Tren de la Libertad II
At 8 am, we meet at the Otavalo Train Station to embark on the first leg of the Freedom Train (Tren de la Libertad). Although it’s cloudy, the powerful imbabura mountains can be seen on both sides of the tracks. It is evident that this province has its own, unique energy. Only a short distance away, we find places like the Peguche waterfall, which, besides being a prime tourist attraction, it is where the indigenous communities celebrates rituals and festivities like the Pawkar Raymi (the “feast of flowering” in Kichwa) every year between February and March, to thank Mother Nature for the fruits it gives.
Why “Freedom Train”? The name honors several iconic historic moments of liberation, including the freeing of the indigenous population from Spanish obrajes, where the natives were forced to produce textiles, the Battle of Agua Larga in Ibarra, a milestone for the objectives of Simón Bolívar in his plight for independence from Spain, and the liberation of the black slaves in northern Imbabura during the Revolution of 1850.
Our first stop is San Roque. Here, the maize patties with Andean blueberry jam is excellent and the Train Museum offers an interesting look into the town’s history, which “wove” its development with cabuya (a kind of hemp) in the early twentieth century during the country’s cacao boom. The railroad was the means by which cacao was transported in sacks made of this material. By the 1980s, much of the population was engaged in this production; today, unfortunately, it has all become extinct with the advent of synthetic fibers.
Half an hour later, we arrive at the Andrade Marín Station in Atuntaqui, where barley, wheat, beans and corn cover the fields, as well as tree tomato and blackberry plantations… Atuntaqui is Ecuador’s textile city par excellence. Here we make a brief visit to the Imbabura Textile Factory (created in 1924) where you can admire giant machinery worthy of the Industrial Revolution… although the factory closed in 1965, the town still preserves this industry and Ecuadorians from the north of the country flock in on weekend to buy all kinds of clothing.
Mount Imbabura (4,100 masl) and Mount Cotacachi (4,900 masl) continue looming over us. We cross the mythical San Antonio bridge, 120 years old, and follow a path lined with pre-Inca walls 80 cm wide made of stone and mud, which separate the rails of the train from the outlying farmland, as we finally reach the placid town of San Antonio de Ibarra.
At a local workshop, we visit Hernán García, who welcomes us and introduces us to his father, Gabriel García, who began to make sculpture at the age of 12 while grazing his parent’s livestock in the fields. With his razor, he carved pieces of wood he would find along the way. He quickly developed a fascinating talent, and concentrated on what he likes the most: religious imagery. His six children dedicate themselves to the same craft. Gabriel and his brothers are fifth-generation sculptors. Currently San Antonio is home to approximately 3,000 craftsmen who carve and paint religious icons, as well as work in stone, bronze and copper. But wood predominates. Painters, writers and even poets have come out of this small village. After our visit, we continue on to Ibarra, the “white city”, capital of Imbabura province.
Ibarra – Salinas
They say Ibarra is the least contaminated city in the country, a city known for its walls (at one time they were all white, although other colors prevail today) and for its tasty paila ice cream. On the train, we continue northwest, through the valley of Imbaya, an area dominated by haciendas, where cane, maize and kidney tomato plantations predominate. We feel, more than ever, the transition to warmer climates. We pass through canyons, rivers and long tunnels (one of them is 1 kilometer long…). The last tunnel is 200 meters long and to build it over 100 people died.
At noon, we reach the village of Hoja Blanca, at 1,800 masl. At this stop, we are met with excellent traditional food, before proceeding to Salinas de Ibarra, a warm and fun little village. We are welcomed by Bomba dancers, Afro-Ecuadorian women who barefoot, with typical blue skirts and enviable rhythm, dance with bottles on their heads that no matter how much they move, never fall. The city is full of color with beautiful murals that represent scenes of everyday life.
We walk a few blocks to a local store where a tasting of homegrown sweets awaits: confectioned peanuts, panela candy, chocolate, truffles, ice cream, cheese with honey and jams… It is candy shops like this that reveal the positive impact the train has had on the community.
The tour ends at the Salt Museum, where we learn about the fascinating process of extracting salt from the soil. We have lunch at the community restaurant Palenque and at 3:30 pm return to the train station to head back to Otavalo.