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Posted by Tim on Jun 18, 2009
Seeing Ecuador From the Roof of a Train

August 17, 2005: Our alarm goes off at five in the morning, and soon enough the two of us are blearily shuffling about, preparing for the new day's adventure.

'Our hotel room, looking down over bustling RiobambaOur fourth-floor hotel room has a corner view looking down on bustling Riobamba. This small city is located in just about the dead-center of Ecuador, approximately 200km south of Quito along the fantastically-named Avenue of the Volcanoes. Set quietly amongst towering mountains and decked out with cobblestone streets and friendly people, it's a rather unassuming little place that doesn't quite possess the grandeur of many of its neighbors.

For some reason, a number of backpackers aren't particularly fond of Riobamba. They pass through here to catch the train (more on that in a minute), but many seem to view the city itself as charmless and unimpressive.

Which of course means we love it here.

A Bloody History

Ecuador has long been dominated by two cities: noble Quito up in the mountains, and brash Guayaquil on the southern coast. In the middle of the 19th century, the decision was made to link them by what would become known as the Southern Railway.

From the start, the railway became entangled in death after death. A number of these were political in nature: a surprising number of politicians were assassinated over railroad disputes, including two presidents. The vast majority of lives claimed by the railroad, though – two thousand or so – were those of the indigenous and Jamaican workers toiling up in the mountains to make the dream a reality.

The Southern Railway was finally completed in the late 1890s, but the grander national rail system connecting it to the rest of the country would not follow suit until 1965.

It lasted less than a decade, before service was discontinued to many of the lines due to a lack of funds. And then in 1998, El Niño wiped out a large portion of the Southern Railway. Only three small portions are still in service today.

One of them (El Nariz del Diablo: "the devil's nose") departs from Riobamba.

The Devil

We bought our tickets yesterday for today's 7am departure, and things are going smoothly. We're out of our hotel by 5:15am, and after a brisk 15-minute walk we arrive at the train station.

Our friends Michael and Sophie, who have taken this train before, gave us a good piece of advice the last time we were all together in Cuzco: go early. Go very, very early if you want to get a good seat.

And speaking of seats, I should probably mention where we'll be sitting: not inside the train, but actually up on top of the roof of it.

'Riding on the roof of a rickety trainThe best thing about the Devil's Nose isn't the wonderful rickety old railroad cars or even the amazing scenery. It's that you get to take in all of that scenery from atop those rickety railroad cars.

(Note: Back in 2007, a Japanese tourist fell to her death from the roof of the Devil's Nose train, and as a result riding on the roof was temporarily suspended. But it resumed in May 2008, and that tragic accident notwithstanding it really is quite safe. If you're headed to Riobamba to check out the Devil's Nose, you definitely want to ride on the roof of the train. Trust me.)

All Aboard

Thanks to the advice Michael and Sophie gave us, we do indeed score our choice of seats (well, if not of seats, then at least of "spots on the roof").

And thanks to the other advice given to us by our good friend Greg (whom we met just a couple of weeks ago at Yachana Lodge), we know exactly where we want to sit: at the very back of our train car.

You see, this train ride is going to be several hours long, and several hours of sitting on the uncomfortable roof of a train (even with the "butt cushion" you rented for a dollar) has the potential to be quite unpleasant. But, following Greg's advice, we each rented two butt cushions. And now that we've scored the back of the car, we can each sit on one and lean back against the other, wedging it between our backs and the 18"-high safety railing.

Greg's plan works like a charm. We're as comfy as can be, nestled up in out makeshift seats. We're ready to go.

(I want to take a brief moment here to mention that sitting just in front of us is a marvelous couple named Nigel and Chris. I've determined, though, that I want to say more about them than is feasible in this already-overlong entry, so for now I'll just say that they are truly lovely people and you'll be hearing more about them in another post.)

Into the Mountains

The first hour of or so of the ride is mostly quiet, as we gently rumble out of Riobamba and into the bucolic countryside surrounding it. We trundle past ramshackle villages, past fields and forests, past small crowds of children who know when the train is coming and run alongside it hoping to be thrown some candy.

'The Avenue of the VolcanoesAnd then all of that falls away, and we plunge into the valley, the Avenue of the Volcanoes itself.

Well, "plunge" is a bit of a misnomer. Far from the roller-coaster ride I'd been expecting, this train rattles along at a rather sedate pace. This adventure isn't about adrenaline: it's about landscape.

And the landscape is pretty damn impressive.

The Avenue of the Volcanoes is a spectacular 350km-long rift valley that lays between the Cordillera Occidental to the west and the Cordillera Central to the east. Together, the valley and the surrounding mountains make up the Cordillera Real, the Ecuadorean Andes, which runs along the center of the country like a spine.

'The view from atop the trainSitting atop the train, we watch the landscape flow around us like water. Mountains and valleys weave and dance as they pass by; distant rivers slowly approach and then pass beneath us; clouds roll past overhead before being swallowed by the volcanoes.

It is breathtakingly beautiful.

We snap photo after photo for a while, and then decide to lay our cameras aside for a time and just soak it all in.

We descend from the heights of the Cordillera Central down into the depths of the valley, from barren scrub into bushy vegetation. And then, after retracing our way back up out of the valley, we arrive at the picturesque mountain town of Alausí.

Disembarking and stretching our weary legs, we say our goodbyes to our new friends Nigel and Chris and make our way to the Alausí bus station. There, we buy ourselves one-way tickets back to Riobamba.

Mostly, anyway.

There's some small part of us that never left that valley. When I close my eyes today, I can still see the red and black rocks and the lush green trees. I can hear the children laughing and running alongside the train. I can smell the piles of fried banana being offered along in enormous baskets at every village we stopped in. I can feel the chilly wind on my face, and hear the rattling of the wheels along the rails.

There's a part of us that never left that valley. We'll have to go back there again someday to reclaim it.

'The End

If you enjoyed this story, you might also like these ones:

A Day of Reflection

A Day of Reflection

Ecuador: First Impressions

Ecuador: First Impressions

A Place for Learning

A Place for Learning

Jessica the hedgehog
June 19, 2009 at 12:09pm
I had no idea we had those many pretty photos from our train ride. Neat! I love the last one especially. :)

Also, only tangentially related, this entry reminded me of something: it was during the bus ride from Riobamba to Quito that you came up with the idea of how to propose to me. :) I remember very clearly looking over at you during the bus ride because a huge smile had crossed your face. When I asked what you were thinking about you said it was a secret. :) After you proposed, I asked when you had figured out how you were going to propose, and you mentioned during that bus ride. I love that I know the exact moment too, that moment the smile came over your face. :):)

June 23, 2009 at 3:35am

More pictures please.

Jessica the hedgehog
June 23, 2009 at 3:02pm
Thanks, Janet! It was really amazing scenery and made that much more special because of where we viewed it from. :)
June 24, 2009 at 3:22pm
It looks much safer with the 12" safety rails around the roof.
Oh and another tip: avoid the front car right behind the engine, or you wioll breathe lots of diesel smoke.
Tim the hedgehog
June 29, 2009 at 4:33pm
We miss you, Klaus! (And Secret Agent X too!)

It's hard to believe that just yesterday we were all saying goodbye to each other in Bogota…

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