The long-derelict railway linking Ecuador’s coast and capital – via the looming Andes – has reopened. Is it the world’s wildest ride?
As our train climbed beside the Chanchán River, we watched the bizarrely shaped mountain grow steadily larger. Known to local Indians as the Condor’s Nest, after the vast black birds that circle its summit, it’s now more commonly called the Devil’s Nose. At its foot we stopped to admire the vertiginous slopes – and the audacity of the Virginian-born engineer who forced a railway up them over a century ago.
Minutes later, clustered on the open balcony at the end of the train, we marvelled at the narrow ledge that had been chiselled into the hillside to accommodate the zigzagging rails. They wound round the peak, coming to dead-ends where the train reversed and growled up the next arm of the switchback. This engineering wonder feels hemmed in by equally monumental mountains, so narrow are the valleys that separate them.
We were lucky to be there at all. Five years ago the railway between Ecuador’s two main cities, coastal Guayaquil and capital Quito, was derelict, tracks reverting to nature, trains rusting away, station offices abandoned. So much of the line had been destroyed by landslides and the Chanchán’s raging waters that few thought it would ever work again. But in 2008 President Rafael Correa announced that it would be rebuilt for tourists.
I was aboard the first eastbound departure of the Tren Crucero (Cruise Train), a four-day journey, including overnights in hotels and off-train excursions, that promised to be the ultimate slow way to experience seven of Ecuador’s nine climatic zones. I’d chosen to ride from the coast into the Andes because the gradual ascent from sea level gives the body more time to adjust to the country’s dizzying altitudes than flying into the 2,800m-high capital. Also, UNESCO-listed Quito provides more of a climax than the uninspiring commercial city of Guayaquil.
The day before, the station in Guayaquil had come as quite a shock. In the 1980s, when I’d ridden from here on the tender of a steam locomotive, the ramshackle station had been in such a dangerous condition that it was cordoned off. Now a new terminus contains a two-storey waiting hall in which a film plays, showing the colossal scale of the reconstruction works undertaken.
From the moment a newly overhauled steam locomotive eased us out of Guayaquil station, it was obvious that Ecuadoreans along the 440km railway were delighted to see it back in operation. Doorways were filled with waving, smiling people, many holding up mobile phones to record the moment. While the railway is no longer the unifying thread it was on opening in 1908, the towns along the line – which suffered when the railway closed – have had their stations rebuilt as community focal points, with cafés, craft shops and small museums.
It was almost half an hour before Guayaquil’s chaotic suburban jumble gave way to paddy fields watched over by egrets and then to fields of sugar cane. Houses of split-cane and corrugated iron perched on flimsy stilts to keep them out of floodwaters and free from vermin and snakes. Tethered goats yanked on their ropes as the unfamiliar train snorted past, and dogs revealed their characters by displaying either nonchalance or a vocal determination to chase the black beast off their patch.
At Yaguachi the steam locomotive was exchanged for a soulless diesel – the four coaches and generator van of Tren Crucero are considered too heavy for such venerable engines on the fierce gradients of the Andes. Two of those coaches were fitted with sofas and banquettes angled to gaze out of big picture windows; as I sat here, a snack of battered cassava, drizzled with honey, arrived from the small kitchen.
Most passengers congregated on the open rear balcony to enjoy the landscape and catch passing scents, such as the earthy smell of the cacao plantation. We paid a visit on one of our excursions, sampling the sweet white flesh – untemptingly known as mucilage – that surrounds the purple ‘chocolate’ bean.
Another off-train expedition took us on a narrow winding path into humid cloudforest to appreciate the innumerable uses of its luxuriant plant life. We found the toquilla, used to make the erroneously attributed Panama hat (they actually originate from Ecuador); we also discovered chonta palm, which can be fashioned into arrows and knives, or woven to make roofs that last up to 60 years. In Guamote we admired the work of Inti Sisa, a Belgian-funded charity providing locals with education and training; at Balbanera we visited the oldest church in Ecuador, founded in 1534.
The howling wilderness
But it was the Guayaquil & Quito Railway itself that enthralled us, penetrating mountains that seemed incapable of receiving a railway. For over 20 years, no engineer could find a practical route beyond ‘the Bridge of Chimbo’ near Bucay. It was here that Edward Whymper, conqueror of the Matterhorn, travelled in 1880 during his mountaineering expedition in the Andes; he noted that he passed through country ‘which it would be too complimentary to call a howling wilderness’.
However, it was into this terrain that a West Point Military Academy graduate, Major John A Harman, finally devised a route. In just 79km between Bucay and the first of several summits, at Palmira, the railway climbs an astonishing 2,945m.
For much of the climb the railway has a river for company as it twists and turns and describes great horseshoe curves in the struggle to surmount the contours. In sunshine it’s hard to imagine Whymper’s ‘howling wilderness’, but for many miles we saw not a soul, nor any sign of habitation. Occasionally we passed a lonely cow or a knot of llamas. The mountain slopes were so high that the summits could rarely be seen and the vegetation changed dramatically as the luxuriant cloudforest was replaced by stands of tall eucalyptus, then pine.
Our arrival in the large town of Riobamba coincided with the sun setting over Chimborazo, Ecuador’s highest peak at 6,268m. Resembling a fat Mt Fuji, the mountain was first climbed by Whymper, making him the first man to be as close as possible to the sun since the beginning of time: due to the elliptical shape of the planet, Chimborazo is about 2,000m higher than Everest when measured from the centre of the earth.
Proof of Newton’s ellipse theory was concluded in Ecuador in the 1730s by a French scientific team under Charles Marie de La Condamine. He stayed at Hacienda La Cienega, where we spent our last night. Thick-walled and built around a courtyard water garden, the hacienda is full of crudely painted faces from past centuries looking down over heavy dark furniture. I slept in the generous suite occupied by Condamine and, later, Alexander von Humboldt, who was a guest while studying Cotopaxi’s volcanic activity in 1802.
Long before refrigeration, the mountains were a source of ice. At the railway’s highest station of Urbina, at 3,609m, we met Baltazar Uscha, a 69-year-old Quechua Indian who is the last iceman of Chimborazo. Barely five feet tall, with a face the texture of elephant hide, he still supplies a few villages (as his father and grandfather did before him). He walks for four hours to the icefield, cuts the blocks and then loads them into donkey panniers for the journey back down.
No such arduousness for us. On our final excursion, we were driven to the 4,800m refuge on Cotopaxi, which, at 5,897m, is Ecuador’s second-highest mountain. Cloud obliterated the snow-capped peak, but briefly parted to reveal its wonderfully symmetrical cone. We watched as mountain-bikers began a thrilling descent on gravel roads through the treeless flower-specked páramo and into the pine forests below.
The railway provides grandstand views along the Avenue of Volcanoes on the approach to Quito, the line hugging the upper slopes before a final descent to the city’s station. The oldest capital of the Americas, Quito was the first city to be declared a World Heritage site, in 1978; during the last decade or so it has received the same kind of transformation as the railway.
From the superbly restored Casa Gangotena, overlooking the former Inca market place of Plaza San Francisco, I wandered streets of freshly white- and cream-washed buildings that would have been off-limits ten years ago. Also, community organisations are helping to preserve the neighbourhoods’ characters and traditional crafts, such as hat-making and statuary carving. Yet among all the city’s fabulous churches and monasteries, it was the railway station that Quiteños recently voted as their favourite building. Now, thanks to President Correa’s bold vision, they – and numerous visitors – will have the chance to use it again.
For unrivalled views of Quito and its 14 surrounding peaks, as well as walks in the hills above the city, take the cablecar to the 4,050m summit of Cruz Loma. Dress warmly.
The author travelled with Rainbow Tours (+ 44 (0)20 7666 1260), which offers the Tren Crucero as part of an 11-day Scenic Ecuador by Train itinerary, which includes four nights at Casa Gangotena in Quito, two nights at Hacienda Pinsaqui near Otavalo, one night at Oro Verde in Guayaquil, full board in hotels and haciendas during the Tren Crucero journey, and transfers.
There are no direct UK-Quito flights. KLM (0871 231 0000, klm.com) flies via Amsterdam; Iberia flies via Madrid (0870 609 0500, iberia.com). LAN (0845 098 0140, lan.com) flies to Guayaquil via Madrid. Journey time, including stops, is from around 15 hours.
For more info on Tren Crucero, including 2014 departure times, see www.trenecuador.com/crucero.