Click on image to view larger size.
This trip was taken in March 1995
When I first retired my wife Joan and I were having a discussion about where we wanted to go on an unusual trip. Before I could make a suggestion she came up with the Galapagos Islands. At the time we had been married for over forty years and this was the first time I heard her mention the Galapagos Islands.
Traveling in a third world country is not something you should try on your own. In some areas there are physical dangers, language barriers, transportation logistics, accommodations, and food to consider. For us the best way to go was with a tour group. We made arrangements to go to the Galapagos Islands, which is part of Ecuador and is located six hundred miles off the Ecuadorian coast. Included was a tour of Ecuador
We arrived in Quito,
the capital, which is located 14 miles from the equator at an altitude
of 9,000 feet. It is surrounded by snow capped volcano's the highest being,
Mt. Cotopaxi, the worlds highest (19,388 feet) active volcano. The Andes
Mountains run the length of Ecuador, and a 400-Km long Central Valley
that has an elevation of 7,000 to 9,000 feet divides them. The Pan-American
Highway runs down the center of this valley, surrounded by mountains on
both sides, many of them with permanent snowcaps. This part of the "Pana",
as it is dubbed, is called the "Avenue of the Volcanoes".
The country's most popular rail trip begins in the picturesque city of Riobamba. This city sits in the shadow of the giant volcano, Chimborazo. At 20,697 Feet, 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 vistas before arriving at Alausi, where it begins a hair-raising descent of the Devil's Nose. This nearly vertical wall of rock was the greatest natural obstacle the engineers encountered during construction. The engineers ruled out tunneling through the mountain and decided that they must either go up or around, they chose up. They came up with an ingenious solution of carving a series of tight zigzags into the side of the mountain. This allowed the train to climb a gradient of 1-in-18 meters from 1800 to 2600 meters, by going forwards then backwards. Today, a one-percent grade, or an incline rising one meter in 100 meters of horizontal distance is considered steep. They cut a total of six of these zigzags (switchbacks). The Devil's Nose is considered one of the worlds most difficult and unique railroading feats
We arrived at the train around six thirty in the morning. The track ran down the center of one of the main streets reminding me of streetcar tracks. There wasn't a station as such but I'm sure there was a place to purchase tickets. The train consisted of a small diesel engine and six cars; the first two were freight boxcars. The next two were "coach" which consisted of boxcars with open doors, windows and bench seats. The last two cars were first class coaches, of which the last one was owned by the touring company, and was used only when they had tour groups. This car had the distinction of having its own "WC' and an observation platform. All of the cars appeared to have been built in the "40's". We shared this car with a small tour group from the U.K, allowing us room to spread out for the four-hour, 100-Km trip.
The train does not travel very fast because of the poor condition of the roadbed, and being de-railed is not uncommon. If this occurs the crew has all of the necessary equipment to put it back on the track. They have done it often enough that they are very good at it, and it usually does not delay the trip for more than a couple hours.
As we traveled through the countryside, Mount Chimborazo could be seen from the right side of the train. I spent most of the trip on the observation platform photographing the mountains and countryside, the scenery was spectacular. I don't normally like to shoot from a moving train; but if I wanted any images I had no other choice. I discussed the Devils Nose with the local tour director and he said that the best way to see and photograph it was from the roof of the rail cars. I was incredulous, I could not believe that they were going to let people ride on the top of the train. He assured me it was common and said I should look around the side of the train during the next curve. I could not believe it there were people riding on the roofs of the first four cars. Some were standing, others were sitting, and they even had peddlers moving between the cars. It's obvious that Ecuador does not have an OSHA.
There are two official and several unofficial stops along the way. The official stop at Guamote is the midmorning meal break for the natives and any adventuresome tourists. The local natives had set up food stands with hot food and drinks. This break lasted around 30 minutes. The other is Cuenca; this is the last stop before descending the Devils Nose. Many tourists will take a bus from Guayaquil, which is on the coast, to Cuenca just to ride the train down the side of the mountain. Most of the people from both tour groups decided to ride the roof. Joan was a bit apprehensive until she saw the 70 plus grandmother with two hip replacements climbing the ladder, that was all she needed. We did manage to get on one of the cars that had a metal catwalk running down the center. You were elevated off of the roof by about six inches and it gave you something to hang on to. The only concession to safety was a welded two-inch piece of angle iron on the edge of the cars to prevent backpacks and people from sliding off. The top of the roof acquired a carnival atmosphere; you had the college students on break that came to ride the roof, the tour groups, natives and the peddlers selling everything from cold drinks to trinkets.
The view from the roof was spectacular if not a bit frightening. There we were, sitting on the roof of a fifty-year-old boxcar, on a rickety roadbed. Going down the side of a mountain, on a train with a history of de-railing. The only thing keeping us from sliding off was a two-inch piece of angle iron. The train hugged the edge of the mountain as we went through the switchbacks. You could look straight down for several thousand feet and in the distance you could see the bottom of the valley. The views were breathtaking, you felt you were part of the scene.. I have this thing about heights, I don't fear them I just don't like them, I suspect its the churning in my stomach that might have something to do with it. As we are going down the side of the mountain Joan looks at me and asked if the heights were bothering me, I was fine until she mentioned it. I did manage to get some pictures from the roof, most of them were taken with me hanging on to the catwalk.
The ride down was a great adventure that, you could not really experience from the inside of the train, you had to be on the "roof" to get the full impact. Would I do it again, in a heartbeat, only this time I would try to take more pictures. When we arrived at Sibambe we said our good byes to our fellow U.K. travelers and boarded our bus to visit the Inca ruins at Ingipirca and on to our flight to the Galapagos Islands.
The El Nino in 1998 washed out some of the track between Guayaquil and Sibambe , train travel between the two cities has been discontinued. Lack of funds has delayed its repair and they are looking for foreign investors. The train between Riobamba, Devils Nose and Sibambe runs three times a week, Wednesday, Friday and Sundays. It has become a tourist train and most of them ride the roof all the way from Riobamba. They will schedule special trains for private groups and use the old steam locomotives. This is of special interest to railroad buffs.
For more information do a Google Search: El Nariz del Diablo or Devil's Nose Railway