A steam engine hauls the Tren Crucero for parts of the route between Quito and Guayaquil.
A steam engine hauls the Tren Crucero for parts of the route between Quito and Guayaquil.

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Railway in the Sky

The construction of a railway line from Quito in the Andean highlands to Guayaquil on the Pacific coast was a masterpiece of engineering. After ten long years of construction, involving much grief and loss of life, the line finally opened in 1908.

Many engineers at the time believed it would be impossible to build the line. From the coast, it climbs through gradients between 2% and 5% to the dizzy altitude of 3,610 metres (nearly 12,000 feet) at Urbina before descending to Quito at 2,777 metres. One of the most impressive sections of track is the infamous Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose) which entails the train negotiating a 6% gradient and two switchbacks as the line climbs an almost sheer mountainside near Sibambe.

Prior to the construction of the railway, Quito was a remote and isolated city in the high Andes. Getting from Guayaquil to the capital was a trek that tested the traveller’s will and took anything from two weeks to a month – sometimes even more during the rainy season. The railway breathed new economic life into the capital, Quito, united the country, and opened up opportunities for communities all along the route of the track.

With the advent of road transport, the railway fell into decline, and gradually some sections of track became impassable, as landslides caused sections to collapse completely. However, following a US$280 million restoration of the track, the line is again open and running and the new Tren Crucero now plies the route once a fortnight in each direction for a fascinating journey of discovery for visitors. These days the train is hauled by a diesel engine, though the refurbished steam engines are used on two of the flatter sections of track.