Oh wonderful Alausi, how you surprised me!
All I’d read about this place was that the only reason anybody would go here is for it’s famous train (the steepest in the world). So whilst I was aware of the place in advance of arriving, I’d actually decided not to go and only arrived here by chance as I was driving south from Banos towards Cuenca and decided to make a stop here for the night purely because I couldn’t be bothered to drive any further.
But the fact that nobody really comes here, other than the many who arrive on day trips to do the train (then leave again in the afternoon) means that this place is somewhat or a hidden gem. It’s so authentic and true to itself that it seems almost magical like you’re walking around in an invisibility cloak whilst the locals get on with life.
I ended up being in Alausi for 3 nights which sounds excessive since apparently “all there is to do here is the train”. But it really took me by surprise and I loved my time here. What to do…
1) Sunday Markets
(Plaza Principal Alausi)
Basically this first “must do” relies on you being in Alausi on a Sunday – and this really is essential to your enjoment here. Without the huge Sunday market being your main focus this town would tire quickly… make sure to work the timing out that way so you’re here when women from the surrounding valley descend into the town with their traditional robes of black stubby heeled shoes, beautifully coloured dresses, trendy shawls and trademark fedoras (never without a feather)!
*remember also that the train doesn’t operate on Mondays*
There are three main markets of interest to start your exploring:
- Plaza Jesus Camanero – head here for fresh fruits, fresh vegetables and loads of street food options. Search out the delicious wholemeal arepas stuffed with cheese.
- Mercado Municipal – this place is open all week and is a less exciting indoor market, but all the same it’s a great place to head towards because it’s from here that the best markets crawl along the alleyways and climb the steep cobbled streets up to:
- Plaza Principal de Alausi – where you’ll find locals selling anything from old rope (honestly) to second hand North Face jackets amongst pots and pans.
Whilst the above three are the epicentres of sunday trading in Alausi, the real joy comes from wandering around the streets of the town and just seeing what’s going on.
Taste the food, speak to the locals and soak it all up. The real beauty of this place is that it feels like a genuine Ecuadorian market, not one that’s developed due to the tourists it attracts. This is just real people going about their business and making their money. People look at you in a strange way for being there…it’s great!!
2) The Famous Train
(happy as Larry I was)
This train lays claim to being the steepest train in the world. To say that it gains the most height over the shortest distance of any train in the world. It was built by the Spanish colonisers and masses of black slaves were exploited and died here during its construction. Once a hugely important trade route, the train now only exists as a tourist experience.
But it’s very well put together, the station in Alausi is in a beautifully restored old building, the train itself pulls beautiful old carriages that have all been very comfortably restored and the route will take you past some incredibly beautiful scenery and along the edge of some incredibly nerve wracking drops. Be warned though, it’s not some nail-biting high speed train ride that’s going to blow you away; it’s all very tranquil and just a generally pleasant way to enjoy the wider area of Alausi.
At a pricey $30 per person, it’s not something everybody is going to be able to justify, but if that tourist tariff means that this small piece of history is kept alive then I think that’s a good thing out of respect for those people who died constructing it, if nothing else.
*on public holidays and weekends the train is often booked up, but you can reserve ahead of time on the link below*
3) “Chilla” at Killa Wasi
(hath thou seeneth a drivethwayeth as fabulous as this?)
This place is awesome! Sat down in the bottom of the valley (at the bottom of the steepest hill out of town; sorry legs) is a large old house surrounded by huge 10ft walls and farmland beyond. With it’s regal palm-lined driveway, and the way the sun appears trapped inside it’s high walls, this place has an unforgettable charm to it and is an ideal base for this sleepy town.
The owner is an elderly (but very active) lady who spent much of her life living in the US, as such she speaks fluent English. She still farms the land surrounding the house. She accepts Overlanders (campervans) but also has dorm rooms and private rooms and there is an outside BBQ area and kitchen that you can use.
Just trust me on this one, it’s a lovely place to stay and only a 10minute (steep) walk into town.
4) Put Your Legs to Good Use
(*insert musical/literature quote about following trainlines*)
Wandering around town is a delight. I followed the train track one morning from the hostel (Killa Wasi) and kept going, where you’ll pass some beautiful old buildings as well as find this enticing bridge which clearly says “don’t cross”, but of course I did. Just don’t look down!
The area is also great for hiking and if you stay at Killa Wasi they’ll be able to offer you advice on which way to head!
When your legs are feeling sleepy go to the train station and there are a couple of cafes outside it. Whilst finding a real decent espresso coffee in Alausi will, I imagine, remain a challenge for years to come, these cafes both do a version of a “Cappuccino” that’s not half bad and the cakes are even more delicious. But most of all the staff are so welcoming and chatty!
The true beauty of this place lies in seeing that the locals are as interested to see you as you are to see their way of life. It’s just a lovely place to spend a few days, but remember to be there for the Sunday markets! Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
Bonus Tip (Overlander secret)
If (like me) you’re driving South America, when you’re leaving Alausi in the direction of Cuenca, not far along the main highway you’ll see a very steep track going up a funny steep sided sort of mini-mountain leading to what looks like a telephone mast.
If you’ve got the vehicle for it (4×4), be warned it’s very steep and isn’t as smooth as it looked from the bottom…venture up here for a spectacular view of the surrounding landscape! This would also be an awesome place to camp for the night.