We journeyed on to Riobamba, spending the night at Abras Pungo. This hotel started as a lodge for mountaineers taking on the area's peaks. Each room is named after a mountain in Ecuador. It has a warm hacienda feel with artifacts, old photographs of mountaineers, and antiques. We slept soundly after a hearty meal in the dining room, leaving at dawn for the famous Devil's Nose train trip.
Down the Devil's Nose
Train buffs from around the world come to Ecuador for this "Nariz del Diablo" journey, a rail trip that descends some 1,000 meters down a series of steep mountains. With the old converted "bus on rails" cars replaced by gleaming new coaches, it now feels like the grand railway journey it deserves to be.
In order to get this seemingly impossible route built, the design employs a unique switcheroo at one point: the train comes to a stop, the tracks are shifted, and what was the back of the train becomes the front to descend the rest of the way. After enjoying panoramic views the whole journey, we get out at the bottom to another musical train station welcome, with local dancers on the platform above where we disembark.
There are two places to eat at the bottom of the Devil's Nose: a real restaurant in the train station and a snack bar with a view reached by a long flight of stairs. Also at the top is a museum with information on the building of the train route. Some 2,500 workers died in the building of this treacherous set of tracks, many of them imported from Caribbean islands. Some were former prisoners in jails there, told "Survive and you'll be set free."
At one time, this was not the end of the line. At the bottom of the Devil's Nose the route hung a right and went to Guayaquil, to the left it headed through different mountains to Cuenca. The Cuenca route will probably remain a broken-up memory from the past, though the other section will open in 2013. When I visited all riders were day-trippers though. So after lunch and some time spent viewing the museum and browsing the souvenir stalls, we boarded the train again to do it all in reverse, climbing up to Alausi station. While on the way down the guide talked non-stop in a microphone about the history and what we were seeing, the way back was more peaceful, just the sound of the wheels on the tracks and the passengers chatting in their seats facing each other while taking in the scenery.
The van ride back to the capital was a long one, but the gods smiled kindly on us and we were able to see the "Route of the Volcanoes" stars in all their glory, the snowy peaks of Tungurahua and Cotopaxi reflecting sunlight. We return through the ice cream town of Salceto, dining at the quirky Rumipamba de las Rosas ranch hotel and restaurant. Inside is a menagerie of knick-knacks and curios, with muskets by a jukebox, antique cooking utensils beside a stuffed buffalo head.
Back in central Quito, I bid our driver and guide goodbye and checked back in to hotel Casa Gangotena, with a view of Plaza San Francisco outside my window. The next day I visited Casa del Alabado museum, a beautifully arranged collection of pre-Colombian art housed in a 17th-century building. I spent the rest of my last day enjoying car-free Sunday in Quito, wandering the UNESCO World Heritage center on foot and whizzing along the closed-off main avenue of Mariscal to the north by bicycle. It wasn't enough exercise to work off all the tasty filling food and chocolate I sampled over the previous week, but I don't regret a bite of it. The flavors and sites I encountered on this cornucopia tour will live long in my memories.
Doing it Yourself:
Metropolitan Touring is the largest travel company in Ecuador, with a long history of setting up group tours and individual custom itineraries that run smoothly and get the details right. See a sampling of their tours here: Tours in Ecuador
Story and photos by Timothy Scott