Hop on a train from a colonial mountain city to an Afro-Ecuadorian community set among sugarcane fields. Your route passes near – and sometimes through – volcanoes
The Tren de la Libertad is in no hurry to leave. A team of brakemen uniformed in double denim check the train’s two jolly red carriages, preparing for a sharp descent through the Andes. The morning rush hour has never quite arrived in Ibarra, the largest city north of Quito. Wooden stools are set at the edge of the rails, coffees are shared, and papayas, newspapers and boiled sweets are hawked to the passengers who mill about nearby.
This former colonial mountain outpost has a troubled history. Imbabura volcano is said to be the sacred protector of the region, but an earthquake in 1868 devastated Ibarra. At the base of the volcano is Yahuarcocha lake – its name means ‘Lake of Blood’, in memory of 30,000 indigenous Caranqui warriors killed here in the 15th century by forces of Incan emperor Huayna Capac.
Bells clonk and horns blare as a squall of activity erupts. Children are pulled from staring into the driver’s cabin, and bags are loaded. The ceremony of departure gains drama with the arrival of two motorbike outriders, dressed like superheroes in boiler suits and body armour.
They ride ahead of the train for the first half of its route, grandly shooing livestock off the tracks and forcing trucks laden with sugarcane to halt at level crossings. The train slowly clanks through the suburbs, palms swaying overhead. Its journey is to be brief but scenic. Over the couple of hours taken to cover 20 or so miles, the train enters five tunnels cut by hand in the early 20th century, and crosses two bridges spanning deep canyons.
As the altitude drops from 2,200m to 1,600m, the route passes swamps, arid plains, forests of cacti and lonesome giant bromeliads, with the temperature rising from 15°C to 30°C.
The occupants of the train roughly reflect Ecuador’s population: 3% Afro-Ecuadorian, 25% indigenous and the majority, known as mestizos, with a mix of Spanish and indigenous ancestry.The route levels out and the train passes through horizon-to- horizon fields of sugarcane, here since Jesuit priests first established sprawling haciendas in the 16th century, not long after the arrival of the conquistadors. The Jesuits soon realised that slaves from Africa could be forced to gather the cane more efficiently than the often smaller indigenous workers. The name of today’s train service recognises the liberty finally given to those slaves in the mid-19th century.
Milena Espinoza is a descendant of the slaves who chose to remain in the quiet town of Salinas, the furthest point on the train’s route. Milena and her friends perform a bomba dance for the disembarking passengers, one traditional to Afro-Ecuadorians – its party music suited to a scorching day, with an easy rhythm like the shimmering of a mirage. ‘I would dance bomba all the time if I could,’ she says. ‘We are glad to rescue the old traditions. These cotton petticoats are like what maids once would have worn, and we dance with bottles on our heads as our ancestors would have – they kept them there to prevent the slave owners from taking their alcohol.’
When asked what the lyrics to the songs mean, Milena says: They are always the same. They say this woman is black and happy. She makes these movements, then gives a kiss to her friends.’
An easy 3-hour, 70-mile drive (partly via the Pan-American Highway) takes you back to Quito. From there, jump on a 3.5-hour flight bound for the Galapagos Islands.
Festooned with bougainvillea and pelargoniums, Hacienda Piman is a former sugarcane plantation and donkey farm with origins dating to 1680; its ornate entrance archway was one of few structures to survive the earthquake of 1868. Most rooms have antique beds, monsoon showers, and a terrace overlooking the garden (from US$264).
Allow six hours for the full Ibarra-Salinas- Ibarra round trip on the Tren de la Libertad, including a bomba performance and guided walk in Salinas (US$27).