Thursday, September 1, 2011

Ecuador – Alausí & Riobamba: a waste of time

The big debate: To stop
 in Alausí,or not to stop?
Our 3rd stop in Ecuador is the tiny village of Alausí, that is only on the tourist map because of the famous
Devil's Nose train ride. Alausí is the only place to board this train that climbs down this engineering marvel. At one point in time, the train continued all the way from Quito to Guayaquil until a El Niño storm washed out the tracks and now only a short tourist train segment remains.

The Devil's Nose made it to the top of Ecuador's tourist attractions during the time when people could ride on the train's roof to get an exhilarating view of the Devil's Nose steep drop off. But these days are gone. Now trains run on a 3x per day schedule (Tues-Sun), and includes a tour guide, a sandwich, and a dance performance. Oh and the price for a ticket has jumped from $6.50 to $20, but as the price climbed, the ride shortened (from 6 hours to 2½) as they eliminated the option to board the train in Riobamba.

If you know us or have followed our blog, you are probably scratching your head and wonder why in the world are we are coming to such a touristic place. Well, we were back and forth debating if we want to come to Alausí or not. Finally, we said yes as it's on the way north to Riobamba and Quito anyway.

The tourist mafia is already
expecting us
The 4 hours bus ride from Cuenca offers more of the amazing lush green scenery that we first saw after crossing over from Zumba. The town of Alausí is what we would file in the "see and forget" category. Neither ugly nor pretty. What is ugly about the place though is that it has turned into a tourist cash-extraction machine (which sadly reminds us of Uyuni). The hotels charge big city prices, while offering sub-standard rooms. A shopkeeper seriously thought that she could charge us more for a bottle of beer than what we would pay in a full service restaurant. At least, they don't charge for a stupid "boleto turístico" to enter this "charming" town...yet!

No seat selection possible?
OK, I just sit here then!
Early the next morning at 7am, Patrick races over to the ticket office to secure two seats on the right-hand (scenic) side of the train. But his seat request is denied: the system randomly assigns seats – after you pay. This is the final straw, tipping the scale from "Okay, why not" to "No way". We are not forking out $40 for an already overpriced tourist train when we have a 50/50 chance to get a seat that only lets us stare at the face of a mountain wall. $40 is what we pay for two night's accommodation in a nice hotel! So Patrick walks out of the office and returns to the hotel to inform Julane about the news. She was already skeptical and reluctant about it in the first place. So now we've saved a half day...

Nice antique train, but  through these
tiny windows you can't see a thing
when your seat is on the other side
A hybrid bus-train!
Used for Devil's Nose trips when there
are less than 15 people. At least
the windows are bigger.

So after a rather lousy Alausí experience, we are leaving on the next bus to Riobamba, continuing our way northward – another very scenic ride.

Have we arrived in Ribamba
or in Havana?
Riobamba is described in our guidebook as: "a rich mix of cultures that live here... the city’s layout and architecture are imposing reminders of Spanish colonization."
We settle in a hotel called "Estación" which is obviously near the train station that is no longer in use – a bit ironic, eh? Here we complain about the tourist train and then seek the proximity of the train station. Maybe we are subconsciously wishing back the old days when people could board the train here in Riobamba and sit on the roof ;-)

The Hotel Estación is the 2nd
 best part of our Riobamba stopover
At least here, we have a nice hotel (unlike Alausí) with a good breakfast buffet for $24. We rather spend our hard earned money on that than on a train seat lottery!

Our arrival in Riobamba is blessed by the rain-gods, at least they show some mercy on us and waited for us to reach the hotel before throwing buckets earthward. So for the rest of the day we are forced to adjust our sightseeing schedule to the sky's precipitation.

Trying to find: "those
imposing reminders of
Spanish colonization"

We don't want to bore anybody with a description of Riobamba. Let's just say that the most memorable part was our lunch at "Hotel Montecarlo." And if you start thinking that food has become the main interest in our travels, then you might have a point.

Our next destination is Baños, which is as the name implies, is a town full of hot springs and apparently also quite charming, which like Vilcabamba and Cuenca seems to have attracted a large number of expatriates. After wasting 2 nights in Alausí and Riobamba, we have high hopes for Baños.

At least the market shows some
color... and is very "busy"
Lucky us: a short "window" to see
Chimborazo, the tallest peak in
Ecuador (6,268m) from our hotel