D. M. Buehler. 2004. Roof-top perch is a rail travel adventure. The Toronto Star. January 29, 2004.
At 8:30 pm on my first day of travel in Ecuador, I found myself seated in Quito’s glorious Iglesia de La Compañia de Jesús watching the Andean Instrument Orchestra play Bach on quenas, charangos and pan flutes. As the orchestra switched to the haunting tones of a traditional Andean ballad, I sat back to admire the golden interior of the church. La Compañia is decorated with over seven tons of gold, taken from the Incas by Spanish conquistadors centuries ago. Yet today, traditional music is being celebrated here amid the gold, played by Ecuadorians of both indigenous and Spanish descent, the music and the gold, strands of Ecuador’s historical fabric, woven together once more. This celebration of culture, past and present, is part of what makes Ecuador so attractive to the visitor. Ecuadorians have a lot to be proud of, and the fact that I was invited to an exclusive concert by complete strangers mere hours after landing in Quito, is a testimony to the kindness of the Ecuadorian people and their eagerness to share their country with visitors.
Lying along the equator with Columbia to the north and Peru to the south, Ecuador is no bigger than the state of Nevada, yet it has some of the world’s most varied geography. The country can be divided into four regions, a low coastal region to the west, the Andes running north/south in the middle, the jungles of the Amazon Basin to the east, and the Galapagos Archipelago off the Pacific coast. My Ecuador experience mirrored that of many budget travelers and focused on the Andean highland region.
The Andes Mountains bisect the country and hold the majority of the country’s 13 million inhabitants including its capital city, Quito. At 2850m Quito is the second highest capital city on earth (after La Paz, Bolivia) and with its modern tram and bus system I found it easy to explore on my own. The northern part of the city, known as the New Town, is modern and houses major businesses, embassies and travel agencies, but I gravitated towards the colonial Old Town to the south. With its narrow streets, beautifully restored plazas, and gorgeous colonial churches the Old Town is a delight, and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.
But Ecuador offers much more than beautiful cities. Three days after my arrival in Quito I found myself near the summit of Volcan Cayambe, gazing in disbelief at the spectacular lobes and crevices of a glacier on the equator! It was hard to know whether my breathlessness was from the beauty or from the fact that I was hiking at 5000m. At 5750m, Cayambe is the highest peak in the world which lies on the equator and is a wonderful discovery for travelers who want to avoid tourist crowds at the only slightly higher Volcan Cotopaxi to the south.
Slightly more touristy, but a wonderfully different way to see the countryside, is the train from Riobamba to Alausí. Although passenger cars are available, most people ride on the roof. When I first heard of roof-top riding, I pictured a roof-top sitting area … imagine my surprise as I climbed a thin ladder up to the sloped roof of a box car, armed with nothing but a small plastic cushion! Although it felt a little precarious at first, my rooftop position offered a perfect view of Ecuador’s rich farmland, a mosaic of velvet greens blending with rich browns on the mountain slopes. The ride finished with a hair raising descent down el Nariz del Diablo (the Devil’s Nose), a sheer rock face that the train navigated by advancing and backing up on a zigzag of track cut out of the rock.
A single experience marred what was otherwise a wonderful excursion and it highlights the importance of responsible tourism when visiting developing countries. On the train many vendors walked the roof and a few of them encouraged tourists to buy candy for the children of the mountain villages. The children gathered around the train and vendors as well as tourists threw the candy to them. Obviously, the tourists felt that their gift was bringing a bit of joy into the children’s lives, but the result was just the opposite. The kids scrambled all over one another on the ground like dogs for the candy. The scene brought tears to my eyes. I have seen a great number of poor people in my travels and one thing that always strikes me is their dignity. But throwing cheap offerings to children as if they were animals robs them of their dignity. It teaches them that the people riding high on the train are better than them, it teaches them that tourists will give them treats for nothing, it teaches them to beg.
When traveling it is important to think about how your actions affect the cultures you are visiting. For example, giving candy to children in a mountain town with no dentists often causes more pain than joy, even if it is donated face to face in a dignified manner. If you would like to give something to the country while traveling, better options could be donations to local schools, or recognized agencies which provide food and housing in poor neighborhoods. Another avenue for donations are conservation agencies that train locals as guides.
Ecuador may be a poor country in terms of GDP figures and other measures of economic growth, but in terms of history, culture and natural beauty it is very rich. During my visit the country and its inhabitants delighted me; from wandering the colorful Saturday market in Otavalo, to soaking in the hot springs at Baños after a day of hiking around Volcan Tungurahua, to gazing in wonder at a towering Podocarpus tree (now Prumnopithis montana) in Podocarpus National Park. From its equatorial location in el mitad del mundo (the middle of the world), Ecuador offers a bit of everything and is a joy to visit.