The old railway ride to el Nariz de Diablo (the Devil’s Nose) and back is one of the big items on most tour agendas and tops the checklists for those making the rounds through Ecuador’s central Sierra. This two and a half hour trip originates from the mountain pueblo of Alausí, about a 4 hour bus ride north of Cuenca. The train goes down a rather stunning river gorge along a set of railway switchbacks, and, after a rest in a small village, makes its way back up the mountain again. The trip has come highly recommended to me by tourists and locals alike. Obviously, it’s quite popular. But I think the many people that pass through town are missing out on what was the highlight of my own visit: A chance to rest in the clouds at Posada de las Nubes.
Late June brought to Cuenca a number days with some of the dreariest weather yet. Low level winds from the east carried moisture from the Amazon, and upper level winds from the west trapped humid, cool air in this mountain valley. So we didn’t see the sun for a full week. Word has it, that low temperature records were set (as low as 4 degrees C – GASP!), although, how would they know, with such a spotty long-term record of meteorological observations? All those black clouds of smoke emanating from local buses were also trapped, of course, and after a few days, I found myself coughing and wheezing. I needed to escape the city.
I didn’t expect the weather to be much better in Alausí. But one can hope. I actually hoped that Alausí, given the dramatic topography in the region, would somehow be protected from the dreary clouds coming from the Amazon. As it turns out, the pueblo was indeed protected from that Amazonian humidity, but not from the unusually strong low level easterly winds affecting the central Sierra in that last week of June.
Those of you from Colorado will be familiar with the chinook – a strong wind that races down the east slopes of the Rockies in the winter. It can accelerate as it comes down the mountain and be strong enough to take out fences or overturn semi-trucks. Well, on the morning of my arrival, Alausí was suffering from a similar hurricane-force downslope wind. When I stepped off the bus on the highway, the wind nearly knocked me over. Dust and small stones whipped about and the air felt warm and dry. I wondered what I had gotten myself into. I felt that I had just stepped off the bus somewhere in Colorado.
I also found myself overwhelmed at the site of the pueblo. The streets were packed with people and vendors of every sort. As I worked my way through town, I came across a large arena of sorts, surrounded by make-shift, three-story viewing boxes. These structures were made from old boards and tree limbs, and crammed with people cheering, jeering, and waving flags. I found out later that I had stumbled into one of the biggest holidays of the year in Alausí, the festival of San Pedro. And these people, gathered in droves, were there to see the bullfighting. Apparently, anyone can volunteer to fight a bull at this festival – and many do, once they’re drunk enough. (And no, I have no photos – loaded down as I was with my pack on a crowded street, and a bit hot and tired – it was too much of a feat to dig out the camera.)
By the time I met up with Rocio, one of the owners of the hacienda, Posada de las Nubes, I was quite happy to remove myself from the pueblo. Rocio drove me far up the mountain above the town. We crossed a small river valley, where clouds of dust swirled around the pick-up truck, then we climbed and climbed, until we came to green pastures, fields of corn, and an occasional patch of forest.
Most people (tourists) don’t stay in Alausí. They stop for a few hours on their trek from Riobamba in the north, to Cuenca in the south, ride the train, and leave. Once I discovered Posada de Las Nubes, I knew I had to stay a few nights (after all, I’m a meteorologist. How can I resist a place called Inn of the Clouds? )
From the moment we arrived, I was happy to be there. The hacienda (or ranch) has been loving restored with natural and recycled materials. Carolina, Rocio’s sister, is an artist, and has carefully chosen colors, created artwork, and arranged family heirlooms and flowers in such a way that you immediately feel cozy and at home.
If you’re reading this blog, you already know I’m not a city-girl. I’ll take rustic wooden floors, adobe walls, and hand-painted furniture over the Hilton any day. I was enchanted from the start. The wind that morning had knocked out the power and the internet, and although Carolina and Rocio were worried about my well-being, the absence of power was, for me, a thrill. I’m lucky to get off the grid and ‘out of the internet matrix’, so to speak, once a year. I needed the break. (Although, I admit, when the power came back on my third and final evening there, I was happy not to have to stumble around in the dark, trying not to use my waning cell phone battery to help light my way!)
So, after sunset, the hacienda lit up with candles. My first night, there were four other guests – two young couples who had come down from Quito for the weekend. Rocio arranged a candlelit feast for us, and we passed the evening in good company at dinner, and by the hearth in the living room afterward, talking about travels, culture, and what life would be like without cell phones. While I was the only guest on the other nights, I loved spending my evenings by the fire, chatting with Rocio and Carolina, or just reading.
Without lights, when I looked out on the country side from my room at night, lit only by the moon and the stars, I felt I had been transported back in time. There were no motorbikes (ubiquitous in Ecuador), no cars, no alarms, no music – only the sounds of the wind, the cows, the frogs, and an occasional crow of a rooster. This was paradise.
During the day I took walks along the mountain roads, past farms, and occasional patches of native forest (carrying rocks in my hand to ward off aggressive country dogs and, once, an aggressive turkey. I really only had to actually throw them once – and intentionally missed. It was enough to scare of my aggressor.)
Like most places in Ecuador, most of the native forest is gone. Carolina and Rocio have tried to reforest a good portion of their property, and have tried to educate others in the area about the importance of protecting the native shrubland – but it’s a battle that’s difficult to win. People have traditions that go back generations. They clear more and more of the mountains to support their growing families. It’s hard for them to think about the longer-term consequences of clearing their land of native forests. Even if those long term consequences are only a couple of years away in terms of a land that is drained of nutrients and dominated by erosion.
The train ride to the Devil’s Nose, where the train switchbacks down the side of a mountain was as spectacular as I had been told, especially with clear skies and warm air. For a train fanatic, this would be a version of heaven. Not being a big train enthusiast, I really can’t provide you details about the train. If you’re interested you can check out this website for more history.
I simply enjoyed the ride, and, for a change, enjoyed being a tourist and seeing other tourists from all over the Americas. We had a shot stopover at the bottom of our journey to look back on the Nariz de Diablo.
On the morning I returned to Cuenca, I finally got to see Alausí as the sleepy little town it is (made all that much more sleepy by all the people trying to rid themselves of hangovers after the San Pedro celebrations). Rocio and Carolina accompanied me down the mountain, back to the bus station, and Rocio walked me around town, sharing memories of various buildings as we both took photos in bright morning light. I reluctantly boarded my bus back to Cuenca, feeling nourished from lots of healthy food, silent countryside evenings, and the warm company of new friends.