A train ride back into the past, where traditions are still alive

Usually when we take a train ride, we do it in order to get from one place to the other. Here in Ecuador the concept of a train trip is slightly different, at least in this day in age.

In the late 19th century the Ecuadorian government decided to build a railway system from Quito in the highlands (la sierra) to Guayaquil on the coast (la costa). The construction turned out to be extremely difficult and costly due to the topography of Ecuador.  But in 1908 the line was finished and officially opened by then President Eloy Alfaro. The railway was mainly used to transport goods, but the costs of maintaining the railroad system were so high that the Ecuadorian government finally decided to abandon it.

In 2010 the Ecuadorian state, under the administration of President Rafael Correa, decided to redevelop the line between Quito and Guayaquil. Currently trains run on several tracts and in summer 2013 the complete line from Quito to Guayaquil will be reopened.


I decided to take a trip on the Tren del Hielo or Ice Train. The journey started at the train station in Riobamba, located 9,022 feet above sea level. The train consists of an electric locomotive and three comfortable wagons. During the ride, a bilingual guide provides you with all the necessary information about the history of Tren Ecuador and the landscape through which the train passes. Every once in a while you see locals working in the fields waving at the travelers and it seems like they find us just as fascinating as we find them. We rode along the famous Pan-American Highway and passed Chimborazo Volcano (20,702 feet), which is the highest mountain in Ecuador. After about an hour and fifteen minutes, we arrived at Urbina Station which, at 11,840 feet, is the highest train station in Ecuador. Here we had the pleasure of meeting Báltazar, one of the last hieleros or ice farmers of Chimborazo Volcano. He frequently climbs up Chimborazo to collect huge chunks of ice, which he uses to make delicious treats made from only this fresh ice and fruit. Of course, I tasted his icy delights, which are kind of like sherbet.  It is a very hard business and unfortunately the tradition will probably disappear some day because Báltazar’s sons don’t want to continue it. After this interesting visit, we went to the station café where I tried quimbolitos (little baked goods consisting of corn flour, eggs, butter, and cream cheese baked in achira leaves which are from a banana tree) and coca tea. Reinvigorated we went horseback riding in a meadow where the locals showed us how to milk the cows and then to a little stall with llamas, alpacas, calves, and guinea pigs. Did you know that roasted guinea pig is a typical local dish in the rural areas of the Ecuadorian highlands?! I haven’t tried it yet, to be honest, but I was told it tastes similar to chicken.

 

The idea of Tren Ecuador is to show foreign visitors the life of the indigenous inhabitants of the region and support the local communities. All cafés and handicraft stands are operated by the locals and profits go directly to them. After all of this, we took the train back to Riobamba, where the journey ended.

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