November 13, 2003
A Trainful of Tourists
DAY 24: Once upon a time in Ecuador, the railway system was the fast way to go north or southbound through the Andean countryside. Over the years, this railway system was replaced by the faster and cheaper bus network. But there is one train that still runs, so that tourists can ride on the roof and take pictures of the countryside faster than the locomotive.
Chris, Pepe and I were up by 5:30 and out of the hostel by six. When we got to the train station, there were probably 100 people on the roof already, mostly from big European tour groups. We met up with Anna and Andrew and snagged a spot on the roof amongst the sea of people.
The train wasn't a fancy train by any means; it was merely a freight train with a hard metal roof with a two-inch piece of steel railing which kept you and your bag from sliding off. Vendors capitalized on this by renting cushions for a buck each, which was well worth it.
At seven on the dot, the gas-powered locomotive started moving with its trainful of about 250 tourists behind. We rode out of the city and out of the suburbs and into the countryside. We waved at villagers who waved backed at us, as dogs chased the train, barking until they tired out.
Anna, Pepe and Andrew were on my right while Chris was on my left, just enjoying the scenery. Unlike everybody else, he didn't have a camera and just took it all in with just his eyes. Everyone else -- including myself -- took pictures like crazed paparazzi of the lush Andean countryside where animals would roam freely and graze. Daredevil vendors walked back and forth as the train cruised from 20-40 mph, selling snacks. In Ecuador, they'll do anything for a buck.
Afterwards, the landscape dramatically switched from lush green farmlands to arrid, desert-like conditions. The train zig-zaged through the mountains as the sun blared from above, which really heated things up when the train derailed in a desert valley. This of course got the tourists all excited and snap happy and everyone got off the train with their cameras to record the event on film. Luckily the train staff was used to this sort of thing and successfully rerailed the wheels by use of wooden planks and rocks.
We arrived in Alausi about six hours after leaving Riobamba and stayed on the train to go down the Nariz del Diablo (The Devil's Nose), a steep mountain with a series of rail switchbacks for a train to come down. The Devil's Nose promised to be a major thrill, but it was sort of anti-climactic -- we had seen better views on the first six hours of the train ride. It seemed the only reason to go down The Devil's Nose was to be stuck in a valley so that there would be no escape from the vendors selling Devil's Nose t-shirts and pins, and conductor's hats. The conductor's hats were $7 and were very convenient if, in the middle of nowhere in the Andes, you had the uncontrollable urge to look like one of the Village People.
Pepe and I got off the train at the base of the "nose" for some photos and climbed back onto the train as it started moving again. To get to my spot on the roof, I fulfilled a childhood cowboy fantasy of jumping from the roof of one car to another on a moving train.
"Alright, everyone get off the train to take pictures again," I announced. Sure enough, the paparazzi responded.
I risked leaving my passport at the bank and ran to the station. Luckily, Pepe had told them where I was and they put my bag away. I grabbed it and ran back to the bank where the copy still hadn't been made. Meanwhile, my bus was about to leave. The irony was, I needed to get cash because I used my last bit of cash for that bus ticket.
Luckily, another guy came over to make the photocopy since the teller was just too busy and I got my passport back and hopped on the bus in time. Everything worked out in the end because an advance ticket was necessary since some woman was making a big deal about assigned seats. Three people who didn't buy advance tickets had to sit on the floor or stand for the entire bumpy four and a half ride through curvy mountain roads.
We arrived in Cuenca at night. Chris, Pepe and I split another cab and another room and went out for dinner. I was too tired to do anything else after sitting on my ass on trains and buses all day.
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