Described as a once in a lifetime event by most of the tour books, we were expecting something truly spectacular along the lines of a single track bike trail in Patagonia or a precipitously hanging cliffside adventure. Unfortunately, it's really just a slow 30 minute ride in a European built and thoroughly restored new train that descends a few thousand feet, stops at a station built for tourists complete with a cheesy dance show by locals in costume and a building calling itself a museum with a few cheap trinkets for sale.
The most interesting part about this trip is the history of the train itself. Fortunately, although nobody but me read them, there is a series of placards explaining it on the top of the station overlooking a beautiful view of the surrounding valley. The train was part of the Trans-Ecuadorian route that was the vision of a 19th century entrepreneur. Its main purpose was to carry the wealthy people out of the torrid heat and humidity of Guayaquil on the coast to the cool comforts of the Andes region. Touted as an architectural feat for its day, the main feature of the train was the decision to build a series of switchbacks to traverse the narrow valley that descends 6,000 feet in only a few miles rather than build traditional track. The train opened up the Andes region for trade and allowed Quito to thrive as the capital of a country straddled by four unique climatic zones.
At the moment the track is only used for tourism three times a day but I'm told there are plans to reinstate the tracks again as an alternative method of travel between the mountains and the coast. It is unclear who would use this since the cost is no doubt astronomical for a population that makes an average wage of a few thousand US dollars a year but the current government is on a mission. The train itself is comfortable enough and air conditioned. It starts at the terminal in the picturesque town of Aluesi where you board. It takes about 30 minutes, goes about 15 MPH and a guide narrates the history. The scenery is nothing spectacular until you get to the bottom where you disembark for an hour. The price includes "lunch" which is a sandwich with one thin piece of meat on a small bun. You can walk to the small museum at the top of the hill (recommended) if you are relatively fit or you can watch the very cheesy tourist show at the station where the local people dance for you in costume and expect tips.
The views are very nice at the top and the bottom but overall this is not really worthwhile for active visitors unless you really have spare time or like us, are travelling north by car from Cuenca to Quito. If you go, ensure to take a walk though the town for about an hour and eat some local street food (try some Loco Pappas, potatoes with a local ketchup and mayo or something like that). The town has a real local flair that made the entire day worthwhile. The train? OK but not great
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