For train lovers and "slow" travelers, Ecuador's newly restored, century-old railwayline -- the Tren Crucero -- is a way to "cruise" from the country's capital
city of Quito to Guayaquil, its commercial center on the Pacific. The four-day trip can also be taken in the reverse direction, which makes it a perfect add-on trip post-Galapagos island hopping.
That's what Myths and Mountains' travelers David Axelrod and his wife Linda Feferman did. Rather than take the 40-minute flight to Quito, they opted for seeing the country by rail. David, a train fan, was intrigued by an article about the newly restored Tran Crucero in the Financial Times, and the trip, which includes a sojourn through the "Avenue of the Volcanoes," did not disappoint. In fact, it just won the title of South America’s Leading Luxury Train Journey from the 2014 World Travel Awards.
"The cruise train is for people who like getting into the back country and traveling in an interesting way," says David. "We went through parts of the country that few tourists visit." Since having the train come through their village is a new experience for the local people, David said the people were friendly and pleased to have visitors.
SLOW TRAVEL MADE EASY…AND COMFORTABLE
Although David cautions travelers not to expect Orient-Express luxury, he says the coaches were quite comfortable. Since they are restored in the Spanish Baroque style, one feels transported in time as well as place.
The four coaches of the Tren Crucero, or "cruise train," are alternately pulled by a reconditioned, authentic steam engine and a gleaming new diesel, depending on the track and the terrain. It carries as many as 54 passengers nearly 300 miles, through villages, orchards, and fertile farmlands and down deep gorges and up cliff-side switchbacks, including crossing the precipitous "Devil's Nose," which is said to be the trip's most exciting moment.
A bilingual concierge in each car answers questions about the passing landscape and points out landmarks travelers wouldn't want to miss by looking in the wrong direction.
Along the way, the train stops in towns and villages for travelers to enjoy local cuisine, folk dances, and craft markets. At some stops, passengers are bused to popular sites, such as the national park surrounding Cotopaxi, one of the world's highest active volcanoes.
"The train crew warned us about altitude sickness and then kindly provided us with unlimited amounts of coca tea which is claimed to cure it," says David. "I'm not sure it helped with the altitude, but we definitely left the train with a buzz on!"
There are several off-the-beaten track experiences, too, like a tour of working rose and cocoa plantations, which were a surprise for David and Linda. If you're lucky, your stop at the town of Guamote will be on market day, when everything from fabric to pigs are for sale.
"We got off in one town, which seemed quite dismal at first, but when we turned the corner, there was
a spectacular 19th century castle-like structure with strolling musicians," he says. "Even the Ecuadorians on the train were surprised!"
SAMPLING HACIENDA LIFE IN STYLE
Each day ends near a hacienda, where passengers dine and spend the night. The first night's accommodations at a hotel outside Bucay were fine, says David. But the hacienda stays were among the highlights of the trip. "They were places we never would have known about," says David.
David and Linda spent the second night at the Hacienda Abraspungo outside Riobamba. Set against a backdrop of Andean peaks, the hacienda is built in the traditional colonial style and is a working estate.
Another highlight was lunch at Hacienda San Agustin de Callo, which is built on the site of an Inca palace and has changed little since the 18th Century. Its previous owners include several presidents of Ecuador and famous bullfighters. "After lunch, two of the hacienda's herdsmen brought a huge pack of llamas into the courtyard for our amusement," David recalls.
On the third night, David and Linda were guests at the Hacienda La Cienega, a historic inn dating back to 1695 outside Latacunga that was once home to the Marques family, staunch defenders of Simon Bolivar.
AN EXPERIENCE LIKE NO OTHER
"Many people going to Ecuador do their own tours, but this is quite a unique trip. We felt we had an Ecuador experience that few people have had," says David. And they met other interesting travelers, many of whom were Ecuadorian seeing this part of their country for the first time.
David offers some good advice for travelers taking the train from Guayaquil: "The train leaves from the station in Duran which is a 20-30 min drive from central Guayaquil. It's a good idea to use a fixer and driver because the procedures at the station are somewhat chaotic, and English is not widely spoken by the station staff."
David and Linda had traveled with Myths and Mountains before, and they love that almost any trip they want to do can be customized to their standards.
For 25 years, Myths and Mountains has been taking travelers beyond the guidebook sites to experience different cultures through their crafts, natural history, spiritual centers and healing traditions. Now, these kinds of trips have a name -- experiential tours -- and it's a hot trend in worldwide travel.
An American Express survey last year found that 72% of respondents said they would rather spend money on experiences than things. That certainly describes the typical Myths and Mountains traveler. Take the six women who took our Untamed Cambodia journey last winter.
Real Life Encounters
Of course, no one going to Cambodia wants to miss the Royal Palace and Angkor temples -- andArta, Terri, Roz, Alain, Susan and Nancy were no exception. But Untamed Cambodia, named a "Tour of a Lifetime" by National Geographic Traveler last year, offered the women opportunities to spend time in the wild animal rescue facilities that had attracted them to the Myths and Mountains Cambodia trip in thefirst place.
Some of the women were or had been involved with the Como Zoo and Conservatory in St. Paul, Mn., so bathing elephants at the Elephant Valley Project and playing with the sun bears at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center were experiences that still give them goose bumps. Their 13 days experiencing Cambodia also included trekking through the jungle with local guides, floating in small boats down the Tonle Sap past floating villages, and meeting people in other villages.
Bear Keeper for a Day
Arta says spending the day as a bear keeper at Phnom Tamao was "…an amazing, amazing experience." As a member of the board of directors of the Colo Zoo, she was aware that sun bears were in trouble, but she was not familiar with rescue programs such as this one in Cambodia.
Sun bears are in danger of becoming extinct as commercial hunters ruthlessly capture them. They may be killed for their paws, the essential ingredient in bear paw soup, a gourmet Asian delicacy that is said to promote health. Or they are held captive in "bear farms," where their gall bladders are continuously and painfully drained of bile for use in traditional Chinese medicine.
The bears at Phnom Tamao were the lucky ones. The Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team has rescued them for several reasons, including confiscating them from illegal wildlife traders. The bears and other rescued animals are cared for at the Center until they are healthy enough to be released in the wild.
"We did enrichment exercises with the sun bears to bring out some of their natural instincts and break up the boredom," said Arta. "We tossed balls with holes filled with food to them, and the bears would hold the balls between their front and back paws to get the food out. It was such fun to watch."
What surprised Arta was how modern the animal care was. "The animals are very well cared for and the local people working at the facility were informed and educated. I'm not sure what their background was, but they certainly knew a lot about sun bears."
"It was painful to hear about how the bears were treated but also hopeful that something was being done to rescue them," said Terri. She is a therapeutic harpist, who has worked with primates. The Cambodia experience inspired her to compose three pieces that will be recorded later this year.
Nancy, who is a volunteer at the Como Conservatory garden, didn't find the birds she was hoping to see. "We made too much noise walking through the jungle," she said. But seeing the floating villages and having time to wander through a rural village and meet the locals was especially memorable for her.
The experience that caused her goose bumps? Trekking through the Mondulkiri jungle to the Elephant Valley Project, which rescues overworked elephants from Bunong families. The project pays the elephant owners what their animals would have earned doing exhausting jobs like dragging timber from the jungle. "It's awin win situation," says Terri.
"We walked down a steep path and then, just like magic, there was an elephant!" said Terri. "It brought tears to my eyes. I thought elephants would make a lot of noise walking through the jungle, but they don't. They are so quiet."
We couldn't help but ask, "Did you know this kind of 'experiential' travel is a hot trend now? "
"No, but it's the kind of travel we like to do," says Arta, "we just didn't know it had a name."
When travelers call us about a trip to Tibet, our first question is, "Why Tibet?" The reason we ask is because there is another option that might be even more interesting, less expensive, and just as gratifying. It's Ladakh, also known as "Little Tibet."
Don't get us wrong. Tibet is a must if Lhasa is on top of your bucket list or visiting the Jokhang temple is a lifelong dream, as it is for many Mahayana Buddhists. But if experiencing the Tibetan Buddhist culture, enjoying festivals that will not be cancelled and appreciating the stark and breathtaking landscape of the Tibetan plateau are your main interests, Ladakh offers it all.
Tibetan culture in Ladakh has been allowed to flourish unimpeded by 20th century political clashes and restrictions. And the culture has a centuries- old history in Ladakh: Tibetans began migrating from western Tibet, or Guge, in the 7th century. During the same period, Buddhist texts were being carried across the Himalayas, and the sage Padmasambhava was bringing Buddhism to Tibet, Bhutan and neighboring countries. Today, Mahayana Buddhism is the main religion of eastern Ladakh. (The western part of the region is primarily Muslim). The Dalai Lama is free to visit, and he does with some frequency. This July, for instance, His Holiness will be in Leh, Ladakh's capital city, for the first three days of the Kalachakra festival.
LAND OF MOUNTAIN PASSES Ladakh, the "land of mountain passes," is crisscrossed by two great mountain ranges, the Himalayas in the south and the Karakoram to the north. It is within the Jammu & Kashmir state, which juts upward from India and is bordered by Pakistan to the northwest, Xinjiang, China to the north, and Tibet to the east. And, yes, a river--the Indus River--runs through it.
Ladakh and Leh, the capital city, is the site of many festivals and functioning monasteries. At almost any time of year, we can schedule your trip to coincide with a major festival. And your travels, including treks for those who wish to experience the high desert and deep gorges on foot, can be organized around visits to several important monasteries. We can also include a journey to Kashmir to the west and/or south to Dharamasala, where the Dalai Lama resides. Flights can be arranged, but going by van allows for seeing spectacular scenery up close.
MONASTERIES OF LADAKH As Buddhism spread, monasteries to house the monks and Lamas were constructed. By the 11th century there were over 100 in what is today Tibet and Ladakh. Here are a few that are typically included on a Myths and Mountains itinerary--two of which date back to the 11th century.
Thiksey Like many monasteries, this 600- year-old one sits on a hilltop with a panoramic view of the Sindh Valley. With ten temples, Thiksey (or Thikse) is among the largest monasteries you can visit. It is said to be one of the best organized, since the incarnate lama actually lives there, along with about 100 monks and a school for children. Thiksey is also home to a nearly 50-foot-tall Buddha statue, the largest in Ladakh. Lovely murals decorate the walls, and an image of Sakyamuni (the past Buddha) in the central hall is a main attraction. Cham (mask) dances take place here during the annual Thiksey festival.
Hemis In a remote valley on the bank of the Indus river about 25 miles from Leh is one of the most important and largest monasteries in Ladakh. Hemis is actually a unique complex of temples built in the 17th century and based on the concept of a three-dimensional mandala. The two-day Hemis festival celebrating the birth of Padmasambhava, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism, is one of the most famous festivals in Ladakh. The highlight is a masked dance performed by the colorfully robed Lamas celebrating the victory of good over evil. If you are really fortunate, you may see one of the largest thanka paintings in the world, which is displayed only every 11 years.
Dak Thok Unlike other monasteries, Dak Thok (aka Takthok, Thag Thog, and Thak Thak) is built within and around a cave about 28 miles from Leh. It is the only Buddhist monastery of the Nyingma (the "school of the ancient ones") tradition in Ladakh. The name Takthok means, "rock roof." Padmasambhava lived there and meditated for three years--or so the legend goes. Just outside his small cave are images of him and Avalokitesvara, the deity of compassion. It's believed that a large footprint on a nearby rock slab belongs to Padmasambhava. The monastery was initially created when a Lama walled in the cave and built an entrance door. Later a three-story building with an assembly hall was constructed, which over the years has been modified several times and now is home to about 50 monks. Attending the lesser-known Dak Thok festival, often at the same time as the Hemis Festival, is a treat, as there are few tourists and many Ladakhis.
Alchi About 44 miles from Leh on the banks of the Indus river is the village of Alchi and a thousand-year-old monastery and temple complex--the oldest in Ladakh. The architecture is typically Tibetan with flat roofs and multiple windows. Thousands of images of the Buddha and murals dating as far back as the 11th century decorate the monastery, and some are extraordinarily colorful. You'll see some of the oldest wall paintings in Ladakh as well as major shrines, such as the Manjushri Temple, with its painted wood ceilings. Another distinguishing feature of the monastery is the series of chortens marking the entrance.
Lamayuru Like Alchi, Lamayuru is ancient, dating to the time of the Rinchen Zangpo (958-1055 CE), the great builder. It's thought that Lamayuru was actually built by the King of Ladakh and given to Zangpo. Also known as Tharpa Ling, or "place of freedom," Lamayuru is one of the largest monasteries in Ladakh. Nearly 80 miles from Leh and perched on a steep mountain, it contains many works of Tibetan Buddhist art--colorful murals, thankas, and statuary--and is home to about 50 monks. The surrounding landscape is “otherworldly” and the drive definitely epitomizes “adventure travel” at its best!
Myths and Mountains, an award-winning experiential tour operator offering active lifestyle trips inAsia, Southeast Asia and South America, was named winner of the ninth annual Observer Ethical Awards’ travel category for the first time today. Myths and Mountains, along with the READ Global Program, was the only American company nominated for an award sponsored by the Observer, one of England’s most prominent and trusted news sources. Information about the ninth Annual Awards is available here.
The Observer Ethical Awards Ceremony- dubbed ‘The Green Oscars’- took place at One Marylebone in London on June 11th. Sponsored by Virgin Airlines, the competition was voted upon by both a panel of judges and the public.
Dr. Antonia Neubauer founded Myths and Mountains in 1988 after a trekking trip to Nepal, where her deep connection to international education and development was realized. Her knowledge of the Nepali people and culture grew, and her desire to educate and connect other travelers with Nepal and other countries inspired her inception of the travel company. When Dr. Neubauer had asked a Nepali guide what he had wished for most in his home country, his reply of “a library” sparked Dr. Neubauer’s desire to create an organization dedicated to giving back to the communities to which Myths and Mountains traveled.
Established in 1991, READ Global was founded not to simply create a library, but to develop a catalyst for systemic and sustainable change in the community. In 2006, READ was awarded the Bill and Melina Gates Foundation’s one million dollar Access to Learning Award, and it has been a stand-alone organization since 2007. READ Global works in rural Asia to build community library and resource centers and seed small businesses. Offering programs in education, economic empowerment, technology, and women's empowerment, READ Global has established almostseventy centers and has serviced nearly two million rural villagers.
Upon receiving the Observer Ethical Award, Dr. Neubauer says, “We at Myths and Mountains are honored to be chosen for this award. True sustainability is a hallmark of READ – economic prosperity through a business generating income, social viability through village ownership and empowerment, and continuous educational development through the knowledge the program inspires."
About Myths and Mountains
Founded in 1988 by veteran adventurer Dr. Antonia Neubauer, Myths and Mountains provides travelers with an intimate experience with the places they visit. With more than 25 years of expertise, Myths and Mountains offers award-winning trips focusing on cultures and crafts, religion and pilgrimage sites, environment and natural history, and natural healing and traditional medicine. Dr. Neubauer was named one of the “Top Travel Experts Who Can Change Your Life” for her specialty in Nepal by Conde Nast Traveler consecutively from 2010 through 2014. Myths and Mountains was chosen as one of the “Top Ten Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth” by National Geographic Adventurer in 2009, “Ultimate Adventure Outfitters From Around the Globe” by Travel + Leisure Magazine in 2010, and “50 Tours of a Lifetime” by National Geographic Traveler in 2013.
Myths President Toni Neubauer headed to Nepal and Vietnam with her daughter and grandkids a few days ago. First hurdle? Jet lag! She writes: "Time, watch time, is really meaningless when you travel by plane. You leave a place at 8:30 AM, and arrive somewhere else that is 4 hours away. Yet, it is not 12:30, but 2:30 PM. Your stomach says, "Hey, babes, it is lunch time," but the clock says, "You lie, stomach. You missed lunch and need to wait for tea time." But, then, when you connect to the next flight, 11/2 hours away, it is not tea time, but 6:30 and dinner time, because it is an hour later. Then, you fly another twelve hours for a total of 17 1/2 hours in the air, but it is not 1:30 AM when you disembark. It is about 1:30 PM where you are, and you missed lunch again! Of course, watch time is man-made, and created by humans. There is another kind of time, more real, a time that includes sunrises, sunsets, stars, and moons - a universal time that is really the only one that makes sense."
We know there's always a price to pay when it comes to jumping a few time zones from continent to continent. But the memories you keep? Priceless.