September 6, 2006

Nariz Del Diablo
Cuenca, Ecuador

Riding the Ecuadorian rails down the Devil's Nose.


Bundled up in my warmest clothing, pack on my back, I walked to the train station in the pre-dawn light. The scene at the simple, inner-city train yard was about as I expected—every tourist in a 50km radius was waiting for a ride on what I've appropriately labeled the "Gringo Train."

Taking at least twice as long and double the cost of a conventional bus (5 hours, US$11), the only passengers riding the railway between the mountain towns of Riobamba and Sibambe are of the backpacking variety (mostly Germans, this particular morning). I had seen a photo in Quito of the setup (passengers riding atop a tin roofed freight car), but what arrived wasn't what I expected.

A pair of modified locomotives glided into the station—the tourists clamoured. It would seem the days of kids riding on the roof of junky container cars had passed; instead the locomotives (pulling nothing) now sported a dozen rows of comfortable coach seats, with a reinforced roof and guardrails.

Sleepy, reserved travelers turned into a frenzied mob as each fought for hand and footholds on the ladder leading to the roof. It's always entertaining watching people lose all sense of civility for pure personal gain.

I found myself on the roof with my backpack, looking for a space to sit—none visible—while the train crew yelled for me to give my pack to them for storage with the folks riding below (while another wanting a US$1 to rent a seat cushion)… I climbed down. My reasons being:

  1. I wasn't about to relinquish my backpack when I hadn't removed sensitive possessions from it;
  2. There wasn't any space;
  3. I could have pretty much the same view down below in a comfortable seat; and
  4. It was going to be ridiculously cold up there.

The gringo train

Our first rest stop, half way to the town of Alausí, allowed those people riding on the roof who passed on the lama blankets, gloves, and hats at the train station in Riobamba to make desperate, mid-journey purchases from the waiting vendors. Most scurried for the closest coffee stand.

I had made the right choice. It was cold enough in the cabin, and the folks up top didn't seem particularly happy.


The scenery wasn't exactly what I would describe as "spectacular" (a word my guidebook loves to use with great frequency). I found it to be arid, treeless, bleak, and sometimes depressing.

Woman by the tracks

There's something about watching farm after farm go by, each sitting on a plot of cold, dry, tilled earth on the sides of mountain hills to broadly illustrate the lives of so many rural Ecuadorians. I wonder what brings them joy, what they look forward to, what a birthday is like, and what children ask their parents for on such occasions.

Arriving at the town of Alausí (just shy of the Devil's Nose descent), travelers were suddenly alarmed—their backpacks were being unloaded from the locomotives without explanation (this was apparently routine in order to make the transport lighter for the steep descent/ascent). My pack was resting at my feet, and wasn't going anywhere. Sorry, but I'd never ride a train away from an unknown town, leaving my pack behind in a questionable environment (unlike every single other person around me).

The switchbacks and valley that comprise the Devil's Nose were anti-climatic—I suppose hiking inside of the Grand Canyon sets a high standard for vistas. After the decent the locomotives stopped just outside of the town of Sibambe and prepared for the 30-minute return to Alausí.

Ridin' the roof

It was at this point the passengers on top were instructed to get down and give the travelers below the opportunity to ride on the roof. It was warmer out now, pleasant, and the change of vantage point was a nice experience.

I concluded my southerly relocation for the day with a four hour bus ride into Ecuador's third-largest city, Cuenca. The views from the right-hand side of bus were immensely more interesting than those on the train. We were traveling so high in the lush, green mountains that the clouds pushed against the landscape below us like a giant sea of snow—beautiful.



September 9th, 2006

Hey Craig,Nice meeting you on the train and hearing about your travels. Have to say the train ride was really not so special. I wasn't expecting much, but I was underwhelmed even so. Was definitely freaked out when they unloaded my pack without so much as a by-your-leave. I am super-paranoid about having my backpack stolen. The only thing that kept me from staying on the platform in Aluasi were the assurances we received (from Galo at ProBici - an excellent Mt Chimborazo mountain-biking guide) regarding the trains perfect safety record w.r.t. luggage.

Minori and I are still in Cuenca. Tomorrow we're going to Cajas National Park and on Sunday we will head down to Vilcabamba. Afterwards, it's on to Peru, followed by Bolivia. Hope to see you again.

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