Ecuador has three distinct regions: the flat, agricultural land along the western coast; the Andes mountain range extending north to south through the center of the country; and, the Amazonian rainforest east of the mountains, sharing borders with Peru and Columbia. During our trip to Ecuador we enjoyed several noteworthy adventures in the mountains.
Driving three hours eastbound from Guayaquil to Alausi gives you a good idea of the difference between the flatland and mountain regions. We passed fields of banana trees, cacao trees, sugar cane and stands of bamboo in the fertile agricultural area. Then abruptly we began to climb. As the terrain changed, so did the people. The mountain dwelling locals dressed in traditional brightly colored skirts and blouses, the women sporting wide brimmed black hats.
The mountain road would have been nerve-wracking enough without the speeding buses, cows, donkeys, motor scooters and pedestrians dotting the road. Things got really interesting when the clouds moved in and we were on a one lane gravel road for 7.5 kilometers to La Posada de las Nubes - The Inn in the Clouds. As we felt our way along the side of the mountain, we kept telling each other, “This place better be worth risking our lives.” We did not talk about the ride back we would have to take from the Inn to Alausi the next morning.
La Posada turned out to be worth the risk. Carolina Ortiz hosts small groups at her gorgeously decorated bed and breakfast and in between she maintains beautiful gardens, rides horses and paints. Her sister comes from Italy to help in the summers, but the rest of the year Carolina maintains the property and lives a dream life in the clouds. She provided an incredible meal of chicken and arroz, tamales to start and mango ice cream to finish. Carolina also had our breakfast ready at 6:30 the next morning so we could crawl along the road back to the train station in Alausi for our next excursion.
We had booked our tickets on the Ecuador Rail months earlier for this two and a half hour trip on the Alausi - Sibambe route through La Nariz del Diablo, the Devil’s Nose. Although the route is only 12km, the elevation is 500 feet. It is so steep, the train traverses the mountainside in a zigzag pattern, back and forth, changing tracks to climb then descend. More than a thousand Jamaican slaves lost their lives from disease and accident building the track over a hundred years ago, hence the allusion to the devil in naming the mountain. The mountain was once called the Condors’ Aerie but the dynamiting to build the tracks frightened the endangered birds from their home.
The train ride provided amazing scenic views of the Andes, in spite of the tragic history. The train cars were beautifully refurbished and filled with tourists, both international and Ecuadorian. The excursion is popular and books well in advance.
Our second mountain adventure was in Cuenca, further south in the Andes range. Our son-in-law found a beautiful hotel, the Hotel Inca Real, which was our home base for trips to see the ruins at Ingapirca and for silver and souvenir shopping in Chordolag.
The Cañari people first settled in the valley at Ingapirca in 900. The Incas moved into the neighborhood in 1480, then all hell broke out shortly thereafter with the Spanish invasion. The temple at the center of the ruins was originally a lunar temple as revered by the Cañaris, but the Incas built around the temple and rededicated it to the sun. Gold pieces were once situated in the recessed shelf spaces in the temple walls where the sunlight hits four times a year, marking the solstices and equinoxes. Besides the temple, the other ruins were mostly the low stone outlines of the buildings and homes, making it hard to imagine the valley populated by an ancient civilization.
Back in Cuenca we spent hours wandering the streets and marveling at the 16th and 17th century Spanish architecture. The park in the main square, Park Abdon Calderon, was full of activity and music and the center of the city is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Trust sites because of the architecture. The city of Cuenca is also home to many ex-pat Gringo Americans, who find the cost of living, the pleasant year-round temperatures, and the beauty of the city worth leaving the States. A perfect view of the city is found from a scenic perch, the Mirador de Turi, which is also walking distance from Eduardo Vega’s studio.
Vega is Ecuador’s premier ceramicist. His gallery and studio are filled with light and color and the most exquisite ceramics, from housewares to tiles to murals. Back home in Cleveland, I enjoy my morning coffee in one of Vega’s delicate turquoise and green cups and happily remember our mountain adventures in Ecuador.
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