Ecuador Trip - part seven.
[Part one - Part two - Part three - Part four - Part five - Part six - Part seven - Part eight]
...in which our heroes sample a local delicacy, climb to 5000m and take a ride through the Devil's Nose....
Saturday 17th March
I have the same plentiful breakfast as yesterday and then we go horse riding for three hours. To be perfectly honest, a small part of my motivation for this is to replace some of the photos that we lost (which included some great ones of the pair of us on horseback in front of a crater lake above the Pinyan village). I do also like the idea of spending a few pleasant hours tootling up the mountain and perhaps having another look at the volcano though. Initially I'm slightly wary of Nieve ("Snow") my horse as he seems to be a little skittish, but we soon come to some sort of an understanding - as long as we remain in front of C and Mosquito, he won't gallop. Deal. The ride is a lot more placid than the one we took out of Pinyan and we spend a lot more time riding on proper roads, but it's still a good way to get out and to see the landscape of waterfalls and lava flows.
On our return to the hostel, we hop back into the Land Cruiser and set off for Riobamba, only stopping along the way at a little restaurant on the side of the road to sample a local delicacy: Cuy. Guinea Pig.
Ivan is a vegetarian, but he is suspiciously keen for us to sample this and has been waiting until we enter Chimborazo province before serving it up to us (apparently they fry it in Otavalo, but the best way to prepare it is the way that they do it here - stick it on a spit and grill it). Well, there's nothing else for it but to give it a go.
It has to be said that there is something very disconcerting about having it arrive on your plate and be utterly recognisable. It is served more or less whole, and so before you get started, you find yourself eyeballing a guinea pig with its big rodent teeth grinning at you and its little paws clutching at the side of the plate. Hmm.
What does it taste like? Inevitably it tastes like a very greasy chicken. It's not delicious, but it's certainly not disgusting. The worst part of it is that it is unbelievably fiddly to eat, with all those little bones. You know how rabbit is a bit tricky to eat? Well Guinea Pig is a little bit like that only harder. I give it a go, but life it too short to suck the meat from between a guinea pig's ribs. Ivan's wife picks hers completely clean, but C and I both have to concede defeat with quite a large pile of skin, bones, paws and meat still on the plate. The locals find us fascinating throughout, openly staring. I suppose they don't see too many western tourists tucking into Cuy around here.
I can't think why.
We drop the bags off in Riobamba later that afternoon and head straight off to the Chimborazo volcano itself. At 6200m, this is the highest peak in Ecuador, and because of the way that the Earth bulges at the equator, this is also the highest spot on the planet from the centre of the earth.... 2000m higher than the summit of Everest. The weather is slightly cloudy, so we don't get a good view of the mountain itself, but as we approach the car park, we do get a really good look at the vicuña's -- these are relatives of the llama and are pretty rare but there seem to be plenty of them here. Their woolly coats produce such high quality yarn that it used to reserved for kings and emperors. They're certainly cute.
At the car park, although it's now nearly 17:00, we decide to hike up to the refuge at 5000m. This is a new altitude record for us, and although it's only a climb up (in altitude) of about 250m, it's really quite hard work as it is pretty cold at this height. In the refuge we celebrate with a cup of coca tea in front of a roaring fire and contemplate the fact that we have just strolled up higher than the tallest peak in Europe and are now further from the Earth's core than the summit of Everest.
We head back down to the car park in the gathering darkness and have a rather hairy journey back down to Riobamba as the fog closes in and we struggle to pick out the dirt track down the mountain. We make it okay and I celebrate with a giant calzone from the local Italian, although C eats nothing and is violently sick later in the night. This is probably a direct result of the altitude, but neither of us can shake the feeling that somehow the Guinea Pig was involved....
Sunday 18th March
Our plan for today revolves around El Nariz del Diablo - the Devil's Nose railway. This is where the railroad passes through a steep section of mountain and where the engineers conquered the sheer drop of the gradient by carving a number of switchbacks into the face of the rock. These enable the train to climb a gradient of 1-in-18 from 1800 to 2600 meters, by going forwards then backwards up the tracks. It was built in 1900 and was considered an incredible feat of engineering (albeit a rather daft one as their decision to go through the valley rather than around it now means that the line is useless for modern freight trains as they can't manage the gradient and are too heavy for the rather wobbly looking tracks).
It's a bit of a tourist trap, with most gringos heading to Riobamba and then trying to grab a slot on the roof of the train for the four hour journey down to the mountains. In Ivan's opinion that's a bit of a waste of time - it's only for the last few minutes of that four hours that you are actually going down the switchbacks, and because the train leaves at about 7am and because we are at over 3000m, it can be a cold and miserable experience. Far better to head down to Alausí, a couple of hours drive out of Riobamba, and hook up with the train just as it heads into the Devil's Nose. We make an early start to try and beat the rush, but it's still clear when we pull into town that we aren't the only ones who have had this idea and the place is swarming with tourists (making me realise again how lucky we have been that in the rest of our trip we have hardly seen any western faces at all). It turns out that the railway company are well aware of the attraction that they have here. The railway line is actually blocked just beyond the Devil's Nose and so pretty much the only function of this stretch of track is tourism, and so several trains are laid on throughout the course of the day. We buy some tickets, but the whole thing is pretty chaotic, so in the end we manage to wangle our way onto an earlier train. For the first half of the trip we are inside the train, but we are assured that once we get down to the bottom we will swap places with the people on the roof.
It's quite impressive. It's not so much that the track hangs over the edge of a mountain (although in places it does), it's more that you can really see how difficult this section of line must have been to build. The rock walls are almost vertical in places, and you can really appreciate the work that the engineers have done to dynamite out a path for the train to follow. The switchback system means that the train zig-zags its way down the slope, moving forwards and backwards down the gradient until we reach the river at the bottom, at which point we climb up onto the roof and enjoy the journey back.
It's a sunny day and the scenery is splendid, so I try to ignore the fact that I am sat next to a whole busload of other gringos, many of whom are wearing the traditional Ecuadorian felt porkpie hats, and one of whom is wearing a Helloween t-shirt. Oh well. They're no different to us, I suppose.
From here it's the drive back to Quito and the start of the long goodbye to Ivan (stopping only for a delicious ice cream in Salcedo, the home of the popsicle! And take my word for it: if anyone ever offers you a tree tomato lolly, say yes! delicious....)
Ivan has been the most wonderful guide: he is knowledgeable, enthusiastic and keen to show us his country and its people. Throughout the trip, he has treated us more as his friends than as his clients and he's been the single biggest reason why this holiday has been so much fun. When we arrive in Quito that evening, we have one final dinner with Ivan and Alexsita (together with Ivan's friend Nicholas, another guide from Montreal who Ivan will be working with over the next few weeks). After that final supper, we finally say goodbye to our guide outside the hostel and wave off the land cruiser for the final time. It's sad, but we're not finished in Ecuador yet.... we're off to the jungle tomorrow.
Ivan Suarez - the best guide in Ecuador (with his lovely wife, Alexsita)
To be continued.... but we're nearly finished now.