Sunday, October 25, 2015

A Train Trek To Meet The Last Living Ice Man.......In Ecuador

While not much about Ambato, Ecuador is geared toward tourists, Clyde managed to find one thing that is. Train Ecuador has several routes leaving from different towns so yesterday we climbed aboard one of them.  Arrangements had to be made in advance since the small train only holds 32 passengers and costs around $16 per person.  We had to be at the train station by 7:30 am for our 8am departure and the information said to dress warmly.  The information on their website also specified that their guides were bilingual so I made sure to ask before boarding the train.  While the receptionist only spoke a few words another girl behind the counter spoke in English saying, "I'm the guide," so I was happy.

Train Building

Hand Cart On Display

As I looked around at our fellow passengers I realized that we were under dressed. Most had on boots, hats, gloves and thick coats.  Clyde had on a coat while I dressed in four layers from a short sleeved shirt, to a long one, then a heavy hooded sweatshirt topped off with a light jacket. Once onboard the temperature was pleasant and I was pleased to be warm.

Fellow Passengers Waiting To Board

The guide spoke through a microphone in very clear, concise Spanish that we could both understand.  She told us about our stops for the day, the history of Ambato and some other general information.  When she was done she came over to us to give an explanation in English.  We explained that we spoke some Spanish although we're not fluent, and so far we were able to understand what she was saying. Furthermore we told her that we live in Panama which gave us more credibility in understanding her language.  Occasionally she would say something that lost us and we'd ask for clarification throughout the day.

 Our Guide
Heading To My Seat

Soon after taking off our guide took passengers to an outdoor balcony viewing deck at the back of the train.  We were taken four at a time to enjoy the outdoor fresh air and scenery which added a bit of adventure to the ride.

Outside On Deck With The Wind In My Eyes

On The Outside Balcony

Our train was accompanied by two men on motorcycles that drove alongside the train stopping traffic at the intersections.  They wore red padded jumpsuits with black knee pads and helmets.  The scenery at first was the city of Ambato that gave way to more scenic vistas as the train progressed. 

 The Motorcycle Guys Ready And Waiting To Go

And They're Off

Riding Alongside The Train

About an hour into the trip we stopped for breakfast in the town of Cevallos.  There was the option to buy breakfast but I had packed some breakfast sandwiches since we hadn't eaten yet.  We did buy a coffee and had a slice of birthday cake that was provided for another passengers special day. After all of the passengers sang "feliz cumpleanos" to the man and he leaned in to blow out the candles one of his kids pushed the cake into his face. What a mess to deal with but perhaps it's a tradition here?

Having Breakfast

Lady Serving Drinks And Food

The Birthday Boy

Our Train

Back on board we headed up higher into the Andes Mountains and passed by some lovely terrain.  Our next stop would be the tiny village of Urbina that sits at the foot of Mount Chimborazo at an elevation of 12,000 feet.  We were escorted into a tiny room where we all had to huddle together for warmth.  Women served up cups of a warm beverage that resembled liquefied oatmeal.  It had a slightly sweet and cinnamon flavor with bits of something chewy in it. We asked one of our fellow passengers who told us it was, "morocho del maiz." Made from corn, milk, either white sugar or panela a local sugar cane product, and water it was a tasty way to warm us up from the inside out.

 Large Tree In Front Of Mountains

Andean People In Front Of Train Station

Horseback Rides

It was here we were introduced to the Ice Man, the very last "hielero" or "iceman." Years ago ice was considered a luxury that only the rich could afford.  In order to supply the ice a small group of daredevils would climb the Andean glaciers to retrieve it.  Retrieving the ice was not only a commercial activity but it was also part of a sacred ritual that created a bond between the gods and man.  Today there is only one remaining ice man left for Chimborazo, a man named Baltazar Uschca
who has been retrieving ice since he was 15 years old. Now at 72 years old, Baltazar still makes the arduous trek but always asks permission from Taita, the father of the mountain.

The Famous Ice Man

A Block Of Pure Glacial Ice

Baltazar is short is stature, well under five foot with a hunched back from the many years of hauling bales of ice weighing around 66-70 pounds each. He has to walk for several hours up to the top of the mountain, then uses an ice pick to bang out the glacial ice before wrapping it in straw for the trek down the mountain. He sells the ice at markets on the weekends for $3 each which has provided enough money to support his family through the years.

Ice Man Carrying Ice In Hay

Here He Goes

He's Still Behind That Bale Of Ice

Chimborazo is the highest peak in Ecuador at close to 20,000 feet, and the furthest point from the center of the earth in the world. Even though Mount Everest is taller, because Chimborazo is located just one degree from the equator, the widest point on the earths surface, it qualifies as the furthest point or the closest point to the sun. Below is a link to an article with a video that I found online and it includes the English translation. Meet the ice man personally and hear his story.

The train station at Urbina is the highest in the county and other attractions included a botanical garden, gift shop, and replica of an indigenous house that included live guinea pigs.  A man that lived there personally gave us a tour of the gardens and house.  I asked him if he liked the taste of "cuy" or guinea pig since it's eaten as a delicacy here?  His comment was, "no, I'm a vegetarian."

Llamas In Urbina.....Mama Is White, Dad Is Tan
And The Baby Turned Out Almost Black?

Flowers In The Botanical Garden

Special Paper Trees
 The Bark Peels Off Into Paper

More Unusual Flowers

Guinea Pigs Or Cuy

Nearby in front of Posada del Tren was a women selling hot drinks. Our choice was hot tea or something called "canelazo," that she explained was a hot, spiced, cinnamon drink with oranges, spices, sugar and topped off with rum.  It sounded good to us and we paid for two drinks at $1 each.  Since she had added to rum to the top it was rather potent as I sipped in it's hot fragrance.  But it did serve to warm us up as the cold winds blew through our sissified Panama bones. Our time in Urbina although chilly was fascinating to hear about the dying art of ice collection and to have the privilege to meet the last living Ice Man.



Back on the train we headed back down in elevation to our last stop at Cevallos.  I was not too happy to hear the guide tell us we had FOUR hours in this tiny little town and wondered how we'd pass the time?  We were greeted by another guide that would take us around the village with our first stop being lunch.  Our group followed the friendly women several blocks until she stopped at a restaurant which was probably the nicest in the whole town.  There we were free to separate at different tables and order lunch as we saw fit.  As I looked at the menu I thought it was a bit pricey for Ecuador standards, with prices ranging from $5 to $7 per meal.  Up until this point we managed to eat for as little as $2.00 per meal here so as you can see why I balked at these prices.  But they had a captive audience so we sucked it up and ordered lunch.  I ordered a fried corvina filet that came with a nice salad, fries and white rice as two carbs seem to the norm here. Clyde had shrimp that was served with the same sides.  There was plenty of food for the price and it was delicious so at least it was worth our $7 each. I drank a Coke with my meal while Clyde opted for a natural guanabana juice.

After lunch our local guide managed to find the group again and asked that we follow her.  She showed us a few little parks with statues of famous forefathers of the area which were ok to see.  Then our first commercial stop was a tiny store that sold dream catchers and other trinkets and we knew we were in for a sales pitch. We were all seated in a semi-circle as a local man began to speak in extremely fast Spanish.  While I managed to understand one line there would be ten others that followed where I was totally lost.  Eventually I just tuned the guy out as he tried to demonstrate how a dream catcher worked by lying a young boy on the floor to simulate a bed. Then he told us all to close our eyes as he walked around the room with a rainmaker instrument that made sounds of falling rain. I felt trapped and wanted out of this place and this town, but we had many more hours to spend here. 

Next our guide had us follow her to a candy shop where we received a very short explanation and film about its founder. We were not at all impressed but did buy a small bag of hard candies for 50 cents before leaving.  Next we went onto a shoe factory to see and hear an explanation of how the shoes were made.  Admittedly, had I bothered to listen to the man that was speaking I might have learned something.  But by this time I was tired of translating Spanish in my head and pissed that the entire tour was NOT bilingual like I had assumed it would have been. But we did find it interesting to look around the little factory and see the whole process. Of course after leaving the factory our guide had us follow her to the showroom where we could have bought shoes if we wanted to.  Gusmar shoes did appear to be of rather nice quality and the prices seemed to be around $45.  Fortunately for our wallets my suitcase lacked the necessary space to bring back any purchases, so buying shoes was out of the question.

At last our guide deposited us in front of a small stand that sold jams, jellies, and strawberries on a stick that had been dipped in chocolate. Again we were given a sales pitch and even a taste of "tree tomato" jam.  Since there was a park nearby we strolled around killing time until we were allowed to head back to the train.  Our four hours in Cevallos were long and tiring and I was feeling trapped.  But at least the first part of our train trek was enchanting so it wasn't all bad.



Trains seem to bring a smile to the faces of so many and we witnessed this as it whizzed by pedestrians who waved with delight. Perhaps the only times we don't smile at trains it when we're sitting in our car at a railroad crossing waiting for a long, slow train to get out of our way. But aside from those times trains seem to bring out the child in all of us.


Something I keep forgetting to mention about Ecuador's eccentricities is the toilet paper issue.  All public bathrooms here have the toilet paper OUTSIDE of the stalls.  And in several we've seen both the men'' and women's share the same large roll of toilet paper that hangs in between both. This brings up a peculiar chain of events especially for me being a woman.  How much paper should I take in?  What if I need more?  Yesterday in fact I went inside one stall, pulled down my pants and realized that I had forgot to get paper.  So I had to pull up my pants and go out of the stall to find the paper.  In this case it WAS in between the men's and women's rooms so I opted for a paper towel since it was closer.  Toilet paper is NOT flushed here just like in Panama and instead is put into waste baskets next to the toilets.  And many of the public restrooms here are FREE unless paper is needed then it's 15 cents for a wad of paper. But again.....what if that wad of paper is not enough?  Strange, peculiar potty problems that we're finding out as we travel here, there and everywhere......along the gringo trail.

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