By lux­ury train in Ecuador

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - FRONT PAGE - KA­T­RINA LOB­LEY

“Ecuador is a mag­i­cal place … we sell ice-cream that doesn’t melt,” jokes guide Diego Jaramillo on a warm morn­ing as a ven­dor in Quito’s In­de­pen­dence Square hawks es­pumilla, a mound of fruit-flavoured meringue spooned into ice-cream cones.

Lo­cals are in­dulging in sweet treats af­ter watch­ing the 11am chang­ing of the guard, a cer­e­mony over­seen by Pres­i­dent Rafael Cor­rea from the bal­cony of Caron­delet Palace. Cor­rea is not with­out his de­trac­tors — he’s been in power since 2007, long enough for the gloss to rub off any politi­cian. But no one can ar­gue about his love of in­fras­truc­ture. Not only has he splashed mil­lions on new roads and bridges, but he’s poured $US280 mil­lion ($380 mil­lion) into re­viv­ing the na­tional rail­way.

The star of this re­nais­sance is the 54-pas­sen­ger Tren Crucero (Cruise Train), which in 2013 started shut­tling be­tween coastal Guayaquil, the coun­try’s big­gest city, and the cap­i­tal, Quito, in the An­des. A se­ries of steam and diesel lo­co­mo­tives haul the lux­ury car­riages along a line that rises more than 3km in el­e­va­tion while trac­ing a trad­ing route once cov­ered by mule trains. The an­i­mals were re­placed by a rail­way in the early 20th cen­tury but by the 1970s the line had fallen into dis­re­pair due to financial ne­glect and the rise of road trans­port.

Ecuador has worked more than a lit­tle magic to turn this 450km jour­ney into a four-day af­fair (it takes the same for the In­dian Pa­cific to travel the 4352km be­tween Syd­ney and Perth). For many, the high­light is the Devil’s Nose — a pho­to­genic se­ries of switch­backs zigzag­ging across the face of a moun­tain with a name that trans­lates to Con­dor’s Nest. For years, Ecuador al­lowed tourists to ride this sec­tion of what is dubbed “the most dif­fi­cult rail­way in the world” while sit­ting on a train’s roof.

Th­ese days, the thrills are se­date. For Tren Crucero pas­sen­gers, days are fleshed out with off-train ex­cur­sions such as meet­ing Bal­tazar Ushca, Ecuador’s “last ice mer­chant”, at Urbina, which at 3609m above sea level is the line’s high­est point. Ushca, aged 71, has hacked blocks of ice from a glacier on the slopes of Mount Chimb­o­razo, a dor­mant vol­cano and Ecuador’s high­est moun­tain, since he was 15. To keep the ice from melt­ing, he wraps the blocks in grass be­fore ty­ing them to his don­keys with freshly twisted grass ropes. It’s a four-hour jour­ney back to the mar­ket where juice and ice-cream ven­dors buy his ice for $US5 a block. In­side a hall at Urbina sta­tion, his younger brother Gre­go­rio is sell­ing black­berry-flavoured helado de paila (sor­bet whisked in a pan over ice) for $US1 a cone. (Ecuador switched its cur­rency to the US dol­lar in 2000.)

I meet Bal­tazar Ushca and his daugh­ter Carmen —

who trans­lates her fa­ther’s Quichua an­swers into Span­ish, which is trans­lated for me into English — while rid­ing the Tren Crucero north for a day from Riobamba in the cen­tral An­des. Be­fore board­ing, I bunk down for the night at Ha­cienda Abraspungo, a typ­i­cal ex­am­ple of ac­com­mo­da­tion along the route. Riobamba is some­times jok­ingly called Fri­obamba — frio means cold in Span­ish — and one of the de­lights of this stay is re­turn­ing from din­ner in the ho­tel’s restau­rant to find a fire roar­ing in the painted fire­place, tak­ing the edge off the chilly air.

Next morn­ing at Riobamba’s train sta­tion, mu­sic is blast­ing. A bachata dance class is in full swing, right there on the plat­form. Just as I con­tem­plate join­ing the lo­cal ladies, we’re rounded up for the train. Pas­sen­gers oc­cupy two car­riages — one dec­o­rated in a flam­boy­ant Baroque style from the colo­nial era, the other with a pared-back neo­clas­si­cal look from Ecuador’s repub­li­can pe­riod. Ev­ery up­right arm­chair is a win­dow seat but it’s more fun to stand and sway in the open-air ca­boose let­ting Ecuador spool by at about 40km/h. “Burro!” we shout, as if we’ve never seen a don­key. “Llama!” Even stands of shaggy pam­pas grass, back­lit by the equa­to­rial sun, seem ex­otic as the train slides past a patch­work of farms and or­chards grow­ing quinoa, corn, pota­toes, al­falfa, tamar­il­los, peaches and pears. A con­duc­tor and a brake­man, both wear­ing black leather caps badged with their po­si­tions, keep watch from the win­dows. Se­cu­rity guards race ahead on mo­tor­cy­cles, block­ing each road cross­ing. Driv­ers climb from their ve­hi­cles to give us a friendly wave.

This sec­tion of the line me­an­ders be­tween two par­al­lel moun­tain chains of the An­des. The Ger­man ex­plorer Alexan­der von Hum­boldt called the snow-capped peaks be­tween Riobamba and Co­topaxi the Av­enue of Vol­ca­noes, and the name has stuck. Usu­ally, pas­sen­gers visit Co­topaxi Na­tional Park but, since Co­topaxi started spew­ing ash in Au­gust, they in­stead ride Tren de los Lagos (The Lakes Train) north of Quito on a day trip to the mar­ket town of Otavalo.

In the city of Am­bato, we lunch on cheese-stuffed em­panadas, vegetarian ceviche and potato pan­cakes in the cen­tral court­yard of the colo­nial Roka Plaza Ho­tel. I or­der black­berry and sour­sop juice and it ar­rives draped with lime peel, topped with a straw­berry and an aga­pan­thus flower. Our af­ter­noon ex­cur­sion is to Ne­vado Roses, which ex­ports 63 va­ri­eties. Ecuador cul­ti­vates fa­mous roses thanks to its abun­dance of nat­u­ral light (12 hours daily, year-round). Roses also take longer to grow at al­ti­tude — Ne­vado’s el­e­va­tion is 2756m — which suits long­stemmed va­ri­eties with big heads. The com­pany grows seven va­ri­eties with stems up to 1.5m long. A rose that’s per­haps as tall as its re­cip­i­ent? That sounds like more Ecuadorean magic, con­jured from thin air.

Se­cu­rity guards race ahead on mo­tor­cy­cles, block­ing each road cross­ing

Steam­ing along on the Tren Crucero, op­po­site page; op­u­lence aboard, left; pass­ing through the town of Alausi, be­low left

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