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Journal Entry:

Saturday, February 28, 2004 10:30:48

Ecuador 2004

February 20, 2004 - There was lots of time to get organized before today's departure, as our flight was not until 3:45 PM. In spite of this easy beginning I forgot that my video and digital cameras were both at the office until it was too late to go to get them. The COPA Airlines staff in San Jose had been extremely uncooperative in getting the upgrades that I was entitled to, so we arrived at the airport with nothing confirmed except the flight.

In spite of explaining my leg length problem, the COPA agent assigned me a centre seat in a row into which I couldn't have folded myself under any circumstances. Marilynn was seated in another seat several rows away. The stewardess noted my problem, and at the very last minute put me into an empty first class seat - something which should have been done by the incompetent staff at the downtown office.

We arrived in Panama in one piece after a flight of only 45 minutes, and there I was assigned an exit row seat, making the hour and a half flight to Quito comfortable. There was only a half hour wait between flights, but with the time change we didn't arrive at the Hilton Colon in Quito until 10:30 PM.

Once in the room I called my long time travelling partner, Tim Carlson, waking him up. He gave me the pick up time in the morning very politely, in spite of having written it down for me in a note that the reception staff had given me, but I had not opened. There had been no need to wake him up at all.

In the morning I discovered another memory lapse - I'd forgotten my electric razor, so I headed off unshaven. I thought of just letting it go for the week, but finally bought some disposable razors at the market in Cotopaxi. In the end it worked out all right, with only minor flesh wounds and minimal blood loss from the unaccustomed method of shaving.

It was good to see Tim when we got together for our 7:30 AM departure in the morning, and to meet his wife Jeana for the first time. This was the seventh time Tim and I have travelled together, but the first time we'd travelled with both our wives. Jeana fit in like she had always been with us and she and Marilynn got along famously.

Once in the van we met our travelling companion, Koen van den Bosch, who works for a travel wholesaler in Belgium. We were driven to the 1905 vintage Quito train station where we boarded our first "autoferril". In this case it was one of the long model diesel powered Bluebird school buses of indeterminate vintage with train wheels on it. There was a regular gearshift on the floor, and an assistant sat across from the driver to pour sand through a hole in the floor in front of the wheels for traction. The steering wheel was still connected, and used as auxiliary braking by turning the train wheels to rub against the tracks. It was a truly amazing piece of equipment!

We headed out ahead of the regular train, where the first class section was in cars resembling those seen in Wild West movies, and third class was where people sat on wood benches in windowless boxcars. It was a truly amazing ride, as we clattered along in this remarkable contraption, whistling our way through traffic on the little used rail line. There is only one train a week, plus the autoferril that is used for charters - which explained why there was only the five of us plus the two crew on board. Sometimes vehicles stopped for us at the crossings, and sometime they didn't. On some occasions drivers would jam on their brakes in surprise at seeing this strange machine coming down the railway line, skidding to a stop right in the centre of the tracks. The "train" driver took it all in stride and in good humour, but he got to give his full-blown train whistle a good work out.

In the outskirts of Quito we came to a market where various booths filled an area the tracks ran through. Some booths were right on the tracks, as were various parked vehicles. It was very interesting watching entire tents being picked up and hustled out of our way. One tent located near the tracks got caught on the side mirror, and dragged a short distance before we were able to get disentangled. The drivers of most vehicles were quickly located and managed to get out of our way, but one loaded pickup truck had been parked right beside the track and the driver was nowhere to be found. To solve the impasse an enthusiastic group gathered around the back of the truck, bouncing it to the side, then repeating the performance with the front end, eventually giving us room to pass.

Once past the market we were in open countryside heading down the Avenue of the Volcanoes where five volcanoes are over 5,000 meters (16,500 feet) high. Throughout the driver's assistant would peer around corners to ensure the track was clear, waving the driver on when it was and motioning him to stop when it wasn't. He'd frequently jump down to the tracks to remove tree branches, rocks and other obstacles. When we stopped to enjoy a particularly good view he'd station himself at the back of the autoferril in order to signal to the main train that we were there should it catch up to us.

We made a stop at a wonderful hacienda style inn alongside the tracks, leaving our strange vehicle parked on the rails. It was to be a "coffee break", but in reality consisted of a tea well spiked with the local sugar cane liqueur, a local type of fruit juice, tarts and corn meal rolled in cornhusks. It was delicious, tasting just like corn bread, and very filling. We headed on our way just as the regular train showed up with the boxcars and passenger cars crowded with people sitting on the roof - a traditional way to travel in Ecuador. We noticed this on some busses, as well.

The roads we crossed or drove alongside throughout this farming area were all cobblestone, no matter how secondary or lightly used they were. It must have been a great way to clear the fields of stones! Almost everyone we passed as we rattled along gave us a friendly wave, and we provided no end of amusement to the dogs of the area who would race us for the length of their territory.

We disembarked at the town of Cotopaxi, in the shade of the volcano by the same name. This is also the end of the line for the main train - its passengers would spend three hours or so in the national park before returning to Quito. John Peacock and Elizabeth Gray from Scotland, a very pleasant couple who had spent three nights at a rustic lodge in the high country, joined us here. They made a great addition to our group.

The "train" had climbed from Quito, located at about 8,000 feet (2,500 meters) above sea level to 11,500 feet (3,500 meters) at Cotopaxi and could feel the altitude when doing anything physical, including exploring the local market. Today is the first day of carnival, which lasts for four days and shuts down most of the country for the holiday. Part of carnival is wetting down other people with squirt guns, buckets of water, hoses and water balloons, so caution was always required!

After a huge lunch we headed on towards Rio Bamba, stopping at a no longer used railway station that was leased by our guide. He has turned it and the surrounding buildings into a workshop for souvenirs, a hostel and a restaurant for climbers who he escorts up the highest mountain in Ecuador, 6,310 meter (20,500 foot) Chimborazo. The station is at Urbina, the highest point on the rail line at 11,800 feet (3,600 meters). It was freezing cold, and on the lower slopes of Chimborazo, not far above us, snow was falling heavily. It was hard to believe we were only a few miles from the equator.

"Tea" once again was well spiked with sugar cane liqueur, and accompanied by local snacks and fruit. We listened to some interesting stories of the climbing of Chimborazo. To reach the summit and return safely it is necessary to leave the last camp at midnight, climbing in the dark. It is essential to return across the ice fields before noon, as after that it can get slushy and very dangerous.

We left for the final leg to Rio Bamba in a hailstorm, which changed to steady rain as we lost altitude. We checked into the Hacienda Andeluz for the night. Marilynn and I stayed there on our last trip in 1998, and there was no more heat this time than the last. Tim and Jeana presented us with a nice bottle of champagne, but we decided to put off drinking it until we were somewhere nicely chilled champagne would be more appreciated. Here hot rum would be more appropriate! We did do severe damage to some bottles of wine at dinner, however.

I couldn't sleep, likely a combination of the cold and the altitude, so I got up and dressed including a sweater and coat and went to the billiard room to read. After one chapter I was frozen to the bone, so returned to bed where I lay under the blankets with all my cloths on until it was time to get up.

We left the hotel at 6 AM to drive to the Rio Bamba train station, where another autoferril awaited us. This one was quite new and had been built for the purpose. It was a little more sophisticated, but had smaller windows, which made taking photos difficult. Once again we set off ahead of the regular train, but before we'd been underway very long we were stopped by a mudslide across the tracks - an obvious disadvantage of being first.

The two-man train crew and some passengers, including Koen and I, were soon armed with picks and shovels borrowed from people in the humble houses along the track and began digging out the rails. By the time the main train arrived we had one track cleared and a start on the other one, but we were not unhappy to surrender our tools to the several crewmembers of the larger train. The altitude definitely was taking its toll!

Here being a crew member on the train requires the ability to put derailed trains back onto the track, dig out buried rails, cut and install new ties or sleepers where the existing ones have become too rotten to hold the spikes any longer and to perform any other task necessary to keep the train running. I couldn't help but imagine the response from a train crew in Europe or North American if they were requested to perform similar tasks!

The main train was loaded with passengers, many of whom were tourists, with most sitting on the roof of the cars. Marilynn and I had taken that train the last time we were here, but Metropolitan Tours no long uses it due to the regular derailments and it's slowness. Yes, the time we rode on it there was a derailment and it took something over three hours to get it back on the tracks. A noted improvement was short rails along the sides of the tops of the cars to rest feet against, and make it at least a little harder to fall off.

After frequent stops to remove debris from the rails, and on occasion to measure the width of the rails to ensure our coach would not derail, we arrived at the last town before the Devil's Nose. At this point most of us opted to climb up to sit on the roof - something we had declined to do the last time we were here.

Various attempts had been made to build this railway between 1860 and 1874, but in 1899 what was called "the most difficult railway in the world" got seriously under construction by a company from the USA. The Devil's Nose, a nearly perpendicular wall of rock, provided a serious obstacle to the continuation of the railway. The problem was solved by zig zagging the tracks - going downhill forward, then backing down the next stretch, and once again descending while moving forward. The three stretches of tracks are easily visible from the top, one right below the other, providing a thrilling ride from the top of the rail car. The railway finally connected Quito with Guayaquil in 1908, and with Cuenca in 1915.

Neither track can be used any longer past the Devil's Nose, due to earthquake damage. A turn around for the train has been built since we were last there. We reversed direction to climb back up this amazing engineering feat and returned to the town of Alausi were we changed guides and drivers for our journey to Cuenca. Carnival was in full swing in the town, with costumes, water fights, music and so on.

The only thing to dampen spirits a bit was the discovery by Jeana that someone had been into her purse while we were on the roof and taken about half her ready cash. I was later to discover that they had also been into my travel wallet and relieved me of a fair bit of money as well. Whoever it was made sure enough was left to make it look like nothing was missing when given a casual glance.

A unique sight we noticed in this area was sheep tethered to the luggage racks on the roof of buses headed for the market. Judging by the number we saw this is a very common way to transport livestock. It is something I've not seen before. I guess if people can ride on the top of busses and trains there is no reason animals can't as well. The sheep didn't look that happy about it, though.

When we left town we immediately began climbing through switchbacks up the Andes, stopping high above the city for a picnic lunch with a spectacular view. The rest of the ride to Cuenca was through a series of twists and turns in gorgeous mountain country dotted with small villages. On arrival in Cuenca we split up. Koen was off on his own to a fairly modern hotel, John & Elizabeth were in a beautiful old converted mansion in the centre of town, and Tim, Jeana, Marilynn and I were at another wonderful old two story mansion called Hotel Santa Lucia a few blocks away. The rooms were large and comfortable, with all the conveniences, and the lower altitude made for much more agreeable temperatures.

Cuenca is a large, old colonial city, which has been declared a world heritage site due to the fact that most of the city is still as it was in colonial times. The streets are cobblestones, and most buildings have been restored and maintained in excellent condition. It was very much worth the trip to see it. To celebrate our arrival, the champagne was shared in a richly decorated parlour on our floor of the hotel before we headed down for dinner.

After a good breakfast the drive and guide picked us up and we set off to explore the city, including a visit to a Panama hat factory, for which the city is famous. We were under very steady fire from water balloons, buckets and hoses, and at one time or another we all were wetted down. Our guide referred to it as "playing carnival", and people in this area take it very seriously. Large barrels of water were located outside houses on the sidewalks, hoses would be out and soaked citizens were engaging each other in water fights everywhere. We soon learned to keep the windows closed in our mini-bus!

The city is also known for its beautiful ceramics that decorate the squares, a wall of the university and are built into the sides of buildings to display the name of the streets. Marilynn was pretty upset, though, when she discovered that virtually all the shops were closed, and would be closed the next day, because of carnival. There was little shopping here, although the hat factory and a famous artists studio were open and well patronized by our small group.

That night John & Elizabeth, Tim and Jeana and ourselves decided to get together for dinner, abandoning our prepaid meals in our respective hotels. We had said goodbye to Koen, who headed for Guayaquil, after the days touring. We met at a restaurant called Las Capulies, where we had a very good meal and got seriously into the wine. A large, very serious German tour group left, giving us the restaurant to ourselves. There was supposed to have been live entertainment, but the entertainers didn't make it - more likely due to carnival than the excuse that was given. Marilynn decided that was not on, so organized the restaurant secretary, the cook and two waiters to get up on stage to perform for us - which they did. We in turn sang to them, then the music was cranked up and we danced and had a great time until closing time.

The following day, Tuesday, we were off into the countryside to visit some small villages and towns. Our first stop was at a prosperous looking mountainside village called San Bartolomé. We passed a small bakery as we left the main street, which was in the basement of a house. The proprietress gave us the tour of the oven and where she stored her bread for transport on the bus to a couple of neighbouring village markets. She insisted on unwrapping the many layers of cloth and plastic which covered the bread, which was actually a type of bun filled with either raw cane sugar or cheese. We all had some, finding it delicious.

This area is also noted for its guitar makers, of which there are over 100 working from their houses. We went down a narrow dirt road to visit one craftsman's house, where we were shown how the wood was cut and formed, and how the inlay work is done. Prices ran from $45 for a medium quality guitar to $100 for a really good one. The father of the guitar maker brought out a guitar and entertained us with traditional songs and music in an impromptu concert, while his wife passed around tasty Andean cherries.

The next stop was the village of Chordeleg, where there is one jewellery store after another. Most of these shops were actually open, but the general opinion was that the jewellery was of low quality, so little was purchased. My personal shopping experience was a quick walk around the square and into the local pub for a couple of beer. It was of good quality.

Before driving home through Bullcay we stopped in the lower and hotter town of Gualaceo for lunch. There is a large river running through town, and it was full of townspeople playing carnival by splashing water at anyone in range. There were a number of police roadblocks checking for drivers who had been overly enthusiastic in participating in carnival and then driving. As we completed our circle tour it began to pour, a real tropical rainstorm, turning the streets into rivers. It was still pouring when we reached to hotel, so we bid farewell to John & Elizabeth who were to fly back to Quito and on to Scotland the following day. The rest of us were happy for a dinner at the hotel and an early night of it.

The following morning we left Cuenca at 9 and headed for Guayaquil. The roads were feats of engineering as they snaked their way through the mountains. We crossed our highest pass at 13,800 feet (4,200 meters) and began the long descent to the coastal plain. The weather was clear and sunny in the high country, giving us some tremendous views, but as we descended we were enveloped in thick cloud for many miles. The worlds highest forest is located near the pass we went through - there is a local type of tree which grows there at an altitude of 14,500 ft (4,400 meters).

Once on the coastal plain it was very hot. We reached our hotel, the Hampton Inn, about 1 PM, and then walked the couple of blocks to the Malacon. The changes to the city in the last six years are unbelievable. Apparently they elected a mayor who took on the federal government and got an agreement to leave a good percentage of local taxes in Guayaquil instead of sending everything to Quito. This money was put into restoration and renovation. Once the ball got rolling local banks and business got into the act and converted a horrible place I swore I'd never go back to into a world class city with clean parks, beautiful plazas and miles of wide waterfront walkway (the malacon) dotted with boutiques and restaurants.

We went to an outdoor food place right on the river for a shrimp lunch, which was delicious. Ecuador is the world's largest exporter of shrimp, so this is the place to get them. It has also passed Costa Rica as the world's largest exporter of bananas. After eating we walked back to the hotel to meet a guide and driver for a city tour, where I was more and more impressed with the improvements they are doing in Guayaquil. Just amazing!

In the evening we had a fabulous farewell dinner with Tim and Jeana at a superb seafood restaurant call the Caricol Azul - and yes, we had shrimps. They were scheduled to fly to the Galapagos Islands in the morning for a one-week cruise.

On Thursday morning, after a hot and fairly sleepless night, Marilynn and I were picked up at 5:10 AM and taken to the airport. The 35-minute flight was great - I had an exit row seat for legroom and even on that short flight a hot snack and beverages were served. It sure shows up the North American airlines. The weather was sunny and clear as we flew over the Avenue of the Volcanoes, right over the top of some of the highest peaks. It was spectacular!

Metropolitan Tours picked us up at the airport and took us to the Colon Hilton again, from where we ventured out to the closest market right away. This was to be the day to make up for not being able to shop during carnival! We took a taxi to the COPA Airlines office where they gave me first class all the way home, and put Marilynn on standby for first class. We had the taxi wait, and then had him take us to the colonial part of the city to find a nice restaurant for a light lunch. Counting waiting and driving time he was with us for over an hour and a half. It cost $5.60 on the meter.

After lunch we walked around some of the Colonial section, shopping as we went. One small shop stood out and got Marilynn going big time. It was a wedding shop for little people - ages 1 year old and upward. They have full tuxedo sets with bow tie, shirts and all the accessories; suits with dress shirts and ties, formal dresses and hats - with everything designed for tiny tots.

Another taxi ride took us back to the hotel ($1.05) where we got ready for a meeting with the sales manager of Metropolitan Tours. While sitting in the lobby waiting for them, Marilynn said, "There is John and Elizabeth". I said it can't be, they are in Scotland, but as it turned out it was. Something had screwed up with their flight and they had to wait two more days. We arranged a dinner with them, and headed off for our meeting.

We had chosen to get together at Las Reddes seafood restaurant, half a dozen blocks from the hotel, so we walked and shopped our way there. Marilynn managed to finish off her wish list in the leather shops, so in the end the shopping was a success. John and Elizabeth showed up as arranged, and we had another nice evening. I had my last shot at a shrimp feed, then we shared a taxi back to the hotel.

Our airport pickup was at the ghastly hour of 5:10 AM, but all went smoothly. The Quito Airport is really nice, with lots of shopping, and my upgrades got us the use of the VIP lounge. The flights were good and on time, with only a half hour between flights in Panama. Marilynn was upgraded to first class on both flights and Carlos, our gardener/caretaker, was there to pick us up at the San Jose airport. It was a really good trip, and made a great one week break.