After our quick trip to Mindo we found ourselves back in Quito, so we decided to go up the TeleferiQo cable car. This is highly expensive, has a bit of a daft name, but takes you up to over 4,000m for an impressive view of the city.
We had a wander around at the top but the girls were feeling the altitude a little and soon wanted to go back down. We’re sure this had nothing to do with the fact that there was a theme park waiting at the bottom of the cable car. This was quite strange: almost deserted and still at some absurd altitude, but you can’t beat rolling around in an inflatable ball at 3,000m.
Back in town we popped into a travel agency, just to enquire about the outside possibility of maybe doing a Galapagos trip – this was to prove an influential moment in our trip, as we quickly went from “We can never afford that” to “Ooh, maybe we could manage it” to “Oh, hang the expense, let’s go on a luxury cruise!”
The trip was due to set off in a couple of weeks so we had a few more decisions to make: all through our journey we’d met people who’d loved Colombia and we really wanted to go, so we had to work out how to fit in a quick trip there. We also had to figure out how to pay for the cruise – if we elected to pay by Credit Card it would add an extra 10% to the bill, but our bank wasn’t making it easy to transfer the money directly; on the other hand we didn’t want to keep taking out lots of money and then have to carry it as we went to Colombia. In the end we decided to worry about it later, and set off to Ibarra, on the way to the Colombian border.
To get there, first we had to get a taxi to the far-flung bus station – this was miles out, way past the airport on seemingly never-ending dual-carriageways, and the taxi cost almost as much as the bus tickets. Once in Ibarra we booked into Fran’s Hostal and then went out for pizza. The owner of the pizzeria seemed a little surprised to see us and asked how we’d heard about the place – he was even more surprised when we showed him our guide book with his restaurant listed. Unfortunately the food wasn’t so good, or we might have done a Trip Advisor review for him.
Ecuador used to have a spectacular rail network and travelling by train would be one of the most enjoyable ways to see the country. Unfortunately, most of the tracks have fallen into disuse or been destroyed by the relentless effects of the weather, and at the moment it’s not possible to get very far by train. Tren Ecuador have, however, restored a few sections, and now run tourist ‘excursions’ at vastly inflated prices – they do have some dancers at the destination station though, so that’s ok. However, we really wanted to see at least a bit of the countryside from the comfort of a carriage so we bit the bullet and paid through the nose, mixing our metaphors as we went.
The journey was something a little different right from the start: the train sets off through the town’s crowded streets with security men on motorbikes racing ahead to stop the traffic and clear the way. It then rattles its way down a valley and the views get more scenic and the engineering more impressive, as it negotiates iron bridges and dark tunnels. After an hour or so, we screeched our way into Salinas station, where the aforementioned dancers were limbering up to herald our arrival – we’re not sure we’ve ever felt more like tourists!
After a walk round the small town, and a look at the even smaller salt museum, we had some lunch and then got the train back. It was all a little odd, but pleasant enough, and we met a family with a little boy called Darwin, so the girls had lots of fun on the return journey.
Whilst in Ibarra we’d seen adverts for the Ecuadorian National Ballet Company, who were playing the next night – obviously this was too good a chance to pass up, so we decided to stay for another day. This also gave us the chance to visit the small animal rescue centre on the top of the hill overlooking town. This was very low-key, and we met a couple of the young volunteers who were helping out. They’d obviously got quite attached to some of the animals – quite literally in the case of the monkeys who clung to them and wouldn’t let go!
The night of the ballet finally came and it must have been the most middle-class thing happening in Ecuador that particular evening. The great and the good of Ibarra were out in their finery, along with the trendy twenty-somethings and a slightly shabby backpacker family of four. The theme seemed to be experimental dance, but this was preceded by almost endless speeches, punctuated by occasional applause and barely concealed boredom. When the dance got under way it was, how shall we put it, a little on the dark side. There was no narrative to speak of, but lots of anguished movements and moody lighting. All in all, it was quite an experience.
Next stop on our northwards trajectory was Tulcan, just before the Colombian border. We’d read that this otherwise nondescript little town had one must-see attraction – its cemetery. Sometimes you read about a place and think it sounds interesting: sometimes it turns out not to be; sometimes it turns out to be worth a small detour; and sometimes it turns out to be quite amazing, and provides an unexpected highlight.
Tulcan cemetery very much fell into this last category. Sometime back in the 1930s the gardener, with an eye for art and a nifty way with hedge-cutters, decided to start doing some topiary around the place. It seems like a hobby developed into an obsession, and then into a family tradition, as he and his sons created hundreds of living sculptures in a place reserved for honouring the dead.
Cemeteries in this part of the world consist of long buildings with hundreds of coffin-sized niches built into them, like long walls of windows, or holes for the souls. Between these buildings are gardens, and here in Tulcan, these gardens are galleries, containing the most amazing topiary you could imagine. Figures both real and imagined, from nature and history, myth and cartoon; geometric shapes, three-dimensional shapes, and reliefs carved into hedges. It was all quite spell-binding, and we wandered around in awe, sharing the moment with lots of Ecuadorian sightseers, some people paying their respects, and hardly another backpacker in sight.