June 7, 2013 6:27 pm

Ecuador’s volcano express

A century-old railway line has been restored and a luxury ‘cruise train’ now runs from Quito to the coast
The Tren Crucero skirts the Devil’s Nose

The Tren Crucero skirts the Devil’s Nose

After chugging south through the dreary, graffiti-daubed fringes of Quito, alongside the great pan-American Highway, we joined a rather more theatrical thoroughfare. The “Avenue of the Volcanoes” – celebrated explorer Alexander von Humboldt’s striking appellation – refers to the muscular ranks of cratered peaks dotting this part of the Andean skyline. Within minutes, dowdy suburbs were overshadowed by the great, alluring, snow-clad hulk of 5,897m-high Cotopaxi, to which our gleaming red train was steadily drawing closer.

I was aboard the Tren Crucero, or “cruise train”, a new four-day journey which launched earlier this week on a century-old line linking Quito, Ecuador’s lofty capital, with Guayaquil, its commercial centre, by the Pacific coast. Built with considerable difficulty by the American Harman brothers (one a well-connected railwayman, the other a West Point-trained engineer), the 278-mile railway opened in stages from the late 1800s, with a full service commencing in 1908. For its builders, it was a notable engineering achievement while for Ecuador it became a symbol of unity, inaugurating efficient travel between its two principal cities.

But trains need investment, maintenance and passengers. The improvement of Andean roads began cutting journey times and by the mid-1970s the railway was firmly in decline. For foreign backpackers, who would perch atop its carriages, it became a novel yet precarious travel experience to tick off, until one particular accident involving a dangling electric cable drew the curtains on their roof-riding bravado.

Ecuador map

While some sections remained unreliably open – the celebrated “Devil’s Nose”, where the line heroically navigates a deep gorge, was perennially popular – the railway as a whole limped through the 1990s and early 2000s. But coinciding with the line’s centenary in 2008, the government launched an ambitious restoration programme. Since then, approximately $280m has been spent on the venerable railway and its quaint stations, while Ecuador’s media have hailed its resurrection as a new source of national pride.

The concept of a multi-day cruise train is a first for South America, and, judging from the numbers of local people pausing to stare, cheer and wave as we rumbled close by their streets, homes and gardens, the project has also garnered public support. The four coaches carry up to 54 passengers in some style, but rather than sleep and eat in cabins onboard, guests are taken to characterful hotels and restaurants en route.

As we gently descended into a lush green valley dotted with eucalyptus and pine among fields of corn, potatoes and fava beans, our guide Maria Garcés introduced us to Ecuador’s salient geography. Just as Humboldt had nonchalantly observed in the early 1800s, there were volcanoes to the left of us and volcanoes to the right.

All Quitenos remain wary of Pichincha, the volcano which looms over the capital and last proved troublesome back in 1999, when inches of ash smothered the city. Yet our eyes were now drawn to Cotopaxi, among the world’s highest active volcanoes, with the hope that today, at least, it would hold fire as it has since 1904. Its name is a fusion of Quechua and Mayan words meaning “neck of the moon”, a reference to a rare lunar alignment when the moon briefly appears to perch atop the crater.

One of the steam locomotives that pulls the train on certain sections of the trip©David Grijalva

One of the steam locomotives that pulls the train on certain sections of the trip

We climbed again to alight at El Boliche station at a cool 3,500m. This set the pattern for the coming days: three to five hours daily on the rails, interspersed with excursions into the countryside nearby. The first was a foray to Cotopaxi National Park. Our coach drove slowly through grassy uplands and on, amid billowing clouds, to the foot of the great volcano. Just about visible on the slopes above was a refuge from where walkers can hike to the summit.

At the nearby Hacienda San Agustin de Callo, we ate lunch in what is probably Ecuador’s oldest dining room. Built in the 15th century as a kind of caravanserai for Inca emperors, its stark charcoal-grey masonry walls – mortar-free and perfectly cut – recall the great imperial structures of Cuzco. Later it became a convent and eventually an enlarged hacienda that simply absorbed the Inca dwellings.

Proprietor (and granddaughter of a former Ecuadorean president) Mignon Plaza caught our questioning gaze through the windows at Cotopaxi. “The Incas built here because they realised any lava flowing from the crater used ravines on either side; we’re almost on a kind of plateau.”

Late that day, as we reached our first night’s halt at Hosteria la Cienega near Lasso, it seemed the spirit of the Incas was replaced by Edgar Allan Poe. An avenue of eucalyptus trees frames a vaguely gothic-looking aristocratic mansion, parts of which reputedly date back to the 1580s. Built with two-metre thick walls on what was a swamp, it has survived earthquakes and eruptions, and hosted explorers and adventurers. There are rumours of hauntings, too, and if the mood (and perhaps the bar) takes you, it can feel like a fabulously spooky place.

Continuing south the next day, between parallel lines of Andean peaks, Garcés drew our attention to the changing vegetation. Our journey traversed seven distinct climatic zones and the drier climate meant we now glimpsed pepper and walnut trees, agave and pampas grass, as well as one of Ecuador’s most important export crops: roses.

At Nevado Roses near Latacunga, general manager Roberto Nevado explained that his was one of the country’s nearly 600 rose plantations, that collectively export around 680,000 tonnes of flowers each year. “The combination of altitude, light and climate – it’s frost-free up to 3,300m – mean Ecuador’s fantastic for growing roses,” he said.

Strolling among the greenhouses, we glimpsed flowers being bunched and packaged. Russian customers prefer long-stemmed varieties such as “Forever Young”, we were told; Britons have less showy but more fragrant tastes. Someone asked if he ever gave roses to his wife. “Never,” he chuckled.

Later that afternoon, we enjoyed one of the loveliest stretches of the railway. I downed a few macchiatos courtesy of the onboard bar, then made for the observation car. Here, on the open-air terrace, you can watch Ecuador pass by with the sun on your face and wind in your hair.

Striking steep-sided hills were covered in chequered green fields; women in felt fedoras worked plots bordered with apple orchards; cows grazed among scattered hamlets and isolated rustic cabins. Climbing through a slender grassy valley, the line wove and looped towards Urbina, which at 3,609m is the railway’s highest station.

Here we met Baltazar Uscha, a hardy 69-year-old Quechua Indian who has found a measure of fame as one of the last hieleros, or ice merchants. Twice a week he and his mules climb the slopes of Chimborazo – Ecuador’s highest peak – to harvest glacial ice which is sold in nearby markets. It’s back-breaking, low-paid work which he began aged 15. Most of us were awed by his tenacity and touched by the sentiment that his “natural ice” is better and purer than any from a freezer.

If Uscha embodied a noble but dying Andean tradition, market day in Guamote presented a Quechuan community that was very much alive. The bustling stalls and restaurants almost spilled on to the train tracks. Beyond the restored station and its adjoining plaza, streets were filled with traders selling tools and utensils, fruit and fabric, grains, pigs and guinea pigs. It was cheery, earthy and authentic.

The train arrives in Guamote on market day©Amar Grover

The train arrives in Guamote on market day

Following a timely introduction to the train’s driver, engineer and mechanic, we stepped back onboard for the afternoon drama down the Devil’s Nose. Although this short yet famous stretch plunges 500m, the train descends almost two vertical kilometres during the day. Garcés indicated difficult sections such as bola de oro (golden nugget) – its name recalls a 1900s workman unearthing gold amid the desolate terrain – where the track has been realigned to make it less susceptible to landslides.

After pausing at Alausí for final mechanical checks, we set off towards an alarming cleft in the valley. The train looped down to the Chanchan River gorge, which soon dropped away, leaving us clattering along a vertiginous ledge blasted into the cliff. The gradient here reaches 1 in 18 and there are several switchbacks where the trains go into reverse, zigzagging down the mountainside.

Eventually we reached steamy plains dotted with banana and cocoa plantations, where for a grand finale, the modern locomotive was swapped for a restored 1950s steam train for the run into Guayaquil.

Although one can drive from Quito in a day, the leisurely train – more scenic, comfortable and informative – underscores how, as so often with the best travel, the journey amplifies the destination.

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Details

For more details, see www.ecuadorbytrain.com. Amar Grover was a guest of Sunvil Traveller (www.sunvil.co.uk) and American Airlines (www.aa.com). Sunvil offer a week’s trip with three nights in Quito and three nights on the Tren Crucero costs from £1,475 including transfers, guided excursions, and some meals. American have daily flights from Miami to Quito; returns from London to Quito cost from £682

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Another new treat for train lovers

From Serbia to Montenegro in Tito’s palace on wheels

By Rob Crossan

The Blue Train’s dining car

The Blue Train’s dining car

I’m lying on the president’s bed when the door slowly creaks open. Rousing myself wearily after a long lunch of pork cutlets, veal consommé, white cheese and parsley salad and baklava, all washed down with fine local wines, I’m confronted by an ageing, uniformed steward, Tomas Popovic. Thankfully he only wants to assure me that I can, should I wish, spend the rest of the afternoon in situ on the thick, albeit slightly lumpy, mattress.

The bedroom, leading into a spacious blue bathroom, private study and reading room complete with a 1960s transistor radio the size of a fireplace, is part of a train that hasn’t seen regular movement for more than three decades. This is former Yugoslavian president Josip Tito’s Blue Train, a palace on wheels in which he entertained leaders such as Gamal Abdel Nasser, Jawaharlal Nehru, Muammer Gaddafi, Haile Selassie and even Queen Elizabeth. Built in 1959, the train was used regularly until Tito’s death in 1980 – in fact it carried his body from Ljubljana to Belgrade; station platforms along the route were lined with mourners.

Ever since, the train has been kept in a siding in Belgrade, being maintained by railway workers – but now it is back in business. Explore Montenegro, a British tour operator, has chartered the train from Serbian Railways and is running regular trips for tourists between Belgrade and the Montenegrin port town of Bar. The first ran last month, and departures continue until October 6.

“Older people still miss Tito,” says Nemanja Ciric, a tour guide on the train, as we pull out of Belgrade’s all but deserted central station. We drink treacly Turkish coffee as we chug past corn fields, steep-roofed farm houses and sleepy villages at the beginning of our 11-hour journey to the coast.

“Yes, there was no freedom of speech, no elections and there were political prisons under Tito,” she continues, “but he created a system that provided for everyone. It’s still very common to see portraits of him in his white suit and Panama hat on the living room walls of people who lived under his reign.”

The train’s Art Deco interiors feature mint-coloured sofas and Persian rugs, and the halls and salons are decorated with marquetry in mahogany, pear and walnut. There’s a colossal conference table surrounded by red leather seats, all embossed with the crest of the now-extinct nation. Passengers are free to roam around the entire train at leisure, a liberty I exploit by commandeering Tito’s bedroom for my afternoon siesta.

Popovic, the steward, beams as we roll gently through ever more vertiginous hills, mountains, canyons and ravines. As well as a bedroom for the president, the train also has sleeping berths for Tito’s personal entourage, a restaurant car and a “companion bedroom” linked to Tito’s quarters. “Of course the only person who slept in that bed was Tito’s wife,” says Popovic before raising his eyebrows and grinning.

Quite how many of the president’s numerous and infamous infidelities took place in this carriage will probably never be known. Popovic, now 75, is one of only four people left alive who worked on the train in Tito’s time. With broad shoulders and an imposing shock of black hair, his fealty to the late president – even three decades on – is such that he won’t be drawn on too many details of Tito’s personal affairs.

Throughout the day, as we cruise gently through various rural stations, local commuters waiting for regular trains look on with amazement, some rushing to take photos on their mobile phones. Crossing into Montenegro, the jumble of tunnels, viaducts and bridges becomes denser and more impressive as we pass snow-flecked mountains and waterfalls. The sun sinks as we refill our glasses with more of Popovic’s homemade raki (he brings it on journeys in a plain plastic bottle).

By the time I alight at Montenegro’s capital, Podgorica (leaving the train to continue for another two hours to Bar), the station platforms are dark and deserted. A lone baggage porter, cigarette buried in the corner of his mouth, gives me his own thoughts on the reprise of the Blue Train as we walk through the ticket office and out into the night. “People were happier then, on the whole,” he tells me. “But if Tito were around now, nobody would vote for him. It’s good to see the train, but I don’t miss the man it was built for.”

Rob Crossan was a guest of Explore Montenegro

www.montenegroholidays.com

A one-way ticket from Belgrade to Bar (in either direction) on the Blue Train costs £99 and a four-day, three-night trip (excluding flights) costs £399

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