My Travels with Andre – Ecuador

My Travels with Andre

Gringo: Term for a foreigner in Spain or Latin America, especially when of English or American origin – often used disparagingly.

Andre and Me in Vilcabamba
Andre and Me in Vilcabamba
Ecuador’s selling point may be her Galapagos Islands, basking in the sun far into the Pacific, but the heart and soul of the nation lies right down the middle. Stretching from head to toe, the Andes mountain range provides a majestic backdrop for one of South America’s most intriguing countries, a microcosm of western Earth’s lower half.

The gringo trail starts in Ecuador’s capitol, Quito, which is where I first met Andre, a German traveler with long, wavy hair and an astute taste for beer. A mere acquaintance along the beaten path, Andre would prove, time and time again, that there exists a bonefide, singular journey for those exploring Ecuador’s sierra, and there would be plenty of broken Spanish and raised glasses along the way.

Quito’s old town has charm, for certain. A maze of colonial buildings nestled between foothills, tastefully well-lit at night, old town is worth a day’s exploration. A short distance away from the impressive neo-gothic Basilica del Voto Nacional, stands Quito’s most noteworthy attraction, El Panecillo, a commanding hill crowned by the towering Virgin of Quito. The mammoth statue stands thirty meters high, and easily serves as the city’s directional landmark…as in, “Hey, Bob, the Virgin’s over there, so we must be close to the bus station.” This is, perhaps, the only place in the world where you might hear the words “virgin” and “bus station” mentioned in the same sentence.

Aside from these attractions in Old Town, Quito offers little along the lines of relaxing escapism. But outside the city, at least three quality day trips exist to keep a traveler based in the capitol for more than just a night or two.

Forty minutes away from El Panecillo, a green bus will take you from the top of the hill to the center of the earth. La Mitad del Mundo is Ecuador’s salute to the equator…except that it’s not. A little over a decade ago, GPS indicators found the true center of the Earth to be roughly 200 meters uphill from the original monument. This discovery gave birth to the Museo Inti Nan. It’s two dollars well spent to visit the real equator, and tinker with a couple experiments proving it so.

The other exceptional day-trips are both two-hours travel in each direction. To the north of Quito, the town of Otavalo rests peacefully among the hills, and is the staging point for Ecuador’s famous Saturday market. The market exists throughout the week, but Saturday is still the best day to gather local crafts while paying mark-up prices for the ever-present gringo tax. East of Quito is Papallacta, a rarely visited collection of well-maintained thermal hot springs. Ecuadorians are well aware of Papallacta and flock to the pools on weekends. But the proactive traveler can definitely manage some alone-time during the week for the bargain price of six dollars at La Termas de Papallacta.

The next stop on Ecuador’s gringo trail is tourist-friendly Baños, several hours south of Quito. Strangely, the name of the town is rather misleading. While there definitely are a number of thermal baths, one might easily mistake them for giant toilets. In fact, if you placed 100 people in front of Papallacta’s facilities and then those of Baños, all 100 would race back over to Papallacta, a few using Baños only to relieve themselves.

Baños also boasts a small, but strangely intriguing, zoo at the far end of town. For $1.50, a lazy tourist can scratch the bird-watching village of Mindo from the itinerary with a visit to the upper-level’s bird sanctuary. And while there’s no replacing the Galapagos Islands, the lower level does offer a fair selection of flightless creatures ranging from what appears to be an over-sized guinea pig to giant tortoises.

All around, Baños is a perfectly agreeable place to spend a few days exploring magnificent waterfalls, gazing at the mountains surrounding Volcan Tungurahua, and enjoying a fine selection of restaurants and bars� which is where Andre made himself quite at home on a nightly basis. “Jah-et, vee must hahv bee-ya!”

Since we both began our travels in Quito, I figured our arrival in Baños was surely just a coincidence. Thus, our re-acquaintance in my next stop, the bustling city of Riobamba, was a sign that Andre and I were stuck in some sort of flight path, streaking down the country in an orderly fashion with some other familiar-looking faces. The ground was trodden black.

Riobamba is the staging point for Nariz del Diablo. The Devil’s Nose Train is a popular tourist activity where passengers, many appropriately-dressed in their finest European traveler uniform of zip-away nylon pants, ultra-high-tech-yet-completely-unnecessary hiking boots, and safari hats, perch themselves atop the rail cars for a scenic four to five hour journey through some of the most breathtaking landscapes available in the region. The climax being a section of track at the end once noted as “the most difficult railway in the world.”

The Vilcabamba foothills
The Vilcabamba foothills
There’s a strangeness to riding the Devil’s Nose Train – the locals give you a puzzling stare. I imagine their attitude is similar to that of the Fort Apache Indians in Arizona where they’re more than happy to collect money from skiers at Sunrise Park Resort but can’t seem to figure out why a person would willingly pay good money to shoot down a snow-covered mountain with six-foot planks attached to their feet. In this case, the villagers’ stares seem to imply the question, “You do know that you are riding on top of a perfectly good train?” Still, they cheerfully wave hello despite the fact that your eleven-dollar ticket fee will never make its way to their empty wallets so as to actually one day complete the roofs over their ramshackle homes.

Careful planning for the Devil’s Nose Train is necessary as it only departs on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays at 7 a.m. An overnight’s slumber in Riobamba is essential to make it happen, but travelers have little reason for concern…especially if they are in need of bargain footwear, which seems to be more readily available along the streets than, say, a warm meal.

As most things are mildly inefficient and haphazard in Ecuador, the gringo train runs, more or less, like a well-oiled machine (assuming that we are not talking about the actual train which runs, more or less, like Ecuador). The operational smoothness exists only in the funneling in and out of tourists. As lodging comes with an overabundance in Riobamba, bus departure from the train’s terminating point, Alausí, is also immediately available to a number of destinations. They know you’re coming. Following the logical southbound path of the gringo trail, the proper bus is one headed on a four and a half hour journey to Ecuador’s third largest city, Cuenca. It’s a long day.

In 1999, Cuenca was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its colonial architecture and narrow, cobbled streets. To paint a more honest picture, it exhibits the charm and beauty of Quito’s old town without the chaos and pollution of actually being in Quito’s old town. For the most part, streets are safe, people are friendly, and the squares are lively. That being said, Cuenca is only worth but a couple days of exploration, most visitors taking in a stroll through the city center, a walk along the R�o Tomebamba, and, perhaps, a day-trip to Ecuador’s best-known Inca ruins, Ingapirca.

On my final afternoon in Cuenca, I poked into a small internet café to tend to some pressing business back in the states (ok, updating my fantasy football team). And who should be sitting at a computer, Marlboro Red hanging from his lips, but Andre the Giant. He was tall, did I mention that?
“Jah-et, it is me…Andre!” Clearly.

Several hours south of Cuenca, through Loja and nearing the Peruvian border, lies the peaceful little town of Vilcabamba. It’s hard to imagine that this tiny, out-of-the-way little place ever became a staple at the end of Ecuador’s gringo trail, but thanks to a 1955 article in Reader’s Digest touting it as “the valley of eternal youth,” Vilcabamba now rests as the trail’s final stop.

The article claimed that Vilcabamba’s citizens were living well into their hundreds, debunking the timeless theory that, really, you should be long dead before your birthday cake becomes a fire hazard. Of course, like all things seeming too good to be true (the lottery, the Atkins diet, and a Chicago Cubs pennant chase), the longevity idea soon came to pass as being highly exaggerated. Nevertheless, the hopeful eyes of travelers caught a glimpse of Vilcabamba, and to this day it remains a popular hangout.

With a wide selection of outdoor activities ranging from horseback riding, mountain-biking, and hiking the hair-raising ridgeline of the Mandango Loop, there are limitless possibilities for getting out in nature in Vilcabamba. Likewise, there are a number of available accommodations. Even so, there is simply no reason to stay anywhere other than the German-owned Izhcayluma, two kilometers uphill from the town’s square. Offering unbelievable views of the valley, the one-dollar taxi ride or twenty-minute walk to and from town is worth every penny and (or) physical effort.

The town, itself, is pleasant and slow, and spotted with small cafes and shops. It was in the main square, after playing to a sloppy and potentially rule-breaking draw in Chess with my Australian traveling friend, that he asked, peering off beyond some trees, “Mate, isn’t that your German over there?”

From a distance I heard, “Jah-et! Shall we hahv a bee-ya?” And we did. Andre, like many others before him, came to Vilcabamba in search of the hallucinogenic cactus drink, San Pedro. Backpackers beware.

Local girl on the this photo
Local girl on the bus…love this photo
There are five major points along Ecuador’s gringo trail, and I managed to meet up with Andre in every one of them. Like the backpacker spending his or her summer circling Europe, the path, here, falls like a logical mathematical equation, linking points along a line. The problem isn’t getting down, it’s getting back up. Or, rather, it’s less a problem than it is an adventure. For some, the trail continues through Peru, dropping in on Cuzco and Macchu Piccu somewhere along the way. For others, like myself, a sharp turn to the west along the Ecuadorian coast, passing through Quayaquil, Montañita, and Puerto López, and back up and around is the scenic way home. Vilcabamba becomes the crossroads at the end of the line.

I never did see Andre again once I ventured off the trail. I did my thing, and I can only assume that he did his – searching for a mystical Shaman to brew him some San Pedro.

As for me, I found what I was looking for at the end of my journey in a remote village called Chugchilán, high in the Andes. Chugchilán rests somewhat close to the gringo trail between Quito and Banos, and should rightly be considered a must-stop along the way. What is nice about this haven is that, for most travelers, it’s not a must-stop. The well-informed seek it out, and, undoubtedly, lodge in the comfort of the Black Sheep Inn. This famous eco-lodge is the best place in the village (if not all of Ecuador) to spend a few peaceful nights before discovering the rest of the trail down to Vilcabamba� where a long-haired German, possibly staring at his hand with glazed eyes, will be more than happy to share a cerveza with a stranger.

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