RIOBAMBA, ECUADOR — In the early 1900's a railway line, the Ferrocarril Transandino, was constructed from Guayaquil on the Ecuadorian coast to Quito in the mountains. The line made it to just below the town of Alausí when builders encountered an almost vertical wall of rock known as the Nariz del Diablo (the Devil's Nose). A series of switchbacks was carved directly into the rock face of the Nariz, and by advancing and reversing through the switchbacks a train could climb 1000m of vertical rock. It's truly an amazing feat of engineering, even by twenty first century standards. The stretch of track from Riobamba to Alausí,, and down the Nariz, is one of the only remaining sections of the Ferrocarril Transandino still in use.
As if riding down the most hair-raising train tracks in the world weren't enough, passengers are invited to ride on the roof of the train where they can stare into the abyss as they descend the switchbacks.
Juliette and I arrive at the train station during pre-dawn hours in hopes of staking out a seat on the roof. Unfortunately, everyone else with a ticket has the same idea, and we find ourselves hopelessly relegated to the back of the line. As we wait, street vendors selling everything from wool hats to bananas make their way from passenger to passenger hocking their wares.
"This is an amazing country," Juliette observes. "You never have to go looking for anything. If you stand in one place long enough someone will come to you selling whatever it is you need. They assume we have money to burn, whether it's true or not."
When the conductor finally begins boarding the train a mad rush for the roof ensues, and we find ourselves laying claim to the best indoor seats we can find.
The phrase "train ride" is a bit of a misnomer. In reality, the "train" is a diesel bus that has been fitted with train wheels, and the experience is more akin to riding a school bus than a train. The roof is fitted with a large rack on which passengers can ride for hours, sitting on thin, uncomfortable pads. In retrospect, it was a blessing in disguise that we failed to get space on the roof - shortly after leaving Riobamba a rain squall soaks everyone up top, many of the passengers remaining cold and wet for much of the trip.
Leaving Riobamba behind, the train crawls through high alpine valleys lush with plants and dotted with fields growing corn and potatoes. It continues on to high, grass-covered altiplano before entering a dry, scrub-covered region that resembles areas of the American southwest. Along the way we pass indigenous people dressed in traditional wool attire, often accompanied by animals, occasionally shooing them off the track to avoid collisions with the train. We are always greeted with smiles and waves. Three hours later the train pulls into Alausí for a brief stop before descending the Nariz.
A few minutes later we are descending steep track through a deep canyon. Upon reaching the first switchback the conductor disembarks to manually move the switch on the tracks. We find ourselves looking directly down a vertical slope at another section of track below. With a jerk, the train begins an unnatural backwards descent down the second switchback. A couple more switchbacks and we are at the bottom, staring up at an unbelievably steep cliff. There is short pause while we exchanged places with the group sitting on the roof, after which we ascend back up the Nariz. The ride on the roof is thrilling and exposed, the cliff dropping away for thousands of feet beneath our feet as they hang over the edge.
Arriving back in Alausí, Juliette and I heade for the bus station; Juliette is headed for Guayquil and I for Cuenca. We grab a quick lunch before saying our goodbyes, and then she jumps on her bus to head west. I have a few hours to kill before mine leaves, so I head to the center of town to explore the weekend market overflowing with people in bright wool ponchos.