It is hard to describe the palpable excitement as our international party reported to the railroad station at Chimbacalle to board the Tren Crucero for the first stage of its journey through the Ecuadorian Andes to the Pacific coast.
Although the picturesque train ground to a temporary halt a few yards outside the station, it soon picked up speed and headed towards El Boliche with snow-coned volcanoes dancing attendance on either side of us, both dormant and active.
Let loose, after a couple of hours on the train, to roam around Limpiopungo Lake in the Cotopaxi National Park, we sought to photograph the world’s highest active volcano as clouds occasionally parted to reveal its brooding presence to our cameras. Our efforts were then rewarded with a sumptuous lunch in the dining room of San Agustin del Callo, one of the furthest flung and best preserved imperial Inca palaces in existence. We were even mobbed by an enchanting herd of llamas as we left for the railroad station at Lasso and a dazzling demonstration of pre-Inca dance complete with spectacular costumes. The day ended at Hacienda La Cienega, where I was hugely privileged to be housed in Alexander von Humbolt’s suite.
The following day began with a visit to the famous Nevado rose plantation to learn why this industry thrives in the light, sun and altitude of Ecuador. We also learnt of some interesting national preferences: Russians, for instance, love exceptionally long stems! We then continued by road to Latacunga to re-board the Tren Crucero, now a different train with splendid new carriages, each decorated in different period style and comprising comfortable lounge areas, bar and viewing platform.
From Latacunga, we steadily gained altitude to Urbina, the highest train station in Ecuador. Our appointment here was with Balthazar, the country’s last remaining ice-trader, who spoke fascinatingly about his unique way of life. Again, we stalked elusive views, this time of Chimborazo volcano, before ending the day at our hotel in Riobamba.
On the third day of the journey, we pulled up at Balbanera to see the oldest church in South America, a 500-year-old relic of a far distant past. Then on to Guamote and the spectacular teeming bustle of its Andean market, where chickens, pigs, sheep, household goods and medical cures are bartered for by local shoppers in traditional garb, some of them on mobile phones! The legendary engineering feat of the Devil’s Nose at Alausi was next, an elaborate series of switch-backs that drop trains down more than 500 vertical meters in only twelve kilometres - proof enough that this railroad was one of the world’s most difficult to construct and a truly amazing roller coaster ride! As if to celebrate our safe passage, we were serenaded in the gardens of the Lodge of Eternal Spring above Huigra, now a forgotten backwater but in its heyday key to the railroad’s development.
Our fourth and final day saw a slow and cautious descent from the High Andes on to the coastal plains, where endless plantations of sugar cane were broken by the occasional village. Smiling and delighted faces greeted the train as it passed by and we had time to alight briefly to meet a community of Shuar people who migrated across the mountains from the Amazon. Finally, as the light started to fade, our rolling stock was hooked up to a magnificent steam locomotive for the last few kilometres to the end of the line at Duran, local musicians boarded the train and suddenly it was a journey no longer. It had become an exuberant Latin party of farewell!