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It’s funny how travels involve us in new adventures, connects us with people and makes us discover new stories. This time, to travel through Ecuador I changed the wheels for some horseshoes on a fantastic trip along the old Smuggler’s Route.
The excitement and adventurous spirit of my companions motivated me to travel for more than 8 hours by horseback, through beautiful landscapes, dreamlike sunrises and with the purity of nature as frame.
Prior to the horse ride, we practiced different adventure modalities such as canyoning at “La Soberana” waterfall, sport fishing at the Chimbo river, cycling on the Suncamal trails and bird watching in the cloud forest; all this in Cumandá, a canton by the south of the Chimborazo province. It’s spring like weather results of its geographical position between the provinces of Cañar, Guayas and Bolívar.
This destination is an important point of trade and exchange of traditional products of the Coast and the Andes; That is why it is easy to enjoy traditional dishes from the two regions including: ceviche, fish, fried or grilled, with values ranging between $4.00 and $10.00.
Making friends in Cumandá is easy, it’s people is friendly and hearty. The central park, the site with greatest attendance, brings people together to discuss on everyday issues or play sports. Thus, between laughs and conversations, a group of young people encouraged us to be part of the horse ride that would leave the next day, from Cumandá to Sibambe. An activity that revives the traditions as a gratitude act for “Patron Saint Santiago.”
Back in the old days, the southern area of Chimborazo had large cane fields from which the cane juice was extracted and subsequently processed into liquor. The business was good, but it had a decrease when the Real Court in Spain banned the particular distillation of liquor. On a Royal Decree, the spaniard government established a limit on production with taxes and a minimum percentage of production nationwide.
The government controlled the illegal trade of spirit drinks and other products such as oranges, sugar, Chinese potato and bananas setting strategic control points on the mountain trails with special guards known as “estanco guardas.” But men evaded controls going out at night with their mules loaded, carrying up to 100 liters of brandy in the “perras” or safe bags.
So the Inhabitants found many ways to continue the commercialization of liquor; Thus, secretly, along dangerous roads and risking life, alcoholic beverages was on its way to reach Sibambe or the hill of San Nicolás, a place where they spent the night to overcome the cold and fatigue. It would seem like a fantasy story but it was real.
A tradition that refuses to die
The clock struck 07h00 and the town band and laughters sound at the meeting point. In the backcountry voyage we met some friends from Cumandá, who were part of the tour with their parents and grandparents, who formerly smuggled the products.
About 30 riders welcomed us with a small glass of sugar liquor. We all rushed to take advantage of the good weather with a bright sun and dry roads. Touring the route has no cost, you only have to pay $30.00 for the horse rental.
The route started in Guallanag. A former smuggler lead the way while recalling stories that showed his longing for those days, horse riding on the paths of happy memories and at the same time full of pain and sadness.
We arrive at the top of San Nicolás hill, located at 3100 masl, here the clouds watch you from below. At this point, riders used to rest along with their horses, unique companions of their long and historic journeys.
At dusk, we gather around the stake for a good barbecue and guitar songs. All together, at the heat of the campfire, travelers and horses step into the night among stories of smuggling. One of the stories that caught my attention was the one of a smuggler that devised a fantastic strategy to outwit the guards, and so one day he transported the liquor bags in a coffin to avoid being discovered.
The strong wind surrounded us on a cold night. To overcome it and cope with the cold weather it was almost mandatory to sip some sugar liquor. On top of San Nicolás hill, a friendly villager invited us to his cabin. Camping in this area is common and so did a group that participated in the adventure of the Smuggler’s Route.
The next morning, we continued our way to Sibambe, a small town near Alausí and the Devil’s Nose. To get to this place you descend through impressive mountain slopes that made us feel the immensity of the Earth. After two hours of travel, in Sibambe we’re received by the image of the “Patron Saint Santiago”, who rests on a horse. Every year, the saint receives grateful prays from riders and their families. The tour is part of this tribute, its people believe that those who do not attend the march may be punished.
Now a days, the horseback ride transits the Smuggler’s Route in honor of the “Patron Saint Santiago”, and it is a touristic route that displays the history and devotion of the Andean people who still continue building their identity, their culture, between horseshoe trails and cloudy mountains.