All Aboard Ecuador's "Diversity Express"

Oct 25, 2014
Ecuador’s diversity is hard to fathom, to imagine. You can read statistics. You can pour over maps. You can read articles, such as this one. You can hear the descriptions of a friend. But it’s hard to actually feel… DSC01432 The four-day Tren Crucero journey is a way to experience this diversity firsthand, a chugging, rattling, beautiful journey that crystallises the best of the country. No bus ride across the country can come even remotely close. The train one travels aboard is wonderfully comfortable, relaxing and inspiring. DSC01662
The Ecuadorian Railways company launched the product in 2013, following its huge efforts to restore the fortunes of the railways across the country. These, despite being regarded as one the most difficult engineering feats of the railway age, had fallen into a state of sad, and sometimes dangerous, disrepair. Although one can travel different segments of the regenerated tracks on tours of a few hours from various points of the country, the Tren Crucero is only way to travel the whole length which connects Guayaquil on the coast with Quito in the high Andes, a total distance of 450 km/280 miles. It covers this distance over the course of four days, using a support bus to shuttle the passengers to and from hotels or nearby sights en route.

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Having travelled the country by car over the decade or more I’ve lived here, I can safely assure anyone that this is the best way to do it. There are many reasons why I am happy to assert this. Firstly, there’s the mode of transport itself, this Spanish-built, four-carriage train has been very well thought through to carry 54 passengers safely and comfortably. There are set tables and chairs, sections with sofas, an on-board café, different designs in different carriages, and, probably best of all, a balcony area right at the rear of the train, open to the elements. The train bumps and grinds its way through the landscape which rolls past the windows, and one can happily wander from one carriage, one ambience to the next. There is even a waiter on board to serve you with a juice or a cappuccino if you fancy.
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Secondly, the route itself. Although you do of course pass through towns and villages throughout the trip, the railway gets away from the roads and built-up flanks of the highways for long stretches. On some segments, it winds its way through bucolic landscapes that will take your breath away, bringing you into the backyards of farming communities, lowing cows, scampering children, potato-harvesting farmers. Historically, the lands close to the railway were sown with acres of crops, in orden to carry them quickly to market, and these remain to this day, providing an ever-changing patchwork backdrop to the journey. DSC01655
Thirdly, the pace is just about perfect. Of course, this issubjunctive. You could spend months, and some people do, travelling up or down the Andes and Ecuador. You could also do the drive in about eight hours. But, as one writer once said, the more we straighten the roads of life, the less there is to see. The Tren Crucero trip lasts four days in all. One can take it from Quito down to Guayaquil, or the other way, from Guayaquil up to Quito. Depending on your itinerary, I would recommend you take the second option. That way, you follow the route the train builders took up from the station of Duran (close to Guayaquil), you follow their toil and feel the same trepidation they must have felt when confronted with the hulking mass of the Andes close to the town of Huigra, the Tren Crucero’s first overnight stop. Coming up this route somehow brings you closer to the Herculean effort that this complex and dangerous engineering work involved. At the Devil’s Nose section, one can also feel some regret at the hundreds upon hundreds of lives that were lost here, carving a series of switchbacks into the rock mountainside, on the next section up from Huigra.
There’s a poetry to the motion of the train, to the hoot of the engine, to the rhythmic beat of the wheels against the steel rails, to the sounds that come flushing through the carriages as the train snakes and scythes its way up through the mountains. And the changes in climate, in vegetation, in crops, in people, remind one – as if one needed prodding – of Ecuador’s staggering diversity. On Day 2, in just 80 km (50 miles) the railway ascends from 970ft above sea level to nearly 3,260 m (10,700 ft), which is impressive enough, but all the more so when one considers that these routes were first made by steam train, with the added challenge of altitude which saps the energy of combustion engines. Today, only two segments are pulled by steam: leaving Duran on Day 1 and Colta-Riobamba on Day 2. There is something even more poetic about these veteran engines huffing and puffing their way through the mountains, their whistles distinctive, their plumes of smoke meddling with the trees and leaves, the hiss of their engines as they struggle to haul the carriages. The older of the two, used on the coast route, dates back to 1911, a true veteran.
DSC01614The wide tapestry of Ecuador is woven throughout the journey, from learning about the tropical crop of cacao in the lowlands through to the last “ice man” of Chimborazo, Balthazar Ushca, who explains how he still goes up to the volcano’s glacier to bring down ice with which to make ice cream. From the bamboo houses on stilts to the highland Indians in their mountainside homes whipped by the wind and the cold, in their felt hats and wooly socks. From the kites and egrets of the lowlands to the hummingbirds and kestrels of the Amdes. Whichever way one does the trip, whether up from the coast or down from the Andes, the effect of this gamut of contrasting, stimulating and enriching experiences is part of the magic of the journey, leaving no-one in any doubt as to Ecuador’s staggering diversity.
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