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Have You Taken Ecuador’s New Scenic Route to Quito?

Article Summary:

Ecuador’s century-old railway line has been restored and a luxury ‘cruise train’ now runs from Quito to the coast. Although one can drive from Quito in a day, the leisurely train – more scenic, comfortable and informative – underscores how, as so often with the best travel, the journey amplifies the destination.

Photo Credit: Financial Times

Original Article Text From Financial Times:

Ecuador’s volcano express

After chugging south through the dreary, graffiti-daubed fringes of Quito, alongside the great pan-American Highway, we joined a rather more theatrical thoroughfare. The “Avenue of the Volcanoes” – celebrated explorer Alexander von Humboldt’s striking appellation – refers to the muscular ranks of cratered peaks dotting this part of the Andean skyline. Within minutes, dowdy suburbs were overshadowed by the great, alluring, snow-clad hulk of 5,897m-high Cotopaxi, to which our gleaming red train was steadily drawing closer.

I was aboard the Tren Crucero, or “cruise train”, a new four-day journey which launched earlier this week on a century-old line linking Quito, Ecuador’s lofty capital, with Guayaquil, its commercial centre, by the Pacific coast. Built with considerable difficulty by the American Harman brothers (one a well-connected railwayman, the other a West Point-trained engineer), the 278-mile railway opened in stages from the late 1800s, with a full service commencing in 1908. For its builders, it was a notable engineering achievement while for Ecuador it became a symbol of unity, inaugurating efficient travel between its two principal cities.

But trains need investment, maintenance and passengers. The improvement of Andean roads began cutting journey times and by the mid-1970s the railway was firmly in decline. For foreign backpackers, who would perch atop its carriages, it became a novel yet precarious travel experience to tick off, until one particular accident involving a dangling electric cable drew the curtains on their roof-riding bravado.

While some sections remained unreliably open – the celebrated “Devil’s Nose”, where the line heroically navigates a deep gorge, was perennially popular – the railway as a whole limped through the 1990s and early 2000s. But coinciding with the line’s centenary in 2008, the government launched an ambitious restoration programme. Since then, approximately $280m has been spent on the venerable railway and its quaint stations, while Ecuador’s media have hailed its resurrection as a new source of national pride.
The concept of a multi-day cruise train is a first for South America, and, judging from the numbers of local people pausing to stare, cheer and wave as we rumbled close by their streets, homes and gardens, the project has also garnered public support. The four coaches carry up to 54 passengers in some style, but rather than sleep and eat in cabins onboard, guests are taken to characterful hotels and restaurants en route.

As we gently descended into a lush green valley dotted with eucalyptus and pine among fields of corn, potatoes and fava beans, our guide Maria Garcés introduced us to Ecuador’s salient geography. Just as Humboldt had nonchalantly observed in the early 1800s, there were volcanoes to the left of us and volcanoes to the right.

All Quitenos remain wary of Pichincha, the volcano which looms over the capital and last proved troublesome back in 1999, when inches of ash smothered the city. Yet our eyes were now drawn to Cotopaxi, among the world’s highest active volcanoes, with the hope that today, at least, it would hold fire as it has since 1904. Its name is a fusion of Quechua and Mayan words meaning “neck of the moon”, a reference to a rare lunar alignment when the moon briefly appears to perch atop the crater.

We climbed again to alight at El Boliche station at a cool 3,500m. This set the pattern for the coming days: three to five hours daily on the rails, interspersed with excursions into the countryside nearby. The first was a foray to Cotopaxi National Park. Our coach drove slowly through grassy uplands and on, amid billowing clouds, to the foot of the great volcano. Just about visible on the slopes above was a refuge from where walkers can hike to the summit.

At the nearby Hacienda San Agustin de Callo, we ate lunch in what is probably Ecuador’s oldest dining room. Built in the 15th century as a kind of caravanserai for Inca emperors, its stark charcoal-grey masonry walls – mortar-free and perfectly cut – recall the great imperial structures of Cuzco. Later it became a convent and eventually an enlarged hacienda that simply absorbed the Inca dwellings.

Proprietor (and granddaughter of a former Ecuadorean president) Mignon Plaza caught our questioning gaze through the windows at Cotopaxi. “The Incas built here because they realised any lava flowing from the crater used ravines on either side; we’re almost on a kind of plateau.”

Late that day, as we reached our first night’s halt at Hosteria la Cienega near Lasso, it seemed the spirit of the Incas was replaced by Edgar Allan Poe. An avenue of eucalyptus trees frames a vaguely gothic-looking aristocratic mansion, parts of which reputedly date back to the 1580s. Built with two-metre thick walls on what was a swamp, it has survived earthquakes and eruptions, and hosted explorers and adventurers. There are rumours of hauntings, too, and if the mood (and perhaps the bar) takes you, it can feel like a fabulously spooky place.

Continuing south the next day, between parallel lines of Andean peaks, Garcés drew our attention to the changing vegetation. Our journey traversed seven distinct climatic zones and the drier climate meant we now glimpsed pepper and walnut trees, agave and pampas grass, as well as one of Ecuador’s most important export crops: roses.

At Nevado Roses near Latacunga, general manager Roberto Nevado explained that his was one of the country’s nearly 600 rose plantations, that collectively export around 680,000 tonnes of flowers each year. “The combination of altitude, light and climate – it’s frost-free up to 3,300m – mean Ecuador’s fantastic for growing roses,” he said.

Strolling among the greenhouses, we glimpsed flowers being bunched and packaged. Russian customers prefer long-stemmed varieties such as “Forever Young”, we were told; Britons have less showy but more fragrant tastes. Someone asked if he ever gave roses to his wife. “Never,” he chuckled.

Later that afternoon, we enjoyed one of the loveliest stretches of the railway. I downed a few macchiatos courtesy of the onboard bar, then made for the observation car. Here, on the open-air terrace, you can watch Ecuador pass by with the sun on your face and wind in your hair.

Striking steep-sided hills were covered in chequered green fields; women in felt fedoras worked plots bordered with apple orchards; cows grazed among scattered hamlets and isolated rustic cabins. Climbing through a slender grassy valley, the line wove and looped towards Urbina, which at 3,609m is the railway’s highest station.

Here we met Baltazar Uscha, a hardy 69-year-old Quechua Indian who has found a measure of fame as one of the last hieleros, or ice merchants. Twice a week he and his mules climb the slopes of Chimborazo – Ecuador’s highest peak – to harvest glacial ice which is sold in nearby markets. It’s back-breaking, low-paid work which he began aged 15. Most of us were awed by his tenacity and touched by the sentiment that his “natural ice” is better and purer than any from a freezer.

If Uscha embodied a noble but dying Andean tradition, market day in Guamote presented a Quechuan community that was very much alive. The bustling stalls and restaurants almost spilled on to the train tracks. Beyond the restored station and its adjoining plaza, streets were filled with traders selling tools and utensils, fruit and fabric, grains, pigs and guinea pigs. It was cheery, earthy and authentic.

Following a timely introduction to the train’s driver, engineer and mechanic, we stepped back onboard for the afternoon drama down the Devil’s Nose. Although this short yet famous stretch plunges 500m, the train descends almost two vertical kilometres during the day. Garcés indicated difficult sections such as bola de oro (golden nugget) – its name recalls a 1900s workman unearthing gold amid the desolate terrain – where the track has been realigned to make it less susceptible to landslides.

After pausing at Alausí for final mechanical checks, we set off towards an alarming cleft in the valley. The train looped down to the Chanchan River gorge, which soon dropped away, leaving us clattering along a vertiginous ledge blasted into the cliff. The gradient here reaches 1 in 18 and there are several switchbacks where the trains go into reverse, zigzagging down the mountainside.

Eventually we reached steamy plains dotted with banana and cocoa plantations, where for a grand finale, the modern locomotive was swapped for a restored 1950s steam train for the run into Guayaquil.

Although one can drive from Quito in a day, the leisurely train – more scenic, comfortable and informative – underscores how, as so often with the best travel, the journey amplifies the destination.

Link to Original Article:

From Financial Times

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