A train in Montubia Land
The coast receives us with its warm, tantalizing tropical breeze. We are barely four meters from sea level and during our train ride inland, we feel the stability of heading straight through the alluvial plains, something that, later, at the Bucay station, on the very border of the Andean foothills, will turn into quite the opposite: one of the steepest climbs in railway traveling. But here, in this hot-and-humid realm, our journey reveals life on the coast like few experiences can.
The concrete houses of the city quickly turn to wood and bamboo, and city-dwellers with button-down shirts and pants turn into bare-chested campesinos with machetes and straw hats; the buildings of the urban world succumb to the fertile emerald green fields of rice plantations animated by the intense activity of the birds that thrive here. Perhaps you will notice the plump egrets with their orange tuft on the belly, standing on cows to get rid of their ticks. Other common birds are Snail kites, similar to your everyday hawk though, as the name suggests, feed almost exclusively on snails as they suddenly plunge into the swamp to grab them with their specially curved bills. Black vultures challenge whoever looks at them with their small beady eyes, but they are not as scary as they look. We hope you are as alert as you can be, though, because with luck you may be able to spot something truly special: the Pacific Pygmy Owl, an adorable diurnal mice-eating owl no larger than a fist that likes to rest on trees (and wires) right next to the rails.
The “montubio” is another protagonist. The word basically designates the coastal peasant. He lives next to his plantation, he’s agile and skillful with his machete, he works his land and rides on a horse’s back. In this particular region, he is known for his rodeos, multitudinous events that bring together everyone in the province, who come out to watch the most talented riders show off their skills on the saddle; they do it all barefoot and elegantly dressed. Throughout our train ride, we can see the man of the coastal plains hard at work since early in the morning, some may be even sinking their hands in the water to harvest rice.
Once we leave the rice paddies behind, banana and plantain take over (you will surely spot the iconic clusters of fruit). We are also witness to cane plantations as we approach the town of Milagro, which ironically reminds us of the popular Ecuadorian adage: “Never bring pineapples to Milagro”… It’s curious that pineapples no longer grow in this town. Milagro is, in fact, one of the most important sugar cane producers in the country and we observe the sugar cane plants in the landscape, as well as the large extensions of sugar cane fields. Due to climate change, pineapples now thrive further east, near Naranjito, where the vegetation turns into a million stubby, spikey heads of this delicious tropical fruit.
Last but not least, just before reaching the town of Bucay, we enter a land of ‘fine aroma’ cacao. Meters from the actual railroad, you could step out and pick cacao pods for yourself, something that obsessed the Swiss chocolatiers a century ago and became the world-beloved treat of chocolate we know today.
Smiling Costeños greet the passage of the train with enthusiasm. Fathers hurry out with their children. Families armed with cell phones shoot their photos and selfies and everyone seems happy to see us go by.