Somewhere in Ecuador lies one of the world’s most dangerous railways named the Devil’s Nose (Nariz del Diablo), a mountain with almost perpendicular walls where the devil supposedly left his nose. Set in the middle of the Trans-Andean railroad, mountains towered on our sides while the narrow, winding streams reflected the clear blue sky. I couldn’t help feeling small in the magnificence of the rugged Andes, and my mind wandered back over a century ago …
Making a pact with the devil
During Ecuador’s nation-building period in the late 19th century, then President Eloy Alfaro was an ambitious man with great visions. He wanted to connect the two main cities of young Ecuador, namely Quito (the capital) and Guayaquil (the coastal city) by rail. Under his orders, thousands of foreign workers, mostly from Jamaica and Puerto Rico, were brought into the country to build the railway. This track would cover rocky ravines along rivers, travel through dense cloud forests and around mountains.
Legends have it that Alfaro made a pact with the devil to finish the rail - an almost impossible engineering feat in those days - that resulted in the death of some 4,000 workers amidst disasters such as landslides, snake bites and diseases!
Silent cries at the world’s most difficult railway
As we travelled on this incredible route from Alausi, zigzag-ing twice by use of switchbacks, we descended about 500 meters over the course of 12 kilometers. For comparison, note that Quito - the capital city of Ecuador - sits at an elevation of 2,850 meters above sea level. At Devil’s Nose, this deceptively tranquil but treacherous landscape was where the condors used to sleep, but these majestic birds have left long since human intervention. All that remains were the excited chatters of tourists, unwittingly concealing quiet cries of desolated souls that perished during the course of building this railway. I said a silent prayer, and thought to myself, “nature is a double-edged sword”.
Cultural immersion at Sibambe
Ethnic music floated in the air, as our train approached the train station at Sibambe, and I caught a glimpse of twirling dancers with smiles as radiant as their traditional costumes. Located near the base of the Devil’s Nose, life goes on in the most practical manner, and the operations of the tourist trains provide an important source of income for the Puruhás and other indigenous groups that live in the region. At Sibambe, one can get a better view of the Devil’s Nose, as well as learn the history and cultures of local communities. There are cafes, shops and a museum.
The Devil’s Nose is the most popular section of Ecuador’s train track and remained a popular attraction for tourists even during the decline of rail travel in the 1990s. A return journey begins from Alausi to Sibambe and takes about two hours and a half including a short break.
Traversing the Devil’s Nose from Alausi to Sibambe
Bygone times and romantic notions, rail travel has its fans from past to present, and President Rafael Correa knew this. Like Eloy Alfaro, he had a vision of a railway to connect Quito and Guayaquil again. Since 2008, the Ecuadorian government has spent millions to restore and upgrade the rail system. There are several routes and one can travel Ecuador from Quito to the South via rail. The Devil’s Nose is just one of the many routes, but if you only wish to have a sampler of rail travel in Ecuador, bear in mind that this railway track is one of the world’s rail engineering feats!
Practical tips for Devil’s Nose
We began our train journey from Alausi - a quaint village that is 5-hour drive from Quito. Direct buses are available. Onboard Tren Ecuador painted in signature red and black, amenities are basic but our experience was enhanced by the company of a local guide that can speak Spanish and English.
We were recommended to sit on the right side of the train towards Sibambe (request when you purchase your tickets), but truth to be told, you may want to get up from time to time to capture the best views (provided that the carriage is not completely filled). There are two departures daily from Tuesday to Sunday, and you can purchase your tickets on the day of departure. If you are travelling on weekends, it may be better to pre-book online or by calling.
Tren Ecuador - Devil's Nose
Address: Alausí – Sibambe – Alausí
Website: Devil’s Nose
Rail travel in Ecuador
Often associated with romantic notions, rail travel takes on a different role in Ecuador with historical account, especially at the Devil’s Nose. The tragedies of the past called upon quiet reflections and reminded me of victims of the Death Railway that runs between Thailand and Myanmar. Ambitious developments often come at a cost, and the stories of many unsung heroes remained buried, as we take in the fleeting beauty on the train ride. Don’t let these stories be forgotten, come visit and appreciate.
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