Friday 11th November 2011 (11-11-11)

Quito – railway ambition fulfilled after 28 years!

To travel on Ecuador’s incredibly engineered railways (sometimes known as “El ferrocarril más difícil del mundo” – the most difficult railway in the world) had been a desire of mine since the year I spent living here in 1983/84, but which was impossible then as virtually the entire network had been washed out by landslides in a particularly severe El Niño year.

Of course the ideal experience would have been to travel from Quito down “the Avenue of Volcanoes”, with the almost perfect cone of snowy Cotopaxi on one side and the twin peaks of the the Ilinizas on the other, but I awoke to the sound of rain pattering on the balcony outside my window, and low cloud hung in the air, reducing visibility to a few hundred yards – no volcanoes to be seen.

Nonetheless, I had managed, after all these years, to obtain a ticket on the Quito – El Boliche – Quito roundtrip, and I was not going to miss it, so I left the house at 06.00 AM, took a taxi to the electric Trole, and was whisked to the station of Chimbacalle, where I arrived far too early…but I am one of those annoying types who always like to leave too much time to spare for appointments! Luckily, there was plenty to watch, especially the preparations for the departure of the 08.00 AM “autoferro” (literally a bus on train wheels) bound for Latacunga, and then the manoeuvring of our train (this one was indeed a train, consisting of the diesel-electric locomotive and four restored carriages) into position for departure.

Autoferro departing Quito bound for Latacunga

Finally, exactly on time at 08.15, a extremely ear-piercing bell informed us that we were about to depart, the gates of the station swung open, and we jerked our way out of Quito’s Chimbacalle station, heading South. The track runs actually through the streets, and where it meets cross streets, there are no level crossing gates, so we were accompanied by a team of yellow-jacketed motorcyclists who sped along beside the train to take charge of stopping the traffic to allow the train to pass.

The first 40 minutes or so were spent creeping through the vastly extended southern half of Quito, an area that I hardly know, and one which contains most of the city’s industry, an oil storage facility, factories including a car assembly plant, and a large plywood manufacturer, complete with a huge store of what I assumed to be tropical hardwood logs – how I hate to see that. But in addition to the factories, here the speed of the population growth was really evident: in the North, despite the rapid expansion of the urban area, services such as roads, water supply and electricity seem to have kept pace with the newly constructed housing. Here, however, there were new residential areas springing up with just grass and mud between them, where the streets would come later.

Finally, however, the breeze block and concrete jungle faded out and gave way to the brilliant green grass (although it could have been even more brilliant had the weather been brighter!) that is so much a feature of the high valley between the western and eastern cordilleras of the Andes here in Ecuador, interspersed with eucalyptus plantations. The train creaked and bumped its way along, perhaps at one point reaching a maximum speed of 30 kph. All the passengers were seated in one coach, and our excellent railway company guide, Luisa, explained the story of the railways, their start in the 1860’s, the final completion of the Guayaquil to Quito link in 1908, which involved the construction of the almost unique, switchback section known as the Nariz del Diablo, or Devil’s Nose, and then of the more recent neglect that the system has suffered, with the virtual death of the northern section, from Quito to Ibarra, and then down to the Pacific coast at San Lorenzo – autoferros now only run on a short section from Ibarra towards the coast, but no longer reach it, and the section from Quito to Ibarra appears to have been abandoned altogether. But we were informed that the southern section, from Quito to Guayaquil, with an extension to Cuenca, is due to reopen by the end of 2012. I do hope so, and if this is achieved, I shall certainly be back!

Finally, real countryside!

Our first stop was at the small station of Tambillo, where we just had time for a coffee and a quick look around, and then we lurched onwards (the track really needs to be completely reconstructed, but speed is not the priority here), before reaching the beautifully restored station of Machachi, next to which is the delightful Hosteria de la Estación, where I had stayed a night during a return visit to Ecuador in 1992 (if my memory serves me well), and outside which the then brand new, very same locomotive that was pulling our train today, was parked, unable to move at all due to more landslides or other troubles.

The train at Machachi

Hosteria de la Estacion, at Machachi

Garden of the Hosteria de la Estacion, at Machachi

Half an hour later we were on the move again, this time climbing even higher, and we reached our final destination, the tourist “park” and recreational area of El Boliche, from where we should have been able to admire the towering, glacier-covered cone of Cotopaxi, but where today there was low cloud and light rain.

The train at Boliche

Nothing daunted, I decided to make good use of the two-hour stop we had here, and, wrapping myself up against the cold and the rain, I started walking into the park area, which contains a mix of pine plantations and native scrub forest, with campsites, cabins and picnic areas. Apart from a group of schoolchildren, all of whom politely called “Buenos dias” to me, and a few construction workers, I had the entire place to myself. I was of course hoping to see some birds, but apart from the ubiquitous Great Thrush (similar to an overgrown, slightly duller European Blackbird, but with bright orange legs), and an unidentified Tyrannulet and an equally unidentified bright yellow and olive warbler high in a tree, there was nothing showing, perhaps due to the rain, which really began to set in, so much so that I turned back, and had a quick snack in the station instead.

Semi-natural forest at Boliche

Later, the weather improved slightly, and I was able to walk out into the grassland, interspersed with low bushes, in front of the station, again in the hope of seeing some birds, but here there was nothing at all. However, I enjoyed the wild flowers, at this high altitude remarkably similar to the temperate or even Alpine zones of Europe, with two species of Gentian, a Vaccinium, some Asters, as well as our familiar Dandelion and White Clover.

Halenia weddelliana, El Boliche

Gentiana sedifolia, El Boliche

Gentianella sp, El Boliche

Viguiera quitensis, El Boliche

Finally the train blew its horn, and we were on our way back towards Quito, this time joined by a party of perhaps twenty rather noisy Germans – our guide Luisa did not dare to speak in front of them, and retreated to a seat at the back of the carriage!

At 16.30, after a very sudden braking just outside the station when I think a pedestrian strayed in front of the train, we came to a standstill at Chimbacalle station again, and my ambition had been fulfilled. I wish the Ecuadorian railways much success in their efforts to complete the restoration of the lines to Guayaquil and Cuenca, and of course I hope they set to work on the northern section too, and I shall certainly travel the whole line, if and when it is finally completed. My final thought, having seen the entirely defunct Guatemalan railway system recently, is :”Come on Guate, take a leaf out of Ecuador’s book, how about getting down to work fixing your system too!”. No chance, I fear!

The good old days of the G and Q

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Thursday 10th November 2011

La Mitad del Mundo – The Centre of the World!

Today has been another wonderful day, and one which has been a nostalgic, and in some ways almost shocking, opportunity for me to retrace my own footsteps of 28 years ago.

The day started with me finding my way on Quito’s excellent, and new since my previous visits, North – South public transport systems, in this case the Ecovia, which have replaced the scores of fume-belching ex-U.S. school buses that used to clog the streets (and the air), and which now run in their own lanes, to the old centre of the city – I seem to be spending far more time in this wonderful area than I ever did when I lived here!

Calle Venezuela, Quito

Calle Venezuela, with first view of the Basilica

After a quick breakfast just off the Plaza Grande, I headed along the Calle Venezuela, with its beautifully painted colonial buildings, and climbed up towards the Neo-Gothic Basilica del Voto Nacional, an imposing structure that was apparently inspired by Bourges Cathedral, and which was started in 1883 and was only consecrated by Pope John Paul II in 1985. The building has not been completely finished (although I could not see any evidence of this) because local tradition states that if it ever is completed, the World will come to an end!

La Basilica del Voto Nacional

La Basilica from the side

As I remember this building as definitely NOT being finished in 1983/84, and I had not been able to enter it then, I was curious to see inside it, and I must say it was well worth seeing – especially the sun shining in through the stained glass windows left wonderful colour patterns on the pillars and floor.

Interior of the Basilica

From here I walked a short distance to the hostel where my two new Dutch friends Marleen and Myra, whom I met yesterday in the TeleferiQo, were staying. From there we headed out, again first on one of the new public transport routes, this time known as the Metrobus, which took us right out past the airport along the Avenida de la Prensa, and past the very point where I always used to get off the old ex-U.S. school buses, to walk the short distance to the home where I lived in Quito Norte.

We finally arrived at the Terminal Terrestre La Ofelia, where we transferred to a “real” bus, bound for the Mitad del Mundo, where a large monument stands on what is supposedly the exact line of the equator (more on that later). Here was where the shocking part of the day occurred to me – when I lived here, Quito only extended a short distance beyond where I lived, and after one had passed the suburb of Cotocollao, the built-up area pretty much ended, and one passed through dry scrubland and eucalyptus woods, and eventually arrived at the monument, where there were just a few souvenir stalls and a couple of small, simple restaurants. Now the urban sprawl reaches not only as far as the monument, but far beyond, and vast new housing estates are springing up everywhere.

As soon as we got off the bus and approached the entrance to the monument complex, a local indigenous guide approached us and proposed a tour to the crater, or be more correct, caldera of Pululahua, which I remembered well from my previous visits. Although most tourists who visit the Mitad del Mundo do not even know that this natural wonder exists, it is well worth a visit, and after depositing Marleen and Myra’s rucksacks in our guide’s family’s restaurant nearby, we were driven up the snaking road, which in my day was devoid of any housing along it but now is flanked by scrappy buildings, until we finally arrived at the lip of the crater, where clouds were already billowing around.

Luckily, despite these clouds, we were able to look down into this amazing crater, the result of two eruptions, one about 20,000 and the other 2,500 years ago. The floor of the crater is inhabited by around thirty families, and our guide, Daniel, explained to us how the young people are leaving this isolated spot to search for a “better” life elsewhere, and how he and a number of other members of the community are now working as tour guides to try to bring in some extra funds in the hope of stemming this depopulation.

Pululahua crater

From here we began our walk, which involved a steep descent down a switchback mule-trail, with Daniel stopping at intervals to point out medicinal plants and mushrooms to us, and me stopping at other intervals to try to observe the numerous birds that were calling in the bushes, but which remained hidden from view! Finally, we reached the bottom, and IMMEDIATELY turned around and started the distinctly steep ascent back up to the top! Sweating profusely, I thought to myself what excellent training this was for my forthcoming two weeks of intensive volcano-climbing in Guatemala with my hyper-fit guide Luisa!! Amusingly, Daniel (unaware that Marleen and Myra were from the Netherlands) told us that Dutch tourists can never manage this trip as they cannot handle the altitude – he was amazed that they powered their way up this track with no trouble at all. Even non-Dutch people find it hard – the crater has the nickname of “Salir si puedes”, or “Get out if you can”!

Marleen, Daniel and Myra in front of Pululahua

Having got out of the crater alive, we returned to Daniel’s restaurant, where we absolutely filled ourselves up with local delicacies before heading across the road to the equator monument, which I had first visited with my friend Czech Conroy on the first full day of our South American year in 1983. Here my Dutch friends really excelled themselves gymnastically, as they have a tradition of doing handstands in front of all interesting places they visit, and being photographed “in the act”! Here we were also interviewed by a class of teenagers from a local school…all in all, a very enjoyable visit.

Marleen in an inelegant position, on the equator!

Myra in pain, on the equator!

Self in flight, above the equator!

Self attempting to balance an egg on a nail, apparently only possible on the equator!

Marleen and Myra managed it!

Finally, we returned to Daniel’s restaurant to pick up Myra and Marleen’s bags, and we took a taxi back to Quito – the taxi driver was scandalised as the Dutch girls were going to stay as guests in the house of a male friend of Marleen’s sister, but whom neither Marleen nor Myra had ever met! Let’s hope they survive the experience!

A wonderful view that greeted me when I arrived back in Quito this evening

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Wednesday 9th November 2011

Quito, Ecuador

Since my short but eventful trip to Galápagos, I have been back in Quito, and in fact have been slightly under the weather, perhaps due to excessive quantities of delicious food…but I am now fully recovered.

On Monday I had to be at the railway station before 10.00 AM in order to pay for the train journey that I am due to do on Friday – I had booked it last week, but as I did not have my passport with me then, I could not pay to secure the booking. Following my less than encouraging experiences with the airline LAN in the previous few days, I was a little nervous of anything to do with travel arrangements, and when the clerk told me that the booking system was out of action due to computer troubles, my heart sank! However, after a while, it came to life, and I was able to complete my reservation. But I still wonder whether this train journey, which I have been waiting to do since 1983, will actually come to fruition…!

Following this successful visit to the station, I headed into the old centre of Quito, where I was treated to a view of Ecuador’s populist President Rafael Correa, who was reviewing a military parade from the balcony of the Palacio de Gobierno, overlooking the Plaza Grande (which used to be known as the Plaza de la Independencia when I lived here – I wonder why its name has changed). The rain began to fall, but the sight of the splendid soldiers in their 18th Century uniforms was a spectacle to savour.

Palacio de Gobierno, with President Rafael Correa on the balcony

President Rafael Correa on the balcony of the Palacio de Gobierno

Troops ready to be inspected by the President

After watching this impressive scene, I retreated from the rain into a café for lunch, and I found myself sitting next to a German named Verena, from the beautiful mediaeval town of Marburg, who had just arrived in Quito minus her baggage, this time thanks to Iberia. With me feeling a certain solidarity with her, we teamed up to visit some of colonial Quito’s wonderful churches, but we soon found that most of them were closed as it was Monday! However, we did manage to get into the cathedral, which I had visited before my trip to Galápagos, but later I had I read about a painting of the Last Supper in the cathedral, which has the uniquely Ecuadorian feature of Jesus Christ eating a guinea pig, a traditional food of Ecuador’s indigenous people, so I was curious to see this!

Calle de la Ronda, Quito

The newly restored Teatro Sucre

Yesterday, Tuesday, whatever kind of “Quito quickstep” had inflicted me really set in, so I did not dare to venture out, and definitely not far from any toilet facilities, but by this morning I was feeling better, and I met up with Verena for lunch, after which we took an amazingly souped up taxi up to the bottom station of Quito’s amazing cable car, the TeleferiQo, which takes one up to 3950 metres, with a truly spectacular panoramic view of the city on one side, and of the 4698 metre high peak of Rucu Pichincha on the other.

Quito from the TeleferiQo

Quito from the TeleferiQo (1)

Quito from the TeleferiQo (2)

Quito from the TeleferiQo (3)

We found ourselves sitting in one of the cable cars opposite two girls, Myra and Marleen, with whom we quickly got into conversation, and it turned that they were both from Tilburg, in the south of the Netherlands, and Myra works as a publicity agent for the university there, where I have been to test the English levels of the students!

Once we reached the top station, we luckily took longer photographing the incredible vista of the city beneath us than we had planned, for almost immediately the clouds rolled in at almost breathtaking speed, and then a dramatic hail storm ensued – if we had gone on the walk we had discussed, we would have been totally soaked, and at this altitude we would have been pretty frozen as well! As it was we retreated to the cafeteria to warm up!

Rucu Pichincha from the top of the TeleferiQo

Clouds advancing rapidly

As it was impossible to see the views any more, and as the café was far from what the Dutch would refer to as “gezellig” (a uniquely Dutch concept which roughly translated means cosy), we finally decided to head back down to Quito, filled with memories of this great addition to Quito’s tourist infrastructure, which did not exist when I lived here all those years ago.

Quito from the TeleferiQo (6)

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