Over 100 years ago the President of Ecuador Eloy Alfaro had a vision of a nation united by a railway. Workers and engineers were brought in and they began the extremely difficult task of linking the coastal city of Guayaquil with the capital, Quito, high in the Andes Mountains.
The two cities are only some 200 miles apart as the crow flies, but in those days, it took travelers days to make the arduous trek from one city to the other. As the railroad was built, the engineers found themselves faced with a particularly steep and treacherous stretch of land between the towns of Alausí and Sibambe. Here they built the section of rail known as “The Devil’s Nose”: a series of breathtaking switchbacks and cutbacks that no passenger ever forgets.
A Rail System in Decline
As the years passed, the railways of Ecuador were made obsolete by roads and airports. One by one, sections of track were damaged and never repaired. Train stations closed and before long, only isolated sections of rail were still in use and only a handful of locomotives were still functioning.
It was a sad, slow deterioration of President Alfaro’s dream. The system was pushed to the brink of being abandoned altogether when it was saved by an unlikely source: tourism.
Riding the Rails
Ecuadorians were surprised to find that tourists liked riding the old trains, even when they didn’t really go anywhere. The visitors enjoyed the breathtaking Andean scenery and preferred to ride on top of the trains whenever they could! Their favorite section, by far, was the hair-raising Devil’s Nose.
Visitors from around the world would make their way to Alausí – the train no longer goes there all the way from Quito – simply to board the train, ride through the Devil’s Nose, and ride back afterwards. Soon, railways were hip once again in Ecuador.
The Ecuadorian government has decided to invest in the old rail system, starting with the Devil’s Nose. The Devil’s Nose reopened again in February of 2011 after being closed for about a year for work on the tracks, and once again locomotives are making their breathtaking journeys between the towns of Alausí and Sibambe. And that’s not all: the Ecuadorian government is hoping to budget some $250 million by 2013 to rehabilitate the railways all over the country.
It’s a big job: in many places, the track is in such bad shape that it will have to be rebuilt from scratch, and many of the old stations have fallen to pieces from disuse. The Ecuadorian Railway Authority is working on identifying and promoting day trips and short weekend excursions for visitors, including food and lodging.
Riding the Devil’s Nose
The Devil’s Nose gets its name from a vaguely nose-like geological formation that makes up part of the trip: you can see it from the Sibambe station, if someone shows you where to look. The trip today is a special one. The locomotive has been refurbished, with an engine and three renovated, elegant cars.
The trip lasts three hours, and costs $20. The train makes a few stops, mostly for visitors to take photos and stretch their legs. It is possible to ride the train back or take a bus from the end of the line. The train makes three trips per day. It’s possible to do in a day trip from Quito but plan ahead: a bus from Quito to Alausi may take up to five or six hours.
Ecuador, four different regions in a nutshell: Combine the dramatic highlands sceneries with your Galapagos tour or Amazon jungle trip. A 30 minutes flight will connect you among this amazing biodiversity and gorgeous landscapes. Visit Ecuador and live it yourself.