After the Galapagos, we flew from Quito to Cuenca and worked our way back to Quito by road. On the way we saw Inca ruins, travelled on the Devil’s Nose railway, and went up a couple of volcanoes, including the highest volcano in the world, supposed to be the furthest from the centre of the earth. Despite being on or near the Equator, due to the altitude the weather was less than tropical, even with snow.
Cuenca is a pleasant, interesting, relaxed city with not one but two cathedrals. The Old Cathedral is a museum, with some remains of frescoes on the walls and other ornate decorations. The New Cathedral has some attractive stained glass, but the main external feature is its three blue domes, which light up well in the evening sun.
In Cuenca itself are the ruins of the Inca city of Pumapungo, set on a hill with some pleasant formal gardens and an aviary down below. About 80 kilometres away are the remains of Ingapirca, and we made an exciting journey by local bus to get there. The bus stopped every few metres to pick up or drop off locals, and at one stage it was crammed to bursting. The conductor was young and fit – just as well, as he was constantly jumping on and off to usher on new passengers or stow their luggage, and then running after the bus and jumping on as it set off again. Ingapirca itself is situated on a hilltop, and the central feature is the ‘castle’ or ceremonial area which is made of typical Inca stonework, set together like a jigsaw without mortar.
From Cuenca we took a 4-hour bus ride to Alausi, a much smaller town, which is dominated by a giant statue of St Peter, covered in mosaic tiles. However, the main reason for going there is to ride on the Devil’s Nose train, the last remaining stretch of the line that used to join Quito and Cuenca. It zigzags steeply downhill (reversing to cope with the hairpin bends) between Alausi and Sibambe. At one time people were allowed to ride on the roof – but they stopped that when two tourists fell off and died. We rode safely inside the carriage, taking photos and film of the impressive scenery outside. At Sibambe we were entertained by local dancers and given tea and fruit, before being taken back to Alausi the way we had come.
From Alausi it was a two-hour bus ride to Riobamba, a much larger city and quite modern, as most of it was flattened in an 18th century earthquake. It has an extensive street market on Sundays. In one square we found a large number of tailors, seated at ancient Singer sewing machines, turning out clothing. There was also an extensive display of the hats that everyone in that area wears.
While in Riobamba we did a day trip to the nearby volcano Chimborazo, which is apparently the tallest volcano on earth. It is also supposed to be the highest mountain on earth, in terms of being furthest from the Earth’s centre (since the Earth bulges out at the equator). Unfortunately, the weather was bad that day so we couldn’t see much. We were driven up to a refuge at 4800 metres, and found ourselves in a snowstorm. There is a footpath to another refuge at 5000 metres, and Sandie and our guide (Joel) made it up there. Ian turned back at 4900 metres, not wanting to break another arm slipping on the snow.
From Riobamba Joel drove us to the town of Baños, which is renowned for hot pools and spas and is a real resort town (think Great Yarmouth with mountains). The weather was rotten again, but Joel drove us out of town on the ‘Route of Waterfalls’ and we were able to see several of these from the road that heads downhill towards the Amazon basin. One, called the ‘Devil’s Cauldron’ (we’ve been meeting the devil a lot on this trip) was most impressive, and we got sufficiently up close and personal to get soaked – as if the rain wasn’t enough.
The Rough Guide calls Baños a ‘perfect destination … with an ideally warm climate’. In our experience it was cold, wet and miserable, though obviously a favourite place with tourists. We went in one of the public hot pools – Piscinas de la Virgen – which was pretty crowded, though the warm water made a pleasant antidote to the weather. We also had a couple of sessions in the sauna and spa at the hotel. On Sunday it was crowded with visitors (including screaming kids, despite a notice saying children were not allowed in the spa) but on Monday we had it almost to ourselves. It was interesting that as soon as we left Baños, the rain stopped and the sun came out!
From Baños we took the bus to Latacunga, a large but not very touristy town. We took a tour from here to Lake Quilotoa, in the centre of a volcanic crater two miles across. We walked part of the way round the rim of the crater, getting some spectacular views. There was an amazing variety of flowers blooming along the rim, which added to the scenic effect, especially when the sun appeared briefly.
From Latacunga we were driven (by Joel’s brother!) back to Quito, with a stop on the way at Cotopaxi National Park. We were really lucky, because the weather was very cloudy, but there was a break in the clouds just as we reached Laguna Limpiopunga which enabled us to get great views of Cotopaxi volcano as we were walking round the lake. We also were driven up the side of the mountain to 4500 metres, and we did a short but energetic climb from there to get a slightly better view of the volcano. By the time we got back to the car the clouds had closed in again, however.
All in all, our excursion to Cuenca and back was successful, but we were frequently disappointed by the weather. Hotel rooms were often very cold, and we certainly did not expect to be walking through a snowstorm, so close to the equator!