The G & Q (Guayaquil & Quito) line is 278 miles long and first opened in stages during the late 1800s. However it was not until 1908 that full service began. At the time it was a huge engineering achievement and was very important for Ecuador as it allowed travel between its two principal cities. It was mainly built by a Jamaican and Ecuadorian workforce under the guidance of Major John A Harman.
Eloy Alfaro, the former Ecuadorian president, helped to create this railway and when he was ousted from power (because of his secularist policies) he staged an unsuccessful comeback in 1911 and was consequently transported back to Quito on the train. Nowadays he is a revered figure and in Quito's Chimbacalle station there is a portrait of him. The restoration of the country’s railway network began in 2008 under the administration of the present Ecuadorian president, Rafael Correa. The total cost has been estimated at $280 million.
The historic route was inaugurated last December and started for trips on June 4 last year. Before part of the train line had been popular with backpackers who used to sit on the roof but a terrible accident involving a Japanese tourist put an end to this practice. Also contributing to the decline of the railways in Ecuador were the poor journey times (compared to the PanAmerican highway). It was during the Seventies that people started taking to the roads instead. The railways became redundant and were poorly maintained, rain washed sections of track away and landslides also caused havoc.
This new service is called the Tren Crucero (Cruise Train). Built in Spain the train used for this service has four coaches which can carry up to 54 passengers and although it’s quite luxurious you sleep in hotels and eat in restaurants en route. Drinks and snacks are of course available on board in the bar car. The journey from Quito/Guayaquil lasts four days but it is possible to do shorter trips and pick up the train along the line. Each day you will spend about 3-5 hours on the railway and for the rest of the time different daily excursions are available. It’s possible to do the journey either way but it seems the Guayaquil to Quito route is more popular. This might be partly to do with the gentle altitude acclimitisation this way allows you and also that more of a climax is created going upwards rather than downwards.
All the stations along the way have been refurbished as well – Guayaquil has a smart new two storey waiting hall where you can even watch a film all about the restoration. Leaving Guayaquil you chug out on a steam locomotive passing by tropical plains with banana and cocoa plantations before transferring to the Tren Crucero. The four coaches are air-conditioned and there is plenty of comfortable seating, a gift shop, an observation car and open veranda. For your valuables lockers are provided and there are plenty of books for your perusal. One of the most enjoyable parts is having a drink sitting in the sunshine on the open-air terrace slowly taking in the beautiful Ecuadorian scenery as it passes by.
The hotels and restaurants that are used are of a high quality and there is always a daily excursion – either by coach or a not too strenuous walk. These include a visit to a cacao plantation, a walk in the cloud forest (one of the world most biodiverse places), a visit to a rose plantation and seeing the majestic volcanoes of Chimborazo and Cotopaxi.
One of the highlights is the tremendous climb the train has to do, perhaps even the toughest in the world. The railway ascends from 970ft above sea level to nearly 10,700ft and does so in just 50 miles. It has to tackle the Devil’s Nose Zigzag (so named due to the shape and difficulty). This part was completed in 1902 and half of those working on it died due to the harsh working conditions (disease, dangerous topography and accidents involving dynamite). The trains charge up the first part and then reverse the second part and the switch back the right way for the third. As you can imagine this section makes for an exhilarating experience.
Along the way you stay in some beautiful hotels of great historical importance including the Hacienda Cienega, which was built in 1580. It was here Baron Humboldt stayed in one of it’s atmospheric rooms while he was studying Cotopaxi. It has two-metre thick walls and has survived numerous earthquakes and eruptions. The rumours of hauntings all add to its charm!
Back on the train and weather permitting you may well get a glimpse of the mighty Cotopaxi. It is also possible to do an excursion to hike around the foothills followed by lunch at Hacienda San Agustin de Callo. Built in the 15th century for Inca emperors are reminiscent of the great imperial structures of Cuzco. Latterly it was a convent and then eventually a hacienda. Apparently the Incas built it there because they realized that any flowing lava would use the ravines found on either side of the site.
This amazing journey takes you through seven of the country’s nine climatic zones and finally comes to a halt in the beautifully restored railway station in Quito firstly going through the suburbs where you are met with waving children, barking dogs and other friendly faces welcoming you to their beautiful capital.
How much? £647 (introductory offer) to £825.
When to go? Tren Crucero departures are scheduled between June and early September and between December and February
Going by train is amazing way to see the country but after all those hours on board there is nothing better than staying put for a few days. Ecuador has a vast array of beautiful haciendas to stay at – have a look at www.historichaciendas.com for inspiration.
Please send your comment with your name and contact email. Many thanks.