Railway in the Sky

Continued from The First Expedition

SS Cristobal (courtesy of Björn Larsson)
SS Cristobal (courtesy of Björn Larsson)

From New York we sailed on the SS Cristobal. Life aboard ship was surreal, with clean linens, fine dining, and games of leisure on the sports deck. I was unaccustomed to such luxury, and the contrast with my experiences during the war could not have been more acute.

After 8 days at sea, we disembarked at Guayaquil, a busy port city on the coast of Ecuador. It was near mid-day and the streets were strangely quiet. (We learned that it is customary for business to close at mid-day.) Otto checked his notebook, and we found our way to a certain cantina in the Las Peñas district. The place must have been at least a hundred years old. Compared to the accommodations aboard ship, it seemed like we had travelled backwards in time. We entered the dark interior and found a table near the back.

A few hours passed before two men approached. One was obviously American, but did not give his name. He introduced the other as Carlos, who would be our guide. The American placed a small parcel on the table, shook hands with Otto, and left. Otto opened it carefully and discovered a large amount of local currency, in folding paper and silver coins. Pavel and I were mystified, but Otto merely smiled and promised to explain later.

Carlos left for a short time, and then beckoned us to follow him outside. By this time the city had come alive, and the streets were noisy and crowded. Carlos led the way for several blocks, once turning abruptly through a narrow alley. We arrived at a shabby guest house where a room had been prepared. Carlos introduced us to the proprietor, answered a few questions, and promised to return in the morning. We settled ourselves and then ate, drank and talked well into the night.

Climbing Devil's Nose in Ecuador
Climbing Devil’s Nose in Ecuador

In the morning Carlos re-appeared, and we loaded our gear into a cart for the short ride to a place called Duran. There we boarded a narrow-gauge train that was apparently the pride of Ecuador. Compared to the Cristobal, it seemed primitive indeed. The cars were 40 years old and badly in need of repair. However, the railway turned out to be a remarkable feat of engineering.

The G&Q Railway was completed in 1908 by an engineer from Virginia. It connects the port of Guayaquil with the capital Quito high in the Andes. The railway climbs from sea level to an altitude exceeding 3000 meters, and travels nearly a thousand kilometers. It was an ambitious project, but despite its importance for economic development, the railway never actually turned a profit.

It was an incredible journey into the mountains. We crossed several dramatic gorges on improbable bridges, and at one point actually climbed switchbacks, the train moving backwards and forwards up a steep rock face called the Devil’s Nose. The locals call it Ferrocarril en el cielo, or Railway in the Sky.

To be continued…

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