My ride on the rails preceded an exciting new development: the complete reopening of the train line from the port city of Guayaquil to highland Quito. Over the years this grand journey has gotten chopped up into several disconnected pieces as landslides, volcanic eruptions, and other disasters wiped out sections of track. After a change of will and budget priorities, however, refurbished rails topped by new cars will cover the trip as a multi-night tour.
In the meantime, I got a taste of what's to come riding south from Quito to Machachi station, then later experiencing the famed Devil's Nose journey. On the trip out of Quito, a guide with a microphone in each of the cars-some new, some restored older ones-explained the history, the trivia, and what we were passing along the way, in both English and Spanish. Eventually the ramshackle buildings gave way to a nature reserve and we climbed past 9,000 feet into the trees and grasslands, the higher mountains in view across a valley.
We passengers knew we were arriving at Machachi station before we could see it. Faintly at first, then louder as we pulled in, the music of a brass band welcomed us. This tradition is a part of every arrival and it adds to the festive mood. Inside the station a new café serves snacks and drinks while vendors offer simpler local food outside.
Many travelers went one more stop and spent the day at a forested park near the train route before returning to the capital the same day. I hopped in the waiting van instead and explored the Cotopaxi National Park area around the imposing volcano dominating the landscape.
We hiked along a trail that's parallel to a mostly dry river canyon, taking in the scenery and admiring the flowering desert plants. Back in the van we rode past giant boulders sitting on the flat plain, flung like pebbles over several miles from the erupting volcano when it was active. Thankfully it's been quiet for more than 70 years.
We saw the same kind of llamas that have been here for millennia sharing the grazing grass with post-Colombia additions: wild horses. As we reach 12,800 feet (3,830 meters) walking around the Limpiopungo Lagoon, I'm starting to feel the altitude. Thankfully it's time for lunch.
Inca Walls in the President's Hacienda
We weren't stopping for just any lunch, however. We had reservations at Hacienda San Agustin de Callo, a storied inn and restaurant that has walls dating back to the time of the Incas. The chapel is in a complete Inca structure, while some of the bedrooms have stone bases that look just like the ones in Cusco, more than 1,000 miles away through the mountains. It was a lodging house for traveling royalty, then a monastery, then the hacienda of a two-time president of Ecuador. The current owner is the former president's granddaughter.
We dined in the toasty restaurant with a fireplace crackling, enjoying the best locro (cheese and potato soup with avocado slices) I've ever had. The restaurant serves authentic high Andean food using quinoa, corn, and potatoes, but with a main dish of lake trout or meat from a nearby farm, all elegantly presented. Inside it's warm and cozy, while outside there's a view of Cotopaxi volcano-for travelers who don't have the clouds following them down from the mountains like I did.
Before departing, the staffers invited us to feed carrots to the resident llamas. I watched their cute faces get impatient as they jostled for position, coming back for seconds as soon as they have finished the first carrot. When all of the munchies were gone, their keeper told us to clap. That's their sign that showtime is over and the animals voluntarily make their way out of the courtyard.