Friday, March 27, 2009

Ecuador....La Nariz Del Diablo

One of the great engineering projects from the early age of the train, the Trans Andean railway once connected Quito to Ecuador's main port at Guayaquil. These days Ecuador's rail company is not the busiest in the world and most of the line is disused, but a significant stretch of the track is still in use between Riobamba and the foot of a mountain known as La Nariz del Diablo (the Devil's Nose). This journey exists purely as a tourist attraction, three times a week the train sets off from Riobamba with the vast majority of the passengers sitting on top of it!

It's best to go to the station the day before the train departs, they normally start selling tickets between 2-3 p.m. You go there, hand over your $11 a head, and should also be able to pay a deposit on that most essential of all accessories, the cushion which will make several hours sat on the hard roof of the train a bit easier to bear.

We were advised by somebody else who had done the trip not to do the whole journey, but just to get on board the train at Alausi to do the final dramatic descent. It will take hours and the train constantly derails, he told us. I'm glad we didn’t take this advice, apart from anything else your chances of finding a good position to sit if you don't get on the train at Riobamba are minimal. We got to the station at 6 in the morning, one hour before departure, to find at least half the available space already taken. Take no notice of those who say that half the length of a carriage is "reserved" for a group coming later, those who get their early get the places. Most people go for the right hand side (facing towards the front of the train), as this gets the best views on the final stretch. Although the front coach might seem the best place, bear in mind that you are more likely to be getting the fumes from the engine. Your main luggage will be safely locked inside one of the carriages, and you don't need to take anything more on top than what you might need for surviving 6-7 hours sat on the roof of a train. Of course, this includes protection against the sun, the rain and the cold.

Just after 7, the train set off through the outskirts of Riobamba, but it wasn't long before we stopped again. The addition of an extra carriage meant that there was a bit more room for those who had to sit in the middle. Then it was off into open country, although always at a gentle pace. Taking photographs is still difficult, usually because everyone else around you is doing the same. The train itself is the attraction for many of those living beside the track, and much of the passing traffic usually slows down to take a good look at this strange bunch of tourists who voluntarily choose to sit on top of a slow moving train.

Gradually the landscape changes as the train leaves behind the more populated region around Riobamba. At many points on the journey the only people in sight are farmers, and as the terrain becomes rougher there are fewer of these.

The real pleasure of the journey is in the changes of the landscape that the train passes through. Sometimes the track follows river valleys, at others it crosses high moorland. At Guamote the train makes its first stop and it provides a welcome break from sitting on the roof, cushion or not.

If you can’t take any more there is always the local bus service….

The train has all facilities. There is a full buffet service....

A ticket inspector....

and of course on-board music.....

without forgetting the man who operates the brakes.....

After a few hours of the journey I was starting to think that the talk of derailments was all a big exaggeration, and that the reason why the train takes so long is simply because it doesn't go very fast. About two minutes later, there was a jolt and a loud grinding noise and the train quickly halted. It was our carriage that had derailed, and it didn't look good.

If it hadn't been for those warnings we had received about this, I would have assumed that this was the end of our journey and that from here we had to walk. The train's crew went to work with metal bars and shovels, and amazingly got the train back on the track in about 15 minutes. I suppose that's how things work when you are used to it happening on every trip, but I was still hugely impressed. However, from the derailment point onwards we started to descend into a deep valley, and looking at what lay below us just a tiny distance from the track itself, I didn't want to see any more derailments.

Fortunately the train stayed on the tracks and we got down to Alausi station without any further incidents. This small town is in fact the end point of the journey, but what happens is that the train descends down from here to the Nariz del Diablo and then returns back to Alausi, so anyone who gets off the train the first time it stops here will miss the spectacular end to the trip.

Apart from the impressive scenery the Nariz del Diablo is interesting for the solution which the engineers designing the line had to adopt to deal with it. The problem caused by this mountain is that it prevented a smooth, gentle, descent down to the valley floor. Instead, what the train has to go through is a switchback operation where it reverses downhill for a while before reaching another point permitting another change of direction and the continuation of the journey around the base of the Nariz del Diablo.

Once past the mountain the journey comes to an end, and all that remains is the return stretch back up to Alausi.

From Alausi it's possible to continue your journey by bus, either heading back towards Riobamba, or taking a bus that heads down towards the city of Cuenca. In the end this was one of the most enjoyable days of the whole trip in Ecuador. Not to be missed.


Keefieboy said...


mitsi said...

Hi, what a nice trip. Your pictures are dated March 2009. I was told that the people are not allowed any more to go on the top of the roof due to a stupid accident in 2008 I think. Is it allow again ?

Graeme said...

It's allowed mitsi - I did the trip in January this year and almost everyone was on top. I heard about an accident involving a cable, but since then apparently they've taken more care about keeping them out of the way on the track.