Sunday the 19th of June, the day of my flight to Ecuador. Had breakfast, and then caught a cab to the airport. There wasn't an official booth in which to change money, so I looked for the shiftiest looking fellow lurking outside the terminal, and sure enough, he was the money changer. I changed what Lempiras I had left back to u.s. dollars, which was just as well, as there was a hefty 25 dollar departure tax to be paid. There wasn't a great deal to do at the airport, and my only entertainment came from the expressions of a plane load of American Christian Mission types, who were told that their plane had been cancelled. Some of them were having great difficulty in reconciling helping out their fellow man in a poorer country and being stuck there for longer than they wanted to be. Once on the plane, we flew to Costa Rica, and then on to Panama. There, I changed flights, and flew on to Quito. I had pre-booked a cab along with my hostel, so everything went smoothly, and as it was late, I went straight to bed.
Monday 20th. It was my first time at staying in a ‘backpackers' place on this trip, and the people staying there were all pretty sound. Went for a walk around the old city, which is very nice. I was expecting Quito to be some sort of shanty town, maybe on the lines of Delhi, but it isn't like that at all. The city is divided into two sections. The old city, which has the original colonial buildings and several plazas, and the new city, which is home to more modern buildings.
The whole place is quite orderly and vibrant, and contrary to many guidebooks, I found it to be extremely safe. Now, I'm not going to say that Quito doesn't have its fair share of social problems, because I'm sure it has, but it's image of a den of iniquity inhabited by thieves is so wrong it's unbelievable. Really, it could be any city in Europe, particularly Spain. There are some beautiful churches, and I stopped in the grand plaza to watch what appeared to be some sort of baton twirling contest. After this display, the action then swapped to the front of a government building, where a military band started playing. The baton twirling girls walked over and lined the sides, whilst some sort of presentation was made to someone who kept being referred to as Senior El General. A couple of speeches were made, the last one by Senior El General. The words revolution, progress, Quito, and forwards were mentioned, but other than that, I'm not sure what he was on about, but he was certainly saying it very loudly. At the end he released a speckled coloured pigeon. I wonder if it's name was speckled Jim? (watch blackadder folks!) Had a meal at the hostel at night, and got talking to the other guests over a couple of beers.
Tuesday 21st Didn't have a good nights sleep. I only had three beers the previous night, but maybe that and a combination of the altitude didn't help. Had breakfast, and then spent an hour trying to sort out what room I was going to be in as there was some initial confusion because I was staying an extra night. It wasn't really resolved, so I left it in limbo, and went with an Irish couple I had met the previous night to catch a taxi to where we needed to catch a bus to the equator.
Arrived at the equator an hour later, and got the obligatory cheesy tourist photo which is essential in such places! Whenever there is a line drawn, there is always some dispute as to if it's in the right place or not, and this was no exception. The official marker, monument and museum is 200 metres off, whilst the unofficial museum actually straddles the line as measured by GPS. I'm sure that in another 10 years, this line will be redrawn somewhere else! The unofficial museum was by far the best one. We got to see water falling through the plughole in three different ways. Spinning anti clockwise, (one hemisphere), spinning clockwise (the other hemisphere) and with no spin (right on the line). We also got to see an egg balanced on a nail… Thrilling stuff! Seriously, it was very interesting, although I found the difference in human strength whilst standing on the line and off it to be the most curious. For whatever reason, human strength becomes weaker when standing on the line of the equator. Strange but true. The next highlight was seeing the shrunken head. Not sure if it's the genuine article, but it looked cool anyway.
To shrink the heads, they first of all removed it from the body, and then somehow extracted the brains and then the skull before sewing up the mouth and boiling it in a pot with an assortment of herbs which then reduced it in size. This particular head was believed to have been fifty years old. The blowpipe demonstration was a bit of a disappointment, as the dart got stuck in the pipe, thus cancelling the display.. there's always next time! Had the evening meal in the hostel again. A lot of people were going to the Galapagos Islands, which I had to sacrifice to do Easter Island instead.
The next day, I paid off the bill at the hostel, and leapt into a cab for the bus station. Got straight on the bus for Riabamba, and stared at the scenery for four hours, which reminded me of Wales except minus the sheep. On arrival, there was a hotel opposite the station, so I booked in for the night, and phoned home.
On Thursday, I swapped hotels for the Hotel Metro, which was $6 a night, and right next to the train station in the centre of the town. It was a nice enough town, but there was nothing outstanding to report, and my only reason for being there was to buy a ticket for the Devils Nose train ride. Had a couple of good meals and an early night. Got up stupidly early the following day, and wandered over to the train station at 5.45, where i rented a cushion for one dollar, and climbed up onto the train to stake out my place at the right and at the back.
This is the best place, as you avoid most of the smog from the struggling diesel engine, and the scenery is better on that side. it was very cold sitting on the train roof at that time in the morning, but fortunately, I'd planned ahead by wearing several layers and my hat. The hat will play an important part later on. At seven, with the train roof full of western tourists and the odd sweet and drinks seller, we pulled off. I had high hopes that the train would go straight on it's journey, without any of the customary stop/starts associated with the buses, but how wrong could I be! Obviously, as the train had been sitting in the station for an hour whilst the passengers boarded, everything would be ready to go… Well, not quite. As the train pulled off, instead of chugging along the normal track, it deviated into the marshalling yard, so that they could swap the engine truck over for another one. It only took half an hour, and gave everybody on our section of the roof a chance to know each other, and then we were off!!… For 50 metres, where we reversed direction, so that they could swap the engine truck back over for the original one. An incredible effort! After that, we were officially underway. It was good fun sitting up on the roof, if a little arse numbing, and the people who tried to stand up and take photos as the train was moving were a constant source of amusement. The same people, over and over again, managed to get to their feet and line up their camera shot, only to be really, really surprised each time as the train jolted and almost threw them off. As kids they must have had great fun putting their hands into the fire time and time again, and wondering what was causing the burning sensation. Almost as clever as these, were the ones which managed to get to their feet and take the shot, but then nearly get decapitated by the low hanging power lines which everybody else could see, but of which they were blissfully unaware. However, kama has a way of smacking you on the nose, and I got my just deserts later on.
A few local women were wandering around on the roof, selling sweets to throw to the kids as we went through their villages. It was good to see the smiles on their faces, and it's always fun to see people, even in the far distance, waving as a train goes by.
I wonder where that started, because it's a cross-country phenomenon to wave at trains. We pulled into Alhuasi, where a group of American tourists boarded, and were then shocked that people who had been sitting in the same spot for six hours were unprepared to give up any room for them. After half an hour, we were off again, this time on to the section known as the Devils Nose. This was where karma decided to teach me a valuable lesson for sniggering at the other passengers. We rounded a corner, and a sudden gust of wind blew my hat off and far away. Not a complete disaster, I thought. Somebody would pick it up, so they could have it as a present, and i'd only be two hours in the sun without it, and it wasn't THAT hot, was it? So, i settled down to enjoy the scenery, which was spectacular. Lots of mountains, and the train had to use several switchbacks to make the descent. Found out that one of the other guys on our section of the roof was from Lings in Northampton… Small world! We reached the bottom of a valley, which marked the point where the train would turn around and go back, and that's where another delay kicked in, whilst the engine drivers stood with their hands on their hips, occasionally taking their hats off to scratch their heads. Never a good sign. I figured that it would add an extra hour to our journey, so that would be three hours in the sun. No problem, right? Eventually, a cry of ‘Has anybody got any duct tape' went up, and several minutes later, gallons of water were poured into the engine.
Then we were off!, which was just as well, because the chilled beer was starting to look tempting, and I would have been willing to pay $10 a bottle for it! Anyway, we eventually ended up back in Alhuasi, where we alighted, and joined a huge queue for the toilets. Then, it was onto a bus and back to Riabamba. Got talking to an American girl, who's face looked very red. I felt a bit flush too, but i'd be fine, right? from the bus station, i walked to a Chinese restaurant and had a huge chop suey, and then went back to the hotel room. I'd intended to meet up with the lad from Northampton and go out for a couple of beers, so i went into the bathroom for a shower and looked in the mirror. Oh dear. I had caught the sun just a touch after all. Didn't go out, and spent the rest of the evening with a cold, wet towel wrapped around my head. marvelous.
Saturday 25th, I got up early and strolled over to a random hat seller, who sold me a baseball cap for $1, and then kindly pointed out to me in broken English that I might have caught the sun a bit. I had to thank him, and replied in equally broken Spanish that until he'd mentioned it, I hadn't noticed. Had breakfast, and walked over to the bus station. Had quite a while to wait for the bus, so wrote in my diary. When I got on the bus, every other person seemed to be carrying a sack of squeaking guinea pigs.
Sunday, I woke up in my plush, completely out of my budget, but palace like hotel room in Cuenca, and had the inclusive breakfast. Being Sunday, not a great deal was open, so I strolled around the market place, which was full of local women dressed in traditional costume selling all manner of fruits and vegetables, found out about bus times for my onward journeys, and then settled down in front of the tv in my room.
The next day, I got up early, and after eating breakfast, walked to the bus station where I caught a bus to Ingapirca.The journey to the site, which is the only major surviving Inca site in Ecuador, took two hours through some pretty countryside. The site itself was spectacularly underwhelming. It mostly consisted of a series of boundary walls only knee high, and the one structure of any size had been heavily reconstructed, so in my opinion, its unlikely that it ever looked like that in the first place. There was a little walk around the area which was quite pleasant, but on the whole, I wouldn't recommend that anyone make a special trip here.