August 21, 2013 00:00 By Christina Horsten
Zigzagging down the Devil's Nose on Ecuador's great little railway
Two long pips of the whistle are followed by a series of jerks and the steam engine slowly pulls away. The grey seats in the two wooden-panelled carriages are all occupied with passengers brandishing cameras and camcorders.
Before them lies a short journey through the Ecuadorian Andes - one of the steepest rail-trips in the world and also one of the most dramatic.
In the space of 30 minutes passengers travel from Alausi to Sibambe, down the face of the infamous “Nariz del Diablo” or Devil’s Nose.
There are precipitous switchbacks where the train goes into reverse three or four times, zigzagging down the mountainside. It works its way heroically down into a cleft in the rock, descending from 2,300 metres to 1,800 metres above sea level.
The trip begins in the nondescript little town of Alausi where the train rolls out past pastel-coloured houses and restaurants.
The big rock known as the Devil’s Nose is just a few hundred metres away as the crow flies and exerts an almost irresistible attraction to those who come here.
Beyond Alausi is a broad green valley of tended fields and cacti, which fails to betray the steep 1 in 18 gradient of the descent ahead. The conductor uses the interval to recount the history of Ecuador's great little railway.
He explains that it was the brainchild of President Gabriel Moreno who decided in the 19th century that the capital Quito should be linked by rail with the Pacific settlement of Guayaquil, now a flourishing economic hub.
“Before that the two cities were more or less cut off from each other,” says the conductor who wears a smart blue uniform. “Letters and postcards between them took weeks if not months to arrive.”
Moreno’s successor as head of state, Eloy Alfaro, oversaw completion of the line, employing US engineers, and in 1908 the first train made the trip from Guayaquil to Quito.
Building the 12-kilometre section from Alausi was a remarkable feat of engineering skill. Much of the route had to be blasted from the rock face and the dangerous working conditions meant that Ecuadorian labourers were loathe to work here.
In the end, 4,000 Jamaican navvies were hired to finish the job and more than half died while toiling on the mountainside.
Their tragic fate was what gave the rock its name. “The Americans said you needed to enter a pact with the devil to build a railroad here and that’s why they call it Devil's Nose,” says the conductor.
Meanwhile the locomotive has chugged to the edge of the high plateau and from now on the drop feels almost vertical.
A safer diesel locomotive takes over for this section. After a series of technical checks the driver, his assistant and a “frenero”, a man whose sole job it is to keep an eye on the brakes, guide the train down slowly through the zigzag turns.
Wide-eyed passengers gaze from the windows with a mixture of fear and excitement as the train runs perilously close to the sheer drop alongside it.
The danger is palpable and there have been accidents in the past. Passengers used to clamber onto the carriage roof for a better view and in 2007 two Japanese tourists were killed aloft after they were hit by a cable dangling over the line.
Since then passengers must stay inside.
There was not enough space on the mountain for a line where the train turns at each switchback, so instead it reverses at the staging areas.
When the train has finished its descent into the valley, the driver halts it around 100 metres beyond the Devil’s Nose to let passengers alight and take photos.
The daily trips are evidence of a railway revival that has begun in Ecuador. The state railway company Ferrocarriles del Ecuador is taking on new staff, lines are being upgraded, stations are being renovated and modern trains are coming into service.
Instead of the neglect of past decades, there is pride.
Competition among South American countries to lure tourists is intense and there are other unusual rail rides available in countries such as Argentina and Chile. A luxury train also recently begun operating in Ecuador, snaking its way some 450 kilometres from the Andes to the Pacific coast.
Not all aspects of the rail boom have gone down well. Many drivers lament the short duration of training courses for new staff, poor wages and above all, expensive fares. A return trip along the Devil's Nose route section costs around $20 (Bt600).