The Devil’s Nose and other unconventional travel (book excerpt)
Back in July, I published my new book, From Hostels to Kids on Camels. To celebrate the fact that the eBook is on sale for $0.99 through November 24, I’m sharing this excerpt about a trip I took in Ecuador in 2002. You can find earlier excerpts here (about my dad, about my mom, about a trip I took in India.)
One thing you should know about traveling in Ecuador is that the modes of transportation can be different sometimes. Here I am with a couple of friends returning to the capital city of Quito from a nearby volcano:
See? Different. The day after taking that picture, I traveled with three friends to a city in the south called Alausí. We left by bus at around 1:30 from a crazy bus station. The bus stations here run like airports in the states–there are about 15 different private bus companies all operating out of the same terminal. What’s different than airports is that I had to pay to use the bathroom ($0.10) and to get to where the buses are ($0.20, two dimes only, please). Also, on the buses, people get on and off all the time. If there are empty seats, it stops for anyone that waves at it from the road. (Often even when there aren’t seats they still take more people–they just stand in the aisle and put their butt against YOUR headrest…not that it bothered me or anything.) Then there are the vendors.
Every time a bus slows below 20 miles/hour, it seems like a new hawker enters to sell all manner of wares. The most common are fruits, drinks, candy, and potato chips. (The rule is they have to say “papas fritas” 1,000 times fast while walking the round trip from the front to the back of the bus.) Other foods include shish kabobs and tubs of rice & beans. There was one guy who must have taken notes from the home shopping network because when he first came on, he spent 5 minutes describing the world’s most wonderful pen: only one dollar! But wait! Today, only, you can get a second pen for the same one dollar! Because it’s a holiday weekend, though, he’s going to offer one more additional special pen for the same one dollar! Finally, those wise first five people to purchase will get the final 4th super duper pen…all for only one dollar. I couldn’t figure out why a bus was a logical place to sell pens, but the very first person he talked to bought it, so maybe he did a market survey. Another interesting one was two brothers, probably 14 and 7, dressed up as clowns. They came on board and had a full 5-minute play that was very funny, focused around different types of candy, and why theirs was the best. Afterward, the older explained how his poor small brother needed chicken on the table…not just any chicken, but chicken without salmonella. Finally, he gave a little prayer while looking upwards that the friendly people on the bus would help his brother eat chicken. We caved and bought the $0.35 candies like everyone else.
After the six-hour ride, we finally got into Alausí at around 7:30. It was raining, and the streets were empty, so we scurried along to the main street with all the hotels. Because it was raining, we didn’t bother to pull out our guidebooks but instead went to the 4th hotel we saw. (One of the friends was picky, despite the rain.) Anyway, the porter told us it was $8 for a room with two doubles. We put our stuff down and were headed out for dinner when the owner informed us that the other guy forgot about the “tax” of $2, but somehow the final bill ended up at $11.50. Afterward, when we finally looked at the guidebook, it said: “avoid this hotel because the owner will try to charge you a tourist tax.” Oh well. We went to dinner at a place I’m thankful my stomach didn’t mind. (Food was good, but the kitchen was kind of scary.)
The next morning, we went to the train station to buy our tickets for “La Nariz del Diablo” or the Devil’s Nose. This particular train is famous because it descends a very steep mountain from around 2,600 meters elevation to 1,800m (about 1,500 feet) over an almost perpendicular slope. The train, designed by a couple of American engineers about 100 years ago, actually switches direction on a series of switchbacks to descend like a feather fluttering downwards. It used to connect Quito to Guayaquil, but El Nino destroyed part of the track, and now it’s solely a tourist attraction.
The other reason it’s an attraction is that everyone sits on the roof for the ride.
While we were waiting to buy tickets (the guy at the booth first said he would start at 9:30, then 10:00, then 10:10, then finally 10:30) we hung out at a cafe with a British guy, a French guy, and a German guy that happened to be there. (I don’t have a joke to go with that, but it would be great if I did.) In between sips of tea, we kept returning to the bread shop, where we were amazed by the fact that five pieces of terrific bread were only $0.20. My friend Steve thought about running in with hubris and a $20 bill to buy out the whole lot, but he refrained.
After buying tickets ($13 for us, $2 for Ecuadorians), we climbed to the roof of a car to wait for the main train. After another hour, the Ecuadorian tourists arrived (lots more than us), along with the same guys that were trying to sell us stuff on the bus. The train came a bit later, and after some complicated hooking up (accompanied by shrieks from the teenage girls next to us whenever the train bumped our car), we were off!
The actual trip was spectacular, with incredible views. The train strolled along at 10-30 mph down a series of winding turns (regular switchbacks) before coming to the first reversal. After we stopped and the engine started pushing, the first car derailed.
Luckily, we were going slow, and it was nowhere near as dangerous as the derailments you read about on the news. Steve and the German, both former professional railroad engineers–the other kind, not the ones with the hats that drive the trains–informed us that derailments are actually relatively ordinary and usually not that dangerous. After the derailment, all the railroad guys started grabbing stones from nearby to wedge the train back on track. Meanwhile, tourists like me scrambled off to take pictures. During the process, the engineers managed to entirely derail the bogey instead of just partially before finally getting us back on track. Afterward, we made it down and back (with fingers crossed) with no further problems. Back in town, we caught the packed bus back to Quito.
If you enjoyed this excerpt, click here to learn more about my book, From Hostels to Kids on Camels, including a link to purchase the eBook (on sale for $0.99 through November 24) or paperback on Amazon.