The Devil’s Nose: A devilishly good combination of drama, beauty and community
“Welcome to the most difficult railway in the world,” exclaims our guide, Paúl López, soon after we board. It’s a dramatic welcome to the journey, and not really tourist hyperbole: Ecuador’s railway really was one of the most difficult feats of engineering of the “age of steel” that saw railway track unfurl across the globe. Today, it should also be named among the most beautiful railways in the world.
Of all the stretch of track along Ecuador’s railways, there is one that is regarded as the most difficult of all, that links Ecuador’s coastal lowlands with its Andean highlands: the Devil’s Nose.
The journey begins at the small town of Alausí, nestled into the folds of looming green-sloped mountains in the Central Andes, a place whose fortunes were and are inextricably linked to the railway that connected it with the coast and with the capital in the early 20th century.
It’s eight o’clock in the morning and the train leaves right on time, the locomotive’s horn blasting into the crisp Andean air. The convoy begins its journey downhill, twisting around the contours of the surrounding hills as we first leave the town behind, then the cultivated fields, until we’re out into rugged countryside, bright and verdant in the morning sun.
The transition from Andean to coastal vegetation in such a short distance is one of the journey’s most remarkable features. We descend nearly 1,000 metres (3,300 feet) in only 12 km (7.5 miles) of track. This, right on the Equator, translates into a dramatic shift in climate and environment.
While up in the hills we are in a land of potatoes and blackberries, by the time we reach Sibambe down below, we are in the realm of sugar cane and avocados. Journey time: 40 minutes.
The ride down from one world to the other gets more dramatic as we descend. The tracks were carved out of the sheer mountainsides, sometimes literally by hand, but also blasted through using dynamite. The views down to the roiling Alausí river below are vertiginous.
We then come to the most ingenious section of track of all, where the engineers had to come up with a novel way of getting round the mountain: switchbacks. These are essentially zigs and zags whittled into the mountainside, which enable the train to climb or descend, first going one way and then reversing. It’s an odd sensation, to be sure!
Once we arrive at Sibambe, there’s time to admire the mountain we have just chugged down from below, a great hulking curve of green, in which some can decipher a “devil’s nose”. But, truth be told, the devil connotation has more to do with the tragically high mortality rate that the track’s construction exacted than any geographic figure.
At the train station, we are greeted by the community of Tolte, a nearby village, who welcome visitors. They perform various dances throughout the hour we spend around the station. Various stalls offer handicrafts and produce from the region.
One of these is cared for by Zoila Guamán, a resident of Nizag. She is one of the 21 women who make up the grass-roots corporation which manages their produce – mainly woven items and the beautiful knotted shigra bags that can take them up to five months to weave from the fibres of the cabuya cactus.
“We take turns to come down from the village, a journey which sometimes takes two hours each way,” she explains. “The sales are an important income for our community. Our oldest member is 78, while others are single mothers or housewives who supplement their earnings from farming with our micro-enterprise. We hope to build our own house soon, so we can have our own space for weaving.”
This business is just one of the enterprises that the train benefits here. In the Café del Tren, Estafanía Sause hails from the community of Tolte. They too have organized themselves with the help of the railway company, and have run the concession at the train station since 2008.
“I love our work here,” she says. “We get to meet all sorts of people from all over the world, which is great. It’s an opportunity for us to show the best of Ecuador.”
On the upper levels of the restored train station, yet another community runs the accommodation business. You can spend the night here, down in this wildly beautiful place where the Alausí and Guasuntos rivers join to form the Rio Chanchán, and go on treks or horseback rides across the hills.
Too soon, the train’s horn blasts and it’s time to make our way back on board for the ride back up the mountain to Alausí and the Andes. We bid goodbye to the dancers of Tolte in their colourful ponchos and billowing skirts, and soon enough the river is already way down below as we switch and swerve along the rails back up to the highlands.
The Devil’s Nose track is an experience of Ecuador’s diversity, its drama, its beauty and its people.