Much of Ecuador's music and culture is a mix of Spanish colonial and indigenous cultures. The most important dance, however, is the lively "San Juanito" which originated in the Otavalo-Imbabura region of northern Ecuador.
Ecuador – Long Read

Ecuador’s railway is once again opening up its dramatic interior

Photo by Christopher Herwig

Ecuador – Long Read Ecuador’s railway is once again opening up its dramatic interior

Hello Ecuador, where the spectacular railroad linking the port of Guayaquil to its capital of Quito high in the Andes was one of the greatest engineering feats of the early 20th century. Now restored after falling into disuse due to the power of nature and the rise of road traffic, the railway that once united the country is once again opening up its dramatic interior to visitors from the outside world.

Gavin Haines
Gavin Haines Travel Writer

Eloy Alfaro was, quite literally, the architect of his own demise. His greatest achievement as President of Ecuador was to oversee the construction of a railway that would, ultimately, deliver him to his death. Of course the politician was not to know that when, in 1908, he proudly unveiled the greatest infrastructure project in Ecuador’s history; a railroad linking the Andean city of Quito to the port of Guayaquil.

“Before the train, if you wanted to go from Quito to Guayaquil you wrote your will – it was a very dangerous journey,” says my Ecuadorian friend, Pablo Tufiño. “Before the train we were two countries – people living in the highlands and people living on the coast – but when Eloy Alfaro built the railway our country became one.”

Alfaro was a modernizer; he brought new ideas to Ecuadorian society and improved education, communication and transport for the country’s citizens. But he was ahead of his time and that proved to be his undoing. “Alfaro’s mistake was to try and separate the church from the state,” says Tufiño. “But Ecuador wasn’t ready for that.”

So in 1911 Alfaro was ousted from office and placed under arrest in Guayaquil. The disgraced politician was then bundled onto a train and sent to face justice in Quito. As the locomotive chugged towards the Ecuadorian capital did he allow himself a wry smile at the irony of his predicament? We can only wonder.

Unfortunately for Alfaro, he never stood trial; a Catholic lynch mob stormed the prison he was held in and meted out their own brand of justice. “He was dragged through the streets of Quito on horses; they killed him like an animal and they killed his family too,” says Tufiño. “It’s a sad story.”

Time has given Ecuador a chance to reflect on  and today he is a revered figure. Schools, roads and military academies have been named after the former President and there is a giant portrait of him hanging at Quito’s Chimbacalle station, which is the centerpiece of a $280 million project to restore the country’s railway network.

Unesco’s first World Heritage Site in 1978

Nestling in a picturesque valley some 2,800 meters above sea level, the Ecuadorian capital sits within spitting distance of the equator and its historic old town is a splendid maze of cobbled streets, colonial architecture and Catholic churches. These dazzling attributes helped it become Unesco’s first World Heritage Site (along with Krakow) in 1978. Quito is also a hectic city; asthmatic buses wheeze around narrow streets, whistle-blowing policemen try to bring order to the abysmal traffic and vendors peddle their wares to busy commuters.

That is the bustle I leave behind as my train rattles through Quito’s suburbs, passing just yards from people’s front doors, which open to reveal waving children, barking dogs and the odd curmudgeon who does not seem to be entering into the spirit of things.

Men on motorcycles escort our train out of the city, warning those ahead of the approaching locomotive. “Residents aren’t used to it yet,” says my friend Cecelia, who is coming along for the journey. “We have to remind people the train is coming.”

For decades this line had been nothing more than a rusting relic of Ecuador’s once great railroads. When the Pan Americana highway was completed in the 1970s, trains fell out of fashion and the redundant railways suffered a silent plight in the harsh Andean environment; rain washed portions of the track away and landslides buried other segments under mud and rocks. By the late 1990s only short sections remained and these were operated by private tour companies.

This is good news for local communities

But to mark the centenary of Ecuador’s railways, in 2008 the new President, Rafael Correa, gave the green light for the revival. Stations were renovated, track was re-laid and rolling stock was restored to its former glory. The project reached a milestone in June 2013 when the historic line between Quito and Guayaquil was reopened. “The train is opening up parts of the country that had been cut off before,” says Cecelia. “This is good news for local communities.”

As the train climbs into the misty Andean countryside the carriage attendant engages passengers – a mix of senior citizens, families and school children – in a game that involves passing a bottle. The rules evade me but I gather the unlucky person left holding the bottle must sing and dance in front of everyone, a forfeit that produces some cringe-worthy performances.

“Would you like to join in?” the attendant asks, relishing the prospect of embarrassing me. I busy myself with my camera and politely decline. The other foreigners aboard follow my lead and look out of the windows. In our defense, the scenery is unremittingly photogenic; after all this is the Avenue of Volcanoes, a dramatic valley which sits in the shadows of some of Ecuador’s most active peaks. For the farmers who call this region home, living here is a double-edged sword; while the volcanoes have endowed them with a fertile soil for their crops, the same volcanoes represent a constant threat to their existence.

“Cotopaxi is just over there behind the clouds,” says Celia, pointing out the window. “She is Ecuador’s highest active volcano at 5,897 meters and they say a big eruption is due. When she goes, that is it for this valley.”

We alight to the sound of a brass band

At Machachi station we alight to the sound of a brass band, which has assembled on the platform to greet passengers. Inside the station women sell strong Ecuadorian coffee, pastries and local handicrafts. There is a carnival atmosphere. I spot a picture of President Rafael Correa hanging on a wall. Like Eloy Alfaro, Correa is a popular figure in Ecuador and his portrait is a common sight in people’s houses, public buildings and sometimes in the street. Although some describe the socialist leader as a “mini Chavez” and worry about his authoritarian style, most seem happy with the man who has overseen a big rise in living standards since he came to power in 2007.

“In my country we make the joke that B.C. means before Correa and A.C. means after Correa,” said Pablo, when I asked him about the President. Correa has won working and middle class supporters with his fuel subsidies, massive infrastructure projects and investment in education. But his critics have been growing in number since the President approved oil drilling in a pristine part of the Ecuadorian Amazon.

At the announcement in October 2013, activists marched in Quito and started a petition calling on the government to hold a referendum on the issue. But Correa dismisses critics by claiming oil revenue will raise Ecuadorian living standards. “Oil production could bring money, but in two, three or some more years the money will end, and there will just be logged forests, polluted water and nature will be devastated," said Nemonte Nenquino, of the Waorani indigenous group, in an interview with the  Wall Street Journal.

However, critics are few and far between at Machachi station; after all, expensive infrastructure projects like the railways have been made possible with revenue from oil wells in other parts of the Amazon.

Like oil, Cotopaxi is a hot topic in Ecuador. Guides talk with a perverse excitement about the “big one,” which scientists claim is long overdue. Since 1738 there have been as many as 50 eruptions of Cotopaxi (which loosely translated from the local Quechua language means “smooth neck of the moon”). Few have been as devastating at the 1877 eruption, which destroyed the nearby town of Latacunga and caused mud to flow into the Pacific some 200km west.

Looming over us full of grace and menace

In Machachi I briefly peel off the railway to join local guide Edison Palomeque for a trip to Cotopaxi National Park. The volcano is a short drive from the station and requires a brief stretch on the highway that sounded the death knell for Ecuador’s trains.

“Welcome to the Avenue of Volcanoes,” says Palomeque. “It was named in the early 19th century by German explorer Alexander von Humboldt, who couldn’t understand why all the crazy people were living in such a dangerous place.”

In spite of her fearsome reputation Cotopaxi is hiding behind a veil of cloud when we arrive at her base, so we hike around the foothills to admire the scenery. It is a glorious walk but marred by a bout of altitude sickness, which eases over a bowl of quinoa soup at nearby Tambopaxi Lodge. Also easing is the cloud; finally, a snow-covered Cotopaxi reveals herself, looming over us full of grace and menace.

“It wouldn’t be the lava that killed people in a big eruption,” explains Palomeque. “It would be the mudslides caused by the melting snow.” He shows me some pictures on his iPad of Cotopaxi’s glacier some 20 years ago. “Look at that, and now look at that,” he says, pointing first to the picture and then to the mountain. It is hard to fathom how much the glacier has retreated. “The climate is changing,” he says.

Even though we are only at the base of Cotopaxi, the air here is thin and I have difficulty breathing. So I am looking forward to getting back down to the valley, but Palomeque has other ideas and tells the driver to pull over. He has been disappointed all afternoon because we failed to see the Andean Condor, but he is pleased to show me evidence of their presence. That evidence comes in the rather morbid form of a dead horse, which has been hollowed out by the raptors.

The highest train station on the line

My next stop along the Avenue of Volcanoes is Urbina station, which at 3,618 meters above sea level is the highest train station on the line. This lofty outpost sits in the foothills of the inactive Chimborazo volcano, the tallest mountain in Ecuador at 6,268 meters.

Chimborazo does not make it into the top 100 of the world’s tallest peaks. In fact, it comes nowhere near. But thanks to the equatorial bulge – which means our planet is more of a spheroid than a sphere – Chimborazo’s summit is the closest point on Earth to the sun.

Unfortunately, I can not see this legendary volcano for the dense Andean fog. However, I am assured it is there by a local man called Baltazar Ushca, who I meet at the station. He is best known in Ecuador as the “last ice man,” a title he has earned by preserving the family tradition of climbing Chimborazo to collect ice from its glaciers. He has been doing this since he was a 15. He is now 68.

“Ice mining on Chimborazo started during the Spanish conquest when they sent Indians up the mountains to fetch ice for their drinks,” he says. The tradition continued after the Spanish left and Baltazar recalls a time when many men worked on the mountain. His father “the albino son of Chimborazo” was the most famous amongst them.

Fridge freezers have all but banished the job to the history books and Baltazar is the last ice man standing. “Nobody wants Chimborazo ice anymore, they want factory ice,” he says. But loyal clients stick by him and believe Baltazar’s claims that the 1,000-year-old ice is rich in vitamins and minerals. I can’t confirm this, but it is rather tasty.

I weave baskets from grass to carry the ice back down

Baltazar climbs Chimborazo every Thursday and Friday whatever the weather. After a hearty breakfast of soup, bread and coffee he sets off from his house with three donkeys. “It takes about four hours to reach the glacier and on the way I weave baskets from grass to carry the ice back down,” he says, demonstrating his technique. “When I arrive at the ice it takes three hours to mine it from the earth.”

It is a long day up in the mountains, but he is not alone. “I see deer, lamas, rabbits and the curiquingue [a bird of prey],” he says. Typically, Baltazar will extract six blocks from the glacier – weighing roughly 45kg each – wrap them in the hay bags and loads them onto his donkeys. His ice blocks sell for around $5 at the local market. Baltazar’s incredible story inspired director Sandy Patch to make a feature film about him called The Last Ice Merchant. The star of the show attended its premier in New York.

It was the first time he had left Ecuador. The first time he had been on an airplane. “The flight was very soft, not like driving on the roads here,” he says. “The streets and the buildings in New York are very big. I couldn’t see everything because it was so big.”

Baltazar might trade in ice, but he is a warm soul. He has kind eyes, a beaming smile and likes having his photo taken. He talks candidly about his life and the death of his wife last year. He did not go to the funeral as it was market day. Market rules are strict and if he missed a day they would not buy his ice again. It is ruthless and I feel a great sense of injustice on his behalf.

But with trains stopping at Urbina once again, Baltazar could become less reliant on the market; the railways are helping introduce him to adventure tourists who can pay Baltazar to take them up Chimborazo and collect ice with him. He seems thrilled at the prospect of working with tourists, but will he not be retiring soon? Peering from under his black felt hat, he says: "I will go to Chimborazo, until I go to God.”

It snakes down the infamous Devil’s Nose

My meeting with Baltazar is one of the highlights of my trip along the Avenue of Volcanoes. The other is the railway itself, when it snakes down the infamous Devil’s Nose – a steep, snout-shaped mountain regarded as the toughest test for trains on the planet.

Zigzagging through switchbacks and skirting along track laid inches from the rocky precipice, it is easy to see how this route earned the bragging rights to such a title. Completed in 1902, a more fitting name for the railroad might have been the Devil’s Noose; of the 5,000 workers who constructed it, half were killed in the process. A small museum at Sibambe station explains how disease and dynamite accidents sealed the fate of the largely Caribbean workforce, recruited on account of their strength and resistance to heat.

On the platform at Sibambe, the local community, resplendent in their traditional garb, greet us with singing, dancing and alpacas. A small market sells local handicrafts and Ecuadorian teas. “Before the railway there was no restaurant, no bar and no museum, but that’s changed and now people here have work,” says Manuel Mendoza, the poncho-wearing museum curator. “It is good for our community.”

And it is good for tourists too, who, once again, can experience this most spectacular railroad and discover a country as it rediscovers itself.

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