Pamela Wade quits Quito to head deeper into Ecuador aboard the Chiva Express.
Is it a bus? Is it a train? Neither, both: who cares? All that's certain is that the Chiva Express promises to be enormous fun.
Brightly painted in red, blue and yellow, it's a coach on rails, and on this World Journeys tour links two of Ecuador's most distinctive places to stay, with cowboys, volcanoes, llamas and a wicked cup of tea along the way - all in a single day.
It begins in Quito's old town with breakfast in the elegant dining room of the Plaza Grande, a boutique hotel with a distinguished history stretching back over 400 years. I'd slept like a baby - it may have been the mulled wine at check-in last night, but more likely was the supremely comfortable canopied bed, the focal point of a suite featuring quantities of marble, chandeliers, dark carved wood and fresh roses everywhere - and am eager to get started on discovering the fantastic diversity in this compact country.
There are several trains waiting at the railway station, but there's no mistaking ours, with its yellow cow- catcher in front - which we're soon to find could just as accurately be called a sheep-, dog-, chicken-, donkey- or car- catcher. Sadly, the roof-top seats are roped off today and as sitting inside seems tame for a vehicle like this, we stand on the platform at the rear from which we have a wide-screen view of the unfolding scenery.
The journey's like a Cecil B DeMille movie, in 3D and interactive: A cast of thousands waves to us as we roar and toot through Quito's busy suburbs and a series of small towns and villages, getting intimate glimpses into domestic life in backyards, on roofs and in the streets. A couple of motorcycle out- riders in high leather boots and orange jackets ooze self-importance as they leap-frog past to stop traffic at the crossings. A van lurching alongside swipes off our driver's door handle - but nothing stops the Chiva Express. Barking dogs hurtle along the track behind us; barefooted children smile shyly; a man painting sunflowers at an easel stops to watch us pass. The green hills and gum trees look like New Zealand, except the fields are being tilled by hand, cows are tethered by a line, and women wash clothes in troughs behind their houses. It's real life, Ecuador-style, laid out for our delight.
Suddenly, there are cowboys in ponchos and furry chaps cantering alongside, and we slow to halt at Hacienda La Alegria. Gabriel Espinosa, fine-featured and blue-eyed, is a chagra, a highland cowboy, and he welcomes us to his pretty, old family homestead. Sitting in the courtyard, we eat a snack of fava beans, local cheese and humitas - minced maize wrapped and steamed in corn husks - before a demonstration of bull-roping by chagras using traditional woven cow-hide lassos of extraordinary length. I hanker after the cowboys' paso fino and criollo horses, and wish I could go along on one of the treks that Gabriel runs. Up here there are no fences for 500 kilometres, just the high plains, river valleys and the Andes, splitting into the stunning Avenue of the Volcanoes.
COTOPAXI (5897 metres) is the world's highest active volcano and its head is in the clouds when we drive into the adjoining national park. Tambopaxi is an eco- lodge, sturdily built from natural materials, a cosy and welcoming haven of comfort on the wind-swept Andean paramo. A distant herd of wild horses is the only sign of life today, despite Ecuador having more species per square kilometre than anywhere else on Earth.
We're at 3800m and it's cold. Even better than the lodge's glowing log- burner is the cup of canelazo we're offered before lunch. Hot orange- flavoured tea, scented with cinnamon and cloves and with a kick of rum, it's both delicious and reviving, an instant favourite.
Driving away, we're compensated for Cotopaxi's shyness by a rare view of faraway Chimborazo, the highest mountain in Ecuador at 6310m. We're on our way to our home for the night, Hacienda San Agustin de Callo, which really does feel like home - nearly six centuries of hospitality will do that for a place. Built in the fifteenth century as an Inca palace, it's unique in that two complete rooms and several parts of walls in the bedrooms are perfect examples of finest Inca masonry. Nowhere else can you eat and sleep inside walls fitted together in this distinctive style, where the cracks between the unmortared stones are so tight they look painted on. The lodge has also been an Augustinian monastery and home to two of Ecuador's presidents, one of them twice-elected. His granddaughter Mignon Plaza is the current owner.
Each of the bedroom suites is different, but they're all cosy, full of character and antiques, and each with at least one fireplace cheerfully crackling. The rooms surround a cloistered inner courtyard featuring cobbles, hanging baskets and pots of geraniums. At dusk a small herd of llamas wander in. We grab handfuls of carrot sticks from a basket as they cluster around us, nuzzling to be fed. At a clap of hands the perfectly-trained llamas bound away again, and above the roof Cotopaxi finally shows itself, glaciers gleaming under the rising moon.
The dining room, still blackened by smoke from when the building was under threat from the Spanish invasion, is lit by candles in the niches of the Inca walls. On the menu there's green banana soup and grilled local trout followed by passionfruit meringue tart with meltingly tender pastry. Afterwards, six musicians file in to play Pan pipes, drums and armadillo-shell guitars, and Mignon leads the dancing to their infectious music.
Finally, we wander dreamily to our rooms and I sink into a steaming claw- footed bath, a metre from the crackling fire, to gaze up at chubby cupids painted on the ceiling. It's been a long day, but magical. I can't wait for tomorrow.
LAN Airlines flies Auckland to Santiago de Chile, with connections to Quito. World Journeys offers a range of tours in Ecuador: visit worldjourneys.co.nz or phone 0800 117 311
- The Dominion Post