Sunday, August 16, 2009

Plan b turns into Plan c

Baños really hadn’t really captured us like I expected. We’d had fun in with the whitewater rafting (although my arms would argue otherwise) but there really wasn’t much more to keep us here. Plus, we needed a fresh place to help us get over the sting of being robbed. Our next stop was Riobamba, a not so distant town famous for the Devil Nose rail ride. We hadn’t ridden on a train yet and with the promise of spectacular scenery was enough of a reason to get us on board. But first we had to get Riobamba (my fingers can’t make up their mind if they’re typing La Bamba or Obama, even though both are wrong).

We checked out of the hostel and walked to the bus station. The next bus was in 45 minutes so we bought our tickets and joined the pile of gringos on the benches and chairs. When the bus did arrive, we were all dragged out of the station and on to the street. Very odd. Of course without the benefit of a bus platform, it was chaos trying to get on board. As all the gringos put their big packs underneath the bus, the locals rushed on and took all the seats – so much for the assigned seats on our tickets – meaning we had to stand. The ayudante blamed the ticket seller at the station for overselling the bus but he didn’t bother to kick out the locals most of whom didn’t have tickets. My love for Ecuadorian transportation was soon fading. It wasn’t fun standing up as the bus navigated the twisty mountain roads but as people got off, seats cleared and Adrian and I were able to sit down, together even, for the last 90 minutes of the ride.

Our luck changed in Riobamba when we found a room at the Oasis hostel – $20 for a private room with hot water and cable tv. (plus it had a dog and a cat which we always take as a good sign). It would be lovely to stay here if only briefly. Now it was time to arrange that spectacular train ride. As I took advantage of the hostel’s wifi, Adrian went out to arrange our train tickets. While he was gone, I chatted with one of the other guests, another Canadian named Annie who had left her grown kids behind to work down in Central America. Previous to her time in Ecuador she’d worked for an NGO in the Guatemalan jails back before the war officially ended. She was also an archivist and had worked with Ecuadorian church archives that went all the way back to the conquest. Not only was she interesting and nice and she was also just fun to chat with.

When Adrian returned he had dinner and bad news. The train that you supposedly couldn’t book in advance was sold out and not just for tomorrow but for the next week and a half. Stupid high season and stupid tour groups. So what were we going to do in Riobamba? I guess we’d figure that out tomorrow.

Without an early train to catch we lazily woke up and took our time with breakfast. Adrian went out to find both breakfast and money on a Sunday morning in a town that was closed up tight. Unlike Belize, the food was easier to find than the money but it took a few attempts to get the money out. But he succeeded thanks to Annie’s tips on local bank machines. Now it was time to figure out what we were actually going to do today. Our guidebook suggested a visit and hike to the base camp of Chimborazo, the volocan/mountain that loomed over Riobamba. It’s the furthest you can get from the centre of the earth (actually I’m not sure how that works but that’s what the guidebooks all say) but you don’t have to be a mountain climber to get that way. It’s possible to take a bus up to the base camp road and then walk 30 minutes to the refugio. So being of the non-mountain climbing variety that’s what we planned to do. Annie had been and offered some great advice like wear sunscreen, bring warm clothes and definitely wear a hat. And when she found out I didn’t have one, graciously lent me one of hers.

We grabbed a taxi to the bus station, and the taxi driver was friendly and made sure we got on the right bus which was just about to leave. I confirmed with the taxi driver that the bus indeed went to “el camino a Chimborazo” and then again with the ticket guy. I was surprised at the cost $1.50 (because it was high), but just assumed that the turnoff was a lot further down the highway than we originally thought. And then it was time to enjoy the ride through the spectacular scenery. We hadn’t been able to catch the train which would take us through the countryside but for a fraction of the cost I think we had a view that was just as awesome. We rode up through the clouds past some vicuñas and then Chimborazo (photo above) loomed high and mighty over us. The snow on top reminded us of what we left behind in Toronto when we left almost 5 months ago.

We got closer and closer to Chimborazo as the road circumnavigated it and then we started to turn away from it. As I looked back I saw the sign welcoming visitors to the park getting smaller and smaller. What appeared to be the distant base camp and even crosses memorializing dead hikers were getting further away not closer. I looked up at the driver and ticket guy. The driver was speeding ahead and the ticket guy was asleep. Even if we got them to stop now it would be a long walk back to the turnoff and then we’d still have to hike up to the refuge. So much for plan b. I guess we were moving onto plan c. Adrian and I consulted our map and discovered that the town the bus was heading to was famed for its cheese and chocolate. Well, maybe this wouldn’t be such a bad change of plans after all.

The bus pulled into the town of Guaranda and were immediately disappointed. The town was not very attractive and mostly shut up. It was so unattractive we didn’t take a single picture. We pulled out the map and set off in search of the cheese store. Of course in the 5+ years since the book was published, the cheese store had moved. A gentleman saw us looking at the map and came to our rescue, directing us to a cheese store. We purchase a block of cheese, some chocolate and bread and sit in the main square munching on sandwiches. Then with nothing keeping us in Guaranda we headed to the bus station to get back to Riobamba.

The bus was packed but sitting on the left side we had front row seats for the view of Chimborazo. We passed through the clouds and through the desert like foothills that were dotted with vicuñas and alpacas. And as the clouds cleared, we saw Chimburazo. It was just as breathtaking the second time around. And for the next 45 minutes we got to view it at sunset as the bus made its way around it before heading down into Riobamba just after dark.

Okay so we hadn’t taken the iconic train, climbed the iconic mountain, but we’d eaten some icon cheese and chocolate and my stomach tells me that’s even better.


Ayngelina said...

what's the iconic train deal? where does it go? what do you do on it?

liz and adrian said...

it's the train that people used to ride on top of until a couple of Japanese tourists were beheaded in some freak accident a couple of years ago.

Now it's just a train ride through the countryside with views of Chimborazo. It takes about 10 hours to do the round trip and according to Annie at the hostel, we saw the same thing on the bus.

So what do you do on it? nothing but take in the views. In the end I think we did okay for a fraction of the price - even though we didn't get to hike to the base camp and the cheese tasted like a cross between feta and mozzarrella (the chocolate was delicious though)