Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Riding the Devil's Nose, Epic Cuisine in Cuenca, and a Surprise Summit in Loja

An old railcar in Alausi.
Chris described our experience with La Nariz del Diablo (the Devil's Nose) as the first time we've done something of touristic proportions comparable to attractions in Canada. 

The aforementioned is a mountain found along a short stretch of the Ecuadorian railway, famous for traversing the steep cliff-sides between Alausi and Sibambe. When the tracks reach the Devil's Nose, the train descends the mountainside via a series of switchbacks that require the train to travel both forwards and backwards as it zig-zags its way down to the Sibambe station. Until a few years ago, it was possible to ride on top of the railway cars, affording passengers a panoramic view and a pretty thrilling ride above a deep river valley. And then someone died so now people have to stay in the railcars.  :( 

After an early morning bus ride from Riobamba, we arrived in Alausi and hiked down from the Panamerican Hi-way to the train station. The entire town seemed to be suffering a power outage, a seemingly regular occurrence, if the number of generators vibrating noisily outside banks, stores, and hotels were to be taken as evidence. Thus, the railway staff were unable to look up our reservation to print our tickets. Nonetheless, they assured us everything would be ready by the time the train was ready to depart, so we forked over the $40 (outrageous by Ecuadorian standards) and followed the security guard to the luggage storage room (a bathroom).

Buildings across from the train station platform.

Admiring the green mountains that tower over the Alausi townsite.

Great HDR of a train-bus in Alausi.
After a light breakfast, we returned to the train station and boarded the train, grumbling when we realized our seats were on the left side of the car (we'd requested the right side as the views are known to be better) AND were so close to the front that we could almost touch our noses to the wood-paneled divider we were facing. However, a few minutes after leaving the station, the guide noticed Chris's (fancy) camera and moved us to the front two seats on the right side, which were probably the best seats on the train!

Not as awesome as being on top of the rail car but still pretty neat.
Workers on the train.
As we wound our way towards the Devil's Nose, the guide gave a bit of history on the Ecuadorian railway and the particular section we were travelling. Notably absent was any mention of the death that resulted in us having to stay in our seats... The views were pretty great and it was cool to see the engineering feat that permitted Alausi to be connect by rail to Sibambe... but overall I think the hype surrounding this attraction mostly revolved around the novelty of riding on top of the railcars and it's nowhere near the same experience nowadays. Frankly, the views during all of our bus rides throughout Ecuador have been as or more spectacular. And travelling by bus is definitely more terrifying! We also could've done without the hour of free time in Sibambe. Not much to see aside from locals who are paid to dress up in traditional clothes and dance for the supposed entertainment of us tourists. Ahh well. We did get a complimentary sandwich and juice at the station cafeteria.

La Nariz del Diablo (The Devil's Nose). Switchbacks allow the train to descend the mountainside.
From Alausi we caught a bus to Cuenca, a medium-sized city in the central south of Ecuador. We'd heard from some other travellers that Manu Chao was playing in Cuenca that night and it turned out that the stadium was quite close to our hostal. We thought about going but were starving and exhausted... I looked on the internet and found that it was his first concert series in Ecuador in 13 years. We figured we probably wouldn't be able to get tickets at the door and decided just to listen to the music from our hostal. I sort of wish we'd tried to go but we really weren't up for it at the time, after two days of travel. 

One thing I have not yet commented on in these blogs is how frustrated we've been with our Lonely Planet guide book. The edition is 3 years old but was the only one available when we needed it. We've been finding that the majority of the restaurants listed in the guide are no longer operational. Unfortunately, we've typically walked several blocks before finding this out and are so hungry by that point that we make a hasty decision on an alternate eatery only to be very disappointed with our meals. Cuenca was no exception. So, we decided to try a different resource, Tripadvisor, and Chris found a restaurant called Tiesto's near our hostal with exceptional reviews. 

Beautiful Cuenca. The basilica is unique due to its short towers. I think they ran out of materials or something... 
Our first attempt to go there found us staring angrily at yet another empty building and we thought even Tripadvisor had let us down. It turned out we'd just had the address off by a block. We returned the next evening around 6 pm and strolled into the restaurant, only to notice immediately that every table had a reservation placard on it.... The staff took pity on us, probably because we were so much earlier than the majority of the reservations, and let us have a table with the caveat that we vacate by 8pm. 

We scanned the menu, which consisted of mostly family-style dishes to share among 4 people. There was a note that the dishes could be prepared for a minimum of 2 people, however, so we selected The Festival de Carne, a platter of several different grilled meats, and informed our server. She uttered a few sentences in Spanish and appeared to be trying to suggest we eat something else, gesturing to another option on the menu. We were confused but resigned and when she left we were wondering what we were going to end up with for dinner and did she really just tell us we couldn't have what we wanted to order? A moment later, a man approached our table, clasped my hand and, after the typical formalities, said "You wish to have the Festival de Carne?" to which I replied, "Si", which he immediately countered with an emphatic "No!" .........Chris and I exchanged bewildered glances while the man informed us that he was the chef and launched into a speech (in Spanish), the gist of which was that he knew better what we would like and would prepare it for us straightaway. Dumfounded, we agreed, and he returned to the kitchen while we stared at each other, shocked by what had just transpired and dreading yet another disappointing meal. 

Stairway graffiti in Cuenca.

Meanwhile, the server brought us a tray of small clay dishes filled with assorted salsas, including aji (tipical hot sauce), hot peppers, white onions marinated in herbs and oil, an apple chutney, pineapple chopped with star anise and onion, chimichurri, and many other mixtures I couldn't discern. We began sampling them on some bread and were blown away by the complex flavors. Amazing! Then the chef returned with our main dishes - 1. chicken breasts in a curry sauce with macadamia nuts and fresh herbs, and 2. medallions of beef in a tomato cream sauce with a slice of fresh tomato and parmesan cheese baked on top of each. He served me a piece of chicken and then assembled 3 of the salsas in front of my plate, instructing me to have my first bite with this one, followed by that one, and finally that one. I obliged and was absolutely blown away. Again. Each combination was different and brought out unique aspects of the main sauce. It was delicious!!! 

While Chris dug into his steak and I watched his face melt into absolute bliss with every bite, the server brought bowls filled with various side-dishes including a fresh salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, and gooseberries, as well as a mango salad with chives and a creamy dressing, a pasta salad with tiny spherical pasta beads (looked like couscous), a bean salad, rice, potatoes.... so many dishes! So many flavors! It was totally amazing. After we'd switched and each sampled the other main dish along with the many sides, we cleaned our plates and still somehow managed to find room for dessert. We enjoyed a chocolate mousse cake on a plate decorated with chocolate and fruit sauces such that the cake appeared to be sitting on a bed of flowers. It too was incredibly delicious. We were so pleased with our experience that we requested a reservation for the following night. The chef, grinning, obliged. Now, get this: our entire meal, including a $32 bottle of wine, cost $61. Yes, that's right. The meal itself only cost $30!!! And it was seriously the best meal I have ever eaten. Yah. Amazing.

The next day, all we could think about was what we were going to have for supper that night. We distracted ourselves by going to the movie theater to see Tower Heist. When the movie started I was annoyed because the picture was out of focus. Chris seemed irritated too and a few minutes later he leaned over and said something about it being ridiculous and maybe we should leave. I said they'd probably fix it shortly. What I didn't realize was that he was referring to the fact that the movie was playing in Spanish, overdubbed instead of with spanish subtitles as the schedule had said. I hadn't even noticed! Haha. We left and got our money back. Not THAT confident in our spanish. Plus, as Chris pointed out, so much of Eddie Murphy's comedy is simply his delivery! Doubt they could've replicated that in Spanish.

A similar incident occurred the previous day when we walked to the river valley to read our books in the sunshine and. I turned on my Kindle and started reading. After about half a page I thought, 'that's strange... I don't remember these characters... Hmm, I must've been really tired the last time I was reading.' I flipped back to the start of the chapter to refresh my memory and read for about 15 minutes before finally realizing that I was reading Chris's book. He'd borrowed my Kindle and loaded his book because I was using his Kindle for the travel guide. Oh boy... 

We had a good laugh about it but the truth is, the source of my distraction is rather sad. I've been hesitant to mention it in this blog but I now think it should be included in this account of our trip because it's affecting me quite significantly. Shortly after we left Canada my gramma was admitted to hospital. Although she'd seemed in fine health at Christmas time, she became ill in the new year and was diagnosed with cancer. My parents told me about this while we were still in Costa Rica. At that time, my gramma was undergoing tests but was able to be at home while her treatment was being developed, etc. Unfortunately, she began suffering from some other complications and things have started looking less optimistic over the past few months. She was hospitalized again recently. Last week my parents told me that she will not be able to return home. I have so many wonderful memories of time spent with my gramma and those are what have been foremost on my mind, often distracting me from our daily activities. I am very sad about this turn of events and hope my gramma will recover despite the way things are sounding. It's hard to be far away, in another part of the world when someone who has been so important, so influential in my life, is seriously unwell. I'm glad the rest of my family is there to support her and let her know what I'm thinking about her a lot. 

Our second dinner at Tiesto's - Langostina (jumbo shrimp) in a butter, garlic, herb sauce,  and beef medallions in a bacon mushroom cream sauce. Note all the little pots of salsas and side-dishes. Amazing dinner!!!
So, dinner number 2. We arrived punctually and the chef, waving at us from the kitchen, shouted, "Surf and turf tonight?" to which I replied, "We will eat whatever you want to serve us. You're the boss!" He laughed and we settled into our seats, mouths watering in anticipation. He soon brought us a steaming dish of langostina (jumbo shrimp) in a salty, buttery, garlicy sauce. The shrimp were fully intact (i.e. not peeled or beheaded or anything) and, after watching me struggle for a moment to peel it, the chef stepped in and took care of it with ease, even cutting the meat into bite-sized portions for me! Haha. He then convinced me to eat part of the shrimp that sure looked like the head but he swore it wasn't... it was crunchy and buttery - pretty good but I was still a little squeamish about eating innards or something...

The second dish of the night was beef medallions, this time in a creamy mushroom sauce with bacon. It was delicious. And the meat was so tender! I don't know where this guy gets his beef, but it's better than any beef we've had on this trip and as good as Alberta beef! We had dessert again, this time a praline torte. Mmmmmmmmm. I think it was probably a good thing that we had to leave Cuenca the next day or we might've been making a third reservation!

Dessert - praline torte amazingness.

From Cuenca we traveled further south to the small city of Loja, located adjacent to Parque Nacional Podocarpus, which is famous for it's impressive biodiversity, including several endangered species such as the mountain tapir, spectacled bear, and northern pudu. Boasting a variety of microclimates, the park also hosts an exceptional range of vegetation. We prepared for a day-hike on the following day and hired a taxi to take us to the park. Contrary to what our Lonely Planet said, the taxi refused to take us all the way up to the refugio, dropping us instead at the control point, leaving us with an 8.5 km hike up to the trailhead. After signing in with the park staff we began our ascent, happy to be in the fresh air after our long bus ride the previous day. It was a beautiful setting with great views of the surrounding mountains and agricultural practices that include crops sown into even the steepest slopes.

We'd walked for barely a kilometer when a guy in a pick-up truck offered us a ride to the top. He was an electrician from Quito and had been hired to do some electrical work up at the refuge. Since we'd been lucky to avoid the pre-hike hike, we decided to do the longest self-guided hike in the park: a loop called La Mirador. It turned out to be an incredibly challenging hike over rocky and muddy terrain, with a long stretch across ridge with steep ravines on both sides. We had to climb parts of it because it was so steep and we both had minor falls a couple of times. After reaching the first mirador (viewpoint), we figured out out that we were basically summitting one of the mountains. My legs and lungs were burning but it seemed we had no choice but to press on in the hopes that the return portion of the loop would be easier than returning the way we'd come. The views were incredible from so high up and it was even clear for all but the very last part of our ascent (hence no photos from the summit).

View from the first lookout, about halfway up.
View of Loja to the northwest.

Our path, visible along the top of the ridge in the foreground, climbing up and down and up up up into the clouds! This stretch was about a kilometer but there was a major elevation gain and we above 4000 m, according to the map at the refuge.
Making my way up the ridge. The path is visible behind me, stretching into the distance, back down to the first viewpoint. You can also see the hi-way below. Waaaay below.
Out of breath... I mean, stopping to enjoy the view.

We returned to the refuge and nursed our aching muscles while scarfing down our packed lunch. The electrician was still on site but it was only early afternoon and neither of us were brave enough to ask what time he'd be returning to the control station. We packed up and started the hike down, making it about a kilometer before we perked up at the sound of the truck approaching us from the road behind. We hopped into the back of the truck, extremely grateful for the lift, and enjoyed the views without the need for any further exertion (save to hold onto the truck-bed frame). The electrician was staying in Loja so he actually drove us all the way back to town! Such good luck!!!

After showering and resting for a bit we were famished. Chris was keen to try the local delicacy called cuy, more commonly known as guinea pig, and our guidebook recommended a place called Salon Lolita. We arrived to find it still there (hurray!) and were directed to the kitchen to place our order. Chris requested a medium-sized cuy and I ordered pork. As expected, the cuy arrived, roasted whole on a platter of potatoes in a savoury sauce. I can imagine few less appetizing things... Chris graciously covered the beast's head with a napkin so I could eat my own meal without staring into its gaping mouth, which still contained a set of tiny charred teeth!

Cuy!!!! So named for the sound the make as they are... yah, you get the idea.

Chris, ready to dig in!

Chris, maybe not so read to dig in after all. 
It wasn't so bad - I ate a small piece that Chris slid onto my plate (no way I was going to touch the thing with my fork and knife) and it had the same texture as chicken only slightly more rubbery and definitely had more flavor than chicken. I almost thought it tasted a bit fishy. Not sure why, but Chris didn't agree. He made a valiant effort, eating most of the meat that was easily accessible. After dinner we treated ourselves to some cake from a local bakery and ate it in the central park, feeling like we'd really earned it after our strenuous hike up the mountain.

We've had a few conversations about what food we miss most from home and what we will want to eat first when we return. We both agree that we miss home-cooked food, listing Chris's mom's thanksgiving dinner and my mom's prime rib roast with various sides at the tops of our lists. We also said we will have to request that Chris's dad make Chinese food for us again or, at the very least, hot and sour soup. And then we skyped with Chris's family and found out they'd had hot and sour soup for dinner that very night!! Strange. Anyway, yes, we also miss cooking together. Maybe some of the hostals we'll stay during the next leg of our journey will have decent kitchens.

Today is our final day in Ecuador! Aiyeee! Hard to believe it has been almost 2 months since we arrived here. What an amazing experience so far! Tomorrow we will take a nine-hour bus ride to Piura, Peru. If all goes well, we'll be across the border by mid-day and on to the next chapter of our adventure.

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