Tren del Hielo ll
This is without a doubt a must-experience adventure. It starts early in the morning, as the train leaves from the station at Ambato at 8:00 am. For this trip, we advise you to take gloves, a wool or alpaca hat (which you can buy at the station) and a warm jacket, specially because this particular route takes you up to Urbina station at 3,609 meters above sea level!
The city of departure, Ambato, is also known as the land of fruits and flowers, as well as the “cradle of the three Juanes”: Juan León Mera, Juan Montalvo and Juan Benigno Vela, important Ecuadorian literary and historic figures. Juan León Mera was a novelist, politician and artist. He wrote the lyrics of Ecuador’s National Anthem and his most revered work, Cumandá, is actually considered the country’s first modern novel. He was a supporter of the then president Gabriel García Moreno. Juan Montalvo, on the other hand, was an opponent of the conservative government of Gabriel García Moreno and for this reason he was exiled from Ecuador. He is credited for coining the famous phrase: “My pen killed him”. His essays strongly criticized the government, which he named a “perpetual dictatorship”. Juan Benigno Vela is also well remembered, known as a man of letters, a lawyer by profession and a journalist at heart who, like Juan Montalvo, was also a staunch opponent of the government. Despite being blind at the age of 34, he never stopped writing… always in favor of democracy.
We embark on the beautiful autoferro, built in Ambato in 1985 and remodeled in 2009. It travels at a maximum speed of 40 kilometers per hour. In addition to being quite comfortable, its large windows allow you to visualize in detail each change in landscape and scenery.
The first stop we make is Mocha, where we enjoy a delicious Ambateño hot chocolate accompanied by an humita, or a “tapado” bread sandwich (a traditional bread from the area). From this station, you already feel the cold páramo air. We stay about a half-an-hour on site and resume our travels, this time making our way through a segment known as the “devil’s ear “, due to the many accidents that have occurred along its steep curve (it was believed that the area was haunted by the devil). A few meters away, we reach the so-called “Devil’s eardrum”, which, according to legend, is a small opening between a cluster of rocks where part of Rumiñahui’s treasure to pay the Spanish for Atahualpa’s life was purportedly hidden. After Rumiñahui’s death, the gold was apparently divided and part of it was hidden here, while the other half was taken deep within the Llanganates mountain range, located further east in the same province of Tungurahua.
The railway quickly witnesses changes in vegetation and landscape; it is paradoxical that at 3609 meters in elevation you find yourself amidst the huge plains where Urbina station is located. It is impossible not to be awestruck by the landscape, which offers a direct view of Mount Chimborazo (Chimborazo, the word, is said to mean “God of Ice”, “Snowy Mountain” and/or “Sacred Wind of the Moon”).
The host at Urbina is Baltazar Ushca, a man who has dedicated his entire life to the unique profession of obtaining ice from Chimborazo. He is known as “the last ice merchant”. Even at 73, he spends his days climbing four hours up the mountain to extract ice from the receding glaciers; with picks and shovels he breaks off huge blocks, shapes them and loads them onto his donkey, taking them back down to the Riobamba market where each block is sold for $ 5.
This ancient profession was undoubtedly important for trade, as it allowed travelers and merchants to refrigerate the food that came from the coastal regions, arriving fresh to the Andes. Today, it has, of course, been replaced by ice factories and refrigerators.
At the same station, you can taste a delicious “Castillian” blackberry ice cream, made with the ice that Baltazar brings back from the mountain. In the cold weather, it is somewhat strange to eat it, however it is still a completely irresistible experience.
At the train café, we enjoy a hot drink, accompanied by corn patties, treats that surely warm us up. We later cross over the train tracks to a hut that reveals how life was back in ancient times in this magical area of Chimborazo. While walking along the trail, you will certainly notice the beautiful vegetation that adorns the landscape.
On our way back to the city of Ambato, we make a final stop at Cevallos. Besides delicious typical Ecuadorian food for all the tastes, we also find much commercial activity. Cevallos is actually becoming a booming leather shoes manufacturer. Many stores in town offer shoes in different models, colors and even textures. Also in Cevallos, you can visit a traditional candy factory, as well as a store that sells around 50 flavors of jams, all made from local fruit.
As the sun begins to slowly inch its way down the mountain, it is time to return. As we make our way back to Ambato, yet again, the vegetation and climate brings in new hues… a wonderful way to end our travels, as nature changes colors one last time.