In 1908, under President Eloy Alfaro, Ecuador’s railroad from Guayaquil to Quito was finished. It was widely known as the most difficult railroad in the world. Some 2,500 workers died building it, including one of its chief engineers (John Harman, an American from Virginia).
One section of the railway, called El Nariz del Diablo (“The Devil’s Nose”), considered an engineering marvel when it was built, scales the face of a mountain at a grade of 5.7%, zig-zagging up the mountain, which is too steep to build tracks for a train to turn. This means that the train must crawl up one side of the mountain, stop, go in reverse to climb farther up another segment of track, then switch again to going forward to summit the mountain. It is as though Zorro took a giant swipe at the mountain with his blade, and the train follows the “Z” up the side of the rock, switching directions twice to scale it.
It is a testament to the ruggedness and steepness of the Andes that the Nariz del Diablo was chosen as the easiest route for a train to ascend into the mountains.
The Trans-Andean Railroad was crucial for development in Ecuador in the early 20th century, carrying goods and people more quickly and economically from the coast and the key port of Guayaquil up through some of the most difficult terrain in the world to the agricultural and population centers around Quito in the valleys of the high Andes. My mother remembers traveling on this train from Guayaquil to Quito.
During the past 50 years, though, the train steadily fell into disrepair and disuse. Landslides and lack of maintenance rendered sections of the track impassable. Other sections continued to be used inappropriately; after the railway ceased carrying passengers, hoards of people took to riding on the roofs of freight cars.
In 2008, the government ordered a halt to all use of the railway and began a major reconstruction. The track has been reopened in small sections since then, and by August, the entire train should be running again, mostly as a tourist attraction, between Quito and Guayaquil. The idea is partly to bring some economic revival to areas left high and dry after the train’s disuse. Alausí, which we visited last week, is a good example of such a place.
Alausí is just off the Pan-American Highway, in a remote area where the highway is merely a two-lane road — and the only paved road for miles around. Alausí is currently the only point from which you can travel on the Devil’s Nose section of the train (which operates only between the town and a point a few miles down the mountain, and only for tourism). About a 30-minute ride down from Alausí, down the Devil’s Nose, is a museum set up just for this purpose.
Alausí is a charming little town at the foot of a lush valley, where Ecuador’s low coastland meets the Andes. The town has not changed too much in the past half-century. It has a few simple hotels and restaurants; many of the buildings are still made from old adobe construction. Horses are still a common mode of transportation through the town’s narrow streets, and about half the population wears typical indigenous dress. It remains to be seen how much Alausí will change when the Trans-Andean Railroad is operating again, bringing more passengers and tourists with it.