Rough Tracks from the Andes to the Sea

Sometimes I’ll start writing a post or a story and then get completely distracted with other stuff, with the good intention of revisiting it sometime later – could just be a case of writers block or a lack of inspiration at the time. Anyway, here is a very good case in point; I think I started writing this a couple of years back about a journey, made some years ago, from Quito in Ecuador’s Valley of the Volcanoes to the Pacific Coast near the border with Colombia. So, I might as well start where I left off, otherwise It’ll be a another couple of years in the making for sure.

I’m sure things have changed quite a lot in Ecuador these days, but at the time it was certainly quite an adventure to visit and travel there (it most likely it still is, though my next door neighbour, who’s from Ecuador, tells me the roads are a bit better these days). Sadly, the most exciting part of the journey which we made by train from Ibarra in the “Avenue of the Volcanoes” to the coastal town of San Lorenzo near the Colombian border, simply isn’t possible these days, after much of the tortuous rail route has been closed down. This was the due to the high costs of maintaining the line, the extreme difficulties of maintenance and the creation of new alternative road corridors linking the coast to the Interior.

Our journey started in Quito (and was part of a longer stay in Ecuador as part of a University of Wales biological research expedition). The Old City of Quito is a fascinating, if chaotic, place set at a bracing altitude in the Central Valley of the Andes and with a characterful architectural legacy from Spanish colonial times. However, like many Latin American Cities, Quito is a place of stark contrasts, the congested streets of the old town give way to the slick skyscrapers, plate glass facades and planned boulivards of the wealthy, downtown business district, which literally oozes with revenue from Amazonian oil speculation and exploration.

However, it’s in the congested narrow streets and piazzas of the Old Town that you can find the real heart of Quito. This city never sleeps; if you stay in the cramped old town, expect to be kept awake most of the night by all manner of revellers, hawkers, drunkards and impromptu street brawlers. The latter are periodically and randomly dispersed by police with battons, when they have the inclination to do so. Such colour and spontaneous chaos is really what makes Quito unique. Just expect the unexpected –  and cling onto your wallet as you negotiate the maze of old streets.

From Quito, we headed North along the Avenue of the Volcanoes to the well known City of Otavalo, which is situated at around 2,500m on the central spine of the Andes. This hosts a famous weekly handicraft and textile market, which is well frequented by tourists keen to buy their souvenirs from their visit to the Andes.

The market was our intended objective too. Whilst that was fascinating, the accomodation there was less so impressive. Due to high visitor numbers, we ended up sharing some crowded floor space in a small hotel room with a ragged assortment of European and North American traveller types. This was almost tolerable, until the drunken son of the hotel owner returned in the middle of the night to find is own room occupied by about 15 unwelcome foreigners. Anyway, it turned out he wasn’t too happy about this and decided to try and smash in the locked door with a view to killing all the occupants inside – at least that’s what he, fairly clearly, told us he wanted to do. It took a few other burly residents and some smooth talking to pacify the guy in the end, as we peeped gingerly out the door, waiting for the storm to subside (with a series of periodic aftershocks). Anyway, we lived to fight another day.

However, this late night drama, gave us a taste of what was to come with our planned journey – following an epic train from Ibarra in the “Avenue of the Volcanoes” to the coastal town of San Lorenzo, many miles to the West.

The fun started when we “queued” up to buy a train ticket in the first instance. Well actually there was no queue really, just a crazy fisticuffs brawl to physically get to the ticket counter, where the strongest were ultimately the victors. After half an hour of pushing and shoving, however, me and my travel buddy, Mike, emerged victorious with tickets in hand. It was actually quite an advantage in such cicumstances that many local Ecadorians were really quite small folk, giving us Europeans a physical advantage, though maybe I’ve shrunk myself a bit since then.

The train itself, was, well, nothing like a conventional train in reality; more like a convoy of 2 buses and an old pickup truck which had been mounted onto narrow gauge railway wheels. Of course there wasn’t really much room inside, and anyway just like a Nepali bus journey, it was packed with an assortment of livestock including, goats, pigs and chickens and their respective owners. So in the interests of personal space and getting a decent view, we opted to sit on the roof, which was interesting indeed, as there wasn’t really anything much to hang onto up there and spaces was rather limited.

The descent from the high valleys of the Andes to the tropical lowlands was spectacular and  exciting to say the least. However, sitting up on top there you certainly had to remember to duck everytime you came to one of the frequent tunnels, there being just about enough head room to pass under safely, as long as you kept your wits about you. The drops to the side were also impressive and certainly tended to focus one’s mind about the need to keep clinging on tightly to avoid sliding off into oblivion. This was rail travel Indiana Jones style without a doubt – I decided, after that, I would never complain about conditions on British or Continental rail journeys again.

However, that was just the tip of the iceberg. Later in the journey, the old loco wasn’t sounding quite so healthy and spluttered menacingly before grinding unceremoniously to a halt. So we had to jump off and push the train uphill on a number of occassions, when the starter motor had failed to deliver the desired goods. Pushing a fully laden train (albeit a bus really) up a hill is not something really to be recommended, though it certainly did the trick to get us on our way again. It was rather worrying when it starting sliding backwards downhill again though.

We also had quite a few interminable waits in one-horse, former plantation towns, which were certainly well off the beaten track. This was not entirely relaxing however, especially in one place where a dispute started between various groups of locals. People then started firing rifles randomly up into the air and shouting loudly at each other in angry voices about who knows what ? I must admit I was quite glad to leave that particular place, even though the local bananas were quite tasty really.

After another long section through more plantation areas and degraded tropical forests, we eventually arrived in the sweaty lowland coastal town of San Lorenzo. It had been a long and tiring day. San Lorenzo felt rather a tense and cheerless place, due to political tensions with drug trafficing and cartels operating over the nearby Colombian border. There seemed to be alot of police and army personel around.

We decided not to hang around and the next day and set off, taking a number of informal small ferry boats which transported us on a long and tortuous route through the coastal managrove swamps to the roadhead at the next town, some miles distant. The atmosphere in these places was rather unnerving and unfriendly; at one point someone pulled a gun on me, just to get pocession of a cheap walkman and a cassette tape, which I was all too happy to hand over. 🙂 In another town, a policeman grabbed a fellow travellers camera, as he got off the boat, and ripped out the film, right in front of him; ignoring me who was, strangely enough, taking a picture of this at the time.

The next bit of the trip along the coast was by local buses, again sitting on the roof. It’s fair to say that any Ecuadorian bus journey invariably involved being blasted with Salsa or (rather rougher) Cumbia music, usually at excessive volume, through tinny, broken speakers, rendering any conversation pretty much impossible. These open sided old wrecks, however, were of a much more primative character than the Ecuadorian norm and happily didn’t even boast a decent sound system to speak of. We passed through numerous small, grubby and characterless, one-horse roadside places; the kids cheerily yelling out “Hey Gringo !” and waving wildly to us to attract our attention, as if we were celebrities like Butch and Sundance (we did have similar cowboy hats), whilst the other inhabitants looked all just rather bored about life in general. We encountered wrecked buses which had fallen off the side of the road. These locations are often, later, marked with a white cross, to remind future passengers of the potential fate awaiting them if their driver isn’t paying attention (usually on tortuous mountain roads with a bull in the back).

On one occassion (in the Ecuadorian bus equivilent of “Snakes on a Plane”), a live and giant orange spider crab, caught by a local fisherman – and ineffectively packaged in some, spikey green leaves for transportation – escaped and started running wildly around the roof of the bus, just next to where we were sitting amongst a haphazard collection of baggage. It snapped menacingly at random into the air with its formidable claws. Fortunately, before anyone needed to dive off the roof of the moving bus to save themselves, one quick-witted passenger managed to quickly grab the ugly brute (which in reality was the innocent victim). Then, in a finely correographed piece of theatre, he agilely slung it into a conveniently located briefcase, which belonged to another unsuspecting traveller; who was happily ensconsed downstairs (completely oblious to the action going on above).

At the next stop, the owner of the briefcase, (a well dressed doctor or local businessman, from the look of things) got off the bus and unwittingly grabbed his bag down off the roofrack (with full assistance, of course, from the crab catching “hero”), before happily trotting off down a side path – case (and spider crab!) in hand. He must have had the shock of his life – or did he die of a heart attack ? We’ll never know the truth !

Further along the coast, in another rundown and uninspiring town, we decided to stay the night as a bit of adventure and to experience the “Real Ecuador”. The owner of the hotel there seemed friendly enough and soon introduced us to his bashful teenage daughter, whom he was adament either me or Mike should marry, casually suggesting; “Just make sure you take her with you when you go !”. Ok, whilst she wasn’t unattractive, this didn’t really tie in with our travel plans and so we gave the host (and his bemused daughter) our polite appologies on this occassion. However, every time the door to our room was opened, the daughter concerned would be hovering about, right outside the room and would then follow us to the bathroom, around the garden, or even on trips out around the town. The next morning we planned for a short, sharp exit; making an impromtu and unnanounced getaway in the wee small hours before sunrise and creeping out so as not to disturb the locals, or incurr the wrath of the hotelier.

After a couple of other stops, including a resort of sorts with a rather uninviting black sand beach (and serving up some rather lethal, local-speciality bright green beverage of unknown provinance) we made our way to the coastal town of Bahia- which altogether seemed a little bit more genteel and welcoming compared with the trials of the previous days. There we then split paths; Mike headed off on his way to take in some other coastal destinations, while I decided to chill out for a couple of days around Bahia by myself. We would be catching up again in Quito before flying home with the rest of the team – so plenty of chance swap travel stories later on.

There was still much to do and see in Ecuador, including the vibrant and hectic city of Guayaquil and of course the wonderful and unique Galapagos Islands, a few hundred miles off the coast to the West. For now though, I was happy enough just to hang out in a less chaotic environment and watch the evening activities of the local fishermen, to hear a gentle breeze rustling through the palm trees and to watch the majestic orb the evening sun sinking low over the great Pacific Ocean. What could be better than that surely ?

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