Where train turns mountain goat; Ecuador's extraordinary 'Nariz del Diablo' railway...
Ecuador’s main railway line runs from its Andean capital Quito, along the high plateau Avenue of the Volcano’s, to the busy Pacific port city of Guayaquil - from a high point of 3,600m to sea level, along 280 miles of track. The project to connect Ecuador's major port city of Guayaquil with the capital, Quito, was launched in 1885, and while the line down the Avenue of the Volcanos presented relatively few problems, and the same for the route inland from Guayaquil, the engineers hot a mountain-sized snag 130 kilometres inland at the neck of a valley where a rock face rises called the 'Nariz del Diablo', or Devil's Nose.
The ingenious solution was to have the track ascend the mountainside using a 12-kilometre zig-zag route, so that the train twice reaches a precarious dead end before reversing direction for the next section of the ascent or descent. From a distance the ledges cut to lay the train track on make the shape of a Zorro like slashes on the side of the mountain.
After years of neglect, the line has re-opened using smart new Train Cruise carriages with comfy seats and an open sided viewing car at the rear. The whole length takes four days with sightseeing stops, but it’s the spectacular section from the little railhead town of Alausi, 170 miles south of Quito, that you should aim for if you are pressed for time.
It’s here that the railway engineers almost met their match – as a precipitous dead-end valley blocked the way. The bold and bonkers solution was to carve a zigzagging ledge down the 100%m side of the semi-sheer mountain dubbed the Devil’s Nose; along which the whole train moves forwards, then backwards, then forwards again.
The fussy gait of the little locomotive and its wooden carriages is amusing for the first part of the ride, not unlike riding a pleasure railways anywhere else in the world. But it's not long before the ground falls away on the right hand side of the train, and gives way to a steep valley that very soon becomes worryingly steep and deep.
The decent of the Devil’s Nose is astonishing: more suited to mountain goats than to trains. The carriages shuffle alarmingly in their tracks and after one especially alarming jolt, I scuttled to the other side of the carriage - away from the precipice - and tried to calm my vertigo by sitting tight by the solid rock face side of the train, where I opened the window fully and scanned the passing bushes for branches strong enough to jump out and cling onto in case the train plummeted down the gorge.
|Reasons to be cheerful: the return trip from Alausí to the bottom of the gorge takes 2 ½ hours, including a 30-minute stop at the bottom. There are three trips daily, costing £15pp. The cute little station and museum in Alausí is well-run and efficient. And though there isn't much to see in the town, it's a pleasant enough place for a coffee or snack if you happen to arrive there early.|
|You can't always get what you want: it's hard to believe, but not so long ago the draw for many people to ride on the Devil's Nose railway was in order to sit on its roof. This became very popular, especially - but not only - amongst the backpacking fraternity, but a fatal accident in 2007 when two tourists were killed by hanging telephone wires while standing up, put an end to the practise.|
|Fitting the Devil's Nose into a holiday: the vast majority of tourists visiting Ecuador head straight to the Galapagos Islands - which are parked about 1,000 kilometres off the Ecuadorian coast in the Pacific Ocean. However, the mainland has high mountains, volcanos, Amazon jungle, and surf beaches. It's a brilliant destination in itself, or can easily be combined with Galapagos.|
|Getting there: There are several buses a day from Alausí to Riobamba and Cuenca.|
|When to go: Cuenca enjoys fairly Spring-like weather year round, with daytime temperatures averaging 21°C. It's up at about 2,500 metres above sea level, so days are warm rather than hot, and nights are often a tad chilly. There's a nominal rainy season March-June, but the rain happens late in the afternoon, or overnight.|
|Further information: on the train see Tren Ecuador, and for the country in general there is Ecuador Travel|
|Always check your government's travel advice before booking, and check that your travel insurance is valid in this country. See here for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice.|