I love trains, there’s something very relaxing about rhythmic clicking along the tracks, makes me feel like an old-world traveller. Ecuador’s trains are more of a touristic experience these days, and buses are still the cheapest and quickest way to get around. However there was a time when trains were an essential part of Ecuador’s transport and freight moving system, and it reached it’s peak in the mid-20th Century. Some areas of track were very dangerous to build, a section known as the Devil’s Nose drops 500 metres over 12 kilometres. I only found out about the train tours when talking with some other travellers in Latacunga (Ecuadorian was the only country I didn’t have a guidebook for, and I regretted it). By that stage we had only two days left in Ecuador.
You can book multi-day tours up to 10 days exploring the length of the country. There are many day trips including the most popular Devil’s Nose. The Devils nose tour is from Alausi, a town located 4 hours south of Latacunga, we had unknowingly passed through it on our way between Cuenca and Banos. It wasn’t practical to make our way back to Alausi and so we instead headed to Riobamba, about 2 hours by bus from Latacunga, and booked the Tren del Hielo I, (Riobamba to Urbina). I reserved our tickets by phone one day ahead. There is an online booking system on the Tren Ecuador website, however Australian credit cards don’t take too well to purchases in this part of the world. I couldn’t make the payment by phone either, but they were kind enough to let us pay at the train station in Riobamba.
We arrived to a rainy Riobamba early Friday afternoon, checked in, and picked up and paid for our tickets. We spent the afternoon exploring and the clouds cleared for just long enough for us to get a glimpse of the Chimborazo Volcano. Part of the reason we also booked this particular train journey is for the cultural experience. During the wet season, you can’t rely on spectacular views because the scenery is hidden by cloud. It’s also one of the cheapest journeys costing $USD27 per person, including refreshments and lunch.
Tren del Hielo I
The train departed at 8am, locals waved as we made our way out of the city and began the climb into mountains. We passed through the green fields of the many farms. Sadly the Capac Urcu volcano could not be seen.
Our first stop was in Urbina, at the restored railway station that is the highest in Ecuador at 3,609 metres. If you are extremely lucky (we weren’t) you might see Carihuairazo volcano, which rarely appears even in the dry season. Here the local women sang traditional songs and served us Morocho, a sweet thick warm corn drink made with Morocho corn, milk and cinnamon.
The Last Ice Merchant of Chimborazo
In Urbina we were introduced to Baltazar Ushca. Now in his 80s, Baltazar is the only man left carrying on the tradition of harvesting ice from the glaciers of the Chimborazo volcano. We were even served home made ice-cream made from the Chimborazo ice, painstakingly carved by Baltazar and carried down the mountain on a donkey, braving bitterly cold and unpredictable conditions.
The train continued on to La Moya, where we were greeted by a traditional Andean community, descendants of the puruha people. The took us to the edge of the tracks where we were greeted by children singing and dancing and invited to participate in painting a large mural opposite the train. Tren de Hielo I only operates on weekends so the community is not disrupted by tourism on a daily basis and the locals are benefitting from the money coming in. While the dancing and activities are put on for tourists, they seemed genuinely and welcoming and happy to have us there.
After a traditional lunch, we boarded the train for the return journey to Riobamba. I would love to go back to Ecuador and take some more of these spectacular journeys. Go to http://trenecuador.com/en/home/.