In 1899, after 25 years of frustrated plans and abortive attempts, work finally started on Ecuador’s first railway, which would link the coastal city of Guayaquil with the capital, Quito, in the highlands – a feat finally achieved in 1908. The greatest obstacle, which prompted the line to be dubbed “the most difficult railway in the world”, was met 130km east of Guayaquil at a near-vertical wall of rock, known as El Nariz del Diablo (The Devil’s Nose). The ingenious engineering solution was to carve a series of tight zigzags out of the rock, which allowed the train to climb 800m at a gradient of 1-in-18 by going forwards then backwards up the tracks.

Despite frequent delays and derailments, the service from Guayaquil to Riobamba and Quito ran, with interruptions, until 1997, when El Niño-related weather devastated the tracks. Currently, only the 12-km stretch from Alausí to Pistishi (usually advertised as Sibambe) at the end of the Devil’s Nose descent, is open. However, a controversial multi-million-dollar project to restore almost the entire original rail network is now underway, so it should soon be possible to start the trip in Riobamba again. Although the currently curtailed route, inflated price and abandonment of rooftop travel have undoubtedly diminished the appeal of the journey, it still offers stunning views of Chimborazo and Carihuairazo and a thrilling descent down the Devil’s Nose itself.

Taking the train

The train starts at Alausí (Tues–Sun & public holidays at 8am, 11am & 3pm), taking around two and a half hours for the return trip, including a brief spell in Pistishi, where you are treated to some traditional dancing and can pick up some light refreshment. Note that a cheaper autoferro (bus on wheels) runs the same route for a lot less (Wed, Fri & Sun – though the days sometimes change – and public holidays at 9am and noon; $6.50). However, the full Riobamba–Sibambe section will reopen soon; check for the latest information. Tickets cost $25 for the standard Alausí–Sibambe (Pistishi) route, and can be bought on the day at the train station. However, it’s better to make an advance purchase by phone (t1 800 873637) or at one of the train stations (Alausí station: Mon–Fri 8am–4.30pm & before departure), especially if you plan to travel at the weekend or during a holiday period. The carriages have recently been refurbished but following a fatality, it’s sadly no longer possible to ride on the roof of the train, which was one of the big draws. Since the service is subject to unpredictable changes, call the station office ahead for the latest news.

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