Snow-capped volcanoes jut forth from the rich tapestry of cultivated fields and high-altitude grassland spread across Ecuador's 400-kilometer long Central Valley, aptly christened "The Avenue of the Volcanoes" in 1802 by the German explorer Alexander Von Humboldt. Two hundred years later, present-day explorers perched atop Auto-ferros (small trains) resembling a bus on rails chugging through this rugged terrain have no problem imagining why Humboldt chose this name or why Ecuadorians refer to their railway as "the most difficult train in the world".
Today, three sections of Ecuador's once vast rail network remain in operation. Currently running are a 100-kilometer section from Riobamba to Sibambe, a 60-kilometer segment connecting Quito and Cotopaxi National Park, and a 44-kilometer section joining Ibarra and Primer Paso.
The country's most popular rail trip begins in the picturesque city of Riobamba. Like many cities in the Ecuadorian Andes, Riobamba sits in shadow of a giant mountain. At 6,310 meters, mount Chimborazo enjoys the distinctions of being Ecuador's highest peak and the furthest point from the center of the earth, thanks to the bulge at the equator. The train travels south from Riobamba through a few small towns and large expanses of open country before arriving at Alausi, where it begins a hair-raising descent of the Devil's Nose. Most travelers sit on top of the rail cars to take advantage of the spectacular vistas.
Thirty kilometers into the ascent of the towering western range, 130 kilometers east of Guayaquil, the railway snakes up a mountain known as El Nariz del Diablo (The Devil's Nose). This nearly vertical wall of rock was the greatest natural obstacle engineers encountered during construction of the Southern Railway, and one of a string of blunders that nearly smothered the dream of connecting Guayaquil and Quito by rail.
In retrospect, the mistake of going over instead of around the Devil's Nose has become a point of engineering pride. A team of engineers lead by the North Americans William Shunck and brothers Archer and John Harman, came up with an ingenious solution of carving a series of tight zigzags into the side of the mountain, which allowed the train to climb a gradient of 1-in-18 from 1800 to 2600 meters, by going forwards then backwards up the tracks.
Today, a one-percent grade, or an incline rising one meter in 100 meters of horizontal distance, is considered steep. Moreover, inclines and curves in the track, especially ones as dramatic as those of the Devil's Nose, limit the speed of trains and the size of the loads they can carry. Whenever possible tracks follow topographical contours or the contours are smoothed out or tunneled through. At the Devil's Nose, engineers ruled out tunneling through the mountain and decided that they must either go up it or around. They chose up. This decision made sense in 1900 but unfortunately it has precluded the use of the Southern Railway for use as a freight or efficient passenger line.
The train leaves Riobamba on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays at 7am. It can also be catched at Alausi around 11am.
The Quito-Cotopaxi excursion is a full day trip, offering fantastic scenery that culminates with the towering, perfectly symmetrical Cotopaxi volcano. On clear days travelers can see Cotopaxi looming in the distance from the moment they leave Quito, Ecuador's capital. Covering 33,000 hectares of craggy green countryside and centered by 5,897-meter volcano, the highest active volcano in the world by some accounts, Cotopaxi National Park represents all the best of the Ecuadorian Andes and is the showpiece of Ecuador's 33 national parks and ecological reserves. The train departs Saturdays and Sundays at 8am. After reaching El Boliche recreational area you can decide to return to Quito or continue south through the Avenue of the Volcanoes.
Though the train no longer travels all the way Ibarra to San Lorenzo, the remaining stretch of track from Ibarra to the village Primer Paso is well worth a ride. The trip boasts 23 tunnels, a dizzying 120-meter bridge over the River Ambi, and sojourns at several Andean villages. The train leaves every Saturday and Sunday at 8am. This trip can be combined with visits to the nearby Otavalo market or as a pre-trip for those visiting the Choco rainforest at Kumanii lodge.
At Ecuador Boutique travel we have created unique and wonderfull tours around these amazing locomotives that once connected the ends of our country and now remain as part of a picturesque history. We can include any of the above train rides in your custom itinerary for travelling around Ecuador, just request and we will fit it in as part of the attractions to visit.