‘Planning And Encouraging’

Traveling The Panama Canal Part 12

This section of the Ecuadorian Railway is called The Devil's Nose. The train uses switchbacks to ascend and descend the mountain by going beyond the junction and then backing down the next section, again passing the junction and then finally traveling forward onto the third section of track. Photo by Beverly Kehe-Rowland

During our stay in Cuenca, Ecuador with my husband’s cousin Noel and his wife Christine, we were able to take in many experiences that never would have been possible without Chris’ planning and encouraging us to keep moving.

Early one sunny Friday we were picked up by a van which held a driver, a tour guide, a father, mother and daughter from New Mexico and the daughter’s boyfriend from California. We rode through the countryside where we saw dairy farms that had no barns, because cows were milked in the pastures in this land where the weather is mild. Cows raised in the Andes are not eaten as they are very muscular from struggling to walk up and down the steep hillsides.

We passed through a few small villages, with Ca’ar being one of those. The indigenous Ca’ari women wear hats with two small balls dangling from them. The placement of these balls indicates the marital status of the wearer. If the balls are worn in the front, the woman is single. If she is married the balls will be worn on the back of the hat and a widowed woman wears hers on the side. It is not uncommon to see indigenous women carrying babies, sticks, cardboard and packages tied onto their backs by a shawl-like wrap.

Our first goal on this road trip was to take a ride on the section of the Ecuadorian Railway known as The Devil’s Nose, often referred to as the most difficult train ride in the world. It is called this because of the many deaths that occurred among the workers while building it and because of how difficult it was to build. It was completed in the early 1900s. Until the deaths of two Japanese tourists in 2007, passengers were permitted to ride on the roof of the cars.

The Devil’s Nose elevation drops 1,640 feet in just under seven and one-half miles by use of switchbacks. In order to achieve this the train zig-zags down the mountain by going beyond the junction and then backing down the next section of track, again passing the junction and finally driving forward onto the third section.

Indigenous woman use shawls to tie their small children and other loads on their backs. Photo by Beverly Kehe-Rowland

When we got off the train at the end of our descent, we discovered Salazar people doing dance and weaving demonstrations and baking buns in a clay oven. The people lived in a community of 800 at the top of the mountain and walked up and down, using steps broken up by a few paths. The journey took 35 minutes for a young, strong person.

We spoke with a man who had gone to the United States illegally, having lived there 14 years before he was stopped for driving a company truck with a burned-out directional signal. He was placed in chains shortly after his arrest and remained in them until he was returned to Ecuador a month later. In his time in the U.S. he had married and fathered a son. Unfortunately, he was going through a divorce because his wife did not want to move to Ecuador.

The engine had been moved to the other end of the train while we off. When we boarded, everyone flipped the back of their seats, so they could face forward, putting us in the front, directly behind the locomotive, rather than in the last seat in the last car, where we started. We went back up the mountain in the same zig-zag pattern we took going down.

After having lunch at a restaurant that was kitty-corner to the station, we got into our van and turned back toward Cuenca. We stopped at a scenic overlook before passing through Chunchi. In Chunchi, we came upon a barrier on the main street which prevented us from passing. The unexpected, unmarked detour caused us to drive around the village a few times along with other confused drivers. We met someone who was familiar with the area and who motioned for us to follow. With blind faith, a long line of vehicles followed the lead driver across dusty roads until we finally returned to the original route.

We saw many animals tied along the roadside and buildings that appeared to have been abandoned before they were finished. Most of the completed buildings had unfinished sides, exposing raw cement blocks. Several had blue water tanks on the rooves for storing non-potable water.

Buns baking in a clay oven. Photo by Beverly Kehe-Rowland

Our second attraction was Ingapirca, Ecuador’s best set of pre-Columbian ruins and the country’s largest ancient ruins site.

We arrived just after the last tour of the day had left, due to the unexpected detour, but were accommodated and assigned an English-speaking guide.

The ruins had been uncovered on farmland situated on a hillside. The Ca’ari people erected a Temple of the Moon, the foundations of which are still visible. The Incas arrived later, defeated the Ca’ari and constructed a Temple of the Sun. The two tribes worked together to build the community with the Incas building a complex underground irrigation network. Before the city was completed, the Spanish arrived, ransacked Ingapirca and took much of the stonework to build churches in Cuenca.

After the tour, we boarded the van and continued toward Cuenca arriving at our family’s home around 7:30 PM.

The next day, the two of us walked around the corner to the bus stop and got on Bus 26 with intentions of riding to the end of the line to the outskirts of the city. It was an easy, but interesting adventure and easy on the budget, as the cost of the ride was 30 cents each.

A switchback used to navigate The Devil's Nose. Photo by Beverly Kehe-Rowland

The bus was nearly empty when we boarded, but gradually filled. We passed through a tunnel, the first we’d seen since we arrived two weeks before. As we neared the edge of the city, small garden plots and a few farm animals, including cows, sheep and chickens, came into view. All gardening was done by hand. My husband was fascinated with the January corn crop.

We passed men working with wheel barrows at a construction site with no power equipment or machinery present. We saw rocky hillside properties covered with tree stumps. It appeared the building lots were quite irregular in size and dimension and houses were scattered helter-skelter, along the hillside.

Our bus ride ended at a T in Checka, where another bus was waiting. A man and woman, both in costumes, were passing by on horses. The man’s horse was not cooperating. As we stepped off the bus, we noticed a small parish parade heading our way. Both buses waited until the parade passed. We boarded the new bus, once again being the only passengers, which followed the same route back. Small groups of people, mostly well-groomed, young people, waited along the way to board. On occasion, we saw young children riding behind an adult on a motorcycle.

We rode to an area where there was a large outdoor market where many artisans had displays. As we walked up and down the rows of pop-up tents perusing the items, the vendor would quickly hold up an item they thought we may like, continuing this until we either moved on or bought something. If we paused for a second, vendors from the neighboring stands came toward us like flies drawn to honey, telling us about their goods.

After leaving the market, we walked to an area where restaurants and street vendors surrounded a park. We looked at menus as we walked from one small business to another. Fred nearly settled for pizza, but I talked him out of it. We made a return visit to a restaurant we stopped at on the first pass, when we had asked the cashier and a server if they spoke English. This time the cashier connected us with a young American woman. After we got the answers we were seeking, we ordered one order of the dish we had chosen, at the woman’s suggestion. She and a male friend joined us after placing their order. We learned they were doing volunteer work in Ecuador for eight months between high school and college. Ecuadorian restaurants use what we consider to be beverage napkins in the U.S. and in most cases, one is given with no dispenser at the table.

After finishing our meal and saying our goodbyes, we walked to the bus stop. The streets and buses of Cuenca are safe at night. We waited for quite a while as commuters got on and off buses and finally decided ours was done running for the day. We made the decision to share a cab with two woman who were going to our neighborhood.

To be continued.