A small road diverts off the busy Pan-American Highway, in Southern Ecuador, towards a quaint little town perched high up on the edge of the Chanchán River canyon. Covered under a shroud of perpetual mist from rolling clouds that get trapped by the mighty Andes that surround it on three sides, the town of Alausí does not feature on any tourist maps. The highlight is a huge statue of the town's patron saint, San Pedro, who keeps an ever-watchful eye on the cobblestone streets, lined by old multicoloured houses with wooden balustrade balconies.
Alausí is, however, a crucial stop on the Tranandino railway that runs along the Andean spine of the country from Quito in the mountains to Guayaquil on the Pacific coast. Travelling from the coast up into the mountains was arduous before the train tracks were laid. During the dry season, the journey could take up to two weeks and when it rained too much, the mountains became hazardous and impassable. The greatest obstacle lay 130km east of Guayaquil, beyond the town of Sibambe, in the form of a mountain that notoriously blocked the passage of the railway. In local parlance, the Nizag people addressed it as "Cóndor Puñuna"—the sacred nest of the condors.
The mountain, 984ft high, is shaped like a cone with perpendicular sides, resembling a nose. Pistishi's Nose, as it is often called, divides the steep canyon of the Chanchán River into two deep ravines: one that goes to Alausí and other into the wilderness of the Andean mountains.
According to the men who worked on the railway, the mountain was damned by Satan because he didn't want a railway to be built there.
The distance between Sibambe and Alausí is 12km. This meant an ascent from 970ft above sea level to nearly 10,700ft, making it one of the toughest railway climbs in the world. The famed American Harman brothers were contracted to find a solution. A number of routes were proposed and finally it was decided to follow the Chanchán River valley. The major challenge of the route was dealing with the near vertical wall of rock of Pistishi's Nose.
The ingenious engineers opted to carve a series of zig-zags on the mountain side. This allowed the train to climb over 9800ft at a gradient of 1-in-18 by doing a series of two nerve-shredding switchbacks, forward and backwards, along a narrow cornice cut by blasting the wall of the perpendicular rock of the nose, which extends beyond the bifurcation of the railway. When the train goes beyond the bifurcation, a switchman will jump from the locomotive and raise the lever to change the track, then the train will continue on its way up to the next narrow cornice, in reverse, until the next switchback. The switchman will then change the tracks again and the train will continue on its way through the cornice in the forward direction.
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The work began, in 1899, by employing the native Quechua people, but their desertion rate was high during the planting and harvesting seasons. The precarious working conditions, which included the use of explosives, didn't help either. So, forced recruitment was the order of the day. Slaves from the English colonies in the Caribbean—believed to be resistant to tropical climate and diseases—were brought in. In addition, there were over 500 prisoners from these colonies who were promised freedom if they survived the construction.
The construction of the embankments was done with hand tools. There was dirt, loose and solid rock in equal parts. Thousands of men dug through the mountain with shovels and picks taking the dirt and rock out in carts. Drills, gunpowder and dynamite were used for difficult sites. The difficult topography of the Andes, lack of labour and an overburdened workforce in the rainy weather were tormented with persistent infestation. Storms from the sea and tropical rain caused flash floods and landslides. Every season, a big chunk of the section had to be rebuilt all over again. This turned Transandino into one the most difficult railway construction projects in the world.
The noise from the blasts chased the resident birds of the mountain away. It was the beginning of a curse that still haunts the mountain and the railway.
It took four years to build this 12km stretch of tracks. By the time it was completed, over 4000 workers had died, including 2800 Jamaican labourers. Sibambe was believed to be the most haunted station and a site of bone chilling stories. These stories reflected the local shamanistic Indian culture of the Nizag people. With deaths came stories of the devil. According to the men who worked on the railway, the mountain was damned by Satan because he didn't want a railway to be built there. Acts that go against the devil's wishes are paid for in human lives they said: first there was the massive death toll among Jamaican workers and later several railway employees died. The stories of the spirits and devils of the mountain gave rise to the name that has stuck—La Nariz del Diablo or the Devil's Nose.
As the train approached the Devil's Nose, sightings of strange passengers, appearing out of nowhere in the carriages became a common occurrence. Passengers often fainted.
The devil often appeared on the nose. Such was the power of the stories and the fear of this gloomy place that people hallucinated while making the journey. As the train approached the Devil's Nose, sightings of strange passengers, appearing out of nowhere in the carriages became a common occurrence. Passengers often fainted. Many believed that the devil had appeared to them. A lot of people preferred to walk or to ride a horse through this stretch. A long time ago, at around midnight, a mysterious train was heard descending the Devil's Nose. The whistle sounded and the tracks vibrated. This seemed odd since the train always passed during daylight hours. The villagers went out to see what was going on, and saw a hoard of passengers at Sibambe station waiting to board that noisy train... that was nowhere to be seen. Those who opted to take the high road along the tracks were not spared either. Terrible and tragic reports of strangers ordering travellers to jump became abound. The enormous pressure of walking along the ledge hanging on the mountainside was nerve-wracking. Those who managed to look into the depths of the abyss, out of curiosity, saw a hellish snake twisting with its jaw open to swallow them all. The Chanchán River was a true vortex, casting foam and sounding like mocking guffaws. They say that when the last train came to the Devil's Nose, a number of goats blocked the tracks. The machinists got out to chase the goats away, but they turned into little devils ready to take the souls of the men who dared to pass that point.
This great feat of railway engineering ingenuity became the most difficult and notorious railway journey in the world. But yet, it's the most desirable one to make on this spectacular route. After leaving Sibambe station, the wooden panelled train meanders along the Chanchán River, by the floor of the canyon, up to the first switchback. The train then climbs in reverse till it reaches the second switchback, following which it moves in the forward direction once again, scaling heights with every metre gained.
The Chanchán River was a true vortex, casting foam and sounding like mocking guffaws.
In the upper high reaches of the canyon, vegetation is scarce. Some livestock can be seen grazing around the mountain. The few houses that we pass by are humble. Small plots, whose boundaries are demarcated by agave plants, grow a variety of crops—barley, maize and alfalfa grass. The Nizag people, in brightly coloured dresses, with white straw hats could be seen tilling their land. Passing through eucalyptus forests and aloe vera undergrowth, the train traverses two horseshoe bends and wriggles into Alausí station via a path between two-storeyed houses lining the tracks.
The railway tracks went into disrepair with the coinciding El Niño-fuelled storms over the years. Frequent delays and derailments finally shut down the trains in the late 1990s. Recently, the national railways, Ferrocarriles del Ecuador, have reopened the 50-minute journey, offering a chance to make one of the most thrilling railway journeys in the world.