Ecuador is about half the size of France, yet Partout is spending nearly six weeks rattling around in it. That means we are moving pretty slowly, sometimes glacially.
Nowhere was that more true than on our 446 km train trip (276 miles) “luxury” train trip from Quito to Guayaquil. The one-way trip took four days, an average of about 70 miles a day. We could almost have walked faster since it was nearly all downhill.
But everything is relative. When the Guayaquil-Quito rail link opened in 1908, its trains traveled at the equivalent of warp speed by cutting travel between the two most important commercial centers in the nation from days to 12 hours. Towns sprang up alongside the tracks, and telephone lines followed. Businesses opened. Highland producers were able move perishable goods to the lowlands and vice versa. Farmers and communities throve. Travelers reveled in high-speed travel.
Alas, over time, the train came to seem as glacial as Partout. Freight and passenger travel dwindled and eventually evaporated. The rails, engines and coaches fell into disrepair; in some cities, people even built on top of old train tracks. Eventually, the only sections still in operation were the ones that foreign tourists rode – the famous “Avenue of Volcanoes” through the Andes and the infamous “devil’s nose,” where the route takes a vertical drop of more than 1500 feet on a sheer rock face.
Enter former President Rafael Correa, a charismatic US-educated leftist who campaigned and governed Ecuador on a platform of reform. He vastly improved standards of living nationwide before reportedly succumbing to the temptations of power and money. Fortunately for train lovers everywhere, he restored the old Guayaquil-Quito line before fleeing the country to avoid being prosecuted for kidnapping a political opponent. (He remains in Belgium.) Except for the stretches where recent landslides have covered the tracks and we shifted to buses, these were the rails we rode.
In another country, this story might end with the good fortune the train’s restoration has brought to glacial tourists like us and all the oohing and ahhing the trip inspired, but it doesn’t. Whether intended or unintended (we never quite figured that out), one of the consequences of the train’s resurrection has been nourishing some of Ecuador’s oldest cultures along with the tourists who ride the rails.
An estimated 30% to 40% of Ecuador’s population is indigenous – people who never intermarried with the late-coming Europeans or Africans and who retain their traditional language, customs and culture. They are people like Miguel Andrango in Otavalo, one of the last weavers in Ecuador to make tapestries and rugs on pre-Colombian backstrap looms, and Baltazar Ushca, the last man in a centuries-old occupation of ice merchandising. Ushca still chips glacial ice out of slopes of Mt. Chimborazo and musters it to market by donkey, but it is now made into designer ice cream instead of being indispensable to cooling meat and fish like it once was. They are men like the last embosser in Cuenca, still making art as they learned from their fathers half a century ago.
They are women selling live chickens in the open markets, the ancient who could speak to us only in her native Quichua (not Spanish) and the cowherd making the daily trek with his two milk cows up and down pre-Incan paths high in the Andes.
They are communities like Palacio Real, a village of about 80 households. Women there have organized an association that operates a restaurant where they serve delicious local food cooked over wood fires and operate a tiny shop where they sell exquisite goods woven from the wool they have sheared, dyed, spun and woven from the llamas they raise. When clothing items are sold, 50% of the price goes to the woman who produced them and 50% is reinvested in the association projects, like their museum of llama culture. Our train stopped in the nearest station, and we walked half an hour to visit them. The goat stew and bounty of vegetables were delicious; the shopping time not nearly long enough!
They are individuals from subsistence cultures that benefit from TrenEcuador’s employment of them to demonstrate their dances and serve their foods to the likes of us.
They are also people like Christian, our local guide at Sibambe. In excellent English, Christian demonstrated the conch shell his community has used for 200 years to call citizens to meetings and emergencies. Before the Spanish, conch shells were currency, and they still are valued today. He explained that the beds villagers sleep in above pens for guinea pigs and rabbits are designed both to protect the stock and to warm the humans overhead. He showed us cooking pots in use every day that look just like the ones in the anthropological exhibits of the Pumapongo museum in Cuenca.
Christian lived in the United States from the time he was 14 until he was 28, moving around the country as he worked his way up in the construction trades. He married an American woman and had a son. Then he was stopped for a traffic violation, found to be in the States illegally and deported. He returned home to his Andean village of 2,500, where he tells train passengers like us about local traditions before hiking the hour and a half over a peak back to his village. TrenEcuador helps sustain him now, too.
It is not all one big happy welcoming party on the rails. Indigenous communities around Guamote once banned outsiders from their Thursday markets, where inhabitants of different villages have converged for centuries to socialize, buy what they cannot grow in their own communities and indulge in local delicacies.
Now they tolerate passengers from TrenEcuador wandering among them, admiring their produce and snapping photographs. Louis was in street photographer heaven.
One of the richer countries in South America because of its resources and self-sufficiency, Ecuador is undergoing the urbanization common to developing countries everywhere. Traditional cultures that have been under pressure ever since the Incas arrived shortly before the Spanish are experiencing new challenges as youth brought up on Netflix and YouTube reject rural life and eschew ancient practices. Some ethnic groups survive only in pockets of a few hundred or few thousand people.
But survive they do. For some, the resurrected train through the Andes is one of the survival strategies.
FROM THE PARTOUT TOOLBOX:
One of the best – sometimes the only – way to get off the beaten path (or to do a deeper dive into the beaten path) is with tours and/or knowledgable guides. No matter how much we read or study, we can’t duplicate their depth. Our TrenEcuador excursion proved this point, but we usually are happy with more modest sources. We Google “free walking tours” as soon as we hit each new city and choose the top-rated one. They can be hit and miss (they are, after all, “free”), but they never miss entirely; even the mediocre ones orient us to getting around and provide some background. AirBnB has added “experiences” in some cities that provide out-of-the-box insights (that’s how we found our “violence to transformation” day tour in Medellin), and GetYourGuide is a personal favorite for the quality of their paid tours. We found a guide to the Incan ruins of Ecuador by walking into a local travel agency. Always, Doris scours traveler forums for the names and contact info for guides others have found superlative.
TOP TIP: If there is any sight, culture or experience you really want to see that is under environmental, political or social challenge, go while going is still an option, however you do it.
Coming Soon: Jewels of the Crown (and Others)