Monday, 15 August 2011

South to the Devil’s nose


After two weeks of bar flying in Finn McCool's my liver was happy to be leaving Quito. The rest of me was thinking “another week wouldn't of hurt”.

The bus ride to Banos was less than 4 hours and my day bag spent the entire time nestled between my feet! See, I can learn from my mum will be so proud.

The town of Banos has changed a little in the preceding 17 years since I was last here. The vibe has gone from a village to a small town feel and I’m not saying that is a bad thing. I found a great little hotel complete with a pack of small yapping dogs which would “go for me” every time the owner wasn't around (the result was andrew 4 dogs 0).

There's lots to do in Banos but all I did was get a massage, twice, lounge in the garden hammock and detox. I did bimble out to the bars on a couple of nights for a cheeky beer or two and I was glad to see the landlords observing the anti smoking laws in a typical Latin American way. On my second night out “it happened again”. Sitting in the bar a young local lad of about 23 or 24 came up to me and said those words...“Stone cold?....Stone cold?'re Stone Cold Steve Austin!”. Once again I had to pose “bulldog style” whilst his mate took a picture of us together!!!!

On Friday morning I left Banos and got on a bus to the nearby town of Ambato. When I got there I stood on a street corner for 45 minutes till a bus bound to Guaranda came around the bend.

The road to Guaranda tops out at around 4300m and passes close to the dormant volcano of Chimborazo. The snow laden peaks were shinning bright in between the clouds and the tussock grass gave grazing for the llamas. By the time the bus had dropped me off in the centre of town my left eye was being itchily irritated by something. After finding a hotel I flushed out my eye but the damage was already done. By the early evening my eye lid had swollen to at least 5 times its normal size and the white of my eye was now mostly red.

In the morning I woke up and opened my eye! My left eye was glued shut with dried out pus and mucus. Once I had washed it all away I had a close look at it...on the Brightside I could still see out of it!

Guaranda is a pleasant enough town to hang out in for a day but I ended up staying there for the weekend, trying unsuccessfully not to keep rubbing my left eye. Thankfully I had cable tv and there were football matches to watch.

On Monday morning I got a pick-up ride to the small village of Salinas. It was only 30kms away but it was at 3500m in elevation. So it was uphill ride all the way standing in the back of the pick-up. I had great views and rock hard sticky out was cold okay!

Arriving in Salinas I got a room in the only hotel in town and as it was half way up a hill I had a good view of the village from the balcony adjacent to my $6pn room.

After spending two weeks in Quito at 2800m I was fully being at 2800m, Salinas is at 3500m which is higher. Walking around the village in the afternoon was a slight slow affair and when the mist rolled in and shrouded the place I retreated to a small well stocked deli for cheeses and hot chocolate. Salinas in famous in Ecuador for its co-op cheeses, so at least I wouldn’t go hungry!

The next day I went down into the village for breakfast. I returned to the deli for great coffee, warm bread and cheese. A few doors down was the “cheese factory” and from all the outlying farms and homesteads people were bringing in their milk on the backs of horses, furry donkeys and llamas. All the animals were tied up at the gate whilst the local dogs wandered around sniffing warily.

After breakfast I went for a bimble and for the 1st time since august 2009 my Nikon SLR came along. I followed a road up and out of the square which quickly became a footpath. Walking uphill from 3500m my heart was beating faster than normal and after 500m my paced had reduced to a slow bimble.

Walking along the side of a valley the views were great and peaceful. After a couple of miles I turned left and headed up and over the ridge. Nearing a small village I stopped to catch my breath, turning around I saw a snow capped mountain in the distance, the strong wind wisping snow of its peak. Passing through the village I headed along a gravel road (it's so much easier on my ankle) and followed its downhill course for several miles. It wound its way through glorious countryside till at last it turned a corner and brought me back into Salinas.

Wednesday morning came around and found me (and once again rock hard sticky out nipples) standing in the back of a pick-up to Guaranda and then a bus to Riobamba.

Arriving in Riobamba just after midday I tossed a coin and walked the 2kms downhill into the centre of town. I got a room in the delightful Hotel Tren Dorado ($15pn en suite, cable tv and way to many mirrors) crashed out on the bed, turned on the tv and had a siesta.

In the evening I wandered up the main drag to a bar I had seen on my walk into town. The name of the bar was “Zona Futbol” and as Quito were playing Guayaquil the place was rather busy. I managed to get a stool at the bar and once again smiled when I saw the sinecero.

The next day I bimbled around the city of honourable firsts as Riobamba is sometimes known, checking out several squares and a few markets. I also booked a days downhill mountain biking for the following day!

On Friday it was time to get back on the saddle for the 1st time since last November. I was looking forward to it, especially as it was about 50kms of mostly downhill action. I was joined for the day by a young Irish lad called Lambert (I resisted the urge to ask him if he had a twin brother called Butler).

The starting point for the day was high up on the slopes of Chimobarzo. Turning off the Riobamba to Guaranda road at the national park entrance the pick up snaked its way upwards for 8kms before coming to a halt at a lodge/teashop 4800m above sea level. From there it was possible to walk 1km uphill to another lodge at 5000m, neither myself of Lambert could be arsed.

Instead we got on the bikes and headed back the way we came along the loose gravel road to the park entrance. I don't recall ever being higher than this and for the 1st few miles I took it easy. The views of the mountain and desolate slopes were...wait for it...Awesome! The last 3 miles I went a little faster and I didn't forget that the brake levers were the wrong way around. Sliding to a full stop (they're not my tyres!) at the park entrance I took in the views before going along another gravel road for 1000m into a headwind.

After that it was a quick 800m blast along the tarmac before once again going off road. This time it was just a bumpy track meandering across the tussock grass landscape. I'll admit that I don't have much experience of “off roading” but I do know how to ride a bike.

30 minutes later we were back on the tarmac for a fast 2km descent before slamming on the brakes and jumping off the road and onto another track. This one was smooth rolling compacted dirt and even with disc brakes on both wheels I still managed to overshoot a tight left hand turn.

To get back onto the tarmac I had to cycle uphill!!!! it was only for about 150m or so and I was surprised when my knee didn't complain. After a 3km blast on the black stuff it was off road once again. This time it was a steepish climb for just over a mile. It was so easy I did it whilst smoking a fag. Mind you I was sitting in the back of the pick-up. Myself and Lambert couldn't be bothered with completely unnecessary uphill cycling.

Once a the top we got back on the bikes and headed down and along a valley towards an old Inca Tambo, which is basically a small military outpost built alongside a trade route. Going along the valley Lambert learnt a “golden rule of mountain biking”. The 4x4 track was smooth and fast and I was leading the way. Taking a sloping corner at speed I slammed the brakes on when I saw that the track went across a small stream. The loose pebbles, gravel and wet sand were beyond my skill level. It was then that I heard Lambert say “O shit”, the squeal of brakes and him going over the handle bars and landing on his back.

I turned around and watched him get back on his feet. I asked him if he enjoyed learning the lesson of “don't travel to close to the guy in front” the hard way!

A few minutes later we were at the Tambo. It was several large stones lying around near a natural spring whose crystal clear waters were slightly effervescent and rich in minerals. Following a rest and lunch break we got back in the pick-up and travelled uphill and over a ridge.

From here it was downhill all the way. Firstly along a grass track, then a slightly sandy 4x4 track (which was nervously fun), then 9kms of graded gravel roads before returning to tarmac for the final 5kms.

The end of the days ride was in a small village and as I approached the outskirts traffic calming speed bumps appeared. When I was on my touring bike these used to really annoy me as I had to slow right down to go over them. However today I was on a mountain bike....

Saturday and Sunday was a good weekend for sport and lounging. On Monday it was time to get back on the road, I was off to see the devil's nose!

Right now the Ecuadoran government is spending a shed load of money replacing the train tracks between Quito and Guayaquil. This meant that at the moment the line south of Riobamba is out of action. Therefore to ride the Devil's nose I had to travel 2 hours down the road by bus to the small town of Alausi.

I found the town of Alausi to be rather pleasant and I splashed the cash and paid $17pn for a really cool hotel room with the hottest and most powerful shower I’ve had in south America. After a leisurely stroll around the small town I purchased a ticket for the following days train ride to the devil's nose.

The next day I was at the train station just after 10:30 for the 11am departure. The 3 carriages were only half full so everyone got a window seat. As the train pulled out of the station I relaxed in the seat and looked out of the window, 10 seconds later I had a camera in my hand!

It took about an hour to reach the devil's nose and the views were wonderful. The tracks hugged the terrain, curving their way halfway up a narrow valley. As the train was going downhill the brake men on each of the carriages were earning their money. Every time I looked they were busy turning the brake wheels on and off.

Finally we reached the devil's nose. It marks the end of the valley and the train needs to descend into the valley floor to continue in the direction of Guayaquil. However, it's steep and there’s not much room. The engineers solved this by using a coupe of switchbacks only a few metres apart in places. Once a the bottom of the valley the train pulled into a station for an hour. Plenty of time for photos, lunch and a walk around.

When the hour was up the train blew its whistle and everyone got back on board for the return journey to Alausi...backwards!

The next day I was on the 10:30 bus and when it finally left just after 11am I had a 4 to 5 ride to the town of.....