September 2, 2009
Ecuador is leading a trend to continuously improve its vast and varied menu of tourism attractions by introducing innovative elements to its tours and programs. As an example, this is the case with Metropolitan Touring’s “Chiva Express Rail Adventures” which provide several alternatives and durations to choose from.
A couple of weeks ago I joined a rather numerous group of Italian tourists; some Britons; a couple from Australia; a few North Americans and Ecuadorians, all headed for a unique tour along the legendary Avenue of Volcanoes. Early in the morning we all congregated in the historic and recently renovated “Chimbacalle” Railway Station of Quito.
At the Station, the colorfully painted “Chiva” (a traditional coastal bus-type, originary from the coast of Ecuador), this one on tracks, a one-car, motorized train was waiting for us. Comfortable seats, large panoramic windows, a toilet, small galley and a small outdoor observation platform at the rear provided the means for a superbly scenic, cultural and educational trip. Sylvia, Juan Carlos and Guillermo, the guides, greeted us, briefed us about safety, provided instructions for the voyage and described in a general outline the program for the day.
Soon we were choo-chooing (actually loudly honking) our way across the southern outskirts of Quito, while the magnificent Avenue of the Volcanoes began dominating the scenery. As the capital city started fading behind us, the overwhelming mountain landscapes inevitably captured our attention. No wonder, centuries ago, Alexander Von Humboldt graphically described this part of the Andes, and one more icon of Ecuador’s privileged nature, as an “Avenue of Volcanoes”.
As we headed south, we could see to our right, perfectly lined out, the Western Range of the Andes with Cotacachi’s pointed summit in the background and the colossal volcanic building of Mt.Pichincha dominating the scene over Quito. Further south, Atacazo and Corazon’s rocky summits were soon followed by the twin, glacier-covered peaks of North and South Iliniza. Whilst, to our left, equally lined up, the Eastern Andean Range, gave us full views of the snow covered summit of Mt.Cayambe, looking like a giant scoop of vanilla ice cream; followed by another magnificent giant: Antisana Volcano, its enormous caldera surrounded by incredible snow and glaciers. Next in sight were the old and broken calderas of Pasochoa, Sincholagua and Rumiñahui Voclanoes. No doubt, we were traveling through the very middle of a natural avenue, lined with volcanoes and snow covered peaks, all well above 4500 meters above sea level and up to over 6300 meters. Soon we began catching glimpses, which later turned into awe inspiring fabulous views of the mythical Cotopaxi, the highest active volcano on earth with its perfectly shaped cone covered with perpetual snows and millenary glaciers shinning in the sunny morning. Our guides explained the geographical and geological features of this unique part of the planet as we passed along green valleys, plateaus, gorges, terraced fields covered with wheat, barley, corn and vegetables. The guides provided us with lots of fascinating information about the land and the people. We crossed by small picturesque towns, looking much like school children’s drawings, and we waved back at the smiling adults and kids warmly saluting the train’s occupants as we passed by on the tracks.
Our first stop was at the heart of the luxuriantly fertile valley of Machachi. We descended for a special visit to Hacienda La Alegria, a centenary property where the guests have the opportunity to see the life and deeds of a productive rural farm and a direct contact with the local people. Here we were shown the old and traditional way of hand-milking cows (even though the farm has all the modern technology and instruments to do it industrially). Next was a typical Andean Rodeo, where the “chagras” (the native “cowboys), wearing their traditional and colorful garments, showed their skills with the lasso on horseback. Guests were given the chance to stroll and take pictures amongst a group of llamas, vicunas and alpacas.
And, to top the visit, a bountiful mid-morning local “brunch” was served in the beautifully decorated farm house, dating from 1911, with the owners graciously greeting the visitors and telling us the fascinating stories of the property, its past and present. On the table, coffee or delicious hot chocolate (made with the farm’s processed milk); home made bread from the farm’s ancient ovens; steaming “humitas” (elongated corn patties filled with cheese); a variety of local cheeses and a superb display of fruit juices, all typical of Ecuador, set the perfect pause to continue our journey… The story will continue with a second part soon…