Chimborazo Province, 1901 – The two Harman brothers stand at the foot of the mountainside the Indians call the Condor’s Eerie. Having watched in dismay the previous months’ painstaking work washed away by rains, they decide to change the railway’s route to the one proposed by the recently-deceased engineer George Davis. It is a momentous decision: it cost the lives of some 2,000 workers (no-one knows for sure how many). But it also ensured the success of the Guayaquil-Quito railway, ushering in its completion in 1908.
The mountain’s shape and the death toll it exacted earned the stretch of track the macabre moniker, the Devil’s Nose.
This section of track is crucial in the Ecuadorian railways. It connects the Coast with the Andes. Sooner or later, one way or another, the engineers who built the line eastwards from Durán were going to come up against the colossus of the Andes Mountains – and have to find a way to thread the track up to the Highlands. In order to complete the contract the Harmans had signed with the Ecuadorian government, they fell upon the plan of bringing sturdy Jamaicans of African origin to Ecuador. In the event, 3,000 Jamaicans and 1,000 Puerto Ricans were brought to the site. They weren’t slaves, as has been claimed, since they were paid 4 cents a day, but their desertions from work were punished. They lived as free men, and also died as free men.
Alausí, starting point for the modern-day tourist train ride down the Devil’s Nose, has undoubtedly benefitted from its re-birth. The renovated train station is a hive of activity before each departure or arrival, a dozen stalls selling crafts and souvenirs, the café back in business. The houses along the town’s main street and along the railway tracks have all been repainted in bright colours. It’s a far cry from the state of affairs of just ten years ago, when everything and, it seemed, everybody, had been run into the ground.
The train wends its way out of the Alausí station, its horn blowing proudly into the crisp morning air. Ahead lies one of the toughest engineering feats in the world, the track blasted out of rocky mountainsides. The vegetation becomes lusher, more verdant in increments as we drop down 500 meters towards the coastal plain in little over 12 kilometres. Chug-chug-chug goes the train and its carriages, the brakeros arms rising and lowering rhythmically. Clatter-clutter goes the train and its carriages, the River Guasuntos appearing below, down to the right-hand side, way below. Clutter-clatter goes the iron monster, pulling us round a huge bend to reveal the valley of the River Chanchán scouring its way ocean-ward. Then, the engineer Davis’s stroke of genius: the only way the train could make it up (or down) the mountainside was by using zig-zags, or switchbacks. And so we go, back and forth, a bizarre feeling as we suddenly find ourselves “going the wrong way”, until the train finally reaches the valley floor, the river roiling below, and pulls in to the train station of Sibambe.
From here, in an hour’s time, we’ll return, switch and wind our way back up. But for now, we can refuel with a juice, coffee and an humita at the station café, watch the dances and explore the wares of the Andean community of Nizag, get a guided tour of the modest museum, take in the views and enjoy the climate – which is several degrees warmer than when we left Alausí not 40 minutes ago.
Gazing over this isolated spot, with the rumble of the river below, I find it hard to rid myself of a nagging, haunting feeling. Had the railways not been declared part of the country’s cultural heritage and worthy of massive government investment, the workers’ suffering a century ago – scarred, maimed and killed as they carved out the route – would all have been in vain, all for nought. I can’t help but think that the only way to give these deaths a meaning, to redeem them in some way, is by riding the rails today: their tormented souls consoled by our admiration for their monumental achievement.