Riobamba, Ecuador: Riding Down the Devil’s Nose

The Infamous Nariz del Diablo

By David Joshua Jennings

The dusty train.
The train with riders up top. Photos by David Joshua Jennings.

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.

A Little Off Track

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 first derailment was kind of interesting.
The first derailment was kind of interesting.

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

Along the tracks in Ecuador.
Along the tracks in Ecuador.

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.

Another derailment. It happened seven times!
Another derailment. It happened seven times!

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.

Historical Perspective

Riding atop the freight train in Ecuador. photos by David Joshua Jennings.
Riding atop the freight train in Ecuador. photos by David Joshua Jennings.

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.

The passing countryside.
The passing countryside.

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.

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.

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.

Ecuador hillside
Hillside in Ecuador.

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.

Railroad worker on roof of locomotive
Railroad worker on roof of locomotive

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?

Man atop the train in silouette.
Man atop the train in silouhette.

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.

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.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.

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 JenningsDavid Joshua Jennings lives in Istanbul, Turkey, where he studies English and Philosophy at Boaziçi 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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