My adventure with the “Chiva Express” started at the Station of Chimbacalle in Southern Quito, which has been recently restored to its old glory, to commemorate the centenary of the arrival of the first steam train of the Guayaquil & Quito Railway Co. to Quito in 1908, an event that joined Ecuador’s main cities (Guayaquil and Quito) and became the backbone that would forever change the politics, economy and the lives of the Ecuadorians. On June 25, 2005 Metropolitan Touring started the operation of its highlight rail tours along the Ecuadorian Andes and down to the Coast, with new one-car vehicles on tracks, called the “Chiva Express”.
The Chiva has long been a favorite means of transportation in Ecuador, a colorful bus with plenty of room on the roof for people, bananas and perhaps chickens. The first leg of the Chiva Express ride goes from Quito to the Tambillo Station, where we were transfered to a bus for a short ride to a dairy hacienda with cows, horses and llamas, where the most delicious local snack, more like a full meal, was served. Then continued along the Pan American Highway up and down the slopes of Cotopaxi Volcano and into the fertile Valley of Latacunga for a visit to a rose plantation and a taste of the products of the land. Continued by bus to Riobamba, and at the foot of imposing Chimborazo Volcano, we visited a Tagua workshop and warmed up with canelazo by the fireplace.
The fun of riding the “Chiva” has been combined with the historic Trans-Andean rail ride, down the famous Devil’s Nose from Quito in the Andean Highlands all the way down to Guayaquil on the coast. I enjoyed an exhilarating experience of riding on the back balcony of the car.
The two-day Quito/Riobamba/Guayaquil “Chiva Express” program was one of greatest thrilling highlights of my trip to Ecuador!! Even though my fear of heights is great, I am happy that didn’t overpower my sense of adventure, specially, one of the highlights of the “Chiva Express” is the the Devil’s Nose ride and back to .
Several plans and attempts were made to build the railway from Guayaquil to Quito, since 1860 until 1874, when the first locomotive reached Milagro. In 1895, Eloy Alfaro, then President of Ecuador, made contact with the North American technicians Archer Harman and Edward Morely, representatives of an American Company interested in the building of the “most difficult railway in the world” as it was called at that time, “The Guayaquil & Quito Railway Company” which would link the main port of Ecuador, Guayaquil on the Pacific Coast to the capital city of Quito, high up in the Andes. An agreement was reached, and the construction started in 1899.
The tracks finally reached a huge obstacle -an almost perpendicular wall of rock- called the “Devil’s Nose”. Many lives were shed in the building of what until now is considered a masterpiece of railway engineering: a zigazag carved out of the rock, which allows the train, by advancing and backing up, to reach the necessary height to the town of Alausí. The train finally reached Alausí by September 1902 and Riobamba and Quito by July 1905.
From this point on, the construction was easier. The highest point of the route – Urbina 3604 meters – was reached by the end of 1905 and finally on June 25, 1908 the train made its triumphal entrance to Quito and was received by arches of palms, laurel and flowers, bells tolling banquets, dances and popular festivities that lasted four days.
Unless you took this ride to the Devil’s Nose it is hard to explain the exhilaration mixed with fear. The constantly changing scenery was awesome: snow-capped peaks, high treeless plateau, rushing streams, lush valleys, and steep slopes with patchworks of terraced fields and small Indian villages.
The rail trip took us on the “Chiva Express” from Riobamba to Alausí and on to the famous 1,000-foot Devil’s Nose (La Nariz del Diablo) switchback, an almost sheer cliff on which the railway track zigzags down a ledge cut into the mountainside overhanging a river gorge south of Alausí. On one side, the Rock on the other, inches away from the ravine!!
I was on the back balcony the hole ride camera in hand shooting and praying the images captured were clear. When suddenly the one car train came to a halt. To my question if anything was wrong? the answer was: “No, we will be going back down, as soon as the track pins are set properly cause you see, going back down is by putting the gear on reverse, just like driving a car in reverse gear”.
Going down, around the mountain, ON REVERSE???!!!! Me, a grown woman, mother of two, sometimes having title of superwoman, suddenly found myself on the floor of the back balcony looking for my heart. As if that was not enough, I started hearing church bells!! I thought, if this is the end for me, I better record what I am seeing and picking up my camera started shooting the fantastic scenery first from between the wide bars of the balcony wall, and little by little standing up and snapping that shutter not caring, exposure, composition or anything!!! The descent could have been 20 minutes or more and we were at the bottom of the mountain on the bank of the river. We were speechless at the wild beauty surrounding us!!
The adventure continued from Chiva Express down the slopes of the Andes while we experienced the transition from Andean ecosystems to the lush tropical coastal vegetation: bananas, oranges, pineapples, ginger and wooden farm houses on stilts. The last leg of the “Chiva Express” ended in Bucay, and on by motorcar to Guayaquil.
(Some excerpts from internet and some from brochures).
(photos by: Houry Photography)