W1702 – Andes Adventure 3

At the end of my last post,  W1702 – Andes Adventure 2, I described how we spent the night at the end of our second full day exploring the Andes in a fabulous hacienda hotel, but had to leave there very early the following morning.

Indeed my alarm was set for 4:30, and I was into the lovely dining room by 5am for an extremely early breakfast. A final check of my huge bedroom and I was ready to check out and be out at the car by 5:30 as requested by our local guide Fabricio. Bleary eyed we all took our places in the car, very glad we were leaving the driving to our local driver Eduardo.

The reason for this very early start was that we had a long drive ahead of us to reach the highlight of the day and possibly the whole Andes tour, a ride on the famous Devil’s Nose mountain railway. We needed to reach the station in Alausí well ahead of the train departure time of 8am.

At least we were driving on nice smooth roads, actually we were driving south on Highway 35, part of the vast Pan-American Highway which links almost all the mainland countries of the Americas. After we had been driving a while we reached the small town of Cajabamba, and Fabricio told us that as we had been good and set off on time, we could make a short photo stop soon after we left the town. We stopped by Iglesia de Balbanera, an attractive church who’s stone façade was partially floodlit. This combined with the majestic Chimborazo volcano lit by the first rays of the morning sun made for some lovely photographs to start the day:

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Back in the car we continued our early morning drive south towards Alausí and it’s railway station. As we passed rolling countryside looking good in the early morning sunlight, Fabricio explained how the railways in Ecuador had been abandoned in the past, and how in many places the track had been stripped away by local people who recycled the rails and sleepers for buildings and construction. However more recently there has been reinvestment by the president in some of the railway lines to promote tourism – this included the Devil’s Nose railway that we would be riding that day from Alausí to Sibambe and back.

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The Devil’s Nose was one of the most incredible feats of railway engineering when it was completed in the early 1900s. In order to traverse the very steep gradients of La Nariz del Diablo, or Devil’s Nose mountain, the track zigzags several times. The train pulls past one set of points, the points are changed and the whole train reverses along the next section of the zigzag until it passes the next set of points, and after these points have been changed the train can move forward once more. This way it gradually works it’s way down the steep mountainside. Just below the zigzags the train stops near Sibambe, turns around, and after a while climbs back through the entire route.

Arriving in Alausí we stopped briefly on the hillside overlooking the town to take photographs of the town laid out below, before driving down to the railway station. Here we had a little wait before we could board the train, which provided a chance to take more photographs:

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Our train tickets specified a particular coach and seat number – I was pleased and relieved that mine was next to the window on the best side of the train for the views – but it turned out our carriage was far from full so everyone was able to move around freely from side to side as the views from the carriage changed:

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The train offered great views of the dramatic countryside, but the steep valleys with one side in brilliant sunlight and the other in deep shade provided a big challenge to my camera. Before long we started to see the zigzag tracks on the hillside and the station at Sibambe below us:

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After carefully traversing the zigzag sections of track, we actually passed through Sibambe station and came to rest at a viewing point a little further down the line. Here steps were arranged to allow us to dismount the train and take photographs looking back towards the Devil’s Nose mountain, the various lines of the zigzag track visible:

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After a while the locomotive horn was sounded to tell us to reboard the train, and it slowly reversed into Sibambe station, where we alighted for an hour. Immediately above the station was a large platform area with some stalls selling souvenirs and local crafts at the back. In the open area in front of the stalls were local dancers in brightly coloured costumes performing. After a little while the dancers stopped for a break, so we climbed more stairs to reach a café and museum about the railway. My friend Robert found the climb at altitude rather tiring, and was glad to find this laid back chair for a rest!

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When the dancing resumed we descended to watch and photograph it once more:

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Soon it was time to reboard the train for the return journey back up the mountain to Alausí, as we did so the dancers waved farewell:

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Eventually the train slowly made it’s way through the streets and into Alausí station:

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After buying souvenirs we left the station and walked a couple of streets to the restaurant where we would be having an early lunch. Having made our choices from the menu, we had around half an hour to wait before it would be ready. The others were content to sit in the restaurant with a beer, but as a non-drinking photographer I was more interested in getting out into the town with my camera. I set myself the challenge to try to capture the essence of the town centre and it’s people in the half hour I had available, I will leave it to my readers to decide whether I succeeded:

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After a tasty lunch we then had a long drive back up the Pan-American Highway to Quito – a journey of around four hours, giving us one last view of the various volcanoes including Chimborazo:

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Nearing the end of our long drive, we were surprised and amused to see this van-load of animals in the next lane:

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Back in Quito, we were driven directly to the Swissotel Quito hotel where we would be staying the night. While it was very modern and upmarket, I found it rather clinical and uninteresting after the lovely hacienda hotels we had used the previous two nights. That evening we ate in the hotel restaurant, and I had rather a large meal a bit too late in the evening, which caught up with me rather the following day, but more on that in my next post.

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