High in the Andes Mountains, at the point where the Guasuntos and Chanchán Rivers meet, a gigantic rock known as El Nido del Condor (Nest of the Condor) soars more than 6,200 feet. I sat atop this massif, safely ensconced in a leather seat on board what has been dubbed “the most difficult railroad in the world,” acutely aware that I owed my comfort to those who had perished in its construction. As the vintage diesel locomotive chugged slowly down the steep slope, belching black smoke and causing my wooden carraige to rock to and fro in time with the clickety-clack wheels, my thoughts turned to the reasons this famous ride is named “La Nariz del Diablo,” the Nose of the Devil.
Construction of the line between the southern coast and Quito began in 1871 in the lowlands near Guayaquil but three years later, only 7.6 miles had been completed. Plagued with theft of construction materials, lack of funding, political bickering, debilitating tropical diseases, floods and landslides, efforts were finally abandoned in 1888 with only 65 miles completed. Ten years later, Ecuador turned to the United States for help. Brothers John and Archer Harman were hired and work resumed. Mile after backbreaking mile was slowly completed until the line reached El Nido del Condor. In two miles, the train would need to ascend more than 5,700 feet but unlike the majestic birds for which the monolithic rock is named, trains could not sprout wings and fly down its face.
The solution was a unique zig-zag track design that allows trains to climb the steep grade as far as possible to a terminus, reverse direction and back up a subsequent section of track to a second terminus, then move forward again on a final section of ascending tracks. Hundreds of Jamaican slaves who were brought in to dynamite the hard rock lost their lives in the process; they, along with scores who succumbed to malaria, yellow fever, and poisonous snakes remain entombed in the rubble along the route, earning it the nickname La Nariz del Diablo by the time it finally opened between the coast and Alausi in 1901. Continue reading
The pickup truck squealed to a stop in front of me and six suit-clad men scrambled out of the open bed. A tall, thin, mustachioed man held out his hand. “Bienvenidos a Ecuador,” he said. Welcome to Ecuador. Surprised, I looked around and realized I was the only white face on the street; it was obvious that I was a tourist. He pumped my hand and smiled broadly, his brilliant white teeth gleaming in the light streaming from the school gymnasium in front of which we stood. I had previously peeked into the gym, where thousands of indigenous Quichua were seated in the bleachers, but had hesitated to enter because I had no idea if I would be welcome. “Where are you from?” He asked. “The United States,” I answered. “Please, I invite you to be our honored guest tonight. We are celebrating the Independence of our town.”
The city fathers escorted me to a seat in the second row of plastic folding chairs set up on on the main floor. Music boomed from giant speakers and the room erupted in song. I stood and clapped along, marveling at the passionate faith and the brilliantly colored Quichua costumes on display. Green skirts were topped by pink capes, orange over maroon, red and turquoise; hats and long stockings in contrasting colors completed the traditional ensembles. Groups of Quichua women, each from a different sector within the canton of Alausi, shyly walked to the front of the room, stood shoulder-to-shoulder and recited a biblical verse in their sing-song Kichua language. Their testimony was followed by a song of worship, performed as they rocked to and fro in unison.
Four hours later, having been introduced as an honored guest, serenaded by a male solo vocalist, and gifted with christian music CD’s, I finally begged off. At midnight, the celebrations were still going strong but I had to return to my guest house before it was locked down for the night. I thanked my hosts profusely for providing me with a unique opportunity to witness Quichua culture up close, cognizant that I had seen in one night what might otherwise have taken months of travel throughout Ecuador.
The narrow mountain road carved a slithering path through impenetrable jungle that threatened to devour it. Even the view through the tour bus windshield provided no relief; the asphalt ribbon stretched into the distance until it too was swallowed by the green swath. With every curve my old malady, motion sickness, was kicking up, threatening to make me hurl. I put my head down and closed my eyes, attempting to block out the incessant greenness rushing past my peripheral vision. Breathing deeply, I concentrated on not throwing up. Mercifully, the bus suddenly slowed. I looked up just in time to glimpse a crudely hand-lettered sign at the edge of a clearing where a few ramshackle buildings had staked a claim. “You are in Zapatista territory,” it announced.
A memory bubble lurched up. Back in the mid-90′s I had considered loading up my truck and traveling through Mexico but had decided against it because of the armed conflict between the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) and the Mexican government. On January 1, 1994 an estimated 3,000 Zapatista insurgents, based in the southernmost State of Chiapas and comprised mostly of indigenous peoples of Mayan ancestry, took up arms in response to Mexico’s signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which they believed would further widen the gap between rich and poor people. They seized a number of towns and cities and freed prisoners from the jail in San Cristobal de las Casas, demanding governmental autonomy and more control over and remuneration from the vast stores of natural resources extracted from the State.
A bloody battle between the Zapatistas and government troops raged for 12 days before a ceasefire was brokered. As quickly as they had emerged, the Zapatistas melted back into into the jungle, choosing to eschew future violence in favor of disseminating their message via newspapers and the Internet. Although there were occasional skirmishes following the ceasefire, for the most part the fighting ended and the government pursued a policy of negotiation, to the point that they did not intervene when ELZN declared the establishment of 32 autonomous municipalities in Chiapas in 2001.
Now, 16 years later, I was finally making the pilgrimage I had put on hold due to the Zapatista rebellion. The further south I traveled the more I heard about Chiapas. Time and again during my four-month trip Mexicans I had met along the way extolled its beauty, insisting, “You must go!” Their passion was understandable. From the astonishing Mayan temples of Palenque to the mist-wreathed, jungle-smothered mountaintops, Chiapas is simply stunning. Continue reading