Crossing a country by train, though, is a way to get into the heart of a destination. As Hemingway noted, it’s the journey that matters. Then too, there’s the fantastic feeling of being a pampered passenger on a first-class train as you are guided past spectacular scenery, occasionally stopping at well-selected iconic destinations. And the trains aren't so bad either: there's leg room, power outlets, bar cars, and observation decks for fully appreciating the amazing views of the surrounding landscapes.
The small South American nation of Ecuador can today boast fantastic trains that take passengers through the stunning scenery of this wonderfully diverse country. The nation’s three locomotive lines and several routes are the outcome of a quarter of a billion-dollar national railroad investment since 2007. These routes were re-developed by the government not as a mass transport system but as a means of promoting tourism by highlighting the nation’s cultural and historical heritage, as well as the striking landscapes and diverse climate zones of the Ecuadorian Andes and the Pacific regions. In this way, these routes promote the development of the local economies in the towns and cities linked to the railway system.
Here are six of these great Ecuadorian train trips and routes that evoke the gracious hospitality of simpler times and introduce you to some of the world’s most amazing landscapes and people.
1. “The Freedom Train” Tour Ecuador’s “The Freedom Train” (Tren de la Libertad) carries passengers from the famous indigenous market town of Otavalo (just north of Quito, and itself a fascinating travel attraction) through scenic rugged mountain terrain to the Afro-Ecuadorian village of Salinas.
Women in Chota Valley dance while balancing bottles on their heads to show off their posture and skill.
On this 8-hour round-trip locomotive journey, passengers travel through the incredible mountain scenery of the Andean highlands. The classic locomotive snakes through various locales and ages of Ecuador, running through a number of canyons, seven mountain tunnels, and across several bridges (including the 80-meter-long Ambi River Bridge).
Beginning in the typically cool Andean highlands, you will descend in altitude by more than a mile (1,700 meters) to discover a completely different geography in the Chota Valley. Here, you will find lush fields of sugarcane and a distinctly warmer climate.
Deep in that valley is the village of Salinas, home to Spanish-speaking predominantly black Creole villagers. Indeed, the name “Freedom Train” celebrates both the freedom of African slaves and Ecuador’s liberation from Spain. As your train pulls into that village, a group of musicians and dancers will meet you and invite all of the passengers to join in festivities of dance and music with them. Moreover, you can relish the delicious cuisine of the region.
2. Tren Crucero The custom-designed locomotive — Tren Crucero (the trans-Andean “Cruise Train”) — is currently the most stunning in vintage transportation. On some of its legs, the train is powered by magnificent 100-year-old steam engines that will take you on an exceptional trip through different locales and ages of Ecuador’s past and present. The train features four different coaches, each one with its own thematic style (with Pre-Hispanic, Baroque, Neo-classical and Ecuadorian Pacific coast style decors) that reflect Ecuador’s history and culture. Two of these luxurious carriages accommodate the train's 54 passengers, while the other two coaches consist of a lounge carriage and an observation car with an outside viewing platform.
This 4-day/3-night expedition travels south from Quito, allowing passengers to experience striking highland panoramas, the whispering winds of distant volcanoes, picturesque coastal colors Ecuador’s fertile coastal plain — along with the kindness of its people — finally arriving in the major port city of Guayaquil.
All dining takes place off the train in local restaurants, and overnight accommodations are provided en route in three traditional hacienda-style hotels, which add to the delights of this amazing journey. A highly trained train manager and the English- and Spanish-speaking crew of guides and hospitality staff will accompany you throughout the journey, seeing to your every need.
Don’t just take our word for it: In 2013, the British Guild of Travel Writers voted Tren Crucero as the Best "Wider World" Tourism Project (for best tourism product outside Europe); it was selected as one of Wanderlust magazine’s "20 Journeys That Will Change Your Life," and CNN recently included it in its list of "Eleven Places to Go."
Traveling past some of Latin America’s most spectacular scenery, some of the most important legs of this journey include the “Devil’s Nose Route,” the “Ice Train Route” and the “Avenue of the Volcanoes Route” (each outlined below), in addition to the “Route of the Ancestors,” the “Quinua Route” and the “Train of Sweetness” stretch.
3. The Devil’s Nose Route
The original 1908 opening of the Quito-to-Guayaquil track was a historic achievement that required 30 years of work, massive financial investments, and cost many lives. The most technically challenging part of this route was immediately declared “the most difficult railway in the world.”
Confronted with the task of how to ascend seven-eighths of a mile (1,400 meters) up and down the side of a mountain, engineers came up with the ingenious solution of carving a series of tight zigzags out of the rock. These allowed the train to climb the mountain by going forwards then backwards along hair-raising switchbacks. This short 13km route is known as the Nariz del Diablo (the Devil’s Nose), named for the shape of this wickedly challenging rock face.
This daredevil piece of engineering plunges 118 passengers down these steep switchbacks, across what seem spindly bridges, and over deep vertigo-inducing gorges and ravines. Along the way, there are frequent stops for passengers to get out and marvel at the spectacular views as well as the engineering, while the clouds of diesel smoke only add to the atmosphere.
In addition, this journey will take you through characteristic Andean landscapes famed for their local cultures, folklore and crafts. Lead by a bilingual guide, the tour includes a visit to the Puñuna Condor Museum and performances by traditional dances.
4. The Ice-Train Route This Ecuadorian train route will take you past majestic Mount Chimborazo (Ecuador's highest mountain), whose frozen peak is the furthest point from the center of the earth thanks to the bulge in the earth’s crust at the equator. The journey is called the “Ice Train Route” because it will introduce you to Baltazar Ushka, who is known as the Mt. Chimborazo’s last hielero, or “ice maker.”
For the past 50+ years, Mr. Ushka has been climbing Mount Chimborazo twice a week to dig out giant blocks of ice to sell at market. Traditionally, harvesting ice from the mountain was not only a commercial activity, but also part of a sacred ritual that created a bond between the gods and people. After carving out blocks of ice, Mr. Ushka then carefully packs and insulates them in straw and brings them down from the mountain by mules. This glacial ice once chilled the drinks of coastal dwellers and was used to make ice cream, though refrigeration has put all of the other the ice cutters out of business.
In addition to this chance to meet the last survivor of his profession, the Ice Train Route will take you pass several of the 10 volcanoes along Ecuador’s “Avenue of Volcanoes.” In addition to these scenic landscapes, you will also observe Ecuador's oldest Catholic Church, expansive agricultural areas and the wildlife of the Andes.
5. The Inca Baths Train Tour The Inca were successful in establishing Latin America vastest empire. During their conquest, they established magnificent temples, fortresses and cities, though many of these were later abandoned following the Spanish colonial conquest. Nonetheless, you can still find remnants of the great Inca culture in southern Ecuador, as the “Inca Baths” train route unveils the vestiges of one of these sacred sites.
The Tambo-Coyoctor train will take you on a 3.5 kilometer ride to the Coyoctor archeological complex. While this short journey gives you a chance to enjoy the rural scenery of the areas — passing fields of maize and potato, as well as a few herds of cows — the first highlight of the excursion is Coyoctor itself, where you can visit the Baños del Inca (the “Inca Baths”), an archaeological site which was sacred to the original Cañari people and later adopted as a ceremonial center by the Incas. Other structures that can be seen are aqueducts or irrigation system that brought water to the fields to ensure a more abundant harvest. The baths and those other creations were recently restored to coincide with the opening of the train line.
The visit to Coyoctor, when combined with the train ride, makes for a pleasant excursion. However, it is also possible to travel from Coyoctor on horseback to Ingapirca (which means the "Inca Wall” in the Kichwa language). In fact, these are the largest known Inca ruins in Ecuador. The most significant building is the “Temple of the Sun,” an elliptically shaped building constructed around a large rock. Like most of the structures in the complex, this building was constructed in true Inca style -- without mortar, as the stones were carefully chiseled and fashioned to fit together perfectly.
In short, while Ecuador may be renowned for the quality and colors of its striking handicrafts, it’s the majestic Andes — craggy and awe-inspiring against the brilliant blue sky —that make Ecuadorian train travel such a visual feast.