Destinations / JOURNEY
roped into was heading straight for the slaughterhouse
and their repeated chalk-on-a-blackboard screams let
everyone within earshot know they were not happy about
their fate. Meanwhile, fat cows, being sold for $200, were
going silently and obediently to new homes. So were furry
llamas, locally often the prized pets of teenage farm girls.
The crowded market scene was dank and muddy, smelling
of wet animal hair and barnyards.
Next, at a small animal market, live chickens were
stuffed motionless in black crates, rabbits were sold by the
dozens and squealing baby guinea pigs, whose meat goes
into a traditional dish in Ecuador, went for $5 a basketful.
After trudging through a sprawling vegetable and fruit
market (lots of papayas and bananas), we came to the general market and I bought (with no thought of bargaining)
a soft leather beige apron for a dollar. In hindsight I should
have bought a dozen.
Suffering a mild case of market burnout, we headed on
down the Avenue of the Volcanoes to Riobamba, the in-some-places quaint capital of Chimborazo Province and,
more important, the home of Abraspungo Hotel. Now this
is a very pleasant accommodation: cozy adobe casitas, a
quaint bar staffed by friendly señoritas and a high-spirited
restaurant that served seafood pasta not to be forgotten.
In a word: memorable.
The Ecuadorian Andes seemed to grow on us — even
The railway was built in 1902 by Jamaican laborers
(or especially) if the next day called for a ride on “The
Most Difficult Railway in the World.” Here’s that story:
in 1901, Ecuador’s railroads were in their heyday; trains
smoothly connected Guayaquil (the country’s largest
city) and Quito and Cuenca (its oldest city). But time and
weather have taken their toll. Almost all that remains of
the line today is a treacherous 6.25-mile zigzag between
the villages Alusi and Sibambe.
and rebuilt by Ecuadorean workers in 1993. “Way back in
1895,” a conductor proudly told me, “ 3,000 tons of steel
were shipped from London around Cape Horn to build this
line.” The highlight of our 90-minute ride was traversing
Narizdel Diablo, the Devil’s Nose, a humongous slab of
granite requiring numerous switchbacks that caused the
antique train to often reverse course and expose riders to
500-meter vertical drop-offs and views of workers labor-
ing in the patchwork of fields rising up from the Chanchan
River. It was exhilarating and conjured images of the
country’s early days.
We welcomed the calm and quaintness of Cuenca,
Ecuador’s third largest city and arguably its most beautiful. With more than 400,000 residents, Cuenca is not
small, but to us it felt intimate. The River Tomebamba
divides the city with shaded parks on both shores. We
sensed a colonial legacy to Cuenca with its modern buildings offset by cobblestone streets and adobe walls. We also
spotted a university, several bookstores and lots of street-side cafes. It’s no secret that Cuenca has an expatriate
population (Americans, Canadians and Europeans) of over
8,000 who even have their own magazine, Cuenca Expats.
This intriguing city also has its own airport, zoo, golf
course(s), sporting traditions and numerous museums and
cathedrals. And if you fancy a luxury hotel, they don’t come
more luxurious than Mansion Alcazar on Calle Bolivar. With
a full-service spa, lovely gardens and a gourmet restaurant
named Casa Alonso, this exquisite compound is a challenge
to best. Our stay in Cuenca ended too soon.
It was a long drive north to the gritty port city of
Guayaquil (population 2.5 million), and the temperature
rose as the altitude fell. Up until this last day, our adventure was at high elevations, but we were now headed to the
Guayaquil Airport at sea level to fly back to Quito for the
return trip home. Along the way were endless rows of half-finished houses interspersed with auto repair shops, bus
stops and abandoned nondescript buildings. Ecuador isn’t
all sunshine and engaging adventures. It has its dark and
economically depressed sides. However, Guayaquil’s Jose
Joaquin de Olmedo International Airport is as clean and
up-to-date as any in America. That was our last impression.
Ecuador has much to offer today’s traveler who is looking for
adventure in a unique and yet complex country. m
This page: Cuenca,
Ecuador’s oldest city.
Opposite from top left:
Produce at Saquisili
Cusin; The Most
Difficult Railway in
the World; chickens at