Riobamba to Alausí, Ecuador
Riding Down the Devil’s Nose: The Infamous Nariz del Diablo – Page Two
I see llamas with bundles of sticks and plywood roped atop them being led down trails. New homes are being constructed. The farmers lift their heads from their labor to watch us troll by. Some stop working altogether.
They release their wheelbarrows or slip their fingers from the mud to wave and smile as their children and dogs attempt (and nearly succeed) to outrun us. As the train topped with photograph-snapping foreigners comes clunking along through their fields, invading their quiet, seemingly peaceful existence, I realize we are just as much an attraction to them as they are to us.
A wave of sadness touches me as I watch them out there tending their land, for I have seen what happens to these farmers when that land is taken away and they must migrate to the large cities in search of work. A vision of those I have seen begging in the streets of Quito, with sunken cheeks and starving bloodshot pupils, flashes before me. It is striking the contrast in images such a country as Ecuador can produce.
On To Guamote
One of the most peculiar things about this train is that it frequently cuts across the highway (if you can call it a highway) unannounced. One moment we are hugging the ledge of some treacherous gorge and an instant later we swing back onto level earth across the highway. No blinking lights or signals forecast our approach and rarely does the conductor slow down to look for traffic.
Any vehicle driving through this desolate countryside might at any moment find a train smashing into them from the forest. The terrain becomes more rugged as we chug on. Farms become sparse. We spend a few hours winding through high moorland and in and out of river valleys before pulling into the main street of Guamote, the first destination of the day.
We slow to a gasping stop in the middle of town and every citizen of Guamote seems to be there awaiting our arrival. I pile down the ladder with the rest of the crowd and push my way through vendors attempting to hoop necklaces around my neck in search of empanadas and a toilet.
By the time I emerge from the bathroom an open-air market has sprung up around the train. Indigenous artisans have spread out their textiles, handicrafts and leather goods, and it seems every person with an ability to cook has brought food to sell. With bellies full we once again mount the train and, waving goodbye to the citizens of Guamote, inch our way out of town.
Veterans and Newcomers
By the time we reach Alausi we have derailed seven times. Now, after several hours of shivering in the frigid mountain air, the harsh equatorial sunrays are slicing down at us. As we pull into Alausi I see a long line of tourists waiting, wearing bright-colored Carhartt trekking gear.
These people chose not to endure the four hour ride from Riobamba and instead are only hopping aboard to ride down the famous Nariz del Diablo switchbacks. I suppose the designer trekking gear is in case we must repel down a rockwall to safety. I hear their American accents and the zip-zip of their waterproof nylon pants coming up the ladder.
One bald head pokes into view and receives from us wretched creatures who have been trapped aboard this exposed vessel for nearly four hours, a look of disdain, or hunger. These newbies nearly double our load. The quiet, contemplative appreciation that had settled over us veterans during the last few hours is abolished by these people, newly thrilled with the novelty of riding atop a train.
I dismount the train for a moment to ask how much beer is (outrageously expensive) and come back to find my seat has vanished. I must fight for a spot at the very front of the boxcar, facing forward with my legs dangling over the front. It is probably the best seat on the train, or so I think until the engine chokes up a cloud of black smoke which, one we begin rolling, slides directly into my face.
The Devil’s Nose
Shortly after pulling out of Alausi we begin descending into the most famous portion of the line, the “Devil’s Nose.” Coming upon the 100-meter-high cliff that looms over the narrow and beautiful valley of the Rio Chanchán, I wonder what in God’s name inspired some engineer to believe that this would be a good location to get a train (a train!) down to the valley floor. Was the route sketched out without consulting topographical maps? Did the railroad workers simply stumble upon it one day and, unable to retreat, cursed the administrative blunder and resolved to conquer it?
If they had decided to follow a more logical route I suppose this portion of the railroad would have been shut down like the rest of the line. But, fortunately for me at least, the line was completed – and it is a masterpiece. The team of engineers was lead the North Americans William Shunck and brothers Archer and John Harman.
Tight Zigzags into the Side of the Mountain
Together they resolved the problem by cleaving a series of tight zigzags into the side of the mountain, permitting the train to climb a 45-degree gradient of one meter for every 18 meters, from 1800 to 2600 meters within several minutes by going forwards, and then backwards up the track.
While rolling down the first steep incline the significance of derailing seven times across flat, even land strikes me. The current distance between the track and the ledge measures about as wide as my foot. If we were to derail here it would be a catastrophe.
It would throw this train like a centipede through hundreds of meters of air onto the jagged rocks below, with all of our bodies splattering like fat raindrops shortly after.
We safely slow to a stop on the first switchback, and then begin rolling quickly backwards, down to the next switchback, and then forwards down into the bed of the valley, where we cross a bridge and come to a stop where the track ceases in a field of flowers.
We hop off to allow the locomotive rush around and arrange the box cars, maneuvering itself to the front of the line. I look up at the steep cliff we just came down and cannot believe we just descended it via train – a worthy climax to the five slow hours it took to arrive.
We climb aboard and begin clanking back up the cliff. We reach the first switchback and just as we begin to roll backwards up the incline we derail again. This time it is the locomotive itself that has run off the track.
I lie on my back and look up at the sky. I might as well be patient. After all, as I said at the beginning, nothing in Ecuador ever runs on time.
David Joshua Jennings
David Joshua Jenningslives in Istanbul, Turkey, where he studies English and Philosophy at Bo?aziçi University. His short stories, travel essays, and poetry have appeared in The Windmill, Transitions Abroad, GoNomad.com and Brandt Travel, and he has contributed to two travel guides over Colombia and Venezuela.
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