As you climb aboard for the Devil’s Nose, consider the rich history of this train. What is today a popular and exhilarating tourist ride was once the country’s pride and joy. Its construction was internationally acclaimed, the 11-year US$26 million project of Ecuadorean president Eloy Alfaro and US entrepreneur Archer Harman.
A spectacular 464-km railway line (1.067-m gauge), which ran from Durán (outside Guayaquil) up to Riobamba, was opened in 1908. It passed through 87 km of delta lands and then, in another 80 km, climbed to 3238 m. The highest point (3619 m) was reached at Urbina, between Riobamba and Ambato. It then fell and rose before reaching Quito at 2850 m. This was one of the great railway journeys of the world and a fantastic piece of engineering, with a maximum gradient of 5.5%.
Rail lines also ran from Riobamba south to Cuenca, and from Quito north to Ibarra, then down to the coast at San Lorenzo. There were even more ambitious plans, never achieved, to push the railhead deep into the Oriente Jungle, from Ambato as far as Leticia (then Ecuador, today Colombia). Time and neglect subsequently took their toll and by the turn of the millennium only a few short segments remained in service, basically as cheap tourist rides.
There was often talk of reviving the Ecuadorean railway as a whole, but it never seemed to happen. Between 2007 and 2013 however, the Ecuadorean government undertook a complete restoration of the line from Quito to Durán, which was re-opened with much fanfare. From new concrete ties to modern rolling stock, it was a formidable achievement.