Train of the Volcanoes In Alexander von Humboldt’s foosteps
The first segment of track to be rehabilitated following the declaration of the Ecuadorian Railways as a national heritage, the journey from Quito south towards the great colossus of Cotopaxi has been running since 2009. It remains one of the most beautiful and memorable in the country.
The journey begins at the historic train station of Chimbacalle, whose history dates back to when the Guayaquil to Quito railway was finally completed in 1908. Here, amid this friendly neighbourhood – a mix of residential homes and businesses – the train sets off for its route southwards along the famous ‘Avenue of the Volcanoes’, thus named by the great Prussian explorer, Alexander Von Humboldt.
First, we clatter and clang our way through the suburbs of southern Quito. We stop the traffic along the way as we chug through the densely-populated streets and avenues of the south of the capital.
On board, there’s time to settle down in our comfortable seats as our guides tell us more about the history of Quito and the region we will soon be exploring.
The train finally leaves the houses and factories of ‘el sur’ behind and we break out into the green countryside of Pichincha Province. Smallholdings appear, as do fields dotted with cows, the occasional bored-looking bull, and horses out to pasture.
As we make our way southwards, Humboldt’s name for this part of the planet seems as apt as it was when he explored it in the early 1800s. To our right, west, the hulking mass of Guagua (“baby”) Pichincha begins to wane, to be replaced by the rounded peaks of Atacazo, Corazón, and eventually, the twin peaks of Iliniza. To our left, east, it’s too cloudy to spot the icy, crenallated peaks of Antisana today, but the looming outlines of Pasochoa and Sincholagua rise in the distance.
We begin to wind down the mountain towards the fertile lands of Tambillo and Machachi, the railway tracks carved into the hillsides.
This region is known as the land of Ecuadorian cowboys, chagras. With thousands of hectares of green fields for cattle farming in this fertile valley, the traditional rural ways of life still live on here.
At the train station of Machachi, we are greeted by tumult of a traditional oompah-oompah brass band, bashing out hits from the Andes that all Ecuadorians worth their salts can sing along to.
There’s also a dancing troupe in colourful garb, the women’s pleated skirts fanning in swirls of fuchsia and pea-green as they sway and twirl, and a chance to buy beautiful souvenirs made by local artisans.
Back on the train after a delicious snack of empanadas, vegetation becomes sparser as we climb up towards the skirts of the Cotopaxi massif, which rises nearly 6,000 metres into the skies to the southeast.
We pull in at the train station of El Boliche, which is part of a Recreational Area managed by the national parks service, adjoining the much larger Cotopaxi National Park. It’s known for its plantations of pines and cypresses which were introduced back in the 1920s, with the idea of recuperating the eroded soils of the high-altitude páramo and reforesting the area. Although well-intentioned, the reforestation plan was ill-founded, since the vegetation of the páramo is, per se, low-growing and acts in fact as a gigantic sponge, a key element of the Andean water-cycle which we ignore at our peril.
Here, at around 3.500 metres, we’re high up and there’s a chill to the air when the sun hides behind banks of clouds. With our train guide and a national park guide, we head off on a hike through the forests, looking to spot avian denizens of these forests as well as learning more about the ecosystem. Despite the introduced species, we can also spot native tree species such as kishwares, pumamaquis, paper trees (podocarpus), sacha capulíes, aretes, chilcas, ibilanes, suros and shanshis. Ferns and moss grow in the shadier parts of the forest, home to rabbits’ burrows, frogs and lizards. Higher up in the protected area, roam white-tailed deer, páramo foxes and the stoat-like chucuri.
For lunch, we return to Machachi, to the hotel-cum-farm of La Estación. Here we urban-dwellers can play for a while at being on the farm, petting the llamas, riding a horse-and-trap pulled by a pony, admiring the ostrich, quacking at the ducks and geese in their private pool and even getting on a horse for a trot around the paddock.
After a fine serving of trout fresh from a nearby Andean lake, accompanied by flavoursome potatoes, corn on the cob and vegetables, it’s time to board the train for our return journey to Quito, happy in the knowledge that we have got to know the country a bit better, that we have shared some time together in the Avenue of the Volcanoes.
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.