Across South America's great divide

Andrew Thomas traversed Ecuador from wealthy Ibarra in the Andes to run-down San Lorenzo on the coast
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The Independent Travel
IBARRA, nestled in the Andes at 2,210 metres, is cool, bustling and relatively affluent: the capital of the province of Imbabura in northern Ecuador. San Lorenzo, on the coast, is a hot, humid, shanty town - walls painted with pictures of a presidential candidate whose slogan is "the future of the poor". Two polarised towns, the extreme ends of a single rail track that links them. Wrapped in a woollen jacket in the cold dark of the pre-dawn hours, I sat on Ibarra station, ready to make the connection.

The autoferro - a minibus on rails - left surprisingly promptly. It was packed to the hilt and getting to my seat involved clambering over piles of bananas, vegetables and the odd live chicken. The journey started sedately, rumbling through suburbs of Ibarra before emerging onto a mountain pass. Steep on the left were Andean mountains where condors soared overhead. Deep down to the right, sheer cliffs led to a white-water river that cut through the valley.

The train dropped. In an hour, the temperature had risen noticeably and jacket gave way to T-shirt. Outside, vegetation changed too - bare mountains still loomed overhead but immediately outside, alongside the river, the grass was green, flowers thick and trees towered into the sky.

First stop was La Concepcion, a tiny village of four buildings, two advertising hoardings (one for Coca-Cola, the other for the president), and a blind beggar on the platform. "Toilet stop. Five minutes." said the driver, lighting a cigarette. Twenty-five minutes later, we finally pulled away, gathered speed, started round a corner and came to an abrupt, violent stop. Ahead, five workmen with a trolley on rails were laying sleepers on the track. Casually but methodically - the heat was not conducive to fast work - they shifted the sleepers. We rumbled on, past banana plantations, pines and people doing nothing in the middle of nowhere. Music blaring from the train's speakers seemed suddenly appropriate - lively Indian Salsa melodies, the musical equivalent of the colourful, exuberant plants and palms that danced outside. Definite, at times deafening, the music regulated the speed at which train clattered against track.

By now, scenery and weather had changed once again. Hills were lower, greener and lusher. Not only was it now hot but it was humid, a change reflected in the vegetation: leaves were larger, trees denser, birds brighter, shriller and smaller. Ahead, the track was barely visible beneath vegetation - a real case of leaves on the line.

The train ploughed on through a jungle tunnel, the driver flinching in response to the branches that smacked into his windscreen. The passengers now faced a dilemma: with the window open, the breeze provided relief from the heat, but it also caused branches to fall into the train, bringing with them the jungle's indigenous life. I opted for air and was soon covered in leaves, twigs, spiders, crickets and a snake, which on closer inspection turned out to be a long rolled-up leaf. We were a giant lawn-mower, except we were not mowing a lawn but the side of the track, shearing jungle that hemmed us in on every side. The passengers were the grass-collectors.

We were almost at sea-level before we rolled into the last village before San Lorenzo. Here, the track was sandwiched between open-fronted wooden shacks and a steep bank at the bottom of which, the wide, calm and muddy brown river meandered gently through the forest. Floating down the middle, a young boy lay face down in a canoe dug out from a broad tree trunk. Lazily, he splashed water over his chocolate-coloured back. It struck me that he'd probably never been to Ibarra, let alone worn a woollen jacket.

The deep red sun drifted gently down into a rich and hazy sunset as we finally pulled into San Lorenzo. The town, lit by shimmering evening light, appeared golden and alive. Unlike Ibarra, life in San Lorenzo took place outdoors.

Cries of "gringo, gringo" went up as we made our way from the station towards the sea front. Cows, pigs and chickens lost lethargy and strolled, squeaked and strutted around dusty streets. The cool of the evening had a similarly enlivening effect on the people. A game of volley-ball was under way in the main street and provided the social focus for a community waking with the coming of night. A jetty doubled as a runway for teenagers who raced each other to the end and back-flipped into the Pacific Ocean. Here, it was warm. Here, life was warm. A condor could have flown here in a couple of hours but to me, Ibarra seemed more than a world away.

DAWN OVER the mangroves outside San Lorenzo. Not exactly what you would call a quiet dawn. Two huge engines powered the dug-out longboat through the water, shattering illusions of peace. Half-awake, as if in a dream, we had boarded the canoe at 5.30am, dark hiding any destination. In every direction there appeared to be land until we got close and "land" opened up, revealing yet another channel through floating trees. Huge birds circled above the water, occasionally diving for a fish.

Two hours later, we arrived in La Tola and within minutes were on a southbound bus. The sun was hot and the bus looked crowded, so we opted for the space, breeze and sunburn of the roof. We didn't bargain on La Tola's annual festival, though - banners overhung the road and I was lucky to emerge from the town with head and body still attached. Rumbling past paddy-fields to either side, the bus slowed only for the occasional heavily-laden horse. At the first settlement, Lagarto, we were joined on the roof by a fisherman and - conspicuous only by its smell - his barrel of fish. As he talked about the price of fish, I discovered that our airfare to Ecuador had been more than his year's income. The grin remained on his face throughout.

Our fisherman friend got off at the market in Mardowval. In his place, another man clambered on clutching a duck and a chicken - each alive but wrapped in banana leaves. He was on his way to join his family for a festival meal in Guayaquil. Dinner had to be fresh.

Twenty minutes outside Esmeraldes, the heavens opened. By the time we changed buses in the city, we were soaked through while the sun laughed behind heavy, low clouds. The drive east took us back through the jungle towards the Andes. As we climbed, we passed through the clouds and, once again, found the sun. One last encore before it finally set for good.

Ecuador's two main roads cross at Aloaz - this country's Spaghetti Junction. Here, we picked up a local bus heading south. Finding it jammed, we got floor space in the cab. This was the "Pan American Highway" - an impressive name at odds with what was a narrow dirt-track. Our driver treated it as a highway though, touching 100km/hour and overtaking where necessary by going off-road. After two near misses I retreated to a luggage rack at the back.

We pulled into Ambato at nine . Our reward was our first sight - a skewered, barbecued guinea-pig. I was being offered the local speciality before I'd stepped off the bus. It had been an impressive two days of travel - half of Ecuador by train, boat and bus. But barbecued rodent as a bedtime snack? A line had to be drawn somewhere.

ecuador fact file

Getting there

The author flew to Quito with KLM. Fares, available through Journey Latin America (0181 747 3108) range from around pounds 600 on KLM or Iberia - which have very little availability this summer - to pounds 756 on Continental via the USA.

Getting about

The bus system throughout Ecuador is incredibly efficient, if somewhat perilous. Ibarra is 2 hours north of Quito. The bus costs about pounds l. The autoferro train from Ibarra to San Lorenzo leaves four times a week at 7am. Space is very limited. The train journey to San Lorenzo takes approximately 10 hours, although it can take up to 20 depending on weather, state of track, number of delays and the temperament of the driver. In total, it cost the author less than pounds 8.

Where to stay

There are a huge number of basic but cheap guest-houses in Ibarra, San Lorenzo and Ambato. Prices start at less than pounds l per person.