Riobomba is a small and fairly uneventful town, smack in the middle of Ecuador. It is, however, an absolute haven for trekking. Every second shop is a mountaineering store for all the equipment needed to survive Ecuador’s terrain! One of the most popular excursions is to a nearby volcano that reaches up to 5000m in altitude. Unfortunately for us, we have very limited time to get to Cusco for the Inca Trail hike and so, a three day hike in Riobomba is not on our itinerary.
We chose Riobomba because of its supposedly amazing train ride down to Aluasi! The most beautiful scenery in Ecuador is just South of Alausi on a stretch called “La Nariz del Diablo” (The Devil’s Nose). So we spent the evening in Riobomba hanging out in our hotel room (that’s right, hotel, moving up in the world from 24 person dorms!) and having a couple bottles of wine with some tunes. The three of us were pretty stoked to have a place to ourselves to kick back in, and as an added bonus there was even a very random fireworks display that went on right outside our window. Lovely evening!
The next morning we went to check out the train to Alausi. Turns out they’ve changed their policy since Lonely planet was there last, and the train ONLY does a round trip route from Riobomba to Alausi and back and skips the Devil’s nose stretch entirely. If we wanted to see the Devil’s nose, we had to bus the two hours south and catch the train from there. Oh well…
So we explored Riobomba first: that took a total of 45 minutes and all we saw were a couple churches and a giant cooked pig. Riobomba is not a very interesting city as far as tourist sites go.
So we hopped in a bus and set of for Alausi. Alausi is even smaller than Riobomba. The town has a mere 8000 residents, and is only a couple city blocks long. The town sits in a deep valley, which made for a beautiful drive in. As we descended the mountain towards Alausi, we were above the clouds. The mountaintops were like steep islands floating in the air, and the clouds below like waves. But once you made it far enough down the valley, the city was veiled in a low hanging fog that I kept saying felt “magical”. There was a giant statue of San Pedro that loomed above the town on a small hill, and the thing looked eerie and mystical covered in the clouds’ mist. I am almost always a fan of small towns over big cities when I travel, but it does mean there’s not much activity going on in the evening. So we spent the night telling stories and playing cards and had a great time! We tried out some strange Ecuadorean liquor that was peach flavored, and it was quite tasty, even though the bottle looked 50 years old and was covered in dust when we picked it up from the corner store.
For dinner we ate our favorite: street food! A lady was selling fresh made French fries with fried chicken in a bag. It was laid on a thin layer of shredded lettuce and topped with mayo, ketchup and a liquid mix of tomatoes, red onion, cilantro and light vinegar. Say what you will about eating food on the side of the street, but the bags were a $1.25 a piece, delicious, and filled us up for the evening!
At 6:45 in the morning, the alarm went off. Time to head out on our train ride! We bought tickets and grabbed a snack from the bakery then headed out. The train was one of those “old school choo choo trains” (as we described it). It slowly trucked along the tracks between 12 and 15km/hour and into the countryside. Diane and I had seats on the left side of the train, and not 2 minutes into our trip the announcer said, “to let you know, 95% of the scenery will be seen from the right side of the train…” Fabulous. Good thing Adam is the better photographer and took hundreds of shots of the scenery.
The place was beautiful though! I can see why it’s so popular. The morning sky was nothing like the previous nights’ and was cloudless and blue! This region of Ecuador is much more mountainous, and this area in particular had steep mountainsides and deep valley’s that ended with the small Alausi river winding through the bottom. I instantly decided that I love valleys. They are beautiful to look at, great to take photos of and fun to train through! I have no better reason than that.
The devil’s nose mountain really does look like a giant nose. From an aerial photograph we saw in the museum later, the whole mountain looks like a crocodile, with two eyes, a long snout and the train tracks act as a mouth. It is named the Devil’s nose after all the local folklore that surrounds the area. It was believed that satanic spirits haunted the mountain. The spirits did not want a railway track built there. Locals claim that goats blocking the tracks turned into devilish imps to chase away the workers. Others claim to have seen a man standing at the end of the nose with a red cape and glowing red eyes. During the making of the track, there was a collapse in part of the mountain that killed thousands of migrant workers from Jamaica: another bad omen. But whatever the case, the mountain is STUNNING!! Our whole tour was just a short couple hours, with an hour break to check out the museum and have a sandwich for breakfast.
Once we got back to Alausi, we immediately booked a ticket to Machala, a town on the south-west border of Ecuador. The two buses we took were less than appealing to say the least. The first bus was 4 hours of sickening curves and stomach-turning lurches. I had to take a gravol within the first half hour or I wouldn’t have made it without vomiting (did I mention Ecuadorian buses don’t have bathrooms?). We had to switch buses in Guayaquil, which was way out of our way. Diane and I kept trying to find a faster way to get there, by jumping off in a small town and waving down a bus going the other direction. Our bus attendant must have hated us, because even though he explained to us several times that this was the only route to Machala, we kept coming up to him with the map to ask about other possibilities. Anything to not have 5 hours of backtracking!!
We ended up in Guayaquil after all… The bus station was massive and we were tired and lost. One thing we did figured out though, is that if you stand still in a bus station anywhere in South America long enough, looking like a dumb gringo and staring around with a dazed expression, someone will help you. Almost immediately a guy came up to us, asked where we were going, showed us to the proper desk and then took us right to the bus (and it’s a good thing he did, because our bus left in 3 minutes).
Our second bus took twice as long as it should have. It was hot, muggy, crowded and 6 hours long. Once all the seats were full, the bus driver started loading up the isle full of people. We were seated in the back of the bus and there was a mom and three children standing in the isle next to us. I was so exhausted, but felt so bad for the kids who after a half hour standing looked tired. I offered my lap for one of the little girls to sit on, then Diane did the same. For the next couple hours it was smoldering heat, way overcrowded, both our legs went numb with the kids sitting on them and the roads were old and neglected. At one point we were stuck in an hour-long traffic jam in a small town that happened to have a parade route going down the center of it. I think the three of us were delighted when we finally arrived in rainy Machala and checked into our room.