The Devil's Nose Railway used to connect Quito with Guayaquil. Recently weather-damaged by El Niño, it now operates only between Riobamba and Alausi. It's a spectacular four-hour ride along twisting gorges and high bridges over ravines, and through fertile valley bottoms lined with colourful villages and small towns. But at Alausi, nobody leaves the train, because ahead lies the Devil's Nose itself. One of the world's greatest railway engineering feats, the track switchbacks down an almost perpendicular 1000 m (3250 ft) wall of rock to Sibambe. Unable to go any further, the train performs its technological marvel in reverse, and everyone disembarks back at Alausi.
Oh, but it's worth it. The descent from Alausi takes an hour of constant advancing and backing up, zigzagging across the sheer mountain side; and another to re-ascend. Meanwhile you have a matchless view, forever renewed as the tram shifts position and height, of the patchwork panorama of fields: yellow, green and grey rectangles moulded to every contour on the hillsides. On most trains you can even sit on the roof for the entire journey, which turns the trip into somethlng of a party. That may be the reason some trains (currently they are single-carriage autojerros) no longer allow the practice. In any case, the adrenaline of riding a narrow ledge hacked into andesite volcanic rock, over an Andean precipice inches away, unites even inside travelers in excitement, if not comfort.
The Devil's Nose Railway is enormous fun, and an ideal prelude for travelers intending to trek the Inca Trail to Ingapirca. From Alausi it's only a short drive to the mountain hamlet of Achupallas (3300 m/10824 ft) where the Trail begins. Alausi is also en route to the 16th and 17th century colonial splendour blended into the Inca city of Cuenca, the World Heritage Site to the southeast.
WHEN TO GO
TIME IT TAKES
Six hours (Riobamba-Alausi-Sibambe-Alausi, including brief halts)
'Riding the Roof' through the indigenous farmland and remote Allot Indian villages of Chimborazo Province, on trains of mixed passenger and freight wagons that run as far as Alausi - locals and crowded on top with their bags.
The sensation, on the Devil's Nose, of being a fly on a wall.
YOU SHOULD KNOW
1. Bring some warm clothes.
2. A trip on the Devil's Nose provides invaluable acclimatization for further Andean adventures.