ALL ABOARD FOR THE ANDES
By luxury train in Ecuador
“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