WASHINGTON D.C., December 12, 2014 — Few things impart the romance of travel more than the sound of a train whistle. Now that the tracks between Quito and Guayaquil have been rehabilitated and modernized, that iconic sound has returned to Ecuador.
Riding these rails on a “tren crucero,” or train cruise, is an incredible way to soak up the beauty of the country. Descending from the thin air of the Andes to the steamy coastal region, the variation in the landscape and culture of Ecuador becomes clear.
Beginning at the Heart of Ecuador: Quito
The train begins its trek in the heart of the country, Quito. It was the first city to be declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The city center, known as “Old Town,” has a quaint sense of charm with its hilly cobblestone streets and ancient stone churches. Each weekday there is a bustle of activity as government officials and business people shuffle back and forth from meetings while small colorfully clothed indigenous women stand on the corner frying meat on an open grill or selling fruit. On Sundays, most of the streets in Old Town are closed to automobile traffic. People walk or ride their bikes and enjoy a much quieter experience.
The balance between old and new is delicate, however; it’s easy to see that Quito is quickly becoming a modern city. La Mariscal neighborhood is packed with hip fusion restaurants, art galleries, and raucous nightclubs.
This hub of modern activity is a great place to observe the younger Ecuadorian generation and see how they are changing the cultural landscape of the country.
It is a must to plan a few nights in Quito before the train leaves for the coast. The city provides a fascinating glimpse into the soul of the country.
As one explores the busy streets and tours the beautiful churches – especially the gold laden La Compañia — they begin to understand the cultural evolutions of Ecuador.
The Avenue of the Volcanoes
The Quito train station is the starting point for the sleek new red train’s four day journey. Once the train clears the hustle of the city, it slips into the emerald green landscape of the surrounding mountains and farmland. Many of those peaks are actually volcanoes, some active, and their volatile nature symbolizes the turbulent past of Ecuador.
Throughout the centuries the indigenous people of the region fought Inca and Spanish conquerors, eventually winning their independence. Despite this violent past of volcanic and political eruptions, many of the old traditions endured.
Small family farms are the lifeblood of the Andes and these farms dot the land as the train slips through the corridor of snowy summits. Since travel to cities can be difficult in the region, those tiny rural communities are bound together and sustain themselves by providing much of their own food.
From Clouds to Coast
Slowly, over the course of four days, the bright red train passes from the clouds and farms of the high Andes, through the tangled jungles of the foothills, and down to the humid coast. All meals, excursions, and accommodations are included in the price of the trip, and guests can expect to be pampered.
Each night the train stops at a station and passengers are transported by bus to haciendas. These quaint hotels are one part B&B and one part history lesson. Having been used as roadside rest stops for centuries, travelers can meet locals, enjoy delicious recipes passed down through the generations, and immerse in the rural lifestyle of Ecuadorians from bygone eras.
The small town of Guamote is another highlight of the high country. The train pulls into its newly renovated station and passengers spill out into a lively local market. The vendors there sell everything from souvenirs to fresh meat, fruits and vegetables, grains, household goods, and beautiful textiles.
Those brave enough to explore more deeply will discover the livestock market. Sheep, pigs, and more are herded into a large pin, along with their owners, and those from nearby communities come and negotiate for the animal’s purchase. The smells, colors, sounds, and sights in the market are sensory overload; this is not a stop for leaving the camera behind.
The journey concludes just north of Guayaquil, the country’s most populated city. If time permits, travelers should walk the Malecon 2000, a walkway packed with shopping and restaurants along the riverfront. At the end of the Malecon sits the MAAC, or Museum of Anthropology and Contemporary Art. Just beyond this is the neighborhood of Las Peñas. Its beautiful multi-colored houses, all perched on a bulging hill, have been an artist’s haven for decades.
One constant on the tren crucero are the smiles and waves of the people it passes. The rehabilitation of the tracks has been somewhat symbolic for the country. The train was once an icon of commerce, as it would roll into rural villages with crates and sacks of goods. It stopped running for decades and its return (full of tourists) represents progress and hope for the future.
Making it Happen
American Airlines currently has flights from Miami, both to and from Quito and Guayaquil. The direct flight from Miami takes roughly four hours. The train can be booked through Tren Crucero and will compliment a trip to the Galapagos nicely.