From Chile Peppers to High Mountain Passes

A Stretch of the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado

A Stretch of the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado

Is it too early to start planning my next vacation? Not at all—especially since Martine agreed to come with me this time, but only if I limited it to two weeks. “I could do this,” I thought. Some years ago, we traveled through Arizona, New Mexico, and bits of Utah and Colorado. I thought we could take a shorter version, timewise, at least.

I thought we could fly into El Paso, rent a car, and drive north to Alamogordo with its space museum and Capitan, a village dedicated to its most famous resident, Smokey Bear. There we will stay at the Smoky Bear Motel, dine at the Smokey Bear Restaurant, and certainly visit the Smokey Bear Museum. (Martine loves Smokey Bear.)

Then it’s north to Albuquerque, where we’ll stay for several days and maybe take side trips to Acoma, one of the two oldest continuously inhabited places in North America (the other is Old Oraibi on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona) and El Morro National Monument. Perhaps we will also re-visit the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary in nearby Ramah. And while in Albuquerque, I will drink deep of the smoldering juices of red and green chiles—the best in the world.

From Albuquerque, we head north to Chimayo to visit its famous Sanctuary and on to Chama. Thereupon, we will take a ride on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, which runs between Chama, NM and Antonito, CO. Next on the roster will be a ride on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Yes, I am a railroad fanatic

From Silverton we drive north on one of the most dangerous stretches of roadway in the United States, the Million Dollar Highway to Ouray, CO.

Finally, we’ll make our way to Denver, from where we fly back to Los Angeles.

One of the nice things about so-called “open jaws” flights is that you do not have to spend any time backtracking. Originally, I thought of flying to and from Albuquerque, a city I dearly love; but half the time we would be backtracking from side trips. This way, it’s all on a more or less straight line from El Paso to Denver.

“What about White Sands, Santa Fe, Chaco Canyon, Taos, and Mesa Verde?” you might ask. Martine and I have been there, and we are concentrating on places we haven’t visited.

La Nariz Del Diablo, Part Dos

Train Conductors at Sibambe

Train Conductors at Sibambe

The destination for our day trip was the village of Sibambe, at the foot of the mountain we so laboriously came down. We were given an hour to buy snacks or handicrafts or watch the costumed dancers go through their paces. There were horses and llamas one could mount and be photographed wearing a campesino hat. There was even a mirador (viewpoint) and museum for those who felt like ascending about a hundred steps. (I myself did not.)

I just looked up at the mountain we had just descended and marveled at the ingenuity of those 19th century engineers who built the line:

The Mountain Where We Descended

The Mountain Where We Descended


Tomorrow, I will upload a video of the Nariz Del Diablo train departing from the sation at Alausi.

La Nariz del Diablo, Part Uno

Old Rolling Stock on the Nariz Del Diablo Train

Old Rolling Stock on the Nariz Del Diablo Train

The day my brother returned to the U.S., I took a Patria bus to Alausi for one of the most spectacular train rides in the Americas: The Nariz Del Diablo route from Alausi to Sibambe and back.

Originally, there was a single long train ride from Quito to Guayaquil. It still exists, as a luxury train called the Tren Crucero. If you take it, you will see a lot of rich Americans and Europeans—and damned few Ecuadorans. What the Ecuadorans did was to break the route into manageable day trips from Quito, Riobamba, and Alausi, while keeping the complete route as a four day trip including deluxe hotel accommodations.)

What is interesting about the Nariz Del Diablo (translated as “The Devil’s Nose”) is the rapid descent from the Andes where there is really no room to turn around. So the rail engineers designed a simple and elegant solution:

Excuse My Hand-Drawn Schematic

Excuse My Hand-Drawn Schematic

The train moves forward from the upper left to the end of track at the same level. Note the orange dots which represent switches. A rail employee throws the first switch, and the trains backs up past the second switch to the lower level end of track. Then the second switch is thrown, and the train moves forward at the lower level to its destination, the crafts village of Sibambe.

Here’s a view of the milieu:

Where There’s No Room to Turn Around ....

Where There’s No Room to Turn Around ….

Tomorrow, I will continue this post and also talk about our destination, Sibambe.

Hill Street Blues

I Am Talking About the Real Hill Street—Not the One from the TV Series

I Am Talking About the Real Hill Street—Not the One from the TV Series

Basically, I should have stayed in bed. I have one of those nagging, persistent summer colds characterized by a raw throat and coughing. Still, I decided to go downtown to the Central Library, have lunch at the Grand Cenral Market, and even stop in at the Last Bookstore at 5th and Spring.

It all started as our train approached the second last stop before getting to the 7th Street Metro Station. We were all let out some 15 blocks south of our final destination because a train from either the Blue or Expo Line was stuck in the tunnel. By the time I got to the Pico Boulevard station, I noticed that the trains were running again; so I boarded and made it all the way to the 7th Street Metro Station.

So far, not too bad. Then, after stopping at the bookstore, I took the Dash bus to Union Station. Instead of boarding the Santa Monica #10 Freeway Bus, I decided at the last minute to take the Red Line subway to 7th Street Metro and transfer to the Expo Line. But that was not to be. As the Red Line approached the Pershing Square Station, an announcement was made that because of “police activity,” the Red Line would not be stopping at 7th Street Metro.

I jumped off at Pershing Square and trudged several blocks south on Hill Street, even as I felt my sore throat becoming rawer and more insistent. When I got to 7th Street Metro, I saw that the whole area was cordoned off by the LAPD and that included the Metro Rail station.

That precipitated the second part of my afternoon trek. I knew that the Santa Monica #10 bus would have to make a detour around the police cordon, so I walked down to Grand Avenue and 9th Street, where I waited … and waited … and waited. Finally, a bus came and I got on, actually getting a seat, and made it home about an hour and a half later than when I planned—and in rush hour traffic.

When I searched the Internet for the nature of the police action, I discovered that someone had left an unattended package in the station, probably some homeless person jettisoning a part of his junk load. It figures.

What’s That Again?

Did Anyone Hear That Announcement?

Did Anyone Hear That Announcement?

Like all inventions, it was well intentioned—originally. Then, like most inventions, things got out of hand. I am referring to public address systems, which work well enough in certain controlled environments, such as schools, but are all but useless in crowded situations such as airports and railway stations.

Yesterday, for example, I took the new Expo light rail from Santa Monica to Downtown L.A. and back again. Admittedly, it was only the fourth day of operation of the extended Expo line, but all was confusion at the 7th Street Metro Station. A train had pulled in whose destination was Willowbrook on the Blue Line. There was a scratchy P.A. announcement saying something or other in which the words “Santa Monica” were mentioned, after which half the people in the train got off. Thereupon, the train was marked “Not in Service” and left the station with several hundred people bound for either Willowbrook or Santa Monica or the rail maintenance yard.

This is a typical occurrence. Most public address announcements are innately confusing. There could be technical reasons for this, or the announcer could have a voice that is not appropriate for the medium.

At airports, I have gotten used to ignoring all announcements and looking carefully at the status board. That’s what I wound up doing at the 7th Street Metro Station yesterday: I just waited for a train whose destination was clearly marked as Santa Monica.

In 1979, my brother and I were flying to Villahermosa by way of Mexico City. We were told by announcement that our flight was canceled. That’s when my term “flying by Mexican rules” was born. Dan and I hunkered down and kept our eyes and ears open. Sure enough, there was a scratchy announcement that mentioned Villahermosa, and we found that the plane was in fact being boarded. Only at the last minute did that status appear on the electronic signage.

Through the Devil’s Nose

The Nariz del Diablo Train Route

The Nariz del Diablo Train Route

When I go to Ecuador later this year, I hope to take one of the trains that go through parts of the Andes. The only problem is that they are all tourist trains, that is to say, the locals do all their traveling by bus. Most of the routes are scenic fragments of what once were longer routes, back when one could ride the trains with Andean natives carrying their goods to and from market.

The problem is that I tend to dislike traveling with large groups of Americans. That’s when I dummy up and answer all questions in Hungarian. I don’t want to talk about how things are in East Jesus, Arkansas.

At present, the most spectacular route is through the Nariz del Diablo, or Devil’s Nose. It used to be part of the route between Quito and Guayaquil. Now it only goes between Alausi and Sibambe, where there’s a show for the tourists, a small hotel, souvenirs, and a small museum. According to Lonely Planet Ecuador:

Somewhere along the nariz, the old choo-choo (it’s actually more like a retrofitted bus) inevitably derails. Not to worry, though! The conductors ask everyone to get off and by using advanced technology—big rocks and sticks—they steer the iron horse back on track.

I remember taking the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad in Mexico between Las Mochis and Divisadero Barrancas some three decades ago, but that was a real train where there were no roads. Half the passengers were train aficionados like me, but there were many campesinos; and Tarahumara women sold tasty snacks at most of the train stops.

In Peru, I took the tourist train between Puno and Cusco, which was an all-day trip that I enjoyed immensely. Also, the only way to get to the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu is to take the train from Poroy or Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu town. That  wasn’t bad either.

The Blue House on Galos

I’m Starting to Book My Vacation...

I’m Starting to Book My Vacation…

I’ve already begun booking my vacation, even though it is still months in the future. There are still a few question marks. Now that Calbuco has gone to orange alert, I suspect I won’t have any major volcano troubles.The biggest question right now is how I will get a reservation on the November 13 Tren Patagonico between Viedma and San Carlos Bariloche. I suspect what I’ll do is contact an English-speaking tour agency in Buenos Aires, one like Say Hueque, which is geared to more independent travelers like me.

According to the international rail travel website The Man in Seat 61:

Viedma is across the river by small ferry from Carmen de Patagones, but no same day connection is possible so you need a night in a hotel. The Trén Patagonico from Viedma to C. de Bariloche is tremendous fun and thoroughly recommended!  Comfy secure sleeping cars (solo travellers are given a compartment to themselves and a key to lock it), excellent dining car serves steaks and wine, good company and wonderful Patagonian scenery in the morning. Excellent value, and you can buy the tickets in advance in Buenos Aires at Gallerias Rio Negro on Reconquista.

I’m afraid that by the time I get to Gallerias Rio Negro on November 4, the train will be all sold out.

In the meantime, I booked a ideally situated hotel overlooking the Recoleta Cemetery on Azcuénaga in Buenos Aires, and a nice boutique hotel near the river in Puerto Iguazu. For Valparaíso, I’ll be at the La Nona B&B on Galos (Wales) Street atop Cerro Alegre. It’s in the blue building on the left in the above photo.

Yes, it’s beginning to take shape!