Feb 8 Cuenca
Returning from the Galapagos we arrive in Guayaquil and board our flight to Cuenca, a colonial city to the south east. These flights are quite cheap - $46 to cover what would be an all-day bus ride. It has been a day of delayed flights so I am not surprised when we are asked to disembark. On internal flights there are no English translations from the cockpit but a lady in front of us with some English explains that there is a “hole in the runway.” But we think we have misunderstood because we see other planes taking off. After only 30 minutes we are re-boarded and off to Cuenca.
The hostel here, the Posada del Angel is very nice. From the street the building has many windows with tiny balconies opening onto the street. Inside there is a large reception area/courtyard with couches, chairs, low tables, lots of plants. The second level, where our room is, overlooks this interior courtyard with a big railed walkway around the whole. Our room has a great window with balcony overlooking the street. It will be noisy but it is nice to have a window that opens and the manager says that on the second level here, it is quite safe to leave it open.
Breakfast is included and there is an attractive Italian restaurant below which is very reasonable. A deliciously prepared serving of cheese ravioli was only $6.50 and a glass of house wine (surprisingly good) is gratis with a meal.
Woke up feeling awful. We both have sore throats and feel a cold coming on. We are weak and running to the toilet. We are not usually sick so we are wondering if it is the pollution here on the mainland and the air conditioning on the boat. Who knows but we hope it goes away.
Our itinerary has
intersected again with that of our German friend, so hale and hearty,
she shows up at 10. She takes one look at a very green me and delays our
plans for the city tour till this afternoon.
On walking into the downtown core and searching out the city tour we discovered that siesta ranges from 12 to 3. So at 3 the big double-decker red bus re-emerges from wherever it siesta-d and we have a grand time riding around the city to see the colonial architecture. I love riding up on the top of these buses, feel like a queen. And it is fun to see how much enjoyment local tourists (by that I mean Ecuadoreans) take in these excursions. Because it is mostly Ecuadoreans. With the exception of Banos, later in the trip, we don’t see many gringos in Ecuador.
There are lots of street entertainers here in Cuenca. They jump in front of the cars at a stop light and do their juggling or clown acts, then solicit donations. One fellow sets up this "stand" then drapes clothing over it so he looks like he is sitting on thin air. Over several days we saw him set up all over the city. The locals were as fascinated as we were.
Over the two days we are here we really enjoyed walking around the city, exploring its nooks and crannies. There are some excellent crafts here, especially woven goods - but everything I buy has to be carried so that keeps my money in my pocket.
Valentine’s Day is coming up next week and I am surprised at the heavy marketing here. There is one stall after another pushing heart-themed plush toys and assorted other junk. On the bus a fellow gets on selling a Valentine’s pack for $1 – several cards, a CD and some stickers.
I am also surprised by how many Indians there are in traditional dress. The women especially stand out in their full-felt embroidered skirts and aprons, shawls and the Panama hats perching over long black braids that hang down their back to their bums. And ah yes, Cuenca is famous for its Panama hats. Fortunately we are not great hat wearers so that is no temptation.
We are finally able to chase down tickets to the famous Ecuadorean train – the Ferrocarril Transandino (Trans-Andean Railway) which has now resumed service from Alausi to Sibambe Station return. At one time it ran from Quito to Guayaquil and you can still see the tracks. But it fell into disrepair. Renovating and reviving the service from Alausi down through a spectacularly scenic section called the Devil’s Nose will capture the tourist trade. So we are off in the morning for Alausi.
Woke up this morning to a throat so sore I could not swallow and my left eye was glued shut. Not a great start but I jumped in the shower and basically pulled it together because we have tickets on the train tomorrow and we need to get moving. Our concession to my crappy cold is to take a taxi to the bus station - $2.
This will be our first bus trip in this country so it takes a bit of observing to figure it out. There are different bus companies, some going the same place. You need to have a look at their actual buses before deciding to buy their ticket because some of the buses look horrible and others are very nice.
So we buy our tickets and sit in the pre-boarding area – Cuenca has a NICE bus station. In other towns chaos reins supreme and pre-boarding involves five or six touts trying to grab your bag and get you onto THEIR bus. They are not trying to steal your bag – they just want to get you committed to THEIR bus where I presume they make a commission for delivering passengers.
But in Cuenca there is a pre-boarding area so we sit down and observe. There is a turn style system for moving from the pre-boarding to the boarding. On one side of the turn style is a ramp where you put the big bags that won’t go through the turn style with you. On the other side is a fellow giving change. It costs 10 cents to go through the turn style. Why? I have no idea. But a bus ticket is not enough. You must pay your 10 cents. Steve has a tendency to get a bit incensed about this kind of thing but this morning he shrugs his shoulders and digs down for some 10 cent pieces.
Which is another tip I must pass along – hoard the small change. It usually costs 10 cents to use a public toilet. And no, they never have change for a dollar.
We have assigned seat numbers on our ticket. Problem is that most of the seat numbers have been removed from the overhead bins so you have to count from the front. It is important to board the bus early because we notice that possession is 9/10s of the law or maybe even 10/10ths. On every bus we take over the next couple of weeks huge verbal fights break out between riders, with the conductors trying to mediate and placate. It is usually the women who’ve done the “possessing” and will not give up the seats.
We also notice that even after every seat is full, the bus drives around for a while with the conductor yelling out the door “Alausi, Alausi, Alausi…” And anyone who wants to go in that direction hops on for standing room only. So I expect that standing room tickets are much cheaper.
An intriguing interaction occurred when two women who had taken the seats across from us settled their four young children into the seat in front of them. A businessman boarded and counted back then showed the women his ticket and pointed at the kids, indicating they should move. Well the women let loose with a barrage of Spanish and the kids glued themselves into those seats with totally determined looks on their faces. He was going to have to pry them off one by one and it would be a case of flailing arms and legs for sure. It reminded me of when our dog would be caught out on the couch and he’d glue himself to the couch with that same defiant look on his mug.
After ten minutes of staccato back and forth, the man ended up moving to the back of the bus. So we stick to ours like glue.
At every major stop vendors pour through the bus selling snacks like potato chips, banana chips, candies, fruitas in plastic containers with a sauce poured over, drinks. There are also beggars and people selling CDs and DVDs.
Our 4-hour bus ride became 5 when the driver stops into a roadside café for lunch. All the locals pile out and families gather around tables spooning up the sopa. I don’t know what is in the sopa, but it comes complete with lots of floating bits and bones to suck the marrow out of.
Alausi is high in the Andes, about 10,500 feet – damp and cool. The terrain we have been driving through all day has been lush and green, steep hills folding into each other much like Switzerland. The hills are dotted with small huts …if you squint you don’t see how run down they are and really believe you are in Europe.
When we come to Alausi the driver suddenly realizes he is behind schedule and dumps us at the side of the road instead of taking us into the bus terminal. Oh well, it is only 4 pm and it is only raining lightly. We have also dumped at the TOP of a hill so our walk into town is down. We are lucky.
Apparently this is the best hotel in town, Hotel Europa for $12 each per night. It is very old. The bed is a comfortable double but the sheets, both top and bottom are a narrow twin sizel. We spend the night twisting them up and fighting over them. There is only one small gray towel and no toilet paper. We go to the front and ask for another one. She does not believe Steve and comes up to see what has happened to the other one. Like we need to be stealing an old grey towel – and I mean grey as in “never been bleached” not grey as in a designer colour.
Toilet paper never arrives but Steve solves this by going to all the other rooms that are unoccupied but open and taking a few rolls. On that subject, toilet paper in these places is always very loosely rolled over very big cardboard centers. So if you end up with any tummy trouble one roll is never gonna see you through the night. We carry our own extra roll for emergencies.
At the train station we are able to change our tickets from 8 am which is insane because you have to be at the station an hour before that, to 11 am which is much more civilized. In Cuenca they told us that the trains were all sold out except the 8 am. Not so at all. When we finally board the 11 am train it is at least 50% empty.
We go for a walk around town – not much here for sure. A small café is open but they don’t have menus so we just tell her to feed us. We get fried steak, rice, tomatoes and French fries. Quite good. Total cost $6 with a café con leche.
Buying a couple of sweets at the ever-present pandeleria – bakery, we take them back to the room to accompany the movie-of-the-night, Mutiny on the Bounty. If we had these subtitled movies at home we could probably learn Spanish a lot faster.
We are living on the cafe con leche here, despite the lame way they prepare it – heat up the milk very hot then hand you a jar of Nescafe and a spoon. It is surprisingly good or maybe we are just really hungry.. Steve had a fried egg for breakfast, accompanied by a basket of pan, which was two stale rolls. No butter or jam or cheese or anything. Don't come to Alausi for the food.
After breakfast we walked around town taking pictures, talked to a fellow who ran adventures tours but did not look too adventurous. Guess he could tell we were not in the market for that either. But his English was very good for only ever having learned off talking to tourists.
They started building a railroad through Ecuador in the late 1800s and worked on it intermittently over the years. The work was so hard that locals would not do it so 4,000 Jamaicans were imported to do the work and die doing it. Over the past weeks I had been seeing some very dark-skinned Caribbean looking people. In fact, Captain Jose of the Samba was so dark-skinned I was wondering if he’d immigrated. But now I suspect that these Caribbean- looking people are the descendants of the Jamaican labourers who built the railroad.
The railroad is called the Ferrocarril Transandino (Trans-Andean Railway) and once extended from Quito to Guayaquil on the coast. The best known stretch is from Alausi at 3350 m to Sibambe via the La Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose), a 765 m sheer rock face. Engineers devised a clever way for the train to ascend and descend this face by carving a zig zag route that has the train advance and retreat along different tracks until the Devil’s Nose has been breached.
We spent about 3 hours on the trip today – cost $10 as they automatically gave us the senior rate (is that a good thing?). That included a stop at the recently renovated Sibambe Station where we were given lunch as part of the trip – a small sandwich and coffee or juice. This also included a performance by the local Indians – great dancers in their colourful clothing – women wearing embroidered orange fleece skirts and green shawls, men in white with bright red ponchos. We see people wearing these clothes everywhere we go – they are the everyday clothing of the indigenous population here.
The scenery was magnificent – the steep Andean foothills are clothed in luxurious green pasturelands, yuccas and bright wildflowers, trees offering shade. Cows and horses graze in picturesque meadows; red-clad shepherds wander the fields with them. Small villages dot the landscape with Indians tilling their fields.
We returned to the train station and wandered the town for a while. Eventually returning to the room here to read and work on trip reports.
Tomorrow we are off to Banos. It will be a long day of travel