Sunday, August 8th
Humpback whales cavorted just offshore, spouting and diving, as we approached Puerto Cayo. We introduced ourselves to Hugo's friend, Carmen, at the Hotel Puerto Cayo and had a delicious lunch at a restaurant just up the street; calamari and shrimp were the catch of the day, cooked that very minimal amount that fish require.
The Hotel Oro Verde in Manta was everything the hotel in Salinas wasn't. It was modern, clean and quiet, with a courteous staff. A complimentary drink was served by the pool at sunset. The restaurant served a delicious buffet dinner, where our waiter attended to each empty plate as soon as we left for another course. The breakfast buffet, included, served real coffee, not instant.
Monday, August 9th
Anxious to see new territory, we headed north-east toward the Pan-American Highway south of Quito. We were making good progress until we got to Chano; both lanes of the road were blocked at the bridge south of the town. Not one to let sleeping dogs lie, Elsa jumped out to see what was happening. It seems the people ahead of us in line had been there for an hour, due to a political rally of some sort on election day. A fellow ahead of us, speaking perfect English, knew of another route and offered to lead us around the mess. We followed him for an hour, over ruts and bumps, until he waved us on where we re-joined the original road.
One bad restaurant followed another as we passed through one tiny town after another. About 8km west of Santo Domingo, we spotted a nice parradillo. By 3:00 PM, it was definitely time for lunch. A couple at an adjacent table recommended the Hotel Zaracay, in Santo Domingo, scoring another victory for the Accidental Tourists.
Tuesday, August 10th
The highway climbed to 10,500 feet on the way to the point where we were to intercept the Pan-American highway south of Quito. At the very highest point, traffic came to a stop. A flat-bed truck was stopped at the side of the road and a tow-truck was attempting to pull it's load back onto the bed. The tow truck completely blocked the road. Twenty minutes later, the task was accomplished and we, pulling to the front of the queue at the beginning, were on the road again, in front of 500 trucks.
The Machachi market was a bust... some veggies and the lumpiest ears of corn I had ever seen, but not much more. The bottled water factory 4 km down the road was another bust; the guide-book said they gave tours (we were hoping for free samples, too), but the guard at the gate claimed otherwise.
Hotel Luna Runtun and Spa in Banos is up an 8 km dirt road. We gritted our teeth at their $155 fee for a room looking at their vegetable patch so they showed us another room with a spectacular view of the city and valley below, Well, the spa and a quiet dinner (included, since going into town on their marginal road made no sense) would make up for it, we thought. But wait, the upgraded room was $199. They compromised by giving us the better room for the lower price. Elsa got a massage and asked me to join her for a steam bath when she finished. Half way through, I started feeling faint. I turned off the steam and opened the cabinet, but it was too late; I collapsed on the floor in a heap. They offered a Coke in an attempt to get me back to normal, but I couldn't keep food down. Dinner, later in the evening was OK, but not special. In the end, it wasn't worth it.
Wednesday, August 11th
Volcan Cotapaxi was shrouded in cloud and smoke from burning in farmers fields.
The El Cisne Hotel in Riobamba is on the Pan-American highway, as it runs through town. At $35.00 it seemed to be a bargain. The truck and bus noise dies down during the night, they assured us, but there is never a guarantee on a statement like that. It turned out not the bargain we thought. We checked out, hoping to find a quieter place for another night's stay, waiting for the train ride that didn't leave until Friday.
Thursday, August 12th
We got an early start, for no apparent reason, arriving in Guano well before any of the artisans opened their shops. We waited at the Mirador Cafe above the city, watching the clouds drift past Volcan Chimborazo, thought to be the highest mountain in the world for many years. At only 6300 meters, Everest easily bests it, but it was still spectacular. Volcan Tungurahua, near Banos was still visible as was another to the south.
They weave a beautiful rug in Guano. Three people spend 20 days in front of the loom, wearing their fingers to the bone shuttling fibers into the back-bone of the carpet, producing a rug about 6 feet square, which will be offered for $300.00. That gives each person $5.00 per day, assuming they don't have any expenses.
Hotel Abras Spungu was as quiet as El Cisne was noisy. We checked in at 10:00 AM, and went back to Riobamaba to have lunch, find Internet access and buy our train tickets, which couldn't be purchased until after 2:30 PM of the day before the trip.
Friday, August 13th: Train Ride to Devil's Nose
Boarding begins at 6:00 AM, well before first light of day, when the temperature is the lowest of the night. Vendors at the station know this and sell Andian-style clothing to tourists; we now own two Andean hats and a pair of wooly mittens. The mittens ended up on Elsa's toes, which were colder than her hands.
Younger souls braved the cold and climbed on the roof of box-cars for the best view of the country-side. They froze at first and cooked later, after the sun came up. The track runs through generally flat terrain at about 8000 feet until passing Alausi, where it begins a steep descent down what is called "the most difficult railroad in the world." The track is perched so close to the edge of the cliff at several points that one wonders if the tree branches stuffed under the tracks to replace the original railroad ties were a good idea.
The hill is so steep that the train moves over a switch, then descends backwards along a section of track to another switch, which is thrown to allow it to move forward again to the bottom of the valley. At the bottom of the valley, the cars and engine are reversed for the return journey up the hill. During this juggling process, the passengers oogle and ogle the nearby mountain known as the Devil's Nose. It's best viewed using hallucinogenic drugs; otherwise, it looks like any other mountain.
Once again, the book was better than the movie.
Saturday, August 14th: Riobamba to Cuenca
The Pan-American Highway south from Riobamba runs at altitudes of 7000 to 11,500 feet, where the air is clear, very dry and very windy. It dumps you into Cuenca, a World Heritage City, where a detour takes you off the main road and straight into a construction site, unless you take an unmarked turn to keep you on the detour. Unmarked roads and unmarked detours are a way of life. The best method to find the center of town is to wend your way toward the towers of the cathedrals.
Our room at the Hotel El Conquistador overlooked a patio where bums had gathered to drink a Saturday afternoon into oblivion. The hotel manager agreed with our opinion that their noise was unreasonable and called 911 to ask for help. In a few minutes, motorcycle police arrived and escorted them out of the area.