There is much beauty and history to appreciate in the Ecuador sierra – high in the Andes Mountains; the Northern frontier of the Inca Empire; a new world jewel of old Spanish colonialism; and the place closest to the sun than any other on earth. While Ecuador has Amazon Jungle, coastal plains and beaches and, not to forget, the Galapagos Islands, the sierra is where I call home and feel most comfortable.
Recently, my lady and I drove North from Quito past the well-known towns of Otavalo and Cotacachi to the city of Ibarra. For those not familiar with Ecuador, the sierra North of Quito is hot and dry; while to the South there is abundant greenery and temperate climate.
Our plan was to take the train from Ibarra to Salinas and back. (Be careful - There are several towns in Ecuador named Salinas.) Called the Tren de la Independencia (the Independence train); its’ name honours a historic struggle for the country’s freedom and the abolition of the slavery of the early colonial years.
Visitors to Ecuador will notice numerous train routes being promoted as the country re-establishes a railway system that had been allowed to die. The current government has recognized the important role in history that the railway played and the opportunity to contribute further in the tourism program. Riding these rail lines is promoted to provide comfort and spectacular scenery. This was to be the second railway route that I was to travel on. The first was the Nariz de Diablo, further South. I enjoyed that ride and will seek opportunities to explore the other routes when I can.
The old railway station in the centre of Ibarra has been completely renovated and is now a clean, modern facility that any community in the world would be proud to call its own. It serves only the Tren de la Independencia. There are no commuter or freight services.
In demand, tickets must be purchased in advance and picked up at the station no less than an hour before departure. They are inexpensive, and two can take a ride for about $ 40 USD.
Next to the train station is a large mixed, product and produce, market typical in Latin American rural areas. As the train moved slowly out of the station, I took photos of a local character dressed in old, clear plastic sheets and a woman offering goats for sale on the sidewalk. Along the route, security guards riding motorcycles appeared as if by magic to assure safety at railway crossings.
The inside of the car that we rode in was new, clean, comfortable and air-conditioned. A friendly, always smiling, young attendant provided ongoing descriptive and historical dialog in both Spanish and English. A light snack was provided on-route.
The mountainous countryside is arid with lots of sand, few trees, scrub plants, large canyons, bridges high over river gorges and six tunnels through mountain rock. The ride took just over one hour.
Salinas is a small, hot, dry, poor town of 2000 residents in the middle of no-where. They are descendants of colonial slaves, brought from Africa to work cotton and sugar fields. No cotton is produced there today. Sugarcane is the major industry and employer of the town. The railway now employs about 100.
Waiting for our arrival was a local dance group. Bare footed; they shuffled while music pumped loudly through speakers. Colourful dress recalled their heritage. The heat was obviously affecting them; but, one young lady held her head high with pride and gave us her best. During the show, passengers sat on steps in the shade of the station and on chairs under a white canopy. The scorching sun and mosquitoes prompted some to plaster themselves with lotion. Fortunately, mosquitos don't like my blood and I was almost unaware of their presence.
After the dances, tourists were divided into groups to walk through town to a museum, a church, a store where local women sold confections, and to dine at the local restaurant. Construction was rudimentary cement block with little enhancement, indicative of the poverty of the place. Plant life was unseen, with the exception of in the characteristic Spanish colonial park in front of the church. Painted murals on buildings along our path depicted the history of the town and served as decorative art to enjoy.
Though there wasn’t much to see, I appreciated witnessing people making the best of living in a place where I would only want to quickly pass through. The community was doing its best to better its’ situation; was welcoming; and anxious to be the best hosts that they could be. I, particularly, enjoyed the visit to the confection store and speaking with the staff. The museum was room filled with photos of black heroes from around the world who fought for emancipation and respect, with what I thought was, disappointingly, relatively little local content.
After about three hours and sunburn, (I had misplaced my hat) we re-boarded the train for the ride back. Enthusiasm evident on the ride to Salina had faded. Passengers were tired, quiet and, apparently content.
In summary, it was an modestly interesting adventure and I am happy that I took the time to discover the route of the Independence Train.
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