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Tren Crucero: Full steam ahead in the Andes on a trip to Ecuador

Wayne O'Connor boards a train with a difference on a sojourn in South America...

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All aboad El Tren Cucero in Ecuador

All aboad El Tren Cucero in Ecuador

Mashpi Lodge

Mashpi Lodge

A real gem: El Esmeraldas

A real gem: El Esmeraldas

The old cathedral in central Quito

The old cathedral in central Quito

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All aboad El Tren Cucero in Ecuador

We boarded the train at 9am on the promise of gorgeous scenery and a journey flanked by volcanoes. But by 9.05am the party on El Tren Crucero was in full swing and we ended up missing the volcanic mountains completely; there was too much entertainment on board to even consider looking out the window.

Ecuador is beautiful and bizarre in equal measure. It is a country where it turns out the location of the equator is not where it is meant to be; where sprawling historic cities are at altitudes three times higher than Carrauntoohil; where wonderful hotels are built in the clouds; and where Friday-morning train journeys can turn in to carnivals: locals turned out in droves to revel in the Fiestas de Quito, a week-long festival celebrating the foundation of Ecuador's capital.

The lovingly restored steam locomotive swayed through streets and traffic as it tugged its beautiful old timber carriages slowly down tracks hundreds of years old. The passengers cheered and waved as we passed their neighbourhoods while sharing the picnics brought on board.

As the only foreigners on Tren Crucero, we soon became a novelty so I was handed a cup of canelazo, a spiced tea spiked with rum. Drinking at breakfast time isn't something I am accustomed to, but not wanting to cause offence I knocked it back and nodded "gracias" to my generous new travel companion on the other side of the aisle. "Amigo," he shouted, handing me another cup. That didn't last long either.

This fiesta had caught us by surprise so I had nothing to reciprocate with.

Feeling guilty about not being able to share my amigo's hospitality I made my way to the bar. I was a novelty at the counter too and was offered a taste of the rum before it was mixed with the spices and tea. It would have been rude not to and, it must be said, the rum was delicious, but now I was three drinks in and it wasn't even 10am.

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Is it an alpaca? A lama? Or a Kerry hipster?

Is it an alpaca? A lama? Or a Kerry hipster?

I returned to my seat with a tray of the stuff but the reciprocal drink turned out to be a terrible idea. My new amigo saw this as my in, and any time my cup appeared to be going dry he relentlessly handed over another hit from his vat of home-brew.

Mercifully, the train stopped at a station in the middle of nowhere shortly before 11am which facilitated a break from my amigo. I was now getting a bit light-headed, which I promise was due to the altitude.

We were met with the most wonderful, and again unexpected, welcome at Tambillo Station, at the edge of a small rural town. Children in traditional dress danced in unison, like a scene from some sort of John Wayne musical. Young cowboys danced with farmers' daughters until eventually an older generation took over and performed a few sets beside the platform. Eventually the train had been turned around and it was time to climb on board again.

The return leg was a little different; the music was a little louder and the drinks still flowed for most but thankfully my amigo had dozed off after his canelazo ran dry. A hardy few, who may have started drinking earlier than most, now wore devil costumes and proceeded to dance through the aisles, inviting others to join in until eventually, we arrived back in Quito merry with excitement.

Our journey to Ecuador couldn't have been more different. Travelling business class with Air France, we were afforded the ultimate in luxury, with personal cocoons that contained a footrest, full flat bed, new and classic movies and food to rival most restaurants that don't operate at 35,000 feet. So we arrived relaxed as we were brought from Quito out to the rainforest and the unique Mashpi Lodge - a bewildering Jurassic Park-esque hotel in the clouds.

Locals call the National Geographic-run lodge 'The Cloud Forest' because of its breathtaking location. It is shrouded in mist and nestled high in an Andean nature reserve. Ecuador is renowned for its distinctive wildlife and turtles in the Galapagos; Mashpi is a hidden gem in comparison.

The region it is located in is one of the most diverse places on the planet, making its reserve the perfect spot to observe a universe of animals, birds and untouched, raw scenery. The hotel's floor-to-ceiling glass walls give guests a constant backdrop of picturesque wilderness but it is the expeditions on offer here that really stand out.

Mashpi Lodge is also a world-leading research location for environmentalists and scientists, with local experts on hand to give tours of the surrounding areas. New species of frogs have been discovered here in recent years and it is thought there are dozens of creatures living nearby that remain undiscovered.

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Hummingbird

Hummingbird

The lodge's rhythm goes with the sun, following the instincts of animals living in the area, so the mornings start at sunrise and nights end early. Our morning there began with a nature walk and some birdwatching. We had breakfast halfway through our outing in a haven surrounded by nesting hummingbirds. Two cable cars of sorts, one motorised and the other pedalled by its users, suspended above the rainforest offer mind-blowing views and animal watching. As well as stargazing at night, you can head out with a guide and see what the nocturnal creatures do when we are all gone to bed.

Quito is just a two-hour drive away, and the city has plenty to offer. It boasts of having one of the largest and best-preserved historic centres in South America. It was declared a Unesco cultural heritage site in the 1970s in recognition of its location, beauty, architecture and traditions.

The capital sits in a valley almost 3,000m above sea level; the old town is a treasure trove of plazas, squares, winding cobbled streets, markets, churches and museums.

Small family-run boutique hotels are increasingly popular here, and Hotel Carlota is perfectly placed at the heart of the old town to suit travellers looking to explore the city. The rooms are snug but designed for people who intend to be out all day. Its roof terrace offers views of the surrounding mountains and glimpses of what the city has to offer.

Quito rivals anywhere else in the world for food, with exceptionally good fish dishes in particular. Ceviches, a popular South American dish with fish cured in lime, lemon, onion, chilli and peppers, is popular and highly addictive. The region also offers some remarkable chocolate, which can be flavoured with anything from rose petals to lemongrass. An award-winning local producer, Pacari, offers taste tests and tours.

As Ecuador is at the centre of the world, a visit to the equator line at Mitad del Mundo is almost compulsory. A monument dedicated to the equator commemorates a Franco-Spanish mission which claimed to fix the location of the equator at that point in the 18th Century. It is a popular spot to get passports stamped and photographs taken.

However, locals long contended that their French and Spanish visitors were wrong in their calculations - and they were eventually proved correct. So in the interest of scientific exactness, I can confide that 240 metres down the road is another (less-visited) site - which actually is on the equator line.

To prove the point, visitors partake in a number of tests, one of which is to balance an egg on the head of a nail. Two people in our party of four completed the test. I tried hardest and longest but failed - so I argue in favour of the Franco-Spanish mission in spite of all the scientific data.

There are also opportunities for plenty of hikes and walks but we chose instead to get a cable car that brings passengers from the bottom of Rucu Pichincha, an active volcano, to a viewpoint over the city.

On our last day, we were set up to see more nearby volcanoes, but as you already know, that didn't go exactly as planned. I am glad of the excuse to go back some day.

Take Two: Top attractions

Mashpi Lodge

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Mashpi Lodge

Mashpi Lodge

Mashpi Lodge

Mashpi Lodge has to be seen to be believed. Double rooms are priced at $1,340 with suites at $1,624, including meals, soft drinks, specialised lectures, tour guides, plus your transport from Quito. See www.mashpilodge.com

El Esmeraldas

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A real gem: El Esmeraldas

A real gem: El Esmeraldas

A real gem: El Esmeraldas

Quito offers many culinary delights (don't miss the chocolate and canelazo) but this restaurant is a real gem, with unique drink options for each meal - and fish is its speciality. www.elesmeraldas.com

Getting there

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The old cathedral in central Quito

The old cathedral in central Quito

The old cathedral in central Quito

* Air France offers flights to Quito via Paris Charles de Gaulle from Dublin, making it the easiest way to travel. Fares from Dublin start at €799 for economy return if booked before January 21, or €2,301 for a return business ticket, including taxes and charges.

* Air France flies Dublin to Paris four times daily and Paris to Quito three times weekly.

* To book or for additional information, visit www.airfrance.ie or call the reservations line on (01)6590442.

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