“I don’t think it runs anymore”
“It runs on a Saturday”
“Only on a Sunday”
“I didn’t even know we had a train in this town”
“It’s run by Metropolitan touring, ask them”
“Metropolitan touring don’t run it anymore it’s run by the government”
My patience with these vague answers was wearing thin, I was also running out of people to question. The coup had kept me inside my hotel for two days so I asked the receptionist Jorge his opinion.
He told me: “I haven’t taken the train since I was a child, I’m not sure. Go and ask at the train station.”
I pointed out that he had just advised me not to leave the hotel as it was unsafe on the streets.
“Ah, yes, well perhaps wait a couple of days and then go, things will soon be okay.”
When I finally made it to the station it seemed my plans to take this train were as thwarted as Paul Theroux’s.
“Sorry the train is full for tomorrow. It runs again next week.”
How was this possible? I mused, the city had been in lockdown for the last two days, perhaps all the locals had taken the opportunity to pop out and book places on the train while the tourists were cowering in their hotels.
Paul Theroux took a flight from Quito to Guayaquil with the hope of returning by train. All the trains were full, so he went back to Quito and finally bought himself a ticket on the ‘Good and Quick’ as it was then nicknamed, only to miss the trains departure.
It seemed I was having the same luck.
Time was not on my side so I decided to head straight down to Riobamba where I would be able to pick up the only other section of the train that is currently running.
The bus took me through the famed avenue of volcanoes, a landscape unlike any I have seen before. Villages passed by the windows framed by towering volcanoes and fruit sellers lined the sides of the dusty roads.
Even Patrick Swayze’s torso on the bus’s television could not tear my eyes away from the stunning scenery. But when a local man, who had been staring at me for most of the journey, leant over and started stroking my arm I was forced to avert my attention to inside the bus.
He was dressed in local garb, the hat and poncho, and kept asking where I was from and saying ‘blanco…blanco’ as he stroked my arm. I assumed he was referring to the colour of my skin.
‘Inglaterra, Inglaterra’ I tried to explain. He looked confused. I pulled out a map of Europe and pointed to the UK. He looked even more confused, I took out a map of Ecuador and asked where he lived ‘Ambato’ he replied. We had passed his stop half an hour ago. It seemed geography was not his strong point.
I felt a moment of hope at Riobamba’s train station as I watched a video about the restoration work currently underway on the Quito to Guayaquil line. But my ‘train’ journey on this line was to be undertaken on what can only be described as a bus on rails.
This was only temporary, I was assured by the chap in the ticket office. They would be running the real steam trains next February when they had fixed the once dangerous Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose) section of the train line. The line had been closed after two tourists were decapitated after riding on its roof, so I was told.
Well it was to be a ride on the rails nonetheless so I retired to my hotel, La Libertador, complete with a painting of Bolivar astride his horse, for an early night before my 6.30am departure.
The train pulled out of the station with a little bump and rattled along the old railway lines as the great white peak of the famous volcano Chimborazo came into view.
Eucalyptus trees lined the hills and railway line surrounding Riobamba, introduced to Ecuador in 1861 they were now causing environmental issues as the trees upset the natural biodiversity of the area.
We bumped along with a regular running commentary from a lady tour guide who pointed out such exciting sights as a cement plant and a river. I yawned and wondered why on earth the train left at such an ungodly hour.
The city gave way to hills and countryside and we past farmers tending to their fields and locals dragging their animals to and fro.
The train stopped in Guamote, an indigenous village. As I disembarked I almost tripped over a local woman in traditional dress hacking up a pig, I gave her a wide berth and took a walk around the market, marvelling at the village which seemed stuck in the past. I couldn’t understand who was staring at who the most. At one point three generations of women in a family walked past me in garish pink traditional dress. I was staring at them and they stopped opposite and stared at me, it felt like one of those staring competitions I used to have at school. It was their village so I looked away first, much to their amusement as they tottered off on their uncomfortable looking shoes in a fit of giggles.
Back on the train I myself felt uncomfortable, like a strange sort of voyeur. I suppose this is what travel and tourism is about, I pondered, although I wasn’t sure if I liked it. I’m always keener to see local cultures rather than partake in cheap adventure sports while on my travels, but popping into an indigenous village felt rather like an invasion of privacy.
The train ride itself was beautiful, picture perfect views of stunning Ecuadorian landscapes. The hills looked like patchwork covers with their undulating fields of bright greens and browns and the locals waved and shouted as we rattled past.
I felt sad when we arrived in Palmira, the landscape had become arid desert punctuated by ferns, it looked as if the train had pulled up in the high street of an abandoned wild west town. I heartily wished the train/bus could have taken me further on my journey. But the ride on the rails was over too soon, I was quickly ushered into a waiting bus to take me on to nearby Alausi and then Guayaquil.