By Lance Brashear
Though they are marketed as tourism “excursions,” the pastoral trips along the Ecuadorean Railway, which first began more than a century ago, are probably as much an adventure today as they were then.
The train originally opened a new route for people and goods traveling across Ecuador’s rugged Andes mountains to and from the coast more than a century ago. The rail system was mostly abandoned in the 1990s, after two El Niños triggered landslides that destroyed large chunks of track.
Today, the nine panoramic rides that arrive and depart along all points of the railway are one of the country’s newest and greatest tourism attractions. The day trips soon will be complemented by a luxury tour that covers the entire line from Quito to the coast.
A symbol of man’s triumph over nature, the train was an almost forgotten, historic achievement until it was resurrected and enthusiastically restored over the past four years. Completed on time and nearly on budget, this ambitious project has accomplished all it set out to do: revive an irreplaceable part of Ecuadorean Heritage and jump start the economies of the local communities along the way.
“Everything has been completed,” according to Jose Luis Quintero, Commercial Manager for the Ecuadorean Railway. He says the entire route from the coast to Quito has been recuperated at a cost of $280 million, $30 million above the initial estimate.
Besides the original 447 km of track from Duran to Quito, the restoration effort also includes a 30km route from Ibarra to Salinas in the north and a 3km trail in Cañar Province operating between Tambo and Coyoctor. And Quintero says additional track from Otavalo to Ibarra may be restored later this year.
Though the high price tag has been a point of contention for some, Mayra Prado, Communications Manager for the railway, says the restoration has essentially recovered double its value in terms of the physical heritage that has been rescued including the stations, locomotives, passenger cars, and the workshops that maintain them. “The company now has an inventory worth $500 million,” she estimates.
Additionally, Quintero says train operations are now self-sufficient.
Moreover, the investment and operations in the Ecuadorean Railway together have contributed to the preservation and promotion of a heritage that is hard to put a price on.
Local cultural heritage has been the key factor in designing excursions and packages for tourists, according to Quintero: “When we structure a product we are always conscious of the heritage theme, to revive it to have a tourism value for visitors who take the train.”
The “Machachi Festivo” is one of the excursions tourists can experience. Arrivals at the station are received by local musicians and options exist for travelers to visit local haciendas, which are part of the traditional “chagra” or cowboy culture.
“There is a complete presentation that is artistic [and] cultural,” says Quintero. “We exploit the theme of traditions. In Mejia county (where Machachi is located), we have the chagra culture, the hacienda, the agriculture.”
In the north, on the Ibarra-Salinas Route, passengers visit an interpretive museum, take a city tour, and receive an explanation of customs and traditions in this Afro-Ecuadorean community.
Organizing train routes around local customs also is part of an economic strategy. From the very beginning, one of the primary objectives for restoring the train was to “energize the local economies,” according to Prado. The railway company works with established communities to take advantage of the activity generated by the train.
“We meet with those who are interested in offering services. Together we create a product and establish train frequencies in accordance with that product,” explains Prado.
Of the original 31 stations along the Duran-Quito route, 19 are currently used as stops where visitors find up to five different tourism services depending on the location: Café del Tren, (coffee shop), train museum, gift shop, artisan craft plaza, and a hostel with overnight accommodations.
Apart from these offerings, others can be added. “In these five services is where we have the interaction and work coordinated with the communities,” explains Prado. She says that at the Yaguachi station three young, enterprising girls have started a tour operation along with running the Café del Tren. “Depending on the reality of each site we adjust our coordination efforts that seek to benefit the community.”
Not all products are found at all stops. Only two – Sibambe and Urbina – have overnight accommodations. Sibambe is near the Devil’s Nose, a famous stretch of track that climbs 800 meters in 2km through a series of switchbacks. The ride costs $25, and for an additional $25 travelers can spend the night in the station’s hostel, breakfast included.
The restoration of the train was done first and foremost for the Ecuadorean people. “One of the policies and objectives of the train is that it be enjoyed by Ecuadoreans from all social classes,” says Prado. “Planning for this, there are products we have implemented with great success.”
“Consciencia Sobre Rieles,” or Social Conscience on Rails, is a program directed toward rural sectors and people from a low economic background or with disabilities, as well as senior citizens. Six government institutions coordinate the program, which is available at five locations along the route.
“Tren Social,” or Social Train, is directed to persons living near Alausi. Prado says more than 5,000 people enjoyed a free ride last year as a coordinated effort between the railway and the local parishes and municipality.
And “1-2-Train,” is a program for students who pay $5 for the chance to experience a train ride, often for the first time. The program gives educational guidance in areas such as geography and history – two areas that have inspired an initiative that looks to serve people beyond Ecuador’s borders.
For more information about Ecuador’s rail system , including schedules and prices, see www.ecuadorbytrain.com/trainecuador.
Credit: Reposted from the Cuenca High Life partner, the Miami Herald International, Ecuador edition; http://www.todayinecuador.com.