We boarded the train in the town of Alausi which sits at just over 11,000 feet above sea level and is known as the city of the clouds. The peaks of the soaring Andes mountains surrounding it are often lost in the clouds. This section of the Ferrocarril Transandino (Trans-Andean Railroad) was completed around 1902. The entire length of this rail line used to connect Quito in the north to Guayaquil in the south. Now, this is one of the few sections that is in operation. And it has just recently reopened after undergoing some major repairs. It had been closed from May 2010 until January 2011.
As the train left Alausi, we began to see the narrow valley that lies between two towering stretches of the mountains. Everything is green. There are no large trees on these mountains, just low grass and several varieties of cactus, including Agave which was a very important plant for the Incas and is still used in many ways by the indigenous groups. Then we start to see the Alausi river deep in the bottom of this gorge. The river twists and turns its way along the path of the mountains. Once the train track begins to run along the same path of the river you realize that the track is perched along one side of this beautiful gorge. Out the window of the train you can see the soaring mountain on the opposite side and the river running some 1,500 or 1,600 feet below. And you realize that you are looking straight down at times – a sheer drop to the bottom of the gorge just on the other side of the train tracks.
The end of the line for this section of the train tracks is La Nariz del Diablo – The Devil’s Nose. It is so named in part for the shape of the mountain where it sort of comes to a point. At the bottom of this point is Sibambe, at one time a small village that was wiped out by flooding. The engineers devised a clever way to get the train tracks to make this final descent. They built the tracks to essentially do 2 switchbacks. Just like when you’re hiking down a steep grade, the trail will switchback across the face. The track goes beyond the point where the next section of the switchback intersects and stops. One of the engineers jumps off and throws the switch to the other set of tracks and the train then resumes its descent by backing down this next section of the switchback past the point where the final section of track comes into play. The switch is thrown and the train makes it’s way down the final section to the bottom of the gorge. This descent is thrilling both for the unbelievably beautiful views and for the fact that you’re riding a train that is zigzagging it’s way down the face of a mountain.
In Sibambe now, there are facilities which house a cafe for refreshment, a museum and an area where representatives from some of the local indigenous groups offer some of their crafts and perform some native dance for the train riders. Following our break in Sibambe, the train reversed it course and climbed back up the switchbacks and then on back to Alausi.
This ride was truly one of magnificent beauty and a way to relive a significant piece of Ecuador’s history. It will remain one of the highlights of our visit. Here’s more photos.