Andes, Archer Harman, Avenue of the Volcanoes, Baños, Cotopaxi National Park, Cuenca, Devil´s Nose, Ecuador, Eloy Alfaro, ferrocarril, Holidays, Nariz del Diablo, Petrel Expeditions, Tren Andino, Tungurahua, UNESCO
It’s 1914 and World War I broke out. Ecuador already has 835km of railways, which compared to most developed countries, is almost nothing. Anyway, this young country, which has struggle and achieved his independence from Spain a little less than 100 years, has incurred in a strong debt to England for nearly 12 million U.S. dollars which actually equals to multiply this value by one hundred. By the way, another important aspect is that Ecuador is extremely rich in natural resources. Its more than 30 volcanoes whose ashes have turned the terrain into extremely fertile lands are scattered throughout its territory, and on the coast there are several ports where you can export! The only problem is rarely a highlander has eaten fish or a lowlander has eaten potatoes!
Ecuador has no roads and is its geography transformative this into a complicated task. To give an idea, the journey from the mountain, 2,800 meters to the coast is full of cliffs and often bad weather. It is also very likely to be robbed when traveling. So for very few traders, this perilous journey worthwhile. Fortunately, Eloy Alfaro who is president at the time, was able to travel to various countries in America when he was young with his father who is a wealthy Spanish merchant. His mother is a local woman from the coast, in the province of Manabi. Since traveling create wisdom, for him is so urgent that Ecuador needs to have a railway for connecting the mountains to the coast and to provide a feeling of belonging to a country that only vert few Ecuadorians could have, simply because many of them have ever seen each others! Sadly, Eloy Alfaro do not know that in his future, despite having made probably the most important endeavor of his country, death is a certain. His political enemies are already on its way for a plot that will lead to his assassination in 1912. His body will be publicly burned in the Independence Square in Quito. The conservative class saw threatened their status and power by the ideas of freedom and progress of Alfaro. For this reason, it is dangerous to have progressive ideas at this time. Being murdered is a fate he is going to share with other American presidents like Abraham Lincoln.
Building a train is no easy task. The Consul of Ecuador in the United States has been instructed by Alfaro to seek an specialist. He will find one to carry on such a enterprise in the most unexpected place, a dark New York pool bar. Archer Harman comes from a family heavily involved in the construction of railroads in the United States making it the perfect candidate for such an undertaking. He will travel from the U.S. to Ecuador, from where he will began the ascent to the Andes from Guayaquil, on top of a mule in something of a familiarization trip. The journey takes no more and no less than five days. In 1897 he founded the “The Guayaquil & Quito Railway Company” and start the construction of the railway that although there were attempts since 1873, they never had the strength Alfaro gave to the project years later.
But what makes it so famous the rail and what makes it so worthy a trip on board? Well, basically a train ride is to travel through the history of a country and the dream of a man, which is no less important than the thousands of lives that claimed the Andes when the workers attempted to penetrate the rock walls. Anyway, the train has another ace up his sleeve in case you are still not convinced. The portion that begins at Alausí station – perhaps the most iconic of them all – leads to the Devil’s Nose. Malaria, heat and other problems faced by the workers were small compared with the zigzag that they shall built so the train managed to climb the slope, enough space to go back and forth, continue back again and go up the next slope, forced to build a railway in a zigzag limited by the rock wall and the constant cliff which added to dynamite explosions claimed valuable lives.
The work began in 1895 and ended in 1908 when the railroad arrived to Chimbacalle Station, reducing the 9 day trip into just two.
Traveling in the Andean train was an unforgettable experience. In its glory days the train has little to envy to their European counterparts. The first-class coaches were luxuriously decorated. But for those who could not afford the high price of a first-class trip, there were also second and third class. Sadly when Ecuador had the resources to build their roads – which mainly came from its oil revenues in the 50s – the railroad was lost in time.
When I was lucky enough to travel on the train in my twenties with friends and their foreign girlfriends, the adventure was done on the very top of the train in a Indiana Jones style avoiding wires, cables and branches, protecting the face from the cold andean wind while vendors from villages around climbed also on top of the coach to sell almost everything you can eat. I had some dizziness, so I used to stay in the middle of the roof of the coach to avoid seeing the impressive cliff that extended to the edge of the road. The maneuver to enter the Devil’s Nose was no less impressive, we graved strong (although it was not rare to see a foreigner who stand up to take a photo!) from the rods extended across the roof of the car while the train driver and his assurances hauled levers and changed the direction of the tracks. All in a total uproar caused by the movement of metal and machines that propel the train making the whole thing vibrate, leading me to believe that at any moment the whole train could derail down to the clefts. All this was framed in a landscape, with the majestic Andes rising as far as the eye can see.
All of these emotions, the feeling of being on such adventure, having the freedom of wind hitting your face, seeing spectacular landscaping from a birds eye view, exchanging stories with locals and foreigns, waving everyone on the railway as they waved us back and seeing the expression of our foreign friends face´s of being totally amazed by such a incredible experience, was definitively worth it.
Petrel Expeditions offers an ultimate tailor made experience including the train while exploring the majestic Avenue of the Volcanoes on a 4 days itinerary. Our adventure includes exploring Cotopaxi National Park, going deep to Baños into the surroundings of Tungurahua Volcano, riding on the emblematic Andean Train, visiting Inca ruins at Ingapirca and enjoying a UNESCO city, Cuenca.