Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Riding the Devil’s Nose (Riobamba, Ecuador) - Part One

Riobamba has the sad rundown feel of a former major colonial railroad town on the line between Ecuador’s capital and its largest city. Impressive Spanish-styled buildings flaking from age house shoe repairers, clothing vendors, merchants and a surprising number of barber shops. A grand church, an uninspiring coffee and a reasonable religious art museum pass away an hour but the whole town has this tired slightly bored feel to it. The fresh aromas of charcoal start to fill the streets as barbeques are stoked for the evening fare including the prized cuisine of guinea pig.

Nearby Parque 21 de Abril offers an afternoon view to the spectacular volcano, Chimborazo and other Andean peaks. Remarkably, the snow-capped peak of Chimborazo (at only 6300 metres above sea-level) is the point on the Earth furthest from the centre of the Earth, because the Earth isn’t truly spherical and this mountain is extremely near the equator. It is over two kilometers further away from the Earth’s centre than Mt Everest.

Walking to this vantage point, you could easily be mistaken that only westerners live in this town. Riobamba swells with multitude of travellers three afternoons a week for the early morning departure of the train journey down the Devil’s Nose (Nariz del Diablo). In a true feat of engineering, a railway was cut through the Andes over a hundred years ago including a series of switchbacks to get the train down the steep gradients of Devil’s Nose. Sadly, today this train only runs for the benefit of tourists with a sequence of storms, earth tremors and landslides causing considerable damage to a sequence of track preventing through journeys.

Wiping the sleep from tired eyes, the train departs at a dawn-cracking 7:00am. With no food on the train, it was good advice to be a fair bit earlier to grab a quick breakfast and to be strategically placed to stake a position on the roof of the train. The weak rays of sunshine do little to break the bitter icy temperatures as passengers huddle like emperor penguins closely for warmth, pulling beanies over their ears and hiding their hands up jacket sleeves. The train gently meanders through pleasant countryside and farmland occasionally revealing superb views of the Andes. The early nerves of being tipped off the rocking train have eased as people have settled in, chat and enjoy the mid-morning journey, before stopping to pick up more travellers at the dull-looking town of Alausi.

Read more at Riding the Devil's Nose Part Two.

Photo: Train Overview


WildJunket said...

hey Mark, I´ll be heading to Ecuador in 2 months' time and this is really useful for me! Thanks for a brilliant writeup!

Mark H said...

@wildjunket: Enjoy. Make sure you go to Banos and Cuenca as well, along with some of the Andean mountains.

Anonymous said...

The track has been repaired and the ride is much safer since it re-opened recently. Unfortunately, you are no longer allowed to ride on the roof - they cut it after a tourist did everything one is not supposed to do - including standing up on the roof - and was killed in an accident as a result of the behavior and a freak stretched telephone line.

Mark H said...

@anonymous: Thank you for the update. It is sad that you can't ride on the roof as that is an engaging part of the experience but still a train ride in a remarkable part of the world.

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