SOUTH AMERICA – THE JOURNEY PART 24
Nariz del Diablo – The most difficult train journey in the world
The sleepy town of Alausi was waking up to Sunday market madness. An elderly couple donned in Ecuadorian Andean attire was pulling a herd of reluctant sheep. The livestock had spotted an opportunity to stall their impending sale by munching away on a trail of vegetables, spilt from a vendor’s bag.
Behind them, low-pitch shouts bounced off the colonial buildings, the cream and white exteriors slowly being immersed in the morning light. The humming cacophony was gradually buzzing around the town but that was nothing compared to chaos erupting inside Alausi’s train station.
Nariz del Diablo, the Devil’s Nose, was billed as ‘the most difficult train journey in the world’ and if the inability to buy tickets was anything to go by, it definitely was the most difficult, near becoming the most impossible train journey I’d encountered.
It was 7.50am and the first train was due to leave in 10 minutes yet only two sets of tickets had been issued. Confusion rumbled around the waiting room, even the security guard looked mystified.
“What’s happening?” I enquired as several men pushed in causing a surge of queue jumping. The man shook his head in dismay and answered in a pitiful voice, “It’s a complete mess. It’s totally unorganised.”
Luckily I’d been persuaded by a French couple to take the 11am train. Despite this I was advised by the locals to be at ticket office at “7am sharp” to ensure a seat. I was third in the queue and somewhat baffled as to why it took 90 minutes to purchase three tickets for the Nariz del Diablo trip.
Clutching three tickets, I smiled jubilantly at the others still waiting for theirs and was greeted by scowls all around. I slunk back out into the adorable railroad town of Alausi where market fever was pulsing through the streets. In every pocket of the municipality, men in bowlers and short ponchos and women in brilliantly-coloured shawls and feathered hats scurried about.
A designated bread stall street offered pan con chocolate, pastries and the usual unfulfilling white rolls. Veggies and fruit spilled out beyond the indoor market and a separate household goods area had men with microphones demonstrating the proficiency of their goods.
A Ride Down the Devil’s Nose
I headed back to the station and arrived to find yet more shouting by irate customers who had been issued incorrect tickets and a snaking queue that slithered around the terminal. Gradually, after more confusion, we made our way onto the train and took our super-comfy seats. I waited for the steam engine to rock into motion and was rather disillusioned to discover it was diesel.
The construction of the railroad started in 1899 with the foundation of the Guayaquil and Quito Railway Company, a partnership between a North American firm and the Ecuadorian government. There was just one problem: the sheer rock face that stood between Alausi and Sibambe. In a feat unique to the era, engineers ruled out blasting a tunnel through the granite and decided instead to construct a zigzag track which snakes down the mountain from 1,800 to 2,600 metres allowing the train to descend without passengers being aware of the gradient, which is 1-in-18.
The vehicle rolled out of the station past pastel-coloured houses until we reached the beginning of tumbling hills. Against the morning sun, the jade vegetation jumped to life, the tiny flowers moving in the train’s wake.
“This is the most difficult train journey in the world as we descend 800 metres in only 10 minutes,” shouted the guide who was struggling to be heard over the rattling rails.
I waited for the plunge, the sudden burst of nerves in my stomach as we descended down the Nariz del Diablo. It didn’t happen, there was
no plunge and my excitement faded rather rapidly. It felt just like any other train ride, a feat the engineers were no doubt aiming for, but the journey had billed as an amazing experience and I was expecting more. The tracks zigzag down the mountain from Alausi to Sibambe so gradually I didn’t even notice we had reduced our elevation.
The wooden-panelled train pulled into Sibambe, a cute station where we hopped out to look back at the path we’d just come down. Sure enough, we had descended nearly a kilometre to the Guyays River which travels west to the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil. We clambered up the steps to look out from the mirador and out onto the undulating landscape.
I peered up and saw a jagged cliff face which I was to discover in the museum was the reason for the passage’s name. A chirpy man in red poncho and hat was pointing at a photo of the mountain.
“Here are his eyes. This part is his nose,” he said as he traced his finger down a green ridge of the mountain behind us. “There’s his mouth and here’s his chin. This,” he paused for effect, obviously used to his spiel, “is the Devil’s face. And this is how the track got its name.” I looked back at the ridge, the Devil’s Nose, and imagined what it was like to be one of the men working on the line. Outside I got my answer.
“They say here the track got its name because of the face in the mountain,” ventured a young engineering student from Guayaquil University. “But that’s not the real reason. Dozens of men lost their lives constructing the railway. In my opinion that’s why it’s called the world’s most difficult train journey.”
Quick Facts about a trip down the Nariz del Diablo
- The train from Riobamba to Alausi is currently out of service and will remain so until May 2012
- The service now runs from Alausi-Sibambe-Alausi
- The journey lasts 2hr 30 min but only 1hr 30 min is spent in the train, the rest of the time is at a small restaurant at the mirador above Simbambe station
- There are TWO different services available:
- Normal service = US$20 – Wednesday, Friday, Sunday at 8am, 11am and 3pm (this last one depends if there are 15 passengers)
- Cheap service = US$6.50 – Friday, Saturday, Sunday and public holidays at 9am
- Difference: The cheap service is a bus/train in one which takes the road from Alausi to the Nariz del Diablo where it then goes down the actual tracks. The road is very close to the railway so all in all there isn’t much difference in the route. The normal train is a luxury one but it’s prohibited for people to sit on the roof (it was allowed until someone fell off it a few years back). You also get a highly exciting cheese sandwich or a plate a of fruit and drink with the $20 ticket.
- You can purchase tickets in advance by calling 03 2961 030 (booking line) and for information about the route, call 03 2961 038
- The station was closed on Saturday afternoon so I think it’s only possible to buy tickets on the day of travel unless you’ve booked them in advance
- The ticket office opens at 7am on the day of travel – I took the 11am ‘normal service’ train and it wasn’t full, but that might have been just luck – best to get up early and get in line
- Sit on the right-hand side of the train, you get the best views
WHERE ON EARTH?
- The only country in South America that uses the US dollar as its official currency (this was to reduce escalating inflation rates)
- It’s capital, Quito, sits on the equator line 2,800m above sea level
- It lost the southern part of its land mass to Peru in 1941, including the now famous Iquitos, the world’s only city inaccessible by road – it’s a choice of a six-day boat trip or a flight (Iquitos is now in Peru, not Ecuador)
NARIZ DEL DIABLO
- The construction of this part of the railway took nearly three years to complete
- It descends from 2,600m to 1,800m in a zigzag track making it ‘the world’s most difficult train journey’
- The trip starts and finishes in Alausi