The Train of the Volcanoes III: A journey through the beauty of Pichincha, Cotopaxi & Tungurahua by train
The Ecuadorian Railways’ newest route returns to its first journeys, by linking the regions to the south of the capital. The trip lasts two days, the rails faithfully following along the “Avenue of the Volcanoes”, in the footsteps of the great explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt.
It’s the ideal way to get under the skin of the fascinating natural and cultural world that lies mere kilometers from the urban hum of Quito.
Descending down from Quito, the landscape unfurls southwards on either side of the rails, fields of green grasses hemmed by emerald hedges, herds of cows lowing quietly between trees, houses and country roads. This is cowboy country, the land of the Ecuadorian chagra.
Pushing southwards, we begin to climb and the vegetation changes as come closer to the snowy peak of mighty Cotopaxi, the world’s highest active volcano. We cross a large plain before reaching El Boliche, the station on the National Park’s western edge, huddled within a pine forest planted decades ago. Here, there’s time for a coffee and to savour the fresh cheese and treats on sale, as well as discover some fine local handicrafts, before being guided through the forest on a short walk. There’ll be more time to explore on our return journey.
Down to Lasso we go, back to lower, more cultivated lands, and on to Latacunga, the provincial capital, where we’re treated to a jolly performance of cholas latacungueñas dancing, before continuing onwards again. On arrival in Ambato, a strange sight awaits: Devils! A banda de pueblo town band thumps out favorite tunes from the region, while six dancers, representatives of the nearby town of Píllaro, faithfully share with us the devil dances they perform at their annual fiesta every January.
Following our night in Ambato, the train carries us back towards Quito, where there’s more time to explore El Boliche over lunch and enjoy an enlightening visit to the animal farm in Machachi.
Whether this is the first time or the hundredth time you’ve traveled through this part of the country, the new route offers something for everyone, old and young, couples or families. No-one will come away with any doubt that travelling by train in Ecuador is much more than a means of getting from A to B. It’s an experience, from A to Z.
Who was Alexander von Humboldt?
Born in Prussia in 1769, Humboldt was the archetypal naturalist-explorer, the inspiration for a generation of scientists, including Charles Darwin.
Indefatigable, energetic, polymath, polyglot, brilliant, dogged and downright deranged at times, Humboldt made several journeys during his long life, before publishing his great opus, Cosmos, in 1845.
His first great voyage was to South America, accompanied by the Belgian Aimée Bonpland. During this journey, which began in 1799, he made innumerable studies and calculations, observations and studies, bringing the ‘new world’ to the ‘old’ like no-one before him.
While in Ecuador, he climbed any peak he could and met with everyone who was anyone. On his travels through the Andes, he described them as an “Avenue of Volcanoes”. Although he failed to conquer the summit of Chimborazo, his observations of its vegetation at different altitudes, made into a remarkable illustration, revolutionized the way science considered the inter-relationship of species.
His name has been given to many things, including towns, animals (the Humboldt penguin) and, most relevant to Ecuador and South America, the Humboldt current – the cold-water current that travels north from Antartica along the Pacific, bringing with it the nutrients which make the waters of Chile, Peru and Ecuador so biodiverse and so rich for fishing.
His fame was as great as Napoleon’s at one stage, although, strangely, his beautiful, all-encompassing and captivating vision of Nature fell out of fashion in scientific circles in the 20th century. We believe it’s time his reputation was rehabilitated!