We didn’t get to see all of Ecuador, but we are really happy with what we did get to see. We traveled straight down the center of the small country, right along the beautiful Andes, and the farther South we went, the better the views became.
After having so much fun in Banos, we wanted to have a short stay in Riobamba because it is a good place to gain access to the famous train ride, Nariz del Diablo (The Devil’s Nose). We had received three invites to stay with people in Riobamba through the Couchsurfing website, which was nice because we got to take our pick. We chose to stay with Robert because he sounded super interesting and had many good recommendations from other “couchsurfers”.
Bella Vista – Beautiful View of Tungurahua volcano
When we arrived it turned out we had a room and big bed to ourselves. Robert invited us to whip up some lunch with whatever food he had laying around as he told us about his interesting life. He is Belgian but grew up in Batswana, Africa. He then lived in Spain for several years before he ended up in Ecuador. After a late lunch we headed toward the town center. Robert teaches English to adults at a university and had an evening class, and Bryan and I needed to get to the train station to purchase our Devil’s Nose tickets. We happened to run into a friend of Robert’s along the way, Javier, and with him was another tourist, Devon. We split off to check out the town with Javier and Devon and shared our stories. It turns out Javier is from Ecuador but he has lived in New Jersey since he was young and he just moved back to open a restaurant. Devon is a forest firefighter in Canada and is spending the next four or five months bicycling through South America (GO DEVON). We watched a small parade in the town center and discovered some snacks that tasted like the cinnamon & brown sugar pop tarts. Javier invited us to his restaurant, LuLu’s, where he treated us to some drinks and a very delicious meal of steak, salad, and rice. It is a beautiful restaurant and some of the best food we had in all of Ecuador. It was also really nice to be among other English speakers after struggling with Spanish most of the time.
Enjoying LuLu’s with New Friends
Riobamba’s Saturday markets are supposed to be pretty good, so we spent the day with Robert exploring the markets, new foods, and learning history and facts about the town and surrounding volcanos. Robert has done a lot of research on the area and we learned so much through him. It was also nice to rely on his Spanish skills to ask questions when we saw something new to us at the markets. We ate a lot that day! We started by introducing him to the pop tart-tasting rolls, and then tried a sandwich filled with a pickled fruit, followed by some bread dipped in unprocessed cane sugar syrup, a big lunch of meats and potatoes, and several fruits. Robert even bought a big guanamana fruit so we could try the juice. That was extra special because he spent at least an hour separating out the seeds before he could blend it.
One of the many Saturday markets in Riobamba
After we hit every single market in town (there were a lot), Robert was bringing us to a high point where we could have a view of all the surrounding mountains and volcanos. Just as we were walking in that direction we looked up and noticed a big ash cloud building above the Tungurahua volcano. It was pretty lucky because the volcano hadn’t performed for at least two weeks and it was our first time seeing an eruption!
Tungurahua volcano erupting
We left early the next morning by bus to Aluasi for the Devil’s Nose train ride. The town happened to be hosting a race event when we arrived and it was full of the four-foot-tall locals dressed in their traditional attire. The train route is recognized as an engineering feat for the difficulty and the switchbacks. The mountain got the name because many people died while building the railroad, but it is known by locals as Condor Mountain because, prior to the railroad, it was a popular nesting spot for the birds. The river near the mountain is interesting because it naturally flows yellow with sulfur. The route used to connect towns but currently it is just open as an amusement ride down and back up. It was very beautiful and really interesting to see how the switchbacks worked, plus riding in trains is always fun. All in all, many of our bus rides have had better views, but it was interesting!
Nariz de Diablo train ride
We didn’t find the bus stop to catch the bus to Cuenca, so we waited at a random spot along the highway with another backpacker. Although this is how the locals catch buses, it made me nervous not knowing if we were in the right place or when the next bus would come. Sure enough though, in less than 20 minutes the bus came along and we had no problems waiving it down. The views were fantastic all the way to Cuenca with green valleys, farming plots, and mellow mountains. We made it to Cuenca around 9p.m. and found the cheapest option to sleep in town: hammocks! It wouldn’t have been bad if the nights there weren’t so cold, but even being wrapped like mummies in wool blankets with multiple layers of clothes wasn’t quite enough. We toughed it out for three nights though, which must have been too long because I woke up with a strained muscle in my shoulder the third morning!
Cuenca was enjoyable, mostly for the architecture and not so much for the food. It seemed there was a historic church on every other block, and the town square hosted two cathedrals, the “old” built in the 1500s, and the “new” built in the 1800s. We spent one day going to Ingapirca, the most important Incan ruins, originally built by the Canari people and then taken over by the Incas. Only bases of walls remained of everything except the Sun Temple, which stood partially intact. A short walk from the temple is the Inca Face, a rock cliff that looks like the profile of a face from the viewpoint of the trail.
Ingapirca Ruins (Sun Temple in back)
We spent a couple days in Loja before crossing the border to Peru. The route from Cuenca to Loja had breathtaking views as the road traveled high and we could see down into valleys and small farm plots. Loja seemed quite similar to little Otavalo in Northern Ecuador, except that instead of being dominated by natives in traditional dress, it was dominated by affluent people in business suits. It is the home of a popular law university. When entering the city center, we crossed under an ornate castle entrance. It didn’t appear to be historical, so it was just kind of entertaining. We tried out a small restaurant for dinner that obviously did not receive a lot of tourists, and oh, it was a struggle to communicate! We took a long time reading over the menu trying to decipher the meanings as the owner tried to explain things to us and then gave up. When we got the two dishes that we had finally settled on, they were amusingly nothing like what we thought the descriptions meant. Apparently “tortilla” with chicken in this sense was nothing like what we know as a tortilla, not even close! It was fried plantain slices with chicken on top. Very tasty, but confusing!
Originally our plans for Northern Peru included a visit to Kuelap, Incan ruins that are said to rival Machu Picchu’s. They are set in the Northern Sierras not far from Ecuador, where few tourists venture and the cost is only a fraction of Machu Picchu. Unfortunately, the more we began to plan the route, the more difficult it seemed. We eventually found a couple blogs explaining exactly how to get there, and from Loja it would have taken two days and seven modes of transportation! It would then take the same amount of time to get from there to Lima, the capital of Peru. Being limited on time, we had to choose the easier route and sadly skip Kuelap.
The easiest way to cross into Peru was via a night bus from Loja to Piura, Peru. I was a little concerned about crossing the border at 2 a.m. but it actually turned out to be really nice. (I imagine that’s always the case, until it’s not!) It was just the border officials and our bus of people, so we didn’t have to wait in line and the border officials were friendly and made it very smooth. Yet again, entering a South American country was easier than we were made to expect!