December 30-31: the devil’s nose, and new year’s in Cuenca

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On December 30 Harry and I took a taxi from our hosteria near Riobamba to Alausi (pictured above), an Andean town from where the train to the Devil’s Nose (Nariz del Diablo) departs. Our cab driver for the two-hour trip was, well: hopefully one of a kind. He generously shared his views about solo-traveling (“allows you to try out many women, right?”), recent changes in Ecuadorian family law (“crazy… nowadays, when you accidentally knock someone up you have to pay child support to the mother!”) and his personal ‘social’ preferences (“I like Colombians. They have blue eyes and big boobs.”). He also gave me his business card so I could call him whenever I needed another ride. I have a feeling that I’ll never dial that number.

 

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Shortly after our arrival I went to the station to catch the 2PM train. This time around there was a real (French-built) locomotive…

 

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… but sadly also hoards of tourists. Many of them were taking pictures at a pace suggesting that their poor children’s lives depended on it.

 

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The ride was short–fifty minutes–but scenic.

 

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It also became apparent why the construction of a railroad in this type of terrain was such a challenging endeavor.

 

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The voyage is famous among railway enthusiasts because of its zigzag tracks, visible above — an engineering solution that allowed the train to master steep drops in altitude on its way to the coast.

 

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We zigzagged twice. Following the first maneuver, the locomotive was pushing rather than pulling the four wagons.

 

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The second zigzag maneuver put the engine back in front.

 

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Just before Sibambe station, several derelict wagons dating from the heyday of Ecuadorian rail transport are slowly rotting away.

 

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At Sibambe the locomotive was switched to the rear end of the train in order to pull it back up to Alausi.

 

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The Devil’s Nose. The tracks running across it are visible half-way up.

 

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Considering that I was never one for trains (I’ve found airplanes more exciting ever since I took my flight at age 13), I had a really good time. Yes, the trip is gutwrenchingly touristy (including indigenous dancers greeting passengers upon arrival) but it also is a fascinating reminder of the challenges faced by late 19th-century state-builders.

 

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I rounded off the day with an hour-long walk through Alausi… as the clouds were slowly closing in from below.

 

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Those who know a bit about (a) Latin American political history and (b) my personal political convictions will understand why this mini-market called my attention…

 

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… and those who love dogs will appreciate the irony of this street scene (note: this is not Harry).

 

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On December 31 we hired another cabbie (for reasons that should be obvious) and continued south toward Cuenca.

 

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We checked into a quaint hotel that welcomes dogs (which sadly isn’t very common in this part of the world) and has a rooftop terrace offering nice views of the city center (pictured above: Cuenca’s old and new cathedrals).

 

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I went on a long walk across the old town (pictured above: break dancers practicing in a pavilion near the two cathedrals)…

 

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… and came across this Catholic procession presumably celebrating the end of the calendar year (or maybe something else?).

 

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The fellow on the far left undoubtedly woke up with a stiff neck today (January 1) — he didn’t move at all, his eyes stubbornly fixating the sanctum.

 

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Cuenca’s location amid rolling hills and its abundant colonial architecture are among the prime reasons for the city’s popularity.

 

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I had an early dinner while marveling at one of the city’s beautifully restored churches and then went to a shopping center to stock up on food for Harry (and buy a bottle of Malbec for myself).

 

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On my way back to our hotel I passed crowds of people who–following a year’s end tradition–were burning life-sized paper mache puppets.

Happy 2016 everyone!

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