Riobamba to Alausí, Ecuador
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.
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.
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.
The Devil’s Nose
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.
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.
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