October 9-12, 2006
After a relaxing morning and using the thermal waters to wash our hair, we headed back to Cuenca. We were surprised to find the thermal baths already crowded at 8 am. We later found out that today was a holiday in celebration of the discovery of the Americas by Columbus. Our first order of business today was to re-supply with food so we stopped at a gigantic grocery store in a huge, upscale shopping mall where we were able to stock up and marvel at all of the things they had that we didn't need.
We left our vehicle parked in the mall parking lot and took a taxi into the center of Cuenca. We had a very enjoyable Colombian lunch (I know, we're in Ecuador) and then visited the Museo de las Culturas Aborigines. The museum is a large private collection of pieces that span from several thousand years BC to the Spanish Conquest. There were some 5,000 pieces to see including some cut and uncut stones that were used as musical instruments and/or wind chimes. It was very interesting.
From the museum we headed toward the river that runs through Cuenca to see some of the beautiful homes that have been built alongside it. We also noticed groups of people doing their laundry in the river, which although is not an odd sight to see in South America, we were surprised to see this in a major city.
When we returned to the mall parking lot it was an absolute zoo. When we attempted to leave by one of several exits, we were told that we couldn't leave by that exit. After arguing for a few minutes, we were told that the truck would incorrectly set off the gate (Huh?) So we had to back up, drive through the nightmare of a parking lot where traffic had to be stopped to let us through, so that we could go out an "in" gate that could be disconnected so it wouldn't come down on us. Very frustrating. Anyway, we then used our GPS to guide us to Cabanas Yanuncay, a lovely spot where others we have met on the road have stayed. The cabanas surround a very large grassy area where large vehicles can park.
After a relaxing morning sitting in the sun and doing some laundry, we headed off for the small town of Alausi. The scenery on the drive was very beautiful, up and down mountains, past running streams, but every once in a while you have one of those days where you can't seem to make the right decisions on which way to turn when confronted with a choice and there are no signs. Today was one of those days. We spent a lot of time turning around. It was a good thing that we didn't have all that far to go because it took us a couple of hours longer than we anticipated.
We finally arrived in town, and after making a couple of wrong turns (of course) finally found the railroad station that we were looking for. Alausi is the last stop before the train heads down over El Nariz del Diablo (the devil's nose) a railway engineering feat that was completed in 1902. The round trip train ride which is now just for tourists, leaves the Alausi station and heads down the "nose" by a series of switchbacks where the train has to pull forward onto an extra line so that it can back up onto another line, so that it can then go forward again. Quite amazing. But the fun part about the trip is the fact that the riders sit ON TOP of the train cars. Cushions are provided and there are rails to hang on to. The train was scheduled to run in the morning so we spent the night parked in front of the railway station and barbecuing our dinner on the street next to the Fuso.
Up early in anticipation of our train ride, Don decided to do a walk-around of the Fuso. When he did, he discovered that we had a flat tire! And on one of the inside duelies yet, just to make it more interesting. So instead of running some of the errands that we needed to run, we changed into our work overalls and changed the tire. Finishing just before we needed to get on the train, we changed clothes and hurried to get on the train. There were many tourists and everyone was anxious for a good seat, so there was some crowding and jostling on the platform. While patiently waiting our turn, Don spied an empty ladder leading to a nearly empty car. Why no one else had noticed and were all trying to get on at the same spot is unknown, but we easily got on and got great seats. On the way out of town all the little kids waved at the crazy tourists sitting on top of the train and we all waved back. We had a fun time taking photos of the scenery and the other train cars as we went around curves. It was a big kick.
On our return trip, just after the engine had crossed over a bridge nearing Alausi, there was a horrible grinding noise and the train came to a halt. Assuming some minor problem had occurred, we kept our seats and started looking around. The conductors had gotten off and were looking underneath and then started picking up rocks and placing them under the train. At this point we got more curious and started asking others that had gotten off to look, just what the problem was. What the problem was, was that the train had actually jumped the tracks and some of its wheels were six inches off! Knowing that we could walk back to town from this point, we were able to make jokes about how they would get the train back on the tracks. Apparently there was a bad spot on one portion of the track and even though the engine and the first car made it across OK, the second car derailed. Somehow or another, using rocks and plants, the conductors were able to get the wheels back aligned and by moving very slowly were able to get all the rest of the cars across the bad spot. All in all it only took about a half an hour. I guess those guys know what they're doing. But it obviously was not our day for wheels.
Leaving Alausi mid afternoon for the market town of Saquisili, we turned off the Panamericana just before Riobamba, hoping to bypass this busy city. Since the road said it went to Ambato, which is just south of Saquisili, we thought we would be cutting off some time. We couldn't find the road on our map, but it was paved so we just continued to take it. The scenery was lovely, so we decided that even if it took us out of our way, it was a nice drive. Suddenly we realized where we were. We were on a scenic route that would take us up close and personal with the highest peak in Ecuador, Volcan Chimborazo! On our map, the old road that went to the volcano was unpaved and went a slightly different direction. Although at the time, the mountain was completely shrouded in clouds, we were hopeful that if we could find a camping spot close by, we might be rewarded with a clear view in the morning.
We stopped at a private refugio just below the peak and asked if we could park for the night in their parking lot. After a phone call to the jefe (boss), the worker said parking was no problem. But a few minutes later, the worker was back asking for $20.00us to park. We offered him $5.00us which is much more reasonable and appropriate, which he turned down and left. A couple of minutes after that he was back, saying the jefe changed his mind and we couldn't stay. Fine. We turned around, headed out and parked just outside their gate for the night which was perfectly satisfactory and free.
While we were eating breakfast, we kept looking out our window to see if the clouds had parted from around the mountain. Once or twice the clouds did indeed part and we were treated to a spectacular view of Chimborazo. Continuing our drive over the pass we suddenly found ourselves at over 14,000 ft (4,300 mts) together with an even better view of Chimborazo and its 20,507 ft (6,310mts) summit. It looked close enough to touch! We jumped out and took a couple of photos just before the clouds closed back in.
Arriving in Saquisili at lunch time on market day, we headed to one of the markets to find a restaurant stall. Saquisil market is so popular and huge that it is divided into as many as 8 different locations. We were able to find three of them. But back to lunch ... at one of the market areas we found several restaurant stalls all of which were very busy. We chose the only one that had fish, and after waiting a couple of minutes for two seats to vacate, we were each treated to a plate consisting of a lightly fried fish, rice and vegetables. As there were no drinks other than a questionable water/juice(?) drink, Don went to a nearby store and brought back two bottled drinks.
After lunch, we wandered around town exploring a couple of the other market areas. We didn't make it to the animal market where we had heard you could buy just about any type of live animal. Later we read that it was actually located a ways out of town. We made some purchases, then headed north to the Cotopaxi National Park whose center piece is the 19,165 ft (5,897 mts) tall Volcán Cotopaxi. So in one day we got to see Ecuador's two tallest mountains! We made camp for the night along the shoreline of the Laguna Limpiopungo at over 12,000 ft (3,800 mts) with a view straight up the volcano.