Riobamba to Alausí, Ecuador
Riding Down the Devil’s Nose: The Infamous Nariz del Diablo
A Little Off Track
I am sitting on top of the front caboose when the wheels below began screaming and a sudden jolt nearly throws me from the train. I turn my head just in time to see the two rail cars behind me jump off the track and drag the rest of the train to a stop. We have derailed again, for the fifth time today.
Although this may seem frightening, it’s not, really. At no time do I or any of the other passengers riding atop the Nariz del Diablo train feel any terror, for the train itself is moving at the pace of a trotting buffalo and derailments are commonplace and seem to pose no danger. The first derailment, in fact, was quite amusing.
Nearly all of the 150 or so passengers crawled down to the ground to inspect and comment upon the matter before (after boredom set in) strolling around the countryside, waiting for something to be done. Cards were brought out. Picnics were arranged.
Someone began juggling. Eventually, as if they too had been waiting for someone resolve the problem, a group of railroad employees in coal-smudged overalls unloaded a ramp and knocked the wheels back even with the track.
And then away we went, for about ten minutes before derailing again. After the third derailment the fun had worn off. By the fourth it had become annoying.
Now, during this fifth derailment, nobody even bothers to climb down. All 150 or so of us lie atop the railcars bundled in jackets and blankets. After four hours the spectacular scenery doesn’t amaze us much anymore. We have become jaded.
We’ve stopped pointing out waterfalls and llamas. We’re ready to get the final leg of the journey done so we can wash the engine smoke from our hair and relax someplace with a fire. Many of those around me have fallen asleep.
Riobamba for Foreigners
The journey began at 7 a.m. in the Riobamba train station. I strolled up half asleep and was surprised to see the extent of activity this early in the morning: women bundled in serapes and toothless old men bivouacked around the station with tables and tents.
They were selling every possible amenity one might need during a six hour train journey: sweaters made of alpaca wool, gloves, hats, heavy ponchos and blankets, newspapers, soup, coffee, bread, pork, cushions, cameras, postcards, umbrellas, bottled water, beer, headphones, roasted Guinea pig, rice, hand sanitizer, sunglasses, toothbrushes, stockings, a llama to take a picture with, pens, cigarettes, bus tickets, jewelry, shaving cream, vests.
Three times a week these people wake long before dawn and drag their carts across Riobamba to sell whatever they can to the foreigners who have come to ride the infamous Nariz del Diablo.
It must seem odd ? we foreigners who travel from every corner of the globe to ride some rickety, ugly train for six hours down to a bus that will deliver us back to the place we departed from. I suppose it is a bit odd. Nevertheless, this portion of track is considered by many to be one of the most fascinating train rides in the world.
For those who have stood upright in the crisp wind atop one of the boxcars, admiring the endless valleys and volcanic peaks while sliding backwards on a 45 degree gradient down the lip of a treacherous gorge, there is reason in all of this madness.
A Slow Start
When I arrived (minutes before scheduled departure time) nearly everyone was already loaded onto the roof of the train. They had a comfortable, settled slump about them that signified they’d been there awhile. I assumed these people were new to the country, as it is usually only those who are new to Ecuador who insist on being punctual. Nothing (and I mean nothing) in Ecuador ever begins on time.
I climbed a ladder onto head car and sat down on the cold metal roof, on the car directly behind the locomotive. This seemed like it would be the best perspective on the train because I could snap photos without any tourists in them, making it appear as if I rode the train completely alone, and plus the proximity to the engine provided relief in the form of heat radiation.
A boy frisbeed a sitting pad up to me and I tucked it under me. The sky was dreary in the beginning, and the wind was blunt and freezing. I gloved my hands and wrapped a scarf around my mouth but still I froze. The wind of the Ecuadorian highlands has a way of slipping into your clothes no matter what you do. Some old Ecuadorian men appeared out of nowhere and began to serve us with baskets of food and refreshments.
They became our mobile snack bars throughout the ride. That’s one beautiful thing about Ecuador: if you need something, wherever you are, just wait around for five minutes and some old man will appear with a basket to sell you precisely what you’re looking for. These men wore light jackets and seemed immune to the cold that had the rest of us shivering.
Their faces were wrinkled hard like the surrounding mountains, worn to their most indestructible elements, cracked and baked by the sun. I ungloved my fingers to hand them a coin and took from them a Coke and pastry. An hour after the scheduled departure time the horn groaned and sputtered up a black plume of smoke.
The engine rolled over like an awaking monster and the twenty boxcars snapped taught and began rolling forward. We were on our way. I struck a match to light a cigarette but the wind sniped it. Off in the distance, for one brief moment, I could see the peak of the Volcano Chimboraza through the clouds, white and glorious in the wide light of morning. Due to the equatorial bulge its peak, at 6,310 meters, is the furthest point from the center of the earth.
A few children chased us out of town, waving and giggling before disappearing back into Riobamba’s Spanish colonial alleyways. The train moved slowly, almost meditatively, along beside a road that ribboned through the countryside. Then we snapped east, forging our own path. Four railroad employees stood at intervals along the box cars, struggling to stand in the wind, falling to their knees and ducking whenever the electric lines hung low enough to decapitate them.
This whole stretch of railway, from Riobamba to Alausí, and then down to Simbambe, passes through every climate zone of Ecuador. It was once part of the grand Southern Railway system, which was constructed at the end of the 19th century in an effort to connect Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest port city, and Quito, the capital. At least 2000 indigenous and Jamaican workers were killed during its construction and, due to political wrangling and a few presidential assassinations, it took more than 60 years to complete.
The final section, the Sibambe-Cuenca route, wasn’t inaugurated until 1965. Less than 10 years later the completed system collapsed. During the 1970s the government discontinued most of the secondary lines because they lacked the funds to maintain them.
Then, slowly, one by one, the other secondary branches were swallowed by floods and mudslides. Eventually even the main southern and northern lines were shut down. The Quayaquil-Quito route managed to keep afloat until 1998, when El Niño demolished large sections of the tracks. Today the Nariz del Diablo route exists purely as a tourist attraction.
Fields and Farmers
As the fields begin to open like fans, checkered with crop plots – carrots, potatoes, barley – like a tapestry, I can understand why the German explorer Alexander Von Humboldt christened this, Ecuador’s 400-kilometer long Central Valley, “The Avenue of the Volcanoes.” Beyond the squat huts and houses, mud-bricked, roofed with corrugated tin, hugging the slopes that fall down from the railroad track into the cultivated fields and high-altitude grassland, the volcanoes dominate the horizon. Read more…
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