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The train: Eloy Alfaro’s great project

The railroad was the common denominator that linked both sides of the most important conflict in Ecuador’s Republican history: the no-holds barred rivalry between Liberals and Conservatives, which more often than not turned into civil war.

The railway was first propelled into existence by the vision and perseverance of Gabriel García Moreno, a Conservative known for banishing political enemies to the perils of the Amazon.

 

But it was heroically completed by García Moreno’s bête noire, his political antithesis, the Liberal Eloy Alfaro (capable of being equally ruthless), who saw his lifelong efforts of bringing modernity to Ecuador personified by the Guayaquil-and-Quito Railway’s triumphant arrival to Chimbacalle Station on June 8, 1908.

 

One can’t help but smile at this turn of fate: the railroad, conceived by Conservatives, was ultimately claimed by the Liberals. But more ironic still was the fact that Alfaro, after decades of fighting battles up and down the country, ended up a prisoner and was transported from Guayaquil to Quito on a train driven by the very same engine number 8 that first reached Chimbacalle three years prior. Only days later was he was heartlessly executed in the rancid quarters of the García Moreno jail, built by his great Conservative rival in 1871.

The “most difficult” train

The war between Conservatives and Liberals to decide Ecuador’s fate was gruesome. But the creation of the railroad had been arguably just as gruesome, with thousands dead from poor-quality dynamite, landslides, tropical diseases, and other disasters…

 

Alfaro never faltered however. He obsessively and insistently commanded both the war and the railroad, which he considered his only true callings in life. In the end, both projects, despite his death, would transform the country.

Eloy Alfaro: The Enfant Terrible

The fifth son of Juan Alfaro and María Natividad was destined to lead a riotous life. Juan, an exporter by profession, would take the young Eloy on most of his travels abroad. He was, in fact, the only son he took: he felt he needed to closely supervise his feisty nature. At only 22, he had kidnapped the governor of Manabí Province with a small group of armed peasants. And by the end of his life, he would end up shaking the foundations of the country like no other leader in Ecuadorian history. His name figures on streets, institutions, organizations, squares and parks throughout the country.

 

It is surprising, no doubt, that his death certificate reads that he was “killed by the people”, while Alfaro’s struggle was always interpreted as a people’s struggle. To further dwell on the irony, it is hard to understand why someone from a wealthy family like his would give up a fortune for the utopian ideal of social equality.

 

Alfaro, despite repeatedly being banished from the country, taken prisoner and kept in shackles, never wavered. Famous was his defeat by the troops of President Caamaño, when he was forced to sink his own boat and escaped floating on a barrel. In Panama, he found himself penniless after having spent everything he had earned selling Panama hats to finance his insurgent activities over the years. And yet, his epic story was to bring in a new century to the country, leading an entire people to the journey-without-return of liberalism.

 

His brief presidency brought the most important land reform in Ecuador’s history, the introduction of secularism in education, education and political inclusion for women, the separation of church and state, freedom of worship, and of course, the railway, which would forever bring together Ecuador’s coast with its Andes, defining Ecuadorian identity like no one had before. Today, Ecuadorians feel his deep influence on modern society.

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