My Travels In Ecuador: Riobamba Train Ride


Riobamba train station

The train at Riobamba station waiting for departure. If you look very carefully, you can see Volcan Chimborazo – Ecuador’s highest peak – in the background.

On my way from Ecuador’s cosmopolitan capital city, Quito to it’s lovely cultural mecca, Cuenca, I thought I’d be adventurous and explore a little of the central highlands of the Andes on the way.

Riobamba is about halfway – a good place to break the journey – and I was lured by descriptions of the historic train ride from Riobamba to the small town of Alausi, and thereafter down a hair-raising switchback known as Nariz del Diablo – the Devil’s Nose.

This was my first venture out of Quito, and I don’t speak Spanish (that’s my next project!). The long-distance buses in Ecuador have a good reputation – though there was no lack of horror stories…. I heard tales of a recent armed hold-up by a gang of thieves, who carefully chose an area with no phone signal for the dastardly deed. Sometimes longer distance buses can be riskier than the local buses, offering better ROI & reward/risk to a would-be thief. (Fortunately I only heard this story after I got to Aleusi and was already committed and more than past the halfway point… even more fortunately, my travels were untroubled by armed robbery or theft …. other than a pickpocket at a Cuenca festival who scored my emergency cosmetics pouch.)

I was also partly motivated by the map showing that the bus station in Quito was more accessible than the airport – though that proved to be a fallacy. Since my version of the Lonely Planet guide had been written, a new bus station had been built – on what seemed like the outskirts of Quito. Not only was it not the short walk from my hotel I had been expecting, it seemed that nobody was quite sure where it was. In the end, to my great relief & everlasting gratitude, a helpful English-speaking gentleman flagged down a taxi for me and negotiated a suitable price with the taxi driver. Nevertheless, I was on tenterhooks for the entire journey, increasingly alarmed as I was taken further and further from the city centre….

The bus trip to Riobamba takes 4 hours from Quito, and buses depart regularly. It was well after noon by the time I got on the bus, but I got to Riobamba as planned (just as well – finding that bus station was enough of a challenge for one day!)

When I travel, I’ve learned that staying open to synchronicity can bring you some of the best (and worst – but still the most memorable) experiences of the trip. Still, it’s been 30 years since my overland backpacking days, and these days I value my physical comforts too much to push it too far. I had booked a hotel for my arrival in Quito – I’ve learned that it’s best to have something planned for the segue from a plane back to real life. But Riobamba is a good sized town, and has plenty of accommodation options near the train station (highly desirable because the train leaves very early), so I was prepared to be flexible.

Riobamba, Ecuador

What I was not prepared for was that I had arrived during a festival… and most of the accommodation had already been taken by that time of day. At least there was entertainment to be had while trudging up and down the streets of Riobamba – brightly costumed indigenous dancers, raucous Andean music.

Eventually I found a business hotel that had an available room – not flash, but not expensive, and the bed was comfortable enough. I won’t recommend it though – my room was at the head of a wooden staircase, and other visitors were returning to their rooms well into the night…the acoustics would have been enviable for a concert hall.

Still, I had not been expecting much of Riobamba, just an overnight stay and an early departure on the train… if I could get a ticket.

Taking the Riobamba train ride

Lonely Planet said train tickets were available at the station from 6 a.m., for a departure at 7 a.m.

The times turned out to be accurate.

After the few unsatisfactory hours of sleep I was allowed, I presented at the station just before it opened – only to be told there were no tickets available.

It took a while for me to fully comprehend…. this had not been one of my scenarios!

Starting to walk off, I was approached by a friendly young man who said to wait…. he could probably get me a ticket, no extra cost. I joined a small group of others who appeared to be in the same predicament. The tickets duly materialised, and no, there was no extra cost. Apparently the tour companies buy up all the tickets, and then sell what they don’t use back to enterprising ticket brokers – who presumably get a discount on them, and so make a profit and do independent travellers like me a favour at the same time.

So again, synchronicity worked for me – if I had known the day before that the tickets had all been sold, I would never have been at that train station that morning.

The Avenue of the Volcanos

The Avenue of the Volcanos, looking back from the Riobamba train.

The Avenue of the Volcanos, looking behind the train. The high peaks are awesome, but obscured by the morning mist.

My Lonely Planet pages indicated that the Nariz del Diablo train was a chancy affair, and not referring only to the regular derailments on the switchback part of the ride. The line had closed a few years ago, and then re-opened, but it was recommended to check (not easy to do if you don’t speak Spanish). However, it seemed that though the actual Nariz del Diablo section was not currently in operation, the train journey was a scenic & fun way of getting from Riobamba to Aleusi, about 2 hours bus journey on the way to Cuenca (but taking twice the time by train). At Aleusi, I could stay overnight and then resume the speedier bus trip to Cuenca (4 hours from Aleusi by bus). Well, that was my plan.

My biggest grumble about Ecuador is that they don’t generally do coffee in the morning…. I have my own travelling coffee kit, but I need hot water supplied! (Back home, travelling in my car, I take a small camping butane burner, but it’s not transportable by plane.)

Though there are plenty of coffee shops in the towns, & the locally grown coffee is excellent, Ecuadorians consider coffee an evening drink.

Nor were there any breakfast options at that time of morning, but I’d brought some yoghurt and fruit from Quito, and the yoghurt survived the journey in a more or less edible state. There was food available on the train, but like all train food, it was expensive and not something you want to eat if you have any choice.

However, I was ecstatic to actually be on the train…. touristy quaint and restored, with its wooden carriages and little viewing platforms so people could take photos of the awesome Andean peaks.

The first part of the trip is known as “The Avenue of the Volcanos” – which says it all. You get a view of Ecuador’s highest peak, Chimborazo, which is the destination of many an ambitious mountain climber. Thirty years ago, I might have been tempted – at least to get a closer look. From the train I missed the photo op…. though I think it was a bit too far anyway to get a clear shot, not with my little camera.

After the mountains the scenery is still pretty spectacular – the train line goes over rivers and valleys, and winds around the spaciousness of the mountains in a way that the road does not.

Just as I was about to give in and tackle some train buffet food, the train stopped at a little indigenous town called Guamote, where the people derive much of their income from selling food to the train travellers. There were strange but tasty foods – a sort of corn tamale, fresh fruit, roast pork right off the pig (the latter a bit off-putting to a semi-vegetarian, & probably even to many a meat-eater).

Back on the train, we continued the journey…. there was another stop at a local village whose name I didn’t note, with more local delicacies to buy and sample (and to use the facilities).

En route to Aleusi

And then a third stop, in the middle of nowhere, no village, no houses, just a bevy of buses. It turned out that this was the end of the line – the train did not quite complete the journey to Aleusi. All the other travellers headed to one or another of the buses… but it turned out that these were tour buses, and did not offer transport to anyone else. The buses rolled off and there were just 2 people left besides me…. a student and his Spanish girlfriend, taking a few days holiday from Quito.

These two had eyes full of life and fun, and once again I was encouraged to open to the synchronicity and adventure of the moment. Together they welcomed me in broken but adequate English, and asked if I would like some wine…. whereupon they produced a half-full bottle and a tiny cup, and offered me a drink. There in the middle of nowhere we celebrated life and adventure….

All was not lost – the highway was a short walk away, and apparently there were frequent buses to Aleusi. That proved to be true – but several passed, full and overflowing, before one stopped for us. It also was full and overflowing, but somehow we squeezed in next to the driver, enough to get the doors closed.

Alausi - train line from Riobamba

My two friends on the railway bridge at Aleusi, with a breathtaking drop to Rio Chanchan behind them

At Aleusi our first priority was a cafe for lunch, where I managed to arrange some hot water and produce the semblance of a cup of coffee with my coffee grounds and makeshift strainer. I also managed to get a room for the night, since there were no buses for Cuenca until next morning… and no festivals to provide competition for the few recommended accommodation options. My young friends were going to Banos – a nearby town with famous baths – and then back to Quito in a few days. There was a bus later that day departing for Banos and meanwhile they wanted to explore Aleusi.

Aleusi is indeed small but picturesque, with narrow winding roads built around the hillside in the foothills of the Andes, and traditional style buildings constructed of adobe, brick and/or wood. There is a breath-taking view from the old railway bridge – the railway line and sleepers are still more or less intact, but the train no longer runs here.

(See my photo.)

I almost changed direction when my new friends invited me to come with them to Banos – since it was on my list of “must visit” places and they were fun travel companions – but I had accommodation booked in Cuenca for the next night, and I was yearning for a civilised meal.

I got to Cuenca as planned – but should I have taken the detour and allowed synchronicity to lead me once again?

Was there an adventure that I missed, from the road not taken?

But there is no place for regret or doubt in a life lived as a Warrior or Magician, and I can only celebrate the experience of the choices that I did make.

Embracing life, that is enough.

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Mara Dall (46 Posts)

Mara Dall is a writer and traveller, exploring wild, magical places of the earth, of the mind, and of the soul. Read more about her here.