Monday, January 7, 2013

Nose of the Devil, Cloud Riding, Road Blocks, and so much more....

Day 83 (January 6, 2013)
Alausi, Ecuador to Cuenca, Ecuador
Day's Ride: 131 Miles

Nariz del Diablo: totally underwhelming. When I think of a train ride in Latin America, I imagine hurtling down a rusty track on a worn out steam locomotive with faulty breaks, crammed in a stuffy box car with a hundred other people and a few random pieces of livestock. I expect to have a near death experience that I will someday relate to my grandchildren, who will stare at me wide eyed in disbelief, barely able to suppress their astonishment that I survived the ordeal. That's not what I got.

I had heard so many good things about this little spectacle, unfortunately, it seems that it's been gringo-ized and turned into a kitschy tourist trap. The "Nariz del Diablo" is a section of the railroad that used to connect the capitol of Ecuador to Quito. This particular section of track was so steep that they had to build switchbacks into the mountain where the train would have to go for wards and backwards in a kind of falling leaf pattern to go up and down the mountain.

Back in the day, this was a legit train with boxcars and a steam locomotive. You could even ride on top of the train if you wanted. Now, everything has been modernized, the section of railroad is a self contained tourist train only, and you can't ride on the roof. Booo!

Not only is it a kitschy tourist trap, it's the most expensive train ride in Ecuador! Each ticket costs $25; that's a day's expenses in this country, including gasoline! Even after they started modernizing it and using it as a tourist train only, you could still ride on the roof. Then, in 2008, someone got hurt, and they stopped letting people up top.

Now, you sit in your little seat and listen to a narrator explain the workings of the train and wonder why you didn't just go find a spot across the valley and watch the train descend for free.

In any event, here's some pictures. This is the train reversing into one of the switch backs:

Here's a view of the Nose of the Devil from the bottom of the valley; note the switch backs a quarter of the way up the mountain.

Here's a camelid of some sort (alpaca?, llama?) hanging out with it's handler at the bottom of the track:

According to the narrator, over 4,000 workers were brought in to build the road bed and lay track for "Nariz del Diablo" and of those 4,000 or so people, over 2,500 died during the construction! This is what she said, I have no idea if that's correct or not, but damn, that's over a 60% fatality rate! I think you might have better luck storming the beaches at Normandy.

Here's a picture of a picture of the good old days:

Now wouldn't that be cool? Riding on top of a boxcar down one of the steepest, narrowest railroads in the world? Too bad things got stupid. You might as well go to the states and take a train tour.

Sorry for being so jaded about the whole affair; it was really interesting to learn about the history of the railroad. I just wish I wouldn't have paid $25 for it.

After the train dropped me off back in Alausi, I ran back to the hotel, packed up my bike, and hit the road. As I was riding out of town, I noticed a huge group of locals standing outside the bank. I've been meaning to take a picture of some of the women in their bowler hats, shawls, and brightly colored skirts; this seemed like a perfect opportunity.

It turned out to be another cloudy, foggy, rainy day. I kept running into cloud banks where the visibility would drop down to a couple of feet.

Despite the bad conditions, I found a great lunch at a roadside stand today:

I'm not sure what it was called, but it consisted of hominy (I think), slathered in mayonnaise and topped with fried chicken, onions, cilantro, and tomatoes. And a side of freshly deep fried potatoes. It was so tasty! I haven't had good luck with street meat stands since Mexico; this totally rocked! I took a picture of the family that was doing the cooking:

They were great people! The entire meal cost $1.25. I ended up getting seconds. And then thirds.

Continuing along towards Cuenca, the clouds began to clear up a little. Most of the elevations today were between 9,000 and 11,000 feet; the vistas were incredible!

As I was coming around a particularly sharp curve, I was suddenly confronted with a group of costumed kids manning a road block similar to the ones that I had seen just before New Year's Eve. Unfortunately, these kids meant business and they had dragged several sizable logs across the road to stop traffic. I wasn't in the mood for shenanigans today, so I slowed down just a little, then gunned the throttle and popped my front wheel over the logs and kept riding. One of the kids was angry that I hadn't stopped and given his little gang some centavos (coins, cents), so he ran after me and hit me in the shoulder.

Bad idea muchacho.

For some reason I was totally steamed that that little punk had just struck me. I slammed on the breaks and skidded to a stop, totally intent on turning around and giving those little punks a "firm talking too". As I was turning around, I saw a cop car come tearing up the road heading straight for the road block. I looked back at the road block and watched as the kids vanished into thin air. That got me laughing and I figured I should start taking pictures as this little drama unfolded.

Here's the road block right after the kids saw the cops and made themselves scarce:

As I watched, the cops dismounted from their truck and started sprinting into the forest along the road. They managed to flush out one of the little punks and I watched as they chased him up the hill:

By this time I was laughing so hard that I was having a hard time keeping my bike upright. The cops huffed and puffed after the youth for a while, but eventually gave up and came back to the road. I talked to the cops about the whole affair and they showed me some of the evidence that they had recovered:

Feisty little devils! The cops eventually picked up the logs and tossed them out of the road. I said my goodbyes and rode off, laughing uncontrollably.

I rode for another hour or so and then stopped at the Incan ruins at Ingapirca. This was a completely different experience compared to Teotihuacan and some of the Mayan ruins that I had seen in Mexico and Central America.

The most impressive thing about these ruins were the quality of some of the walls:

Considering that they didn't have any metal tools to cut these stones, the Incans were pretty damn good at masonry. Our tour guide explained the process: first, the stone were heated up in a fire. Then they were doused with cold water which caused them to crack. Next, the Incans used stone chisels to chip off the excess and square the stones. Finally, they used sand and mud and gravel to polish the stones until they fit perfectly. Incredible. It's hard to imagine how much work went into forming just one stone.

After the ruins, I blasted down to Cuenca and found a bed in the dormitory at Hostel Casa Cuenca for $8. Tomorrow I'm heading for Peru.

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