Train to Heaven
Three days spent on 278 miles of railroad that runs through the heart of Ecuador, from the country’s coast deep into the Andes. All aboard the Tren Crucero!
Text: MARTÍN ECHENIQUE @martinechenique photos: DAVID GRIJALVA
Astonishing. That’s probably the best word to describe the feeling of being at the midpoint of the planet. The gravity-defying scenery of canyons, rivers and active volcanoes is yours to discover accompanied by the sound of the train speeding along the rails. With its combination of enticing legends and natural superpowers, the excursion is enough to make anyone fall in love in record time.
Day 1: Durán – Bucay
Augusto, the engineer, rings the bell on the platform. It’s 8:30 in the morning at the Durán station, 15 minutes from downtown Quito, and the train begins its eastbound journey towards the Andes. A steam engine dating back to 1953 pulls a convoy of four railroad cars at a relaxed speed of 19 miles per hour, passing rice fields, mango and sugar cane plantations and wetlands. The open-air, panoramic terrace on the end car is, without a doubt, the best place to enjoy the views from this train, which was recently named South America’s Leading Luxury Train at the 2015 World Travel Awards.
After passing through Yaguachi – the town where construction on the railroad began in 1898 – the train stops at the Naranjito station for a visit to one of the most famous haciendas on the Ecuadorian coast: La Danesa. Founded in 1870 by Danish immigrants, this hacienda is the perfect spot to discover a delicious feature of the humid jungles common to this part of Ecuador: its cacao plantations.
José Silva, a 36-year-old farmer, strips a pair of cacao pods with five cuts of a machete. Inside, a delicious white pulp covers the beans, which then are roasted and ground to produce the famous bitter powder. Silva then adds toasted cane sugar and nothing else. In ten minutes, you have a sweet, natural and pure chocolate, without any industrial processes or artificial colors or flavors.
Day 2: Bucay – Riobamba
The transition from the coast to the Andes is noticeable. The temperature drops from 82 to 59°F, and the plantation scenery gives way to mountains, canyons, a low-altitude cloud forest running parallel to the railroad and the mighty Río Chanchán. Along this stretch, the train climbs from 968 feet above sea level until it reaches Huigra, the first station in the Ecuadorian Andes at an altitude of 4,117 feet. Huigra was a base for the British soldiers who built the railroad in 1901. Here, the train stops for half an hour before winding through the renowned Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose), an impressive 2,625-foot ascent in reverse up dizzying switchbacks, from which you can take in the valleys, the river and the Sibambe base station as the train reaches an altitude of a more than 6,560 feet.
Already en route to Riobamba, the last station of the day, the train passes through the province of Chimborazo, named in honor of the tallest volcano in Ecuador. Here, 41-year-old Carmen Chito of the Puruhá peoples invites the group to follow along the path that leads to her village, Palacio Real. Along the way, Chito shares local legends in which volcanoes also suffer for love. The most famous myth tells that the Cotopaxi and Chimorazo volcanoes fought for centuries for the love of Mama Tungurahua to the northeast. She was a wanton thing who flirted shamelessly with the El Altar volcano until he was crushed by Chimborazo’s jealous wrath. Just another love triangle that ended in eruptions, lava and ash spawned from a syncretism replete with stories that you will only hear on the slopes of these anthropomorphized volcanoes.
Back on the train, the snow-capped volcanoes dominate the landscape as evening falls over the Andes. Riobamba awaits, with turned down beds. They say that tomorrow, heaven will be a little bit closer.
Day 3: Riobamba – Quito
At seven in the morning, the guides on the train tell us that today is our lucky day: we’ve got a cloudless view of the Chimborazo volcano, a perfect, close-up look at its monumental majesty. It’s a real stroke of luck, given the bipolar nature of this volcano that shows itself and then hides behind the clouds again in a matter of minutes.
The train continues north to Quito, and the landscape fills with even more volcanoes and green slopes. You can feel the altitude: the train has climbed more than 11,800 feet, and the mountain air is increasingly light, cold and dry. Urbina, the highest station on the rail line, is less than an hour away.
This station in the middle of nowhere is truly impressive. Chimborazo is only half a mile away, and our views remain unobstructed as the mountain winds blow over the plain looking up towards its slopes. Urbina is the home of Rodrigo Donoso, a 59-year-old Quito native who lives across from the station. Over nearly three decades, he has climbed to the top of Chimborazo 43 times in 120 tries, and he puts his expertise to work leading visitors on two-day volcano expeditions (after a two-day acclimation period at his lodge).
We leave the station behind on our way to Ambato, capital of the province of Tungurahua, where we take a little break from our railroad adventure, as Cotopaxi’s volcanic activity has resulted in a change in itinerary (see the Editor’s Note, below). Two buses cover the stretch by highway from Ambato to Tambillo station, where passengers board the train once more for the final destination: Quito.
An hour later, Ecuador’s capital welcomes us from a cozy spot nestled in the mountains. It may be nighttime, but hundreds of people on either side wave and smile at the passengers. The train pulls into the final station. And the proud people of Quito keep on smiling as they admire the railroad of a country whose heart beats to the rhythm of the train. in
Because Cotopaxi volcano is active and the area is on yellow alert, the train’s original route has been modified. On a fourth day, the tour includes a visit to the cities of Ibarra and Otavalo aboard the Tren de Los Lagos in the province of Imbabura, north of Quito. At press date (December 2015), this itinerary still stands.
Daily flights to Guayaquil from Santiago, Lima and New York, plus three flights a week from Madrid. Daily flights to Quito from Guayaquil and Cuenca.
More information lan.com
Bolivar Oe6-41 & Cuenca, Quito
Av. 9 de Octubre & García Moreno, Guayaquil
Hostería La Andaluza
Panamericana Norte Km. 16, Riobamba
Restaurants & Bars
Numa Pompilio Llona 180, Guayaquil
Hacienda La Danesa
Km. 67 Autopista Naranjito – Bucay
Bolívar, entre calles Quito & Guayaquil, Ambato