This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

On the Move - Riobamba to Cuenca

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We are in Riobamba knowing that we want to go south to Cuenca. Direct it is a six hour bus ride which is not so bad, but no need to rush so we decide to stop off in Guamote a small town just about an hour from Riobamba. Tomorrow is market day in Guamote so a good enough reason to stop there.

The Organization Dilemma

In Guamote we stay at the guesthouse of Inti Sisa, an organization that provides educational opportunities like computers, sewing and a pre-school for the local community. They currently rely heavily on donations from Europe but are trying to become self-sufficient which is difficult because their town is off the main tourist trail. The guesthouse's prices are higher compared to what we where we have stayed in the rest of Ecuador, $14 per person w/o breakfast for a private room. So we stay in the dorm ($7.50 pp) which is like a private room because we are the only customers. Not many travelers make it to Guamote.
A sewing student
We first decline their offers for breakfast and dinner which cost almost double as in a typical restaurant though the food is quite typical, but then later we decide to have one dinner at Inti Sisa. More so because we feel that we should than because we really want to. Which brings me to my next point:
Being serenaded by the pre-schoolers
Inti Sisa really seems like a terrific organization that is busy empowering women and the community. Their prices are just unbalanced with the rest of the country. I have seen this before in Guatemala, India and elsewhere and never quite understand. Organizations' price structures are set banking on the charitable goodwill of foreigners to pay more than they normally would and much more than any local ever would for similar goods or services. In Guatemala, the much higher priced artisan goods made at one woman's organization were exactly the same as those found in the market made by women who were not part of an organization.

My philosophy is that if the organization charges correct prices for goods and services people will buy more and more income will be generated. For example, us eating four normally priced meals at Inti Sisa must surely be better than us eating just the single over-priced one. Right? They pay staff whether we eat there or not. People are always happy to pay a premium for quality knowing that is going to support a good non-profit organization, but just as much people hate feeling that they are being ripped-off, even for charity.

Anyway, I still recommend coming to Inti Sisa. Market day is fun and worth a night's stay. Eat there and buy goods made by their sewing class at your own discretion. I think they also do weekday tours into the countryside to visit the communities which is probably quite interesting. Check Inti Sisa's website for more info.

Market Watch

Market day, Thursday, in Guamote is really quite nice. Here there is nothing geared towards tourists. There are no alpaca wool scarves, no decorated gourds and no paintings depicting the colorful indigenous life of the Andes. The Guamote market is the colorful indigenous life of the Andes.

Ninety percent of the population is of the Puruha indigenous community. They come from the surrounding villages dressed in their Thursday's best to buy, sell, eat lunch and socialize all day. We leave our hotel and immediately follow two guys walking their cows, correctly figuring that they must be headed to the market. The cow plaza is quite large covering one entire square block. We stand on the outskirts observing the action. Sellers holding their cattle on tethers ready to whack them with a stick if they get feisty. One cow costs several hundred dollars depending on size and sex. Some people will cows early in the morning and flip them quickly for a $10-$20 profit.

I take particular interest in watching one young couple who are deliberating over a certain cow in the same way Mika and I bought our refrigerator. They listen to the salesman's pitch, check the features (hooves, mouth), deliberate amongst themselves, look at some other models, come back to the first cow to check it again, deliberate some more, haggle price with the salesman, sold!

Cow market
Ever wonder where the phrase "cash cow" came from...
There is a fruit and veggie section with lots of potatoes and an inordinate amount of carrots. We head over to the sheep and pig section where people are purchasing ovine by the truckload, then wander around the clothing area with its stacks of hats, skirts and belts for the ladies always sporting their traditional fashion.
Fruits & Vegetables: The large sacks are all carrots

 Buying Sheep for Dummies:
Step 1: Buy your sheep and place them to the side
Feel free to spray paint them so as not confuse yours with somebody else's

Step 2: Lift your sheep onto the truck
Step 3: Pile them in and drive home

Rolls of material for making clothing and ponchos
Hat shopping
Taking a rest
In the afternoon the buses start filing in to town and people load up themselves and their belongings to go back to their villages until market day next Thursday.
Yes, that's sheep on the roof of the bus

Haunted Hacienda

The next day we leave Inti Sisa to spend the night 10 km away at Granja Totorillas, a tourist farm with accommodation. We catch a bus and walk along a dirt road to the large property. Nobody is around and Mika sits with our luggage while I try to find someone. Inside I find empty, dusty rooms with creaky doors and cracked windows. This old place gives me the eerie feeling that I am in The Shining. When Hollywood decides to make The Shining 2 - Here's Juanny!!!, this will be the location. Finally, I hear people (ghosts?) and call out. A woman comes to inform us that we need a reservation to stay there, something the tourist office guy in Guamote forgot to mention.
Anyone? Please...
The woman kindly offers to give us a tour of the grounds. It is actually nice. Still creepy, but nice. The main building is the former hacienda of one of the wealthiest landowner's in Ecuador. He even had his own railway station which is now abandoned. The farm today does a little bit of everything: animals, dairy, honey, organic vegetables, reforestation, and runs a hotel. After the tour it is too late to make it to Cuenca before dark, so we decide to just go to the next town, Alausi.
Collecting potatoes for tonight's dinner
A Train to Catch?

There is only one real reason to visit Alausi (that reason is very debatable) which is to take the train ride to see Nariz del Diablo - The Devil's Nose - a rock that apparently looks like the schnoz of ol' Beelzebub himself. This railway was part of the system traveling from Quito to Guayaquil which became obsolete with the construction of good roads and buses. Built in the early 20th century it was an engineering marvel at the time for the way it sharply descended down the mountain. Now it's a tourist trap running almost daily three times a day.

People used to be allowed to sit on top of the train for spectacular 360 degree views of the scenery. Unfortunately, a few years ago a tourist fell off and died. I have seen photos of this activity and it looks a bit dangerous with people covering every square foot of the roof. However, instead of remedying the problem by putting forward facing benches and better railings on the train roof similar to a doubledecker tourist bus and politely reminding people to "please do not stand up while on the roof of the moving train," they have now forbidden people to go on top all together. Meanwhile they have raised the price of tickets to $20 for the round trip ride including guide and a snack. If you want good views you must sit on the right side of the train.

We meet one British couple who did the ride and thought it was good enough. I am not sold and opt not to do it. We get plenty of spectacular views every bus ride we take in the Andes. Though I definitely would have paid twenty bucks to risk my life on the roof of that train.
All aboard?
Mika is flip-flopping. She finally goes on Sunday morning to ask about tickets. It is sold out but there are twenty no shows. Without a stand-by policy, she and ten other tourists get left on the platform as the train leaves with one car empty. No train means that we can catch the 10:30 AM bus to Cuenca.

Market day in Alausi under the watchful eye of San Pedro
 Encebollado, mmm mmm Good

For me one highlight of Alausi is that we find a really really tasty encebollado restaurant. Encebollado is a tomato and fish based soup with chunks of albacore tuna, onions and yucca. It is found all over the country, but here is the best so far. Encebollado is always served with a small dish of popcorn. Alausi is the first place I have been to offer rice instead of popcorn which makes the bowl more filling. On the table are fresh limes with a nifty little lime-squeezer gadget, oil, spicy sauce and mustard to spruce up the encebollado to your liking.

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