Today we left Quito behind and headed north, back to volcano and mountain country. Our first quick stop was a viewpoint by the Cayambe volcano and lake. This little rest stop offers great views over the glassy lake, and the shop sells tasty home-baked snacks. I’d skipped breakfast so had a couple of corn biscotti for the road.
We continued to Ibarra, where we’d catch the train to Salinas, about 2.5 hours north of Quito in total. Ibarra is a bustling market town, the kind of place I’d be itching to explore, but we had a train to catch right away from the smart modern station. The train leaves Ibarra at 10.30 every day Weds-Sun, with the return trip at 3pm, and the ticket costs $15.
The train is named El Tren de Libertad – the train of liberty, so called to celebrate the freedom of the ex-slave population of the area. Kids on the street sweetly wave you off as the train chugs out of town. It goes at a leisurely pace, with the 30km journey taking 1.5 hours. It’s very comfortable on board and you can open up the wooden sash windows to get closer to that view.
Pretty soon you’ve left the town behind and the view is rolling farmland and hills as far as you can see – today was a beautiful clear day with bright blue skies so it was especially stunning. I can’t get over how big the sky looks in Ecuador – I don’t know if that’s my imagination or an effect of being at high altitude and close to the equator, but it seems endlessly vast.
The vegetation and crops change as the journey continues: from maize and tree tomatoes in the lusher areas to cacti, agave and sugar cane in the drier climate later on.
Despite the stately pace the ride is pretty dramatic; often you can look down out of the window to a sheer drop into the valley below, and crossing this rather rickety-looking iron bridge was a heart-stopping moment. You’re also occasionally plunged into the sudden darkness of a tunnel before whooshing out into the light again. Kind of like a very slow-mo rollercoaster!
We reached Salinas at midday, welcomed by a Bamba dance from some local girls. Salinas is a small town of 2,000 people which was originally founded as a result of the nearby salt mines, hence the name. The train line brought trade to the town in the 19th century, and continues to today – but by way of tourism rather than salt, which is too expensive to produce in the old-fashioned way now.
We got a short tour of the town from the train guides. The town comprises maybe 10 by 10 neat blocks of low, colourful dwellings with a pretty square in the middle which contains the church and school. I’ve never been anywhere that felt so peaceful and laid-back. You can imagine no-one ever rushes anywhere and the noisiest it gets is when a kid riding a souped-up motorcycle jutters past.
There’s a quaint mini-museum dedicated to the town’s past in the salt business, showing how it was mined, refined, dried and sold. There is also a gift shop containing products made by the community with some very pretty jewellery, and a shop of homemade edible souvenirs like marmalade, honey, and a rather potent ‘pina colada’ made of sweet milk and sugar cane liquor. We had a nice lunch in the ‘gastronomic centre’: quinoa soup followed by mixed veggies and potato for me, with the usual aji hot sauce liberally applied.
I spent an hour or so after lunch just poking up and down the same few streets, noticing something new each time: a handpainted pattern on the wall; a kitty sunning himself in a door; a classic Morris car. It felt a little like a film set, so quiet and perfect. I remembered for not the first time how lucky I am to be able to visit these unique places, so different to home.
At mid-afternoon we boarded the train for the trundle back to Ibarra. My eyes were half-closed but the landscape had become more dramatic under the sinking sun: you begin to think you’ve seen all the epic scenery Ecuador can offer but it’s constantly changing and always enthralling.
By late afternoon Ibarra’s market stalls were still buzzing with end of day trade and food sellers had started to fry up meats and plantains from their stalls.
It was about a 45-minute drive from Ibarra to my bed for the night, at the Hacienda Cucin. It was getting dark as I arrived and the light rain turned into heavy thunder and lightning, so exploring the pretty grounds would have to wait until the morning. I had a dinner of more quinoa soup, garlic mushrooms and chocolate cake in the elegant restaurant before turning in for the night in my room, equipped with a crackling log fire, layers of woollen blankets, and a hot water bottle.